Page images

period of our national history. The annals of that era are illuminated with names consecrated to the homage of posterity, by the various claims of genius, piety, and learning, Newton and Barrow, Baxter, Taylor, and Bunyan, Hobbes, Clarendon, and South, but the name of Milton will fix the gaze of all ages as the cynosure of that bright constellation.




Milton's respite from the warfare of controversy was destined to be of short duration. The Presbyterians, hostile to the Parliament on account of the sentiments of religious liberty with which they were animated, were availing themselves of the feelings awakened by the execution of Charles to deepen disaffection to the government. Their efforts were seconded from an unexpected quarter. A book was published which purported to be the production of the king, and bore the Greek title, “ Eikon Basilikè, the Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings.” So great was the curiosity excited by this book, which was then supposed to have been really written by Charles the First in his own defence, that forty-seven editions of it, amounting to forty-eight thousand five hundred copies, were disposed of in a single year. The Parliament were naturally apprehensive lest the effect of this should be to interrupt the peace and prosperity which, under their auspices, were beginning to be re-established. They therefore intrusted to

Milton the task of exposing and confuting the mis-statements and sophisms it contained. Milton's reply was entitled “Eikonoklastes,” the selection of which name he thus explains:– “In one thing I must commend his openness, who gave the title to this book, Euköv BaoriMuk), that is to say, The King's Image; and by the shrine he dresses out for him, certainly would have the people come and worship him. For which reason this answer also is entitled, “Eikonoklastes,’ the famous surname of many Greek emperors, who, in their zeal to the command of God, after long tradition of idolatry in the church, took courage and broke all superstitious images to pieces.” Respecting the authorship of the “Eikon,” there seems but little room for reasonable doubt. The multitudes who bought and devoured it on its first appearance doubtless regarded it as the genuine production of Charles; and Dr. South, in one of his Sermons on the Anniversary of the King's Execution, gives a somewhat fantastic reason for the same belief, viz. that no one else could have written it. “For,” he adds, “it is composed with such an unfailing majesty of diction, that it seems to have been written rather with a sceptre than a pen.” There is abundant proof that it was the production of one Dr. Gauden. This, however, was not demonstrated until after the Restoration, though Milton, in several passages, shows that his sagacity was not imposed upon by the forgery. Nevertheless, he follows his antagonist closely, chapter by chapter, through every stage of Charles's reign, laying open the falsity of his historical statements and suppressions, and driving away his sanetimonious pretensions before a storm of indignant satire. Notwithstanding this, Milton affirmed with perfect truth, “I did not insult over fallen majesty, as is pretended. I only preferred Queen Truth to King Charles. The charge of insult, which I foresaw that the malevolent would urge,

* Prose Works, vol. i. p. 813.

I was at some pains to remove in the beginning of the work; and so often as possible in other places.” The passage to which he here more particularly refers, is the opening paragraph of the book, which, as exemplifying the dignified feeling with which he entered on this painful service, should be presented in this place. It is as follows:— “To descant on the misfortunes of a person fallen from so high a dignity, who hath also paid his final debt both to nature and his faults, is neither of itself a thing commendable, nor the intention of this discourse. Neither was it fond ambition, nor the vanity to get a name, present or with posterity, by writing against a king. I never was so thirsty after fame, nor so destitute of other hopes and means, better and more certain to attain it; for kings have gained glorious titles from their favourers by writing against private men, as Henry VIII. did against Luther; but no man ever gained much honour by writing against a king, as not usually meeting with that force of argument in such courtly antagonists, which to convince might add to his reputation. Kings most commonly, though strong in legions, are but weak at argument; as they who ever have accustomed from their cradle to use their will only as their right hand, their reason always as their left. Whence unexpectedly constrained to that kind of combat, they prove but weak and puny adversaries: nevertheless, for their sakes, who through custom, simplicity, or want of better teaching, have not more seriously considered kings, than in the gaudy name of majesty, and admire them and their doings, as if they breathed not the same breath with other mortal men, I shall make no scruple to take up (for it seems to be the challenge both of him and all his party) to take up this gauntlet, though a king's, in the behalf of liberty and the commonwealth.” The “Eikonoklastes” was re-edited by Richard Baron, in 1756, who prefaced it with a brief dissertation, written with * Prose Works, vol. i. p. 307, 308.

great earnestness, and commending the work to the special study of his countrymen. With reference to the mere composition he says:–“The great Milton has a style of his own, one fit to express the astonishing sublimity of his thoughts, the mighty vigour of his spirit, and that copia of invention, that redundancy of imagination, which no writer before or since hath equalled. In some places, it is confessed, that his periods are too long, which renders him intricate, if not altogether unintelligible, to vulgar readers; but these places are not many. In the book before us his style is for the most part free and easy, and it abounds both in eloquence, and wit, and argument. I am of opinion, that the style of this work is the best and most perfect of all his prose writings.” On the same subject, Mr. St. John remarks, with his usual discrimination,-" The “Eikonoklastes’ abounds in passages of peculiar sweetness and harmony— in short sentences—abrupt transitions—interrogations— unrounded periods, purposely introduced where the most consummate art would have them placed, to break up the surface of the style, and banish monotony. But why need I dwell on the mere mechanism of his language? Though frequently attentive to this point, he trusted—too much perhaps—to other beauties, of a higher kind, inasmuch as what delights the intellect must be superior to what only charms the ear; and instead of periods, turned with unrivalled skill, unfolds before the mental eye a style glowing with imagery, animatcd, vehement, instinct in all its parts with life.” The structure of this work, consisting as it does of twenty-eight historical chapters, does not admit of a concise analysis, and the notice already bestowed upon it must therefore suffice. The interest excited by the “Eikon Basilikë,” and not less, perhaps, the triumphant power of the “Eikonoklastes,” stimulated the exiled Prince Charles still further to attempt the conciliation of the sympathies of his country to the

« PreviousContinue »