James Russell Lowell.

The writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) online

. (page 6 of 28)
Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 6 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

he ever seriously intended it. Nor is it any matter
of reproach that he did not. It is plain, from his
works, that he believed himself very early set apart
and consecrated for tasks of a very different kind,
for services demanding as much self-sacrifice and
of more enduring result. I have no manner of
doubt that he, like Dante, believed himself divinely
inspired with what he had to utter, and, if so, why
not also divinely guided in what he should do or
leave undone? Milton wielded in the cause he
loved a weapon far more effective than a sword.

It is a necessary result of Mr. Masson's method,
that a great deal of space is devoted to what might
have befallen his hero and what he might have
seen. This leaves a broad margin indeed for the
insertion of purely hypothetical incidents. Nay, so
desperately addicted is he to what he deems the


vivid style of writing, that he even goes out of his
way to imagine what might have happened to any
body living at the same time with Milton. Having
told us fairly enough how Shakespeare, on his last
visit to London, perhaps saw Milton " a fair child
of six playing at his father's door," he must needs
conjure up an imaginary supper at the Mermaid.
" Ah ! what an evening . . . was that ; and how
Ben and Shakespeare be-tongued each other, while
the others listened and wondered ; and how, when
the company dispersed, the sleeping street heard
their departing footsteps, and the stars shone down
on the old roofs." Certainly, if we may believe
the old song, the stars " had nothing else to do,"
though their chance of shining in the middle of a
London November may perhaps be reckoned very
doubtful. An author should consider how largely
the art of writing consists in knowing what to leave
in the inkstand.

Mr. Masson's volumes contain a great deal of
very valuable matter, whatever one may think of
its bearing upon the life of Milton. The chapters
devoted to Scottish affairs are particularly interest
ing to a student of the Great Rebellion, its causes
and concomitants. His analyses of the two armies,
of the Parliament, and the Westminster Assembly,
are sensible additions to our knowledge. A too
painful thoroughness, indeed, is the criticism we
should make on his work as a biography. Even
as a history, the reader might complain that it
confuses by the multiplicity of its details, while it
wearies by want of continuity. Mr. Masson lacks


the skill of an accomplished story-teller. A fact
is to him a fact, never mind how unessential, and
he misses the breadth of truth in his devotion to
accuracy. The very order of his title-page, " The
Life of Milton, narrated in Connection with the
Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his
Time," shows, it should seem, a misconception of
the true nature of his subject. Milton's chief im
portance, it might be fairly said his only impor
tance, is literary. His place is fixed as the most
classical of our poets.

Neither in politics, theology, nor social ethics,
did Milton leave any distinguishable trace on the
thought of his time or in the history of opinion.
In all these lines of his activity circumstances
forced upon him the position of a controversialist
whose aims and results are by the necessity of the
case desultory and ephemeral. Hooker before him
and Hobbes after him had a far firmer grasp of
fundamental principles than he. His studies in
these matters were perfunctory and occasional, and
his opinions were heated to the temper of the times
and shaped to the instant exigencies of the forum,
sometimes to his own convenience at the moment,
instead of being the slow result of a deliberate
judgment enlightened by intellectual and above all
historical sympathy with his subject. His interest
was rather in the occasion than the matter of the
controversy. No aphorisms of political science are
to be gleaned from his writings as from those of
Burke. His intense personality could never so far
dissociate itself from the question at issue as to see


it in its larger scope and more universal relations.
He was essentially a doctrinaire^ ready to sacrifice
everything to what at the moment seemed the ab
stract truth, and with no regard to historical ante
cedents and consequences, provided those of scho
lastic logic were carefully observed. He has no
respect for usage or tradition except when they
count in his favor, and sees no virtue in that power
of the past over the minds and conduct of men
which alone insures the continuity of national
growth and is the great safeguard of order and
progress. The life of a nation was of less impor
tance to him than that it should be conformed to
certain principles of belief and conduct. Burke
coulcl distil political wisdom out of history because
he had a profound consciousness of the soul that
underlies and outlives events, and of the national
character that gives them meaning and coherence.
Accordingly his words are still living and opera
tive, while Milton's pamphlets are strictly occa
sional and no longer interesting except as they
illustrate him. In the Latin ones especially there
is an odd mixture of the pedagogue and the public
orator. His training, so far as it was thorough, so
far, indeed, as it may be called optional, was purely
poetical and artistic. A true Attic bee, he made
boot on every lip where there was a trace of truly
classic honey.

Milton, indeed, could hardly have been a match
for some of his antagonists in theological and
ecclesiastical learning. But he brought into the
contest a white heat of personal conviction that


counted for much. His self-consciousness, always
active, identified him with the cause he undertook.
" I conceived myself to be now not as mine own
person, but as a member incorporate into that
truth whereof I was persuaded and whereof I had
declared myself openly to be the partaker." 1 Ac
cordingly it does not so much seem that he is the
advocate of Puritanism, Freedom of Conscience, or
the People of England, as that all these are Ae,
and that he is speaking for himself. He was not
nice in the choice of his missiles, and too often
borrows a dirty lump from the dunghill of Luther ;
but now and then the gnarled sticks of controversy
turn to golden arrows ef Phoebus in his trembling
hands, singing as they fly and carrying their mes
sages of doom in music. Then, truly, in his prose
as in his verse, his is the large utterance of the
early gods, and there is that in him which tramples
all learning under his victorious feet. From the
first he looked upon himself as a man dedicated
and set apart. He had that sublime persuasion of
a divine mission which sometimes lifts his speech
from personal to cosmopolitan significance ; his
genius unmistakably asserts itself from time to
time, calling down fire from heaven to kindle the
sacrifice of irksome private duty, and turning the
hearthstone of an obscure man into an altar for the
worship of mankind. Plainly enough here was a
man who had received something other than Epis
copal ordination. Mysterious and awful powers
had laid their unimaginable hands on that fair

1 Apology for Smectymnuus.


head and devoted it to a nobler service. Yet it
must be confessed that, with the single exception
of the " Areopagitica," Milton's tracts are weari
some reading, and going through them is like
a long sea- voyage whose monotony is more than
compensated for the moment by a stripe of phos
phorescence heaping before you in a drift of star-
sown snow, coiling away behind in winking disks
of silver, as if the conscious element were giving
out all the moonlight it had garnered in its loyal
depths since first it gazed upon its pallid regent.
Which, being interpreted, means that his prose is
of value because it is Milton's, because it some
times exhibits -in an inferior degree the qualities oi
his verse, and not for its power of thought, of rea
soning, or of statement. It is valuable, where it is
best, for its inspiring quality, like the fervencies of
a Hebrew prophet. The English translation of
the Bible had to a very great degree Judaized, not
the English mind, but the Puritan temper. Those
fierce enthusiasts could more easily find elbow-room
for their consciences in an ideal Israel than in a
practical England. It was convenient to see Ama-
lek or Philistia in the men who met them in the
field, and one unintelligible horn or other of the
Beast in their theological opponents. The spiritual
provincialism of the Jewish race found something
congenial in the English mind. Their national
egotism quintessentialized in the prophets was es
pecially sympathetic with the personal egotism of
Milton. It was only as an inspired and irrespon
sible person that he could live on decent terms with


his own self-confident individuality. There is an
intolerant egotism which identifies itself with om
nipotence, 1 and whose sublimity is its apology;
there is an intolerable egotism which subordinates
the sun to the watch in its own fob. Milton's was
of the former kind, and accordingly the finest pas
sages in his prose and not the least fine in his verse
are autobiographic, and this is the more striking
that they are often unconsciously so. Those fallen
angels in utter ruin and combustion hurled, are
also cavaliers fighting against the Good Old Cause;
Philistia is the Restoration, and what Samson did,
that Milton would have done if he could.

The " Areopagitica " might seem an exception,
but that also is a plea rather than an argument,
and his interest in the question is not one of ab
stract principle, but of personal relation to himself.
He was far more rhetorician than thinker. The
sonorous amplitude of his style was better fitted to
persuade the feelings than to convince the reason.
The only passages from his prose that may be said
to have survived are emotional, not argumentative,
or they have lived in virtue of their figurative
beauty, not their weight of thought. Milton's
power lay in dilation. Touched by him, the sim
plest image, the most obvious thought,

" Dilated stood
Like Teneriffe or Atlas . . .
. . . nor wanted in his grasp
What seemed both spear and shield."

1 " For him I was not sent, nor yet to free

That people, victor once, now vile and base,
Deservedly made vassal." (P. E., IV. 131-133.)


But the thin stiletto of Macchiavelli is a more
effective weapon than these fantastic arms of his.
He had not the secret of compression that properly
belongs to the political thinker, on whom, as Haz-
litt said of himself, "nothing but abstract ideas
makes any impression." Almost every aphoristic
phrase that he has made current is borrowed from
some one of the classics, like his famous

"License they mean when they cry liberty,"

from Tacitus. This is no reproach to him so far
as his true function, that of poet, is concerned. It
is his peculiar glory that literature was with him
so much an art, an end and not a means. Of his
political work he has himself told us, "I should
not choose this manner of writing, wherein, know
ing myself inferior to myself (led by the genial
power of nature to another task), I have the use,
as I may account, but of my left hand."

Mr. Masson has given an excellent analysis of
these writings, selecting with great judgment the
salient passages, which have an air of blank-verse
thinly disguised as prose, like some of the cor
rupted passages of Shakespeare. We are partic
ularly thankful to him for his extracts from the
pamphlets written against Milton, especially for
such as contain criticisms on his style. It is not
a little interesting to see the most stately of poets
reproached for his use of vulgarisms and low
words. We seem to get a glimpse of the schooling
of his " choiceful sense " to that nicety which could
not be content till it had made his native tongue


" search all her coffers round." One cannot help
thinking also that his practice in prose, especially
in the long involutions of Latin periods, helped
him to give that variety of pause and that majestic
harmony to his blank-verse which have made it so
unapproachably his own. Landor, who, like Mil
ton, seems to have thought in Latin, has caught
somewhat more than others of the dignity of his
gait, but without his length of stride. Words
worth, at his finest, has perhaps approached it, but
with how long an interval ! Bryant has not sel
dom attained to its serene equanimity, but never
emulates its pomp. Keats has caught something
of its large utterance, but altogether fails of its
nervous severity of phrase. Cowper's muse (that
moved with such graceful ease in slippers) becomes
stiff when (in his translation of Homer) she buc
kles on her feet the cothurnus of Milton. Thom
son grows tumid wherever he assays the grandiosity
of his model. It is instructive to get any glimpse
of the slow processes by which Milton arrived at
that classicism which sets him apart from, if not
above, all our other poets.

In gathering up the impressions made upon us
by Mr. Masson's work as a whole, we are inclined
rather to regret his copiousness for his own sake
than for ours. The several parts, though dispro
portionate, are valuable, his research has been con
scientious, and he has given us better means of
understanding Milton's time than we possessed be-
f or,e. But how is it about Milton himself ? Here
was a chance, it seems to me, for a fine bit of por-


trait-painting. There is hardly a more stately fig
ure in literary history than Milton's, no life in some
of its aspects more tragical, except Dante's. In
both these great poets, more than in any others,
the character of the men makes part of the singu
lar impressiveness of what they wrote and of its
vitality with after times. In them the man some
how overtops the author. The works of both are
full of autobiographical confidences. Like Dante,
Milton was forced to become a party by himself.
He stands out in marked and solitary individuality,
apart from the great movement of the Civil War,
apart from the supine acquiescence of the Restora
tion, a self-opinionated, unforgiving, and unforget-
ting man. Very much alive he certainly was in
his day. Has Mr. Masson made him alive to us
again? I fear not. At the same time, while we
cannot praise either the style or the method of Mr.
Masson's work, we cannot refuse to be grateful for
it. It is not so much a book for the ordinary
reader of biography as for the student, and will be
more likely to find its place on the library-shelf
than on the centre-table. It does not in any sense
belong to light literature, but demands all the mus
cle of the trained and vigorous reader. "Truly,
in respect of itself, it is a good life ; but in respect
that it is Milton's life it is naught."

Mr. Masson's intimacy with the facts and dates
of Milton's career renders him peculiarly fit in
some respects to undertake an edition of the poet
ical works. His edition, accordingly, has distin
guished merits. The introductions to the several


poems are excellent and leave scarcely anything to
be desired. The general Introduction, on the other
hand, contains a great deal that might well have
been omitted, and not a little that is positively
erroneous. Mr. Masson's discussions of Milton's
English seem often to be those of a Scotsman to
whom English is in some sort a foreign tongue.
It is almost wholly inconclusive, because confined
to the Miltonic verse, while the basis of any alto
gether satisfactory study should surely be the Mil-
tonic prose ; nay, should include all the poetry and
prose of his own age and of that immediately pre
ceding it. The uses to which Mr. Masson has put
the concordance to Milton's poems tempt one some
times to class him with those whom the poet him
self taxed with being " the mousehunts and ferrets
of an index." For example, what profits a discus
sion of Milton's aTrag Xeyo/Aevo, a matter in which
accident is far more influential than choice? 1
What sensible addition is made to our stock of
knowledge by learning that " the word woman does
not occur in any form in Milton's poetry before
' Paradise Lost,' " and that it is " exactly so with
the word female " ? Is it any way remarkable that
such words as Adam, God, Heaven, Hell, Para
dise, Sin, Satan, and Serpent should occur " very
frequently " in " Paradise Lost " ? Would it not
rather have been surprising that they should not ?
Such trifles at best come under the head of what

1 If things are to be scanned so micrologically, what weighty
inferences might not be drawn from Mr. Masson's invariably print
ing eura \eyo/j.eva !


old Warner would have called cumber-minds. It
is time to protest against this minute style of
editing and commenting great poets. Gulliver's
microscopic eye saw on the fair skins of the Brob-
dignagian maids of honor " a mole here and there
as broad as a trencher," and we shrink from a cup
of the purest Hippocrene after the critic's solar
microscope has betrayed to us the grammatical,
syntactical, and, above all, hypothetical monsters
that sprawl in every drop of it. When a poet has
been so much edited as Milton, the temptation of
whosoever undertakes a new edition to see what is
not to be seen becomes great in proportion as he
finds how little there is that has not been seen

Mr. Masson is quite right in choosing to mod
ernize the spelling of Milton, for surely the reading
of our classics should be made as little difficult as
possible, and he is right also in making an excep
tion of such abnormal forms as the poet may fairly
be supposed to have chosen for melodic reasons.
His exhaustive discussion of the spelling of the orig
inal editions seems, however, to be the less called-
for as he himself appears to admit that the compos
itor, not the author, was supreme in these matters,
and that in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases to
the thousand Milton had no system, but spelt
by immediate inspiration. Yet Mr. Masson fills
nearly four pages with an analysis of the vowel
sounds, in which, as if to demonstrate the futility
of such attempts so long as men's ears differ, he
tells us that the short a sound is the same in man


and Darby, the short o sound in God and does,
and what he calls the long o sound in broad and
wrath. Speaking of the apostrophe, Mr. Masson
tells us that "it is sometimes inserted, not as a
possessive mark at all, but merely as a plural
mark : hero's for heroes, myrtle's for myrtles, Gor-
gons and Hydra's, etc." Now, in books printed
about the time of Milton's the apostrophe was put
in almost at random, and in all the cases cited is
a misprint, except in the first, where it serves to in
dicate that the pronunciation was not heroes as it
had formerly been. 1 In the " possessive singular
of nouns already ending in s," Mr. Masson tells us,
" Milton's general practice is not to double the s ;
thus, Nereus wrinkled look, Glaucus spell. The
necessities of metre would naturally constrain to
such forms. In a possessive followed by the word
sake or the word side, dislike to [of] the double
sibilant makes us sometimes drop the inflection. In
addition to ''for righteousness 1 sake ' such phrases
as ''for thy name sake ' and 'for mercy sake,' are
allowed to pass; bedside is normal and riverside
nearly so." The necessities of metre need not be
taken into account with a poet like Milton, who
never was fairly in his element till he got off the
soundings of prose and felt the long swell of his

1 " That you may tell heroes, when you come
To banquet with your wife."

Chapman's Odyssey, VIII. 336, 337.
In the facsimile of the sonnet to Fairfax I find

" Thy firm uiishak'n vertue ever brings,"
which shows how much faith we need give to the apostrophe.


verse under him like a steed that knows his rider.
But does the dislike of the double sibilant account
for the dropping of the s in these cases ? Is it not
far rather the presence of the s already in the
sound satisfying an ear accustomed to the English
slovenliness in the pronunciation of double conso
nants ? It was this which led to such forms as con
science sake and on justice side, and which beguiled
Ben Jonson and Dryden into thinking, the one
that noise and the other that corps was a plural. 1
What does Mr. Masson say to hillside, Bankside,
seaside, Cheapside, spindleside, spearside, gospel'
side (of a church), nights ide, countryside, way
side, brookside, and I know not how many more ?
Is the first half of these words a possessive ? Or
is it not rather a noun impressed into the service
as an adjective? How do such words differ from
Jiilltop, townend, candlelight, rushlight, cityman,
and the like, where no double s can be made the
scapegoat? Certainly Milton would not have
avoided them for their sibilancy, he who wrote

" And airy tongues that syllable men's names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses, "

" So in his seed all nations shall be blest,"
" And seat of Salmanasser whose success,"

1 Mr. Masson might have cited a good example of this from,
j5rummond, whom (as a Scotsman) he is fond of quoting for an
authority in English,

"Sleep, Silence' child, sweet father of soft rest."

The survival of Horse for horses is another example. So by a
reverse process pult and shay have been vulgarly deduced from
the supposed plurals pulse and chaise.


verses that hiss like Medtisa's head in wrath, and
who was, I think, fonder of the sound than any
other of our poets. Indeed, in compounds of the
kind we always make a distinction wholly indepen
dent of the doubled s. Nobody would boggle at
mountainside ; no one would dream of saying on
the fatherside or motherside.

Mr. Masson speaks of " the Miltonic forms van-
quisht, markt, lookt, etc." Surely he does not mean
to imply that these are peculiar to Milton ? Chap
man used them before Milton was born, and pressed
them farther, as in nak't and saf't for naked and
saved. He often prefers the contracted form in
his prose also, showing that the full form of the
past participle in ed was passing out of fashion,
though available in verse. 1 Indeed, I venture to
affirm that there is not a single variety of spelling
or accent to be found in Milton which is without
example in his predecessors or contemporaries.
Even highth, which is thought peculiarly Miltonic,
is common (in Hakluyt, for example), and still

1 Chapman's spelling is presumably his own. At least he
looked after his printed texts. I have two copies of his Byron's
Conspiracy, both dated 1608, bat one evidently printed later than
the other, for it shows corrections. The more solemn ending in ed
was probably kept alive by the reading of the Bible in churches.
Though now dropped by the clergy, it is essential to the right
hearing of the more metrical passages in the Old Testament,
which are finer and more scientific than anything in the language,
unless it be some parts of Samson Agonistes. I remember an old
gentleman who always used the contracted form of the partici
ple in conversation, but always gave it back its embezzled syllable
in reading. Sir Thomas Browne seems to have preferred the
more solemn form. At any rate he has the spelling empuzzeled
in prose.


often heard in New England. Mr. Masson gives
an odd reason for Milton's preference of it " as in
dicating more correctly the formation of the word
by the addition of the suffix th to the adjective
high." Is an adjective, then, at the base of growth,
earth, birth, truth, and other words of this kind ?
Home Tooke made a better guess than this. If
Mr. Masson be right in supposing that a peculiar
meaning is implied in the spelling bearth (Para
dise Lost, IX. 624), which he interprets as " collec
tive produce," though in the only other instance
where it occurs it is neither more nor less than
birth, it should seem that Milton had hit upon
Home Tooke's etymology. But it is really solemn
trifling to lay any stress on the spelling of the
original editions, after having admitted, as Mr.
Masson has honestly done, that in all likelihood
Milton had nothing to do with it. And yet he
cannot refrain. On the word voutsafe he hangs
nearly a page of dissertation on the nicety of Mil
ton's ear. Mr. Masson thinks that Milton "must
have had a reason for it," : and finds that reason
in " his dislike to [of] the sound ch, or to [of] that
sound combined with s. . . . His fine ear taught
him not only to seek for musical effects and ca
dences at large, but also to be fastidious as to syl-

1 He thinks the same of the variation strook and struck, though

Online LibraryJames Russell LowellThe writings of James Russell Lowell in prose .. (Volume 1) → online text (page 6 of 28)