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MILTON-HEBRICK – MARVELL — COWLEY - WALLER-SIR.
W. DAVENANT-EARL OF DORSET-EARL OF Ros-
Ar the Restoration Milton was in his fifty-second year, and one of the most conspicuous men, not in England only, but in Europe. As yet, it is true, he had not shown the world the full measure and range of his power as a poet, and the scholars of Europe knew little or nothing of English poetry; but they honoured him as a controversialist who had crossed swords successfully with one of the doughtiest of Continental combatants. In his encounter with Salmasius, he had, by common consent, brought that champion of absolute monarchy to his knees. After reading the “ Defensio pro-Populo Anglicano,” in which, with almost an excess of strength, he replied to the “ Defensio Regia,” the apology for Charles I., Queen Christina, of Sweden, had frankly told Salmasius that he was beaten. Whereupon Salmasius, who had.
enjoyed so much of the Queen's favour that she had been wont to light his fire with her own hands when she indulged with him in confidential morning walks, declared that the Swedish climate disagreed with him, and returned to France. “Who is this Milton p” asked Henisius, the Dutchman, of Isaac Voss. The latter replied, “I have learned all about Milton from my uncle, Junius, who is familiar with him. He tells me that he serves the Parliament in foreign affairs; is skilled in many languages; is not, indeed, of noble, but, as they say, of gentle birth; kindly, affable, and endowed with many other virtues.” Who is this Milton? If the question had been put to his countrymen they might have informed the querist that he was the second-ranking Oliver Cromwell as the first-great Englishman of his time; a man with a powerful genius and a singular loftiness and purity of thought; a courageous, resolute, and eloquent champion of civil and religious liberty; a master of English prose, which he wrote with a stateliness that reflected the dignity of his character; a poet of rare gifts and accomplishments, who, before all other English singers, had proved himself conscious of the nobleness and sacredness of the poet's mission.
Good and great work Milton had already done; but his best and greatest work belongs to the reign of Charles II., and is the distinguishing glory of that reign. The “Paradise Lost” is one of the world's half-dozen immortal poems—like “The Iliad,” and “ The Æneid,” and the “ Divina Commedia ”-and the age and the country which produced it have necessarily something to be proud of. If we have little else to thank the Restoration for, we have to thank it, I believe, for our great
English epic. But for the obscurity and privacy to which it relegated Milton, he might never have enjoyed the leisure, or the self-concentration, without which its composition would have been impossible. He was thirty-two when he conceived the idea ; but he found no time to attempt its realization during the stirring periods of the Civil War and the Protectorate. For Milton was not only a poet, but a man of action. There was nothing of the recluse about him; he did not live for poetry alone, like Wordsworth. His strong, deep sympathies with the cause of human liberty and human hope impelled him to take an active part in the struggle, and for twenty years, from 1641 to 1660, he gave to public affairs the resources of his intellectual strength and opulence. With the exception of a few sonnets, his muse, meanwhile, was silent. Those graceful Italian pastorals, “ L'Allegro ” and “Il Penseroso," were written while he lingered in his earlier manhood among the orchard blooms of Horton. The “Comus," which so admirably illustrates the grave purity of his mind, and the beautiful monody of “Lycidas," belong to the year 1637. In 1639, the death of his friend Diodati drew from him his “Epitaphium Damors," and thereafter he devoted his genius to the service of his country. His wonderful intellectual activity knew no pause of weariness; it embraced the whole field of conflict: Church Discipline, Divorce, the Freedom of the Press, Education, Civil Government-on all these various themes he had much to say, to which it was good for his countrymen to listen, and he said it with such a strenuousness and vehemence that they durst not close their ears.
As to his prose style, writers differ. “Is he truly a
prose writer ?” says Taine, and he adds :-“ Entangled dialectics, a heavy and awkward mind”-who but a Frenchman would have used these epithets P_" fanatical and furious rusticity, an epic grandeur of sustained and superabundant images, the blast and the recklessness of implacable and all-powerful passion, the sublimity of religious and logical exaltation : we do not recognize in these features a man born to explain, pursuade, and prove.” No; it was not Milton's business to explain or persuade; he crushed. Like a shock of cavalry, he charged the errors and sophisms of his time, and they went down before him. How could he stop to explain or persuade, when his opponents were the minions of Prelacy and Absolutism, the deadly foes of Freedom ? You might as well have asked Cromwell's Ironsides to halt on the field of Naseby, and reason with Rupert and his cavaliers. Milton's prose is the prose of a poet. It is rich in images and illustrations; it abounds in harmonious cadences; it frequently lapses into a measured rhythm. No doubt it is sometimes rugged and sometimes exuberant; but this ruggedness is due to his intense earnestness, and this exuberance to the marvellous wealth of his resources. He has no call to be thrifty like lesser men; and so the great river of his eloquence rolls on with copious force, carrying with it both gold and mud.
Is is in the “ Areopagitica,” that noble plea for the liberty of the press—which so completely achieved its object that in England, at least, no serious effort has since been made to curb the free expression of free thought-we see Milton's eloquence in its fullest majesty. The title is borrowed from the “ Areopagitic” oration of Isocrates; but nothing more. Between the calm grace