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Full text of "Milton: man and poet"

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Chesterton, Gilbert Keith 
Milton 






MILTON: MAN AND POET. 

BY GILBERT K. CHESTERTON. 

LL the mass of acute and valuable matter written or 
compiled about Milton leaves eternally an unanswered 
question; a difficulty felt by all, if expressed by few, 
of his readers. That difficulty is a contrast between 
the man and his poems. There exists in the world 
a group of persons who perpetually try to prove that Shakespeare 
was a clown and could not have written about princes, or that he 
was a drunkard and could not have written about virtue. I think 
there is a slight fallacy in the argument. But I wonder that they 
have not tried the much more tempting sport of separating the 
author of L' Allegro from the author of the Defensus Populi Angli- 
cani. For the contrast between the man Milton and the poet Milton 
is very much greater than is commonly realized. I fear that the 
shortest and clearest way of stating it is that when all is said and 
done, he is a poet whom we cannot help liking, and a man whom 
we cannot like. I find it far easier to believe that an intoxicated 
Shakespeare wrote the marble parts of Shakespeare than that a 
marble Milton wrote the intoxicated, or, rather, intoxicating, parts 
of Milton. Milton's character was cold; he was one of those 
men who had every virtue except the one virtue needful. While 
other poets may have been polygamists from passion, he was polyg- 
amous on principle. While other artists were merely selfish, he 
was egoistic. 

The public has a quick eye for portraits, a very keen nose for 
personality; and across two centuries the traditional picture of 
Milton dictating to his daughters till they were nearly dead has 
kept the truth about Milton; it has not taken the chill off. But 
though the mass of men feel the fact Milton after two hundred 
years, they seldom read -the poetry of Milton at all. And so, be- 
cause Milton the man was cold, "they have got over the difficulty 
by saying that the poet Milton is cold too; cold, classical, mar- 
moreal. But the poetry of Milton is not cold. He did in his 
later years, and in a fit of bad temper, write a classical drama, 
which is the only one of his works which is really difficult to read. 
But taken as a whole he is a particularly poetical poet, as fond 



C44 




464 MILTON: MAN AND POET [Jan., 

of symbols and witchery as Coleridge, as fond of colored pleasures 
as Keats. He is sometimes sufficiently amorous to be called tender ; 
he is frequently sufficiently amorous to be called sensual. Even his 
religion is not always heathen in his poetry. If you heard for the 
first time the line, 

By the dear might of Him that walked the waves, 

you would only fancy that some heart of true religious heat and 
humility, like Crashaw or George Herbert, had for a moment 
achieved a technical triumph and found a faultless line. If you 
read for the first time, 

But come, thou Goddess fair and free, 

In heaven yclept Euphrosyne, 

you would think that the most irresponsible of the Elizabethans 
had uttered it as he went dancing down the street, believing him- 
self in A ready. If you read. 

Blossoms and fruits at once of golden hue 
Appeared, with gay enamelled colors mixed, 
or 

Silence \vas pleased. Now glowed the firmament 
With living sapphires, 

you would think that all the rich dyes of the Orient and the Middle 
Ages had met, as they do in some quite modern poet, such as 
Keats or even Swinburne. If you read the account of the ale and 
the elf and the Christmas sports in L' Allegro, you might think 
them written by the most rollicking of rustic poets; if you read 
some lines about Eve in Paradise Lost, you might think them 
written at once by the most passionate and the most chivalrous of 
lovers. Paradise Lost is not dull; it is not even frigid. Anyone 
who can remember reading the first few books as a boy will know 
what I mean; it is a romance, and even a fantastic romance. 
There is something in it of Thalabe the Destroyer; something wild 
and magical about the image of the empire in the abyss scaling the 
turrets of the magician who is king of the cosmos. There is 
something Oriental in its design and its strange colors. One can- 
not imagine Flaxman illustrating Milton as he illustrated Homer. 
Nor is it even true that the rich glimpse of tropical terrors are 
conveyed in a clear outline of language. No one took more liber- 
ties with English, with metre, and even with common sense than 
Milton; an instance, of course, is the well-known superlative about 
Adam and his children. 



'9I7-] MILTON: MAN AND POET 6 

MLpses. us sentences ,l,at sometimes come tail ' 



Or of the eternal coeternal beam 
a trifle obscure, and 

nor sometimes forget 
>ther two, equalled with me in fate, etc., etc 





Nevertheless, the tradition which puts Milton with Virefl and 

SK* MiLT,;- T ' p r. sess and <ioes p ss - - 



seventeenth century was a most extraordinary (e wih tH 
awa.u ,,s adequate explanation. It was someLng con "g a * 
the Rena,ssance which developed and ye, darkened and confused 



compted hald- 



gentlemen, 



466 MILTON: MAN AND POET [Jan., 

rapidly becoming the ill-smelling science for engineers it still re- 
mains. The air was full of anger; and not a young sort of anger; 
exasperation on points of detail perpetually renewed. If the 
Renaissance was like a splendid wine, the seventeenth century 
might be compared to the second fermentation into vinegar. But 
whatever metaphor we use the main fact is certain; the age was 
horribly complex; it was learned, it was crabbed, and in nearly 
all its art and utterance, it was crooked. 

Remember the wonderfully witty poets of Charles I.; those 
wonderfully witty poets who were incomprehensible at the first 
reading and dull even when one could comprehend them. Think 
of the scurrilous war of pamphlets, in which Milton himself en- 
gaged ; pages full of elaborate logic which no one can follow, and 
elaborate scandals which everyone has forgotten. Think of the tor- 
tured legalities of Crown and Parliament, quoting against each other 
precedents of an utterly different age; think of the thick darkness 
of diplomacy that covers the meaning (if it had any) of the Thirty 
Years' War. The seventeenth century was a labyrinth; it was 
full of corners and crotchets. And against this sort of background 
Milton stands up as simple and splendid as Apollo. His style, 
which must always have been splendid, appeared more pure and 
translucent than it really was in contrast with all the mad mysti- 
fication and darkness. 

A riddle itself, that time is full of minor riddles; and one 
of the most inexplicable of them involves the whole position of 
Milton. How far was there really a connection between Calvinism 
and the idea of liberty, or the idea of popular government? There 
is much to be said on both sides; indeed there is no more per- 
plexing question than whereabouts at the Reformation, or just 
after the Reformation, lay the real seed of modern self-government 
and freedom, or, to speak more strictly, of the modern belief 
in them; for we rather praise these things than possess them. 

The first and fundamental fact is certainly against the liber- 
alizing character of Puritanism. It did not profess to be merely 
a moral movement; its whole point was that it was strictly a 
theological movement; its chief objection to its enemies was that 
they tried to exalt (as the Scotch Puritans said) " the cauld banes 
of morality " above the sustaining and comfortable doctrine of 
predestination. To a Calvinist the most important thing was Cal- 
vinism; to a Puritan the most important thing was the Puritan 
creed; and this in itself certainly did not favor the vague send- 



1917-] MILTON: MAN AND POET 467 

merits either of emancipation or fraternity. Calvinism took away 
a man's liberty in the universe; why, then, should it favor his 
liberty in the State? Puritanism denied free will; why should 
it be likely to affirm free speech? Why should the Calvinist ob- 
ject to an aristocracy? The Calvinists were an aristocracy; they 
were the most arrogant and awful of aristocracies by the nature of 
their own belief: they were the elect. Why should the Puritans 
dislike a baby being born a nobleman? It was the whole philosophy 
of the Puritans that a baby is born a celestial nobleman; and he 
is at birth and before birth a member of the cosmic upper classes. 
It should have been a small matter to the Puritans to admit that 
one might be born a king, seeing that they maintained the much 
more paradoxical position that one might be born a saint. Nor is it 
easy to see upon their own ideal principles why the Puritans should 
have disliked despotism or arbitrary power; though it is certainly 
much more the fact that they did dislike despotism than that they 
did dislike oligarchy. The first conception of Calvinism is a fierce 
insistence on the utterly arbitrary nature of power. The King of 
the Cavaliers was certainly not so purely willful, so sublimely 
capricious a sultan, as the God of the Puritans. 

But we can add something much more plain and practical. It 
is not merely that despotism or oligarchy might well have pleased the 
Puritans in theory : it is also true that they did please the Puritans 
in practice. Of the democratic element that did honestly exist in 
Puritanism I will speak in a moment; but the oligarchic and 
despotic elements were not merely things that logically ought to 
have appeared, but things that actually did appear. It is no longer 
denied, I think, by serious historians that the whole business of 
the Puritan revolt or triumph was anti-popular; that is to say, 
that at almost any given moment of the struggle, universal suffrage 
would have been a clear victory for the king. The really brilliant 
triumph of Cromwell was not his triumph over the monarchy, but 
his triumph over the democracy; the fact that he somehow kept 
the enormous crowd called England quiet. In short, his great 
glory was not in heading the Great Rebellion, but in avoiding the 
Great Rebellion. For the really Great Rebellion was the one that 
never happened. But, indeed, it is unnecessary even to urge so 
generally accepted a conjecture as this. Whatever may be true 
of the rebellion as a whole, no one will deny that at certain mo- 
ments Puritanism appeared in politics as arrogant, fastidious and 
anti-popular; full of the pride of predestination and the scorn of 



468 MILTON: MAN AND POET [Jan., 

all flesh. Even the most enthusiastic upholder of the Whig or Re- 
publican theory of Puritanism will hardly pretend that when Colonel 
Pride drove out of Parliament at the point of the pike all the 
members that ventured to disagree with him, his soul was at that 
moment inflamed with an enthusiasm for free discussion or rep- 
resentative government. It was by no means democratic ; but it was 
highly Calvinistic. It was a sort of public pantomime of the doctrine 
of election; of election in the theological, but by no means the po- 
litical sense. It is still called "Pride's Purge;" and the phrase 
has quite a fine allegorical flavor, as if it came out of Pilgrim's 
Progress. In fact, one of the really happy coincidences of the 
historical epoch was that one distinguished officer at any rate had 
somehow got hold of the right surname. And upon larger grounds 
the alliance between oligarchy and Protestantism has become only 
too plain. For all w r e know the Reformation may have tried to 
make a democracy; all that we do know for certain is that it did 
make an aristocracy, the most powerful aristocracy of modern 
times. The great English landlords, who are the peers, arose after 
the destruction of the small English landlords, who were the ab- 
bots. The public schools, which were for the populace in the Mid- 
dle Ages, became aristocratic after the Reformation. The universi- 
ties, which were popular in the Middle Ages, became aristocratic 
after the Reformation. The tramp who went to a monastic inn 
in the Middle Ages, went to jail and the whipping-post after the 
Reformation. All this is scarcely denied. 

Yet against all this must be put in fairness certain important 
facts; especially two facts illustrated in the figure and career of 
Milton. When we have clearly seen that Calvinism always favors 
aristocracy in theory and often favors it in practice, two great 
facts remain to be explained or to be explained away. First, that 
the Puritans did favor a deliberate or sy nodical method of church 
government, a government by debate; and, second, that most 
of the abstract republicans of the seventeenth century were either 
Puritans or upon the Puritan side. I am not, of course, discussing 
the synod as a mode of church government, nor a republic as a 
mode of national government. I only say that the clamor for these 
things must have corresponded to some kind of enthusiasm for 
liberty and equality alien to the more obvious lessons of Calvinism. 
But the republicanism was of a peculiar and frigid kind; there 
was very little human fraternity about it. Fletcher of Saltown 
was the author of some epigrams about the public good that read 



I9I7-] MILTON: MAN AND POET 469 

like those of some great pagan; but he was also the author of a 
proposal to reduce the poorer inhabitants of Scotland to a condition 
of personal slavery. There was a flavor of Fletcher of Saltown 
about Milton. Shakespeare puts into the mouth of some character 
(generally a silly character) some contemptuous talk about the 
greasy rabble, talk which is common to all literary work, but 
especially common in work which like Shakespeare's was in- 
tended to please the greasy rabble. Whenever this happens critics 
point to it and say, " Look at the Tory prejudices of the Royalist 
Shakespeare! Observe the Jacobite servility of the follower of 
James I. ! " But as a matter of fact Milton despised the populace 
much more than Shakespeare; and Milton put his contempt for 
common men not into the mouth of silly or stupid characters, 
but into that of the one wise character, the Chorus, who is sup- 
posed to express the moral of a play : 



Nor do I name of men the common rout 

But such as thou hast solemnly elected. 

I cannot help thinking that Milton was successful with Satan, 
because he was rather like Satan himself. I mean his own Satan: 
I will not be so intemperate as to say that he resembled the genuine 
article. The kind of strength which supported Milton in blindness 
and outlawry was very like the kind of strength that supported 
Satan on the flaming marl; it is the same quality, and for merely 
literary purposes we need not quarrel about whether it should be 
called spiritual nobility or spiritual pride. It was almost wholly 
intellectual; it was unsmiling and it was empty of affection. And 
in justice to the genial, if somewhat vague, people who made up 
the bulk of the Royalist party and probably the bulk of the English 
people, we must remember that there was about the high republican 
type, the type of Vane, or Sydney, or Milton, something of this 
austerity which chilled and even alarmed. There was something in 
these republicans which was not brotherly; there was something 
in these republicans which was not democratic. The compound of 
the new Puritan and the old pagan citizen produced none of those 
hearty or homely drinkers, soldiers, or ruffians, men like Danton 
or Dumouriez, who lent laughter to the terrors of the French 
Revolution. The deepest dislike which the Cavaliers felt for the 
Puritans, and no unjust dislike either, had reference to this name- 
less feeling. 



470 MILTON: MAN AND POET [Jan., 

It is possible, I fancy, to frame a fair statement that shall 
admit this element of the pride of the elect while doing justice 
to the democratic germ in Puritanism. It was the misfortune of 
that age that the synodic or debating club idea was applied, not 
to the whole people as among the pagans, but to small groups or 
sections among the people. Equality appeared in the form of little 
separate chapels, not in the form of a great national temple. Thus 
the Puritan movement encouraged the sense of the equality of mem- 
bers without encouraging the sense of the equality of men. Each 
little sect was a democracy internally considered, but an oligarchy 
externally considered. For an aristocracy is none the less aristo- 
cratic because its members are all on a level; indeed this is 
rather a mark of aristocracy; in this sense most aristocracies have 
been levelers. Even the House of Lords is called the House of 
Equals: the House of Peers. Thus arose a spirit which had the 
plainness and much of the harshness of democracy without any 
of its sympathy or abandon. Thus arose the great race of the 
aristocratic republicans, half pagan and half Puritan, the greatest 
of whom was Milton. 

The effect of this great type has been immense; but it has 
been largely a negative effect. If the English peoples have re- 
mained somewhat inaccessible to the more ideal aspect of the re- 
publican idea, and they certainly have; if, through failing to un- 
derstand it, they have done gross injustice to the heroisms and 
even the crimes of the French Revolution, it is in no small degree 
due to this uncongenial element in the only great school of English 
republicans. The ultimate victory of Shakespeare over Milton has 
been very largely due to the primary victory of // Penseroso over 
L' Allegro. The return of Charles II. was the return of a certain 
snobbish compromise which has never been shaken off, and which 
is certainly far less heroic than the dreadful patriotism of the 
great regicides; but the balance and excuse of that snobbishness 
was that it was the return of English humor and good nature. So 
we see it in Milton, in the one great Elizabethan who became a 
Puritan. His earlier poems are the dying cries of Merry England. 
England, like his own Samson, lost its strength when it lost its 
long hair. Milton was one of the slayers; but he was also of the 
slain. The mystery of his strange mind confronts us forever; we 
do not know of what god or demon or destiny he had really caught 
sight afar off; we do not know what he really saw with his sight- 
less eyes. We only know that it turned him to stone. 




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Chesterton, Gilbert Keith 
Milton