Page images
PDF
EPUB

ing, a richness and splendor of imagination, whicle characterize a mind of the highest order. Though deeply tinged, it must be owned, with the prejudices and party-spirit of the times, there is no thing of the hypocritical cant, or of the fanatical frenzy of the sectaries of those times. With Milton, religion, as to its practical effect, was a sublime, poetic feeling, which served to inspire and exalt his genius. There is, indeed, as has been often observed, great affinity between poetic and religious enthusiasm. The poel, like the sincere and ardent religionist, is dissatisfied with the things of this world, and seeks for 'new gratification and delight in the regions of fancy and of faith. Ethereal spirits-souls largely en-dowed, like that of Milton, tired of the dull uniformity of earth, soar for bliss to their native skies.

Milton has been severely censured for his abusiveness in controversy. “He spared (says Johnson) neither asperity of reproach nor brutality of insolence." But those who, with Jolinson, charge him with this fault, do not consider that his antagonists were the aggressors; and that if he surpassed them in their own way, it was only in the pungency, not in the virulence of his invective: Let

any one only read the passages which Milton occasionally extracts from their writings, and then say, whether they did not deserve at his hands all that severity of reproof and keenness of sare

casur, which be so liberally bestows upon them. If he would not give his enemies an advantage, he was under the necessity of fighting them with their own weapons; with this difference, however, that his weapons were whetied only by truth. What! says he, shall the royalists be at liberty to assail us with lies and calam-. . nies, and shall not we be perinitted to retort on them real crimes? No doubt, it is always. more wise, more manly, and dignified, to despise, or at any rate, to disregard scurrilities, if it can be done without suffering any stain to be affixed on a inan's reputation. But Milton had evidently no alternative. Resistanee to such things seemed nécessary, not only to confute, but to intimidate his audacious foes. Besides, in such a contest, it may be of consequence, as Bayle observes, to get the laughers of our side. Milton defends himself, however, froin this charge, in various places, from the example of the sacred writers themselves, froin that of the ancient orators, and what is a little remarkable, from that of the old Greek comedy-a very questionable authority, it must be owned. He adduces the exainple also of Martin Luther, who says himself, that he was prevented by his natural temper from writing dull style ;" and as a general position, he maintains, that to minds a diversely tempered," different styles are naturally and properly adapted.

a

To all this we may add, that the taste of the age in which Milton wrote was less refined than that of the present, which, though it may tolerate, would scarcely relish and approve the rude invective, the gross personalities, which mark and disgrace the controversial writings both of Milton and of his opponents. As Milton certainly surpassed all his cotemporaries in genius, and outstepped most in taste and refinement, he could not but be sensible of degradation, compelled as he was to such disparaging hostility—“to embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes.' But we should be very cautious, I ackpowledge, how we extenuate the faults of genius : for the example of genius will be imitated. And after every deduction is made, there will be occasionally found in Milton instances of illiberality and of arrogance, which the highest provocation alone can extenuate. To appear thus in the heat of controversy, thus in fiery action, acting simply upon the calm decisions of philosophy, is perhaps too much to expect from the frailty of human nature. When the mind is calm and happy, free from a breath of passion, then alone it is, that its judgments are clear and just. Such judgments a good man will endeavour to fix by re-, flection, and to confirm them into habits of the soul.

A little may be said of the style of these compositions. The style of Milton was formed too

much upon the model of the ancient writers. Hence those inversions, and often that Roman cast of phrase, which so ill accords with the genius of the English language. In my translations, I found, though I have never affected and never scrupulously shunned his peculiar phraseology, that his Latin often very naturally falls into a style much reseinbling his own English; nor, in some instances, could I well prevent this, without the risk of losing the character of my author, which it should certainly be the prime object of a translator to maintain. His sentences, too, are frequently too long, and likewise involved, arising chiefly from a fanlty use of parentheses. Sometimes also the end of his sentence forgets the beginning; that is, the sentence is deficient in unity; a fault which may easily be avoided, and it undoubtedly ought to be avoided, as it tends so much to prevent perspicuity. In respect of length of sentence, however, we must not be over hasty in condemping as faulty, what in many cases may be a proof of the highest genius. Every sentence may be considered as a distinct vision of the mind, containing more or less of ideas; and that brain will possess the most capacity, which can see most at once without confusion. It seems natural then to a capacious mind to accustom itself to sentences of some length, particularly in strains

of eloquence and in generalizing observations. A sentence is not necessarily obscure from its length, but from its structure. In the argumentative parts of his writings, as his reasoning is close, Milton's sentences are sufficiently short, as might be expected : for every vigorous mind naturally brings its subjects of comparison as close together as possible, for the greater facility of comparing them. Yet even here, bis sentences, though remarkable for strength, have never that pert, hitting effect, which distinguishes the French style. These frenchified sentences may appear lively to the eye and the ear, but they will often be found wanting in that flowing body of thought, which can alone fill and satisfy the understanding. It is of consequence to attend to style, if only to remove out of the way every inpediment to the exclusive attention to ideas. Every awkwardness or iin propriety breaks the continuity of attention, and of course weakens effect. That style, therefore, is the most perfect, which keeps the attention close to ideas; agreeably to the rule-it is the perfection of art to conceai art.

As to the general manner of Milton, apart from these few particularities, it is such as is distinctive of a mind of the higher order. Elevation of thought must necessarily produce elevation of style; and never was there a man

« PreviousContinue »