Edmond Henri Adolphe Scherer.

Essays on English literature; online

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are face to face. For tlie Bible is the Koran of
Puritanism. The Bible is to the Puritan a religion,
a prophecy, and a code. It is the rule absolute for
the individual and for the State. It foresees all,
provides for all, has a text for every use and every
circumstance. It is no more lawful to supplement
it where it is silent, than to act against its spoken
commands. Imagine, if it be possible, this ven-
erable collection of prophets and apostles, this
sublime Hebrew Book with its histories, its poems,
and its precepts, raised as a whole to the impor-
tance of a revelation from the Almighty, imposed
as a law upon society, applied to the life of a
modern people, and supplying the type of its
institutions, the rule of its morals, the guidance
of its State. The object is to establish a Christian
republic, and, with that end, to pass the level of
the Bible over all existing things. The Church
and the Monarchy alike must go down before it,
and then, on the ground that has been cleared,
there shall be built the city of the saints, the
town where the Eternal, though unseen, shall
dwell !

And now, can the reader imagine a contrast more
complete than that between the Eenaissance and
Puritanism ? On one side every curiosity of intel-
ligence, every research of language, every refine-
ment of taste ; poetry, with its mythology, its
sports, its license ; the cultus of pagan antiquity ;
a false wisdom and false gods ; madrigals, novels.


tlie theatre. On the other ardent fanatics, sombre
anchorites, fanatic levellers, full of hatred foi"
Satan and his pomps, caring for nothing but long
sermons and excited prayers, broken in to the
dogmas of Predestination, of the Fall and of Justi-
fication, burning to make of Englishmen a new
people of Israel. Such are the powers which are
to fight for Milton ; or, rather, such are the different
inspirations to which he abandons himself simul-
taneously and without a struggle. He is an elegant
poet and a passionate controversialist, an accom-
plished humanist and a narrow sectary, an admirer
of Petrarch and Shakespeare and a cunning exe-
gete of Biblical texts, a lover of pagan antiquity
and devoted to the Hebrew spirit. He is all this
at once, naturally, and without an effort — a problem
in history, an enigma in literature !


Milton passed ten years of his life in study, in
travel, in brilliant literary experiments. He spent
ten more in the fiercest struggles and the most
technical controversies of Puritanism. Yet he was
never exactly a Prynne or exactly a Petrarch ; if
there was something of the theologian in the poet
there was also something of the poet in the theolo-
gian, and the two inspirations blended in him after
the closest and most natural fashion in the world.
And when old age draws near, when the drama of


the Eepublic is played out, when the Eestoration
has put an end to Utopias, Milton will at once
satisfy art and faith, the two passions of his life,
in one grand epic.

That life is well known. We are not in his case,
as we are in Shakespeare's, reduced to a few in-
significant facts and a few doubtful traditions. We
might say that he has written his own biography.
His poetry is full of personal memories, and his
polemical works become at times memoirs of his
life, passionate and naif memoirs, where the writer
reveals himself without any disguise.

Milton, I have said, was born in 1608. His
father was a notary, or something like it, and
affluent. Himself a man of letters, he put his son
through an excellent course of study. There is
extant a Latin letter in which the young man
thanks his father for not having forced him to read
law or to enter a lucrative profession, but for let-
ting him learn not merely Greek and Latin, but
French, Italian, Hebrew and even the sciences.
Nor is this the only passage where Milton has
taken pleasure in recalling his early and vigorous

In one of his tracts against episcopacy he dwells

with even more complacency on these fair years of

1 [M. Scherer here and afterwards quotes and translates long
passages from the Defensio Secunda, the Areopagitica, the
Apology for Smectymnuxis, and other works of Milton. As
these are well known to English readers, it has not seemed
necessary to encumber the text with them. — Trans-I


study. He went, he says, from historians to poets,
from poets to philosophers, and in this long com-
merce with ancient and modern writers, he was
able to preserve the native purity of his soul ;
nay, more, to form a sublime ideal blent of purity,
poetry, and fame. It is a memorable passage^
where we seem to see the bard of the " Paradise "
preparing himself by mystic washings for the
work to which the Most High has charged him.

Yet let us hasten to say that the innocence of
Milton's morals was not the result of excessive
occupation in study nor of an extravagant severity.
His youthful poems show traces of more than one
affair of the heart. In a Latin elegy addressed to
his friend Diodati he describes the young girls
whom he has seen passing. Their eyes are torches,
their necks of ivory, their fair hair is a net spread
by love : Jove himself would feel young at the sight
of so many charms. " To the virgins of Britain,"
cries the poet, '' belongs the palm of beauty," and
he was caught by this beauty. Another elegy tells
us how. He despised Love and his arrows ; but
Love avenged himself. One spring as he was walk-
ing, he did not watch his own glances enough, and
the sight of a girl set his heart on fire,

' ' Protinus insoliti subierunt corda furores
Uror amans intus, flammaque totus eram." ^

1 [The famous one from the Apology for Smectymnuus. —

2 [" My heart forthwith unwonted passions tame,

Love burns mysoul within, and all was flame." — Trans^


Unluckily the beauty vanislied, and he could not
discover her. What would he not give to see her
again and speak to her ! Perhaps she might not
be deaf to his prayers. But there, his vexation is
already forgotten. He is at the University, under
the groves of Academe, and thenceforward his
heart wears a corselet of ice.

Milton left Cambridge in 1632 after having spent
seven years there. He withdrew to his father's,
accompanied, he says, by the regret of most of the
fellows of his college, who showed him much friend-
ship and esteem. He often returns to this subject,
stung to the quick by the taunts of his enemies,
who accused him of having been expelled from the
University. So far from this, he says, they wished
to keep him there, and he long continued in affec-
tionate correspondence with his Cambridge friends.
But let us follow our poet, who is now three-and-
twenty years old.^

* # * * *

Let us halt here for a moment and endeavor to
put the separate traits together, and construct an
idea of the poet. Milton, at his return from Italy,
was exactly thirty years old. He was short, his
height being below the middle stature, and also

1 [A cento from the above-named sources, part actual quota-
tion, part paraphrase, part summary, foUo-ws in the original. As
it is very difficult to find a satisfactoiy rendering for this blend-
ing of Milton and Scherer, and as the facts about Milton's Horton
period and his travels are well known to the English reader it
seemed simpler to omit it. — Trans.}


very tliin"; but strong, dexterous and courageous.
He was a practised fencer, and sword in hand
feared nobody. Such, at least, is the portrait he
drew later of himself. Tradition adds that he was
remarkably handsome. He has also described his
manner of life, for the fury of his enemies, by
attacking his person and his private life, obliged
him to enter into the most minute details of refu-
tation. He rose, so he tells us, early — in summer
with the lark, in winter with the bells that called
men to work or prayer. He read or listened to
reading till attention and memory failed. Then
he betook himself to exercises suited to maintain
the health of the body, and by that means the
strength and independence of the mind. We must,
as I have said, take care not to look on Milton as
a gloomy fanatic or an ascetic. At Cambridge he
had written tender Latin elegies ; he had, when in
Italy, no scruple in rhyming madrigals after
Petrarch, and celebrating in them real or ficti-
tious loves. At Rome, in the very city where he
prided himself on holding high the banner of his
faith, he had listened with transport to the singer
Leonora Baroni. His epitaph on Shakespeare, '^ My
Shakespeare " as he calls him, is well known, with
its passionate expression of the emotions he owed
to the reading of this " dear son of memory." Nor
was this all ; Milton on occasion shows himself
quite ready to put on one side deep study and
serious occupations in order, with his friends, to


give himself up to " mirtli that, after, no repenting
draws" — a light repast, good wine, some Italian
music, that is the programme. "■ Mild heaven," says
he, " disapproves the care. That with superfluous
burden loads the day. And when God sends a cheer-
ful hour refrains." So there is nothing in him
repulsive or morose. He is pure without too much
severity, grave without fanaticism : full of original
sanity, of gracious strength. He is a son of the
north who has felt the Italian influence : an after-
growth of the Renaissance, but a growth full of
strange and novel flavor.^


Milton returned to his country at the very
moment when the Monarchy was about to begin a
death-struggle with the Parliament, and in the
midst of the ecclesiastical controversies by which
that struggle was embittered. He could have no
hesitation as to the side which he was to join : but
he had to ask himself with some embarrassment
what he was going to do now that the day of pre-

1 Milton allows his taste and admiration for Shakespeare to
appear in L' Allegro, published in 1645, but doubtless written
some years earlier (See v. 135). The same poem exhibits him in
his least austere light. Our author makes Joy, daughter of
Bacchus and Venus, mother of the Graces. He bids her bring
with her " Sport that wrinkled Care derides " and even " Laugh-
ter holding both his sides." It is true that the pleasures he
expects from Joy and Freedom are " unreproved pleasures." Of,
Paradise Lost, iv. 293, 294.


paratory studies and of travel was passed, and that
it was time to fix an object for his life.

At any other time his choice would have appeared
easy. He seemed destined for one or other of the
learned professions, more especially for the service
of the Church. But at that day this career was
closed to him. "None could take orders without
devoting himself to slavery." But he had cherished
dreams dearer still. The most curious passage of
the memoirs of which I am here piecing the frag-
ments together, that in which he recalls the poetic
aspirations of his youth, lets us see what it cost him
in effort to renounce them, and betrays the hope of
still some day paying the debt of genius to his
country and his God.-"^

We may believe Milton when he expresses the
regret with which he renounced immortal songs for
the polemics of the moment. But he thought he
heard the call of the Church and of his country.
He postponed to another season the accomplishment
of his poetic mission, and plunged headlong into
the struggle of the Parliament against King Charles
and Archbishop Laud. Others had drawn the
sword : his weapon was the pen. His learning and
his practice in writing marked him out for the
part of controversialist : and he poured forth a

1 [M. Scherer here translated the long passage in the Reasons
of Church Government, about the vulgar amorists and para-
sites, comparing with it the exordium of Canto ix, Paradise
Lost, — Trans."]


crowd of pamphlets on every subject which events
made actual. He began by Church questions,
attacking ceremonies, the episcopate, tradition, and
striving to bring the Church back to its primitive
simplicity. A few years later he married, and, as
is well known, was soon deserted by his wife. The
cause of this separation is not known, but is it
rash to seek it in the very character of the poet ?
Serious, living on the heights, given up to long
work and sublime meditations, he was likely to
make a rather poor husband. Moreover, he had
drawn from Holy Writ quite Oriental and very
decided notions on the inferiority of woman and
her subjection to man. At any rate, the young
bride did actually desert her husband's house, and
did not return till two or three years later. Then
something happened to Milton which has often been
seen in similar cases : his personal grievances were
raised in his own eyes to the height of a question
of public interest, and he set himself to write on
marriage and divorce as he had written before on
episcopacy and formal worship. It seemed to him,
as he explained later, that men must begin by
being free at home before being so in the market-
place, and that the vilest of slaveries is that of a
man bound withou.t remedy to an inferior being.-'

1 " Frustra enim libertatem in comitiis et foro crepat qui domi
servitutem vero iudigiiissimam inferiori etiam servit," Defensio
Secunda. As for Milton's ideas on marriage, see Sam.so7i 1.
1055, and Paradise Lost, i. 635 sq., vii. 539 sq., 565 sq. ; but note


The last debate which Milton maintained in his
fifteen years of polemic, was that in which he
engaged with Salmasius on the subject of the death
of Charles I. To the scandal of the whole of mo-
narchical Europe he was seen defending, with cold-
blooded erudition, the right of peoples to punish
tyrants. Eor the rest, the style of all these writ-
ings of his is the same. The author unfolds the
treasures, of his learning, heaping up the testimony
of Scripture, passages from the fathers, and quota-
tions from the poets, laying sacred and profane
antiquity alike under contribution, and subtly dis-
cussing the sense of this and that Greek or Hebrew
term. But it is not only in the crudity of his eru-
dition and in his religious prejudices that Milton is
of his age. He belongs to it also by the personal
tone of his polemic. Morus and Salmasius had
attacked his morals, gibed at his short stature,
made odious references to his loss of sight : Milton
retorts on them the money they have pocketed and
the servant girls they have debauched, seasoning
the mess with coarse epigrams, with vulgar terms
of abuse. Luther and Calvin themselves, experts
as they were in insult, had never done better.

And yet with all this Milton, I must repeat, is by
no means a fanatic pure and simple, like most of
the Puritans. He is not, as they were, impelled by

at the same time vii. 546 sq. for his deep sense of feminine seduc-
tions. Adam becomes so eloquent on this subject that Raphael
"contracts his brow," and thinks it necessary to remonstrate
with him.


a base and blind desire of levelling. He is an
iconoclast, but one witli his wits about him : a
Radical, but fully conscious of the principle from
which he starts, and of the end for which he is
making. The very worship of the letter which
shocks us in his books, his Biblical narrowness, his
childish attempt to reform Church and State by
dint of a few texts laboriously marshalled — all
these weaknesses are in him but, as it were, the
form, the accidental clothing, of a most lofty con-
ception of things. At bottom Milton is an abso-
lute spiritualist, and this is the essence of his
thought. He idealizes and abstracts everything.
A stranger to the world, he does not trouble himself
about the distance which separates his visions from
reality. He allows nothing for human weakness or
for political necessity. He never understands that
societies can only subsist by a perpetual declension
from the principles of right and truth. He sees all
things, so to speak, in God, and the earthly State
confounds itself in his mind with Jerusalem which
is on high.

But we should give an incomplete idea of Milton's
prose writings if, after having spoken of the tempera-
ment of his mind and his polemical excesses, we did
not say a word of the magnificence of his style.
For magnificence is not too strong a word. There
are moments when, shaking the dust of argument
from off him, the poet suddenly bursts forth and
carries us off on the torrent of an incomparable


eloquence. It is not rhetorical phrase-making, it is
poetic enthusiasm, a flood of images shed over the
dull and arid theme, a wing-stroke which sweeps us
high above peddling controversy. The polemical
writings of Milton are full of such beauties. The
prayer which ends the " Treatise of Reformation in
England," the encomium on zeal in the "Apology
for Smectymnuus," the portrait of Cromwell in the
" Second Defence of the English People," and, lastly,
the whole treatise on the liberty of the press, are
counted among the most memorable pages of English
literature and among the most characteristic exam-
ples of the genius of Milton.^ The dryest of Milton's
writings are thus constantly illuminated with flashes
of poetry.

And so we come back to our conclusion, that Mil-
ton was born a poet, and one of the greatest of poets.
He had long before written some short pieces which
would have been enough to make him immortal,
" L 'Allegro " for instance, and " II Penseroso." He
was now approaching a green old age ; but he pre-
served his inner fire and a kind of heroic and mag-
nifical spirit, which breaks out in the midst of the
wretchedest wranglings. Yet none the less he is a
polemic and a theologian in his heart. Some years
ago there was discovered a stout treatise on " Chris-
tian Doctrine," on which he worked throughout
his life ; and it is not certain that this was not his

1 [M. Scherer here gives the immortal " mewing her mighty-
youth " passage from the Areopagitica. — Trans.~\


favorite work. For he was before all things a
Protestant scholastic. He rejoices in the pet dog-
mas of Puritanism, in Original Sin, Predestination,
Free Will. Not that he does not carry even into
this region a kind of natural independence. Thus,
he dared to follow St. Paul and Arius in making
Christ a sort of secondary or intermediary God, and
he was not afraid to push his views on divorce to
the point of apologizing for polygamy. But his
theology is none the less that of the time — bound
to the letter of the sacred writings, without grandeur,
without horizons, without philosophy. He never
quits the written word ; and he will cut the knot of
the most exalted problems by the authority of a
single obscure or isolated passage. In short, Milton
is a great poet, doubled with a Saumaise, or a Grotius ;
a genius, nourished on the marrow of lions, on
Homer, Isaiah, Virgil, Dante, but also, like the ser-
pent in Eden, chewing the dust of dull polemic. He
is a doctor, a preacher, a pedagogue, and when the
day comes for him to be able at last to realize the
dreams of his youth, and endow his country with
an epic, he will construct it of two matters, of gold
and of clay, of sublimity and of scholasticism, and
will leave us a poem which is at once the most
extraordinary and at the same time the most
intolerable in existence.



I shall not follow the life of Milton any further.
It grew more and more sombre with age and cir-
cumstance, and everything seemed to combine to
overwhelm that mighty heart. He lost his sight
in 1651 as a consequence of the obstinate labor
which his "Defence of the English People" cost
him. The doctors had warned him of the conse-
quences in vain. "Their warnings," he says,
"caused me neither fear nor hesitation. Urged
by the heavenly Counsellor Who dwells in con-
science, I would have shut my ears to ^sculapius
himself speaking in his Epidaurian temple." A
year afterwards, Milton's wife died. He married
twice again : but he had by his first marriage three
daughters, who did not get on well with their step-
mothers, and disturbed the household by their
domestic dissensions. And we may suppose that
the coup d'etat by which Cromwell substituted the
Protectorate for the government of Parliament
could not but sadden the soul of Milton. It was
the first blow dealt to the republican ideal which he
had cherished. Alas ! his generous dreams were to
be still more rudely dissipated. A coup d'etat can
only establish a government by setting this govern-
ment at variance with its own first principle: it
can only form a regular civil order by condemning
the violence which gave its own success. What is
certain is that Cromwell's son ruled but a moment


after his father. At the date of the Restoration
Milton was fifty-two, and it is reasonably enough
supposed that about that time he began the com-
position of the poem which he had projected
twenty years earlier. His friends had disappeared,
his dreams had vanished, his sight was quenched,
old age made itself felt. But he had kept the
faith ; and, turning his eyes towards the heavenly
light, he dictated songs which he knew were fated
to be immortal.^

Such was Milton ; hijuself a poem, to use his own
expression. Grave, serene, wholly given up to the
contemplation of heavenly things, slowly maturing
the work of his life, isolated in his generation by
the very force of his genius. His soul, as Words-
worth has said in a fine sonnet, was "like a star,
and dwelt apart."


" Paradise Lost " is a work of the Eenaissance,
full of imitation of the ancients. The plan is mod-
elled upon the consecrated patterns, especially on
that of the ''^neid." There is an exposition,
there is an invocation; after which the author
plunges in medias res. Satan and his accomplices
are discovered stranded on the floor of hell,
like ^neas on the coast of Carthage. At this
point the action begins. It is and will be very

1 Read the Introductions to Bks. iii. and iv. of Paradise Lost.


simple tliroughout. As ^neas triumphs over
Turnus, so Satan will ruin humanity in the person
of our first parents. This unity of action is
demanded by the rules ; but it is necessary, on the
other hand, that the poet should tell us what has
gone before, and what will come after, otherwise
there would not be material enough. So resource
is had to narratives, ^neas tells Dido of the
Fall of Troy : Eaphael narrates to Adam the
revolt of the angels and the creation of the world.
Thus we are posted up as to the past: but the
future remains. The poet cannot leave us with
the death of Turnus or the Fall of the first human
beings, because the true interest of the two poems
lies in the relations of ^neas with the destinies of
the Eoman people and in the relations of Adam's
sin with the lot of all mankind. Patience ! a new
device will get us out of the difficulty, ^neas
descends to Hades, and there finds Anchises, who
shows him the procession of his posterity. The
archangel Michael leads Adam to a hill and
delivers a complete course of lectures to him on
sacred history, from the death of Abel to the
coming of Christ, and even to the Last Judgment.
Such is the plan of "■ Paradise Lost " : there is
nothing more regular or more classical. We recog-
nize the superstitions of the Renaissance in this
faithfulness to models. But the result is that
Milton's poem presents a sort of tertiary formation,
the copy of a copy. It is to the Latin epics what


these are to Homer. We shall see presently what
Milton has succeeded in throwing into the tradi-
tional mould ; but as for the form of his poem he
did not create it for himself, he received it. It is
a legacy of antiquity.


If the form of " Paradise Lost " was supplied by
the Renaissance the substance was furnished by
Puritanism. "Paradise Lost" is an epic, but it is
a theological epic, and the theology of the poem is
made up of the favorite dogmas of the Puritans —
the Fall, Justification, the sovereign laws of God.
Moreover, Milton makes no secret of the fact that
he is defending a thesis : his end, he says in the
first lines, is to "assert eternal providence And
justify the ways of God to man."

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Online LibraryEdmond Henri Adolphe SchererEssays on English literature; → online text (page 10 of 21)