« AnteriorContinuar »
and there can be no doubt that such a mind as his moved with unwonted constraint under the fetters imposed by the frequent rhymes essential to the construction of the sonnet. It is, indeed, best adapted to the language of Italy, in which it is indigenous, and does not arrive at perfection when cultivated in any other soil. Mr. Macaulay takes a different and somewhat novel view of these publications. “ Traces,” he says, “ of the peculiar character of Milton may be found in all his works, but it is most strongly displayed in the sonnets. Those remarkable poems have been underrated by critics who have not understood their nature. They have no epigrammatic point. There is none of the ingenuity of Filicaga in the thought-none of the hard and brilliant enamel of Petrarch in the style. They are simple but majestic records of the feelings of the poet; as little tricked out for the public eye as his diary would have been. A victory, an unexpected attack upon the city, a momentary fit of depression or exultation, a jest thrown out against one of his books, a dream which for a short time restored to him that beautiful face over which the grave had closed for ever, led him to musings which, without effort, shaped themselves into verse. The unity of sentiment and severity of style which characterise these little pieces remind us of the Greek Anthology, or, perhaps, still more, of the Collects of the English Liturgy. The noble poem on the Massacres of Piedmont, is strictly a collect in verse.
“ The sonnets are more or less striking according as the occasions which gave birth to them are more or less interesting. But they are almost without exception dignified by a sobriety and greatness of mind to which we know not where to look for a parallel. It would, indeed, be scarcely safe to draw any
decided inferences as to the character of a writer, from passages directly egotistical. But the qualities which we have ascribed to Milton, though, perhaps, most strongly marked in those parts of his works which treat of his personal feelings, are distinguishable in every page, and impart
to all his writings, prose and poetry, English, Latin, and Italian, a strong family likeness."
Of the sonnets thus specially referred to by these critics, the two following must suffice as specimens. The former was written when an assault on the city was anticipated, the royal forces having advanced as near to it as Brentford.
Captain, or Colonel, or Knight in arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless doors may seize,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms.
That call fame o'er such gentle acts as these,
Whatever clime the sun's bright circle warms.t
The great Emathian conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus, when temple and tower
Of sad Electra's poet had the power
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare." The second is addressed to the Lord General Cromwell, and is as follows:
Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud,
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough’d,
Hast rear'd God's trophies, and his work pursued;
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
To conquer still; Peace hath her victories
No less renown'd than War: new foes arise
Help us to save free conscience from the paw
Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw."
Edinburgh Review, vol. xlii. pp. 324, 325.
first daughter, Anne, who, from some cause unknown, was lame either from her birth or from very early childhood. In the following year occurred the death of his aged and only surviving parent. About the same time his wife's family were restored to the possession of their patrimonial estates, and finally quitted the roof beneath which they had been so generously sheltered. While detailing the few particulars which we possess of Milton's private life at this time, it may be added, that in 1647 his family was increased by the birth of his second daughter, Mary; and that, in the same year, for what reason is not known, he removed from his house in Barbican to one in Holborn, the back part of which opened into Lincoln's-inn-fields.
Meanwhile, public events were occurring of sufficient magnitude to influence the complexion of this country's constitution and destiny, even to the days in which we live, but in which the privacy of Milton's position did not allow of his taking an active part.
The civil war had been virtually terminated by the battle of Naseby, and the misguided monarch was from this time a captive; his condition being only varied by the different degrees of liberty which the caution of his victors, justified by a life of faithlessness and falsehood, inclined them to concede. “They had to deal with a man whom no tie could bind; a man who made and broke promises with equal facility; a man whose honour had been a hundred times pawned, and never redeemed.” The essential duplicity of his character marked every act of that brief period of probation which intervened between the final defeat of his arms and the termination of his career. The leaders of the Parliament and the army, alike wearied out and disgusted with his violation of every agreement which the public safety required him to enter into, arraigned him before the Parliament, and convicted and sentenced him to the death of a traitor. The presbyterians, now removed from power, in s spirit worthy of their recent history, endangered the public
tranquillity by their clamours against the execution of the king. During this time Milton had been silent; he had, indeed, written the work we have next to examine, entitled ** The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates,” in the course of the year 1647, but it was not published until after the execution of the monarch, in January, 1648, and then only for the purpose of composing the public mind, and reconciling the disaffected to the new government. Though we think, says Mr. Macaulay, “ the conduct of the regicides blameable, that of Milton appears to us in a very different light. The deed was done. It could not be undone. The evil was incurred; and the object was to render it as small as possible. We censure the chiefs of the army for not yielding to the popular opinion; but we cannot censure Milton for wishing to change that opinion. The very feeling which would have restrained us from committing the act, would have led us, after it had been committed, to defend it against the ravings of servility and superstition. For the sake of public liberty, we wish that the thing had not been done, while the people disapproved of it. But, for the sake of public liberty, we should also have wished the people to approve of it when it was done."*
Milton himself, at a subsequent period, when it was unnecessary for him to defend himself, declares, “ Neither did I write anything respecting the regal jurisdiction, till the king, proclaimed an enemy by the senate, and overcome in arms, was brought captive to his trial, and condemned to suffer death. When, indeed, some of the presbyterian leaders, lately the most inveterately hostile to Charles, but now irritated by the prevalence of the Independents in the nation and the senate, and stung with resentment, not of the fact, but of their own want of power to commit it, exclaimed against the sentence of the Parliament upon the king, and raised what commotions they could, by daring to assert that the doctrine of the Protestant divines, and of all
* Edinburgh Review, vol. xlii., p. 334.
the reformed churches, was strong in reprobation of this severity to kings,—then at length I conceived it to be my duty publicly to oppose so much obvious and palpable falsehood. Neither did I then direct my argument or persuasion personally against Charles; but, by the testimony of many of the most eminent divines, I proved what course of conduct might lawfully be observed towards tyrants in general ; and, with the zeal almost of a preacher, I attacked the strange ignorance or the wonderful impudence of these men, who had lately amused us with the promises of better things. This work was not published till after the death of the king; and was written rather to tranquillize the minds of men, than to discuss any part of the question respecting Charles—a question the decision of which belonged to the magistrate, and not to me, and which had now received its final determination."
Although Milton had never actively interfered in the measures which led to the execution of Charles, he was no uninterested observer of the great drama of which England was the theatre. No man felt more deeply than he what the most eloquent of his analysts has written, that “he lived at one of the most memorable eras in the history of mankind; at the very crisis of the great conflict between Oromasdes and Arimanes,-liberty and despotism, reason and prejudice. That great battle was fought for no single generation, for no single land. The destinies of the human race were staked on the same cast with the freedom of the English people. Then were first proclaimed those mighty principles which have since worked their way into the depths of the American forests, which have roused Greece from the slavery and degradation of two thousand years, and which, from one end of Europe to the other, have kindled an unquenchable fire in the hearts of the oppressed, and loosed the knees of the oppressors with a strange and unwonted fear!"*
* Edinburgh Review, vol. xlii., pp. 324, 325.