The Prose Works of John Milton/Biographical introduction

Biographical introduction to the Prose Works of John Milton
by Rufus Wilmot Griswold

First published in 1847, this essay served as the introduction to a two-volume collection of the prose writings of John Milton.

286548Biographical introduction to the Prose Works of John MiltonRufus Wilmot Griswold

On the ninth day of December, 1608, John Milton was born in London.

It was near the close of the golden age of England. Spenser had been dead ten years. Shakspeare was alive, but had ceased to write. Bacon was in the meridian of his power, but was known already to be one of the meanest of mankind, and neither his genius nor his station secured respect.

The father of Milton had been disinherited for becoming a Protestant; but not until the completion of his studies at Oxford, where he was distinguished for his scholarship, taste and accomplishments.[1] Deprived of his patrimony, he adopted the profession of a scrivener, in the practice of which he was so successful as to be able to give his son a liberal education, and at an early age to retire with a competence into the country.

The instruction of Milton was carefully attended to: his private tutor was Thomas Young, a Puritan minister, who remained with him until compelled on account of his religious opinions to leave the kingdom. In 1624, soon after entering upon his sixteenth year, he was sent to Cambridge, where he was committed to the tuition of Mr. Chappell, afterwards a bishop, and the reputed author of The Whole Duty of Man. He had already made astonishing progress in learning. He was familiar with several languages, and with the most abstruse books in philosophy. Before he was eighteen, he studied critically the best Greek and Roman authors, and wrote more elegant Latin verses than were ever before produced by an Englishman.

After remaining seven years at the university, where he took the degrees of bachelor and master of arts, he returned to his father’s house, at Horton, near Colebrook, whither, he says, he was accompanied by the regrets of most of the fellows of his college, who showed him no common marks of friendship and esteem. In the malignant and envious life of Milton by Dr. Johnson, there is an endeavour to prove that he was expelled from Cambridge for some misdemeanor, or that he went away in discontent because unable to obtain preferment, to spend his time in the company of lewd women, and in the play-houses of London. All this is false. It is evident from what has been written on the subject, that he committed no act deserving punishment or regret. He left Cambridge because his theological opinions, and his views of ecclesiastical independence, not permitting him to enter the church, a longer stay there was not required. He believed that he who would accept orders, “must subscribe himself slave, and take an oath withal, which unless he took with a conscience that would retch, he must either straight perjure himself, or split his faith;” and he deemed it “better to prefer a blameless silence, before the learned office of speaking, bought and begun with servitude and forswearing.”

On his father’s estate Milton passed happily five years of uninterrupted leisure, occasionally visiting London to enjoy the theatres and the conversation of his friends, or to learn something new in mathematics or music. He wrote here the Mask of Comus, and Lycidas, the Arcades, L'Allegro, and Il Penseroso, a series of poems alike extraordinary for the sublimity and beauty of their conception, and for the exquisite finish of their execution.

On the death of his mother, in 1637, when he was about twenty-nine years of age, he became anxious to visit foreign parts, and particularly Italy. His reasons for wishing to travel, as quaintly expressed by his biographer Toland, were, that “he could not better discern the preëminence and defects of his own country, than by observing the customs and institutions of others; and that the study of never so many books, without the advantages of conversation, serves either to render a man a fool or a pedant.” Obtaining permission of his father, he left England in 1638, accompanied by a single servant, and bearing a letter of direction and advice from Sir Henry Wotton. He arrived in Paris, the most accomplished Englishman who had ever crossed the Channel, and was courteously received by the ambassador of King Charles, who introduced him to the celebrated Grotius, then representative of the queen of Sweden at the court of France. The best account of his travels is contained in the brief autobiography which opens his Second Defence of the People of England. He soon set out for Italy, and taking ship at Nice, visited Genoa, Leghorn, Pisa and Florence. “In the latter city,” he says, “which I have always more particularly esteemed for the elegance of its dialect, its genius, and its taste, I stopped about two months; when I contracted an intimacy with many persons of rank and learning; and was a constant attendant at the literary parties, which prevail there, and tend so much to the diffusion of knowledge and the preservation of friendship. No time will ever abolish the agreeable recollections which I cherish of Jacob Gaddi, Carolo Dati, Frescobaldo, Cultellero, Bonnomatthai, Clementillo, Francisco, and many others. From Florence I went to Siena, thence to Rome, where, after I had spent about two months in viewing the antiquities of that renowned city, where I experienced the most friendly attentions from Lucas Holstein, and other learned and ingenious men, I continued my route to Naples. There I was introduced by a certain recluse, with whom I had travelled from Rome, to John Baptista Manso, Marquis of Villa, a nobleman of distinguished rank and authority, to whom Torquato Tasso, the illustrious poet, inscribed his book on friendship. During my stay, he gave me singular proofs of his regard; he himself conducted me round the city, and to the palace of the viceroy; and more than once paid me a visit at my lodgings. On my departure he gravely apologized for not having shown me more civility, which he said he had been restrained from doing, because I had spoken with so little reserve on matters of religion. When I was preparing to pass over into Sicily and Greece, the melancholy intelligence which I received, of the civil commotions in England, made me alter my purpose; for I thought it base to be travelling for amusement abroad, while my fellow citizens were fighting for liberty at home. While I was on my way back to Rome, some merchants informed me that the English Jesuits had formed a plot against me if I returned to Rome, because I had spoken too freely on religion; for it was a rule which I laid down to myself in those places, never to be the first to begin any conversation on religion; but if any questions were put to me concerning my faith, to declare it without any reserve or fear. I nevertheless returned to Rome. I took no steps to conceal either my person or my character; and for about the space of two months, I again openly defended, as I had done before, the reformed religion in the very metropolis of popery. By the favour of God, I got safe back to Florence, where I was received with as much affection as if I had returned to my native country. There I stopped as many months as I had done before, except that I made an excursion for a few days to Lucca; and crossing the Apennines, passed through Bologna and Ferrara to Venice. After I had spent a month in surveying the curiosities of this city, and had put on board a ship the books which I had collected in Italy, I proceeded through Verona and Milan, and along the Leman lake to Geneva. The mention of this city brings to my recollection the slandering More, and makes me again call the Deity to witness, that in all those places, in which vice meets with so little discouragement, and is practised with so little shame, I never once deviated from the paths of integrity and virtue, and perpetually reflected that, though my conduct might escape the notice of men, it could not elude the inspection of God. At Geneva I held daily conferences with John Deodati, the learned professor of theology. Then pursuing my former route through France, I returned to my native country, after an absence of one year and about three months; at the time when Charles, having broken the peace, was renewing what is called the episcopal war with the Scots; in which the royalists being routed in the first encounter, and the English being universally and justly disaffected, the necessity of his affairs at last obliged him to convene a parliament.”

On his arrival in London, Milton could discover no way in which he might directly serve the state, and he therefore hired a spacious house for himself and his books, and resumed his literary pursuits; calmly awaiting the issue of the contest, which he “trusted to the wise conduct of Providence, and the courage of the people.”

He now undertook the education of his sister’s sons, John and Edward Phillips, and subsequently received a few other pupils, whom he instructed in the best learning of the ancients and moderns. Johnson sneers at Milton’s “great promise and small performance,” in returning from the continent because his country was in danger, and then opening a private school. But it was not from cowardice that he preferred the closet to the field, and he saw no absurdity in adding to his light income by teaching, while he wrote his immortal works on the nature and necessity of liberty. “I did not,” he says in his Defensio Secunda, “for any other reason decline the dangers of war, than that I might in another way, with much more efficacy, and with not less danger to myself, render assistance to my countrymen, and discover a mind neither shrinking from adverse fortune, nor actuated by any improper fear of calumny or death. Since from my childhood I had been devoted to the more liberal studies, and was always more powerful in my intellect than in my body, avoiding the labours of the camp, in which any robust soldier would have surpassed me, I betook myself to those weapons which I could wield with the most effect; and I conceived that I was acting wisely when I thus brought my better and more valuable faculties, those which constituted my principal strength and consequence, to the assistance of my country and her honourable cause.”

Milton was a silent and calm, but careful and far seeing spectator of the general agitation. The outrageous abuses of power by the weak minded and passionate king, and the despotism of the episcopal officers, caused the popular heart to beat as the sea heaves in a storm; and the restraints of established authority, made weaker every day by over exertion, were soon altogether to cease. The Long Parliament was in session; the bigoted and persecuting Primate had been impeached; and the Second Spirit of the Revolution stepped before the audience of the world, to be in all the great period which followed the most earnest and powerful champion of the cause of the people. “I saw,” he says, “that a way was opening for the establishment of real liberty; that the foundation was laying for the deliverance of man from the yoke of slavery and superstition; that the principles of religion, which were the first objects of our care, would exert a salutary influence on the manners and constitution of the republic; and as I had from my youth studied the distinctions between religious and civil rights, I perceived that if I ever wished to be of use, I ought at least not to be wanting to my country, to the church, and to so many of my fellow Christians, in a crisis of so much danger; I therefore determined to relinquish the other pursuits in which I was engaged, and to transfer the whole force of my talents and my industry to this one important object.”

He accordingly wrote and published in the year 1641 his first work in prose, under the title Of Reformation in England, and the Causes that hitherto have hindered it. In this he attempts to show that prelacy is incompatible with civil liberty, and to the support of this proposition he brings learning more various and profound, a power of reasoning, and an impassioned eloquence, unprecedented in English controversy. The treatise ends with the following prayer, “piously laying the sad condition of England before the footstool of the Almighty;” than which, as Sir Edgerton Brydges well observes, “there is not a more sublime and patriotic ode in any language.”

“Thou, therefore, that sittest in light and glory unapproachable, Parent of angels and men! next, thee I implore, omnipotent King, Redeemer of that lost remnant whose nature thou didst assume, ineffable and everlasting Love! and thou, the third subsistence of divine infinitude, illumining Spirit, the joy and solace of created things! one Tripersonal Godhead! look upon this thy poor and almost spent and expiring church; leave her not thus a prey to these importunate wolves, that wait and think long, till they devour thy tender flock; these wild boars that have broken into thy vineyard, and left the print of their polluting hoofs on the souls of thy servants. O let them not bring about their damned designs, that stand now at the entrance of the bottomless pit, expecting the watchword to open and let out those dreadful locusts and scorpions, to reinvolve us in that pitchy cloud of infernal darkness, where we shall never more see the sun of thy truth again, never hope for the cheerful dawn, never more hear the bird of morning sing. Be moved with pity at the afflicted state of this our shaken monarchy, that now lies labouring under her throes, and struggling against the grudges of more dreadful calamities.

“O thou, that, after the impetuous rage of five bloody inundations, and the succeeding sword of intestine war, soaking the land in her own gore, didst pity the sad and ceaseless revolution of our swift and thick-coming sorrows; wher we were quite breathless, of thy free grace didst motion peace, and terms of covenant with us; and having first well-nigh freed us from antichristian thraldom, didst build up this Britannic empire to a glorious and enviable height, with all her daughter-islands about her; stay us in this felicity, let not the obstinacy of our half-obedience and will-worship bring forth that viper of sedition, that for these fourscore years has been breeding to eat through the entrails of our peace; but let her cast her abortive spawn without the danger of this travailing and throbbing kingdom: that we may still remember in our solemn thanksgivings, how for us, the northern ocean even to the frozen Thule, was scattered with the proud shipwrecks of the Spanish armada, and the very maw of hell ransacked, and made to give up her concealed destruction, ere she could vent it in that horrible and damned blast.

“O how much more glorious will those former deliverances appear, when we shall know them not only to have saved us from greatest miseries past, but have reserved us for greatest happiness to come! Hitherto thou hast but freed us, and that not fully, from the unjust and tyrannous claim of thy foes; now unite us entirely, and appropriate us to thyself, tie us everlastingly in willing homage to the prerogative of thy eternal throne.

“And now we know, O thou our most certain hope and defence, that thine enemies have been consulting all the sorceries of the great whore, and have joined their plots with that sad intellingencing tyrant that mischiefs the world with his mines of Ophir, and lies thirsting to revenge his naval ruins that have larded our seas: but let them all take counsel together, and let it come to nought; let them decree, and do thou cancel it; let them gather themselves, and be scattered; let them embattle themselves, and be broken; let them embattle, and be broken, for thou art with us.

“Then amidst the hymns and hallelujahs of saints, some one may perhaps be heard offering at high strains in new and lofty measures, to sing and celebrate thy divine mercies and marvellous judgments in this land throughout all ages; whereby this great and warlike nation, instructed and inured to the fervent and continual practice of truth and righteousness, and casting far from her the rangs of her old vices, may press on hard to that high and happy emulation to be found the soberest, wisest, and most Christian people at that day, when thou, the eternal and shortly-expected King, shalt open the clouds to judge the several kingdoms of this world, and distributing national honours and rewards to religious and just commonwealths, shalt put an end to all earthly tyrannies, proclaiming thy universal and mild monarchy through heaven and earth; where they, undoubtedly, that by their labours, counsels, and prayers, have been earnest for the common good of religion and their country, shall receive above the inferior orders of the blessed, the regal addition of principalities, legions, and thrones into their glorious titles, and in supereminence of beatific vision, progressing the dateless and irrevoluble circle of eternity, shall clasp inseparable hands with joy and bliss, in overmeasure for ever.”

To this, and other attacks of the Puritan writers, Bishops Hall and Usher soon after replied; the first in An humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament, and the last in The Apostolical Institution of Episcopacy. Milton had commenced the controversy, and he did not shrink from its prosecution. He thought that on subjects to the consideration of which he was early led solely by his love of truth and reverence for Christianity, he should not reason worse than they who were contending only for their emoluments and usurpations. He wrote, therefore, in answer to the bishops, the tract on Prelatical Episcopacy, and in the same year, The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelacy. In the preface to the second book of this last treatise, he discloses with a calm confidence the high opinion he held of his own powers, and gives promise of a work which his mind, in the spacious circuit of her musing, had proposed to herself, “not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, but by devout prayer to the eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases.” This is the prophetic announcement of Paradise Lost, from which he turned for a while his thoughts, in obedience to “God’s secretary Conscience,” to “embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes.”

Bishop Hall came out with a Defence of the Remonstrance, which was quickly succeeded by Milton’s Animadversions, in the form of a dialogue, and written in a lighter and more satirical vein than his previous works, though not without some passages of solemn and impressive eloquence.

In the beginning of the year 1642 an anonymous reply to the Animadversions appeared, under the title of A Modest Confutation of a Slanderous and Scurrilous Libel, in which Milton was assailed with every sort of rancorous abuse; and Christian men were called upon to “stone him to death,” lest they should smart from his impunity. In his Apology for Smectymnuus,[2] which followed soon after, he repulsed and overthrew his adversaries with their own weapons, and put an end by the unapproachable ability of his argument, to the prelatical controversy. In the beginning of the year 1642, the English hierarchy was abolished by act of parliament, with the royal assent: so rapid and so powerful was the influence of a mighty genius upon the opinion and action of the nation.

Milton was now but thirty-four years of age. Had he never written more than the works already finished, he would have been one of the greatest benefactors of the church and of mankind. He had surpassed all the masters of eloquence in his own country and language, and equalled the greatest of all the ages, in those voices for liberty which, though long silent, are destined to ring with a clear and sonorous sound through many centuries around the world. Shakspeare had shown the capacities of our tongue for harmony and beauty. Milton, rivalling his immortal predecessor in mastery of its melodies, developed all its vigour and grandeur, and by his words fought such battles as the genius of his elder brother alone might fittingly record.

His form was cast in the finest mould of manly beauty; no one surpassed him in elegance of manners; and his carriage “bespoke undauntedness and courage.” His voice was variably musical, and his conversational abilities never were approached, perhaps, unless in those of one of the most illustrious Englishmen of this present age. In the mornings of winter he was “up and stirring ere the sound of any bell awoke men to labour or devotion; in summer as oft, with the bird that first rouses, to read good authors till the attention was weary or the memory had its fraught;” so possessed was he “with a fervent desire to know good things, and with the dearest charity to infuse a knowledge of them into others.” Yet he sometimes indulged his passion for the observation of external beauty, for in the fine days of spring, he thought, “in the vernal seasons of the year when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake of her rejoicing with heaven and earth.”

The marriage of Milton was unfortunate, and it gave a new direction to his literary labours. His susceptibility to impressions from loveliness is shown in the episode of his history which connects it with that of Leonora Baroni of Rome. He was now suddenly captivated by the person and manners of Mary, a daughter of Richard Powell of Oxfordshire, whom he married and brought to London. Of a royalist family, and accustomed to an affluent gayety, she soon grew weary of the frugality and quiet simplicity which reigned in the house of her husband, and in a few weeks requested permission to revisit her relatives, with whom she remained, in spite of his remonstrances, the whole summer, refusing even to answer his letters or to see his messengers. This so incensed him, that he resolved to repudiate her on the grounds of disobedience and desertion; and to justify himself he published in 1644, The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, addressed to the parliament. He held it to be an absurdity that every union by priest or magistrate, of parties reeling from the bagnio or under the influence of any fraud or terror, was a joining by God, and that an unsuitable disposition of mind was a far better reason for divorce than such infirmities of body as were good grounds in law, provided there were a mutual consent for separation. The treatise was soon followed by The Judgment of Martin Bucer Concerning Divorce, and in the next year by Tetrachordon and Colasterion, the last being a reply to an anonymous assailant. He exhibited in no other works more accurate and extensive learning, or greater skill in argument; and if his assumptions are wrong, his reasoning is to this day unanswered. These treatises kindled against him the enmity of the Presbyterian divines, who, unmindful of his recent important services, now assailed him from the pulpit and the press with malignant bitterness, and even caused him to be summoned before the parliament, by which tribunal however he was promptly acquitted, so that his persecutors by their weak wickedness gained no advantage, and alienated forever the most powerful supporter of their cause. The battle of Naseby had now destroyed the hopes of the royalists, and the Powells perceiving that they might need Milton’s protection, and alarmed lest he should contract a second marriage, contrived an interview between him and his wife, in which she begged his pardon, and was generously restored to her home, where, in a few years, she died.

In the same year in which Milton wrote his works on divorce, he also produced his remarkable Tractate on Education, in which are embodied all the best ideas of the next two centuries on the subject; and that Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, which in the splendour of its diction and the irresistible force of its reasoning, continues to be without a parallel in the literature of the world. He was the first to assert the unlimited right of discussion, and has left nothing to be said on this question by succeeding ages. “Who knows not,” he exclaims, “that truth is strong! Next to the Almighty, she needs no policies, no stratagems, no licensings, to make her victorious.” “Though all the winds of doctrine were let loose upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we injure her to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” The Presbyterians had been from the first hypocritical in their advocacy of freedom. They only preferred the Genevan gown to the cassock. They would permit the publication of no book which their illiterate or illiberal licensers could not understand, or which contained sentiments above the vulgar superstition. But under the Protectorate, when this Speech was read by Cromwell, whose genuine greatness triumphed over enslaving precedents, its lofty eloquence and faultless argument induced him to establish by law that perfect freedom of the intellect without which all other liberty is a mockery.

For a while Milton returned to those more elegant pursuits to which he was led by the genial power of nature, and in 1645 brought out a collection of his early poems. The execution of Charles in 1648, however, caused the direction of his attention once more to public affairs, and a few weeks after that event he published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, wherein he maintained that it is lawful and had been held so through all ages for any who have the power to call to account a tyrant, and after due conviction to depose and put him to death. Sir Edgerton Brydges remarks of this proposition, that it is so objectionable as in these days to require no refutation; but in the United States, where the divine right of any man to oppress his fellows is not held, we think differently; and our admiration of Milton suffers no abatement, but rather is greater, for this and other works of like spirit which have been the prime causes of the unjust estimation in which he continues to be held in his own country. No one questions that Charles was a “traitor, a murderer, and a public enemy,” whose very existence was perilous to every sort of liberty in England; and though the constitution was defective in providing no way for convicting and punishing the first officer of the state, however flagrant might be his crimes, the right to call him to account remained with the people, forever possessing ultimate sovereignty over every authority but that of the Almighty.

Soon after the death of Charles, a book appeared under the title of Εἰϰον Βασιλιϰη, or a Portraiture of his Sacred Majesty in his Solitudes and Sufferings, purporting to be by the “royal martyr” himself, but since ascertained to be the production of Dr. Gauden, bishop of Exeter. In this he is represented in the constant exercise of prayer to God for the justice and mercy which were denied him by men. It was calculated to produce a strong reaction in the public mind in his favour, and the sale of fifty thousand copies in a few weeks showed the necessity of counteracting its influence. For this purpose the Council of State determined to avail itself of the abilities of its new secretary, who wrote with his customary rapidity the Ειϰονοϰλαστης, one of the most extraordinary of his works, of which his great learning, clear and energetic style and acute and close reasoning, lead the reader’s conviction with his admiration to the end.

Milton had scarcely finished this unanswerable work when he was called upon to do battle for the republican party on a wider field. Thus far his audience had been the English nation; he was now to address the family of civilized mankind. The son of the late king having found a refuge in the states of Holland, prevailed upon Claudius Salmasius, in the general estimation the first scholar of the age, to undertake the vindication of prelacy and monarchy in his Defensio Regia pro Carolo Primo ad Carolum Secundum, which was published near the close of the year 1649. Although this book disappointed the learned by its want of method and occasional feebleness, the arsenal whence Burke drew the artillery of his most powerful declamation cannot be so contemptible a performance as it has been the custom to represent it. Certainly, addressed as it was to the fraternity of kings, and with the weight it derived from the name of Salmasius, it was likely to produce an effect, and the Council of State saw at once that it must be answered. Milton was present at their sitting when they resolved that he should meet the champion of the Pretender. His sight was already greatly impaired, and he was warned by his physicians that total blindness would inevitably result from such labours; but he would listen to no voice opposed to that of the heavenly monitor within his breast. He finished early in 1651 the immortal Defensio pro Populo Anglicano contra Claudii Salmasii Defensionem Regem, the most masterly work in all written controversy; and while the darkness was stealing upon his eyes, overplied in the defence of liberty, he heard “all Europe ring from side to side” with his great triumph over the insolent and mercenary defender of despotism, who stole from amid a storm of hisses into obscurity and died.

Notwithstanding his blindness, Milton continued to discharge the duties of his office; and two years after his loss of sight he contracted a second marriage with Catherine, a daughter of Captain Woodcock, to whom he was bound by the fondest affection. Within a year after their union however she died, like his first wife, in giving birth to a child, who soon followed her to the grave.

Several replies to the Defence by Milton were published, but the only one which he condescended to notice was Regii Sanguinis Clamor ad Cælum adversus Parricidas Anglicanos, written by De Moulin, a Frenchman, but printed at the Hague, under the editorship of one Alexander More, who for a considerable time was reputed to be its author. It was full of the grossest abuse of the parliament as well as of Milton, who in his answer, entitled Defensio Secunda pro Populo Anglicano contra Infamem Libellum anonymum cui titulus Regii Sanguinis Clamor, etc. treated More with merited severity, exploring the privacies of his licentiousness as well as the falsehood of his slanders. This Second Defence is not equal to the reply to Salmasius, though it has passages of unsurpassed power and beauty, and is valuable for the information it contains respecting Milton’s own history and the motives by which he regulated his actions, and for its striking portraitures of Cromwell and some other members of the republican party. With this and two subsequent answers to More, he closed his controversial labours, though he still continued to serve the state as foreign secretary. The greatness of his intellect and the purity of his heart are too conspicuous in all his works for any one to doubt the inherent grandeur of his character; and nearly the only ground upon which any one ventures now to assail him is that of his having continued in office under the Protector, whom it is a custom of English sophomores to denounce as a parricide and an usurper, but whom the intelligent and true hearted in all nations look upon as one of the noblest patriots and statesmen who ever guided the course of empire. His victories won, and an imperial crown within his grasp, with an unparelleled moderation he gave his countrymen the most free and perfect of constitutions, reserving to himself powers scarcely equal to those of a president of our own republic. The career of no ruler was ever marked by more justice, wisdom, or genuine love of country; and though Milton may have disapproved of some acts of his administration, it was not inconsistent with any of his professions or principles, or with anything that has been said in praise of him, that he continued to be his associate in office and his friend.

Until the close of the Protectorate, Milton’s leisure hours were principally devoted to the collection of materials for a Latin Thesaurus, the composition of two additional books of his History of England, and the laying of the foundation of his immortal epic poem. In the autumn of the year 1658 Oliver Cromwell died; and the extraordinary conflict of parties which followed, resulted in the restoration of the monarchy.

In the interval between the death of the great Englishman and the return of Charles the Second, Milton was not inactive. In the year 1659 he published a Treatise of Civil Power in Ecclesiastical Causes, showing that it is not lawful for any authority to compel in matters of religion; Considerations touching the likeliest Means to remove Hirelings out of the Church, in which be contended for the voluntary system of supporting religion, which has since so successfully obtained in the United States but which was then everywhere regarded as impracticable or dangerous; a Letter to a Friend concerning the Ruptures of the State; and his Letter to General Monk. In 1660 appeared the Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and The Excellen thereof compared with the Inconveniences and Dangers of readmitting Kingship into the Realm; and soon after, Brief Notes upon a late Sermon entitled The Fear of God and the King, preached and published by Matthew Griffith, Chaplain to Charles the First, in which, upon the very eve of the restoration, he continued to assert his republican principles.

Milton had acted too conspicuous a part to live openly with safety in the capital, and before Charles entered London, therefore, he concealed himself in the house of an acquaintance, where he remained until the passage of the act of oblivion, in the exceptions of which his name was happily omitted, through the intercessions of some of his friends. Soon after returning to society, he was a third time married, in consequence of the neglect and unkindness of his daughters, upon whom he had depended for the management of his domestic affairs. To this period he alludes in the passage of his Samson Agonistes in which he says,

Dark in light, exposed
To daily fraud, contempt, abuse, and wrong,
Within doors or without: still as a fool
In power of others, never in my own:
Scarce half I seem to live, dead more than half.
Oh dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!

To this period has been generally referred Milton’s recently discovered Treatise on Christian Doctrine; but that work, which he would never have given to the press himself, and which is on every account less worthy of praise than any of his other productions, was probably composed during the first years after his return from Italy, and is the substance of familiar lectures on theology to his pupils. He had studied the nature of our Saviour before his mind attained the strength of its maturity, as some have looked upon the sun, until his sight for a while was darkened. In the end he was right. In none of his great works is there a passage from which it can be inferred that he was an Arian; and in the very last of his writings he declares that “the doctrine of the Trinity is a plain doctrine in Scripture.”

In earlier manhood Milton had excelled the greatest uninspired authors of all ages and nations as a theologian and political philosopher. Now, poor and old and blind, he erected the stateliest structure,

With pyramids and towers,
From diamond quarries hewn and rocks of gold,

in the regions of the imagination, in which, with “his garland and singing robes about him,” he celebrates the “throne and equipage of God’s almightiness” in strains which angels paused to hear; and which the wise and pure hearted in the world receive as echoes of the triumphant and glorious harmonies they will listen to in heaven; to enter which place of rest, not more than duly to understand a true poem, requires the simple credulity of childhood, blent with the most profound and expansive knowledge.

Paradise Lost was published in 1667; in 1671 appeared Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes; in 1672 his Artis Logicæ Plenior Institutio; and in 1673 the Treatise on True Religion, Heresy and Schism.

On Sunday, the eighth day of November, 1674, one month before completing his sixty-sixth year, John Milton died.

He was the greatest of all human beings: the noblest and the ennobler of mankind. He has steadily grown in the world’s reverence, and his fame will still increase with the lapse of ages.

  1. He was a skilful musician, and ranked honourably among contemporary composers Allusion to this circumstance is made in the following beautiful lines from Ad Patrem:
    “Nec tu perge precor, sacras contemnere Nusas,
    Nec tenas inopesque [Editor: illegible?] puta, quarum ipse peritus
    Manere [Editor: illegible?] mille sonos numeros componis ad aptos,
    [Editor: illegible word] et vocem modulis variare [Editor: illegible word]
    Doctus, Arionii merito [Editor: illegible word] nominis [Editor: illegible word]
  2. Although there were no works on the Puritan side comparable to Milton’s for eloquence, erudition, or logical acuteness, there were some which attracted much attention, and among others, an attack upon the bishops by five Presbyterian divines, (Stephen Marshal, Edward Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew Newcommen, and William Spurstow,) the initials of whose names made the word Smectymnuus, which they adopted as their joint signature. To this Bishop Hall replied, and Milton now answered the accumulated attacks upon the Presbyterian party (who were hardly a match for their opponents) and himself, in the Apology for Smectymnuus.