CHAPTER XVIII. JOHN MILTON, AND THE ENGLISH COMMONWEALTH.
Historical Facts. Charles I. Religious Extremes. Cromwell. Birth and
Early Works. Views of Marriage. Other Prose Works. Effects of the
Restoration. Estimate of his Prose.
It is Charles Lamb who says “Milton almost requires a solemn service to be played before you enter upon him.” Of Milton, the poet of Paradise Lost, this is true; but for Milton the statesman the politician, and polemic, this is neither necessary nor appropriate. John Milton and the Commonwealth! Until the present age, Milton has been regarded almost solely as a poet, and as the greatest imaginative poet England has produced; but the translation and publication of his prose works have identified him with the political history of England, and the discovery in 1823, of his Treatise on Christian Doctrine, has established him as one of the greatest religious polemics in an age when every theological sect was closely allied to a political party, and thus rendered the strife of contending factions more bitter and relentless. Thus it is that the name of John Milton, as an author, is fitly coupled with the commonwealth, as a political condition.
It remains for us to show that in all his works he was the strongest literary type of history in the age in which he lived. Great as he would have been in any age, his greatness is mainly English and historical. In his literary works may be traced every cardinal event in the history of that period: he aided in the establishment of the Commonwealth, and of that Commonwealth he was one of the principal characters. His pen was as sharp and effective as the sabres of Cromwell's Ironsides.
A few words of preliminary history must introduce him to our reader. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, in 1603, James I. ascended the throne with the highest notions of kingly prerogative and of a church establishment; but the progress of the English people in education and intelligence, the advance in arts and letters which had been made, were vastly injurious to the autocratic and aristocratic system which James had received from his predecessor. His foolish arrogance and contempt for popular rights incensed the people thus enlightened as to their own position and importance. They soon began to feel that he was not only unjust, but ungrateful: he had come from a rustic throne in Scotland, where he had received L5,000 per annum, with occasional presents of fruits, grain, and poultry, to the greatest throne in Europe; and, besides, the Stuart family, according to Thackeray, “as regards mere lineage, were no better than a dozen English and Scottish houses that could be named.”
They resisted his illegal taxes and forced loans; they clamored against the unconstitutional Court of High Commission; they despised his arrogant favorites; and what they might have patiently borne from a gallant, energetic, and handsome monarch, they found it hard to bear from a pedantic, timid, uncouth, and rickety man, who gave them neither glory nor comfort. His eldest son, Prince Henry, the universal favorite of the nation, had died in 1612, before he was eighteen.
CHARLES I.—When, after a series of struggles with the parliament, which he had reluctantly convened, James died in 1625, Charles I. came to an inheritance of error and misfortune. Imbued with the principles of his father, he, too, insisted upon “governing the people of England in the seventeenth century as they had been governed in the sixteenth,” while in reality they had made a century of progress. The cloud increased in blackness and portent; he dissolved the parliament, and ruled without one; he imposed and collected illegal and doubtful taxes; he made forced loans, as his father had done; he was artful, capricious, winding and doubling in his policy; he made promises without intending to perform them; and found himself, finally, at direct issue with his parliament and his people. First at war with the political principles of the court, the nation soon found itself in antagonism with the religion and morals of the court. Before the final rupture, the two parties were well defined, as Cavaliers and Roundheads: each party went to extremes, through the spite and fury of mutual opposition. The Cavaliers affected a recklessness and dissoluteness greater than they really felt to be right, in order to differ most widely from those purists who, urged by analogous motives, decried all amusements as evil. Each party repelled the other to the extreme of opposition.
RELIGIOUS EXTREMES.—Loyalty was opposed by radicalism, and the invectives of both were bitter in the extreme. The system and ceremonial of a gorgeous worship restored by Laud, and accused by its opposers of formalism and idolatry, were attacked by a spirit of excess, which, to religionize daily life, took the words of Scripture, and especially those of the Old Testament, as the language of common intercourse, which issued them from a gloomy countenance, with a nasal twang, and often with a false interpretation.
As opposed to the genuflections of Laud and the pomp of his ritual, the land swarmed with unauthorized preachers; then came out from among the Presbyterians the Independents; the fifth-monarchy men, shouting for King Jesus; the Seekers, the Antinomians, who, like Trusty Tomkins, were elect by the fore-knowledge of God, who were not under the law but under grace, and who might therefore gratify every lust, and give the rein to every passion, because they were sealed to a certain salvation. Even in the army sprang up the Levellers, who wished to abolish monarchy and aristocracy, and to level all ranks to one. To each religious party, there was a political character, ranging from High Church and the divine right of kings, to absolute levellers in Church and State. This disintegrating process threatened not only civil war, with well-defined parties, but entire anarchy in the realm of England. It was long resisted by the conservative men of all opinions. At length the issue came: the king was a prisoner, without a shadow of power.
The parliament was still firm, and would have treated with the king by a considerable majority; but Colonel Pride surrounded it with two regiments, excluded more than two hundred of the Presbyterians and moderate men; and the parliament, thus purged, appointed the High Court of Justice to try the king for treason.
Charles I. fell before the storm. His was a losing cause from the day he erected his standard at Nottingham, in 1642, to that on which, after his noble bearing on the scaffold, the masked executioner held up his head and cried out, “This is the head of a traitor.”
With a fearful consistency the Commons voted soon after to abolish monarchy and the upper house, and on their new seal inscribed, “On the first year of freedom by God's blessing restored, 1648.” The dispassionate historian of the present day must condemn both parties; and yet, out of this fierce travail of the nation, English constitutional liberty was born.
CROMWELL.—The power which the parliament, under the dictation of the army, had so furiously wielded, passed into the hands of Cromwell, a mighty man, warrior, statesman, and fanatic, who mastered the crew, seized the helm, and guided the ship of State as she drove furiously before the wind. He became lord protector, a king in everything but the name. We need not enter into an analysis of these parties: the history is better known than any other part of the English annals, and almost every reader becomes a partisan. Cromwell, the greatest man of his age, was still a creature of the age, and was led by the violence of circumstances to do many things questionable and even wicked, but with little premeditation: like Rienzi and Napoleon, his sudden elevation fostered an ambition which robbed him of the stern purpose and pure motives of his earlier career.
The establishment of the commonwealth seemed at first to assure the people's liberty; but it was only in seeming, and as the sequel shows, they liked the rule of the lord protector less than that of the unfortunate king; for, ten years after the beheading of Charles I., they restored the monarchy in the person of his son, Charles.
Such, very briefly and in mere outline, was the political situation. And now to return to Milton: It is claimed that of all the elements of these troublous times, he was the literary type, and this may be demonstrated—
I. By observing his personal characteristics and political
II. By the study of his prose works; and
III. By analyzing his poems.
BIRTH AND EARLY WORKS.—John Milton was born on the 9th of December, 1608, in London. His grandfather, John Mylton, was a Papist, who disinherited his son, the poet's father, for becoming a Church-of-England man. His mother was a gentlewoman. Milton was born just in time to grow up with the civil troubles. When the outburst came in 1642, he was thirty-four years old, a solemn, cold, studious, thoughtful, and dogmatic Puritan. In 1624 he entered Christ College, Cambridge, where, from his delicate and beautiful face and shy airs, he was called the “Lady of the College.” It is said that he left the university on account of peculiar views in theology and politics; but eight years after, in 1632, he took his degree as master of arts. Meanwhile, in December, 1629, he had celebrated his twenty-first birthday, when the Star of Bethlehem was coming into the ascendant, with that pealing, organ-like hymn, “On the Eve of Christ's Nativity”—the worthiest poetic tribute ever laid by man, along with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the Eastern sages, at the feet of the Infant God:
See how from far upon the Eastern road,
The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet;
O run, prevent them with thy humble ode,
And lay it lowly at his blessed feet;
Have thou the honour first thy Lord to greet,
And join thy voice unto the angel choir,
From out his secret altar touched with hallowed fire.
Some years of travel on the Continent matured his mind, and gave full scope to his poetic genius. At Paris he became acquainted with Grotius, the illustrious writer upon public law; and in Rome, Genoa, Florence, and other Italian cities, he became intimate with the leading minds of the age. He returned to England on account of the political troubles.
MILTON'S VIEWS OF MARRIAGE.—In the consideration of Milton's personality, we do not find in him much to arouse our heart-sympathy. His opinions concerning marriage and divorce, as set forth in several of his prose writings, would, if generally adopted, destroy the sacred character of divinely appointed wedlock. His views may be found in his essay on The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce; in hisTetrachordon, or the four chief places in Scripture, which treat of Marriage, or Nullities in Marriage; in his Colasterion, and in his translation of Martin Bucer's Judgment Concerning Divorce, addressed to the Parliament of England. Where women were concerned he was a hard man and a stern master.
In 1643 he married Mary Powell, the daughter of a Cavalier; and, taking her from the gay life of her father's house, he brought her into a gloom and seclusion almost insupportable. He loved his books better than he did his wife. He fed and sheltered her, indeed, but he gave her no tender sympathy. Then was enacted in his household the drama of the rebellion in miniature; and no doubt his domestic troubles had led to his extended discussion of the question of divorce. He speaks, too, almost entirely in the interest of husbands. With him woman is not complementary to man, but his inferior, to be cherished if obedient, to minister to her husband's welfare, but to have her resolute spirit broken after the manner of Petruchio, the shrew-tamer. In all this, however, Milton was eminently a type of the times. It was the canon law of the established Church of England at which he aimed, and he endeavored to lead the parliament to legislation upon the most sacred ties and relations of human life. Happily, English morals were too strong, even in that turbulent period, to yield to this unholy attempt. It was a day when authority was questioned, a day for “extending the area of freedom,” but he went too far even for emancipated England; and the mysterious power of the marriage tie has always been reverenced as one of the main bulwarks of that righteousness which exalteth a nation.
His apology for Smectymnuus is one of his pamphlets against Episcopacy, and receives its title from the initial letters of the names of five Puritan ministers, who also engaged in controversy: they were Stephen Marshall, Edward Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcome, William Spenston. The Church of England never had a more intelligent and relentless enemy than John Milton.
OTHER PROSE WORKS.—Milton's prose works are almost all of them of an historical character. Appointed Latin Secretary to the Council, he wrote foreign dispatches and treatises upon the persons and events of the day. In 1644 he published his Areopagitica, a noble paper in favor of Unlicensed Printing, and boldly directed against the Presbyterian party, then in power, which had continued and even increased the restraints upon the press. No stouter appeal for the freedom of the press was ever heard, even in America. But in the main, his prose pen was employed against the crown and the Church, while they still existed; against the king's memory, after the unfortunate monarch had fallen, and in favor of the parliament and all its acts. Milton was no trimmer; he gave forth no uncertain sound; he was partisan to the extreme, and left himself no loop-hole of retreat in the change that was to come.
A famous book appeared in 1649, not long after Charles's execution, proclaimed to have been written by King Charles while in prison, and entitled Eikon Basilike, or The Kingly Image, being the portraiture of his majesty in his solitude and suffering. It was supposed that it might influence the people in favor of royalty, and so Milton was employed to answer it in a bitter invective, an unnecessary and heartless attack upon the dead king, entitled Eikonoklastes, or The Image-breaker. The Eikon was probably in part written by the king, and in part by Bishop Gauden, who indeed claimed its authorship after the Restoration.
Salmasius having defended Charles in a work of dignified and moderate tone, Milton answered in his first Defensio pro Populo Anglicano; in which he traverses the whole ground of popular rights and kingly prerogative, in a masterly and eloquent manner. This was followed by a second Defensio. For the two he received L1,000, and by his own account accelerated the disease of the eyes which ended in complete blindness.
No pen in England worked more powerfully than his in behalf of the parliament and the protectorate, or to stay the flood tide of loyalty, which bore upon its sweeping heart the restoration of the second Charles. He wrote the last foreign despatches of Richard Cromwell, the weak successor of the powerful Oliver; but nothing could now avail to check the return of monarchy. The people were tired of turmoil and sick of blood; they wanted rest, at any cost. The powerful hand of Cromwell was removed, and astute Monk used his army to secure his reward. The army, concurring with the popular sentiment, restored the Stuarts. The conduct of the English people in bringing Charles back stamped Cromwell as a usurper, and they have steadily ignored in their list of governors—called monarchs—the man through whose efforts much of their liberty had been achieved; but history asserts itself, and the benefits of the “Great Rebellion” are gratefully acknowledged by the people, whether the protectorate appears in the court list or not.
THE EFFECT OF THE RESTORATION.—Charles II. came back to such an overwhelming reception, that he said, in his witty way, it must have been his own fault to stay away so long from a people who were so glad to see him when he did come. This restoration forced Milton into concealment: his public day was over, and yet his remaining history is particularly interesting. Inheriting weak eyes from his mother, he had overtasked their powers, especially in writing the Defensiones, and had become entirely blind. Although his person was included in the general amnesty, his polemical works were burned by the hangman; and the pen that had so powerfully battled for a party, now returned to the service of its first love, poetry. His loss of power and place was the world's gain. In his forced seclusion, he produced the greatest of English poems—religious, romantic, and heroic.
ESTIMATE OF HIS PROSE.—Before considering his poems, we may briefly state some estimate of his prose works. They comprise much that is excellent, are full of learning, and contain passages of rarest rhetoric. He said himself, that in prose he had only “the use of his left hand;” but it was the left hand of a Milton. To the English scholar they are chiefly of historical value: many of them are written in Latin, and lose much of their terseness in a translation which retains classical peculiarities of form and phrase.
His History of England from the Earliest Times is not profound, nor philosophical; he followed standard chronicle authorities, but made few, if any, original investigations, and gives us little philosophy. His tractate on Education contains peculiar views of a curriculum of study, but is charmingly written. He also wrote a treatise on Logic. Little known to the great world outside of his poems, there is one prose work, discovered only in 1823, which has been less read, but which contains the articles of his Christian belief. It is a tractate on Christian doctrine: no one now doubts its genuineness; and it proves him to have been a Unitarian, or High Arian, by his own confession. This was somewhat startling to the great orthodox world, who had taken many of their conceptions of supernatural things from Milton's Paradise Lost; and yet a careful study of that poem will disclose similar tendencies in the poet's mind. He was a Puritan whose theology was progressive until it issued in complete isolation: he left the Presbyterian ranks for the Independents, and then, startled by the rise and number of sects, he retired within himself and stood almost alone, too proud to be instructed, and dissatisfied with the doctrines and excesses of his earlier colleagues.
In 1653 he lost his wife, Mary Powell, who left him three daughters. He supplied her place in 1656, by marrying Catherine Woodstock, to whom he was greatly attached, and who also died fifteen months after. Eight years afterward he married his third wife, Elizabeth Minshull, who survived him.