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CHAPTER I

FAITH, PHILOSOPHY,

AND POETRY
IN MILTON'S WORK

T is necessary to examine the purely poetical part of

I'

Milton's work to see what it adds to the results of

our previous survey of his thought and character, and also to apply to his art the knowledge so far obtained of his philosophy and of his general characteristics. The two parts of his production, the abstract and the artistic, throw much light on each other.

The De doctrina is at once more abstract and clearer than the poems. There is in it, at bottom, very little dogma. For instance, in the treatise, Milton does not venture to risk a firm opinion on the date of the creation of the angels (relatively to that of the world) nor on the reasons of the rebellion of the angels or of the creation of the world.' This silence amounts to a confession of ignorance. Yet the poetry is built on most precise data on all these points, which shows that Milton looked upon dogma as a sort of myth, chiefly useful for poetical purposes. Anyhow, he always supplemented it with an inner, psychological meaning, which gives to the poetry its human, permanent value, whatever may happen to the dogma. But even so, there remain obscure points. Milton's pride and reserve kept him from giving away the whole of his thought. Although his personality is so strongly marked, the personal element in his work often escapes us. Even as he wrote on divorce in the fury of

*

1 Cf. Prose Works, IV, 184, 213.

thwarted passion and yet never mentioned his own case, so he seems to have kept back some of his most intimate beliefs from us, even in the De doctrina, where, as he says in the dedication, he gives mankind his "best and richest possession." One often feels, in reading him, a resistance and a reticence; and our hypotheses are not completely satisfactory. There remain in his expression gaps which so systematic a mind can hardly have left in his thought. Thus on the question of Christ's personality: perhaps Jesus was only a man for Milton; one feels obliged to give up that idea, confronted as one is by precise assertions; but doubt comes again and again as one re-reads Paradise Regained or Samson Agonistes.2 Thus again on the question of the crucifixion, which Milton hardly mentions. Then again on the nature of God: Milton takes all attributes away from God with a zeal which must seem excessive to the right-minded. Justice seems the only attribute he leaves him, and even then he is careful to show us that justice always takes its course naturally, that it flows from the very constitution of man, without God's interference. The advanced sects in Milton's time went very far indeed. We shall see that he occasionally helped them."

We know, at any rate, that he believed in a double revelation:

we possess, as it were, a twofold Scripture; one external, which is the written word, and the other internal, which is the Holy Spirit; . . . that which is internal, and the peculiar possession of each believer, is far superior to all namely, the Spirit itself."

2 Cf. Raleigh, Milton, p. 168: "the central mystery of the Christian religion occupied very little space in Milton's scheme of religion and thought." 8 See below, pp. 320-22.

▲ Treatise of Christian Doctrine, in Prose Works, IV, 447.

But there is frequently a conflict between the two, and

then

even on the authority of Scripture itself, every thing is to be finally referred to the Spirit and the unwritten word."

With what re

Milton boasted his belief in the Word. strictions, we have seen in the case of God; but he knew how to explain, on occasion, that the Old Testament is full of poetical images not to be taken literally, and that in a passage of Proverbs where some have seen an allusion to the Son of God, there is only "a poetical personification of wisdom." He knew, too and this is worsetoo—and that the text of Scripture had been corrupted, in many places designedly; and he found an all too ingenious justification of God for allowing the frauds or errors to take place:

... the written word, I say, of the New Testament, has been liable to frequent corruption, and in some instances has been corrupted, through the number, and occasionally the bad faith of those by whom it has been handed down, the variety and discrepancy of the original manuscripts, and the additional diversity produced by subsequent transcripts and printed editions...

It is difficult to conjecture the purpose of Providence in committing the writings of the New Testament to such uncertain and variable guardianship, unless it were to teach us by this very circumstance that the Spirit which is given to us is a more certain guide than Scripture, whom therefore it is our duty to follow.8

And especially he had discovered the terrible doctrine that the sacred writer adapted himself to the times and men for whom he wrote, and that consequently we have to translate him into our own terms of thought. Lastly,

and worst of all perhaps, he accounted himself directly

5 Ibid., IV, 450.

6 See above, pp. 113-15.

7 Treatise, IV, 174.

8 Ibid., IV, 447-49.

• Cf. Areopagitica, in Prose Works, II, 98–99; Tetrachordon, III, 391, 420, etc.; and above, pp. 184-85.

inspired. His widow is reported to have said (and, of course, this was an echo of his own words) that "he stole from nobody but the muse that inspired him, and that was God's Holy Spirit." 10 And he certainly had very broad ideas about inspiration. "These abilities," he declared in the Reason of Church Government," "wheresoever they be found, are the inspired gift of God, rarely bestowed, but yet to some . . . in every nation." Thus Euripides was useful to explain a point of Scripture," and Spenser was a better master than Aquinas and Scot.1

13

The rationalist critic's arguments against Milton are therefore as much out of court as the orthodox theologian's. Milton has his answer ready on both sides. Neither must it be said that his faults were imposed upon him by his subject. He did exactly what he liked with his subject; he added much to it; he retrenched what he disliked. Not only did he not keep to the letter, but frequently he did not even keep to the spirit of Christianity. It is therefore exclusively the human truth of the poetry that may justify the poet. His "faults"—often they are beauties; for instance, the false situations he gets into when his sympathies are on the side he is obliged to condemn intellectually come from his character and not from his faith. What really preoccupied Milton was the political-moral problem - this much more than the metaphysical or cosmological problem. The history of Creation has been made difficult for us by modern science. In former days, the creation of the world was not so big or so interesting an affair as in our eyes. God had created it, and there was an end of it; it was considered to be specifically God's business.

10 Masson, VI, 746.

11 Prose Works, II, 479.

12 Ibid., IV, 270.
13 Ibid., II, 68.

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