1842 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

C. H. Timperley, in Encyclopaedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (1842) 2:549-50.



1674, Nov. 8. Died, JOHN MILTON, author of Paradise Lost, Regained, &c. "The character of Milton," says the historian of the Commonwealth, "is one of those which appears to gain by time. To future ages it is probable he will stand forth as the most advantageous specimen that can be produced of the English nation. He is our poet. There is nothing else of so capacious dimensions in the compass of our literature (if, indeed, there is in the literary productions of our species), that can compare with the Paradise Lost. He is our patriot. No man of just discernment can read his political writings without being penetrated with the holy flame that animated him; and if the world shall ever attain that stature of mind as for courts to find no place in it, he will be the patriot of the world. As an original genius, as a writer of lofty and expansive soul, and as a man, he rises above his countrymen; and, like Saul, in the convention of the Jews, from his shoulders and upward he is higher than any of the people."

"Fancy," says Johnson, speaking of this divine character, "can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper he surveyed the silent progress of his work, and marked its reputation stealing its way in a kind of subterraneous current, through fear and silence. I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and waiting, without impatience, the vicissitudes of opinion, and the impartiality of a future generation."

Milton has left several passages, both in his prose and poetical works, in which he refers to his affliction of blindness; but instead of complaining or reflecting upon the wisdom and goodness of Providence, they indicate the most exalted rational piety, and resignation to God.

Hail, holy light, offspring of heaven's first-born!
Or of th' Eternal, coeternal beam,
May I express thee unblam'd! since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity; dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear'st thou rather pure ethereal stream,
Whose fountain who shall tell! Before the sun,
Before the heav'ns thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
—Thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sov'reign vital lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quench'd their orbs,
Or dim suffusion veil'd. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt,
Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song: but chief
Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks beneath,
That wash thy hallow'd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit nor sometimes forget
Those other two, equall'd with me in fate,
So were I equall'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris, and blind Maeonides;
And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old:
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest cover hid
Tunes her nocturnal note. Thus with the year
Seasons return; but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of ev'n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer's rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surround me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank
Of nature's works, to me expung'd and rais'd,
And wisdom at one entrance quite shut out.
So much the rather thou, celestial light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.
Paradise Lost, b. iii.

The literary fate of Milton was remarkable: his genius was castrated alike by the monarchical and the republican government. The royal licenser expunged several passages from Milton's history, in which Milton had painted the superstition, the pride, and the cunning of the Saxon monks, which the sagacious licenser applied to Charles II. and the bishops; but Milton had before suffered as merciless a mutilation from his old friends the republicans; who suppressed a bold picture, taken from life, which he had introduced into his History of the Long Parliament end Assembly of Divines. Milton gave the unlicensed passages to the earl of Anglesea, a literary nobleman, the editor of Whitelock's Memorials; and the castrated passage, which could not be licensed in 1670, was received with peculiar interest when separately published in 1681. "If there be found in an author's book one sentence of a venturous edge, uttered in the height of zeal, and who knows whether it might not be the dictate of a divine spirit, yet not suiting every low decrepit humour of their own, they will not pardon him their dash." The unpopularity of Milton's prose writings arises out of the general ignorance of their high and incomparable qualities, none who have ever looked into them can doubt. For profundity of thought, energy of diction, felicity of illustration, vigour of seasoning, sublimity of conception, and almost every variety of the most original and nervous eloquence, his prose compositions are distinguished from those of all his cotemporaries.

Speaking of knowledge, Milton uses the following beautiful expressions: — "We see in all other pleasures there is satiety, and after they be used, their verdure departeth, which showeth well they be but deceits of pleasure, and not pleasures: and that it was the novelty which pleased, and not the quality: and therefore we see, that voluptuous men turn friars, and ambitious princes turn melancholy; but of knowledge, there is no satiety, but satisfaction and appetite are perpetually interchangeable."

"If it be true that a wise man, like a good refiner, can gather gold out of the drossest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, — yea, or without a book, — there is no reason that we should deprive a wise man of any advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool, that which, being restrained, will be no hinderance to his folly."

However many books
Wise men have said, are wearisome, who reads
Incessantly, and to his reading brings not
A spirit and a judgment, equal or superior,
(And what he brings, what need he elsewhere seek?)
Uncertain and unsettled still remains,
Deep versed in books, and shallow in himself;
Crude and intoxicate, collecting toys
And trifles for choice matters worth a spunge,
As children gathering pebbles on the shore.
Paradise Regained, b. iv.