« AnteriorContinuar »
man. 69 There was much in his situation, as well as perhaps in the warmth of his disposition, unfavourable to the calm and dispassionate investigation of truth. His conftant engagements in controversy, even from his youth, led him rather to enforce and exaggerate his opinions, than to consider the objections, or to avail himself of the advice of others. Nor did more than twenty years of blindness, which separated him much from the society, and entirely from all active participation in the business of life, pass without producing their effect on his temper and on his intellect, on the direction of his researches, the tone of his opinions, and the conclusions of his judgment. An independence of opinion, approaching to singularity, and a confidence in himself, particularly of spiritual pride, characterized him even from his youth. In other times and under other circumstances they might gradually have given way to an enlarged acquaintance with the sentiments of others, and have been softened down by a friendly comparison with the feelings and opinions of society. Had he lived amid the blessing of peaceful times, under a settled constitution, and a gentle sway, the violence of his feelings would have been subdued, and the startling boldness of his paradoxical theories modified or suppressed. His temper would not have experienced its stormy trials, and his lofty and heroic virtues would have assumed the more engaging garb of Christian mildness and charity. But his prejudices and partialities were increased and not removed by the circumstances of his life. The men with whom he lived were of like sentiments with himself, as inflexible, as impracticable, as violent, 70
* On the subject of Milton's religious opinions and character, a late Editor has expressed himself with judgment and ability. See Hawkins in Newton's ed. vol. 1. p. xcix. to p. ci. See Bowles's Life of Ken, for the three stages of Milton's life. Vol. i. p. 789.
70 “I cannot chuse but wonder what it is that inclines some men, 71 See the Life of Bishop Sancroft.
and as visionary
“ The disturbed politics of Milton,” says an enlightened memorialist,“ are fraught with all the popular rumours and passions of the day.” His republican theories were strengthened by the visions of the ancient philosophers, the declamations of their orators, and the maxims of the poets ; and his dislike of our established Church deprived him of the profound and admirable treatises, treasures of sound and real learning, which would have conducted him safely through the subtleties of a disputed theology; or at least made him pause before he gave way to an alarming and afflicting heresy. We cannot search the hearts of men; but we are bound to interpret their actions with candour and charity. The scruples of an enlightened conscience, and the decisions of a severe and impartial judgment, must be looked on with reverence by all. “ You and I (such were the dying words of a virtuous and venerable prelate," who had from conscientious motives descended from the highest honours to a private station), you and I have gone different ways in the late affairs; but I trust heaven's gates are wide enough to admit us both. What I have done I have done in the integrity of my heart, indeed, in the great
integrity of my heart.”
who are otherwise sober enough, to let fly lo lavishly and indiscriminately against reason and philosophy, especially in an age so exceedingly prone to phantasy and madness, and that hath been ruined in all its concerns by enthusiasm and vain pretences to the Spirit.”—Glanville's Philosophia Pia, p. 85, 1671. See also p. 230.
“ Here the enemies of our Church and Government began. Upon this (fanaticism) they infisted still, and filled their books and pulpits and private corners with these cantings. This was the engine to overthrow all sober principles and establishments; with this the people were infatuated and credit was reconciled to gibberish and folly, enthusiasm and vain impulses. This is the food of conventicles to this day; the root of their matter, and the burden of their preachments," &c.
“ The same calmness,” says Mr. Coleridge, in another place, “and even greater self poslession may be affirmed of Milton, as far as his poems and poetic character are concerned. He referved his anger for the enemies of religious freedom and his country. My mind is not capable of forming a more august conception than arises from the contemplation of this great man, in his latter days-poor, fick, old, blind, Nandered, persecuted
• Darkness before and danger's voice behind,' in an age in which he was as little understood by the party for whom, as by that against whom he had contended; and among men before whom he strode so far as to dwarf himself by the distance: yet still listening to the music of his own flights, or if additionally cheered, yet cheered only by the prophetic faith of two or three solitary individuals, he did nevertheless
Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot
Right onward, From others only do we derive our knowledge that Milton, in his latter days, had his scorners and detractors, and even in his day of youth and hope that he had enemies, would have been unknown to us, had they not been likewise the enemies of his country."72
And now let the Life of this our immortal Poet close with the discriminate and affecting eulogy of one, who, himself a Philosopher and Poet, could justly estimate the exalted greatness of the character he is describing :-" In the close of the former period, (reign of James the First,) and during the bloom of the latter, (Commonwealth,) the poet Milton was educated and formed; and he survived the latter, and all the fond hopes and aspirations which had been its life; and so in evil days, standing as the representative of the combined excellence of both periods, he produced the Paradise Lost as by an after-throe of nature.
72 The Editor (S. C.) appropriately quotes the conclusion of Milton's two beautiful and affecting Letters to Leonard Philaras, the Athenian, as a testimony of the truth of the character given in the text. —See vol. i. part i. p. 35
• There are some persons' observes a divine, a contemporary of Milton's ' of whom the grace of God takes early hold, and the good fpirit inhabiting them, carries them on in an even constancy through innocence into virtue, their Christianity bearing equal date with their manhood, and reason and religion, like warp and woof, running together, make up one web of a wise and exemplary life. This' he adds is a most happy case, wherever it happens; for, besides that there is no sweeter or more lovely thing on earth than the early buds of piety, which drew from our Saviour signal affection to the beloved difciple, it is better to have no wound than to experience the most sovereign balsam, which, if it work a cure, yet usually leaves a scar behind. Although it was and is my intention to defer the consideration of Milton's own character to the conclusion of this Lecture, yet I could not prevail on myself to approach the Paradise Lost without impressing on your minds the conditions under which such a work was in fact productible at all, the original genius having been assumed as the immediate agent and efficient cause; and these conditions I find in the character of the times, and in his own character. The age in which the foundations of his mind were laid, was congenial to it as one golden æra of profound erudition and individual genius ;—that in which the superstructure was carried up, was no less favourable to it by a sternness of discipline and a show of self-control, highly flattering to the imaginative dignity of an heir of fame, and which won Milton over from the dear-loved delights of academic groves and cathedral aisles to the anti-prelatic party. It acted on him, too, no doubt, and modified his studies by a characteristic controversial spirit, (his presentation of God is tinted with it)—a fpirit not less busy indeed in political than in theological and ecclesiastical dispute, but carrying on the former almost always, more or less, in the guise of the latter. And so far as Pope's censure 73 of our poet, that he makes God the Father a school divine—is just, we must attribute it to the character of his age, from which the men of genius, who escaped, escaped by a worse disease, the licentious indifference of a Frenchified court.
“Such was the nidus or foil, which constituted, in the strict sense of the word, the circumstances of Milton's mind. In his mind itself there were purity and piety absolute; an imagination to which neither the past nor the present were interesting, except as far as they called forth and enlivened the great ideal, in which and for which he lived ; a keen love of truth, which, after many weary pursuits, found a harbour in a sublime listening to the still voice in his own spirit, and as keen a love of his country, which, after a disappointment still more depressive, expanded and soared into a love of man as a probationer of immortality. These were, these alone could be, the . conditions under which such a work as the Paradise Lost could be conceived and accomplished. By a life-long study Milton had known
• What was of use to know,
Contain’d of good, wise, fair, the perfect shape;' and he left the imperishable total, as a bequest to the ages coming, in the Paradise Lost.”
73 Table Talk, vol. ii. p. 264.