Page images



HE aim of this study is to determine the human and lasting element in Milton's thought.

Milton has been studied too much in connection with his century, or at least with the wrong side of his century. We have been taught to see in him the stiff Puritan figure; and that has taken much of our interest away from him. Only too often do we feel half inclined to forgive Milton both his character and his ideas for love of the irresistible beauty of his art. Only too often do we open and read his poems with half-smothered prejudice against him; and thus we lose much that is important and interesting in them. There is, however, in Milton's work a permanent interest, outside the religious and political squabbles of his time, outside even dogma and religion proper - a philosophical interest susceptible of universal appeal, and fully as important for our own time as for Milton's.

Milton's thought is most attractive when studied in connection with its intimate sources in his character and emotional experience. His abstract ideas are mostly generalizations of conceptions acquired in his personal experience, in the conflict between his temperament and the circumstances, private and political, of his life. His ideas are an interpretation of life which has not been built in the abstract by speculation, but which has been the result of the passing through life of a highly sensitive man a man of high intelligence also-to whom life brought revelations about himself, his ambitions, and his cause.

An abstract study of his ideas, therefore, would be insufficient. In his great poems, Milton gives us a picture of life as he understood it after having lived. It is necessary to throw on the poems the light which comes from a study of his abstract ideas; many details rise then into significance, many peculiarities of the works are explained. But, inversely, many gaps in the thought are filled in by the poetry. I mean to try to show Milton as one, to reveal the unity of his private and political and literary life, the unity of the man himself. For it is not right even to say that the private man or the political man in him influenced the poet or the thinker. Quite as often it was the poet who influenced the politician in him, or the private man, by giving him a magnificent but impossible ideal to carry out into deeds. And the failures of the practical man again set his problems to the thinker. In a word, Milton was one in all his activities: his complex sensitiveness is found in his poems as in his life; his clear imperious will is seen in his philosophy as in his actions; his penetrating and systematic intellect dominates his political life as well as his theology or his poems.

In a first part, I shall study Milton's character in his youth and show how that character brought him into conflict with the realities of private or public life; what problems the conflict presented to his intelligence; what conceptions of life it engraved deeply into his very being.

A second part will analyze the abstract ideas that arose out of his experience, first as a solution to the problems set by his life to a man of his temperament, but also as the outcome of as wide an intellectual culture as a man ever had.

In a third part, I shall study the essential rôle played

in the great poems by the ideas and tendencies thus revealed.

And finally, in the last part, I shall try to fasten on the important and peculiar points of that culture of which he took advantage to express his ideas. In studying the sources of his conceptions, I see in external inspiration only an occasion which helped and clarified the workings of his own peculiar thought. This fourth part will make clear also with what side of his own time he is to be connected.

The book as a whole will thus link Milton's art to his thought, and both art and thought to his life, one in itself, varied in its expressions, political, private, philosophical, or artistic. And in doing so, it will endeavor to reveal his permanent value for us, to show that he was a man who suffered and fought, who sang and thought in such wise that he can bring comfort in all the struggles of man in all times, and not only the pleasure of mere artistic dilettantism.


The very center of Milton's personality seems to me to consist in a powerful feeling of egotism and pride, in the fullest self-consciousness of a tremendous individuality. And yet nothing mean or petty mixes here, and Trelawny, who, with all his faults, was a man and a judge of men, could permit himself to say: "The greatest man, although not the greatest poet, John Milton." 1 This is because there was deeply rooted in Milton a tendency to look upon himself not as an exception in the romantic manner, but as a normal representative of human nature. His high opinion of himself is also a high opinion of man. In the divorce pamphlets as well as in the letter on edu1 Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author (London, 1878), p. 215.

cation, in politics as well as in religion, he always tried to apply to others such rules and methods as he found good for himself.


Moreover, Milton always knew how to place above himself the Impersonal, the Cause. Great as he felt himself to be, he never forgot that he was first of all a great Servant. Hence a noble humility in his pride. He could sacrifice himself: to a Cause, he sacrificed at one time all his literary ambition, at another his eyesight; personal interest and the gratification of vanity had no place in his life. He often boasted of what he had done, but he had never undertaken anything in order solely to derive glory or profit from it; the mark of the Impersonal is on all that he did. This fact places him high above the great lords of literature, above Byron as above Hugo. Hence his exquisite courtesy towards his friends, hence his admirations - Galileo, for instance. He knew his peers; he could treat as equals all men of intelligence and culture. Hence again the balance of his character, that selfpossession so rarely found in company with excessive pride. Whereas Byron probably thought himself fit to be king of Greece, Milton did not believe himself worthy of a commission in the Civil War.2

This legitimate pride, in the full and fair knowledge of his capacities, as a representative of mankind, is the center of Milton's personality. His intelligence works with this feeling behind it always. Hence his fundamental idea that human nature is good and great, and, in essence, divine. Hence the necessity of liberty for man. But this pride is implanted in an intelligent and sensitive nature, which sees failure clearly and suffers deeply from it.

2 Cf. Masson, The Life of John Milton (London, 1871-1880), II, 472-86.

« PreviousContinue »