The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson - by R.W. Emerson Institute, Jim Manley, Director -

I Framed his tongue to music,
I armed his hand with skill,
I moulded his face to beauty,
And his heart the throne of will.


The discovery of the lost work of Milton, the treatise " Of the
Christian Doctrine," in 1823, drew a sudden attention to his name. For
a short time the literary journals were filled with disquisitions on
his genius ; new editions of his works, and new compilations of his
life, were published. But the new-found book having in itself less
attraction than any other work of Milton, the curiosity of the public
as quickly subsided, and left the poet to the enjoyment of his
permanent fame, or to such in-crease or abatement of it only as is
incidental to a sublime genius, quite independent of the momentary
challenge of universal attention to his claims.

But if the new and temporary renown of the poet is silent again, it is
nevertheless true that he has gained, in this age, some increase of
permanent praise. The fame of a great man is not rigid and stony like
his bust. It changes with time. It needs time to give it due
perspective. It was very easy to remark an altered tone in the
criticism when Milton re-appeared as an author, fifteen years ago, from
any that had been bestowed on the same subject before. It implied merit
indisputable and illustrious ; yet so near to the modern mind as to be
still alive and life-giving. The aspect of Milton, to this generation,
will be part of the history of the nineteenth century. There is no name
in English literature between his age and ours that rises into any
approach to his own. And as a man's fame, of course, characterizes
those who give it, as much as him who receives it, the new criticism
indicated a change in the public taste, and a change which the poet
himself might claim to have wrought.

1 Reprinted from the North American Review, July, 1838.

The reputation of Milton had already undergone one or two revolutions
long anterior to its recent aspects. In his lifetime, he was little or
not at all known as a poet, but obtained great respect from his
contemporaries as an accomplished scholar and a formidable pamphleteer.
His poem fell unregarded among his countrymen. His prose writings,
especially the " Defence of the English People," seem to have been read
with avidity. These tracts are remarkable compositions. They are
earnest, spiritual, rich with allusion, sparkling with innumerable
ornaments ; but, as writings designed to gain a practical point, they
fail. They are not effective, like similar productions of Swift and
Burke ; or, like what became also controversial tracts, several
masterly speeches in the history of the American Congress. Milton
seldom deigns a glance at the obstacles that are to be overcome before
that which he proposes can be done. There is no attempt to conciliate,
– no mediate, no preparatory course suggested, – but, peremptory and
impassioned, he demands, on the instant, an ideal justice. Therein they
are discriminated from modern writings, in which a regard to the actual
is all but universal.

Their rhetorical excellence must also suffer some deduction. They have
no perfectness. These writings are wonderful for the truth, the
learning, the subtilty and pomp of the language ; but the whole is
sacrificed to the particular. Eager to do fit justice to each thought,
he does not subordinate it so as to project the main argument. He
writes whilst he is heated ; the piece shows all the rambles and
resources of indignation, but he has never integrated the parts of the
argument in his mind. The reader is fatigued with admiration, but is
not yet master of the subject.

Two of his pieces may be excepted from this description, one for its
faults, the other for its excellence. The " Defence of the People of
England," on which his contemporary fame was founded, is, when divested
of its pure Latinity, the worst of his works. Only its general aim, and
a few elevated passages, can save it. We could be well content, if the
flames to which it was condemned at Paris, at Toulouse, and at London,
had utterly consumed it. The lover of his genius will always regret
that he should not have taken counsel of his own lofty heart at this,
as at other times, and have written from the deep convictions of love
and right, which are the foundations of civil liberty. There is little
poetry or prophecy in this mean and ribald scolding. To insult
Salmasius, not to acquit England, is the main design. What under heaven
had Madame de Saumaise, or the manner of living of Saumaise, or
Salmasius, or his blunders of grammar, or his niceties of diction, to
do with the solemn question whether Charles Stuart had been rightly
slain? Though it evinces learning and critical skill, yet, as an
historical argument, it cannot be valued with similar disquisitions of
Robertson and Hallam, and even less celebrated scholars. But, when he
comes to speak of the reason of the thing, then he always recovers
himself. The voice of the mob is silent, and Milton speaks. And the
peroration, in which he implores his countrymen to refute this
adversary by their great deeds, is in a just spirit. The other piece is
his " Areopagitica," the discourse, addressed to the Parliament, in
favor of removing the censorship of the press ; the most splendid of
his prose works. It is, as Luther said of one of Melancthon's writings,
" alive, hath hands and feet, – and not like Erasmus's sentences, which
were made, not grown." The weight of the thought is equalled by the
vivacity of the expression, and it cheers as well as teaches. This
tract is far the best known and the most read of all, and is still a
magazine of reasons for the freedom of the press. It is valuable in
history as an argument addressed to a government to produce a practical
end, and plainly presupposes a very peculiar state of society.

But deeply as that peculiar state of society, in which and for which
Milton wrote, has engraved itself in the remembrance of the world, it
shares the destiny which overtakes everything local and personal in
nature ; and the accidental facts on which a battle of principles was
fought have already passed, or are fast passing, into oblivion. We have
lost all interest in Milton as the redoubted disputant of a sect ; but
by his own innate worth this man has steadily risen in the world's
reverence, and occupies a more imposing place in the mind of men at
this hour than ever before.

It is the aspect which he presents to this generation, that alone
concerns us. Milton the polemic has lost his popularity long ago ; and
if we skip the pages of " Paradise Lost " where " God the Father argues
like a school divine," so did the next age to his own. But, we are
persuaded, he kindles a love and emulation in us which he did not in
foregoing generations. We think we have seen and heard criticism upon
the poems, which the bard himself would have more valued than the
recorded praise of Dryden, Addison and Johnson, because it came nearer
to the mark ; was finer and closer appreciation ; the praise of
intimate knowledge and delight ; and, of course, more welcome to the
poet than the general and vague acknowledgment of his genius by those
able but unsympathizing critics. We think we have heard the recitation
of his verses by genius which found in them that which itself would say
; recitation which told, in the diamond sharpness of every
articulation, that now first was such perception and enjoyment possible
; the perception and enjoyment of all his varied rhythm, and his
perfect fusion of the classic and the English styles. This is a poet's
right ; for every masterpiece of art goes on for some ages reconciling
the world unto itself, and despotically fashioning the public ear. The
opposition to it, always greatest at first, continually decreases and
at last ends ; and a new race grows up in the taste and spirit of the
work, with the utmost advantage for seeing intimately its power and

But it would be great injustice to Milton to consider him as enjoying merely a critical reputation.

It is the prerogative of this great man to stand at this hour foremost
of all men in literary history, and so (shall we not say?) of all men,
in the power to inspire. Virtue goes out of him into others. Leaving
out of view the pretensions of our con-temporaries (always an
incalculable influence), we think no man can be named whose mind still
acts on the cultivated intellect of England and America with an energy
comparable to that of Milton. As a poet, Shakspeare undoubtedly
transcends, and far surpasses him in his popularity with foreign
nations ; but Shakspeare is a voice merely ; who and what he was that
sang, that sings, we know not. Milton stands erect, commanding, still
visible as a man among men, and reads the laws of the moral sentiment
to the new-born race. There is something pleasing in the affection with
which we can regard a man who died a hundred and sixty years ago in the
other hemisphere, who, in respect to personal relations, is to us as
the wind, yet by an influence purely spiritual makes us jealous for his
fame as for that of a near friend. He is identified in the mind with
all select and holy images, with the supreme interests of the human
race. If hereby we attain any more precision, we proceed to say that we
think no man in these later ages, and few men ever, possessed so great
a conception of the manly character. Better than any other he has
discharged the office of every great man, namely, to raise the idea of
Man in the minds of his con-temporaries and of posterity, – to draw
after nature a life of man, exhibiting such a composition of grace, of
strength and of virtue, as poet had not described nor hero lived. Human
nature in these ages is indebted to him for its best portrait. Many
philosophers in England, France and Germany, have formerly dedicated
their study to this problem ; and we think it impossible to recall one
in those countries who communicates the same vibration of hope, of
self-reverence, of piety, of delight in beauty, which the name of
Milton awakens. Lord Bacon, who has written much and with prodigious
ability on this science, shrinks and falters before the absolute and
uncourtly Puritan. Bacon's Essays are the portrait of an ambitious and
profound calculator, – a great man of the vulgar sort. Of the upper
world of man's being they speak few and faint words. The man of Locke
is virtuous without enthusiasm and intelligent with-out poetry.
Addison, Pope, Hume and Johnson, students, with very unlike temper and
success, of the same subject, cannot, taken together, make any
pretension to the amount or the quality of Milton's inspirations. The
man of Lord Chesterfield is unworthy to touch his garment's hem.
Franklin's man is a frugal, inoffensive, thrifty citizen, but savors of
nothing heroic. The genius of France has not, even in her best days,
yet culminated in any one head, – not in Rousseau, not in Pascal, not
in F̩nelon, Рinto such perception of all the attributes of humanity as
to entitle it to any rivalry in these lists. In Germany, the greatest
writers are still too recent to institute a comparison ; and yet we are
tempted to say that art and not life seems to be the end of their
effort. But the idea of a purer existence than any he saw around him,
to be realized in the life and conversation of men, inspired every act
and every writing of John Milton. He defined the object of education to
be, " to fit a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all
the offices, both private and public, of peace and war." Ile declared
that " he who would aspire to write well hereafter in laudable things,
ought him-self to be a true poem ; that is, a composition and pattern
of the best and honorablest things, not pre-sliming 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." Nor is
there in literature a more noble outline of a wise external education,
than that which he drew up, at the age of thirty-six, in his Letter to
Samuel Hartlib. The muscles, the nerves and the flesh with which this
skeleton is to be filled up and covered, exist in his works and must be
sought there.
For the delineation of this heroic image of man, Milton enjoyed
singular advantages. Perfections of body and of mind are attributed to
him by his biographers, that, if the anecdotes had come down from a
greater distance of time, or had not been in part furnished or
corroborated by political enemies, would lead us to suspect the
portraits were ideal, like the Cyrus of Xenophon, the Telemachus of
Fénelon, or the popular traditions of Alfred the Great.

Handsome to a proverb, he was called the lady of his college. Aubrey
says, " This harmonical and ingenuous soul dwelt in a beautiful and
well-proportioned body." His manners and his carriage did him no
injustice. Wood, his political opponent, relates that " his deportment
was affable, his gait erect and manly, bespeaking courage and
undauntedness." Aubrey adds a sharp trait, that " he pronounced the
letter R very hard, a certain sign of satirical genius." He had the
senses of a Greek. His eye was quick, and he was accounted an
excel-lent master of his rapier. His ear for music was so acute, that
he was not only enthusiastic in his love, but a skilful performer
himself ; and his voice, we are told, was delicately sweet and
harmonious. He insists that music shall make a part of a generous

With these keen perceptions, he naturally received a love of nature and
a rare susceptibility to impressions from external beauty. In the midst
of London, he seems, like the creatures of the field and the forest, to
have been tuned in concord with the order of the world ; for, he
believed, his poetic vein only flowed from the autumnal to the vernal
equinox ; and, in his essay on Education, he doubts whether, in the
fine days of spring, any study can be accomplished by young men. In
those vernal seasons of the year when the air is calm and pleas-ant, it
were an injury and sullenness against nature not to go out and see her
riches and partake in her rejoicing with heaven and earth." His
sensibility to impressions from beauty needs no proof from his history
; it shines through every page. The form and the voice of Leonora
Baroni seemed to have captivated him in Rome, and to her he addressed
his Italian sonnets and Latin epigrams.

To these endowments it must be added that his address and his
conversation were worthy of his fame. His house was resorted to by men
of wit, and foreigners came to England, we are told, " to see the Lord
Protector and Mr. Milton." In a letter to one of his foreign
correspondents, Emeric Bigot, and in reply apparently to some
compliment on his powers of conversation, he writes : Many have been
celebrated for their compositions, whose common conversation and
intercourse have betrayed no marks of sublimity or genius. But, as far
as possible, I aim to show myself equal in thought and speech to what I
have written, if I have written anything well."

These endowments received the benefit of a careful and happy
discipline. His father's care, seconded by his own endeavor, introduced
him to a profound skill in all the treasures of Latin, Greek, Hebrew
and Italian tongues ; and, to enlarge and enliven his elegant learning,
he was sent into Italy, where he beheld the remains of ancient art, and
the rival works of Raphael, Michael Angelo and Correggio ; where, also,
he received social and academical honors from the learned and the
great. In Paris, he became acquainted with Grotius ; in Florence or
Rome, with Galileo ; and probably no traveller ever entered that
country of history with better right to its hospitality, none upon whom
its influences could have fallen more congenially.

Among the advantages of his foreign travel, Mil-ton certainly did not
count it the least that it contributed to forge and polish that great
weapon of which he acquired such extraordinary mastery,-his power of
language. His lore of foreign tongues added daily to his consummate
skill in the use of his own. He was a benefactor of the English tongue
by showing its capabilities. Very early in life he became conscious
that he had more to say to his fellow-men than they had fit words to
embody. At nineteen years, in a college exercise, he ad-dresses his
native language, saying to it that it would be his choice to leave
trifles for a grave argument,

" Such as may make thee search thy coffers round,
Before thou clothe my fancy in fit sound ;
Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heaven's door
Look in, and see each blissful deity,
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie."

Michael Angelo calls " him alone an artist, whose hands can execute
what his mind has conceived." The world, no doubt, contains many of
that class of men whom Wordsworth denominates " silent poets," whose
minds teem with images which they want words to clothe. But Milton's
mind seems to have no thought or emotion which refused to be recorded.
His mastery of his native tongue was more than to use it as well as any
other ; he cast it into new forms. He uttered in it things unheard
before. Not imitating but rivalling Shakspeare, he scattered, in tones
of prolonged and delicate melody, his pastoral and romantic fancies ;
then, soaring into unattempted strains, he made it capable of an
unknown majesty, and bent it to express every trait of beauty, every
shade of thought; and searched the kennel and jakes as well as the
palaces of sound for the harsh discords of his polemic wrath. We may
even apply to his performance on the instrument of language, his own
description of music ;

"- Notes, with many a winding bout
Of linked sweetness long drawn out,
With wanton heed and giddy cunning,
The melting voice through mazes running,
Untwisting all the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony."

But, whilst Milton was conscious of possessing this intellectual voice,
penetrating through ages and propelling its melodious undulations
forward through the coming world, he knew that this mastery of language
was a secondary power, and he respected the mysterious source whence it
had its spring ; namely, clear conceptions and a devoted heart. " For
me," he said, in his " Apology for Smectymnuus," " although I cannot
say that I am utterly untrained in those rules which best rhetoricians
have given, or unacquainted with those examples which the prime authors
of eloquence have written in any learned tongue, yet true eloquence I
find to be none but the serious and hearty love of truth ; and that
whose mind soever is fully possessed with a fervent desire to know good
things, and with the dearest charity to infuse the knowledge of them
into others, when such a man would speak, his words, by what I can
express, like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at
command, and in well-ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly into
their own places."

But, as basis or fountain of his rare physical and intellectual
accomplishments, the man Milton was just and devout. He is rightly dear
to man-kind, because in him, among so many perverse and partial men of
genius, – in him humanity rights itself ; the old eternal goodness
finds a home in his breast, and for once shows itself beautiful. His
gifts are subordinated to his moral sentiments. And his virtues are so
graceful that they seem rather talents than labors. Among so many
contrivances as the world has seen to make holiness ugly, in Milton at
least it was so pure a flame, that the foremost impression his
character makes is that of elegance. The victories of the conscience in
him are gained by the commanding charm which all the severe and
restrictive virtues have for him. His virtues remind us of what
Plutarch said of Timoleon's victories, that they resembled Homer's
verses, they ran so easy and natural. His habits of living were
austere. He was abstemious in diet, chaste, an early riser, and
industrious. He tells us, in a Latin poem, that the lyrist may indulge
in wine and in a freer life; but that he who would write an epic to the
nations, must eat beans and drink water. Yet in his severity is no
grimace or effort. He serves from love, not from fear. He is innocent
and exact, because his taste was so pine and delicate. He acknowledges
to his friend Diodati, at the age of twenty-one, that lie is enamored,
if ever any was, of moral perfection : " For, what-ever the Deity may
have bestowed upon me in other respects, he has certainly inspired me,
if any ever were inspired, with a passion for the good and fair. Nor
did Ceres, according to the fable, ever seek her daughter Proserpine
with such unceasing solicitude, as I have sought this -rov KaAov ideav,
this perfect model of the beautiful in all forms and appearances of

When he was charged with loose habits of living, he declares, that " a
certain niceness of nature, an honest haughtiness and self-esteem
either of what I was or what I might be, and a modesty, kept me still
above those low descents of mind beneath which he must deject and
plunge himself, that can agree " to such degradation. " His mind gave
him, " he said, " that every free and gentle spirit, without that oath
of chastity, ought to be born a knight; nor needed to expect the gilt
spur, or the laying of a sword upon his shoulder, to stir him up, by
his counsel and his arm, to secure and protect " attempted innocence.

He states these things, he says, " to show, that, though Christianity
had been but slightly taught him, yet a certain reservedness of natural
disposition and moral discipline, learned out of the noblest
philosophy, was enough to keep him in disdain of far less incontinences
than these, " that had been charged on him. In like spirit, he replies
to the suspicious calumny respecting his morning haunts. " Those
morning haunts are where they should be, at home ; not sleeping, or
concocting the surfeits of an irregular feast, but up and stirring, in
winter, often ere the sound of any bell awake men to labor or devotion;
in summer, as oft with the bird that first rouses, or not much tardier,
to read good authors, or cause them to be read, till the attention be
weary, or memory have its perfect fraught ; then with useful and
generous labors preserving the body's health and hardiness, to render
lightsome, clear, and not lumpish obedience to the mind, to the cause
of religion and our country's liberty, when it shall require firm
hearts in sound bodies to stand and cover their stations. These are the
morning practices. " This native honor never forsook him. It is the
spirit of " Comus," the loftiest song in the praise of chastity that is
in any language. It always sparkles in his eyes. It breathed itself
over his decent form. It refined his amusements, which consisted in
gardening, in exercise with the sword, and in playing on the organ. It
engaged his interest in chivalry, in courtesy, in whatsoever savored of
generosity and nobleness. This magnanimity shines in all his life. He
accepts a high impulse at every risk, and deliberately under-takes the
defence of the English people, when advised by his physicians that he
does it at the cost of sight. There is a forbearance even in his
polemics. He opens the war and strikes the first blow. When he had cut
down his opponents, he left the details of death and plunder to meaner
partisans. He said, " he had learned the prudence of the Roman soldier,
not to stand breaking of legs, when the breath was quite out of the

To this antique heroism, Milton added the genius of the Christian
sanctity. Few men could be cited who have so well understood what is
peculiar in the Christian ethics, and the precise aid it has brought to
men, in being an emphatic affirmation of the omnipotence of spiritual
laws, and, by way of marking the contrast to vulgar opinions, laying
its chief stress on humility. The indifferency of a wise mind to what
is called high and low, and the fact that true greatness is a perfect
humility, are revelations of Christianity which Milton well understood.
They give an inexhaustible truth to all his compositions. His firm
grasp of this truth is his weapon agains the prelates. He celebrates in
the martyrs, " the unresistible might of weakness." He told the bishops
that " instead of showing the reason of their lowly condition from
divine example and command, they seek to prove their high preeminence
from human consent and authority." He advises that in country places,
rather than to trudge many miles to a church, public worship be
maintained nearer home, as in a house or barn. " For, notwithstanding
the gaudy superstition of some still devoted ignorantly to temples, we
may be well assured, that he who disdained not to be born in a manger,
disdains not to be preached in a barn." And the following passage, in
the " Rea-son of Church Government," indicates his own perception of
the doctrine of humility. " Albeit I must confess to be half in doubt
whether I should bring it forth or no, it being so contrary to the eye
of the world, that I shall endanger either not to be regarded, or not
to be understood. For who is there, almost, that measures wisdom by
simplicity, strength by suffering, dignity by lowliness ? " Obeying
this sentiment, Milton de-served the apostrophe of Wordsworth :

" 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 itself did lay. "
He laid on himself the lowliest duties. Johnson petulantly taunts
Milton with " great promise and small performance," in returning from
Italy be-cause his country was in danger, and' then opening a private
school. Milton, wiser, felt no absurdity in this conduct. He returned
into his revolutionized country, and assumed an honest and useful task,
by which he might serve the state daily, whilst he launched from time
to time his formidable bolts against the enemies of liberty. He felt
the heats of that " love " which " esteems no office mean. " He
compiled a logic for boys ; he wrote a grammar ; and devoted much of
his time to the preparing of a Latin dictionary. But the religious
sentiment warmed his writings and conduct with the highest affection of
faith. The memorable covenant, which in his youth, in the second book
of the " Reason of Church Government," he makes with God and his
reader, expressed the faith of his old age. For the first time since
many ages, the in-vocations of the Eternal Spirit in the commencement
of his books are not poetic forms, but are thoughts, and so are still
read with delight. His views of choice of profession, and choice in
marriage, equally expect a divine leading.

Thus chosen, by the felicity of his nature and of his breeding, for the
clear perception of all that is graceful and all that is great in man,
Milton was
MILTON.    165
not less happy in his times. His birth fell upon the agitated years
when the discontents of the English Puritans were fast drawing to a
head against the tyranny of the Stuarts. No period has surpassed that
in the general activity of mind. It is said that no opinion, no civil,
religious, moral dogma can be produced, that was not broached in the
fertile brain of that age. Questions that involve all social and
personal rights were hasting to be decided by the sword, and were
searched by eyes to which the love of freedom, civil and religious,
lent new illumination. Milton, gentle, learned, delicately bred in all
the elegancy of art and learning, was set down in England in the stern,
almost fanatic society of the Puritans. The part he took, the zeal of
his fellowship, make us acquainted with the greatness of his spirit as
in tranquil times we could not have known it. Susceptible as Burke to
the attractions of historical prescription, of royalty, of chivalry, of
an ancient church illustrated by old martyrdoms and installed in
cathedrals, – he threw himself, the flower of elegancy, on the side of
the reeking conventicle ; the side of humanity, but unlearned and
unadorned. His muse was brave and humane, as well as sweet. He felt the
dear love of native land and native language. The humanity which warms
his pages begins as it should, at home. He preferred his own English,
so manlike he was, to the Latin, which contained all the treasures of
his memory. " My mother bore me," he said, " a speaker of what God made
mine own, and not a translator." He told the Parliament, that " the
imprimaturs of Lambeth House had been writ in Latin ; for that our
English, the language of men ever famous and foremost in the
achievements of liberty, will not easily find servile letters enow to
spell such a dictatory presumption." At one time he meditated writing a
poem on the settlement of Britain, and a history of England was one of
the three main tasks which he proposed to himself. He proceeded in it
no further than to the Conquest. He studied with care the character of
his country-men, and once in the " History," and once again in the "
Reason of Church Government," he has recorded his judgment of the
English genius.

Thus drawn into the great controversies of the times, in them he is
never lost in a party. His private opinions and private conscience
always distinguish him. That which drew him to the party was his love
of liberty, ideal liberty ; this there-fore he could not sacrifice to
any party. Toland tells us, " As he looked upon true and absolute
freedom to be the greatest happiness of this life, whether to societies
or single persons, so he thought constraint of any sort to be the
utmost misery ; for which reason he used to tell those about him the
entire satisfaction of his mind, that he had constantly employed his
strength and faculties in the defence of liberty, and in direct
opposition to slavery." Truly he was an apostle of freedom ; of freedom
in the house, in the state, in the church ; freedom of speech, freedom
of the press, yet in his own mind discriminated from savage license,
because that which he desired was the liberty of the wise man,
containing itself in the limits of virtue. He pushed, as far as any in
that democratic age, his ideas of civil liberty. He proposed to
establish a republic, of which the federal power was weak and loosely
defined, and the substantial power should remain with primary
assemblies. He maintained, that a nation may try, judge, and slay their
king, if he be a tyrant. He pushed as far his views of ecclesiastical
liberty. He taught the doctrine of unlimited toleration. One of his
tracts is writ to prove that no power on earth can compel in matters of
religion. He maintained the doctrine of literary liberty, denouncing
the censorship of the press, and insisting that a book shall come into
the world as freely as a man, so only it bear the name of author or
printer, and be responsible for itself like a man. He maintained the
doctrine of domes-tic liberty, or the liberty of divorce, on the ground
that unfit disposition of mind was a better reason for the act of
divorce than infirmity of body, which
was good ground in law. The tracts he wrote on these topics are, for
the most part, as fresh and pertinent to-day as they were then. The
events which produced them, the practical issues to which they tend,
are mere occasions for this philanthropist to blow his trumpet for
human rights. They are all varied applications of one principle, the
liberty of the wise man. He sought absolute truth, not accommodating
truth. His opinions on all subjects are formed for man as he ought to
be, for a nation of Miltons. He would be divorced when he finds in his
consort unfit disposition ; knowing that he should not abuse that
liberty, because with his whole heart he abhors licentiousness and
loves chastity. He defends the slaying of the king, because a king is a
king no longer than he governs by the laws ; " it would be right to
kill Philip of Spain making an inroad into England, and what right the
king of Spain hath to govern us at all, the same hath the king Charles
to govern tyrannically." He would remove hirelings out of the church,
and support preachers by voluntary contributions ; requiring that such
only should preach as have faith enough to accept so self-denying and
precarious a mode of life, scorning to take thought for the aspects of
prudence and expediency. The most devout man of his time, he frequented
no church ; probably from a disgust at the fierce spirit of the
pulpits. And so, throughout all his actions and opinions, is he a
consistent spiritualist, or believer in the omnipotence of spiritual
laws. He wished that his writings should be communicated only to those
who desired to see them. He thought nothing honest was low. He thought
he could be famous only in proportion as he enjoyed the approbation of
the good. He admonished his friend " not to admire military prowess, or
things in which force is of most avail. For it would not be matter of
rational wonder, if the wethers of our country should be born with
horns that could batter down cities and towns. Learn to estimate great
characters, not by the amount of animal strength, but by the habitual
justice and temperance of their conduct."

Was there not a fitness in the undertaking of such a person to write a
poem on the subject of Adam, the first man ? By his sympathy with all
nature ; by the proportion of his powers ; by great knowledge, and by
religion, he would reascend to the height from which our nature is
supposed to have descended. From a just knowledge of what man should
be, he described what he was. He beholds him as he walked in Eden : –

"His fair large front and eye sublime declared
Absolute rule ; and hyacinthine locks
Round from his parted forelock manly hung
Clustering, but not beneath his shoulders broad."
And the soul of this divine creature is excellent as his form. The tone
of his thought and passion is as healthful, as even, and as vigorous,
as befits the new and perfect model of a race of gods.

The perception we have attributed to Milton, of a purer ideal of
humanity, modifies his poetic genius. The man is paramount to the poet.
His fancy is never transcendent, extravagant ; but, as Bacon's
imagination was said to be " the noblest that ever contented itself to
minister to the under-standing," so Milton's ministers to the
character. Milton's sublimest song, bursting into heaven with its peals
of melodious thunder, is the voice of Mil-ton still. Indeed, throughout
his poems, one may see under a thin veil, the opinions, the feelings,
even the incidents of the poet's life, still reappearing. The sonnets
are all occasional poems. " L'Allegro" and " Il Penseroso" are but a
finer autobiography of his youthful fancies at Harefield ; the " Comus
" a transcript, in charming numbers, of that philosophy of chastity,
which, in the " Apology for Smectymnuus," and in the "Reason of Church
Government," he declares to be his defense and religion. The " Samson
Agonistes " is too broad an expression of his private griefs to be
mistaken, and is a version of the "Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce."
The most affecting passages in " Paradise Lost" are personal allusions
; and, when we are fairly in Eden, Adam and Milton are often difficult
to be separated. Again, in "Paradise Regained," we have the most
distinct marks of the progress of the poet's mind, in the revision and
enlargement of his religious opinions. This may be thought to abridge
his praise as a poet. It is true of Homer and Shakspeare that they do
not appear in their poems; that those prodigious geniuses did cast
themselves so totally into their song, that their individuality
vanishes, and the poet towers to the sky, whilst the man quite
disappears. The fact is memorable. Shall we say that in our admiration
and joy in these wonderful poems we have even a feeling of regret that
the men knew not what they did ; that they were too passive in their
great service ; were channels through which streams of thought flowed
from a higher source, which they did not appropriate, did not blend
with their own being ? Like prophets, they seem but imperfectly aware
of the import of their own utterances. We hesitate to say such things,
and say them only to the unpleasing dualism, when the man and the poet
show like a double consciousness. Perhaps we speak to no fact, but to
mere fables, of an idle mendicant Homer, and of a Shakspeare content
with a mean and jocular way of life. Be it how it may, the genius and
office of Milton were different, namely, to ascend by the aids of his
learning and his religion, – by an equal perception, that is, of the
past and the future, – to a higher insight and more lively delineation
of the heroic life of man. This was his poem ; whereof all his
indignant pamphlets and all his soaring verses are only single cantos
or detached stanzas. It was plainly needful that his poetry should be a
version of his own life, in order to give weight and solemnity to his
thoughts ; by which they might penetrate and possess the imagination
and the will of man-kind. The creations of Shakspeare are cast into the
world of thought to no further end than to de-light. Their intrinsic
beauty is their excuse for being. Milton, fired °, with dearest charity
to in-fuse the knowledge of good things into others," tasked his giant
imagination and exhausted the stores of his intellect for an end
beyond, namely, to teach. His own conviction it is which gives such
authority to his strain. Its reality is its force. If out of the heart
it came, to the heart it must go. What schools and epochs of common
rhymers would it need to make a counterbalance to the severe oracles of
his muse :

"In them is plainest taught and easiest learnt,
What makes a nation happy, and keeps it so."

The lover of Milton reads one sense in his prose and in his metrical
compositions ; and sometimes the muse soars highest in the former,
because the thought is more sincere. Of his prose in general,
not the style alone but the argument also is poetic ; according to Lord
Bacon's definition of poetry, following that of Aristotle, " Poetry,
not finding the actual world exactly conformed to its idea of good and
fair, seeks to accommodate the shows of things to the desires of the
mind, and to create an ideal world better than the world of
experience." Such certainly is the explanation of Milton's tracts. Such
is the apology to be entered for the plea for freedom of divorce ; an
essay, which, from the first until now, has brought a degree of obloquy
on his name. It was a sally of the extravagant spirit of the time,
overjoyed, as in the French Revolution, with the sudden victories it
had gained, and eager to carry on the standard of truth to new heights.
It is to be regarded as a poem on one of the griefs of man's condition,
namely, unfit marriage. And as many poems have been written upon unfit
society, commending solitude, yet have not been proceeded against,
though their end was hostile to the state ; so should this receive that
charity which an angelic soul, suffering more keenly than others from
the unavoidable evils of human life, is entitled to.

We have offered no apology for expanding to such length our commentary
on the character of John Milton ; who, in old age, in solitude, in
neglect, and blind, wrote the Paradise Lost ; a man whom labor or
danger never deterred from whatever efforts a love of the supreme
interests of man prompted. For are we not the better ; are not all men
fortified by the remembrance of the bravery, the purity, the
temperance, the toil, the in-dependence and the angelic devotion of
this man, who, in a revolutionary age, taking counsel only of himself,
endeavored, in his writings and in his life, to carry out the life of
man to new heights of spiritual grace and dignity, without any
abatement of its strength?

The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson