Obrázky na stránke
[blocks in formation]

spirited love of intellectual freedom and truth,—have throbbed in the visible presence of the victim of spiritual despotism! The moral dignity of this sad spectacle sank deep into Milton's imagination, to rise up again at another distant day to furnish a fit allusion in the description of the broad circumference of Satan's shield,

"Like the moon, whose orb

Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views

At evening, from the top of Fesolé,

Or in Valdarno, to descry new lands,
Rivers or mountains, in her spotty globe,"

or to describe the seraph Raphael beholding from afar the earth,—
"As when by night the glass

Of Galileo, less assured, observes

Imagined lands and regions in the moon.

We follow him to Venice, and to Rome,—the city of more than twenty centuries, and fancy him wrapt with classical associations, feeding his genius by gazing on sculptures and paintings of Michael Angelo and all the works of Italian Art. And with what feeling must that spirit of his, which seems to have chafed under any ecclesiastical discipline, have been stirred within the precincts of the papal metropolis! Standing in the shadow of the Vatican, by the side of that vast dominion stretching its thin spectral arms over the whole earth, how must this young Briton, this Protestant, this Independent, have scanned the visage of what one of his contemporaries,* with an image of Miltonic energy, describe as “the ghost of the Roman empire seated on the ruins thereof! "

It was at Rome that Milton is supposed to have met and contracted a lifelong friendship with one of his fellow-countrymen, like himself a young traveller, a poet, and a republican,-the high-spirited and incorruptible Andrew Marvell. It has been well said that not even in the proudest days of her republic had Rome to boast two nobler youths than Milton and Marvell. The young poet proceeded onward to the south of Italy, and was welcomed beneath the hospitable roof of Manso, Marquis of Villa, the friend and biographer of Tasso. It was the very spot where the great Italian poet, a few years before, completed the Jerusalem Delivered;" and it has been conjectured that there first dawned upon the thought of Milton the ambition of composing an epic poem in the English language. It seems to me more probable that this must have been among his more youthful aspirations. But, be that as it may, it was first announced in the Latin poem addressed to his

[ocr errors]

* Hobbes.

venerable host on taking leave of him. I doubt not, that standing in the gardens overlooking the famed prospect of the bright Bay of Naples, a spot but lately honoured by the footsteps of Italy's last best poet, Milton heard the story of Tasso's romantic life-his imprisonment, his sorrows, and his madness from the lips of Tasso's aged friend; and, though there was not in reserve for the British bard the dark destiny of the dungeon such as the Italian had been immured in, yet the story of the calamitous career of his fellow-poet must have been so impressed upon his feelings as to rise up in his thoughts in afteryears, teaching the lesson of endurance beneath sorrows as heavy if not so intense.

Milton's intention of visiting Sicily and Greece was abandoned on learning that afflictions were gathering upon England; and he turned his steps homeward, stopping to visit the kinsfolk of one of the friends of his youth, at their mansion on the Alpine bank of the Lake of Geneva. He hastened back from the continent, because, said he, “I thought it base to be travelling for amusement abroad while my fellowcitizens were fighting for liberty at home." When he set foot again on British ground, the banner of civil war had been flung out to the breeze; for the grand Rebellion was begun.

I am dealing, let it be remembered, with the poet Milton. When I reflect how mighty and how many were his achievements in poetry,— how they are all complete,-none, like the "Canterbury Tales" and the "Fairy Queen," splendid fragments,-it seems almost incredible that nearly thirty years of his life were almost wholly turned aside from the great highway of his genius. And why was this? Was it because, with the growth of intellectual pride, he was learning to disparage his early aspirations? Was it that poetry had ceased to be that divine thing the love of which had once shone on all his paths? No! such heartless disloyalty never had place in his thoughts. He never forgot that he had an endowment the voice of which was meant to reach to distant ages and to other lands. But the age and the country in which his lot was cast had instant need of his powers. He beheld the people struggling for freedom; and his heart, with all its high-wrought enthusiasm, was with them. The monarchy had lost much that might make a subject proud. The high-minded nobility, which Milton might have honoured as Spenser had, was no longer in the same strong sympathy with the throne, at once gracing and fortifying it. The Buckhursts and the Cecils and the Egertons had gradually been thrust aside, and their places filled by worthless and profligate favourites,--minions like Carr and Villiers. The low and malignant influences which overshadowed the court of the


135 first of the Stuarts sealed the bloody fate of the second of that hapless dynasty. The civil war began with court corruption; and, in such a contest, where could the soul of Milton be but with the people? He turned aside from poetry reluctantly, but dutifully: he felt himself possessed of a power which fitted him to be the intellectual champion of the cause. For about a quarter of a century his muse was almost forsaken; and during this period his pen produced a succession of controversial writings on various subjects as powerful as ever were produced. When he first entered on this stern duty, it was with the avowed sense of inferiority to a strength already proved in poetry, the better task which the genial power of nature prompted, having, as he said, the use, as it were, of only the left hand. I am inclined, however, to think that, as he prosecuted one controversy after another, the spirit of controversy got more largely possession of him,-polemic pride growing on him,exultation at finding that he could deal blows so vigorous with his left hand.

Domestic troubles embittered his life. It is one of the miseries of civil war that it sows the seeds of household animosities. "It was a time,” says Milton, in one of his prose works, "when man and wife were often the most inveterate foes; when the man often stayed at home to tend the children, while the mother of the family was busy in the camp of the enemy, threatening death and destruction to her husband." It was Milton's bad fortune to marry in such times,—a speedy match and a sorry marriage; for it mated a republican husband with a royalist spouse.

During these agitated years of Milton's life he never faltered in the duty he had marked out for himself; but still you could sometimes discover the longings of the poet's heart,-something showing that he knew how much more congenial than bandying vulgar and abusive epithets with Salmasius, or toiling in the secretaryship of the Council of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, would it be for him (to borrow one of his own glowing phrases) to be "soaring in the high region of his fancies, with his garland and singing-robes about him." Now and then the pent-up fire of his imagination bursts out in a strain of prose which is poetry in all but poetry's metrical music; in that sublime sentence, for instance, which tells how high were the expectations his enthusiasm had conceived of Republican England :Methinks I see in

my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself, like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks. Methinks I see her as an eagle renewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full mid-day beam, purging and unsealing her long-abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance."

During this middle period of Milton's life, when absorbed with political and theological polemics and state-affairs, the only sign given to show that poetry was not wholly suppressed in his thoughts is to be found in the few sonnets dated in those years, and which are distinguished for a sternness of conception and a compressed energy of style that we may fancy them written at Cromwell's council-board, and with the same pen which engrossed some stern despatch from the Protector to his fellow-sovereigns on the continent. The sonnets of Milton are few; but they rendered this important service :-that they enlarged the sphere of that form of verse, showing that it was not confined to amatory poetry; that it was fitted not only for the expression of tender emotions, but for the utterance of a statesmanly philosophy, dignified rebuke, the deep, Christian meditation, and whatever else belongs to poetry's grandest and most majestic tones. The strain which before had scarcely served more than a lover's uses was made the fit form for the stern Republican to address Cromwell and Fairfax and Sir Harry Vàne. There is a contrast as wide as between the temperaments of the two poets between the sonnet of Spenser and the sonnet of Milton :

[ocr errors]

"A glowworm Lamp,

It cheer'd mild Spenser, call'd from Faery-land

To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand

The thing became a Trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains,-alas! too few!"



There is recorded in Boswell's Johnson one of the most ludicrous literary conversations touching Milton's sonnets-ludicrous from its solemn absurdity-to be met with amid all the absurdities of criticism. Pray, sir," said Miss Hannah More to Dr. Johnson, "how could a poet who wrote 'Paradise Lost' write such poor sonnets ?" Madam," replied the critical autocrat, "Milton was a genius that could cut a colossus from a rock, but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones." Miss Hannah More was a sensible as well as a very pious woman, but on this occasion, I very much fear, she asked a foolish question; and Dr. Johnson was a wise and a learned man, but I fear the folly of the question was contagious to the answer. If Hannah More had searched Johnson's Dictionary through, she could not have selected a more inappropriate epithet than in speaking of such poor sonnets as Milton's; and, as to his figure of the carved cherry-stones, let us look at one of these condemned productions. At the time when Milton was acting as the Latin Secretary of the government of Cromwell, there was given one of the highest proofs of the gigantic foreign policy for which the proud



Protector was most illustrious. The persecuted Protestants in the valleys of Piedmont appealed to him for succour; and the stern voice of Cromwell went forth to every potentate of Europe, bidding him know that he meant to make the cause of these suffering Christians his


"When Alpine vales threw forth a suppliant cry,

The majesty of England interposed,

And the sword stopp'd; the bleeding wounds were closed,
And faith preserved her ancient purity.”

The spokesman of Oliver Cromwell's will was John Milton; and there seems to be a tone of imagination in the very address of some of these despatches;-a Miltonic aggregation of vague geographical names; "Oliver, Protector of the Commonwealth of England, to the Emperor of all Russia and all the Northern climes;" or to "the King of the Swedes, Goths, and Vandals;" calling to their remembrance how the valleys of Piedmont were besmeared with the blood and slaughter of the miserable victims, and the mountains filled with the houseless wanderers,—women and children perishing with hunger and cold and the sword of the persecutor. The spirit of Milton was so stirred by the sufferings of the Waldenses that he felt the need of more even than high-toned mandates to earthly monarchs; and therefore there went up from the depths of his poet's heart, in one of his mighty sonnets, the fervid imprecation:

"Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter'd saints, whose bones
Lie scatter'd on the Alpine mountains cold ;-
E'en them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipp'd stocks and stones,
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that roll'd
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they

To Heaven. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sow
O'er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundred fold, who, having learn'd thy way,
Early may fly the Babylonian woe."

After rehearsing this high and solemn strain of poetry, I can scarcely bring myself to remind you of the pitiful comparison of Dr. Johnson's which I hoped to refute by it.

All the visionary enthusiasm of Milton in the cause of political liberty was, as is well known, wholly defeated. We come now to the

« PredošláPokračovať »