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"Such where the deep transported mind may soar,
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,
To the touch of golden wires."
Along with this soaring tendency to the supra-terrestrial, there may be noted, however, as rendered compatible with it by Milton's peculiar character, a very decided dogmatism in all terrestrial matters. Here again Milton contradicts the usual theory of the poetical character. As it is supposed that the poet should be characterized by mobility of nerve rather than decision of principle, so it is supposed that the poet should not be dogmatic or opinionative, should not have definite personal conclusions leading him to dictate to men in respect of their beliefs or their conduct. "I have actually no opinions of my own whatever, except on matters of taste," is a saying of the poet Keats. Not even in his tenderest youth could this have been said of Milton. There was from the first an unusually strong element of opinionativeness in him. He was a severe critic of what he saw; and, as he was serious and austere in the rule of his own actions, so he confronted the actions of others with a strict judicial gaze. He had his opinions as to the state of the University and the reforms there necessary; and probably also he had views as decided respecting public and political affairs. How this blending in his constitution of the poet with the man of dogma is to be reconciled with the true theory of poetical genius, will be a more proper subject of consideration when we have more of his life in retrospect.
In one quality which sometimes comes to the rescue of men of austere conduct personally, so as to impart a breadth and toleration to their judgments of others, Milton was somewhat deficient. "There are and have been men as strict and austere as he, who yet, by means of a large endowment in the quality of humor, have been able to reconcile themselves to much in human life lying far away from, and even far beneath, the sphere of their own practice and conscientious liking. As Pantagruel, the noble and meditative, endured and even loved those immortal companions of his, the boisterous and profane Friar John, and the cowardly and impish Panurge, so these men, remaining themselves with all rigor and punctuality within the limits of sober and exemplary life, are seen extending their regards to the persons and the doings of a whole circle of reprobate Falstaffs, Pistols, Clowns, and Sir Toby
Belches. They cannot help it. They may and often do blame themselves for it; they wish that, in their intercourse with the world, they could more habitually turn the austere and judicial side of their character to the scenes and incidents that there present themselves, simply saying of each, that is right and worthy,' or that is wrong and unworthy,' and treating it accordingly. But they break down in the trial. Suddenly some incident presents itself which is not only right but clumsy, or not only wrong but comic; and straightway the austere side of their character wheels round to the back, and judge, jury, and witnesses are convulsed with untimely laughter." It was not so with Milton. He could, occasionally, when he chose, condescend to mirth and jocosity, but it was not as one to whom the element was natural. That he had plenty of wit and power of sarcasm, and also that in a ponderous way he could revel in ludicrous images and details, we have already seen; but one would hardly single out humor as one of his chief characteristics.
"That office, however, which humor did not perform for Milton in his first intercourse as a young student with the world of past and present things, was in part performed by what he did in large measure possess-intellectual inquisitiveness." As Milton had by nature an intellect of the highest power, so even in youth he jealously asserted its rights. There was no narrowness even then in his notions of what it was lawful for him to read and study, or even to see and experience. He read, as he himself tells us, books which he considered immoral, and from which young men in general derived little that was good. He thought himself quite at liberty also to indulge in his love of art and music, and to attend theatrical performances, and laugh at what was absurd in them. Probably there was not a youth at Cambridge who would have more daringly resented any interference with his intellectual freedom from any quarter whatsoever. They might call him "the lady" at Christ's College with respect to his personal demeanor; but he could show on occasion that he had no need to yield to the roughest of them with respect to the extent of his information. In fine, I can say for myself, that, having read much in the writings, both in prose and in verse, both in Latin and in English, that remain to show what kind of men were the most eminent by reputation and the highest by place among Milton's academic contemporaries from 1625 to 1632, I have no doubt whatever left that, not in promise merely, but in actual faculty and acquisition while he yet moved amidst them, Milton was without an equal in the whole University.
CHURCH AND GOVERNMENT: BISHOP LAUD.
WHEN Milton went to Cambridge, it had been with the intention that he should enter the Church. Before he had taken his Master's degree, however, this intention had been entirely, or all but entirely, abandoned. There exists an interesting letter of his, written about the very time when his determination against the Church began to be taken; and in this letter he describes the reasons of his hesitation at some length. The letter, of which there are two drafts in Milton's hand-writing in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, must have been written in December 1631, or in the early part of 1631-2; and it was clearly sent, or meant to be sent, to some friend in Cambridge, his senior in years, who had been remonstrating with him on his aimless course of life at the University. The letter has been alluded to in its proper place in the preceding chapter, but it has been reserved to be quoted here:1
SIR, Besides that in sundry respects I must acknowledge me to profit by you whenever we meet, you are often to me, and were yesterday especially, as a good watchman to admonish that the hours of the night pass on (for so I call my life, as yet obscure and unserviceable to mankind), and that the day with me is at hand, wherein Christ commands all to labor, while there is light. Which, because I am persuaded you do to no other purpose than out of a true desire that God should be honored in every one, I therefore think myself bound, though unasked, to give you an account, as oft as occasion is, of this my tardy moving, according to the precept of my conscience, which I firmly trust is not without God. Yet now I will not strain for any set apology, but only refer myself to what my mind shall have at any time to declare herself at her best ease.
'But if you think, as you said, that too much love of learning is in fault, and that I have given up myself to dream away my years in the arms of studious retirement,
1 I quote the second draft, which is much the longer; but both drafts are printed in Birch's Life of Milton, prefixed to his edition of Milton's Works (vol. I. pp. iv.-vi.), and there is some interest in comparing them. In the second draft, Milton is content, for the
first few sentences, with simply correcting the language of the first; but in the remaining portion he throws the first draft all but entirely aside, and re-writes the same meaning more at large in a series of new sentences. Evidently he took pains with the letter.
like Endymion with the moon, as the tale of Latmus goes; yet consider that if it were no more but the mere love of learning- whether it proceed from a principle bad, good, or natural — it could not have held out thus long against so strong opposition on the other side of every kind. For, if it be bad, why should not all the fond hopes that forward youth and vanity are fledge with, together with gain, pride, and ambition, call me forward more powerfully than a poor, regardless and unprofitable sin of curiosity should be able to withhold me; whereby a man cuts himself off from all action, and becomes the most helpless, pusillanimous, and unweaponed creature in the world, the most unfit and unable to do that which all mortals most aspire to - either to be useful to his friends or to offend his enemies? Or, if it be to be thought a natural proneness, there is against that a much more potent inclination inbred, which about this time of a man's life solicits most- - the desire of house and family of his own; to which nothing is esteemed more helpful than the carly entering into credible employment, and nothing hindering than this affected solitariness. And though this were enough, yet there is another act, if not of pure, though of refined nature, no less available to dissuade prolonged obscurity -a desire of honor and repute and immortal fame, seated in the breast of every true scholar; which all make haste to by the readiest ways of publishing and divulging conceived merits as well those that shall, as those that never shall, obtain it. Nature, therefore, would presently work the more prevalent way, if there were nothing but this inferior bent of herself to restrain her. Lastly, the love of learning, as it is the pursuit of something good, it would sooner follow the more excellent and supreme good known and presented, and so be quickly diverted from the empty and fantastic chase of shadows and notions, to the solid good flowing from due and timely obedience to that command in the Gospel set out by the terrible feasing of him that hid the talent.
"It is more probable, therefore, that not the endless delight of speculation, but this very consideration of that great commandment, does not press forward, as soon as many do, to undergo, but keeps off, with a sacred reverence and religious advisement how best to undergo― not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit; for those that were latest lost nothing, when the master of the vineyard came to give each one his hire. And here I am come to a stream-head, copious enough to disburden itself, like Nilus, at seven mouths into an ocean. But then I should also run into a reciprocal contradiction of ebbing and flowing at once, and do that which I excuse myself for not doing-preach and not preach. Yet, that you may see that I am something suspicious of myself, and do take notice of a certain belatedness in me, I am the bolder to send you some of my nightward thoughts some while since, because they come in not altogether unfitly, made up in a Petrarchian stanza, which I told you of:
[ON HIS BEING ARRIVED AT THE AGE OF 23.]
'How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
Perhaps my semblance might deceive the truth
And inward ripeness doth much less appear
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven.
As ever in my great Taskmaster's eye.'1
"By this I believe you may well repent of having made mention at all of this matter; for, if I have not all this while won you to this, I have certainly wearied you of it. This, therefore, alone may be a sufficient reason for me to keep me as I am, lest having thus tired you singly, I should deal worse with a whole congregation, and spoil all the patience of a parish; for I myself do not only see my own tediousness, but now grow offended with it, that has hindered me thus long from coming to the last and best period of my letter, and that which must now chiefly work my pardon, - that I am Your true and unfeigned friend," etc.
In this letter, it will be perceived, Milton says nothing of any conscientious objections he may have entertained against the doctrine or discipline of the Church. All that he says is that he did not yet see his way clear to the ministerial office, and preferred waiting, even at the risk of being late in his decision. There can be no doubt, however, that, even at the time the letter was written, the chief reason of his reluctance was that which, ten years afterwards, he expressed more boldly as follows:
"The Church, to whose service, by the intentions of my parents and friends, I was destined of a child, and in mine own resolutions, till, coming to some maturity of years, and perceiving what tyranny had invaded in the Church—that he who would take orders must subscribe slave, and take an oath withal, which unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either perjure or split his faith-I thought it better to prefer a blameless silence before the sacred office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing. Howsoever thus Church-outed by the prelates, hence may appear the right I have to meddle in these matters as before the necessity and constraint appeared."
1 This sonnet, originally published in 1645, with the heading given in the text, fixes the date of the letter. The sonnet must have been written on or near the 9th of December,
1631; the letter may have been written a month or two later.
2 The Reason of Church-Government (1641): Works, III. 150.