JOHN MILTON, AND THE ENGLISH COMMONWEALTH.
Historical Facts. Charles I.
Religious Extremes. Cromwell. Birth and
Early Works. Views of Marriage. Other Prose Works. Effects of the
Restoration. Estimate of his Prose.
It is Charles Lamb who says “Milton almost requires a solemn service to be played before you enter upon him.” Of Milton, the poet of Paradise Lost, this is true; but for Milton the statesman the politician, and polemic, this is neither necessary nor appropriate. John Milton and the Commonwealth! Until the present age, Milton has been regarded almost solely as a poet, and as the greatest imaginative poet England has produced; but the translation and publication of his prose works have identified him with the political history of England, and the discovery in 1823, of his Treatise on Christian Doctrine, has established him as one of the greatest religious polemics in an age when every theological sect was closely allied to a political party, and thus rendered the strife of contending factions more bitter and relentless. Thus it is that the name of John Milton, as an author, is fitly coupled with the commonwealth, as a political condition.
It remains for us to show that in all his works he was the strongest literary type of history in the age in which he lived. Great as he would have been in any age, his greatness is mainly English and historical. In his literary works may be traced every cardinal event in the history of that period: he aided in the establishment of the Commonwealth, and of that Commonwealth he was one of the principal characters. His pen was as sharp and effective as the sabres of Cromwell’s Ironsides.
A few words of preliminary history must introduce him to our reader. Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth, in 1603, James I. ascended the throne with the highest notions of kingly prerogative and of a church establishment; but the progress of the English people in education and intelligence, the advance in arts and letters which had been made, were vastly injurious to the autocratic and aristocratic system which James had received from his predecessor. His foolish arrogance and contempt for popular rights incensed the people thus enlightened as to their own position and importance. They soon began to feel that he was not only unjust, but ungrateful: he had come from a rustic throne in Scotland, where he had received L5,000 per annum, with occasional presents of fruits, grain, and poultry, to the greatest throne in Europe; and, besides, the Stuart family, according to Thackeray, “as regards mere lineage, were no better than a dozen English and Scottish houses that could be named.”
They resisted his illegal taxes and forced loans; they clamored against the unconstitutional Court of High Commission; they despised his arrogant favorites; and what they might have patiently borne from a gallant, energetic, and handsome monarch, they found it hard to bear from a pedantic, timid, uncouth, and rickety man, who gave them neither glory nor comfort. His eldest son, Prince Henry, the universal favorite of the nation, had died in 1612, before he was eighteen.