Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > Milton’s prose works
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 19. Milton’s prose works.

The subject of Milton’s prose work is not a very easy one, and it has often been neglected—comparatively, at least—in general surveys of his work. So long, indeed, as criticism was mainly coloured by the critic’s agreement or disagreement with the author’s views, it was almost impossible that anything valuable should be said on the subject. There could not be any critical edification in discourse which tended, on the one side, towards a sermon on the 30th of January and, on the other, towards a Calf’s Head club harangue. But, even if the king be kept as entirely as possible out of the matter, many difficulties, not merely troublesome but, as Milton’s own time would have said, “disgustful,” remain. That poets have usually been good prose-writers is a commonplace; and that some of Milton’s prose passages are among the finest in English is hardly denied by anybody. Yet, even here, there have been gainsayers who were not political partisans, and whose competence was not to be questioned; while, if we stop short of absolute gainsaying, there has been hardly anybody, whose competence and impartiality are not questionable, to praise without abundant and uncomfortable allowance and exception.   56
  The difficulty arises mainly from the fact that, except in the Education tractate, and in the curious Histories, Milton was always “fighting a prize” in his prose compositions; and that, hardly ever, except in Areopagitica, had he a prize before him which was worth the fight in a literary sense. This, to some extent, might have been compensated if he had been a born “Swiss of Heaven” in his controversies—if he had known how to make the most of his case without positive passion. But he did not. One would suppose that no one, unless entirely carried away by sympathy with Milton’s causes, could approve Milton’s controversial methods. His capital fault is that he never succeeds in bringing, or, apparently, attempts to bring, the matter under any consideration, or upon any ground, which his opponents can be imagined as sharing, or reasonably invited to share. To convict your adversary on your own statement of case is quite idle: and this is what Milton is constantly doing. Even if his manner were less offensive than it is admitted to be, this peculiarity would be nearly fatal. His arguments against Ussher and Hall are not merely indecent in form towards one of the most learned men in Europe and one of the leaders of English literature, both of them aged divines of unblemished reputation: they have the further drawback of constantly taking for granted premisses which Hall and Ussher would utterly, and on strong reason, deny. In his divorce tracts, when he is not (with a curious mixture of the pathetic and the ludicrous) urging (under whatever general shield) his own painful situation, he has recourse to such arguments as the opinion of Lutheran divines on Henry VIII’s conduct—which is about as valuable as the opinion of Amphitryon’s guests as to the identity of Amphitryon. In the Salmasius and Morus controversies and in the minor political or ecclesiastical pamphlets, it is even worse. Cut the abuse out, and there is not much left of them: cut out subsequently what cannot be admitted by the communis sensus as real argument, and there is almost nothing left.   57
  Even so, however, it would have been possible for Milton—if he had been a cool-headed person with a dominant rhetorical faculty, or even a strong sense of prose art, mastering his personal convictions, as his poetic faculty and his sense of poetical art mastered them in the other division—to make his prose work, unpromising as is most of it in subject, a success in treatment. But Milton was never cool-headed; and when he was out of his singing robes, the poetic warmth was exchanged for a less genial variety. Hypocrisy—even of that modified sort which makes every rhetorician (if not, indeed, every artist) a v[char] of a kind—was impossible to him. And it so happened that some of his special characteristics of style, which were harmless and even beneficial in verse, were dangerous, more especially at the time, in prose. He was very fond of long sentences—the very first of Paradise Lost contains sixteen lines, and, perhaps, six score words, while there are others longer. In verse, this did no harm, and much good—indeed, without it, he could hardly have achieved, as will be duly pointed out elsewhere, his famous “verse-paragraph.” His unerring sense of verse-form prevented these sentences from being in any way formless. But, in prose, it was different. Destitute of the girth and band of the line, enabled to expand and expatiate, to indulge in parenthesis, and epexegesis, and additional relative clause, by the treacherous confusion of English and Latin grammar which prevailed, his sentences too frequently become a mere welter; and, in citing some of the finest, it is customary to commit the minor fraud of stopping short where he ought to have stopped, but did not.   58
  If there had been—as it was practically impossible that there should be then—an accomplished critic who, at the same time, was not a political or ecclesiastical partisan, he must have been genuinely distressed by Of Reformation touching Church-Discipline in England, when it appeared in 1641. It is impossible to read a page or two without seeing that here was a writer who united the gifts of striking phrase and of rhythmical adjustment as, even in that age of marvellous achievement in these respects, few had done; but who exaggerated the defects of composition, usual after Hooker’s time, in an almost unbelievable way. The second sentence, not without premonition of the great flights later, is almost a pattern of Milton’s style when not at its best—that style, even at its best, retaining a general likeness in composition, and (as Dryden says) ordonnance, to it:
Sad it is to think how that doctrine of the gospel, planted by teachers divinely inspired, and by them winnowed and sifted from the chaff of overdated ceremonies, and refined to such a spiritual height and temper of purity, and knowledge of the Creator, that the body, with all the circumstances of time and place, were purified by the affections of the regenerate soul, and nothing left impure but sin; faith needing not the weak and fallible office of the senses, to be either the ushers or interpreters of heavenly mysteries, save where our Lord himself in his sacraments ordained; that such a doctrine should, through the grossness and blindness of her professors, and the fraud of deceivable traditions, drag so downwards, as to backslide one way into the Jewish beggary of old cast rudiments, and stumble forward another way into the new-vomited paganism of sensual idolatry, attributing purity or impurity to things indifferent, that they might bring the inward acts of the spirit to the outward and customary eye-service of the body, as if they would make God earthly and fleshly, because they could not make themselves heavenly and spiritual; they began to draw down all the divine intercourse between God and the soul, yea the very shape of God himself, into an external bodily form urgently pretending a necessity and obligement of joining the body in a formal reverence and worship circumscribed; they hallowed it, they fumed up, they sprinkled it, they bedecked it, not in robes of pure innocency, but of pure linen, with other deformed and fantastic dresses, in palls and mitres, gold, and gewgaws fetched from Aaron’s old wardrobe, or the flamins vestry: then was the priest set to con his motions and his postures, his liturgies and his lurries, till the soul by this means of overbodying herself, given up justly to fleshly delights, bated her wing apace downward: and finding the ease she had from her visible and sensuous colleague, the body, in performance of religious duties, her pinions now broken, and flagging, shifted off from herself the labour of high soaring any more, forgot her heavenly flight, and left the dull and droiling carcase to plod on in the old road, and drudging trade of outward conformity.
  Now the reader of this, struggling like Robinson Crusoe with the waves that, though they washed him ashore, all but strangled and crushed him in the process, may naturally protest with all the breath he has left on his deliverance. And he certainly would not lack sound critical objections. There is no necessary harm in the long cumulative sentence: it may be found (for instance in Ruskin) of something like double the above length, but building up a picture whose every stroke is a clear and congruous addition. Milton’s, at first sight and not at first sight only, is a daub of plastered touches. One or two of the sections (if they can be called sections) could, indeed, be kept clear by punctuation. But, for the most part, they are not hinged and jointed together; they are thrust bodily into each other’s substance so far as composition goes, while the actual words could be thinned out, with, in many cases, almost infinite advantage.   60
  But, a little further thought will discover no small “condolences and vails” of the kind indicated above. In the first place, the reader’s sufferings would be considerably mitigated in the case of the hearer, if the thing were cunningly declaimed. Now the ancients never could rid themselves of the idea that poetry and oratory were very close together: and Milton was largely an ancient. Secondly, let it be considered how little it would take to turn the passage into a blank verse tirade, not quite of Paradise Lost quality, but of good Comus type. And, thirdly, let the positive excellencies be noted. If the word-selection be sometimes bad, it is not always so. How much better is “overdated” than our “out of date”; how fine the kindred “overbodying herself”; how happy the reversal of epithet order (always a favourite device of Milton) in “a formal reverence and worship circumscribed”! While, all through, even if half whelmed by the over-sentencing, there rings the wonderful prose cadence which we never find in English—not even in Malory—till the early translators of the Bible got it somehow from their orginals and infused it into our literature for ever.   61
  This passionate, voluminous, eloquent, unequal medium served Milton, when he did not use Latin (in which his manner was not very different), throughout his life, and on almost all occasions. An intenser passion, with a nobler subject, elevated it into the noble, but even then not always faultless, style of the great Areopagitica passages; of the fine prayers at the close of Reformation touching Church-Discipline in England; of the enthusiastic autobiography of An Apology [for] Smectymnuus; of some parts even of the unfortunate divorce tracts. Less fortunate occasions and a lower mood degrade it into the “rude railing and insolent swagger” of Eikonoklastes, which Mark Pattison, for all his liberalism and his Milton-worship, describes as “grossly indecent”; or into the inconceivably dreary horseplay—or worse—of the Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s defence. With passion and “interest” (in the doubtful sense) almost entirely absent, it composes itself into the sober, businesslike, yet very far from inelegant, vehicle of the Education tractate. It is really curious to see how, for the most part, the sentences shorten themselves, how the composition is clarified, the epithets are thinned and carefully sifted, in this tract. And it is still more curious to note the exceptions to this—as in the sentence of the third paragraph beginning, “And for the usual method of teaching arts,” where the unblessed memory of his tutor occurs to him, where he loses his temper, his head, his command of the rudder of style, and once more welters and wallows through clause after clause of ill-jointed afterthought and ill-selected abuse.   62
  Lastly, it finds its way into channels again different—those of the two Histories; and has something of surprise for us still. Most people who have read it have been more or less fascinated by the little History of Moscovia. The oddity of it is, of course, less than it may seem to the modern reader. The seventeenth century was, perhaps, the most learned of all centuries; but—some might say because—it was not largely provided with ready-digested learning. Men, therefore, had to make their digests, their conspectus, their abstracts for themselves: and this is a specimen. It is singularly well done—quite a model of précis, with a little expatiation and ornament betraying the poet’s hand. The sentences are mostly quite short, but not in the least snip-snappy. The touches that had struck the writer’s own attention are selected and composed admirably to catch the reader’s. Manners, incidents, local colour—all are used to relieve the mere gazetteer- or chronicle-effect; and, where the piece becomes more dramatic and less summary (as in the rather well known interview between Ivan the Terrible and Sir Jerome Bowes), the style is perfectly equal to the occasion. The reason, of course, is that there is nothing in the subject which is cinis dolosus; and so the foot never breaks through the crust, and no “curling tempests” of wrath and incoherence burst out.   63
  This is not quite the case with the much longer and very much odder History of England, where Milton gives himself the trouble to tell over again what he well knew (and admits that he knew) to be merely “modern fable.” His reason is frankly given and it makes us like him all the better—“be it for nothing else but in favour of our English poets and rhetoricians, who by their art will know how to use them judiciously” as (let us say, though he does not) Shakespeare had done in King Lear and Milton himself in Comus.   64
  Here, there was certainly “miching mallecho” if wanted—monks and popes and painted images and other dangerous things. But either the “kind calm years” (he revised it in 1670), or the distance of time, or the blessed influence of romance, though under the mask of history, kept the coals from blazing; and the curious power of dramatic recitative, little associated, as a rule, with Milton, reappears. In the story of Edwin and Paulinus, he passes slightly over the famous incidents of the bird flying through the hall, and the violent apostasy of the high priest, to dwell on the sign of the imposition of the right hand. It is to be feared that we can account for his slighting the heroism of Boadicea “as if in Britain women were men and men women.” But the Caesarean invasions are told with remarkable spirit; and the use of the historic present in the account of the war between Brutus and the Greeks is excellently vivid. Even the curious parallel introduced (in later editions) at the beginning of the third book as to “the late troubles,” though, of course, one-sided, never lapses into the feverish incoherence of the earlier treatises; and it remains a strange Epimethean criticism of the actual facts.   65
  In these later years, too, he composed the longest of his prose works, the Latin De Doctrina Christiana, which, after lying unnotice[char] the State Paper office for a century and a half, was printed in 1825 by Sumner, and served as peg, though hardly as subject, to Macaulay’s essay. It is a curious document of its author’s tendency to “ray out” nonconformity in almost all directions and on almost all subjects: being pantheistic in philosophy, Arian in theology, millenarian in eschatology, semi-Antinomian in ethics (with advocacy of polygamy) and individualist as regards church government, the whole, of course, being professedly Biblical in origin. The recent attempt to attribute to Milton a Latin religious romance entitled Nova Solyma will hardly commend itself either to any impartial judge of evidence or to any competent literary critic.   66
  A complete list of Milton’s prose will be subjoined; and it seems better to deal with it here in the manner adopted in the foregoing pages than to tag more or less slight critical aperçus to the several titles. More emphatically, perhaps, than is the case with any portion of the work of an author of equal eminence, it is a by-work. Except Areopagitica, there is hardly a piece of it that can be said to be, in the common phrase, worthy of its author, as a piece of literature; and there is much in it that is painful, much that is even offensive, to read. Yet it may be questioned whether, from any literary point of view, one can wish that it had not been written.   67
  In the first place, it tells us a great deal about the author’s literary, as well as even more about his personal, character; and it explains to us at once how the strong pleasure which he found in form and the strong constraint which it imposes were needed to produce the perfection of his poetic style, and how the volcanic quality of his genius forced even that constraint to permit the variety, the pulse, the fluctuation, which made English blank verse of the non-dramatic type.   68
  In the second, it has given us passages—the longer of them well known by quotation and selection, the shorter constantly, as has been said, to be found in all the welter and confusion of the mass—of extraordinary beauty, passages without which the crown of English prose writing would show miserable gaps and empty socket-holes.   69
  In the third, it is the strongest possible historical document as to the necessity of an alteration—for a time, at any rate—in the dominant character of English prose style. In the other greatest pre-restoration prose writers—in Donne, in Taylor, in Browne—the solace is altogether above the sin. In Milton, it is not. Take them, and you may say “Well, under this dispensation, a great writer may slip, but look what he can do constantly without slipping!” Take Milton, and the most that can be said is “Such a writer could never have written so ill so often under the other dispensation; but, at any rate, there are some passages, and those very precious ones, which he would only have been likely to produce under this.”   70

  Samson Agonistes His Latin writings  
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