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“There is much reason for regretting that the Prose Works
of Milton, where, in the midst of much that is coarse and in
temperate, passages of such redeeming beauty occur, should
be in the hands of so few readers, considering the advantage
which might be derived to our literature from the study of
their original and nervous eloquence.”
Dr. SUMNER, Bishop of Winchester. PRELIMINARY DISCOURSE.
1. It is not my intention to introduce the present Discourse by a biographical memoir, though I am far from supposing that a new Life of Milton would, even now, be a work of supererogation. But where the matter is so rich and extensive, it would be of little service to present the public with a fresh outline of facts already known; and to descend into the marrow of the subject, and discuss the various questions of criticism and politics necessarily connected with it, would certainly demand a separate volume. I shall therefore, in the present instance, depart from the plan intended to be generally pursued in these prefatory disquisitions, and enter at once upon the remarks suggested by an attentive examination of the character and writings of Milton.
2. Yet I may, perhaps, without blame, express in this place the regret which the disparaging tone adopted in speaking of their predecessors by too many of the biographers of this great writer, has never failed to cause in me. From their language it would frequently appear, that each considered the other almost in the light of impertinent intruders, whom it must therefore be his business severely to chastise; whereas a little reflection might have sufficed to beget the very different persuasion—that the whole subject being too large for the grasp of any one of them, they might all in their way contribute to extend the fame and utility of him whom they all profess to admire. For my own part, I have always felt that whosoever aimed, even though awkwardly and imperfectly, to wreathe a fresh garland for this great and illustrious name, thereby conferred on me a personal obligation, which, though not individually intended, is, in fact, the case ; since all have done something towards increasing the influence of one whose influence is that of virtue, and opened a clearer insight into the moral nature and heroic sentiments of a man, in the brightness and continuance of whose fame every Englishman is interested.
3. However this may be, few of those who have hitherto undertaken to set forth in order the events of Milton's life, appear to have entered into the spirit, or comprehended the importance of his prose writings. Like him who climbs a lofty mountain, and is so eager to reach the summit that he neglects or despises the many magnificent prospects which, would he pause a moment, he might enjoy by the way, they hurry forwards to the Paradise Lost, trampling, in their indecent haste, upon his Apology for his Early Life and Writings—his Areopagitica—his Eikonoklastes,—his Defence of the People of England; though, viewed separately, each of
these be a work whereon an author might build rational hopes of immortality. Reasons, good or bad, might no doubt be assigned for this proceeding; but whatever they may be, the result has proved highly injurious to Milton's reputation, and, still more, to our literature.
4. One of his recent biographers, who must, therefore, make but slight account of his prose writings, even goes so far as to lament he should ever have interrupted his commerce with the muses to engage in the struggle of politics. He looks upon the poet as something too airy and dream-fed to feel any interest in the affairs of mankind; as something which should, perhaps, subsist upon patronage, celebrate the praises of kings, and abandon the study of civil wisdom to inferior persons; which was doubtless the notion Plato entertained of poets, when he banished them his commonwealth as advocates of tyranny. But Milton, nurtured from the cradle in noble sentiments, had formed a very different idea of the man who is inspired by the muse; knowing that from him to whom much is given much will be required : and that to none has a larger or more comprehensive intellect been vouchsafed, than to whom we dignify with the illustrious name of Poet, who should, therefore, stand second to none in advancing the cause of freedom.
5. Nothing, in fact, can be more unwise than to desire that pure and lofty minds should keep themselves aloof from the world and the world's business; for if our object in congregating to