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Those who love not Milton, affect to speak scornfully of his writings on this subject, and intimate, that they were received at first with universal contempt; but this was far from being the case; they were applauded by many, on whose judgment the author set the highest value, though they were made a source of indecent mirth by the vulgar; and we may reasonably conclude, it was this circumstance that induced him to wish he had written them in Latin. To the low ribaldry, with which they were attacked, he alludes in the sonnet, celebrated for the following admirable lines on the hypocritical or intemperate assertors of liberty,
That ball for freedom in their senseless mood,
And still revolt when truth would set them free;
clefiafticam, domefticam, feu privatam, atque civilem, deque prima jam scripsiffem, déque tertia magistratum sedulò agere viderem, quæ reliqua fecunda erat, domesticam mihi desumpfi ; ea quoque tripartita, cum videretur esse, fi res conjugalis, fi liberorum infti. tutio rectè fe haberet, fi denique liberè philofophandi potestas esset, de conjugio non solum rite contrahendo, verum etiam, fi neceffe effet, diffolvendo, quid fentirem explicui ; idque ex divina lege, quam Chriftus non fuftulit, nedum aliam, tota lege Mosaïca graviorem civiliter fanxit ; quid item de excepta solùm fornicatione sentiendum fit, et meam aliorumque fententiam ex. prompfi, et clarissimus vir Seldenus nofter, in Uxore Hebræâ plùs minùs biennio poft edita, uberius demonftravit. Fruftrà enim libertatem in comitiis et foro crepat, qui domi fervitutem viro indignif. fimam, inferiori etiam servit ; ea igitur de re aliquot libros edidi; eo præfertim tempore cùm vir sæpe et conjux hoftes inter se acerrimi, hic domi cum liberis, illa in caftris hoftium materfamilias faretur, viro cædem atque perniciem minitans.--Profe Works, vol. 2. p. 385. folio Edit. London, 1738. vol. 2. p. 333. G
Licence they mean, when they cry liberty,
This noble sentiment he has inculcated more than once in profe ; and as his life was in harmony with his precept, it might have taught his enemies to avoid the gross absurdity of representing him as the lover of anarchy and confufion. Never was a mind better constituted, than Milton's, to set a just value on the prime blessings of peace and order; if he ran into political errors, they arose not from any fondness for scenes of turbulence, but rather from his-generous credulity respecting the virtue of mankind; from believing that many hypocrites, who affected a wish to establish peace and order in his country, on what he esteemed the surest foundation, were as sincere and disinterested as himself.
“ From this time (says Johnson) it is observed, " that he became an enemy to the Presbyterians, “ whom he had favoured before. He that changes " his party by his humour is not much more vir
tuous than he that changes it by his interest; he « loves himself rather than truth.” Notwithstanding the air of morality in this remark, it may be questioned, if ever an observation was made on any great character more invidious or more unjust. When the Presbyterians were favoured by Milton, they spake the language of the oppressed; on their being invested with power, they forgot their own pleas for liberty of conscience, and became, in their turn, persecutors; it was the consistency of virtue, therefore, in Milton, that made him at one time their advocate, and at another their opponent: so
far from loving himself better than truth, he was perhaps of all mortals the least felfish. He contended for religion without seeking emoluments from the church; he contended for the state without aiming at any civil or military employment: truth and justice were the idols of his heart and the study of his life; if he sometimes failed of attaining them, it was not because he loved any thing better; it was because he overshot the object of his sincere affection from the fondness and ardour of his
His wife still persisted in her desertion, but he amused his mind under the mortification her con. duct had occasioned by frequent visits to the Lady Margaret Ley, whose manners and conversation were peculiarly engaging. Her father, the Earl of Marlborough, had held the highest offices in a former reign, and of his virtues she used to speak with such filial eloquence as inspired Milton with a fonnet in her praise.
He continued also to manifest his firm affection to the public good, by two compositions intended to promote it; the little tractate on education, addressed to Mr. Hartlib, who had requested his thoughts upon that interesting subject, and his Areo. pagitica, a speech for the liberty of unlicenced printing. The latter has been re-printed, with a spirited preface by Thompson, a poet whom a paffion for freedom, united to genius, had highly qualified as an editor and eulogist of Milton.
Had the author of the Paradise Lost left us no composition but his Areopagitica, he would be still G 2
entitled to the affectionate veneration of every Englishman, who exults in that intellectual light, which is the noblest characteristic of his country, and for which England is chiefly indebted to the liberty of the press. Our constant advocate for freedom, in every department of life, vindicated this most important privilege with a mind fully sensible of its value; he poured all his heart into this vindication, and, to speak of his work in his own energetic language, we may justly call it, what he has defined a good book to be, “ the precious life-blood of a “ master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on pur“ pose to a life beyond life.”
His late biographer, instead of praising Milton for a service so honourably rendered to literature, seems rather desirous of annihilating its merit, by directing his sarcastic animosity against the liberty of the press. “ It seems not more reasonable,” says Johnson,“ to leave the right of printing unrestrain“ ed, because writers may be afterwards censured, " than it would be to sleep with doors unbolted, “ because by our laws we can hang a thief.”
This is servile sophistry; the author's illustration of a thief may be turned against himself. To suffer no book to be published without a licence, is tyranny as absurd as it would be to suffer no traveller to pass along the highway without producing a certificate that he is not a robber.
Even bad books may have their use, as Milton observes ; and I mention this observation, chiefly to shew how liberally he introduces a just compliment to a great author of his own time, in support
of this idea. " What better witness,” says the advocate for unlicenced printing, “can ye expect I “ should prodcce, than one of your own, not fit
ting in parliament, the chief of learned men re
puted in this land, Mr. Selden, whose volume of “ natural and national laws proves, not only by
great authorities brought together, but by exqui“ fite reasons and theorems almost mathematically “ demonstrative, that all opinions, yea errors, " kņown, read, and collected, are of main service “ and assistance towards the speedy attainment of 66 of what is truest.” This eulogy alone appears sufficient to refute a remark unfriendly to Milton, that he was frugal of his praise; such frugality will hardly be found united to a benevolent heart and a glowing imagination,
In 1645, his early poems, both English and Latin, were first published in a little volume by Ilumphry Mosely, who informs the reader in his advertisement, that he had obtained them by solicitation from the author, regarding him as a successful rival of Spencer.
Milton had now passed more than three years in that singular state of mortification, which the disobedience of his wife occasioned. His time had been occupied by the inceffant exercise of his mental powers ; but he probably felt with peculiar poignancy
“ A craving void left aching in the breast.”
As he entertained serious thoughts of enforcing, by his own example, his doctrine of divorce, and