« PreviousContinue »
reputation in so doubtful a matter, and, perhaps, with a view to gain the approval of the legislature, he published, in 1644, two editions (one anonymously, and one with his name) of a treatise entitled “ The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce.” This he inscribed, with a stately address, to the Parliament of his country.
The “ Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce” is probably, of all the prose writings of Milton, the least known, and the least likely to obtain a future popularity. Yet, as a composition, it is one of the most remarkable that we possess from his pen. The subject must be to most men unattractive and painful, and under the social regulations of this country, and this age, it is to be hoped that comparatively few would be led to peruse it by any more earnest motives than those which spring from their literary tastes. It evinces the profoundest mastery of the question, the most learned research, a majestic power of diction and illustration, and (if I may use the expression) a most spiritual appreciation of that delicate passion which sanctifies the bond of marriage. * In
my notice of this and three succeeding treatises, I shall so far desert the general scheme of this biography, as to refrain from reproducing his extended arguments in the form of analysis, and shall only present a few passages which will convey an idea of the pervading tone and tenour of the composition.
* Mr. St. John, the latest editor of Milton's prose works, commits himself to a judgment on this subject, in the following words :
“These works on Divorce are full of beauty-of poetical descriptions of love- of philosophical investigations- of original ideas and images. The whole is pervaded and adorned by an enthusiastic spirit of poetry, which constitutes in him the vitality of style. All, therefore, who can tolerate a little quaintness and plain speaking, and who are not averse from being taught by a somewhat dogmatic instructor, can read with pleasure Milton's speculations on divorce, which are full of sound wisdom, which may serve to enlighten both our legislators and philosophers, if they will be modest enough to Listen and learn."
His main thesis is thus laid down:-“To remove, therefore, if possible, this great and sad oppression, which through the strictness of a literal interpreting hath invaded and disturbed the dearest and most peaceable estate of household society, to the overburdening, if not the overwhelming, of many Christians better worth than to be so deserted of the Church's considerate care, this position shall be laid down, first proving, then answering, what may be objected either from Scripture or light of reason.
“ That indisposition, unfitness, or contrariety of mind, arising from a cause in nature unchangeable, hindering, and ever likely to hinder, the main benefits of conjugal society, which are solace and peace ; is a greater reason of divorce than natural frigidity, especially if there be no children, and that there be mutual consent."
Aware that his arguments were destined to encounter much opposition and prejudice, he thus seeks to conciliate the unbiased attention of his readers :-" It shall be here sought by due ways to be made appear, that those words of God in the institution, promising a meet help against loneliness, and those words of Christ, that his yoke is easy, and his burden light,' were not spoken in vain : for if the knot of marriage may in no case be dissolved but for adultery, all the burdens and services of the law are not so intolerable. This only is desired of them who are minded to judge hardly of thus maintaining, that they would be still, and hear all out, nor think it equal to answer deliberate reason with sudden heat and noise ; remembering this, that many truths now of reverend esteem and credit, had their birth and beginning once from singular and private thoughts, while the most of men were otherwise possessed ; and had the fate at first to be generally exploded and exclaimed on by many violent opposers : yet I may err, perhaps, in soothing myself, that this present truth revived will deserve on all hands to be not sinisterly received, in that it undertakes the cure of an inveterate disease crept into the best part of human society; and to do this with no smarting corrosive, but a smooth and pleasing lesson, which received both the virtue to soften and dispel rooted and knotty sorrows, and without enchantment, if that be feared, or spell used, hath regard at once both to serious piety and upright honesty ; that tends to the redeeming and restoring of none but such as are the object of compassion, having in an ill hour hampered themselves, to the utter dispatch of all their most beloved comforts and repose for this life's term. But if we shall obstinately dislike this new overture of unexpected ease and recovery, what remains but to deplore the frowardness of our hopeless condition, which neither can endure the estate we are in, nor admit of remedy either sharp or sweet ? Sharp we ourselves distaste ; and sweet, under whose hands we are, is scrupled and suspected as too luscious. In such a posture Christ found the Jews, who were neither won with the austerity of John the Baptist, and thought it too much licence to follow freely the charming pipe of him who sounded and proclaimed liberty and relief to all distresses : yet truth in some age or other will find her witness, and shall be justified at last by her own children.”
With reference to the effect of the existing system upon personal religion, he has the following observations :“ As those priests of old were not to be long in sorrow, or if they were, they could not rightly execute their function ; so every true Christian in a higher order of priesthood, is a person dedicate to joy and peace, offering himself a lively sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, and there is no Christian duty that is not to be seasoned and set off with cheerishness; which in a thousand outward and intermitting crosses may yet be done well, as in this vale of tears : but in such a bosom affliction as this, crushing the very foundation of his inmost nature, when he shall be forced to love against a possibility, and to use a dissimulation against his soul in the perpetual and ceaseless duties of a husband; doubtless his whole duty of serving God must needs be blurred and tainted with a sad unpreparedness and dejection of spirit, wherein God has no delight. Who sees not, therefore, how much more Christianity it would be to break by divorce that which is more broken by undue and forcible keeping, rather than to cover the altar of the Lord with continual tears, so that he regardeth not the offering any more, rather than that the whole worship of a Christian man's life should languish and fade away beneath the weight of an immeasurable grief and discouragement ?”
“ Nothing more than disturbance of mind suspends us from approaching to God; such a disturbance especially, as both assaults our faith and trust in God's providence, and ends, if there be not a miracle of virtue on either side, not only in bitterness and wrath, the canker of devotion, but in a desperate and vicious carelessness, when he sees himself, without fault of his, trained by a deceitful bait into a snare of misery, betrayed by an alluring ordinance, and then made the thrall of heaviness and discomfort by an undivorcing law of God, as he erroneously thinks, but of man's iniquity, as the truth is ; for that God prefers the free and cheerful worship of a Christian, before the grievance and exacted observance of an unhappy marriage, besides that the general maxims of religion assure us, will be more manifest by drawing a parallel argument from the ground of divorcing an idolatress, which was, lest he should alienate his heart from the true worship of God: and, what difference is there whether she pervert him to superstition by her enticing sorcery, or disenable him in the whole service of God through the disturbance of her unhelpful and unfit society ; and so drive him at last, through murmuring and despair, to thoughts of atheism ? Neither doth it lessen the cause of separating, in that the one willingly allures him from the faith, the other perhaps unwillingly drives him; for in the account of God it comes all to one, that the wife loses him a servant: and therefore, by all the united force of the Decalogue, she ought to be disbanded, unless we must set marriage above God and charity, which is the doctrine of devils, no less than forbidding to marry."
In the following passage he applies to this subject his views of Christian liberty :
“ And, indeed, the papists, who are the strictest forbidders of divorce, are the easiest libertines to admit of grossest uncleanness; as if they had a design by making wedlock a supportless yoke, to violate it most, under colour of preserving it most inviolable ; and withal delighting (as their mystery is) to make men the day labourers of their own afflictions, as if there were such a scarcity of miseries from abroad, that we should be made to melt our choicest home blessings, and coin them into crosses, for want whereby to hold commerce with patience. If any, therefore, who shall hap to read this discourse, hath been through misadventure ill engaged in this contracted evil here complained of, and finds the fits and workings of a high impatience frequently upon him ; of all those wild words which men in misery think to ease themselves by uttering, let him not open his lips against the providence of Heaven,* or tax the ways of God and his divine truth ; for they are equal, easy, and not burdensome; nor do they ever cross the just and reasonable desires of men, nor involve this our portion of mortal life into a necessity of sadness and malcontent, by laws commanding over the unreducible antipathies of nature, sooner or later found, but allow us to remedy and shake off those evils into which human error hath led us through the
* In this eloquent passage we discover the same train of thought which occurs in the opening passage of the “ Paradise Lost:"
What in me is dark,