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MILTON'S MARRIAGE-IS DESERTED BY HIS WIFE-PUBLISHES HIS DOC
TRINE AND DISCIPLINE OF DIVORCE-EFFECT OF THE EXISTING LAWS
In the summer of 1643, occurred one of the few known events in Milton's private life. We are informed by Philips, his nephew and first biographer, that about Whitsuntide he took a journey into the country, which no one about him supposed to have any other object than that of recreation. After a month's absence, however, he returned with a wife, having married Mary Powell, the daughter of a gentleman residing at Forest Hill, near Shotover, in Oxfordshire, who held the commission of the peace. No information that has descended to us throws any light upon this extraordinary connexion. Not only were the Powells heartily attached to the cause of Charles I., but their general habits were as inconsistent with the notions of Milton as their political bias was with his principles ; for it would appear, from the brief accounts we have of them, that they indulged in all the gay festivity common among the cavaliers of that day. So ill-assorted a union was not likely to be productive of much happiness to either party. It is probable that the studious and religious habits of her husband were distasteful to the bride, and perhaps the general character of his household was not less so. Having taken a larger
and more commodious house in a court leading from Aldersgate-street, he consented to receive into his household some other pupils, in addition to his nephews. His aged father, also, who, until the spring of 1643, had resided with his younger son at Reading, had, on the taking of that town by the Earl of Essex, come to reside with the poet, in the enjoyment of whose affectionate attentions he spent the remaining four years of his life. Whatever may have been the causes of the young wife's distaste, it is certain that at the expiration of one month from her entering on her new establishment, she obtained his permission to spend the remainder of the summer at her father's house. This voluntary separation of herself from her husband so soon after her marriage, is a sufficient proof of her unfitness for, and probably her unworthiness of, such a union. But though her leave of absence extended only to Michaelmas, there seems little reason to doubt that from the first she contemplated nothing less than the final desertion of her husband. At the expiration of the time limited for her absence, Milton wrote to remind her of her engagement, but to this, as to several other subsequent letters to the same purpose, she never replied. The temporary ascendancy of the monarch's fortunes, by his victories at Atherston Moor and Lansdowne, had revived the hopes of his adherents, and probably furnished motives to the Powell family for repudiating the connexion of one of its members with so eminent a champion of the Parliamentary party; and the consequence was the contemptuous dismission of a messenger whom Milton had sent to accompany his wife to her proper home. This outrage upon the natural claims and the just authority of a husband, at once wounded and incensed the mind of Milton, who, instead of the conjugal happiness he had anticipated, found himself left “with nothing belonging to matrimony but its chain.” These circumstances induced the injured husband to contemplate the ultima ratio of a divorce; and in order to vindicate his 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;