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It seems that Milton endeavoured to teach his scholars a wider range of knowledge than the Doctor thought practicable; whereupon follows that famous passage of Johnson, which has been so often cited, and which is so excellent, that I must repeat it again :
“ The purpose of Milton,” he begins, “ was to teach something more solid than the common literature of schools, by reading those authors that treat of physical subjects, such as the Georgic and astronomical treatises of the ancients. This was a scheme of improvement which seems to have busied many literary projectors of that age. Cowley, who had more means than Milton of knowing what was wanting to the embellishments of life, formed the same plan of education in his imaginary college.
“But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation; whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong: the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and justice are virtues and excellences of all times and all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. Our intercourse with intellectual nature is neces
sary ; our speculations upon matter are voluntary and at leisure. Physiological learning is of such rare emergence, that one may know another half his life without being able to estimate his skill in hydrostatics or astronomy; but his moral and prudential character immediately appears.
6. Those authors, therefore, are to be read at schools that supply most axioms of prudence, most principles of moral truth, and most materials for conversation ; and these purposes are best served by poets, orators, and historians.
“ Let me not be censured for this digression as pedantic or paradoxical; for, if I have Milton against me, I have Socrates on my side. It was his labour to turn philosophy from the study of nature to speculations upon life; but the innovators whom I oppose are turning off attention from life to nature. They seem to think that we are placed here to watch the growth of plants, or the motions of the stars : Socrates was rather of opinion that what we had to learn was, how to do good and avoid evil.
“Οττι τοι εν μεγάροισι κακόντ’ αγαθόντε τέτυκται.” Had Johnson always written so, what a beautiful and perfect work he would have made !
But now Milton's evil days began: he entered into thorny controversies which blind the imagination, and harden and embitter the heart. It was not for sublime talents, like his, to entangle themselves in these webs : his mighty genius could not move under the oppressive weight of so
much abstruse, and, I will add, useless, though multifarious and astonishing, learning. But I am bound to notice what has been stated on the other side. Fletcher, in the Introductory Review of Milton's Prose Works,' says, “ Let uş never think of John Milton as a poet, merely : however in that capacity he may have adorned our language, and benefited, by ennobling, his species. He was a citizen also, with whom patriotism was as heroical a passion, prompting him to do his country service, as was that “inward prompting' of poesy, by which he did his country honour. He was alive to all that was due from man to man in all the relations of life: he was invested with a power to mould the mind of a nation, and to lead the people into the glorious ways of truth and prosperous virtue. The poet has long eclipsed the man: he has been imprisoned even in the temple of the Muses; and the very splendor of the bard seems to be our title to pass an act of oblivion' on the share he bore in the events and discussions of the momentous times in which he lived. Ought not, rather, his wide renown in this capacity to lead us to the contemplation and study of the whole of his character and his works? Sworn by a father, who knew what persecution was, at the first altar of freedom erected in this land, he, a student of the finest temperament, bent on grasping all sciences, and professing none, and burning with intense ambition for distinction, forsook his harp, and the quiet and still air of delightful studies,' and devoted the energies of earliest and maturest manhood, to be aiding in the grandest crisis of the first of human causes : and he became the most conspicuous literary actor in the dreadful yet glorious drama of the grand rebellion. He beheld tyranny and intolerance trampling upon the most sacred prerogatives of God and man; and he was compelled by the nobility of his nature, by the obligations of virtue, by the loud summons of beleaguered truth; in short, by his patriotism as well as his piety, to lay down the lyre, whose earliest tones are yet so fascinating; to “doff his garland and singing robes,' and to adventure within the circle of peril and glory; and buckling on the controversial panoply, he threw it off only when the various works of this volume, surpassed by none in any sort of eloquence, became the record and trophy of his achievements, and the worthy forerunners of those poems, which a whole people will not willingly let die.""
The summit of fame is occupied by the poet, but the base of the vast elevation may justly be said to rest on these prose works; and we invite his admirers to descend from the former, and survey the region that lies round about the latter ;-a less explored, but not less magnificent domain.
Fletcher has (p. vii.) inserted the following extract. In the Second Defence of the People of England,' Milton is led in self-defence, he says, “ to rescue his life from that species of obscurity which is the associate of unprincipled depravity.” He then commences in this strain his too brief autobiography :
“ This it will be necessary for me to do on more accounts than one : first, that so many good and learned men among the neighbouring nations, who read my works, may not be induced by this fellow's calumnies to alter the favourable opinion which they have formed of me, but may be persuaded that I am not one who ever disgraced beauty of sentiment by deformity of conduct, or the maxims of a freeman by the actions of a slave; and that the whole tenour of my life has, by the grace of God, hitherto been unsullied by any enormity or crime: next, that those illustrious worthies, who are the objects of my praise, may know that nothing could afflict me with more shame than to have any vices of mine diminish the force or lessen the value of my panegyric upon them; and, lastly, that the people of England, whom fate, or duty, or their own virtues, have incited me to defend, may be convinced from the purity and integrity of my life, that my defence, if it do not redound to their honour, can never be considered as their disgrace.
“I will now mention who and whence I am. I was born at London, of an honest family: my father was distinguished by the undeviating integrity of his life; my mother, by the esteem in which she was held, and the alms which she bestowed. My father destined me from a child to the pursuits of literature; and my appetite for knowledge was so voracious, that from twelve years of age I hardly ever left my studies, or went to