Imágenes de páginas
[ocr errors][ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

Of Bacchus and his revellers, the race
Of that wild rout that tore the Thracian bard
In Rhodope, where rocks and woods had ears
To rapture, till the savage clamour drown'd
Both harp and voice; nor could the Muse defend
Her son : so fail not thou who thee implores,
For thou art heav'nly, she an empty dream.

How peculiarly affecting are these beautiful verses, when the history of the poet fuggests that he probably wrote them while he was concealed in an obscure corner of the city, that resounded with the triumphant roar of his intoxicated enemies, among whom drunkenness arose to such extravagance, that even the festive royalists found it necefsary to issue a proclamation, which forbade the drinking of healths. How poignant at this time must have been the personal and patriotic feelings of Milton, who had passed his life in animating himself and his country to habits of temperance, truth, and public virtue, yet had the mortification of finding that country, so dear to him, now doubly disgraced ; first, by the hypocrisy and treacherous ambition of republicans, to whose pretended virtues he had given too easy credit ; and now, by the mean licentious servility of royalists, whose more open though not more dangerous vices his upright and high-toned spirit had ever held in abhor

For his country he had every thing to apprehend from the blind infatuation with which the parliament had rejected the patriotic suggestion of Hale (afterwards the illustrious chief justice) to establish constitutional limitations


to the power of the king at the critical period of his reception. The neglect of this measure contributed not a little to subsequent evils, and the reign of Charles the Second was in truth deformed with all the public misery and disgrace which Milton had predicted, when he argued on the idea of his re-admission. For his own person, the literary champion of the people had no less to dread from the barbarity of public vengeance, or from the private dagger of fome overheated royalist, who, like the affassins of Dorislaus in Holland, and of Ascham in Spain, might think it meritorious to seize any opportunity of destroying a fervant of the English republic. When royal government, restored to itself, could yet descend to authorise a mean and execrable indignity against the dead body of a man so magnanimous and so innocent as Blake, it was surely natural, and by no means unbecoming the spirit of Milton, to fpeak as he does, in the preceding verses, of evil days and evil tongues, of darkness and of danger.

“ This darkness (says Johnson) had his eyes been better “ employed, had undoubtedly deserved compassion.” What! had Milton no title to compassion for his personal calamity, because he had nobly facrificed his fight to what he esteemed an important discharge of his public duty ?--Oh egregious morality! to which no feeling heart can subscribe. No, fay his implacable enemies; he lost his eyes in the vindication of wickedness : but admitting their assertion in its full force, justice and humanity still contend, that, instead of diminishing, it rather doubles his claim to compassion ; to suffer in a spirited defence of guilt, that we mistake and

esteem clares

[ocr errors]

esteem as virtue, is, perhaps, of all pitiable misfortunes, what a candid and considerate inind should be most willing to pity.

But Johnson proceeds to say, “ of evil tongues for Mil

ton to complain required impudence at least equal to “ his other powers ; Milton, whose warmest advocates must " allow, that he never spared any asperity of reproach or brutality of insolence.”

These are, perhaps, the most bitter words that were ever applied by an author, illustrious himself for great talents, and still more for christian virtue, to a character pre-eminent in genius and in piety. By shewing to what a marvellous degree a very cultivated and devout mind may be exasperated by party rage, may they serve to caution every fervid spirit against that outrageous animosity, which a difference of sentiment in politics and religion is so apt to produce. It would seem almost an affront to the memory of Milton to vindicate him elaborately from a charge, whose very words exhibit so palpable a violation of decency and truth.

His coldest advocates, instead of allowing that he never spared any brutality of insolence, may rather contend, that his native tenderness of heart, and very graceful education, rendered it hardly possible for him at any time to be insolent and brutal. It would have been wonderful indeed,

, had he not written with some degree of asperity, when his antagonist Calmasius asserted, that he ought to suffer an ignominious and excruciating death. Against the unfortunate (but not innocent) Charles the First, he expressly declares, that he published nothing till after his decease; and that he meant not, as he says in one of his Latin works, to insult the Manes of the king, is indeed evident to an unprejudiced reader, from the following very beautiful and pathetic sentence, with which he begins his answer to the Eikon Basilike :

" To descant on the misfortunes of a person fallen from fo high a dignity, who hath also paid his final debt, both to nature and his faults, is neither of itself a thing commendable, nor the intention of this discourse.” Those who fairly consider the exasperated state of the contending parties, when Milton wrote, and compare his political compofitions with the savage ribaldry of his opponents, however mistaken they may think him in his ideas of government, will yet

find more reason to admire his temper than to condemn his asperity.

If in a quiet study, at a very advanced period of life, and at the distance of more than a century from the days of the republic; if a philosopher so situated could be hurried by political heat to speak of Milton with such harsh intemperance of language, though writing under the friendly title of his biographer, with what indulgence ought we to view that asperity in Milton himself, which arose from the immediate pressure of public oppression and of private outrage; for his spirit had been enflamed, not only by the fight of many national vexations, but by seeing his own moral character attacked with the most indecent and execrable calumny that can incite the indignation of insulted virtue. If the fascinating powers of his sacred poem, and the lustre

[ocr errors]

of his integrity, have failed to soften the virulence of an aged moralist against him in our days, what must he not have had to apprehend from the raging passions of his own time, when his poetical genius had not appeared in its meridian fplendor, and when most of his writings were considered as recent crimes against those, who were entering on their career, of triumph and revenge ? Johnson, indeed, asserts in his barbarous censure of Milton's exquisite picture of his own situation, that the poet, in speaking of his danger, was ungrateful and unjust; that the charge itself seems to be false, for it would be hard to recollect any reproach cast upon him, either serious or ludicrous, through the whole remaining part of his life ; yet Lauder, once the associate of Johnson in writing against Milton, expressly affirms, that it was warmly debated for three days, whether he should suffer death with the regicides or not, as many contended that his guilt was superior to theirs. Lauder, indeed, mentions no authority for his assertion ; and the word of a man so supremely infamous would deserve no notice, were not the circumstance rendered probable by the rancour and atrocity of party spirit. To what detestable excesses this spirit could proceed we have not only an example in Lauder himself (of whose malignity to the poet I shall have subsequent occasion to speak) but in that collection of virulent invectives against Milton, composed chiefly by his contemporaries, which Lauder added as an appendix to his own most malignant pamphlet. The most singular and indecent of these invectives, whose scurrility is too gross to be transcribed, has been imputed to that very copious writer, Sir Roger

L'Etrange ;

« AnteriorContinuar »