« AnteriorContinuar »
THE EDITOR'S PREFACE.
the mottoes which appear on our title-page we
have at once the reason and the plan of this labour of love in which we are about to engage.
Here we find such a man as Keble, highly educated and well read in our older and better writers, a double First-Classman of Oxford, confessing his ignorance of the prose works of our great national poet, and in the same breath declaring that, when he did turn his attention to them, he there often discovered sentences of such transcendent excellence that they appeared 'written as if an angel had held the pen.' We believe that angels do guide the pen of those who, however encompassed with human infirmity, stand forth, in the dark and evil days of trouble, and rebuke, and blasphemy, the champions of God's eternal truth. Such a one was Milton ;-—and surely it is well worth while to rescue from oblivion, and “not willingly let die,” any such magnificent passage which has fallen from the pen of so great a man, though it may lie buried beneath a mass of rubbish. To search after
these in a reverential and loving spirit, and to hold them forth to the admiring gaze of others, rejecting all that seems written in the style of Cobbett, by whose side we can hardly conceive an angel to have sat, save to weep, is the plan of the following work ; and the reason which has induced us to undertake it is the notorious prevailing ignorance, even amongst literary men, of the prose works of John Milton.
The fact is indisputable, that, while everybody is familiar with his poetry, nobody, except here and there an individual, reads or appreciates his prose. We appeal to the experience of any one who may chance to have taken this volume into his hands. It is more than probable that he will have to confess with Keble, “I am ashamed to say I was,
was, and am, grossly ignorant of Milton's
works.' The volumes are found in few small libraries, and where they are found, they lie unopened by the owners, and are consigned to the dust and silence of the upper shelf.' No one is louder in deploring this fact than Lord Macaulay, in his celebrated Essay on Milton. • It is to be regretted,' he says, 'that the prose writings of Milton should, in our time, be so little read. As compositions, they deserve the attention of every man who wishes to become acquainted with the full power of the English language. They abound with passages compared with which the finest declamations of Burke sink into insignificance. They are a
perfect field of cloth of gold. The style is stiff with gorgeous embroidery. Not even in the earlier books of the Paradise Lost has the great poet ever risen higher than in those parts of his controversial works in which his feelings, excited by conflict, find a vent in bursts of devotional and lyric rapture. It is, to borrow his own majestic language, “a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies.”' He then goes on to say—'We had intended to look more closely at these performances, to analyse the peculiarities of the diction, to dwell at some length on the sublime wisdom of the Areopagitica, and the nervous rhetoric of the Iconoclast, and to point out some of those magnificent passages which occur in the Treatise of Reformation and the Animadversions on the Remonstrant.' Yet Macaulay took care never to do this; he never resumed the subject, and, therefore, we are compelled to regard this expression of his intention as a mere rhetorical flourish. We heartily wish he had fulfilled his half-implied promise, especially as ourselves have failed to discover the nervous rhetoric of the Iconoclast, though we fully appreciate the sublime wisdom of the Areopagiticahave failed to detect the magnificent passages of the Animadversions on the Remonstrant, though we are enchanted with those which occur in the Treatise of Reformation.
Here, then, we fancy that we have found an un
trodden field. But let it not be thought that we are presuming to do what Macaulay left undone; we only wish we possessed a tithe of his powerful critical skill and acumen. Still, we flatter ourselves that we shall be doing good service to the cause of literature, if we direct attention to these long-forgotten creations of our great national poet, so full of interest and instruction, and select from the prose works of John Milton all that is really valuable and worth preserving. He himself has told us that “a wise man, like a good refiner, can gather gold from the drossiest volume.” And believing this, and that the grains of gold are there, the work before us will be to "find out the precious gem of truth, as amongst the numberless pebbles of the shore;" to separate the gold from the dross; the sentences 'written as if an angel held the pen,' from the sentences written in Cobbett's style;' the sentences “of a venturous edge, uttered in the height of zeal (and who knows whether they might not be the dictates of a Divine Spirit ?)” from those uttered, we are constrained to confess, in malice and bitterness, and all uncharitableness; and thus to save our readers the cost of
purchasing, and the trouble of wading through, the five volumes of Bohn's edition, or the two quartos of Dr. Birch's edition, or the three large folios of Toland's edition.
For much, very much of Milton's prose is scarcely
worth reading. His political opinions are republican, visionary, and Utopian ; and his religious opinions are for the most part equally erroneous, onesided, and overstrained. No wonder they made so little impression on his contemporaries. They despised them; we abhor them. No one would rise from their perusal a better man, a better citizen, or a better Christian. When stript of the truly magnificent language in which he knows so well to clothe them, and seen in their naked deformity, the politician, however liberal, and the Christian, however puritancial, would infallibly shrink from their adoption.
Perhaps it may seem strange that the Editor, who calls himself a staunch Conservative and moderate High Churchman, should desire to direct public attention to the writings of a red-hot republican ; especially in these unsettled times when the foundations of the earth seem out of course, and all time-honoured and long-tried, and therefore sacred, institutions seem in peril, and the revolutionary days of Milton may again recur, as history is known to repeat itself. But in defence we may say that it is lawful to be taught even by an enemy—that a close study of Milton's works will prove him to have been less revolutionary, and less puritanical, than he is commonly supposed to have been-that most men of his way of thinking are better than their opinions, and themselves would pause before they carried them out to their legitimate