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of his first Divorce treatise (The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce restored to the good of both sexes from the bondage of Canon Law and other Mistakes to the true meaning of Scripture in the Law and Gospel compared, wherein also are set down the bad consequences of abolishing or condemning as sin that which the law of God allows and Christ abolished not); in June, his tractate Of Education to Master Samuel Hartlib; in July, his Second Divorce Book (The Judgment of Martin Bucer concerning Divorce, written to Edward the Sixth in his second book of the Kingdom of Christ, and now Englished; wherein a late book restoring the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce is here confirmed and justified by the authority of Martin Bucer). So that the year 1644 was one of memorable activity in Milton's life.
This activity, it will have been noticed, was all in the direction of certain social and other reforms. It was all, as Milton himself puts it, in behalf of 'liberty'-of the domestic species' of liberty.' 'Liberty's defence' was always his ‘darling task '; and there was never a time in his career when he strove with more fervent hope, or more brilliant skill, to secure for his age the freedom without which, as it seemed to him, life was cramped and starved, and the world a mere prison. In the interest of this great cause he had abandoned for a while those high studies to which his previous years had been devoted. Of his poetical writings only a few sonnets belong to this period of his life. "God, by His secretary Conscience,' enjoined a far different service,' and 'it were sad for me if I should back.'
This particular year formed a crisis in Milton's life. It witnessed the culmination of his hopefulness. There is especially noticeable in the Areopagitica a certain sanguineness and anticipation, which subsequent events were bitterly to reprove. In fact Milton was yet but faintly conscious of the immense discrepancies between his age and himself. To him, when the Long Parliament met in the autumn of 1640, it had seemed that a new day was dawning for England and for mankind.
• The world's great age begins anew,
The golden years return.' And he had hailed with a profound exultation the opening acts of
that great assembly. When the Star Chamber and its kindred iniquities were suppressed, it seemed once more possible to breathe, and hopes sprang up in him of a new and perfecter reformation. This confidence appeared justified by the fall of the bishops, who had identified themselves with what was held to be the cause of tyranny. Surely there was now at hand a splendid regeneration. As one thinks of Milton in those hours of elation, there rises before the mind the image of another poet, whose experience was strangely similar. Wordsworth, on the tiptoe of expectation at the beginning of the French Revolution, reminds one sadly of Milton just a century and a half before.
*Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy,
The Areopagitica reflects Milton still sanguine and confident. It is true that, as we shall see, the work in fact originated from what might well have taught the writer that his dreams of a complete emancipation were not to be realized; but Milton could not recognize this conclusion, 'so lame and impotent.' He could not yet bring himself to believe that the dawn, whose rising he had greeted with such joy, was presently to be overcast—that the sun was not to rise higher, but to be stayed in its bright course, as by some malignant Joshua, and presently blurred and obscured with mist and fog. As we see him in this Speech to the Parliament of England he is filled with pride and with hope. No nobler panegyric has been pronounced on our country than that he here pronounces with his richest eloquence:
Lords and Commons of England, consider what Nation it is wherof ye are the governours: a Nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discours, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to. Therefore the studies of learning, in her deepest sciences have bin so ancient and so eminent among us that writers of good antiquity and ablest judgement have bin perswaded that ev'n the school of Pythagoras, and the Persian wisdom, took beginning from the old Philosophy of this Iland. And that wise and civill Roman Julius Agricola, who govern’d once here for Cæsar, preferr'd the naturall wits of Britain before the labour'd studies of the French. Nor is for nothing that the grave and frugal Transilvanian sends out yearly from as farre as the mountanous borders of Russia, and beyond the Hercynian wildernes, not their youth, but their stay'd men, to learn our language and our theologic arts. Yet that which is above all this, the favour and the love of heav'n, we have great argument to think in a peculiar manner propitious and propending towards us. Why else was this Nation chos'n before any other that out of her, as out of Sion, should be proclaim'd and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of Reformation to all Europ ?
Behold now this vast city; a city of refuge, the mansion house of liberty, encompast and surrounded with his protection; the shop of warre hath not there more anvils and hammers making, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed Justice, in defence of beleaguer'd Truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious camps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and idea's wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching Reformation; others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement. What could a man require more from a Nation so pliant and so prone to seek after knowledge? What wants there to such a towardly and pregnant soile, but wise and faithfull labourers, to make a knowing people-a Nation of Prophets, of Sages, and of Worthies?'
It must be remembered that in this year, 1644, the Parliamentary cause had achieved triumphs that left little room for doubt as to what would be the issue of the war. The Scots had entered England in January. In the summer the Earl of Essex had advanced westward into Cornwall. July had brought the utter defeat of Prince Rupert at Marston Moor. The gleam of light thrown on the royal banners by the rising of Montrose, in the autumn, had been swiftly extinguished by his flight. The King's side had not indeed been without its successes, of which the most important was the dispersion of Essex's army in Sep
tember; but, on the whole, the Parliament had gained strength and confidence, and the fortune of their opponents was becoming highly dubious, if not quite desperate. In the very November in which the Areopagitica was published the 'New Model’ of the army was proposed, for there were arising into note/men resolved to prosecute the war with a dispatch and an energy not yet conceived. Clearly Milton was troubled by no misgivings as to the event of this military conflict. His mind had passed away from it into other fields, and he thought himself at leisure to open a spiritual campaign.
In strange contrast with the buoyancy and pride of the Areopagitica is the tone of certain later writings. The high expectations he had cherished were to be disappointed. It was to be his sad lot to discover that the overthrowers of tyranny might themselves prove tyrants.
• New foes arise Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains.' The Presbyterians were presently to display an intolerance not exceeded by the Episcopalians whom they had displaced :
New presbyter is but old priest writ large.' And it was to prove impossible to reconstruct a new political order which should be not dependent on the strength and wisdom of a great dictator, and so tottering to its fall the instant he was removed, but, in itself, strong, and stable, and enduring. The age was to be found unequal to the maintenance, or rather the attainment, of the ideal entertained by Milton's lofty spirit. ‘Bondage with ease' was to be dearer than 'strenuous liberty.” One may easily believe that Milton expected too much; that he misinterpreted the signs of the times; that he too readily supposed others to be actuated by the same high-mindedness and pure enthusiasm that moved himself; but the discovery of his misapprehensions must have been none the less afflicting; and with a lesser nature would have ended in mere disgust and contempt for his race. As it was, though some bitter words escaped him, he did not argue
Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot
He was not left comfortless.
• Thou hast great allies ; Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and men's unconquerable mind.' And the difference just mentioned between his earlier and his later political writings appears not in any growing predominance of scorn and of satire, but in a certain enforced sobriety of expectation. He is prepared for the worst rather than sanguine of the best. If we remember what his dreams had been, and what were the realities he saw, there is a profound pathos in these following words of his, uttered just before the Restoration. When he wrote them, he, like his Samson, was not 'in the list of them that hope'; but, when he wrote the Areopagitica, he felt himself called to be a 'great deliverer,' Heaven's ' nursling and choice delight, led on
• To mightiest deeds Above the nerve of mortal arm,
Against the Uncircumcised, our enemies.' The passage now to be quoted forms the conclusion of 'The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the excellence thereof, compared with the inconveniences and dangers of readmitting Kingship in this Nation, published in 1660:
'I have no more to say at present; few words will save us, well considered;
few and easy things now seasonably done. But if the people be so affected as to prostitute religion and liberty to the vain and groundless apprehension that nothing but kingship can restore trade, not remembering the frequent plagues and pestilences that then wasted this city, such as, through God's mercy, we never have felt since; and that trade flourishes nowhere more than in the free commonwealths of Italy, Germany, and the Low Countries, before their eyes at this day; yet if trade be grown so craving and importunate, through the profuse living of tradesmen, that nothing can support it but the luxurious expenses of a nation upon trifles or superfluities; so as if the people generally should betake themselves to frugality it might prove a dangerous matter, lest tradesmen should mutiny for want of trading; and that, therefore, we must forego and set to sale religion, liberty, honour, safety, all concernments divine or human, to keep up trading; if, lastly, after all this light among us the