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LIFE OF MILTON.
1. This sketch of Milton's life was written to meet the hasty demand of a powerful association (then in full activity) for organizing a systematic movement towards the improvement of popular reading. The limitations, as regarded space, which this association found itself obliged to impose, put an end to all hopes that any opening could be found in this case for an improved life as regarded research into the facts, and the true interpretation of facts. These, though often scandalously false, scandalously misconstructed even where true in the letter of the nar ive, and read by generations of biographers in an odious spirit of malignity to Milton, it was nevertheless a necessity, silently and acquiescingly, to adopt in a case where any noticeable change would call for a justification, and any adequate justification would call for much ampler space. Under these circumstances, finding myself cut off from one mode of service to the suffering reputation of this greatest among men,
it occurred, naturally, that I might imperfectly compensate that defect by service of the same character applied in a different direction. Facts, falsely stated or maliciously colored, require, too frequently, elaborate details for their exposure : but transient opinions, or solemn judgments, or insinuations dexterously applied to openings made by vagueness of statement or laxity of language, it is possible oftentimes to face and dissipate instan
taneously by a single word of seasonable distinction, or by a simple rectification of the logic. Sometimes a solitary whisper, suggesting a fact that had been overlooked, or a logical relation that had been wilfully darkened, is found sufficient for the triumphant overthrow of a scoff that has corroded Milton's memory for three generations. Accident prevented me from doing much even in this line for the exposure of Milton's injuries: hereafter I hope to do more; but in the mean time I call the reader's attention to one such rectification applied by myself to the effectual prostration of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the worst enemy that Milton and his great cause have ever been called on to confront; the worst as regards undying malice, -in which qualification for mischief Dr. Johnson was not at all behind the diabolical Lauder or the maniacal Curran; and the foremost by many degrees in talents and opportunities for giving effect to his malice. I will here expand the several steps in the process of the case, so that the least attentive of readers, or least logical, may understand in what mode and in what degree Dr. Johnson, hunting for a triumph, allowed himself to trespass across the frontiers of calumny and falsehood, and at the same time may understand how far my own exposure smashes the Doctor's attempt in the shell.
Dr. Johnson is pursuing the narrative of Milton's travels in Italy; and he has arrived at that point where Milton, then in the south of that peninsula, and designing to go forward into Greece, Egypt, and Syria, is suddenly arrested by great tidings from England : so great, indeed, that in Milton's ear, who well knew to what issue the public disputes were tending, these tidings must have sounded revolutionary. The king was preparing a second military expedition against Scotland; that is against Scotland as the bulwark of an odious anti-episcopal church. It was notorious that the English aristocracy by a very large section, and much of the English nation upon motives variously combined, some on religious grounds, some on political, could not be relied on for any effectual support in a war having such objects, and opening so many occasions for diverting the national arms to popular purposes. It was pretty well known also, that dreadful pecuniary embarrassments would
at last compel the king to summon, in right earnest, such a Parliament as would no longer be manageable, but would in the very first week of its meeting find a security against a sudden dissolution. Using its present advantages prudently, any Parliament would now bring the king virtually upon his knees: and the issue must be — ample concession on the king's part to claimants now become national, or else Revolution and Civil War. At such a time, and with such prospects, what honest patriot could have endured to absent himself, and under no more substantial excuse than a transient gratification to his classical and archæological tastes ? — tastes liberal and honorable beyond a doubt, but not of a rank to interfere with more solemn duties. This change in his prospects, and consequently in his duties, was painful enough, we may be sure, to Milton : but with his principles, and his deep self-denying sense of duty, there seems no room for question or hesitation : and already at this point, before they go a step further, all readers capable of measuring the disappointment, or of appreciating the temper in which such a self-conquest must have been achieved, will sympathize heroically with Milton's victorious resistance to a temptation so specially framed as a snare for him, and at the same time will sympathize fraternally with Milton's bitter suffering of selfsacrifice as to all that formed the sting of that temptation. Such is the spirit in which many a noble heart, that may be far from approving Milton's politics, will read this secret Miltonic struggle more than two hundred years after all is over. Such is not the spirit (as we shall now see) in which it has been read by falsehood and malice.
2. But before coming to that, there is a sort of parenthesis of introduction. Dr. Johnson summons us all not to suffer any veneration for Milton to intercept our merriment at what, according to his version of the story, Milton is now doing. I therefore, on my part, call on the reader to observe, that in Dr. Johnson's opinion, if a great man, the glory of his race,
should happen through human frailty to suffer a momentary eclipse of his grandeur, the proper and becoming utterance of our impressions as to such a collapse would not be by silence and sadness, but by vulgar yells of merriment. The Doctor is anxious that
we should not in any case moderate our laughter under any remembrance of who it is that we are laughing at.
3. Well, having stated this little item in the Johnson creed, I am not meditating any waste of time in discussing it, especially because the case which the Doctor's maxim contemplates is altogether imaginary. The case in which he recommended unrestrained laughter, was a case of " great promises and small performances.” Where then does Dr. Sam show us such a case? Is it in any part or section of Milton's Italian experience ? Logically it ought to be so; because else what relation can it bear to any subject which the Doctor has brought before us? But in anything that Milton on this occasion, or on any occasion whatever connected with the sacrifice of his Greek, Egyptian, or Syrian projects, either said or did, there is no promise at all, small or great. And as to any relation between the supposed promise and the subsequent performance, as though the one were incommensurable to the other, doubtless many are the incommensurable quantities known to mathematicians ; but I conceive that the geometry which measures their relations, where the promise was never made and the performance never contemplated, must be lost and hid away in secret chambers of moonshine beyond the “recuperative” powers (Johnsonically speaking) of Apollonius himself. Milton made no promises at all, consequently could not break any. And to represent him, for a purpose of blame and ridicule, as doing either this or that, is malice at any rate; too much, I fear, is wilful, conscious, deliberate falsehood.
4. What was it then which Milton did in Italy, as to which I never heard of his glorying, though most fervently he was entitled to glory ? Knowing that in a land which is passing through stages of political renovation, of searching purification, and of all which we now understand by the term revolution, golden occasions offer themselves unexpectedly for suggesting golden enlargements or revisions of abuses else overlooked, but that, when the wax has hardened, the opening is lost, so that great interests may depend upon the actual presence of some individual reformer, and that his absence may operate injuriously through long generations, he wisely resolved (though say
ing little about the enormous sacrifice which this entailed) to be present as soon as the great crucible was likely to be in active operation. And the sacrifice which he made, for this great series of watching opportunities which so memorably he afterwards improved, was, that he renounced the heavenly spectacle of the Ægean Sea and its sunny groups of islands, renounced the sight of Attica, of the Theban districts, of the Morea; next, of that ancient river Nile, the river of Pharaoh and Moses, of the Pyramids, and the hundred-gated Thebes; finally, he renounced the land of Syria, much of which was then doubtless unsafe for a Frank of any religion, and for a Christian of any nation. But he might have travelled in one district of Syria, viz. Palestine, which for him had paramount attractions. All these objects of commanding interest to any profound scholar, Greece, the Grecian Isles, Egypt, and Palestine, he surrendered to his sense of duty ; not by any promise or engagement, but by the act then and there of turning his face homewards; well aware at the time that his chance was small indeed, under his peculiar prospects, of ever recovering his lost chance. He did not promise any sacrifice. Who was then in Italy to whom he could rationally have confided such an engagement ? He made the sacrifice without a word of promise. So much for Dr. Johnson's “small performance.”
5. But supposing that there had been any words uttered by Milton, authorizing great expectations of what he would do in the way of patriotic service, where is the proof that the very largest promises conceivable, interpreted as they ought to have been) by the known circumstances of Milton's social position, were not realized in vast over-measure? I contend that even the various polemic* works, which Milton published through the next twenty years; for instance, his new views on Education, on Freedom of the Press, to some extent, also, his Apology for Tyrannicide, but above all his Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, against the most insolent, and in this particular case, the most ignorant champion that literary Christendom could have selected, - that immortal Apology for England,
“Whereof all Europe rang from side to side.”