« ForrigeFortsæt »
rous, “ books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing.” In fact, I never could understand how he who professes to represent human passions and human manners,—which are the great staple of poetry,-should hope to qualify himself for the task by escaping, as far as possible, from human society. And what is there in vast assemblies of men-what, in those momentous transactions of peace and war-in seditions, in tumults, in the fierce and uncouth struggles for freedom, which nations long injured and oppressed, make at length, when their burdens have become intolerable ;-what is there in all this, I say, that can scare the Epic or the Tragic Muse, whose business it is to describe such phases of humanity? Throughout the Paradise Lost, as well as throughout the Iliad,—which, as far as can be conjectured, was likewise composed immediately after a great political crisis—the irruption of the Dorians into Peloponnesus, and the consequent migrations of the Ionic inhabitants to Asia Minor,-evident traces are discoverable of the times of trouble and commotion in which its author vaticinated : an irrepressible love of independence, a mind thrown by an unexampled political catastrophe into that condition, in which its most hidden and secret powers, like the fountains of the great deep, were broken up, and fiercely agitated, and impelled, as by a hurricane, to pour all their dazzling and tumultuous waters into the broad channel of poetry. Such circumstances, indeed, are not inspiration, or they would operate on every breast alike; but
over minds fitly disposed, they sweep as over a lyre, calling forth divinest music.
11. The affairs of the world, according to the character of him who views them, are either an assemblage of coarse contrivances, intended to enable a certain number of human creatures to eat, and drink, and grow fat at their ease; or they are a set of laws and operations, noble in their nature and tendency, and designed to conduct a being endowed with lofty intellectual faculties towards that high and glorious moral condition, which constitutes, here below, the perfection of his nature, and the ultimate aim of his existence. Now they who conceive as a brute, if it could think, might conceive of public business, may be excused for supposing that a poet should on no account meddle with it; but if, with the wisest of men, we regard politics as the master-science; as the fruitful source to millions of happiness or misery; as the instrument by which nations are plunged into bestial degradation, or elevated to the rank almost of gods; it will then be manifest that the most poetical, or, in other words, the most energetic and creative minds, should eagerly engage in the great concerns of the public.
12. With such views, it will be evident that my desire is not to disparage an art to which,-if the avowal may here be made, I have been from my youth upward devoted: but, could it be proved that poetry necessarily indisposes men towards freedom, inculcating a slavish abandonment of our rights to be trampled on by the first tyrannical
foot that might itch to tread on them, it were far better that a millstone were tied about every poet's neck, and that he were cast into the sea. For, what true relish can there be in the life which is held, not enjoyed, by the permission of another? Who, under an evil government, can feel any unsophisticated thirst of glory; or be desirous that posterity should know he tasted the bitter cup of servitude under this or that tyrant ? Or, worse still, that while myriads of his nobler countrymen were smitten and pining in secret sadness, at beholding the abomination of desolation in the Holy Place of Freedom; or were, perchance, carried forcibly away for imaginary offences into exile beyond the seas, he could tune his slavish lyre for the amusement of courtiers, or insolently celebrate his private pleasures ?
13. By such considerations, as I have already observed, was Milton actuated, when, laying aside, for a time, the poetical character, he entered upon the composition of those works of which I am now to give some account. In performing this duty, besides the difficulties which may be inherent in the subject itself, I feel that I shall have to encounter others of a peculiarly stubborn kind. To the public generally, many at least, if not most of his prose writings, for reasons hereafter to be explained, are scarcely known to exist; and how can they be persuaded that things which have lain so long in obscurity, are not only worth reviving, but distinguished for the most rare eloquence and powers of reasoning ? Hazlitt used to say that Coleridge had
a trick of preferring the unknown to the known. Will not this, in certain quarters, be said of me? Not that in this country the number is small of persons far more intimately acquainted than myself with whatever Milton has written; but so much can hardly, perhaps, be said for the great majority of those engaged in the study of English literature, for whom, and not for those already deeply versed in his writings, the present discourse and selection are intended.
14. Another obstacle to the diffusion of Milton's prose works among the present generation is the uncouth titles which several of them bear. The less courageous reader is stopped at the threshhold. He cannot be persuaded that a man who stands at the door of his treatise, quaintly disguised in a muffer of hard words, and brandishing a syllogism in his fist, can intend very gentle or pleasant treatment to those who enter; and, accordingly, passes on to others, who smile and speak him more fair at the outset. Doubtless, too, he has heard from various quarters, hints unfavourable to the character of the author; who, in the language of certain writers, though they acknowledge him to be a great poet, is a fanatical, malignant Commonwealthsman, the advocate of doctrines fatal to the peace of society, of doubtful piety, dishonest in politics, a bad husband, a worse father. His style, too, is said to be scarcely English. The subjects he loved to treat are spoken of as out-of-date topics, from the consideration of which, however handled, no good could now, in the universal blaze of knowledge
that surrounds us, accrue to any man. To the smatterer in literature he is rendered odious by being represented as a monster of pride and overweening self-conceit; who, in proportion as he learned to entertain lofty notions of his own intellectual powers, grew to despise and undervalue those of others, praising penuriously and seldom, because he knew that one good word from his pen was a passport to immortality.
15. Had nature however gifted me with but a tithe of the eloquence which the author of these now obscure works possessed, I should not despair of making good his claim to stand at the head of our prose literature, instead of confining myself, as I must, to maintaining that he deserves to be read; and, that so far from being a harsh and crabbed controversialist or politician, he is an exquisitely sweet and pleasant writer, in whom the most original and uncommon thoughts are clothed with language always manly and proper, and in many cases of surpassing beauty. To those who already appreciate Milton justly, or who may be much better acquainted than I am with all his merits, I can of course have nothing of value to offer, unless they should be pleased to accept for such my humble but earnest admiration of the man, and my resemblance, so far, to themselves : I address myself to the prejudiced, the unconvinced, and those whose course of reading may hitherto not have brought them to the knowledge of those golden treatises, wherein so much wisdom, and oquence, and true taste, and whatever is most excellent and ad