Henry Coppee.

English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History Designed as a Manual of Instruction online

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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 £1,000, 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

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.



The Blind Poet. Paradise Lost. Milton and Dante. His Faults.
Characteristics of the Age. Paradise Regained. His Scholarship. His
Sonnets. His Death and Fame.


Milton's blindness, his loneliness, and his loss of power, threw him upon
himself. His imagination, concentrated by these disasters and troubles,
was to see higher things in a clear, celestial light: there was nothing to
distract his attention, and he began that achievement which he had long
before contemplated - a great religious epic, in which the heroes should be
celestial beings and our sinless first parents, and the scenes Heaven,
Hell, and the Paradise of a yet untainted Earth. His first idea was to
write an epic on King Arthur and his knights: it is well for the world
that he changed his intention, and took as a grander subject the loss of
Paradise, full as it is of individual interest to mankind.

In a consideration of his poetry, we must now first recur to those pieces
which he had written at an earlier day. Before settling in London, he had,
as we have seen, travelled fifteen months on the Continent, and had been
particularly interested by his residence in Italy, where he visited the
blind Galileo. The poems which most clearly show the still powerful
influence of Italy in all European literature, and upon him especially,
are the _Arcades, Comus, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso_, and _Lycidas_, each
beautiful and finished, and although Italian in their taste, yet full of
true philosophy couched in charming verse.

The _Arcades_, (Arcadians,) composed in 1684, is a pastoral masque,
enacted before the Countess Dowager of Derby at Harefield, by some noble
persons of her family. The _Allegro_ is the song of Mirth, the nymph who
brings with her

Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods and becks and wreathèd smiles,

* * * * *

Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.

The poem is like the nymph whom he addresses,

Buxom, blithe, and debonaire.

The _Penseroso_ is a tribute to tender melancholy, and is designed as a
pendant to the _Allegro_:

Pensive nun devout and pure,
Sober, steadfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestic train.

We fall in love with each goddess in turn, and find comfort for our
varying moods from "grave to gay."

Burke said he was certain Milton composed the _Penseroso_ in the aisle of
a cloister, or in an ivy-grown abbey.

_Comus_ is a noble poem, philosophic and tender, but neither pastoral nor
dramatic, except in form; it presents the power of chastity in disarming
_Circe, Comus_, and all the libidinous sirens. _L'Allegro_ and _Il
Penseroso_ were written at Horton, about 1633.

_Lycidas_, written in 1637, is a tender monody on the loss of a friend
named King, in the Irish Channel, in that year, and is a classical
pastoral, tricked off in Italian garb. What it loses in adherence to
classic models and Italian taste, is more than made up by exquisite lines
and felicitous phrases. In it he calls fame "that last infirmity of noble
mind." Perhaps he has nowhere written finer lines than these:

So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed.
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
_Flames in the forehead of the morning sky_.

Besides these, Milton wrote Latin poems with great vigor, if not with
remarkable grace; and several Italian sonnets and poems, which have been
much admired even by Italian critics. The sonnet, if not of Italian
origin, had been naturalized there when its birth was forgotten; and this
practice in the Italian gave him that power to produce them in English
which he afterward used with such effect.

PARADISE LOST. - Having thus summarily disposed of his minor poems, each of
which would have immortalized any other man, we come to that upon which
his highest fame rests; which is familiarly known by men who have never
read the others, and who are ignorant of his prose works; which is used as
a parsing exercise in many schools, and which, as we have before hinted,
has furnished Protestant pulpits with pictorial theology from that day to
this. It occupied him several years in the composition; from 1658, when
Cromwell died, through the years of retirement and obscurity until 1667.
It came forth in an evil day, for the merry monarch was on the throne, and
an irreligious court gave tone to public opinion.

The hardiest critic must approach the _Paradise Lost_ with wonder and
reverence. What an imagination, and what a compass of imagination! Now
with the lost peers in Hell, his glowing fancy projects an empire almost
as grand and glorious as that of God himself. Now with undazzled,
presumptuous gaze he stands face to face with the Almighty, and records
the words falling from His lips; words which he has dared to place in the
mouth of the Most High - words at the utterance of which

... ambrosial fragrance filled
All heaven, and in the blessed spirits elect
Sense of new joy ineffable diffused.

Little wonder that in his further flight he does not shrink from colloquy
with the Eternal Son - in his theology not the equal of His Father - or that
he does not fear to describe the fearful battle between Christ with his
angelic hosts against the kingdom of darkness:

... At his right hand victory
Sat eagle-winged: beside him hung his bow
And quiver with three-bolted thunder stored.

* * * * *

... Them unexpected joy surprised,
When the great ensign of Messiah blazed,
Aloft by angels borne his sign in heaven.

How heart-rending his story of the fall, and of the bitter sorrow of our
first parents, whose fatal act

Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat.

How marvellous is the combat at Hell-gate, between Satan and Death; how
terrible the power at which "Hell itself grew darker"! How we strive to
shade our mind's eye as we enter again with him into the courts of Heaven.
How refreshingly beautiful the perennial bloom of Eden:

Picta velut primo Vere coruscat humus.

What a wonderful story of the teeming creation related to our first
parents by the lips of Raphael:

When from the Earth appeared
The tawny lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds,
And rampant shakes his brinded mane.

And withal, how compact the poem, how perfect the drama. It is Paradise,
perfect in beauty and holiness; attacked with devilish art; in danger;
betrayed; lost!

Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked and ate;
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe
That all was lost!

Unit-like, complete, brilliant, sublime, awful, the poem dazzles
criticism, and belittles the critic. It is the grandest poem ever written.
It almost sets up a competition with Scripture. Milton's Adam and Eve walk
before us instead of the Adam and Eve of Genesis. Milton's Satan usurps
the place of that grotesque, malignant spirit of the Bible, which, instead
of claiming our admiration, excites only our horror, as he goes about like
a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He it is who can declare

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be?

MILTON AND DANTE. - It has been usual for the literary critic to compare
Milton and Dante; and it is certain that in the conception, at least, of
his great themes, Milton took Dante for his guide. Without an odious
comparison, and conceding the great value, principally historical, of the
_Divina Commedia_, it must be said that the palm remains with the English
poet. Take, for a single illustration, the fall of the arch-fiend. Dante's
Lucifer falls with such force that he makes a conical hole in the earth to
its centre, and forces out a hill on the other side - a physical
prediction, as the antipodes had not yet been established. The cavity is
the seat of Hell; and the mountain, that of Purgatory. So mathematical is
his fancy, that in vignette illustrations we have right-lined drawings of
these surfaces and their different circles. Science had indeed progressed
in Milton's time, but his imagination scorns its aid; everything is with
him grandly ideal, as well as rhetorically harmonious:

... Him the Almighty power,
Hurled headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal power,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent in arms.

And when a lesser spirit falls, what a sad Æolian melody describes the
downward flight:

... How he fell
From Heaven they fabled thrown by angry Jove,
Sheer o'er the crystal battlements: from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve
A summer's day; and with the setting sun,
Dropt from the zenith like a falling star.

The heavenly colloquies to which we have alluded between the Father and
the Son, involve questions of theology, and present peculiar views - such
as the subordination of the Son, and the relative unimportance of the
third Person of the Blessed Trinity. They establish Milton's Arianism
almost as completely as his Treatise on Christian Doctrine.

HIS FAULTS. - Grand, far above all human efforts, his poems fail in these
representations. God is a spirit; he is here presented as a body, and that
by an uninspired pen. The poet has not been able to carry us up to those
infinite heights, and so his attempt only ends in a humanitarian
philosophy: he has been obliged to lower the whole heavenly hierarchy to
bring it within the scope of our objective comprehension. He blinds our
poor eyes by the dazzling effulgence of that light which is

... of the Eternal co-eternal beam.

And it must be asserted that in this attempt Milton has done injury to the
cause of religion, however much he has vindicated the power of the human
intellect and the compass of the human imagination. He has made sensuous
that which was entirely spiritual, and has attempted with finite powers to
realize the Infinite.

The fault is not so great when he delineates created intelligences,
ranging from the highest seraph to him who was only "less than archangel
ruined." We gaze, unreproved by conscience, at the rapid rise of
Pandemonium; we watch with eager interest the hellish crew as they "open
into the hill a spacious wound, and dig out ribs of gold." We admire the
fabric which springs

... like an exhalation, with the sound
Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet.

Nothing can be grander or more articulately realized than that arched
roof, from which,

Pendent by subtle magic, many a row
Of starry lamps and blazing cressets, fed
With naphtha and asphaltus, yields the light
As from a sky.

It is an illustrative criticism that while the painter's art has seized
these scenes, not one has dared to attempt his heavenly descriptions with
the pencil. Art is less bold or more reverent than poetry, and rebukes the

CHARACTERISTICS OF THE AGE. - And here it is particularly to our purpose to
observe, that in this very boldness of entrance into the holy of
holies - in this attempted grasp with finite hands of infinite things,
Milton was but a sublimated type of his age, and of the Commonwealth, when
man, struggling for political freedom, went, as in the later age of the
French Illuminati, too far in the regions of spirit and of faith. As
Dante, with a powerful satire, filled his poem with the personages of the
day, assigning his enemies to the _girone_ of the Inferno, so Milton vents
his gentler spleen by placing cowls and hood and habits in the limbo of
vanity and paradise of fools:

... all these upwhirled aloft
Fly o'er the backside of the world far off,
Into a limbo large and broad, since called
The paradise of fools.

It was a setting forth of that spirit which, when the Cavaliers were many
of them formalists, and the Puritans many of them fanatics, led to the
rise of many sects, and caused rude soldiers to bellow their own riotous
fancies from the pulpit. In the suddenness of change, when the earthly
throne had been destroyed, men misconceived what was due to the heavenly;
the fancy which had been before curbed by an awe for authority, and was
too ignorant to move without it, now revelled unrebuked among the
mysteries which are not revealed to angelic vision, and thus "fools rushed
in where angels fear to tread."

The book could not fail to bring him immense fame, but personally he
received very little for it in money - less than £20.

PARADISE REGAINED. - It was Thomas Ellwood, Milton's Quaker friend, who,
after reading the _Paradise Lost_, suggested the _Paradise Regained_. This
poem will bear no comparison with its great companion. It may, without
irreverence, be called "The gospel according to John Milton." Beauties it
does contain; but the very foundation of it is false. Milton makes man
regain Paradise by the success of Christ in withstanding the Devil's
temptations in the wilderness; a new presentation of his Arian theology,
which is quite transcendental; whereas, in our opinion, the gate of
Paradise was opened only "by His precious death and burial; His glorious
resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Ghost." But if
it is immeasurably inferior in its conception and treatment, it is quite
equal to the _Paradise Lost_ in its execution.

A few words as to Milton's vocabulary and style must close our notice of
this greatest of English poets. With regard to the first, the Latin
element, which is so manifest in his prose works, largely predominates in
his poems, but accords better with the poetic license. In a list of
authors which Mr. Marsh has prepared, down to Milton's time, which
includes an analysis of the sixth book of the _Paradise Lost_, he is found
to employ only eighty per cent. of Anglo-Saxon words - less than any up to
that day. But his words are chosen with a delicacy of taste and ear which
astonishes and delights; his works are full of an adaptive harmony, the
suiting of sound to sense. His rhythm is perfect. We have not space for
extended illustrations, but the reader will notice this in the lady's song
in Comus - the address to

Sweet Echo, sweeter nymph that liv'st unseen
Within thy airy shell,
By slow Meander's margent green!

* * * * *

Sweet queen of parley, daughter of the sphere,
So may'st thou be translated to the skies,
And give resounding grace to all heaven's harmonies.

And again, the description of Chastity, in the same poem, is inimitable in
the language:

So dear to Heaven is saintly Chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lackey her.

HIS SCHOLARSHIP. - It is unnecessary to state the well-known fact, attested
by all his works, of his elegant and versatile scholarship. He was the
most learned man in England in his day. If, like J. C. Scaliger, he did
not commit Homer to memory in twenty-one days, and the whole of the Greek
poets in three months, he had all classical learning literally at his
fingers' ends, and his works are absolutely glistening with drops which
show that every one has been dipped in that Castalian fountain which, it
was fabled, changed the earthly flowers of the mind into immortal jewels.

Nor need we refer to what every one concedes, that a vein of pure but
austere morals runs through all his works; but Puritan as he was, his
myriad fancy led him into places which Puritanism abjured: the cloisters,
with their dim religious light, in _Il Penseroso_ - and anon with mirth he

Come and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastic toe.

SONNETS. - His sonnets have been variously estimated: they are not as
polished as his other poems, but are crystal-like and sententious, abrupt
bursts of opinion and feeling in fourteen lines. Their masculine power it
was which caused Wordsworth, himself a prince of sonneteers, to say:

In his hand,
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains....

That to his dead wife, whom he saw in a vision; that to Cyriac Skinner on
his blindness, and that to the persecuted Waldenses, are the most known
and appreciated. That to Skinner is a noble assertion of heart and hope:

Cyriac, this three-years-day these eyes, though clear
To outward view, of blemish and of spot,
Bereft of light, their seeing have forgot:
Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear
Of sun, or moon, or star, throughout the year,
Or man, or woman. Yet I argue not
Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer
Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience friend to have lost them over-plied
In liberty's defence, my noble task,
Of which all Europe talks from side to side,
This thought might lead me through the world's vain mask
Content, though blind, had I no better guide.

Milton died in 1674, of gout, which had long afflicted him; and he left
his name and works to posterity. Posterity has done large but mistaken
justice to his fame. Men have not discriminated between his real merits
and his faults: all parties have conceded the former, and conspired to
conceal the latter. A just statement of both will still establish his
great fame on the immutable foundations of truth - a fame, the honest
pursuit of which caused him, throughout his long life,

To scorn delights, and live laborious days.

No writer has ever been the subject of more uncritical, ignorant, and
senseless panegyric: like Bacon, he is lauded by men who never read his
works, and are entirely ignorant of the true foundation of his fame. Nay,
more; partisanship becomes very warlike, and we are reminded in this
controversy of the Italian gentleman, who fought three duels in
maintaining that Ariosto was a better poet than Tasso: in the third he was
mortally wounded, and he confessed before dying that he had never read a

Online LibraryHenry CoppeeEnglish Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History Designed as a Manual of Instruction → online text (page 14 of 37)