« VorigeDoorgaan »
We do not know how far our readers may writing and reading express commentations share the feeling, but we confess to an occa- on their lives and works. Perpetually, on sional sense of irritation at that necessity opening a new number of a Review, we find which we seem to be under, in these latter a new essay on Goethe or on Byron ; pertimes, of perpetually naming and referring to petually, on glancing at a new sheet of adsome five or six dead men, the acknowledged vertisements, we see announced some new glories of the literature of the past. Shak- volume of literary portraits, done by a cisatspeare, Milton, Dante, Burns, Goethe-shall lantic or a transatlantic pen. Is this but a we never be able to pass an agreeable intel- passing phase of our literary activity, a fashlectual evening without calling one or another ion recommended by the example of one or of these names to our aid, never be able to two eminent contemporary writers that one indite a paper of thirty pages without requir- could name, and destined to run its course ing the printer to put one or another of these and cease? We do not know; we only note names more than once into type ? Are sub- the fact, and confess again that the observajects for thought and talk so scarce round tion of it sometimes tempts us to the wish about us that we must for ever weave our that there could be a decree of society forbest conversations out of the matter of these bidding, for some time, all reference to suggestive memories; or are we such timid Shakspeare and his companions, and comsailors on the great sea of innumerable things pelling us, both in our conversation and in as not to know how to quit the neighborhood our authorship, back to that miscellaneous of these familiar bays and shores ? The evil, world of substances, passions, and events, if it be such, daily increases. Not only do whence Shakspeare himself, the greatest we never have done with naming and allud- niggard known of allusions to preceding ing to those well-remembered few; but we writers, drew the materials for a not deficient shall never have done, it would appear, with literature.
That we do not exaggerate this view of the * The Works of John Milton. A New Edition. case, ought to be evident from the fact that, London, Pickering, 1851.
in the present paper, we deliberately perpeVOL XXV. NO. IV.
trate an offence against it. Milton is one of duly and in the largest measure acquired. the writers that have been most frequently, No better Greek or Latin scholar probably most variously, and, we may add, most splen- bad the University in that age sent forth; didly written about; and yet here we venture he was proficient in the Hebrew tongue, and upon a new essay on Milton. It is needless, in all the other customary aids to a biblical therefore, to say that we have sympathies theology ; and he could speak and write well also with the other view of the case, and that in French, Italian, and Spanish. His acwe hold that there is something right, beau- quaintance, obtained by independent reading, tiful, and full of use in this practice of visit- with the history and with the whole body of ing again and again the same ancestral tombs, the literature of ancient and modern nations, this tendency of writer after writer to scan for was extensive and various. And, as nature himself those characters which tradition has had endowed him in no ordinary degree with bound him to revere, and to attempt such that most exquisite of her gifts, the ear and new portraitures of them as may present, if | the passion for harmony, he had studied not the whole men, at least some of their music as an art, and had taught himself not lineaments, more vividly to the world. How only to sing in the society of others, but also we can reconcile this belief with the senti- to touch the keys for his solitary pleasure. ment before expressed, we shall not stop to
| to the instruments which Milton preferred inquire. The Duke of Wellington's mode of as a musician were, his biographers tell us, proceeding in such cases is as good as any the organ and the bass-viol. This fact seems that we know. When he wishes to reconcile to us to be not without its significance. two apparently contradictory propositions, he Were we to define in one word our impressimply asserts them both as strongly as he sion of the prevailing tone, the characteristic can. Content to adopt this plan, we shall mood and disposition of Milton's mind, even leave the matter in question to the consider in his early youth, we should say that it ation of our readers, and go on, without far- consisted in a deep and habitual seriousness. ther preface, to the task which we have ap- We use the word in none of those special and pointed to ourselves, of saying something restricted senses that are sometimes given to about Milton and his writings which, whether it. We do not mean that Milton, at the new or not, may be appropriate to the temper period of his early youth with which we are and circumstances of these grave times. now concerned, was, or accounted himself as
Never surely did a youth leave the aca- being, a confessed member of that noble demic halls of England more full of fair party of English Puritans with which he promise than Milton, when, at the age of afterwards became allied, and to which he twenty-three, he quitted Cambridge to reside rendered such vast services. True, he himat his father's house amid the quiet beauties of self tells us, in his account of his education, a rural neighborhood some twenty miles dis- that “care had ever been had of him, with tant from London. Fair in person, with a clear his earliest capacity, not to be negligently fresh complexion, light brown hair which trained in the precepts of the Christian reliparted in the middle and fell in curls to his gion;" and in the fact that his first tutor, shoulders, clear gray eyes, and a well-knit selected for him by his father, was one frame of moderate proportions—there could " Thomas Young, a Puritan of Essex who not have been found a finer picture of pure cut his hair shori,” there is enough to prove and ingenuous English youth. And that that the formation of his character in youth health and beauty which distinguished his was aided expressly and purposely by Purioutward appearance, and the effect of which tanical influences. But Milton, if ever, in a was increased by a voice surpassingly sweet denominational sense, he could be called a and musical, indicated with perfect truth the Puritan, (he always wore his hair long, and qualities of the mind within. Seriousness, in other respects did not conform to the studiousness, fondness for flowers and music, usages of the Puritan party,) could hardly, fondness also for manly exercises in the open with any propriety, be designated as a Puriair, courage and resolution of character, com- tan in this sense, at the time when he left bined with the most maiden purity and inno college. There is evidence that at this time cence of life—these were the traits conspicu- he had not given so much attention, on his ous in Milton in his early years. Of his ac- own personal account, to matters of religious complishments it is hardly necessary to take doctrine, as he afterwards bestowed. That particular note. Whatever of learning, of seriousness of which we speak was, therescience, or of discipline in logic or philosophy fore, rather a constitutional seriousness, rațithe University at that time could give, he had l fied and nourished by rational reflection, than the assumed temper of a sect. “Acept, then, by way of more particular statecertain reservedness of natural disposition, ment, his own remarkable words in justifying and a moral discipline learnt out of the no- himself against an inuendo of one of his adblest philosophy"_such, in Milton's own versaries in later life, reflecting on the tenor words, were the causes which, apart from of his juvenile pursuits and behavior. “A his Christian training, would have always certain niceness of nature,” he says, “an kept him, as he believed, above the vices honest haughtiness and self-esteem either of that debase youth. And herein the example what I was, or what I might be, (which let of Milton contradicts much that is commonly envy call pride,) and lastly that modesty advanced by way of a theory of the poetical whereof, though not in the title-page, yet character. "Poets and artists generally, it is here I may be excused to make some beheld, are and ought to be distinguished by seeming profession; all these, uniting the a predominance of sensibility over principle, supply of their natural aid together, kept me an excess of what Coleridge called the spir- still above those low descents of mind, beitual over what he called the moral part of neath which he must deject and plunge himman. A nature built on quicksands, an or self that can agree to saleable and unlawful ganization of nerve languid or tempestuous prostitutions." Fancy, ye to whom the with occasion, a soul falling and soaring, now moral frailty of genius is a consolation, or to subject to ecstasies and now to remorses- whom the association of virtue with youth such, it is supposed, and on no small induc- and Cambridge is a jest—fancy Milton, as tion of actual instances, is the appropriate this passage from his own pen describes him constitution of the poet. Mobility, absolute at the age of twenty-three, returning to his and entire destitution of principle properly father's house from the University, full of its 80 called, capacity for varying the mood in accomplishments and its honors, an auburndefinitely rather than for retaining and keep haired youth beautiful as the Apollo of a ing up one moral gesture or resolution northern clime, and that beautiful body the through all moods—this, say the theorists, temple of a soul pure and unsoiled! Truly, is the essential thing in the structure of the a son for a mother to take to her arms with artist. Against the truth of this, however, joy and pride! as a maxim
of universal application, the char- Connected with this austerity of character, acter of Milton, as well as that of Words- discernible in Milton even in his youth, may worth after him, is a remarkable protest. be noted also, as indeed it is noted in the Were it possible to place before the theorists passage just cited, a haughty yet modest all the materials which exist for judging of self-esteem, and consciousness of his own Milton's personal disposition as a young man, powers. Throughout all Milton's works without exhibiting to them at the same time there may be discerned a vein of this noble the actual and early proofs of his poetical egotism, this unbashful self-assertion. Fregenius, their conclusion, were they true to quently, in arguing with an opponent, or in their theory, would necessarily be, that the setting forth his own views on any subject basis of his nature was too solid and immov- of discussion, he passes, by a very slight able, the platform of personal aims and as- topical connection, into an account of himself, pirations over which his thoughts moved and his education, his designs, and his relations had footing too fixed and firm, to permit that to the matter in question; and this sometimes he should have been a poet. Nay, whoso-so elaborately and at such length, that the ever, even appreciating Milton as a poet, impression is as if he said to his readers shall come to the investigation of bis writ- Besides all my other arguments, take this ings, armed with that preconception of the also as the chief and conclusive argument, poetical character which is sure to be derived that it is 1, a man of such and such antecefrom an intimacy with the character of dents, and with such and such powers to Shakspeare, will hardly escape some feeling perform far higher work than you see me of the same kind. Seriousness, we repeat, now engaged in, who affirm and maintain a solemn and even austere demeanor of mind, this. In his later years Milton evidently was the characteristic of Milton even in his believed himself to be, if not the greatest youth. And the outward manifestation of man in England, at least the greatest writer, this was a life of pure and devout observ- and one whose egomet dixi was entitled to as ance. This is a point that ought not to be much force in the intellectual Commonwealth avoided or dismissed in mere general lan- as the decree of a civil magistrate is invested guage; for he who does not lay stress on with in the order of civil life. All that he this, knows not and loves not Milton. Ac-I said or wrote was backed in his own con
sciousness by a sense of the independent im- | the prelates," and disgusted with the chances portance of the fact, that it was he, Milton, of the law. Milton, in the Church, would who said or wrote it; and often, after ar certainly have been such an archbishop, guing a point for some time on a footing of mitred or unmitred, as England has never ostensible equality with his readers, he seems seen ; and the very passage of such a man suddenly to stop, retire to the vantage- across the sacred floor would have trampled ground of his own thoughts, and bid his into timely extinction all that has since readers follow him thither, if they would see sprung up among us as Puseyism and what the whole of that authority which his words not, and would have modelled the ecclesiashad failed to express. Such, we say, is ticism of England into a shape that the world Milton's habit in his later writings; in his might have gazed at, with no truant glance early life, of course, the feeling which it backward to the splendors of the Seven Hills. shows existed rather as an undefined con- And, doubtless, even amid the traditions of sciousness of superior power, a tendency the law, such a man would have performed silently and with satisfaction to compare his the feats of a Samson, albeit of a Samson in own intellectual measure with that of others, chains. An inward prompting, therefore, a a resolute ambition to be and to do some love secretly plighted to the Muse, and a thing great.
sweet comfort and delight in her sole society, And what was that special mode of ac- which no other allurement, whether of profit tivity to which Milton, still in the bloom and or pastime, could equal or diminish,--this, seed-time of his years, had chosen to dedi- less formally perhaps, but as really as care cate the powers of which he was so con- for his intellectual liberty, or distaste for the scious ? He had been destined by his pa- established professions of his time, deterrents for the Church; but this opening into mined Milton's early resolution as to his life he had definitively and deliberately aban- future way of life. On this point it will be doned. With equal decision he renounced best to quote his own words. “ After I had,” the profession of the law; and it does not be says, “ for my first years, by the ceaseless seem to have been long after the conclusion diligence and care of my father, (whom God of his career at the University, when he re- recompense !) been exercised to the tongues nounced the prospects of professional life and some sciences, as my age would suffer, altogether. His reasons for this, which are by sundry masters and teachers both at home to be gathered from various passages of his and at the schools, it was found that, whether writings, seem to have all resolved themselves augbt was imposed upon me by them that into a jealous concern for his own absolute had the overlooking, or betaken to of mine intellectual freedom. He had determined, own choice, in English or other tongue, as he says, “ to lay up, as the best treasure prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, and solace of a good old age, the honest the style, by certain vital signs it had, was liberty of free speech from his youth ;" and likely to live.” The meaning of which senneither the Church nor the Bar of England, tence, to a biographer of Milton, is, that Milat the time when he formed that resolution, ton, before his three-and-twentieth year, was a place where he could hope to keep it. knew himself to be a poet. For a man so situated, the alternative, then He knew this, he says, by “ certain vital as now, was the practice or profession of signs," discernible in what he had already literature. To this, therefore, as soon as he written. What were these “ vital signs, was able to come to a decision on the subject, these proofs indubitable to Milton that he Milton had implicitly, if not avowedly, dedi- had the art and faculty of a poet? We need cated himself. To become a great writer, but refer the reader for the answer to those and, above all, a great poet; to teach the smaller poetical compositions of Milton, both English language a new strain and modula- in English and in Latin, which survive as tion; to elaborate and surrender over to the specimens of his earliest muse. Of these, English nation works that would make it some three or four which happen to be spemore potent and wise in the age that was cially dated—such as the Elegy on the Death passing, and more memorable and lordly in of a Fair Infant, written in 1624, or in the the ages to come—such was the form which author's seventeenth year; the well-known Milton's ambition had assumed when, laying Hymn on the Morning of Christ's Nativity, aside his student's garb, he went to reside written in 1629, when the author was just under his father's roof. Nor was this merely twenty-one; and the often quoted Sonnet on a choice of necessity, the reluctant determi- Shakspeare, written not much later-may nation of a young soul, “ Churchouted by I be cited as convenient materials from which,