Milton died in 1674, of gout, which had long afflicted him; and he left his name and works to posterity. Posterity has done large but mistaken justice to his fame. Men have not discriminated between his real merits and his faults: all parties have conceded the former, and conspired to conceal the latter. A just statement of both will still establish his great fame on the immutable foundations of truth—a fame, the honest pursuit of which caused him, throughout his long life,
To scorn delights, and live laborious days.
No writer has ever been the subject of more uncritical, ignorant, and senseless panegyric: like Bacon, he is lauded by men who never read his works, and are entirely ignorant of the true foundation of his fame. Nay, more; partisanship becomes very warlike, and we are reminded in this controversy of the Italian gentleman, who fought three duels in maintaining that Ariosto was a better poet than Tasso: in the third he was mortally wounded, and he confessed before dying that he had never read a line of either. A similar logomachy has marked the course of Milton’s champions; words like sharp swords have been wielded by ignorance, and have injured the poet’s true fame.
He now stands before the world, not only as the greatest English poet, except Shakspeare, but also as the most remarkable example and illustration of the theory we have adopted, that literature is a very vivid and permanent interpreter of contemporary history. To those who ask for a philosophic summary of the age of Charles I. and Cromwell, the answer may be justly given: “Study the works of John Milton, and you will find it.”
COWLEY, BUTLER, AND WALTON.
Cowley and Milton. Cowley’s
Life and Works. His Fame. Butler’s
Hudibras. His Poverty and Death. Izaak Walton. The Angler; and Lives.
COWLEY AND MILTON.
In contrast with Milton, in his own age, both in political tenets and in the character of his poetry, stood Cowley, the poetical champion of the party of king and cavaliers during the civil war. Historically he belongs to two periods—antecedent and consequent—that of the rebellion itself, and that of the Restoration: the latter was a reaction from the former, in which the masses changed their opinions, in which the Puritan leaders were silenced, and in which the constant and consistent Cavaliers had their day of triumph. Both parties, however, modified their views somewhat after the whirlwind of excitement had swept by, and both deprecated the extreme violence of their former actions. This is cleverly set forth in a charming paper of Lord Macaulay, entitled Cowley and Milton. It purports to be the report of a pleasant colloquy between the two in the spring of 1665, “set down by a gentleman of the Middle Temple.” Their principles are courteously expressed, in a retrospective view of the great rebellion.