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By E. C. TRACY.
John Milton : his Life and Times, Religious and Political
Opinions : with an Appendix, containing Animadversions upon Dr. Johnson's Life of Milton, &c. &c. By Joseph Ivimey, Author of the “i History of the English Baptists," &c. &c.
This title promises a great deal. The author, too, informs us that he “ has attempted to give a full length portrait" of Milton, “ as a Patriot, a Protestant, and a Nonconformist ; " and for that purpose, “ has made considerable extracts from his prose writings, by which, in a good degree, he appears as his own biographer.” There is something in the tenor and style of the Preface, that comes harshly across that feeling of regard for accomplished scholarship, with which one naturally takes up a work relating to Milton; but as the book has the recommendation of a respected name, is pioneered by warm and unqualified recomniendations from many of the British Journals in the Dissenting and Whig interest, and hastened before the American public by one of our active booksellers, almost before the sheets from the London press were dryyou of course pass lightly over such faults, for the sake of what is promised in the body of the work. But—we regret to say it-your dream is very soon broken up. Your sense of the befitting is outraged continually ; and errors, numberless and unaccountable, startle you on every page. You find, for instance, a paragraph beginning thus :
“Some minister, said by Milton to be a son of Bishop Hall, in writing against his [Milton's] Animadversions on Bishop Usher's book, had called it 'a scurrilous libel;' and not content with this, had treated the author with the greatest contempt, using defaming language and personal reflections. In his reply, entitled . Modest Confutation of a Slanderous and Scandalous Libel, by John Milton, gent.' he proves himself,” &c.-p. 45.
Now, in the first place, the writer referred to is not " said by Milton to be a son of Bishop Hall.” 2. The Animad
versions are on Hall's book, not on Usher's. 3. Usher was Archbishop, instead of Bishop. 4. The title given as that of Milton's tract, is in fact the title of the pamphlet to which his was a reply. 5. It is not however given accurately. It runs thus : “ A Modest Confutation against a Slanderous and Scurrilous (not scandalous) Libel.” 6. The title of Milton's reply, from which Mr. Ivimey proceeds to quote several passages, is : “ An Apology against a Pamphlet, called “A Modest Confutation,'” &c.; or, as in some copies, “ An Apology for Smectymnuus,” &c.
After this specimen, the reader will excuse us from going farther into particulars. Errors of the same character-mistakes in names and dates—misquotations of Milton's language and misrepresentations of his meaning, and the like, occur on almost every page. Very osten, passages from one tract are spoken of as if quoted from another. One would think that Mr. I., after collecting his quotations, had lost his references, and was obliged to assign them their places by guess.
But we have a yet weightier objection to the book. Milton himself has told us that “it is of the greatest concernment in the church and commonwealth”-and we are before the public as pledged sentinels, to watch on behalf of both~"to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men,” and has said something of the duty of sometimes “ doing sharpest justice on them as malefactors." Notwithstanding, therefore, our respect for Mr. I., we are under the necessity of saying, that his account of Milton's prose works, and quotations from them, do no sort of justice to their tenor and spirit. The great principles of civil and religious liberty which glow with such varied and attractive beauty along Milton's galaxy of thought; his bursts of pure and noble sentiment; and his views of the great ends of all government-of what makes liberty of thought and action an imperious duty and an inalienable birthright, seem to have been almost forgotten ; while his harshest language against prelacy, tithes, religious establishments, &c. is made studiously prominent. The fact, we suppose, is, that Mr. I. wrote with some of the great questions that now agitate the British public, rising full-orbed before him. He would fain add something to the strength of those impulses, which are urging on public sentiment in England, to the overthrow of establishments and usages under the severe pressure of which Dissenters like himself have so long suffered. This, as an immediate object, seems to have swelled into such magnitude, as to engross his whole attention and absorb all his feelings. In looking over the prose of Milton, therefore, those passages which bear most directly on this object stood out prominently to his eye. The truths that lay beneath such passages, and are their justification and support, he either was not inclined or had not time to search for or meditate upon. The rich depths of the mine were left unexplored, while the glittering indications on the surface, of what might be found below, were gathered up and displayed as if they were the real treasures.
Now this is unpardonable injustice to Milton and to truth. It was due to Milton's noble qualities, as “a Patriot, a Protestant, and a Nonconformist,” to exhibit his PRINCIPLESto select from his works passages and they are abundantwhich show clearly the grounds of his faith and practice as a Christian citizen, called, as he believed, to take a prominent part in effecting an ecclesiastical reform, and in the establishment of a free commonwealth. And to the interests of truth it was due, to show on what principles Milton's views of duty were based. The want of this not merely diminishes the value of the book, but makes its tendency positively pernicious. With the enemies of Milton's principles, it discredits them and him, and goes to foster and perpetuate an unworthy prejudice. In others, it debases the sentiments to which those principles give birth, by tearing them from their root in the principles themselves, and leaving them to be nourished only by the pestilential atmosphere of prejudice, passion, and partyism. It deprives the former of the benefits of meeting a noble adversary, and the latter of those that result from well fixed admiration and love. It dishonors truth among her enemies, and debases her among her friends.
The exhibition of Milton's principles and character as a Christian patriot, in a volume for popular use, is a task that deserves the attention of some better scholar and more thinking man. There are few writers, ancient or modern, who will so abundantly reward the attention of the young student who hopes to be of service to his country in political life; and notwithstanding Johnson's abuse—“ most malicious," as Cowper calls it-fewer still are the examples of such elevated, consistent, and model-like patriotism. It is foreign to our design, to enter at any length upon the subject here, but as ihe work before us has called attention to it, we may as well let Milton speak for himself on one or two points.
Why should Milton, the Poet, thrust himself into the heat of violent political agitations, and take such an active and prominent part in the discussion of questions quite alien, one would think, to his pursuits ? The answer is given by himself in a fascinating account of his youthful studies, habits, and aspirations, extorted from him by the abuse of an antagonist. He" was confirmed,” he says, “ in this opinion : that he who would not frustrate his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ougHT HIMSELF TO BE A TRUE POEM ; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men or famous cities, unless he have in himself thE EXPERIENCE AND THE PRACTICE of all that which is praiseworthy."* His whole character-all his habits of thought and feeling, the hopes of his youth, and his plans for manhood and age, were after the severest precepts and models, Roman, Grecian, and Hebrew. He was “ bred up in the knowledge of ancient and illustrious deeds,” and controlled by impulses and laws of duty which constrained him to use as effectively as possible for the public good, all those resources of genius and learning with which God had endowed him, or which he had made part of his intellectual and moral being by that “ labor and intent study" which, he tells us, " he took to be his portion in this life.” Accordingly, as soon as the news of revolutionary movements in England reached him at Florence, “ I thought it base,” he says, “ when my fellow citizens were fighting for liberty at home, that I, even for the improvement of my mind, should be travelling at my ease abroad” — and he hastened to their assistance.
With what elevated motives, and yet with what reluctance and constraint upon the genial impulses of his nature, he engaged in controversy, is yet more evident in that extraordinary passage with which the second book of the “ Reason of Church Government” commences—a passage unsurpassed in attractions, all things considered, by any in English literature. It begins as follows:
“How happy were it for this frail, and as it may be truly called, mortal life of man, since all earthly things which have the name of good and convenient in our daily use, are withal so cum
* Apology for Smectymnuus.
bersome and full of trouble, if knowledge, yet which is the best and lightsomest possession of the mind, were, as the common saying is, no burden; and that what it wanted of being a load to any part of the body, it did not with a heavy advantage overlay upon the spirit! For not to speak of that knowledge that rests in the contemplation of natural causes and dimensions, which must needs be a lower wisdom, as the object is low, certain it is, that he who hath obtained in more than the scantiest measure to know any thing distinctly of God, and of his true worship, and what is infallibly good and happy in the state of man's life, what in itself evil and miserable, though vulgarly not so esteemed ; he that hath obtained to know this, the only high valuable wisdom indeed, remembering also that God, even to a strictness, requires the improvement of these his intrusted gifts, cannot but sustain a sorer burden of mind, and more pressing than any supportable toil or weight which the body can labor under, how and in what manner he shall dispose and employ those sums of knowledge and illumination, which God hath sent him into this world to trade with.
“And that which aggravates the burden more, is, that, having received amongst his allotted parcels, certain precious truths of such an orient lustre as no diamond can equal, which nevertheless he has in charge to put off at any cheap rate, yea, for nothing to them that will, the great merchants of this world, fearing that this course would soon discover and disgrace the false glitter of their deceitful wares wherewith they abuse the people, like poor Indians with beads and glasses, practise by all means how ihey may suppress the vending of such rarities, and at such a cheap. ness as would undo them, and turn their trash upon their hands. Therefore, by gratifying the corrupt desires of men in fleshly doctrines, they stir them up to persecute with hatred and contempt all those that seek to bear themselves uprightly in this their spiritual factory; which they foreseeing, though they cannot but testify of truth and the excellency of that heavenly traffic which they bring, against what opposition or danger soever, yet needs must it sit heavily upon their spirits, that being in God's prime intention and their own, selected heralds of peace, and dispensers of treasure inestimable, without price to them that have no pence, they find in the discharge of their commission, that they are made the greatest variance and offence, a very sword and fire both in house and city over the whole earth.
This is that which the sad prophet Jeremiah laments; 'Wo is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife and contention !' And although divine inspiration must certainly have been sweet to those ancient prophets, yet the irksomeness of that truth which they brought, was so unpleasant unto them, that everywhere they call it a burden. Yea, that mysterious book of Revelation, which the great evangelist was bid to eat, as it had