« PreviousContinue »
as clandestinely as an illicit amour, was not less inconstant. Milton did not forsake his wife, like Shakspeare; it was his wife who forsook him. The family of Mary Powell were royalists; whether it was because Mary would not live with a republican, or for some other reason, she returned to her parents. She promised to come back at Michaelmas, but she did not keep her word. Milton wrote letter after letter, but received no reply ; at length he despatched a messenger, who threw away his eloquence and his time. The deserted husband then resolved to repudiate his runaway spouse. In order to extend to other husbands that independence which he asserted for himself, his genius suggested to him to convert a question of personal susceptibility into a question of liberty, and he published his treatise on “ The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce."
MILTON'S TREATISE ON DIVORCE.
This treatise, “ The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce restored, to the good of both sexes,” is divided into two books. It opens with an address to the Long Parliament.
“If it were seriously asked, (and it would be no untimely question), renowned parliament, select assembly, who, of all teachers and masters that have ever taught, hath drawn the most disciples after him both in religion and in manners ? it might be not untruly answered, Custom. Though virtue be commended for the most perswasive in her theory, and conscience, in the plain demonstration of the spirit, finds most evincing; yet, whether it be the secret of divine will, or the original blindness we are born in, so it happens for the most part, that custom still is silently received for the best instructor."
The writer then lays down several principles, which he does not prove as completely.
“ Man is the occasion of his own miseries in most of those evils which he imputes to God's inflicting. It is not God who forbade divorce, but the priest. The canon law is ignorant and unjust in providing for the right of the body in marriage, but nothing for the wrongs and grievances of the mind. Marriage is not a remedy of lust, but the fulfilling of conjugal love and helpfulness. God regards love and peace in the family, more than a compulsive performance of marriage, which is more broke by a grievous continence than by a needful divorce. Nothing more hinders and disturbs the whole life of a Christian, than a matrimony found to be incurably unfit. Adultery is not the greatest breach of matrimony; there may be other violations as great. To prohibit divorce sought for natural causes is against nature. Of marriage God is the author and the witness; yet hence will not follow any divine astriction, more than what is subordinate to the glory of God, and the main good of either party; for as the glory of God, and their esteemed fitness one for the other, was the motive which led them both at first to think without other revelation that God had joined them together; so, when it shall be found by their apparent unfitness, that their continuing to be man and wife is against the glory of God and their mutual happiness, it may assure them that God never joined them, who hath revealed his gracious will not to set the ordinance above the man for whom it was ordained; not to canonize marriage either as a tyranness or a goddess over the enfranchised life and soul of man. For wherein can God delight, wherein be worshipped, wherein be glorified, by the forcible continuing of an improper and ill-yoking couple ?
Where can be the peace and love which must invite God to such a house ? May it not be feared that the not divorcing of such a helpless disagreement will be the divorcing of God finally from such a place ?
Who shall answer for the perishing of all those souls, perishing by stubborn expositions of particular and inferior precepts against the general and supreme rule of charity ?
“Moses permitted divorce for hardness of heart. Christ neither did or could abrogate the law of divorce, but only reprieve the abuse, thereof.
St. Paul has commented on the words of Christ. Christ gives no full comments or continued discourses, but speaks often monosyllables, like a master scattering the heavenly grain of his doctrine like pearls here and there, which requires a skilful and laborious 'gatherer. God the Son hath put all things under his own feet, but his commandments he hath left all under the feet of Charity.”
Milton does not here resolve any particular question. He enters not into the difficulties touching children and the division of property. His enlarged mind was adverse to the English spirit, which confines itself to the circle of practical society. Milton generalises ideas, applies them to society in its totality, to entire human nature: he preaches up the independence of the man under every circumstance whatever. And yet this zealous champion of divorce has divinely sung the sacred ness and the delights of conjugal love :
Hail wedded love, mysterious law, true source
Paradise Lost, Book IV.
In accordance with his principles respecting divorce, Milton solicited the hand of the young and accomplished daughter of a Dr. Davies, but she felt no partiality for the great genius who paid his addresses to her. The poet's wife now bethought herself of him : the Powell family, whose loyalty had cooled in proportion as the royal cause became less prosperous, wished for an accommodation. Milton having called upon a relative named Blackborough, the door of the room suddenly flew open; Mary threw herself in tears at the feet of her husband, and confessed her fault. Milton pardoned the offender. Posterity has pro