« AnteriorContinuar »
should not willingly let it die?' For throughout his life Milton did not feel the exertion of his energies to be its own reward. He desired to know himself and to be known by the fruits of that exertion. 'His works,' it has been truly said, 'are a perpetual Hymn to Fame.' And here he meets and conquers that suggestion of the uselessness of high endeavour which has paralysed so many strong arms and subtle brains. It is not we, after all, that are the true arbiters of true Fame against the injustice of Time: the appeal lies to a higher than an earthly judge. As a later poet has sung, what is here left unfinished may be wrought out to perfection "somewhere out of human view. After the outburst on Fame that strain is expressly said to be of a higher mood,' and the pastoral pipe proceeds. Then the stern denunciation of the pilot of the Galilean lake' scares away the lighter mythologic fancies, till they are wooed back by the melodious invocation to the Sicilian Muse, with its echoes of Perdita's catalogue of flowers. The hand that wrote Comus has not lost its cunning; but there is not in Lycidas that unity of subject which charms us in the Ludlow Mask. The train of thought is divided, as the later title intimates, between the private grief and the prophecy of the woe coming upon England. The interval of three years had increased the confidence of the court and of the clergy. To silence every voice that their own lightest whisper might be heard, to keep in abeyance the settlement or to prohibit the discussion of questions felt to be vital by men more earnest and not less able than themselves, was the constantly sustained intention with which those in authority strained every existing statute, and were prepared to assume a power above the law.
While the bishops in the court of High Commission were judging not merely the acts, but the supposed tendencies of others with unrelenting severity—their chief Laud ever the harshest and hardest-the effects of their own system, palpable to others, were to them invisible. The increasing number of proselytes to the old Church, his own inability to check the Romeward progress of his disciples, the Pope's off
of a red hat to himself, might surely have warned the archbishop that he was steering direct 'for Latium.' Men who saw these things, and therefore distrusted their spiritual pastors and masters, were hardly inexcusable, even though some counter-bigotry was evinced in the stand made against the less important innovations.
In Lycidas we hear the first note of the trumpet which was to be to the English throne and Church as were those blown before the walls of Jericho. In Lycidas we see the first indications of the vigour and the coarseness that strengthen and disfigure the Prose Works. And in Lycidas we have the intimation of two facts regarding Milton. He considered the day of his youth to be closed by the death of the friend of his youth-that on the morrow he was to seek
fresh fields and pastures new.' But his choice has been made. His mantle is already of the Presbyterian colour. Henceforth there will be no more quiet communing with English oaks and rills. A brief holiday interposes between him and a time of chiding,' which with small respite will vex his spirit till wearied and worn he rests at last
"Though fall'n on evil days, On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues.' Milton's determination was not likely to be shaken by the experience acquired during his Italian journey. Welcomed by ambassadors, cardinals, and nobles; with the divine Leonora to sing to him, and the choice wits throwing open for him their academies, wherein endless store of sonnets, epigrams, elegies, and anagrams were to be had for asking, he saw the republic of letters in the most high and palmy state it could attain, according to the standard of that time and nation.
Literature surely was flourishing, if learned societies, munificent patrons, and verse-writers innumerable might be accepted as unquestionable signs of prosperity. And yet Tasso had not had too happy a life-lulled into sweet dreams and waking in a dungeon—to find that he had been mad indeed to mistake condescending patronage for real sympathy and appreciation. Galileo, too, had something to complain of, 'a prisoner to the Inquisition for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.' To the interests dearest of all to Milton's heart, poetry and truth, the dainty Epicurean elegance had brought no good; nothing had been written now these many years but flattery and fustian.' The writers were far too feeble a race to overthrow the tyranny they, lamented, or to vindicate learning from the 'servile condition' into which it had fallen.
Milton acquiesced in the prevailing fashion, and displayed his versatility in the Italian sonnets that appear to have excited the mirthful wonder of his foreign friends. The sonnet associated with the joys of his early life he chose for the expression of his later sorrows. Another impression of his journey may be traced in his subsequent writings-admiration for the municipal life of Italy, as tending to realise that 'free commonwealth' for which his cry went up in his Ready Way, the last voice of our expiring liberty.'
II. With the Prose Works we have no direct concern: Liberty is their ideal, as Virtue is that of the early poems. That Englishmen should be free in mind and conscience, that their struggles after freedom should not be misrepresented,- this is Milton's endeavour. All idols must be broken that this true worship may prevail. The new order in Church and State must be justified in the vindication of the ancient native rights of Englishmen. Milton's opinions move in the direction taken by the leading spirits among his countrymen. From Presbyterianism he passes on to Independency. He has throughout a proud sense that he has no mean citizenship, that England is highly favoured by the Ruler of nations. But the political strife of the time was an uncongenial element to Milton. In this warfare he had but the use of his left hand, and often hastily took up the readiest, not the fittest weapon. His rage is often more violent than mighty or noble, and in the later stages of his controversial career his sense of fairness, his characteristic love of truth, occasionally forsake him.
The dogmatism of the schoolmaster overshadows all. His satire is as the throwing of brickbats, 'outrageous, ponderous and smashing.' The savage recklessness of his onslaughts,
the paltry witticisms in which he vies with the meanest pedants at their wretched trade, the want of temper and of scope in his handling of the great problems of his day,_all prove that he had forsaken his true vocation for an employment that brought into strong relief all that was faulty in his mind and character. We cannot but look on these pamphlets with a mixed feeling-of reverence for the self-sacrifice that would not turn aside from what seemed to be laid on him as a duty, of misgiving that after all the better part' for him would have been with those who only stand and wait.' Those passages in the prose works recall most forcibly the true Milton which carry us into 'a region pure of calm and serene air. There all coarseness, bitterness, and vehemence slip from him like a robe soiled with dust and travel-stained, and he is clothed upon with power and gentleness and radiance as one of those who 'sing, and singing in their glory move.'
We cannot understand the relation of Paradise Lost to the facts of its author's life and to the series of his works unless we mark the direction of his thoughts and the current of the national history during this prose period.
Milton had led the literary attack on the bishops as the advanced-guard of tyranny: he had been provoked to the assertion of his right of putting a summary end to his domestic unhappiness; but his public career did not fairly begin till after the death of the King. The Puritan triumph was not unalloyed. Then began the schism which was inevitable as soon as the common enemy of Presbyterian and Independent lay at their mercy. That enemy, too, had never been more formidable. Nothing in the life of Charles became him like the leaving it. In straining every point to divest of its perilous attraction the closing scene at Whitehall, Milton shewed how deep was the impression it had made. The 'dismal groan' of the assembled crowd at the falling of the axe found an echo in the hearts of thousands. Even Marvell, in his ode to the mighty hunter who had brought down the royal prey, bears generous testimony to the majesty and awful grace of Charles when he stepped from the window of the Banqueting House, as cheerfully as he was wont to tread the floor of the same hall on a mask night:
• He, nothing common did, nor mean
Down, as upon a bed.' Charles had moreover availed himself with desperate dexterity of the opportunity of standing forth in the character of a champion of the laws which he had outraged and of a martyr to the Church which he had been ready to abandon. His enemies had cut themselves adrift from all the old constitutional moorings. Hugh Peters' proposal to burn the records was but a forcible expression of this fact. All that interfered with the great experiment in progress was swept away. Whatever dangers the Council of State might have to encounter, they at least had free scope for their exertions. The King had been executed; the Lords had been abolished; Episcopacy and the Prayer-book had gone; and Presbyterianism, with its definite conclusions and rigid system, had no chance of succeeding them. Puritanism was a powerful solvent, but it did not tend to edification, in the primary sense of that word. Prescription, custom, tradition,-all these were broken down; and yet the statesmen of the Commonwealth, able and conscientious and zealous as they were, had no political idea, no positive conviction, that could create a new order out of the ruins of the old. No sooner were the ancient institutions got rid of, than their hold on the memories and affections of Englishmen was felt. In the exigencies of government recourse was had to expedients that forcibly reminded the nation of the very evils which it had found intolerable in the late reign. The basis of the administration, in 1649 as in 1629, was force. The illegal interrogations of the Privy Council were continued by the Council of State. John Lilburne, on trial for his life,