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acter of his subject, whether for help or hindrance.
We are blinded with the dust of old papers ran
sacked by Mr. Masson to find out that they have no
relation whatever to his hero. He had been wise


if he had kept constantly in view what Milton him
self says of those who gathered up personal tradi
tions concerning the Apostles : " With less fer
vency was studied what Saint Paul or Saint John
had written than was listened to one that could say
* Here he taught, here he stood, this was his stature,
and thus he went habited ; and O, happy this house
that harbored him, and that cold stone whereon he
rested, this village where he wrought such a miracle.'
. . . Thus while all their thoughts were poured
out upon circumstances and the gazing after such
men as had sat at table with the Apostles, ... by
this means they lost their time and truanted on the
fundamental grounds of saving knowledge, as was
seen shortly in their writings." Mr. Masson has so
poured out his mind upon circumstances, that his
work reminds us of Allston's picture of Elijah in
the Wilderness, where a good deal of research at
last enables us to guess at the prophet absconded
like a conundrum in the landscape where the very
ravens could scarce have found him out, except by
divine commission. The figure of Milton becomes
but a speck on the enormous canvas crowded with
the scenery through which he may by any possibility
be conjectured to have passed. I will cite a single
example of the desperate straits to which Mr. Mas-
son is reduced in order to hitch Milton on to his own
biography. He devotes the first chapter of his Sec
ond Book to the meeting of the Long Parliament.
" Already," he tells us, " in the earlier part of the
day, the Commons had gone through the ceremony
of hearing the writ for the Parliament read, and


the names of the members that had been returned
called over by Thomas Wyllys, Esq., the Clerk of
the Crown in Chancery. His deputy, Agar, Mil
ton s brother-in-law, may have been in attendance
on such an occasion. During the preceding month
or two, at all events, Agar and his subordinates in
the Crown Office had been unusually busy with
the issue of the writs and with the other work con
nected with the opening of Parliament." (Vol. ii.
p. 150.) Mr. Masson's resolute " at all events " is
very amusing. Meanwhile

" The hungry sheep look up and are not fed."

Augustine Thierry has a great deal to answer
for, if to him we owe the modern fashion of writing
history picturesquely. At least his method leads
to most unhappy results when essayed by men to
whom nature has denied a sense of what the pic
turesque really is. The historical picturesque does
not consist in truth of costume and similar accessa
ries, but in the grouping, attitude, and expression
of the figures, caught when they are unconscious
that the artist is sketching them. The moment
they are posed for a composition, unless by a man
of genius, the life has gone out of them. In the
hands of an inferior artist, who fancies that im
agination is something to be squeezed out of color-
tubes, the past becomes a phantasmagoria of jack
boots, doublets, and flap-hats, the mere property-
room of a deserted theatre, as if the light had been
scenical and illusory, the world an unreal thing that
vanished with the foot-lights. It is the power of
catching the actors in great events at unawares that


makes the glimpses given us by contemporaries so
vivid and precious. And St. Simon, one of the
great masters of the picturesque, lets us into the
secret of his art when he tells us how, in that won
derful scene of the death of Monseigneur, he saw
" du premier coup d'ceil vivement porte, tout ce
qui leur echappoit et tout ce qui les accableroit."
It is the gift of producing this reality that almost
makes us blush, as if we had been caught peeping
through a keyhole, and had surprised secrets to which
we had no right, it is this only that can justify
the pictorial method of narration. Mr. Carlyle has
this power of contemporizing himself with bygone
times, he cheats us to

" Play with our fancies and believe we see " ;

but we find the tableaux vivants of the apprentices
who " deal in his command without his power,"
and who compel us to work very hard indeed with
our fancies, rather wearisome. The effort of weaker
arms to shoot with his mighty bow has filled the
air of recent literature with more than enough fruit
less twanging.

Mr. Masson's style, at best cumbrous, becomes
intolerably awkward when he strives to make up
for the want of St. Simon's premier coup d'ceil by
impertinent details of what we must call the pseudo-
dramatic kind. For example, does Hall profess to
have traced Milton from the University to a " sub
urb sink" of London? Mr. Masson fancies he
hears Milton saying to himself, " A suburb sink !
has Hall or his son taken the trouble to walk all the


way down to Aldersgate here, to peep up the entry
where I live, and so have an exact notion of my
whereabouts ? There has been plague in the neigh
borhood certainly ; and I hope Jane Yates had my
doorstep tidy for the visit." Does Milton, answer
ing Hall's innuendo that he was courting the graces
of a rich widow, tell us that he would rather
" choose a virgin of mean fortunes honestly bred " ?
Mr. Masson forthwith breaks forth in a paroxysm
of what we suppose to be picturesqueness in this
wise : " What have we here ? Surely nothing less,
if we choose so to construe it, than a marriage ad
vertisement ! Ho, all ye virgins of England (wid
ows need not apply), here is an opportunity such
as seldom occurs : a bachelor, unattached ; age,
thirty-three years and three or four months ; height
[Milton, by the way, would have said hightfi\ mid
dle or a little less ; personal appearance unusually
handsome, with fair complexion and light auburn
hair ; circumstances independent ; tastes intellec
tual and decidedly musical; principles Root-and-
Branch ! Was there already any young maiden in
whose bosom, had such an advertisement come in
her way, it would have raised a conscious flutter?
If so, did she live near Oxford? " If there is any
thing worse than an unimaginative man trying to
write imaginatively, it is a heavy man when he fan
cies he is being facetious. He tramples out the
last spark of cheerfulness with the broad damp foot
of a hippopotamus.

I am no advocate of what is called the dignity
of history, when it means, as it too often does, that


dulness has a right of sanctuary in gravity. Too
well do I recall the sorrows of my youth, when I
was shipped in search of knowledge on the long
Johnsonian swell of the last century, favorable to
anything but the calm digestion of historic truth.
I had even then an uneasy suspicion, which has
ripened into certainty, that thoughts were never
draped in long skirts like babies, if they were
strong enough to go alone. But surely there should
be such a thing as good taste, above all a sense of
self-respect, in the historian himself, that should
not allow him to play any tricks with the dignity
of his subject. A halo of sacredness has hitherto
invested the figure of Milton, and our image of
him has dwelt securely in ideal remoteness from
the vulgarities of life. No diaries, no private let
ters, remain to give the idle curiosity of after-times
the right to force itself on the hallowed seclusion
of his reserve. That a man whose familiar epistles
were written in the language of Cicero, whose
sense of personal dignity was so great that, when
called on in self-defence to speak of himself, he
always does it with an epical stateliness of phrase,
and whose self-respect even in youth was so pro
found that it resembles the reverence paid by other
men to a far-off and idealized character, that he
should be treated in this off-hand familiar fashion
by his biographer seems to us a kind of desecration,
a violation of good manners no less than of the
laws of biographic art. Milton is the last man in
the world to be slapped on the back with impunity.
Better the surly injustice of Johnson than such


presumptuous friendship as this. Let the seven
teenth century, at least, be kept sacred from the
insupportable foot of the interviewer I

But Mr. Masson, in his desire to be (shall I say)
idiomatic, can do something worse than what has
been hitherto quoted. He can be even vulgar.
Discussing the motives of Milton's first marriage,
he says, " Did he come seeking his 500, and did
Mrs. Powell heave a daughter at him ? " We
have heard of a woman throwing herself at a
man's head, and the image is a somewhat violent
one ; but what is this to Mr. Masson's improve
ment on it ? It has been sometimes affirmed that
the fitness of an image may be tested by trying
whether a picture could be made of it or not. Mr.
Masson has certainly offered a new and striking
subject to the historical school of British art. A
little further on, speaking of Mary Powell, he says,
" We have no portrait of her, nor any account of her
appearance ; but on the usual rule of the elective
affinities of opposites, Milton being fair, we will
vote her to have been dark-haired." I need say
nothing of the good taste of this sentence, but its
absurdity is heightened by the fact that Mr. Masson
himself had left us in doubt whether the match
was one of convenience or inclination. I know
not how it may be with other readers, but for my
self I feel inclined to resent this hail-fellow-well-
met manner with its jaunty " we will vote." In
some cases, Mr. Masson's indecorums in respect of
style may possibly be accounted for as attempts at
humor by one who has an imperfect notion of its


ingredients. In such experiments, to judge by the
effect, the pensive element of the compound enters
in too large an excess over the hilarious. Whether
I have hit upon the true explanation, or whether
the cause lie not rather in a besetting velleity of
the picturesque and vivid, I shall leave the reader
to judge by an example or two. In the manuscript
copy of Milton's sonnet in which he claims for his
own house the immunity which the memory of Pin
dar and Euripides secured for other walls, the title
had originally been, " On his Door when the City
expected an Assault." Milton has drawn a line
through this and substituted " When the Assault
was intended to the City." Mr. Masson fancies
" a mood of jest or semi-jest in the whole affair " ;
but we think rather that Milton's quiet assumption
of equality with two such famous poets was as se
riously characteristic as Dante's ranking himself
sesto tra cotanto senno. Mr. Masson takes advan
tage of the obliterated title to imagine one of Prince
Rupert's troopers entering the poet's study and
finding some of his " Anti-Episcopal pamphlets that
had been left lying about inadvertently. ' Oho ! '
the Cavalier Captain might then have said, ' Pindar
and Euripides are all very well, by G ! I 've
been at college myself ; and when I meet a gen
tleman and scholar, I hope I know how to treat
him ; but neither Pindar nor Euripides ever wrote
pamphlets against the Church of England, by
G ! It won't do, Mr. Milton ! ' " This, it may be
supposed, is Mr. Masson's way of being funny and
dramatic at the same time. Good taste is shocked


with this barbarous dissonance. Could not the
Muse defend her son? Again, when Charles L,
at Edinburgh, in the autumn and winter of 1641,
fills the vacant English sees, we are told, " It was
more than an insult ; it was a sarcasm ! It was as
if the King, while giving Alexander Henderson his
hand to kiss, had winked his royal eye over that
reverend Presbyter's back ! " Now one can con
ceive Charles II. winking when he took the Solemn
League and Covenant, but never his father under
any circumstances. He may have been, and I be
lieve he was, a bad king, but surely we may take
Marvell's word for it, that

" He nothing common did or mean,"

upon any of the " memorable scenes " of his life.
The image is therefore out of all imaginative keep
ing, and vulgarizes the chief personage in a grand
historical tragedy, who, if not a great, was at least
a decorous actor. But Mr. Masson can do worse
than this. Speaking of a Mrs. Katherine Chidley,
who wrote in defence of the Independents against
Thomas Edwards, he says, " People wondered who
this she-Brownist, Katherine Chidley, was, and did
not quite lose their interest in her when they found
that she was an oldish woman, and a member of
some hole-and-corner congregation in London. In
deed, she put her nails into Mr. Edwards with
some effect" Why did he not say at once, after
the good old fashion, that she " set her ten com
mandments in his face " ? In another place he
speaks of " Satan standing with his staff around


him." Mr. Masson's style, a little Robertsonian
at best, naturally grows worse when forced to con
descend to every-day matters. He can no more
dismount and walk than the man in armor on a
Lord Mayor's day. " It [Aldersgate Street]
stretches away northwards a full fourth of a mile
as one continuous thoroughfare, until, crossed by
Long Lane and the Barbican, it parts with the
name of Aldersgate Street, and, under the new
names of Goswell Street and Goswell Road, com
pletes its tendency towards the suburbs and fields
about Islington." What a noble work might not
the Directory be if composed on this scale ! The
imagination even of an alderman might well be
lost in that full quarter of a mile of continuous
thoroughfare. Mr. Masson is very great in these
passages of civic grandeur ; but he is more surpris
ing, on the whole, where he has an image to deal
with. Speaking of Milton's " two-handed engine "
in Lycidas, he says : " May not Milton, whatever
else he meant, have meant a coming English Par
liament with its two Houses ? Whatever he meant,
his prophecy had come true. As he sat among
his books in Aldersgate Street, the two-handed en
gine at the door of the English Church was on the
swing. Once, twice, thrice, it had swept its arcs
to gather energy ; now it was on the backmost
poise, and the blow was to descend." One cannot
help wishing that Mr. Masson would try his hand
on the tenth horn of the beast in Revelation, or on
the time and half a time of Daniel. There is some
thing so consoling to a prophet in being told that,


no matter what he meant, his prophecy had come
true, and that he might mean " whatever else " he
pleased, so long as he may have meant what we
choose to think he did, reasoning backward from
the assumed fulfilment ! But perhaps there may
be detected in Mr. Masson's " swept its arcs " a
little of that prophetic hedging-in vagueness to
which he allows so generous a latitude. How if
the " two-handed engine," after all, were a broom
(or besom, to be more dignified),

" Sweeping vehemently sweeping,
No pause admitted, no design avowed,"

like that wielded by the awful shape which Dion
the Syracusan saw ? I make the suggestion mod
estly, though somewhat encouraged by Mr. Mas-
son's system of exegesis, which reminds one of the
casuists' doctrine of probables, in virtue of which
a man may be probabiliter obligatus and prdbabili-
ter deobligatus at the same time. But perhaps
the most remarkable instance of Mr. Masson's fig
ures of speech is where we are told that the king
might have established a bona fide government
" by giving public ascendency to the popular or
Parliamentary element in his Council, and indu
cing the old leaven in it either to accept the new pol
icy, or to withdraw and become inactive" There
is something consoling in the thought that yeast
should be accessible to moral suasion. It is really
too bad that bread should ever be heavy for want
of such an appeal to its moral sense as should
" induce it to accept the new policy." Of Mr.
Masson's unhappy infection with the vivid style


an instance or two shall be given in justification of
what has been alleged against him in that partic
ular. He says of London that " he was committed
to the Tower, where for more than two months he
lay, with as near a prospect as ever prisoner had
of a chop with the executioner's axe on a scaffold
on Tower Hill." I may be over-fastidious, but the
word " chop " offends my ears with its coarseness,
or if that be too strong, has certainly the unplea
sant effect of an emphasis unduly placed. Old
Auchinleck's saying of Cromwell, that "he gart
kings ken they had a lith in their necks," is a good
example of really vivid phrase, suggesting the axe
and the block, and giving one of those dreadful
hints to the imagination which are more powerful
than any amount of detail, and whose skilful use is
the only magic employed by the masters of truly
picturesque writing. The sentence just quoted will
serve also as an example of that tendency to sur
plusage which adds to the bulk of Mr. Masson's sen
tences at the cost of their effectiveness. If he had
said simply " chop on Tower Hill " (if chop there
must be), it had been quite enough, for we all know
that the executioner's axe and the scaffold are im
plied in it. Once more, and I have done with the
least agreeable part of my business. Mr. Masson,
after telling over again the story of Straff ord with
needless length of detail, ends thus : " On Wednes
day, the 12th of May, that proud curly head,
the casket of that brain of power, rolled on the
scaffold of Tower Hill." Why curly ? Surely it
is here a ludicrous impertinence. This careful


thrusting forward of outward and unmeaning par
ticulars, in the hope of giving that reality to a pic
ture which genius only has the art to do, is becom
ing a weariness in modern descriptive writing. It
reminds one of the Mrs. Jarley expedient of dress
ing the waxen effigies of murderers in the very
clothes they wore when they did the deed, or with
the real halter round their necks wherewith they
expiated it. It is probably very effective with the
torpid sensibilities of the class who look upon wax
figures as works of art. f True imaginative power
works with other material. Lady Macbeth striving
to wash away from her hands the damned spot that
is all the more there to the mind of the spectator
because it is not there at all, is a type of the meth
ods it employs and the intensity of their action.

Having discharged my duty in regard to Mr.
Masson's faults of manner, which I should not have
dwelt on so long had they not greatly marred a
real enjoyment in the reading, and were they not
the ear-mark of a school which has become unhap
pily numerous, I turn to a consideration of his work
as a whole. I think he made a mistake in his very
plan, or else was guilty of a misnomer in his title.
His book is not so much a life of Milton as a col
lection of materials out of which a careful reader
may sift the main facts of the poet's biography.
His passion for minute detail is only to be equalled
by his diffuseness on points mainly if not altogether
irrelevant. He gives us a Survey of British Lit
erature, occupying one hundred and twenty-eight
pages of his first volume, written in the main with


good judgment, and giving the average critical
opinion upon nearly every writer, great and small,
who was in any sense a contemporary of Milton.
I have no doubt all this would be serviceable and
interesting to Mr. Masson's classes in Edinburgh
University, and they may well be congratulated on
having so competent a teacher ; but what it has to
do with Milton, unless in the case of such authors
as may be shown to have influenced his style or
turn of thought, one does not clearly see. Most
readers of a life of Milton may be presumed to
have some knowledge of the general literary history
of the time, or at any rate to have the means of
acquiring it, and Milton's manner (his style was
his own) was very little affected by any of the
English poets, with the single exception, in his ear
lier poems, of George Wither. Mr. Masson also
has something to say about everybody, from Went-
worth to the obscurest Brownist fanatic who was
so much as heard of in England during Milton's
lifetime. If this theory of a biographer's duty
should hold, our grandchildren may expect to see
" A Life of Thackeray, or who was who in England,
France, and Germany during the first Half of the
Nineteenth Century." These digressions of Mr.
Masson's from what should have been his main
topic (he always seems somehow to be " complet
ing his tendency towards the suburbs " of his sub
ject), give him an uneasy feeling that he must get
Milton in somehow or other at intervals, if it were
only to remind the reader that he has a certain
connection with the book. He is eager even to


discuss a mere hypothesis, though an untenable
one, if it will only increase the number of pages de
voted specially to Milton, and thus lessen the ap
parent disproportion between the historical and
the biographical matter. Milton tells us that his
morning wont had been " to read good authors, or
cause them to be read, till the attention be weary,
or memory have his full fraught ; then with useful
and generous labors preserving the body's health
and hardiness, to render lightsome, clear, and not
lumpish obedience to the mind, to the cause of re
ligion and our country's liberty when it shall re
quire firm hearts in sound bodies to stand and
cover their stations rather than see the ruin of our
Protestantism and the enforcement of a slavish
life." Mr. Masson snatches at the hint : " This is
interesting," he says ; " Milton, it seems, has for
some time been practising drill ! The City Artil
lery Ground was near. . . . Did Milton among
others make a habit of going there of mornings ?
Of this more hereafter." When Mr. Masson re
turns to the subject he speaks of Milton's " all but
positive statement . . . that in the spring of 1642,
or a few months before the breaking out of the
Civil War, he was in the habit of spending a part
of each day in military exercise somewhere not far
from his house in Aldersgate Street" What he
puts by way of query on page 402 has become
downright certainty seventy-nine pages further on.
The passage from Milton's tract makes no " state
ment " of the kind it pleases Mr. Masson to as
sume. It is merely a Miltonian way of saying that


he took regular exercise, because lie believed that
moral no less than physical courage demanded a
sound body. And what proof does Mr. Masson
bring to confirm his theory ? Nothing more nor
less than two or three passages in " Paradise Lost,"
of which I shall quote only so much as is essential
to his argument :

" And now

Advanced in view they stand, a horrid front
Of dreadful length and dazzling 1 arms, in guise
Of warriors old with ordered spear and shield,
Awaiting what command their mighty chief
Had to impose." l

Mr. Masson assures us that " there are touches in
this description (as, for example, the ordering of
arms at the moment of halt, and without word of
command) too exact and technical to have occurred
to a mere civilian. Again, at the same review . . .

' He now prepared

To speak ; whereat their doubled ranks they bend
From wing to wing, and half enclose him round
With all his peers ; attention held them mute.' 2

To the present day this is the very process, or one
of the processes, when a commander wishes to ad
dress his men. They wheel inward and stand at
' attention.' " But his main argument is the phrase
"ported spears," in Book Fourth, on which he has
an interesting and valuable comment. He argues
the matter through a dozen pages or more, seeking
to prove that Milton must have had some practical
experience of military drill. I confess a very grave
doubt whether " attention " and " ordered " in the
passages cited have any other than their ordinary
1 Book I. 562-567. 2 Ibid. 615-618.


meaning, and Milton could never have looked on
at the pike-exercise without learning what " ported "
meant. But, be this as it may, I will venture to
assert that there was not a boy in New England,
forty years ago, who did not know more of the
manual than is implied in Milton's use of these
terms. Mr. Masson's object in proving Milton to
have been a proficient in these martial exercises
is to increase our wonder at his not entering the
army. " If there was any man in England of
whom one might surely have expected that he
would be in arms among the Parliamentarians,"
he says, "that man was Milton." Milton may
have had many an impulse to turn soldier, as all
men must in such times, but I do not believe that

Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 5 of 28)