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SCANTINESS OF THE MATERIAL OFFERED BY MEN LIKE MILTON TO THE
MERE BIOGRAPHER-GREAT MEN PRODUCED IN AGES OF TRANSITION
GENERAL FEATURES OF THE AGE IN WHICH MILTON LIVED-EFFECTS
OF THE REFORMATION-RETENTION OF THE ESSENCE OF POPERY
ALLIANCE OF THE CHURCH WITH THE STATE.
It is a condition, at which it is futile to repine, belonging to those who in all ages have been born to guide a country amidst the stormy vicissitudes of a revolution, that they can be but little known as individuals to succeeding generations. Such men can scarcely be said to have, during their active years, a personal and private life. Scarcely any of those who are either desirous or capable of transmitting to posterity the portraiture of the Man, have close and frequent access to the leaders, whether military or civil, of national transition. And as little, too, have those heroes such close and leisurely access to themselves, as admits of their giving to mankind that most valuable of biographies which can be best, if not solely, recorded by the individual, and which would exhibit the development of those inner principles which, ultimately embodied in their public acts, have influenced or decided the destinies of their country. The biography of such men is, for the most part, little else than a fragment of the history of their times.
To those who can appreciate the loftiest intellectual powers, sustained by vast learning, and enriched with the
rarest treasures of fancy; and moral majesty, relieved of its sternness by the tenderest affections of the heart, it must ever be matter of regret that John Milton is one of those whose intiñnáčỳ they caniröt: énjoy through the familiar introduction of biography: We are, indeed, ushered by history rear enough to his presence to pay our homage; but we can never be presented with that audience of his conversation, and those charming glimpses of his privacy, which have perpetuated the domestic life of so many inferior men, and which, especially in the case of the most eminent, but most unjust of his biographers, has brought us as well acquainted with Dr. Johnson as with our daily associates.
The life of Milton may be divided into three epochs, the occupations of each of which were unfavourable to the interest of a pure biography. The first was spent in amassing those stores of learning which were to his vast intellect what machinery is to motive power. The second, after a brief but romantic interval of travel, was occupied with political and polemical controversy, and with public and official affairs; and the third was spent in a retirement rendered sacred alike by genius and sorrow, in which, from the aggregate resources of his knowledge, and the chastened, yet undiminished, powers of his fancy, he produced the great epic of the English language. Such a life can only be graduated by mental and literary landmarks. Its historical events were few; and, had they been ever so numerous, or ever so prominent, they would have been lost in the splendour of his intellectual career. In such a life, the dates of works as lasting as language, take the place which, in other lives, is occupied by waning victories and dubious and perishable honours.
The main purpose of these pages, however, is to circumscribe the biography of Milton within a still narrower compass. In reproducing to the public the incidents of his life, our chief design will be to develop, and that mainly, in his own stately and impressive language, the principles and views which he maintained on ecclesiastical subjects. These, indeed, formed the staple of his intellectual history. A considerable portion of his prose writings is devoted to the maintenance of these principles ; while, even in those treatises which are purely political, we incessantly find the evidence, not only of his nonconformity to the episcopalian system in general, but especially of his deep-seated aversion to the alliance of any system of belief and worship with the more coarse, unspiritual, and heterogeneous powers of the state.
It was the lot of Milton to flourish in an era of transition; and it is remarkable, though by no means unaccountable, that such times, throughout the history of the world, have produced the men who have most powerfully influenced the destinies of their own age and all succeeding generations. It was amidst the stormiest periods of Grecian history that we find those historians, orators, statesmen, and generals, who at once rescued their age and their memory from oblivion; and it was amidst the transitions of the Roman commonwealth and empire that those minds were nurtured, who, in all the highest pursuits allotted to man, illustrated their age and their species together, and whose writings have nurtured the youth, and attracted the universal admiration of all succeeding times. Almost within our own recollection the overthrow of political and spiritual despotism in France was heralded and attended by minds such as that nation had not been wont to gaze at and applaud, nor the sounder portion of the civilized world to weigh and estimate.
Times, in many respects similar, witnessed the birth and history of John Milton. The revival of letters by the invention of the art of printing had previously communicated an unexampled impulse to the human mind.
The papal religion had heretofore gathered its spoils and consolidated its empire amidst a darkness only broken by occasional rays of art, and occasional luminaries of learning. With what
a cold obliqueness these fell upon the popular mind, let the history of the middle ages testify. In spite of the wild or affected fantasies of the day, it becomes thinking men to designate these as the dark ages. That their institutions preserved to us the treasures of ancient literature, is, indeed, true ; but they preserved them in a coffer of which few ecclesiastics kept the keys, and fewer still used them, save for the purpose of drawing forth and perpetuating monastic rubbish.
This darkness, and the delusions which it harboured, had in this country been partly dispelled by the Reformation. I say partially ; for few readers need be told that in England the principles of the Reformation were but imperfectly carried out. Commenced under a monarch who was one of the basest and most unprincipled of mankind, it was carried on by two parties of whom it is difficult to say which was the more unfavourable to the interests of religion and freedom--the one being solely interested in obtaining the largest measure of secular spoil, and the other in securing the greatest number of the people to aggrandize the power and state of a new but homogeneous hierarchy. The Reformation was a compromise between these parties, and those who desired to restore to the church its primitive purity and simplicity of faith and worship; but the construction of the scheme indicates far more of Jesuitical subtlety than of the Christian manliness of the great reformers. The scheme of the Anglican church propitiated the Protestants by presenting the Scriptures, and adopting various formularies of public worship, in the vernacular language; by abjuring the infallibility of the pope, the adoration of the Virgin, the invocation of saints and angels, the sacrifice of the mass, and the doctrine of meritorious works. But its authors retained and re-established so much of the essence of popery as well-nigh nullified the abjurations. Admitting a priesthood and an altar, they implied a sacrifice; they invested that priesthood with imaginary gifts
descending by direct transmission from the apostles, and through this figment found their way to the doctrine of sacramental efficacy. If they denied the infallibility of the pope, they transferred it to the church,* and added to it the still more baneful dogma of the ecclesiastical supremacy of the monarch. While they abjured the mass they so stated the doctrine of the Eucharist, as to admit of its being wrested (as is commonly done in the present day) to the notion of a perpetual oblation. Their Prayer-book was little else than an English translation of the Romish liturgy and offices, teaching men to invoke and commemorate the saints to whom they had ceased to pray, and to continue the vain repetitions and still vainer material observances which
popery substituted for the “reasonable service” of the human mind.
The observation of Lord Russell, with regard to the scheme of Henry VIII., requires but little modification to make it applicable to every subsequent period :-“The religion established by Henry,” he remarks, “was so far from being the reformed church of Luther, or of Calvin, that he prided himself in maintaining the Roman Catholic faith, after he had shaken off the supremacy of the pope. His ordinances, indeed, vibrated for a short time between the old and the new religion, as he listened more to Cranmer or to Gardiner ; but the law of the six articles, which contains the creed he finally imposed on his people, maintains and confirms all the leading articles of the Roman belief.”
It might be supposed that a church embodying, though in a diluted form, the tenets of the popish religion, but without the prestige of its authority or antiquity, usurping the gorgeous edifices of the Catholic church, but for a worship which was shorn of the splendour which corresponded to them, contained within itself the seeds of rapid dissolution. And, doubtless, its destruction would have been speedy and complete had not its authors moored it safely to the state,
* Article XX: “The Church hath power to decree rites and cere monies, and authority in controversies of faith."