Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

that the speed of the best horseman must be limited by the power of his horse,' yet, were Dr. Johnson to ride a fox-chace, he would find that his speed would depend not only upon the power of his horse, but also upon the choice of his ground.

• The purpose of Milton, as it seems, was to teach something more folid than the common literature of schools, by reading those authors that treat of phyfical subjects, such as the Georgic, and astronomical treatises of the ancients. This was a scheme of im. provement which seems to have busied many literary projectors of that age, Cowley, who had more means than Milion of knowing what was wanting to the embellishments of life, formed the same plan of education in his imaginary college.

. But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and of the iciences which that knowledge requires or includes, is not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we pro. vide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Pru. dence and joftice are virtues, and excellencies, of all times, and of all places ; we are perpetually moralifts, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is necessary; our speculations upon matter are voluntary, and at leisure. Phyfical knowledge is of such rare emergence, that one man may krow another half his life without being able to estimate his kill in hydrostatics or aftronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears.

• Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most axioms of prudence, molt principles of moral truth, and most materials for conversation ; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and historians.

• Let me not be censured for this digression as pedantic or paradoxical; for if I have Milton against me, I have Socrates on my fide. It was his labour to turn philosophy from the study of nature to speculations upon life, but the innovators whom I oppose are turning off attention from life to nature. They seem to think, that we are placed here to watch the growth of plants, or the motions of the ftars. Socrates was rather of opinion, that what we had to learn was, how to do good, and avoid evil.

Ο Όλι του εν μεγάροισι κακόναγαθύλε τέτυκίαι. That those authors are to be read at schools which supply most axioms of prudence, moft principles of moral truth, and most materials of conversation, is too evident to be denied : that these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and hifto. rians, such as are commonly read at schools, may be doubted. It may be doubted also how far the present question can be any way in Auenced by the example of Socrates. His methods of instruction seem to differ as much from the modes of education which Dr. Johnson means to defend, as it is possible for Milton's

[ocr errors]

to do. We should apprehend the innovators who are here oppored, never intended to turn off attention from life to nature :' they seem to have been actuated by the more rational idea of uniting the study of nature with the knowledge of life. Does not our Author, with respect to Milton, in some degree acknowledge as much? . One part of his method, says he, deserves general imitation. He was careful to instruct his scholars in religion. Every Sunday was spent upon theology. .

« Of institutions we may judge by their effects. From this wonder-working academy, I do not know that there ever proceeded any man very eminent for knowledge: its only genuine product, I believe, is a small History of Poetry, written in Latin by his nephew, of which perhaps none of my readers has ever heard.'

When it is considered how small must have been the number of Milton's scholars, it is matter of wonder rather than of reproach, that even one should ever rise to literary distinction, Were the history of all the schools through the kingdom to be enquired into, we should not find above one scholar in five hundred that ever attains to a like degree of eminence.

Milton, as may naturally be supposed, was an advocate for the liberty of the press. He published a book on that subject, intituled, Areopagitica, a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicensed printing.

• The danger, says his - Biographer, of such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil autho. rity shall have previously approved, power must always be the standard of troch ; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his pro• jects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every sceptic in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The re. medy against these evils is to punish the authors; for it is yet allowed that every society may punish, though not prevent, the publication of opinions, which that society hall think pernicious: but this punishment, though it may crush the author, promotes the bock; and it seems not more reasonable to leave the right of printing un. restrained, because writers may be afterwards censured, than it would be to sleep with doors unbolted, because by our laws we can hang a thief.'

To those who wish not to favour che designs of arbitrary power, no such problem is to be found in the whole science of government. The arguments by which it is attempted to make this grand question problematical might be allowed to have some weight, provided they were altogether true. That every dreamer of innovations propagates his projects is acknowledged; is it therefore true that there is no settlement ? That every mur

G 3

murer

murer at government diffuses his discontent is acknowledged likewise; but have we, therefore, no peace? That every sceptic in theology teaches his follies is not to be denied; yet Dr. Johnson will surely not be so hardy as to affirm that we have no rea ligion. In those countries where the press is reftrained have they more religion ? Or, indeed, have they lo much? So far from sufpe&ting that religion is injured by the liberty which every one enjoys of diffusing his own opinions, we are rather disposed to believe she is benefited by it. Were doubt and objection never to be started, it is probable that truth would be but seldom inquired into : were not error to be confuted, truth could never be established : were the attack of the sceptic and infidel to be suspended, the champions of religion would forget the use of their weapons; the centinel would sometimes sleep upon guard. It is by a scrutiny into the principles of religion that the duties of religious obligation are more forcibly impressed upon the mind; and were it not for the scepric in theology, such a scrutiny would be but rarely thought of or attended to. The illustration of his argument is by no means analogous: an author's motives for publication may be many and laudable ; a thief can enter your house from no motive but to steal: if an author offend against the laws of society, he may be detected and punished; or if he escape, bis bondímen, as we, may call them, the printer and publilher, are responsible for his crime. A thief may break into your house, and it is true that you may hang him, provided he be caught. But what security is there that he will be caught, or if not, who is there to make compensation for the injury he may have done you? All this is to be supposed before the analogy between ihe thief and the author can hold good. Were it, indeed, to be the case, there would be as little to apprehend from the one as the other. If the moment we were robbed the thief were certain to be detected and hanged, a bolt to our doors would be an unnecessary precaue tion.

Milton's character is drawn in no amiable colours. According to Dr. Johnson, he labours under a suspicion of such atrocious villany as ought not, but upon the strongest grounds, to be admitted of any man.

• While he contented himself to write, he perhaps did only what his conscience dictated ; and if he did not very vigilantly waich the influence of his own paflions, and the gradual prevalence of opinions, first willingly admiited and hen habitually indulged, if objections, by being overloo ed, were forgotten, and desire superinduced con: viction, he yet thared only the common weakness of mankind, and might be no less hincere than his opponents. But as faciion feldom leaves a man honest, however it might find him, Milion is suspeated of having interpolated the book called Icon Bafilike, which the Council of State, to whom he was now made Lasin secretary, employed

him to censure, by inserting a prayer taken from Şidney's Arcadia, and imputing it to the King; whom he charges, in his Iconoclasies, with the use of this prayer as with a heavy crime, in the indecent lang guage with which prosperity had emboldened the advocates for rebellion to infult all that is venerable or great : ":Who would have imagined so little fear in him of the true all-feeing Deity-as, im. mediately before his death, td pop into the hands of the grave Bihopthat attended him, as a special relique of his faintly exercises, a prayer stolen word for word from the mouth of a heathen woman praying to a heathen god ?.

i The papers which the King gave to Dr. Juxon on the scaffold the regicides took away, so that they were at least the publishers of this prayer; and Dr. Birch, who examined the question with great care, was inclined to think them the forgers. The use of vic by: adaptation was innocent; and they who could so noidy cenfure is, with a little extension of their malice could contrive whaç they wanted to accuse.'

That the regicides were not the forgers of the prayer in ques tion, if we may judge from such evidence as appcars, is more likely than that they were. That, the use of it by adaptation was innocent, nobody will deny. To charge the author of Icon Basilike with the use of this prayer as with a heavy crimç, was illiberal and indecent. But what circumstance in the life of Milton can warrant the suspicion that he either inserted it him. felf, or was privy to the insertion of it by others? Whatever might be his political errors, his moral character has been ever unimpeached; his regard for truth seems to have been inviola, ble ; his religion appears to be free from every taint of hypocrisy; ' he lived in a confirmed belief of the immediate and oce cafional agency of Providence;' how can we imagine then that he had so little fear in him of the true all-feeing Deity, as to be the perpetrator of such deliberate iniquity? But setting every argument that may be drawn from there considerations aside, there was a meanness in it too despicable for the pride of Milton ever to have submitied to.

The most culpable part of Milton's conduct seems to be his adulation of Cromwell.

Whoever has read Milton's life will recollect the circumstance which is related by his nephew Philips, that his vein never hap: pily flowed but from the autumnal equinox to the vernal. This dependence of the soul upon the seasons is very justly ridiculed by his present historian ; and yet we think it not imposible but the fact might have been true; though we are far from suppo. sing it originated from any immediate infuence of the seasons. It is well known that the activity of the mind will, in many cases, be restrained by the indisposition of the body. In the latter part of life Milton was much afflicted with the gout. The languor and o; pression of spirits, that in a greater or less degree

attend

G4

attend the accumulation of the gouty matter, previous to a regular fit, are generally acknowledged. In those habits, in which this disorder is regular, the gouty matter usually accumulates during the summer and autumnal months : the fit generally commences in the winter, and abates as the spring advances. During the continuance of the fit, and for some time after it abates, the spirits of the arthritic are, for the most part, light and cheerful. If this folution be admitted, it will reconcile what Milton told Philips with what he says in his Elegies, which were probably written before he was ever subject to any periodical attacks of the malady in question, where he declares that with the advance of spring he feels the increase of his poetical force-Redeunt in carmina vires;' though, probably, he had little meaning when he made use of the expreffion, as it contains nothing more than one of those common.place ideas which one poet adopts from another without thought or inquiry.

The flow sale and tardy reputation of the Paradise Loft have always been mentioned as evidences of neglected merit, and of the uncertainty of literary fame. Dr. Johnson proves that the case has not been truly stated, and that lamentation and wonder have been lavished on an evil that was never felt.

o Thac in the reigns of Charles and James the Paradise Loft received no public acclamations is readily confessed. Wit and literature were on the side of the Court: and who that folicited tavour or the fashion would venture to praise the defender of the regicides? All that he himself could think his due, from evil tongues in evil

days, was that reverential silence which was generously preserved. 1 Bus it cannot be inferred that his poem was not read, or not, however unwillingly, admired,

• The fale, if it be considered, will justify the Public. Those who have no power to judge of pait times but by their own, should always doubt their conclusions. The sale of books was not in Mil. ton's age what it is in the present. To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor ofren gentlemen, thought chem• selves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house fupplied with a closet of books. Those indeed, who professed learning, were not less learned than at any other time; but of that middle race of Itudents who read for plea. fure or accomplishment, and who buy the numerous products of mo. dern typography, the number was then comparatively finall. To prove the paucity of readers, it may be sufficient to remark, that the nation had been racisfied, from 1623 to 1664, that is, forty-one years, with only two editions of the works of Shakespeare, which probably did not together make one thousand copies.

• The sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in opposition to so much recent enmity, and to a style of versification new to all and disgusting to many, was an uncommon example of the prevalence of genius. The demand did not immediately encrease ; for

many

« VorigeDoorgaan »