The noble lines of Wordsworth, quoted by Mr. Griswold on his title-page, would be the best and a sufficient advertisement of each reprint:
Return to us again,
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart;
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the Sea:
Pure as the naked Heavens, majestic, free:
So didst thou travel on Life’s common way
In cheerful Godliness, and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.”
One should have climbed to as high a point as Wordsworth to be able to review Milton, or even to view in part his high places. From the hill-top we still strain our eyes looking up to the mountain-peak—
We rejoice to see that there is again a call for an edition of Milton’s Prose Works. There could not be a surer sign that there is still pure blood in the nation than a call for these. The print and paper are tolerably good; if not worthy of the matter, yet they are, we suppose, as good as can be afforded and make the book cheap enough for general circulation. We wish there had been three volumes, instead of two clumsy ones, with that detestably narrow inner margin of which we have heretofore complained. But we trust the work is in such a shape that it will lie on the table of all poor students who are ever to be scholars, and be the good angel, the Ithuriel warner of many a youth at the parting of the ways. Who chooses that way which the feet of Milton never forsook, will find in him a never failing authority for the indissoluble union between permanent strength and purity. May many, born and bred amid the corruptions of a false world till the heart is on the verge of a desolate scepticism and the good genius preparing to fly, be led to recall him and make him at home forever by such passages as we have read this beautiful, bright September morning, in the ‘Apology for Sweetymnuus.” We chanced happily upon them, as we were pondering some sad narrations of daily life, and others who need the same consolation, will no doubt detect them in a short intercourse with the volumes.
Mr. Griswold thus closes his “Biographical Introduction:”—
“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.”
The absolute of this superlative pleases us, even if we do believe that there are four or five names on the scroll of history which may be placed beside that of Milton. We love hero-worship, where the hero is, indeed, worthy the honors of a demi-god. And, if Milton be not absolutely the greatest of human beings, it is hard to name one who combines so many features of God’s own image, ideal grandeur, a life of spotless virtue, heroic endeavor and constancy, with such richness of gifts.
We cannot speak worthily of the books before us. They have been, as they will be, our friends and teachers, but to express with any justice what they are to us, or our idea of what they are to the world at large—to make any estimate of the vast fund of pure gold they contain and allow for the residuum of local and partial judgment and human frailty—to examine the bearings of various essays on the past and present with even that degree of thought and justice of which we are capable, would be a work of months. It would be to us a careful, a solemn, a sacred task, and not in anywise to be undertaken in the columns of a daily paper. Beside, who can think of Milton without the feeling which he himself expresses?—
“He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy.”
We shall, then, content ourselves with stating three reasons which at this moment occur to us why these Essays of Milton deserve to be sought and studied beyond any other volumes of English prose:
1st. He draws us to a central point whither converge the rays of sacred and profane, ancient and modern Literature. Those who sit at his feet obtain every hour glimpses in all directions. The constant perception of principles, richness in illustrations and fullness of knowledge, make him the greatest Master we have in the way of giving clues and impulses. His plan tempts even very timid students to hope they may thread the mighty maze of the Past. This fullness of knowledge only a genius masculine and divine like his could animate. He says, in a letter to Diodaté, written as late as his thirtieth year, “It is well known, and you well know, that I am naturally slow in writing and adverse to write.” Indeed his passion for acquisition preceded long and far outwent, in the first part of his prime, the need of creation or expression, and, probably, no era less grand and fervent than his own could have made him still more the genius than the scholar. But he was fortunate in an epoch fitted to develop him to his full stature—an epoch rich alike in thought, action and passion, in great results and still greater beginnings. There was fire enough to bring the immense materials he had collected into a state of fusion. Still his original bias infects the pupil, and this Master makes us thirst for Learning no less than for Life.
2d. He affords the highest exercise at once to the poetic and reflective faculties. Before us move sublime presences, the types of whole regions of creation: God, man, and elementary spirits in multitudinous glory are present to our consciousness.—But meanwhile every detail is grasped and examined, and strong daily interests mark out for us a wide and plain path on the earth—a wide and plain path, but one in which it requires the most varied and strenuous application of our energies to follow the rapid and vigorous course of our guide. No one can read the Essays without feeling that the glow which follows is no mere nervous exaltation, no result of electricity from another mind under which he could remain passive, but a thorough and wholesome animation of his own powers. We seek to know, to act, and to be what is possible to Man.
3d. Mr. Griswold justly and wisely observes:—“Milton is more emphatically American than any author who has lived in the United States.” He is so because in him is expressed so much of the primitive vitality of that thought from which America is born, though at present disposed to forswear her lineage in so many ways. He is the purity of Puritanism. He understood the nature of liberty, of justice—what is required for the unimpeded action of conscience—what constitutes true marriage, and the scope of a manly education. He is one of the Fathers of this Age, of that new Idea which agitates the sleep of Europe, and of which America, if awake to the design of Heaven and her own duty, would become the principal exponent. But the Father is still far beyond the understanding of his child.
His ideas of marriage, as expressed in the treatises on Divorce, are high and pure. He aims at a marriage of souls. If he incline too much to the prerogative of his own sex, it was from that mannishness, almost the same with boorishness, that is evident in men of the greatest and richest natures, who have never known the refining influence of happy, mutual love, as the best women evince narrowness and poverty under the same privation. In every line we see how much Milton required the benefit of “the thousand decencies that daily flow” from such a relation, and how greatly he would have been the gainer by it, both as man and as genius. In his mind lay originally the fairest ideal of woman; to see it realized would have “finished his education.” His commonwealth could only have grown from the perfecting of individual men. The private means to such an end he rather hints than states in the short essay to Education. They are such as we are gradually learning to prize. Healthful diet, varied bodily exercises, to which we no longer need give the martial aim he proposed, fit the mind for studies which are by him arranged in a large, plastic and natural method.
Among the prophetic features of his system we may mention the place given to Agriculture and Music:
“The next step would be to the authors on agriculture—Cato, Varro and Columella—for the matter is most easy; and if the language be difficult, so much the better; it is not a difficulty above their years. And here will be an occasion of inciting, and enabling them hereafter to improve the tillage of their country, to recover their bad soil, and to remedy the waste that is made of good; for this was one of Hercules’ praises.”
How wise, too, his directions as to interspersing the study with travel and personal observation of important objects. We must have methods of our own, but the hints we might borrow from this short essay of Milton’s are endless.
Then of music—
“The interim may, both with profit and delight, be taken up in recreating and composing their travailed spirits with the solemn and divine harmonies of music heard or learned; either whilst the skillful organist plies his grave and fancied descant in lofty fugues, or the whole symphony with artful and unimaginable touches adorn and grace the well-studied chords of some choice composer; sometimes the lute or soft organ-stop waiting on elegant voices, either to religious, martial, or civil ditties; which, if wise men and prophets be not extremely out, have a great power over disposition and manners to smoothe and make them gentle from rustic harshness and distempered passions.”
He does not mention here the higher offices of music, but that they had been fulfilled to him is evident in the whole texture of his mind and his page. The organ was his instrument, and there is not a strain of its peculiar music that may not somewhere be traced in his verse or prose. Here, too, he was prophetical of our age of which Music is the great and growing art, making deeper revelations than any other mode of expression now adopted by the soul.
After these scanty remarks upon the glories of this sun-like mind, let us look for a moment on the clouds which hung about its earthly course. Let us take some hints from his letters:—
“It is often a subject of sorrowful reflection to me, that those with whom I have been either fortuitously or legally associated by contiguity of place or some tie of little moment, are continually at hand to infest my home, to stun me with their noise and waste me with vexation, while those who are endeared to me by the closest sympathy of manners, of tastes and pursuits, are almost all withheld from my embrace either by death or an insuperable distance of place; and have for the most part been so rapidly hurried from my sight, that my prospects seem continually solitary, and my heart perpetually desolate.”
The last letter in the volume ends thus:
“What you term policy, and which I wish that you had rather called patriotic piety, has, if I may so say, almost left me, who was charmed with so sweet a sound, without a country. * * * I will conclude after first begging you, if there be any errors in the diction or the punctuation, to impute it to the boy who wrote this, who is quite ignorant of Latin, and to whom I was, with no little vexation, obliged to dictate not the words, but, one by one, the letters of which they were composed.”
The account of the gradual increase of his blindness is interesting, physiologically as well as otherwise:–
“It is now, I think, about ten years (1654) since I perceived my vision to grow weak and dull; and, at the same time, I was troubled with pain in my kidneys and bowels, accompanied with flatulency. In the morning, if I began to read, as was my custom, my eyes instantly ached intensely, but were refreshed after a little corporeal exercise. The candle which I looked at seemed as if it were encircled by a rainbow. Not long after the sight in the left part of the left eye (which I lost some years before the other) became quite obscured, and prevented me from discerning any object on that side. The sight in my other eye has now been gradually and sensibly vanishing away for about three years; some months before it had entirely perished, though I stood motionless, every thing which I looked at seemed in motion to and fro. A stiff cloudy vapor seemed to have settled on my forehead and temples, which usually occasions a sort of somnolent pressure upon my eyes, and particularly from dinner till the evening. So that I often recollect what is said of the poet Phineas in the Argonautics:
And when he waked he seemed as whirling round,
Or in a feeble trance he speechless lay.’”
“I ought not to omit that, while I had any sight left, as soon as I lay down on my bed and turned on either side, a flood of light used to gush from my closed eyelids. Then, as my sight became daily more impaired, the colors became more faint, and were emitted with a certain crackling sound; but, at present, every species of illumination being, as it were, extinguished, there is diffused around me nothing but darkness, or darkness mingled and streaked with an ashy brown. Yet the darkness in which I am perpetually immersed seems always, both by night and day, to approach nearer to a white than black; and when the eye is rolling in its socket, it admits a little particle of light as through a chink. And though your physician many kindle a small ray of hope, yet I make up my mind to the malady as quite incurable; and I often reflect, that as the wise man admonishes, days of darkness are destined to each of us. The darkness which I experience, less oppressive than that of the tomb, is, owing to the singular goodness of the Deity, passed amid the pursuits of literature and the cheering salutations of friendship. But if, as it is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God, why may not any one acquiese in the privation of his sight, when God has so amply furnished his mind and his conscience with eyes? While He so tenderly provides for me, while He so graciously leads me by the hand and conducts me on the way, I will, since it is His pleasure, rather rejoice than repine at being blind. And my dear Philura, whatever may be the event, I wish you adieu with no less courage and composure than if I had the eyes of a lynx.”
Though the organist was wrapped in utter darkness, ‘only mingled and streaked with an ashy brown,’ still the organ pealed forth its perpetual, sublime Te Deum! Shall we, sitting in the open sunlight, dare tune our humble pipes to any other strain? Thou may’st thank Him, Milton, for, but for this misfortune, thou hadst been a benefactor to the great and strong only, but now to the multitude and suffering also thy voice comes, bidding them ‘bate no jot of heart or hope,’ with archangelic power and melody.*
“The Prose Works of John Milton. With a Biographical Introduction . . .” New-York Daily Tribune, 7 October 1845, p. 1.