William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 98 of 169)
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Mihon was cast on times too solemn and
dventfoA. was called to take part in transac-
tions too perilous, and had too perpetual need
of the presence of high thoughts and motives,
to indulge himself in light and gav creations,
even had his genius been mote flexible and
•poftive. But Milton's poetry, though habi-



tually serious, is always healthful, and bright,
and vigorous. It has no gloom. He took
no pleasure m drawing daric pictures of life;
for he knew by experience that there is a
power in the soul to transmute calamity into
an occasion and nutriment of moral power
and triumphant virtue. We find nowhere in
his writings that whining sensibility and ex-
aggeration of morbul feeUng which makes
so much of modem poetry efieminating. If
he is not gay, he is not spirit-broken. His
" L' Allegro" proves that he understood tho-
roughly the bright and jojrous aspects of
nature; and in his "Penseroso," where he
was tempted to accumulate images of gloom,
we learn that the saddest views which he took
of Creadon are such as inspire only pensive
nrasing or lofty contemplation.

From Milton's poetry we turn to his pr^u.
We re^kte that the dust is beginning to be
wiped from his prose writings, and that the
public are now learmng, what the initiated
have long known, that these contain passages
hardly id^erior to his best poetry, and that they
are throughout marked with the same vigorous
mind which gave us " Paradise Lost" The
attention to these works has been disoouniged
by some objections, on which we shaU bestow
a few remarks.

And first, it is objected to his prose writings,
that the style is difficult and obscure, abound-
ing in involutions, transpositions, and Latin-
isms; that his protracted sentences exhaust
and weary the tnind, and too often jrield it no
better recompetise than confused and indis-
tinct perceptions. We mean not to deny that
these charges have some grounds ; but they
seem to us much exaggerated ; and, when we
consider that the difliculties of Milton's style
have almost sealed up his prose writings, we
carmot but lament the fastidiousness and
effeminacy of nuxtem readers. We know
that simplicity and perspicuity are important
qualities of s^le ; but there are vastly nobler
and more important ones, such as encxgy and
richness, and in these Milton is not surpassed.
The best style is not that which puts the
reader most easily and in the shortest time in
possession of a writer's naked thoughts, but
that which is the truest image of a great in-
tellect, which conveys fully and carries farthest
into other souls the conceptions and feelings
of a profoutKi and lofty spirit. To be univer-
sally intelligible is i»ot the highest merit. A
great mind caimot, without injurious con-
straint, shrink itielf to the grasp of common
passive readers. Its natural movement is
finee, l>old, and majestic, and it ought not
to be required to part with these attributes,
that the multitude may keep pace with it.
A full mind will naturally overflow in long
sentences, and, in the moment of inspiration,
when thick-coming thoughts and images



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crowd upon it, will often pour them forth
in a splendid confusion, dazzling to com-
mon readers, but kindling to congenial
spirits. There are writings which are clear
through their shallowness. We must not
expect in the ocean the transparency of the
cairn inland stream. For ourselves, yte love'
what is called easy reading perhaps too well,
especially in our hours of rdaxation; but we
love, too, to have our faculties tasked by mas-
ter spirits. We delight in long sentences, in
whidi a great truth, instead of being broken
up into numerous periods, is spread out in its
full proportions, is irradiated with variety of
illustration and imagery, is set forth in a
splendid afifluence of language, and flows like
a full stream, with a majestic hannony which
fills at once the ear and the souL Such sen-
tences are worthy and noble manifestations of
a great and far-looking mind, which grasps at
once vast fields of thought, just as the naitural
eye takes in, at a moment, wide prospects of
grandeur and beauty. We would not indeed
haveidl compositions of this character. Let
abundant provision be made for the common
intellect Let such writers as Addison, an
honoured name, "bring down philosophy
from heaven to earth." But let inspired
genius fulfil its higher function of lifting the
prepared mind from earth to heaven. Impose
upon it no strict laws, for it is its own best
law. Let it sp^dc in its own language, in
tones which suit its own ear. Let it not lay
aside its natural port, or dwarf itself that it
may be comprehended by the surrounding
multitude. If not understood and relished
now, let it place a generous confidence in
other ages, and utter oracles which futurity will
expound. We are led to these remarks not
merely for Milton's justification, but because
our tiroes seem to demand them. Literature,
we fear, is becoming too popular. The whole
community is now turned into readers, and
in this we heartily rejoice; and we rejoice,
too, that so much talent is employed in
making knowledge accessible to alL We
hail the general diffusion of intelligence as
the brightest feature of the present age. But
good and evil are never disjoined ; and one
bad consequence of the multitude of readers
is, that men of genius are too anxious to
please the multitude, and prefer a present
shout of popularity to that less tumultuous,
but deeper, more thrilling note of the trump
of Fame, which resounds and grows clearer
and louder through all future ages.

We now come to a mudi more serious
objection to Milton's prose ^^^itings, and that
is. that they are disfigiu^ by party spirit,
coarse invective, and controversial asperity;
and here we are prepared to say that there
are passages in these works which every
admirer of bis character must earnestly desire



to esrounge. Milton's alleged virulence Ivdi
manifest^ towards private and public foes.
The first, such as Salmasius and Moras,
deserved no mercy. They poured out on
his spotless character torrents of calumny,
charging him with the blackest vices of the
heart and the foulest enormities of the life.
It ought to be added, that the maimers and
spirit of Milton's age justified a retaliation on
such offenders, which the more courteous,
and, we will hope, more Christian spirit of
the present times will not t<derate. Still, we
mean not to be his apologists. Milton, raised
as he was above his age, and fortified with
the consciousness of high virtue, ought to have
been, both to his own and future times, an
example of Christian equanimity. In regard
to the pul^c enemies whom he assailed, we
mean the despots in church and state, and
the corrupt institutions which had stirred up
a civil war, the general strain of his writings,
though strong imd stern, must exalt him, not-
withstanding his occasional violence, among
the friends of civil and religious libcirty.
That liberty was in peril Great evils were
struggling for perpetuity, and could only be
broken down txy great power. Milton fdA
that interests of infinite moment were at
stake ; and who will blame him for binding
himself to them with the whole energy ^
his great mind, and for defending them
with fervour and vehemence? We must not
mistake Christian benevolence, as if it had
but one voice, that of soft entreaty. It can
speak in piereing and awful tones. There is
constantly going on in our world a conflict
between good and eviL The cause of human
nature has always to wrestle with foes. All
improvement is a victory won by struggles.
It is especially true of those great periods
which have been distingiusbed bv revolutions
in government and religion, and fix>m wliich
we date the most rapid movements of the
human mind, that they have been wgnaliacd
by conflict Thus Christianity convulsed
the world and grew up amidst storms ; and
the Reformation of LAither was a sigiial to
universal war ; and Liberty in both wonds has
encountered opposition over which ^le has
triumphed only through her own immortal
energies. At such periods, men, gifted with
great power of thought and loftiness of senti-
ment are especially summoned to the conflict
with evil They hear, as it were, in their own
magnanimity and generous aspiratioos^ the
voice of a divinity ; and thns ooaaussioned,
and burning with a passionate devotioo to
truth and freedom, they must and wifi speak
with an indignant energy^ and they ought aoi
to be measiured by the standard of ordlafiT
minds in ordinary times. Men of
softness and timidity, of a sincere but i
note virtue, will be apt to look oa



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bolder, hardier spirits, as violent, perturbed,
and uncharitable ; and the charge will not be
wholly groundless. But that deep feeling of
evils, which is necessary to effectual conflict
with them, and which marks God's most
powerful messengers to mankind, cannot-
breathe itself in soft and tender accents.
The deeply moved soul will speak strongly,
and ought to speak so as to move and shake
nations.

We have offered these remarks as strongly
applicable to Milton. He reverenced and
loved human nature, and attached himself to
its great interests with a fervour of which
only such a mind was capable. He lived in
one of those solemn periods which determine
the character of ages to come. His spirit
was stirred to its very centre by the presence
of danger. He lived in the midst of the
battle. That the ardour of his spirit some-
times passed the bounds of wisdom and
charity, and poured forth unwarrantable in-
vective, we see and lament. But the purity
and loftiness of his mind break forth amidst
his bitterest invectives. We see a noble
nature still. We see that no feigned love of
truth and freedom was a covering for selfish-
ness and malignity. He did indeed love and
adore uncorrupted religion, and intellectual
liberty, and let his name be enrolled among
their truest champions. Milton has told us,
in his own noble style, that he entered on his
principal controversy with Episcopacy reluc-
tantly, and only through a deep conviction of
duty. The introduction to the second book
of his "Reason of Church Government"
shows us the workings of his mind on this
Mibject, and is his best vindication from the
charge we are now repelling. He says : —

**Sareijr to orery good and peaceable man, it nrast in
nature needs be a hateful thlog, to be the dijpleaser and
molester of tboosands ; roach better would it like him,
doobtleaa, to be the messenger of gladness and contcnt-
ment, which is his chief intended bttnneai to all mankind,
bot that thcr resist and oppose their own true happiness.
But when Cod commands to take the trumpet, and blow
a dolorous or a jarring blast, it lies not in man's will what
he shall say, or what he shall conceal. . . . This I
ibrcsee, that should the church be brought under heavy
opprei^Dn, and God have given me ability the while to
reaseo against that oun that should be the author of to
Ibul a deed, or should she, by blessing from above on the
industry and courage of fiiitlUbl men, change this her dis-
tracted estate into better days, without the least furtherance
or contribution of those few talentJ which God at that
present had lent me } I foresee what stories I shouU hear
wiihio ray self, all my life afker, of discourage and reproach.
*TiiDoreus and ungrateful, the church of God is now
iigaki at the foot of her insulting eoemics, and thou
bewailett} what matters it for thee or thy bewailing f
When t0ut was, thou couldst not find a syllable of all
that thou hast read or studied, to utter in her behalf.
Tet ease and leisure was given thee for thy retired
tfaotshta, out of the sweat of other men. Thou hadst
the diligence, the parts, the language of a man, if a vain
subject were to be adorned or beautified } but when the



cause of God and his church was to be uleaded, for which
purpose that tongue was given thee which thou hast, God
listened if he could hear thy voice among his zealous
servants, but thou wert dumb as a beast } from hencefor-
ward be that which thine own brutish sUence hath made

thee.* But now, by this Utile diligence,

mark what a privile^ I have gained with good men and
saints, to claim my nght of lamenting the tribulations of
^ church, if she should suffer, when others, that have
ventured nothing for her sake, have not the honour to be
admitted mourners. But, if she lift up her drooping
head and prosper, among those that have something more
than wished her welfare, I have my charter and freehold
of rejoicing to mc and my heirs.

*^ Concerning therefore this wayward subject against
prelaty, the touching whereof is so distasteful and dis-
quietous to a number of men, as by what hath been said
I may deserve of charitable readers to be credited, that
neither envy nor gall hath entered me upon this contro-
versy, but the enforcement of conscience only, and a
preventive fear lest the omitting of this duty should be
against me, when I would store up to myself the good
provision of peaceful hourr." — fW. /.,//. IJ9— I4i.«

He then goes on to speak of his conscious*
ness of possessing great poetical powers,
which he was most anxious to cultivate. Of
these he speaks thus magnificently : —

** These abilities, wheresoever they be found, are the
inspired gift of God rarely bestowed, but yet to some,
though most abuse, in every nation } and are crf^ power, — to
imbrced and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue,
and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind,
and set the affections in right tune \ to celebrate in glo-
rious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God*s
almightincss, and what he works, and what he suffers to
be wrought with high providence in his church} to sing
victorious agonies of nurtyrs and saints, the deeds and
triumphs of just and pious nations, doing valiantly
through faith against the enemies of Christ \ to deplore
the general relapses of kingdoms and states firom justice
and God*s true worship ; lastly, whatsoever in religion is
holy and sublime, in virtue amiable or grave, whatsoever
hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that
which is called fortune from without, or the wfly subtiltiej
and refluxes of man*s thoughts from within } all these
things with a solid and treatable smoothness to paint out
and describe."— r«/. /.,//. 145, 146.

He then gives intimations of his having
proposed to himself a great poetical work,
" a work," he says, —

"Not to t>e raised from the heat of youth, or the
vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the
pen of some vulgar amourist, or the rencher fury of a
rhyming parasite, nor to be obtained by the invocation
of dame Memory and her syren daughters, but by devout
prayer to that eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all
utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim,
with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and puriiy
the lips of whom he pleases.** — V*l. /., f. 148.

He then closes with a passage, showing
from what principles he forsook these de-
lightful studies for controversy :—

** I trust hereby to make it manifest with what small
willingness I endure to interrupt the pursuit of no kss

♦ From the introduction to the second book of " The
Reason of Church Government,** Arc. Vol. I. pp. 137, &c.
of "A SclecJoD from tlte En^flish Prow: Works ol John
Milton, Boston, 1836,** to which all our references arc itiadc.

G G



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hopes than thae, and leave a calm and pleasing solitari-
ness, fed with cheerful and confidait thoughts, to embark
in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes, put from
beholding the bright countenance of truth in u»c quiet

and still air of ddighlful studies Bat

were it the mean«i underscrvice, if God by his secretary
conscience enjoin it, it were sad ibr me if I should draw
back i for me especially, now when all men offer their
aid to help, ea5Cf and lighten the difficult labours of the
church, to who5c scrricc, by the intentions of my parenis
«nd friends, I was destined of a child, and in mine own
resolutions, till coming to some maturity of years, and
pc.cciving what tyranny had inraded the church, that he
who would tike orders must subscribe slave, and take an
oath withal, which unle$s he took with a conscience that
would retch, he must either strait pcriuro or split hit
^th, I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence
before the sacred ofHce of speaking, bought and begun
with senritodc and forswearing."— Ks/. /., f, 149.

These passages, replete with Milton's geniut
and greatness of soul, show us the influences
and motives under which his prose works
were written, and help us to interpret pas-
sages which, if taken separately, might jus-
tify us in ascribing to him a character of
excessive indignation and scorn.

Milton's most celebrated prose work is his
" Areopagitica, or a Speech for the Liberty
of Unlicensed Printing," a noble work in-
deed, a precious manual of freedom, an
arseiial of immortal weapons for the defence
of man's highest prerogative — intellectual
liberty. His "Reformation In England"
and "Reason of Church Government" are
the most important theological treatises pub-
lished during his life. They were his earliest
prose compositions, and thrown off with much
naste, and on these accounts are more charge-
able with defects of style than any other of
his writings. But these, with all their defects,
abound in strong and elevated thought, and
in power and feUcity of expression. Their
great blemish is an inequality of style, often
springing from the conflict and opposition of
the impulses luder which hp wrote. It is
not uncommon to And in the same sentence
his affluent genius pouring forth magniflcent
images and expressions, and suddenly his
deep scorn for his opponents, suggesting and
throwing into the midst of this splendour
sarcasms and degrading coroparisons alto-

fither at variance with the general strain,
rom this cause, and from negligence, many
powerful passages in his prose writings are
marred bv an incongruous nuxturc of un-
worthy allusions and phrases. In the close
of his first work, that on " Reformation in
England," he breaks out into an invocatioD
and prayer to the Supreme Being, from which
we extract a passage containing a remarkable
intimation of his having meditated some great
poetical enterprise from his earliest years, and
giving full promise of that grandeur of thought
and language which characterises " Paradise
Lost," Having *• lifted up his hands to that



eternal and propitious Throne, where nothing
is readier than grace and refuge to the dis-
tresses of mort^ suppliants." and besought
God to perfect the work of civil and religious
deliverance begun in England, he proceeds
thus :—

"Then, amidst the hymns and haUaujahs of sainb,
%tmt tru may ftrhaf>$ be htard offering at ingh strains in
new and lofty measures, to sing and celebrate thy dhrinc
mercies, and mai-vellous judgments in this land through-
out all ages, whereby this great sod warlike natico,
instructed and inurod to the fenrent and continual practio;
of truth and righteousness, and casting far finom her the
rags of her old vices, may press on hard to that high and
happy emulation to be found the soberest, wisest, and
most Christian people at that day, when Thou, the
eternal and shortfy expected King, shalt open the ckwds
to judge the several Icingdoms of the world, ami, distri-
buting national honours and rewards to rcUnoos and jtut
commonwealths, shall put an end to all earthly tyrannka,
proclaimlnz thy lyuversal and mild monarchy throogjb
neaven and earth \ where they imdoobtedly, that by their
labours, counsels, and prayers, have been earnest for the
common good of religion and theb coancry, shall recdvoi
above the inferior orders of the blessed, the regal addxtiosi
(^ principalities, legions, and thrones into their glorioua
titles, and, in supereminence of beatific vision, progmnn^
the dateless and irrevohible circle of atemity, shall clasp
inseparable hands with Joy and bliss, fai orenneasure for
ever."— W./.,/f.69,7o.

We have not time to speak of MiUon's
political treatises. We close our brief re-
marks on his prose writings with recommend*
ing them to all who can enjoy great beauties
in the neighbourhood of great faults, and
who would learn the compass, energy, and
richness of our language; and still more do
we recommend them to those who desire to
nourish in their breast magnanimity of senti-
ment and an unquenchable love ot freedom.
They bear the impress of that seal by which
genius distinguishes its productions from
works of learning and taste. The great and
decisive test of genius is that it calls forth
power in the souls of others. It not n>erely
gives knowledge, \)\xi breathes energy. There
are authors, and among these Milton holds
the highest rank, in approaching whom we
are conscious of an access of intellecttial
strength. A "virtue goes out" from them.
We discern more clearly, not merely because
a new light is thrown over objects, but Isc
cause otir own vision is strengthened. Soiae-
times a single word, spoken by the voice
of genius, goes far into the heart. A hint, a
suggestion, an undefined delicacy of expres-
sion, teaches more than we gather crom
volumes of less gifted men. The works
which we should chiefly study are not those
which contain the greatest fund of know-
ledge, but which raise us into sympathy wiHi
the intellectual energy of the author, And
through which a creat mind mulQpUeK ItseSt
as it were, in the leader. MiltQi>*« prq^
works are imbued as really, if not aa too*



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roughly, as his jjoetry, with this quickening
power, and they will richly reward those who
are receptive of this influence.

We now leave the writings of Milton to
ofiFer a few remarks on his ftuiral qualities.
His moral character was as strongly marked
as his intellectual, and it maybe expressed in
one word, magnanimity. It was in hannony
with his poetiy. He hsid a passionate love of
the higher; more commanding, and majestic
virtues, and fed his youthful mind with medi-
tations on the perfection of a human being.
In a letter written to an Italian friend before
his thirtieth year, and translated by Hayley,
we have this vivid picture of his aspirations
after virtue :—

** At to other points, what God nay have detemuned
for me I know not ; but this I know, that if he ever
instilled an intense lore of moral beauty into the breast
of any man, be has instilled it into mine. Ceres, in the
fable, pamod doc her daughter with a greater keenness
of inquiry, than J day and night the idea of perfection.
Hence, wiiererer I find a man despising the fiUae estimates
of the vulgar, and daring to aspire, in sentiment, language,
and conduct, to what the hignest wisdom, through every
age, has t»izht us a^ most excellent, to him I unite myself
tiy a sort of necessary attachment ; and if I am so m-
floeoced by namre or deniny, that by no exertion or
bboon of ray own I nuy exalt myself to this summit of
worth aiid booour, yet no powers of heaven or earth will
hinder mc from looking with reverence and affection upon
those who have thoroughly attained this glory, or appeared
engaged in the strccessful pursuit of it.**

His "Comus" was written in his twenty-
sixth yeso-. and on reading this exquisite work
our admiration is awakened, not so much \xf
observing bow the whole spirit of poetry had
descend^ on him at that early age, as by
witnessing how his whole youthful soul was
penetrat^, awed, and lifted up by the austere
charms, "the radiant light," the invincible
power, the celestial peace of saintly virtue.
lie reverenced moral piuity and elevation,
not only for its own sake, but as the inspirer
of intellect, and especially of the higher efforts
of poetry. •• I was confirmed," he says in his
usual noble style. —

^ I was confinncd in this opfauon ; that he who would
not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in
laudable things, ought himself to t>e a true poem ; that ia,
a composition and pattern of the l>est and hononrablett
things } not presuming to sing of high praises of heroic
men or famous cities, fuUess he have in himself the
experience and the practice of all that which is praise-
worthy."— f'J. i.,/^. tJ7, aj8.

We learn from his works that he used his
multifariotLS reading to biu'ld up within him-



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 98 of 169)