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Vol. IX. Part I.
Art. I.-AREOPAGITICA: A Speech for the Liberty of unlicensed
Printing, to the Parliament of England. By John Milton, 1644.
It may, we think, safely be affirmed that nine tenths of those, who are accustomed to pronounce the name of Milton with emotions of admiration and respect, are for the most part no farther acquainted with his immortal works, than by occasionally looking over the first three books of Paradise Lost, and a few scattered passages of the remainder. If we allow a casual perusal or two of Comus, and the minor poems, it is all that the justice of criticism can concede to the generality of readers. And this we believe, in conscience, is more or less the case with the greater part of the idols of antiquity, whose works are rather regarded with superstitious reverence than with sincere and heartfelt veneration. The worship of our ancient writers is grown into an established faith. They are accordingly regarded with much apparent deference; and enjoy the ceremonial applause of many seeming votaries, who acquiesce in their claims to admiration, because they have been long hereditary, but without any active participation in the zeal which still animates the orthodox belief of a few remaining devotees. For one catholic admirer of Shakspeare and Milton, we have little doubt that Scott and Byron would enumerate twenty heretical disciples.
We do not mean to pass sentence of unqualified condemnation on the taste which prefers the freshness and enthusiasm
of the latter, to the staid and manly vigour of the former writers. There is, doubtless, much prejudice on both sides. And much as we feel interested in asserting the reputation of our older literature, we willingly confess that its defenders are too apt to exaggerate its merits, and depreciate with ignorant partiality the excellence of later authors. Without yielding one tittle of our devotion to Shakspeare and Milton, and the host of exalted names which adorn our earlier poetry, we are not too bigotted to admit the immeasurable superiority of modern authors, in every thing relating to abstract science—and especially to politics and morals--over those of every previous age. This acknowledged and general superiority must never be forgotten for an instant in the review of our earlier writers; and we carefully disclaim all intention of attempting, in the following article, to vindicate the character of our great poet, as a political or moral speculator. We must not expect from Milton a defence of the freedom of the press built on the same principles, or argued with the same precision and perspicuity, which we should look for in the treatise of a modern jurist. The merit of the former must be sought rather in the boldness and daring singularity of his opinions as a political writer, than in their originality or truth. But this is no little merit. Right or wrong, it was no common intellect which adopted, in that fanatical and superstitious age, the doctrine of free divorce and unlimited liberty of printing. Opinions so opposite to the common notions of men, whether true or false, could only be arrived at by one who had habituated himself to the fearless admission of the conclusions of his understanding on all subjects, however hostile to the suggestions of prejudice or custom. This consideration is sufficient to inspire us with respect, even for the errors of such a thinker. And we accordingly approach the prose works of the immortal poet, although without much hope of instruction, yet with great respect for his integrity, and with more than the common share of indulgence which must be accorded to every writer of his time on topics of abstract science.
As the present article, as well as those we may hereafter find occasion to write on the subject of Milton's prose works, is intended not so much to excite the attention of our readers to the originals themselves, as to supply the necessity of perusing them ; we shall make no apology for giving an ample account of their style and contents. We could not conscientiously recommend a perusal of the works themselves to any who are able and inclined to study the more perfect writings of modern authors. A brief knowledge of them is all that is desirable, either for ornament or use; and this it is our present purpose to supply. We will, therefore, 'proceed without farther preface to analyse the Essay, of which the title is prefixed to the present article. It is interesting in many points of view, and