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(Adddress on "John Milton," delivered by Prof. Wm. M. Coleman, before the Washington Secular League, Sunday, April 17, 1910)


HAKESPEARE was still alive and rare old Ben Johnson was king at the Mermaid Tavern when Milton was a child. Puritanism had taken root but was not yet visible in growth.

It is fortunate for English literature, fortunate for Milton's genius, that his earliest impressions and tendencies were molded and shaped in the genial Elizabethian times and in the traditions of old and merrie England, and not under the influence of the hard and narrow opinions and habits which were so soon to follow.

The only event in his tenderer years worthy of note was the close friendship which he formed with his schoolmate, Diodati, an Anglo-Italian, from whom he imbibed his first love and longing for Italy, which he ever afterwards cherished.

His college life at Cambridge was irksome, and while there he got into some scrape from which he was rusticated. He spent his enforced vacation at London, from which place he wrote. letters to his friend, Diodati, of his enjoyments in the parks and the theaters, with rapturous eulogies on the girls he met there; which goes to show that he was a sound and wholesome youngster. His beauty was remarkable and of the feminine type, like that of Shelley. His snow and pink-colored oval face, his flowing auburn locks and the delicacy of his morals and his manners, fixed on him from his college mates the nickname of "Lady of Christ." From Cambridge he wrote to his friend, Diodati, that the poet who would write great things must be pure in heart and his hand free from stain; he must make his life a true poem, for the bard is sacred to the gods. This was not common cant, for he was writing to Diodati. He ex

emplified his purity during his whole career by his passionate love of truth, justice and freedom, and his life was a poem. "His soul was like a star and dwelt apart." He left Cambridge and "its bad lot of readers" after a residence there of seven years, and returned in the morning of his manhood to live with his father in the charming little village of Horton. Here, amid rural sights and sounds, he passed five years, the happiest period of his life. There he studied Plato, Aristotle, and the Greek tragedians. Plato especially had a wonderful fascination for him, and he drank in the love of social justice from his "Republic." In the "Paradise Lost” Raphael says:

Love hath his seat in Reason and is judicious, Is the scale by which to Heavenly Love thou mayest ascend.

In Milton's phraseology, judicious means the power to discriminate, and scale means a ladder, and the two lines taken together sum up the result of Plato's symposium. Milton was soaked in Greek thought and Greek philisophy, and if we would understand him we must first of all recognize and appreciate this fact. I shall always cherish as a sacred memory a conversation I once had with Walt Whitman. The crowd was surging up and down the avenue (Pennsylvania avenue in Washington) to read the election returns placarded in front of the newspaper offices. Whitman was not interested in the news, but in the crowd. He turned round to me full face and repeated from Milton's "Comus:"

How charming is divine philosophy, Not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose,

But musical as is Apollo's lute.

It is to the period of his residence at

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This is not Catholic æstheticism which the poet experiences, but Platonic mysticism. To the most, in these days of such varied commercial activity, these words are mere jargon. To Milton they expressed a reality. To this period, too, we owe the "Comus." where the poet laments the unequal distribution of the good things of life, the "just man pining in want" and "lewdly pampered luxury heaping its stores with vast excess upon some few." The "Lycidas," too, belongs to this period, where he says of the common run of priests (not Catholic priests, alone):

Of other care they little reckoning make, Than how to scramble at the shearer's feet.

Fifteen years later Milton was to become the intellectual giant of the party which smashed the windows richly dight, tore out the pealing organ's pipes, cut down the May poles around which happy youth tripped on the light fantastic toe, and closed up the well (?)stage. Milton sympathized with none. of these things. But he remained silent. What was the use to protest? He knew

that fanaticism must run its course, and he put up with it, because underneath it all and the mainspring of all and profoundly embedded in it was the sacred love of liberty.

If we would understand Milton we must understand his times. There were two main currents of thought which gave him his direction. The one was from the renaissance of Greek literature coming to England from Italy which gave us Spenser, Sydney, and Shakespeare; the other coming from the German reformation by way of Geneva, which produced John Knox and Cromwell. The Italian influence we may easily understand; the Geneva influence we may understand if we reflect that the revolt against tyranny in England took the form of Presbyterianism. Both Italian trend and the spirit of revolt united in Milton. He was, as Carlyle says, the child of Shakespeare and John Knox.

At the age of thirty Milton left the sylvan scenes of Horton and made a

journey to Italy, the poet's shrine, where Chaucer had caught the fresh intuitions, where Shelley was to meet an untimely death, and where Byron was to write verse which illuminated the dark night of the Holy Alliance of the shadow of death. and brought a new hope into the valley

In Italy he met the aged and blind Galileo, a prisoner of the inquisition. —a significant meeting and a prophecy of the future yet to come, the union of science and human freedom, Galileo representing the one and Milton the other.

But he was not to remain long in the classic land of charm and story. Great events had taken place in England. Charles was determined to enforce his arbitrary will, and the people were equally determined not to submit. The war between the king and the Parliament was on. It was no time

To sport with Amaryllis in the shade Or with the tangles of Neera's hair

Milton hastened home to take his members had no voice, but were govpart in the conflict. erned by the prelates. This was the cavaliers party, the party of the divine right of kings.

On his return he entered the field as a pamphleteer and began with a tract against the Church of England and demanding the abolition of the prelacy. The vigor and ability of this paper at once put him at the head of the then extreme radical party of the opposition. He followed up this attack by another against the church law of divorce, which the state had incorporated in its code. In 1643 appeared his first famous pamphlet. In this pamphlet he maintained that the mutual incompatability of any two married persons, from any unremovable cause whatever, ought to entitle either or both. to divorce and to liberty to marry again. In 1644, he launched his immortal paper for freedom of the press, or for unlicensed printing, and addressed it to the Parliament. We may imagine the revolutionary character of this demand, if we reflect that one hundred and fifty years later, in 1789, the French revolutionists in the Assembly were not prepared to go to this extent.

These two pamphlets, on divorce and on the freedom of the press, opened up on Milton the flood gates of wrath from all the orthodox denominations, Protestant as well as Romish. But here we must take a review of the hostile religious parties ranged against each other, remembering that religious and political opinions exactly coincided and that every man's political views were certainly known from the religious party to which he belonged.

1. There was the Romanist party, now down and out, but waiting and hoping that the excesses of a revolution would create a reaction in their favor, and (following their usual treacherous policy) secretly intriguing to provoke revolution while clamoring vigorously for stable government.

2. Next came the Church of England, the party in power, a strictly aristocratic body in which the individual

3. Then came the Presbyterian, a representative democracy. The Presbyters, or elders, from whose number the pastor or minister was taken, were elected by each congregation, and a representation from the Presbyters of each congregation constituted the Presbytery, where was lodged the supreme authority of both faith and practice.

4. Finally came the Independents. This was the party to which Cromwell belonged. It was the party to which Milton attached himself after he discovered that the Presbyter was no whit different from the priest. The Independent repudiated the authority not only of popery and of prelacy, but also of the Presbyter, and made the individual members of each congregation the court of first and last resort. It was impossible to get or even imagine or conceive of a more thoroughgoing democratic plan than this. The democratic limit had been reached so far as organization was concerned when the individual group was autonomous and recognized no authority which did not emanate from themselves. But there was one step more which the individual member of the group could take, not as a member of the group, it is true, but as the absolute sovereign of his own. thought and will as a moral, self-centered and intellectual being. The individual might declare himself absolutely free from all external restraint and subject only to the dictates of his own intelligence, his own conscience, and his own will. And this was the step Milton took.

Such was the doctrine of the Independents, and it is all summed up in the well-born and now meaningless maxim, the right to worship God according to the dictates of your own conscience. (And now let us repeat the warning I have already given-for

church history and dogma is not especially interesting to Secularists. But you are to remember, as before remarked, that at the period of which I am speaking the views which a man. held about church government were the identical views which he held about civil government. And now to recur to my main theme.)

When the pamphlet on divorce appeared the Romanists chuckled in glee and said that this was but one of the examples of the evils which naturally followed the revolt from Rome. The Church of England agreed with the Romanists, except that they substituted their own authority for that of Rome. At this period of his career Milton was a Presbyterian and it was from the Presbyterians that the storm of denunciation and abuse beat upon his head with the greatest fury. Their pamphlets rained against him; their pulpits rang with maledictions giving him over to Satan and all his angels. This doctrine of free love, as they represented it, went far beyond a religious heresy; it was a moral and social leprosy which sapped the foundations of society. The Presbyterians, strong in their Westminster Assembly, were opposed to religious freedom, and they pointed to Milton as an example of what would follow from religious toleration. They accused him before Parliament; I think they wanted his head. There is no greater error than to suppose that the right to private judgment was one of the principles of the Reformation. Melancthon, the mildest of the reformers, approved of the burning of Servetus by Calvin. No, it is not to the Reformation, but to the fanatical Independents of England, with John Milton as their intellectual chief, that we owe what we have of the right of private judgment in religious and political opinion.

But if the pamphlet on divorce was horrible, the pamphlet advocating free, unlicensed printing was simply un

speakable. What! allow infidels, atheists, and blasphemers to express their views and reasons publicly and in print! This was a pill from the pit of fire and brimstone. Human ingenuity and malice were not competent to devise such a scheme; the suggestion had come direct from the lord and king of all the devils, from great Beelzebub himself. Language broke down in their mouths and under their pens in characterizing this crowning diabolism of a free press.

Milton, from his calm tenement in Aldgate street, let the noise and racket pass unnoticed without any other reply than to let loose one after another three more pamphlets on divorce, in which he fortified with additional reasons the ground he had taken in his first paper. That philosophical individualism which informed every fibre of Milton's moral and intellectual nature breaks out in flame in these papers on divorce. Every man is to have power to bind and loose the marriage relation; no law shall have authority "to force a mixture of minds which cannot unite;" no law shall make irremediable "that melancholy despair which we see in many wedded persons." "If this tract was heeded," he says, "it would wipe away ten thousand tears out of the eyes of men." In the third of these four pamphlets which he wrote on divorce we may see what little respect, or rather what contempt he had for the law. In this tract he hints at marrying again and adds the significant words, "If the law makes not a timely provision, let the law, as reason is, bear the censure of the consequences."


These works of Milton on divorce have not received the consideration they merit; and this for very obvious reasons. Our library critics and tasters, from whom the so-called "cultivated" public take in their notions of the men and the events of the past, have belonged, with a few rare exceptions not known or read by the aforesaid "culti

vated" public, to the conservative orthodox class, which class, either from natural disposition or from commercial consideration, would conserve and perpetuate the moral and social diseases which we have inherited from by-gone ages of ignorance and superstition, and which have become intrenched in vast and material interests. Who can expect any just view of the colossal figure of Milton from writers such as these, high as their title and proud as their fame may be in the temple of English literature? We do not have to guess at what Milton believed and said from dubious manuscripts, fragments, and palimsests. His complete works are all before us in intelligible English. Whoever wants to know Milton as he is, let him study these. Perhaps the man may arise some day to rehabilitate Milton, as Carlyle rehabilitated Cromwell.

These tasters to whom I have made reference tell us that Milton's tracts on

divorce were merely passionate outbursts of his personal grief in wedded life and should not be regarded as his soberer thought. Milton was unhappy

in his married life, it is true, but what has his personal grief to do with an argument which is addressed to our reason? The argument must stand or fall on its merits, totally regardless of the personal equation. That it was not a passionate outburst is evident from the fact that he wrote four pamphlets on the subject and was two years in writing them. Furthermore, his views on divorce were in perfect harmony with all his other views, with his hatred of ecclesiastical restraint and to all secular laws which encroached on rational personal liberty. In a word, his views on divorce are a necessary inference and deduction from the basic principles of his individualistic philosophy. It is as false as it is silly and absurd to attribute these views to a petty resentment of a personal grief.

In 1649 Charles paid the penalty of his crimes on the scaffold. After this

act the revolutionary party stood on slippery ground. Royalty and loyalty had been an English tradition for a thousand years. There was danger that the English people would not stand for the final scene in the drama. The private and personal character of Charles was not unlovely, and there was danger that the hatred of the living king would melt into pity and sympathy for the dead man; there was danger of a reaction which would sweep the regicides to destruction. Already the powerful Presbyterian party was beginning to swing (away) from the revolution. This danger must must be averted; the killing of the king must be justified to the English people. Milton stepped forth to do it, fearless of the consequences.

The title of the work in which he justified bringing Charles to the block is the most daring that has ever been prefixed to any book or publication in the English language, perhaps in any language. The title is a concise summary of the substance of the book; it is the result or conclusion which the argument of the book is directed to prove. When we understand the title we understand the whole book. The title is lengthy, as was the custom in those days, and is a statement of the thesis. The title reads thus:

Tenure of Kings and Magistrates.

Proving that it is lawful, and hath been so held through all ages, for any who have the power, to call to account a tyrant and a wicked king, and after due conviction, to depose and put him to death if the ordinary magistrates have neglected or denied to do it.

This was the reply of the revolution to the claim of divine right. And I want to say that Milton understood the English language and always says exactly what he means and without any ambiguity. It is here implied that the ordinary magistrate, that is, the lawfully constituted authorities, may put to death a tyrant and a wicked king. But suppose these fail to do so, what

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