Imágenes de páginas

that, the most splendid of all, of Burke, and Fox, and North, and the other great orators whose speeches illustrate the period of the war of Colonial Independence, -then that of the younger Pitt, and Sheridan, and the rest, with Burke for a time still among them, and Fox still longer, which was at its brightest at the time of the breaking out of the French Revolution, and which reaches down almost to our own time. It is one of the affectations of the philosophism of the day to speak with a sort of contempt of those bygone eras of our parliamentary history as times of mere talk instead of action, when the blaze of eloquence that was kept up in the House of Commons was offered to the public admiration as a substitute for the whole business of good government. We look upon such a representation of the matter as blatant stupidity or more despicable cant. We believe that that patriotic spirit which is at once the life and moral sense of a nation will never be kept alive, as it never yet has been among any people, savage or civilized, in the direction of whose public affairs the power of eloquence has not a large share; and we are sure that this influence could not be put down without its place being supplied by others far less generous in character and far more dangerous in their effects.

We have thus rapidly traced the gradual rise of the House of Commons from the humble position which it appears to have originally occupied as a mere convention of delegates from the towns and rural districts assembled by the King when he wanted to lay on a new tax, rather to take his instructions as to its amount and the manner in which it was to be levied than either to dispute or deliberate upon the demand, -through the long period during which it carried on a more or less determined struggle with the Crown and the other House for independence, if not co-ordinate authority-down to the era when, having successfully asserted its theoretical equality with each of those other branches of the legislature, it has come not only to be decidedly the controlling body in the state, but almost, we may say, to have absorbed the whole powers of government. It is worthy of remark, nevertheless, that, while the influence of the House of Commons as a power in the state has been constantly increasing throughout the last century and a half, what are called the privileges of the House and of its members have been rather undergoing curtailment during that space of time. Now that the House has been placed beyond the reach of attack from either the Lords or the Crown, several of the rights which it formerly claimed and was allowed to exercise have been felt to be no longer necessary for the due performance of its functions, and wherever they have pressed inconveniently upon individuals or the public a disposition has been shown to cut them down—so that now, after having adjusted its position in relation to the other powers of the government, it would seem that the people's House had a controversy of the same kind with the people themselves—a controversy, we may add, in which it is as sure to be the party that shall have to yield as in the nature of things it was certain to be successful in its previous struggles. In so far, however, as this last contest has yet gone, the House has never given up an inch of ground without having made considerable resistance. It was not, for instance, till after a war of many years, and a most furious fight at the end, that the great right of reporting the debates in Parliament was gained by the public. It is little more than a century since nothing that was spoken in the House

was suffered to be printed till after the parliament in which it was spoken had been dissolved ; or at least any earlier publication was denounced by the House as a daring act of illegality. On the 13th of April, 1738, the House resolved, “That it is an high indignity to, and a notorious breach of the privilege of, this House, for any newswriter, in Letters or other papers (as Minutes, or under any other denomination), or for any printer or publisher of any printed newspaper of any denomination, to presume to insert in the said Letters or papers, or to give therein any account of, the Debates or other proceedings of this House, or any Committee thereof, as well during the recess as the sitting of parliament, and that this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offenders.” The monthly magazines, notwithstanding, still continued to report the debates, although for some time they took the precaution of indicating the speakers by fictitious appellations, to which they furnished their readers with a key when the House was no longer extant to call them to account. But it was not till the beginning of the year 1771 that the debates began to be given to the public day by day as they occurred; and then the attempt gave rise to a contest between the House and the newspapers which occupied the House to the exclusion of all other business for three weeks—when a committee was appointed, whose report, when it was read two months after, recommending whether it might not be expedient to order that the offending parties should be taken into the custody of the sergeant-at-arms, Mr. Burke aptly compared to the decision of the assembly of mice, who came to a resolution that the cat, to prevent her doing any more mischief, should be tied up, but unfortunately forgot to say how the operation was to be managed. Another still longer contest maintained by the House against the public regarded the privilege which was formerly asserted to belong to members not only of freedom from personal arrest but even from being subjected to actions at law in civil cases, nay of being protected from having such actions brought even against their servants and tenants. These extraordinary claims continued to be upheld and occasionally put in force by the House, till they were finally taken away by statute no longer ago than in the year 1770. But one of the most singular contests in which the House ever was involved was that which it had to wage about the middle of the last century in support of the right it assumed to compel such delinquents as it called to its bar, whether in order to receive judgment, or to be discharged out of custody, to fall down upon their knees and to remain in that degrading attitude while the Speaker was addressing them. In February 1751, a Mr. Alexander Murray, brother of Lord Elibank, having incurred the hot displeasure of the House, or of the faction that happened to be in the ascendant, by something he had done, or was charged with having done, at a recent Westminster election, it was voted that he should be sent close prisoner to Newgate, and, further, that he should be brought to the bar to receive his sentence on his knees. Horace Walpole has told the story with all gusto in his ' Memoirs of the Last Ten Years of George II.'

- He entered with an air of confidence, composed of something between a martyr and a coxcomb. The Speaker called out, Your obeisances! Sir, your obeisances !' and then, 'Sir, you must kneel.' He replied, “Sir, I beg to be excused; I never kneel but to God.' The Speaker repeated the command with great warmth. Murray answered, “Sir, I am sorry I cannot comply with your request; I would in any

thing else.' The Speaker cried, “Sir, I call upon you again to consider of it.' Murray answered, “Sir, when I have committed a crime, I kneel to God for pardon; but I know my own innocence, and cannot kneel to anybody else.' The Speaker ordered the sergeant to take him away and secure him. He was going to reply; the Speaker would not suffer him." The prisoner having been removed, a warm debate ensued, the Speaker telling them that if a party might behave thus with impunity there was an end of the dignity and power of the House. One member proposed that the refractory delinquent should be kept in Newgate without pen, ink, and paper; another hinted that it might be well to send him to the dungeon called Little Ease in the Tower; a third would have had an act of parliament passed for the special punishment of such audacious conduct. At last, after naming a Committee to consider the matter, the House adjourned at near two o'clock in the morning. This was on the 6th. Murray lay in Newgate till the 27th of April, when he was brought up by habeas corpus to the King's Bench; but, three of the Judges allowing the validity of a commitment by the House of Commons, he was remanded to prison. But the instant the parliament was prorogued, on the 25th of June, a number of his friends accompanied the two sheriffs to Newgate, and bringing him away conducted him in triumph to his own house. On the 20th of November, a few days after the parliament had re-assembled, it was again moved and carried after a long debate that Murray should still be brought to receive his sentence on his knees-Mr. Pelham, the prime minister, observing, that, if the House had not all the authority it wished, it ought at least to exert all it had. But a few days after, when the sergeant-at-arms was called in to make his report, he informed the House that the object of their vengeance had absconded, A reward of five hundred pounds was then voted for his apprehension ; but he was never taken ; the exaction of the ceremony of kneeling by the House was attended with considerable awkwardness from this time forward; and at length on the 16th of March, 1772, a standing order (80 called with a double appropriateness) was made, that when any person was brought to the bar as a delinquent he should receive the judgment of the House standing. “The alteration made by that order,” observes Hatsell, with becoming official solemnity, “was suggested by the humanity of the House."

[ocr errors]
[graphic][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors]

The best successor of Milton has described the character of the great poet's mind in one celebrated line :

Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart.” It might at first seem, looking at the accuracy of this forcible image, that the name of Milton could not be properly associated with the state of society during the times in which he flourished. It is true that in the writings of Milton we have very few glimpses of the familiar life of his day; no set descriptions of scenes and characters; nothing that approaches in the slightest degree to the nature of anecdote; no playfulness, no humour. Wordsworth continues his apostrophe :

“ Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea.” The sprightlier dramatists have the voices of

“Shallow rivers, by whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.” It is pleasant to sit in the sunshine and listen to the bubbling of the runnel over its pebbly bottom: but the times of Milton were for the most part dark and stormy, and with them the voice of the sea was in harmony. We can learn, while listening to that voice, when there was calm and when there was tempest. But Milton was not only the great literary name of his period—he was a public man, living in the heart of the mightiest struggle betwixt two adverse principles that England ever encountered. Add to this he was essentially a Londoner. He was born in Bread Street; he died in Cripplegate. During a long life we may trace him, from St. Paul's School, through a succession of London residences which, taking their names with their ordinary associations, sound as little poetical as can well be imagined—St. Bride's Churchyard, Aldersgate Street, Barbican, Holborn, Petty France, Bartholomew Close, Jewin Street, Bunhill Fields. The houses which he inhabited have been swept away; their pleasant gardens are built



over. But the name of Milton is inseparably connected with these prosaic realities. That name belongs especially to London.

The portrait at the head of this article represents the Milton of nineteen. He has himself left us a picture of his mind at this period. His first Latin elegy, addressed to Charles Deodati, is supposed by Warton to have been written about 1627. The writer was born in 1608. We shall transcribe a few passages from Cowper's translation of this elegy :

“ I well content, where Thames with influent tide

My native city laves, meantime reside:
Nor zeal nor duty now my steps impel
To reedy Cam, and my forbidden cell;
Nor aught of pleasure in those fields have I,
That, to the musing bard, all shade deny.
'T is time that I a pedant's threats disdain,
And fly from wrongs my soul will ne'er sustain.
If peaceful days in letter'd leisure spent,
Beneath my father's roof, be banishment,
Then call me banish'd; I will ne'er refuse
A name expressive of the lot I choose.
I would that, exil'd to the Pontic shore,
Rome's hapless bard had suffer'd nothing more;
He then had equall'd even Homer's lays,
And, Virgil! thou hadst won but second praise.
For here I woo the Muse, with no control;

For here my books—my life-absorb me whole." His father's roof was in Bread Street, in the parish of Allhallows. The sign of the Spread Eagle, which hung over his father's door, was the armorial bearing of his family; but the sign indicated that the house was one of business, and the business of Milton's father was that of a scrivener. Here, in some retired back room, looking most probably into a pleasant little garden, was the youthful poet surrounded by his books, perfectly indifferent to the more profitable writing of bonds and agreements that was going forward in his father's office. It was Milton's happiness to possess a father who understood the genius of his son, and whose tastes were in unison with his own. In the young poet's beautiful verses, Ad Patrem, also translated by Cowper, he says,

thou never bad'st me tread
The beaten path, and broad, that leads right on
To opulence, nor didst condemn thy son
To the insipid clamours of the bar,

The laws voluminous, and ill observ'd.” Of Milton's father Aubrey says, “ He was an ingenious man, delighted in music, and composed many songs now in print, especially that of Oriana.” The poet thus addresses his father in reference to the same accomplishment:

Art skilful to associate verse with airs
Harmonious, and to give the human voice
A thousand modulations, heir by right
Indisputable of Arion's fame.
Now say, what wonder is it, if a son
Of thine delight in verse; if, so conjoin'd
In close affinity, we sympathize
In social arts and kindred studies sweet?"

« AnteriorContinuar »