« VorigeDoorgaan »
propagandism eloquently proclaimed ? Milton alone had these ideas; we find no traces of them in the revolutionists of his time. His fiction has been realised : England has spread her principles and the forms of her government over the whole world.
In the discussion of his subject, the author of Defensio secunda sketches several historical portraits.
“ John Bradshaw, whose name Liberty herself recommends to everlasting remembrance, is descended, as every one knows, from a noble family. Appointed by Parliament to preside at the King's trial, he hesitated not to undertake that office, though full of danger. He united to the knowledge of law, a generous mind, an elevated soul, and irreproachable integrity of morals. He performed his duty with such gravity, firmness, and presence of mind, as to authorise the belief that God, as of old in his admirable providence, had destined him, from the beginning of time, to conduct that trial.”
Behold what party-spirit can make of a man! Bradshaw was a lawyer, wordy enough, but of moderate abilities.
“ It would be unjust to pass over in silence Fairfax, who joins the greatest courage to the greatest modesty and the utmost holiness of life, and who is an object of the favour of God and nature. These praises are thy just due, though thou art at present withdrawn from the world, as was Scipio of old at Liternum. Thou hast vanquished not only the enemy, but ambition, but glory, which have overcome so many illustrious mortals. The purity of thy virtues, the splendour of thy actions, consecrate the sweet repose which thou enjoyest, and which constitutes the desired recompense of the labours of men. Such was the repose which the heroes of antiquity possessed after a life of glory: the poets, at a loss for ideas and expressions capable of describing the peace of those warriors, said that they were received into heaven and admitted to the banquets of the gods. But, be the causes of thy retirement what they may, whether health, which I take to be the principal one, or any other motive, I am convinced that nothing could have induced thee to abandon the service of thy country, hadst thou not known that in thy successor freedom would find a protector, and England a refuge and a pillar of glory.”
The efforts of Milton are obvious : he calls up the poetry of history to mask the real cause of the retirement of Fairfax-the trial of Charles I. Every body knows the farce which Cromwell caused to be acted about this honest but weak
Milton first speaks of the gentle birth of the Protector: birth plays an important part in the republican ideas of the poet, himself a gentleman.
“ It would be impossible for me to enumerate all the towns that he has taken, all the battles that he has won. The whole surface of the British empire has been the scene of his exploits, the theatre of his triumphs... ... To thee our country owes its liberties; thou couldst not bear a title more useful and more august than that of author, guardian, preserver, of our freedom. Not only hast thou eclipsed the actions of all our kings, but those also which are recorded of our fabulous heroes. Reflect often on the dear pledge which the land of thy birth hath commited to thy care : liberty, which she formerly hoped to obtain from the flower of talents and virtues, she now expects from thee; she flatters herself that she shall obtain it from thee alone. Honour the high expectation, the only hope, which thy country now rests on thee.
Respect the sight and the sufferings of so many brave men, who, under thy banner, have so bravely fought for freedom; respect the shades of those who perished in that struggle ; respect the opinions and the hopes formed of us by foreign nations, which promise themselves such great things from our liberty so gloriously acquired, the loss of which, should it untimely perish like an abortion, would plunge this country into the lowest depths of disgrace ; finally, respect thyself; and, having encountered every hardship and every danger for the acquisition of this liberty, let it not be violated by thyself, or impaired in the smallest degree by others. Thou canst not thyself be free, unless we are free too; for it is the ordinance of Nature that the man who invades the liberty of others must first lose his own."
Milton could have written history as well as Livy and Thucydides. Johnson refers only to the praise bestowed on the Protector by the poet, in order to convict the republican of inconsistency : the admirable passage just quoted shows what formed the counterpoise to those praises. In the days of Bonaparte's omnipotence, who durst have told him that he had obtained supreme power solely to protect liberty ? Yet Milton had done
better, if he had imitated some staunch democrats, who kept aloof from Cromwell and always considered him as a tyrant; but Milton was no democrat.
On these works, now almost completely forgotten, was founded the reputation of this great writer during his lifetime—a sad reputation, which embittered his days, and which was uncheered by the imperishable renown awarded to his memory since his death. Every thing that springs from party violence and the passions of the moment dies like them and with them.
The reactions of the Restoration in England were much more vehement than the reactions of the Restoration in France, because convictions were deeper, and characters more decided. The return of the Bourbons has not stifled the reputations of the republic or the empire, as the return of the Stuarts stifled the renown of Milton. It is, however, but right to remark that, as the poet wrote most of his disquisitions in Latin, they remained inaccessible to the multitude.