[Note: This is taken from James Russell Lowell's Among My Books.]


If the biographies of literary men are to assume the bulk which Mr.  Masson is giving to that of Milton, their authors should send a phial of elixir vitae  with the first volume, that a purchaser might have some valid assurance of surviving to see the last. Mr. Masson has already occupied thirteen hundred and seventy-eight pages in getting Milton to his thirty-fifth year, and an interval of eleven years stretches between the dates of the first and second instalments of his published labors. As Milton’s literary life properly begins at twenty-one, with the “Ode on the Nativity,” and as by far the more important part of it lies between the year at which we are arrived and his death at the age of sixty-six, we might seem to have the terms given us by which to make a rough reckoning of how soon we are likely to see land. But when we recollect the baffling character of the winds and currents we have already encountered, and the eddies that may at any time slip us back to the reformation in Scotland or the settlement of New England; when we consider, moreover, that Milton’s life overlapped the grand siècle of French literature, with its irresistible temptations to digression and homily for a man of Mr Masson’s temperament, we may be pardoned if a sigh of doubt and discouragement escape us. We envy the secular leisures of Methusaleh, and are thankful that his biography at least (if written in the same longeval proportion) is irrecoverably lost to us. What a subject would that have been for a person of Mr. Masson’s spacious predilections!  Even if he himself can count on patriarchal prorogations of existence, let him hang a print of the Countess of Desmond in his study to remind him of the ambushes which Fate lays for the toughest of us. For myself, I have not dared to climb a cherry-tree since I began to read his work.

Even with the promise of a speedy third volume before me, I feel by no means sure of living to see Mary Powell back in her husband’s house; for it is just at this crisis that Mr. Masson, with the diabolical art of a practised serial writer, leaves us while he goes into an exhaustive account of the Westminster Assembly and the political and religious notions of the Massachusetts Puritans. One could not help thinking, after having got Milton fairly through college, that he was never more mistaken in his life than when he wrote,

“How soon hath Time, that subtle thief of youth,
Stolen on his wing my three-and-twentieth year!”

Or is it Mr. Masson who has scotched Time’s wheels?

It is plain from the Preface to the second volume that Mr. Masson himself has an uneasy consciousness that something is wrong, and that Milton ought somehow to be more than a mere incident of his own biography. He tells us that, “whatever may be thought by a hasty person looking in on the subject from the outside, no one can study the life of Milton as it ought to be studied without being obliged to study extensively and intimately the contemporary history of England, and even incidentally of Scotland and Ireland too.... Thus on the very compulsion, or at least the suasion, of the biography, a history grew on my hands. It was not in human nature to confine the historical inquiries, once they were in progress, within the precise limits of their demonstrable bearing on the biography, even had it been possible to determine these limits beforehand; and so the history assumed a co-ordinate importance with me, was pursued often for its own sake, and became, though always with a sense of organic relation to the biography, continuous in itself.” If a “hasty person” be one who thinks eleven years rather long to have his button held by a biographer ere he begin his next sentence, I take to myself the sting of Mr. Masson’s covert sarcasm. I confess with shame a pusillanimity that is apt to flag if a “to be continued” do not redeem its promise before the lapse of a quinquennium. I could scarce await the “Autocrat” himself so long. The heroic age of literature is past, and even a duodecimo may often prove too heavy for the descendants of men to whom the folio was a pastime. But what does Mr. Masson mean by “continuous”? To me it seems rather as if his somewhat rambling history of the seventeenth century were interrupted now and then by an unexpected apparition of Milton, who, like Paul Pry, just pops in and hopes he does not intrude, to tell us what he has been doing in the mean while. The reader, immersed in Scottish politics or the schemes of Archbishop Laud, is a little puzzled at first, but reconciles himself on being reminded that this fair-haired young man is the protagonist of the drama. Pars minima est ipsa puella sui.

If Goethe was right in saying that every man was a citizen of his age as well as of his country, there can be no doubt that in order to understand the motives and conduct of the man we must first make ourselves intimate with the time in which he lived. We have therefore no fault to find with the thoroughness of Mr. Masson’s “historical inquiries.” The more thorough the better, so far as they were essential to the satisfactory performance of his task. But it is only such contemporary events, opinions, or persons as were really operative on the character of the man we are studying that are of consequence, and we are to familiarize ourselves with them, not so much for the sake of explaining them as of understanding him. The biographer, especially of a literary man, need only mark the main currents of tendency, without being officious to trace out to its marshy source every runlet that has cast in its tiny pitcherful with the rest. Much less should he attempt an analysis of the stream and to classify every component by itself, as if each were ever effectual singly and not in combination. Human motives cannot be thus chemically cross-examined, nor do we arrive at any true knowledge of character by such minute subdivision of its ingredients. Nothing is so essential to a biographer as an eye that can distinguish at a glance between real events that are the levers of thought and action, and what Donne calls “unconcerning things, matters of fact,”—between substantial personages, whose contact or even neighborhood is influential, and the supernumeraries that serve first to fill up a stage and afterwards the interstices of a biographical dictionary.

“Time hath a wallet at his back
Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion.” 

Let the biographer keep his fingers off that sacred and merciful deposit, and not renew for us the bores of a former generation as if we had not enough of our own. But if he cannot forbear that unwise inquisitiveness, we may fairly complain when he insists on taking us along with him in the processes of his investigation, instead of giving us the sifted results in their bearing on the life and character of his subject, whether for help or hindrance. We are blinded with the dust of old papers ransacked by Mr. Masson to find out that they have no relation whatever to his hero. He had been wise if he had kept constantly in view what Milton himself says of those who gathered up personal traditions concerning the Apostles: “With less fervency was studied what Saint Paul or Saint John had written than was listened to one that could say, ‘Here he taught, here he stood, this was his stature, and thus he went habited; and O, happy this house that harbored him, and that cold stone whereon he rested, this village where he wrought such a miracle.’.... Thus while all their thoughts were poured out upon circumstances and the gazing after such men as had sat at table with the Apostles, ... by this means they lost their time and truanted on the fundamental grounds of saving knowledge, as was seen shortly in their writings.” Mr. Masson has so poured out his mind upon circumstances, that his work reminds us of Allston’s picture of Elijah in the Wilderness, where a good deal of research at last enables us to guess at the prophet absconded like a conundrum in the landscape where the very ravens could scarce have found him out, except by divine commission. The figure of Milton becomes but a speck on the enormous canvas crowded with the scenery through which he may by any possibility be conjectured to have passed. I will cite a single example of the desperate straits to which Mr. Masson is reduced in order to hitch Milton on to his own biography. He devotes the first chapter of his Second Book to the meeting of the Long Parliament.

“Already,” he tells us, “in the earlier part of the day, the Commons had gone through the ceremony of hearing the writ for the Parliament read, and the names of the members that had been returned called over by Thomas Wyllys, Esq., the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. His deputy, Agar, Milton’s brother-in-law, may have been in attendance on such an occasion. During the preceding month or two, at all events, Agar and his subordinates in the Crown Office had been unusually busy with the issue of the writs and with the other work connected with the opening of Parliament.” (Vol. II. p. 150.) Mr. Masson’s resolute “at all events” is very amusing. Meanwhile

“The hungry sheep look up and are not fed.”

Augustine Thierry has a great deal to answer for, if to him we owe the modern fashion of writing history picturesquely. At least his method leads to most unhappy results when essayed by men to whom nature has denied a sense of what the picturesque really is. The historical picturesque does not consist, in truth of costume and similar accessories, but in the grouping, attitude, and expression of the figures, caught when they are unconscious that the artist is sketching them. The moment they are posed for a composition, unless by a man of genius, the life has gone out of them. In the hands of an inferior artist, who fancies that imagination is something to be squeezed out of color-tubes, the past becomes a phantasmagoria of jackboots, doublets, and flap-hats, the mere property-room of a deserted theatre, as if the light had been scenical and illusory, the world an unreal thing that vanished with the foot- lights. It is the power of catching the actors in great events at unawares that makes the glimpses given us by contemporaries so vivid and precious. And St. Simon, one of the great masters of the picturesque, lets us into the secret of his art when he tells us how, in that wonderful scene of the death of Monseigneur, he saw “du premier coup d’oeil vivement porté, tout ce qui leur échappoit et tout ce qui les accableroit.”

It is the gift of producing this reality that almost makes us blush, as if we had been caught peeping through a keyhole, and had surprised secrets to which we had no right,--it is this only that can justify the pictorial method of narration. Mr. Carlyle has this power of contemporizing himself with bygone times, he cheats us to

“Play with our fancies and believe we see”;

but we find the tableaux vivants of the apprentices who “deal in his command without his power,” and who compel us to work very hard indeed with our fancies, rather wearisome. The effort of weaker arms to shoot with his mighty bow has filled the air of recent literature with more than enough fruitless twanging.

Mr. Masson’s style, at best cumbrous, becomes intolerably awkward when he strives to make up for the want of St. Simon’s premier coup d’oeil by impertinent details of what we must call the pseudo-dramatic kind. For example, does Hall profess to have traced Milton from the University to a “suburb sink” of London? Mr. Masson fancies he hears Milton saying to himself, “A suburb sink! has Hall or his son taken the trouble to walk all the way down to Aldersgate here, to peep up the entry where I live, and so have an exact notion of my whereabouts? There has been plague in the neighborhood certainly; and I hope Jane Yates had my doorstep tidy for the visit.” Does Milton, answering Hall’s innuendo that he was courting the graces of a rich widow, tell us that he would rather “choose a virgin of mean fortunes honestly bred”? Mr. Masson forthwith breaks forth in a paroxysm of what we suppose to be picturesqueness in this wise: “What have we here? Surely nothing less, if we choose so to construe it, than a marriage advertisement! Ho, all ye virgins of England (widows need not apply), here is an opportunity such as seldom occurs: a bachelor, unattached; age, thirty-three years and three or four months; height [Milton, by the way, would have said highth] middle or a little less; personal appearance unusually handsome, with fair complexion and light auburn hair; circumstances independent; tastes intellectual and decidedly musical; principles Root-and-Branch! Was there already any young maiden in whose bosom, had such an advertisement come in her way, it would have raised a conscious flutter? If so, did she live near Oxford?” If there is anything worse than an unimaginative man trying to write imaginatively, it is a heavy man when he fancies he is being facetious. He tramples out the last spark of cheerfulness with the broad damp foot of a hippopotamus.

I am no advocate of what is called the dignity of history, when it means, as it too often does, that dulness has a right of sanctuary in gravity.  Too well do I recall the sorrows of my youth, when I was shipped in search of knowledge on the long Johnsonian swell of the last century, favorable to anything but the calm digestion of historic truth. I had even then an uneasy suspicion, which has ripened into certainty, that thoughts were never draped in long skirts like babies, if they were strong enough to go alone. But surely there should be such a thing as good taste, above all a sense of self-respect, in the historian himself, that should not allow him to play any tricks with the dignity of his subject. A halo of sacredness has hitherto invested the figure of Milton, and our image of him has dwelt securely in ideal remoteness from the vulgarities of life. No diaries, no private letters, remain to give the idle curiosity of after-times the right to force itself on the hallowed seclusion of his reserve. That a man whose familiar epistles were written in the language of Cicero, whose sense of personal dignity was so great that, when called on in self-defence to speak of himself, he always does it with an epical stateliness of phrase, and whose self-respect even in youth was so profound that it resembles the reverence paid by other men to a far-off and idealized character,--that he should be treated in this offhand familiar fashion by his biographer seems to us a kind of desecration, a violation of good manners no less than of the laws of biographic art. Milton is the last man in the world to be slapped on the back with impunity. Better the surly injustice of Johnson than such presumptuous friendship as this. Let the seventeenth century, at least, be kept sacred from the insupportable foot of the interviewer!

But Mr. Masson, in his desire to be (shall I say) idiomatic, can do something worse than what has been hitherto quoted. He can be even vulgar. Discussing the motives of Milton’s first marriage, he says, “Did he come seeking his £500, and did Mrs. Powell heave a daughter at him?” We have heard of a woman throwing herself at a man’s head, and the image is a somewhat violent one; but what is this to Mr. Masson’s improvement on it? It has been sometimes affirmed that the fitness of an image may be tested by trying whether a picture could be made of it or not. Mr. Masson has certainly offered a new and striking subject to the historical school of British art. A little further on, speaking of Mary Powell, he says, “We have no portrait of her, nor any account of her appearance; but on the usual rule of the elective affinities of opposites, Milton being fair, we will vote her to have been dark-haired.” I need say nothing of the good taste of this sentence, but its absurdity is heightened by the fact that Mr. Masson himself had left us in doubt whether the match was one of convenience or inclination. I know not how it may be with other readers, but for myself I feel inclined to resent this hail-fellow-well-met manner with its jaunty “we will vote.” In some cases, Mr. Masson’s indecorums in respect of style may possibly be accounted for as attempts at humor by one who has an imperfect notion of its ingredients. In such experiments, to judge by the effect, the pensive element of the compound enters in too large an excess over the hilarious.  Whether I have hit upon the true explanation, or whether the cause lie not rather in a besetting velleity of the picturesque and vivid, I shall leave the reader to judge by an example or two. In the manuscript copy of Milton’s sonnet in which he claims for his own house the immunity which the memory of Pindar and Euripides secured for other walls, the title had originally been, “On his Door when the City expected an Assault.” Milton has drawn a line through this and substituted “When the Assault was intended to the City.” Mr. Masson fancies “a mood of jest or semi-jest in the whole affair”; but we think rather that Milton’s quiet assumption of equality with two such famous poets was as seriously characteristic as Dante’s ranking himself sesto tra cotanto senno. Mr.  Masson takes advantage of the obliterated title to imagine one of Prince Rupert’s troopers entering the poet’s study and finding some of his “Anti-Episcopal pamphlets that had been left lying about inadvertently.  ‘Oho!’ the Cavalier Captain might then have said, ‘Pindar and Euripides are all very well, by G----! I’ve been at college myself; and when I meet a gentleman and scholar, I hope I know how to treat him; but neither Pindar nor Euripides ever wrote pamphlets against the Church of England, by G----! It won’t do, Mr. Milton!’”

This, it may be supposed, is Mr. Masson’s way of being funny and dramatic at the same time. Good taste is shocked with this barbarous dissonance. Could not the Muse defend her son? Again, when Charles I., at Edinburgh, in the autumn and winter of 1641, fills the vacant English sees, we are told, “It was more than an insult; it was a sarcasm! It was as if the King, while giving Alexander Henderson his hand to kiss, had winked his royal eye over that reverend Presbyter’s back!” Now one can conceive Charles II. winking when he took the Solemn League and Covenant, but never his father under any circumstances. He may have been, and I believe he was, a bad king, but surely we may take Marvell’s word for it, that

“He nothing common did or mean,”

upon any of the “memorable scenes” of his life. The image is, therefore, out of all imaginative keeping, and vulgarizes the chief personage in a grand historical tragedy, who, if not a great, was at least a decorous actor. But Mr. Masson can do worse than this. Speaking of a Mrs.  Katherine Chidley, who wrote in defence of the Independents against Thomas Edwards, he says, “People wondered who this she-Brownist, Katherine Chidley, was, and did not quite lose their interest in her when they found that she was an oldish woman, and a member of some hole-and-corner congregation in London. Indeed, she put her nails into Mr. Edwards with some effect.” Why did he not say at once, after the good old fashion, that she “set her ten commandments in his face”? In another place he speaks of “Satan standing with his staff around him.” Mr. Masson’s style, a little Robertsonian at best, naturally grows worse when forced to condescend to every-day matters. He can no more dismount and walk than the man in armor on a Lord Mayor’s day. “It [Aldersgate Street] stretches away northwards a full fourth of a mile as one continuous thoroughfare, until, crossed by Long Lane and the Barbican, it parts with the name of Aldersgate Street, and, under the new names of Goswell Street and Goswell Road, completes its tendency towards the suburbs and fields about Islington.” What a noble work might not the Directory be if composed on this scale! The imagination even of an alderman might well be lost in that full quarter of a mile of continuous thoroughfare. Mr. Masson is very great in these passages of civic grandeur; but he is more surprising, on the whole, where he has an image to deal with. Speaking of Milton’s “two-handed engine” in Lycidas, he says: “May not Milton, whatever else he meant, have meant a coming English Parliament with its two Houses? Whatever he meant, his prophecy had come true. As he sat among his books in Aldersgate Street, the two-handed engine at the door of the English Church was on the swing.  Once, twice, thrice, it had swept its arcs to gather energy; now it was on the backmost poise, and the blow was to descend.” One cannot help wishing that Mr. Masson would try his hand on the tenth horn of the beast in Revelation, or on the time and half a time of Daniel. There is something so consoling to a prophet in being told that, no matter what he meant, his prophecy had come true, and that he might mean “whatever else” he pleased, so long as he may have meant what we choose to think he did, reasoning backward from the assumed fulfilment! But perhaps there may be detected in Mr. Masson’s “swept its arcs” a little of that prophetic hedging-in vagueness to which he allows so generous a latitude.

How if the “two-handed engine,” after all, were a broom (or besom, to be more dignified),

“Sweeping—vehemently sweeping,
No pause admitted, no design avowed,” 

like that wielded by the awful shape which Dion the Syracusan saw? I make the suggestion modestly, though somewhat encouraged by Mr. Masson’s system of exegesis, which reminds one of the casuists’ doctrine of probables, in virtue of which a man may be probabiliter obligatus and probabiliter deobligatus at the same time. But perhaps the most remarkable instance of Mr. Masson’s figures of speech is where we are told that the king might have established a bona fide government “by giving public ascendency to the popular or Parliamentary element in his Council, and inducing the old leaven in it either to accept the new policy, or to withdraw and become inactive.” There is something consoling in the thought that yeast should be accessible to moral suasion. It is really too bad that bread should ever be heavy for want of such an appeal to its moral sense as should “induce it to accept the new policy.” Of Mr. Masson’s unhappy infection with the vivid style an instance or two shall be given in justification of what has been alleged against him in that particular. He says of London that “he was committed to the Tower, where for more than two months he lay, with as near a prospect as ever prisoner had of a chop with the executioner’s axe on a scaffold on Tower Hill.” I may be over-fastidious, but the word “chop” offends my ears with its coarseness, or if that be too strong, has certainly the unpleasant effect of an emphasis unduly placed. Old Auchinleck’s saying of Cromwell, that “he gart kings ken they had a lith in their necks,” is a good example of really vivid phrase, suggesting the axe and the block, and giving one of those dreadful hints to the imagination which are more powerful than any amount of detail, and whose skilful use is the only magic employed by the masters of truly picturesque writing. The sentence just quoted will serve also as an example of that tendency to surplusage, which adds to the bulk of Mr.  Masson’s sentences at the cost of their effectiveness. If he had said simply “chop on Tower Hill” (if chop there must be), it had been quite enough, for we all know that the executioner’s axe and the scaffold are implied in it. Once more, and I have done with the least agreeable part of my business. Mr. Masson, after telling over again the story of Strafford with needless length of detail, ends thus: “On Wednesday, the 12th of May, that proud curly head, the casket of that brain of power, rolled on the scaffold of Tower Hill.” Why curly? Surely it is here a ludicrous impertinence. This careful thrusting forward of outward and unmeaning particulars, in the hope of giving that reality to a picture which genius only has the art to do, is becoming a weariness in modern descriptive writing. It reminds one of the Mrs. Jarley expedient of dressing the waxen effigies of murderers in the very clothes they wore when they did the deed, or with the real halter round their necks wherewith they expiated it. It is probably very effective with the torpid sensibilities of the class who look upon wax figures as works of art.  True imaginative power works with other material. Lady Macbeth striving to wash away from her hands the damned spot that is all the more there to the mind of the spectator because it is not there at all, is a type of the methods it employs and the intensity of their action.

Having discharged my duty in regard to Mr. Masson’s faults of manner, which I should not have dwelt on so long had they not greatly marred a real enjoyment in the reading, and were they not the ear-mark of a school which has become unhappily numerous, I turn to a consideration of his work as a whole. I think he made a mistake in his very plan, or else was guilty of a misnomer in his title. His book is not so much a life of Milton as a collection of materials out of which a careful reader may sift the main facts of the poet’s biography. His passion for minute detail is only to be equalled by his diffuseness on points mainly if not altogether irrelevant. He gives us a Survey of British Literature, occupying one hundred and twenty-eight pages of his first volume, written in the main with good judgment, and giving the average critical opinion upon nearly every writer, great and small, who was in any sense a contemporary of Milton. I have no doubt all this would be serviceable and interesting to Mr. Masson’s classes in Edinburgh University, and they may well be congratulated on having so competent a teacher; but what it has to do with Milton, unless in the case of such authors as may be shown to have influenced his style or turn of thought, one does not clearly see.  Most readers of a life of Milton may be presumed to have some knowledge of the general literary history of the time, or at any rate to have the means of acquiring it, and Milton’s manner (his style was his own) was very little affected by any of the English poets, with the single exception, in his earlier poems, of George Wither. Mr. Masson also has something to say about everybody, from Wentworth to the obscurest Brownist fanatic who was so much as heard of in England during Milton’s lifetime. If this theory of a biographer’s duty should hold, our grandchildren may expect to see “A Life of Thackeray, or who was who in England, France, and Germany during the first Half of the Nineteenth Century.” These digressions of Mr. Masson’s from what should have been his main topic (he always seems somehow to be “completing his tendency towards the suburbs” of his subject), give him an uneasy feeling that he must get Milton in somehow or other at intervals, if it were only to remind the reader that he has a certain connection with the book. He is eager even to discuss a mere hypothesis, though an untenable one, if it will only increase the number of pages devoted specially to Milton, and thus lessen the apparent disproportion between the historical and the biographical matter. Milton tells us that his morning wont had been “to read good authors, or cause them to be read, till the attention be weary, or memory have his full fraught; then with useful and generous labors preserving the body’s health and hardiness, to render lightsome, clear, and not lumpish obedience to the mind, to the cause of religion and our country’s liberty when it shall require firm hearts in sound bodies to stand and cover their stations rather than see the rum of our Protestantism and the enforcement of a slavish life.” Mr. Masson snatches at the hint: “This is interesting,” he says; “Milton, it seems, has for some time been practising drill! The City Artillery Ground was near....  Did Milton among others make a habit of going there of mornings? Of this more hereafter.” When Mr. Masson returns to the subject he speaks of Milton’s “all but positive statement ... that in the spring of 1642, or a few months before the breaking out of the Civil War, he was in the habit of spending a part of each day in military exercise somewhere not far from his house in Aldersgate Street.” What he puts by way of query on page 402 has become downright certainty seventy-nine pages further on.  The passage from Milton’s tract makes no “statement” of the kind it pleases Mr. Masson to assume. It is merely a Miltonian way of saying that he took regular exercise, because he believed that moral no less than physical courage demanded a sound body. And what proof does Mr. Masson bring to confirm his theory? Nothing more nor less than two or three passages in “Paradise Lost,” of which I shall quote only so much as is essential to his argument:--

“And now Advanced in view they stand, a horrid front
Of dreadful length and dazzling arms, in guise
Of warriors old with ordered spear and shield,
Awaiting what command their mighty chief
Had to impose.”[359]

Mr. Masson assures us that “there are touches in this description (as, for example, the ordering of arms at the moment of halt, and without word of command) too exact and technical to have occurred to a mere civilian. Again, at the same review....

“’He now prepared
To speak; whereat their doubled ranks they bend
From wing to wing, and half enclose him round
With all his peers; attention held them mute.’[360]

“To the present day this is the very process, or one of the processes, when a commander wishes to address his men. They wheel inward and stand at ‘attention.’” But his main argument is the phrase “ported spears,” in Book Fourth, on which he has an interesting and valuable comment. He argues the matter through a dozen pages or more, seeking to prove that Milton must have had some practical experience of military drill. I confess a very grave doubt whether “attention” and “ordered” in the passages cited have any other than their ordinary meaning, and Milton could never have looked on at the pike-exercise without learning what “ported” meant. But, be this as it may, I will venture to assert that there was not a boy in New England, forty years ago, who did not know more of the manual than is implied in Milton’s use of these terms. Mr.  Masson’s object in proving Milton to have been a proficient in these martial exercises is to increase our wonder at his not entering the army.  “If there was any man in England of whom one might surely have expected that he would be in arms among the Parliamentarians,” he says, “that man was Milton.” Milton may have had many an impulse to turn soldier, as all men must in such times, but I do not believe that he ever seriously intended it. Nor is it any matter of reproach that he did not. It is plain, from his works, that he believed himself very early set apart and consecrated for tasks of a very different kind, for services demanding as much self-sacrifice and of more enduring result. I have no manner of doubt that he, like Dante, believed himself divinely inspired with what he had to utter, and, if so, why not also divinely guided in what he should do or leave undone? Milton wielded in the cause he loved a weapon far more effective than a sword.

It is a necessary result of Mr. Masson’s method, that a great deal of space is devoted to what might have befallen his hero and what he might have seen. This leaves a broad margin indeed for the insertion of purely hypothetical incidents. Nay, so desperately addicted is he to what he deems the vivid style of writing, that he even goes out of his way to imagine what might have happened to anybody living at the same time with Milton. Having told us fairly enough how Shakespeare, on his last visit to London, perhaps saw Milton “a fair child of six playing at his father’s door,” he must needs conjure up an imaginary supper at the Mermaid. “Ah! what an evening ... was that; and how Ben and Shakespeare be-tongued each other, while the others listened and wondered; and how, when the company dispersed, the sleeping street heard their departing footsteps, and the stars shone down on the old roofs.” Certainly, if we may believe the old song, the stars “had nothing else to do,” though their chance of shining in the middle of a London November may perhaps be reckoned very doubtful. An author should consider how largely the art of writing consists in knowing what to leave in the inkstand.

Mr. Masson’s volumes contain a great deal of very valuable matter, whatever one may think of its bearing upon the life of Milton. The chapters devoted to Scottish affairs are particularly interesting to a student of the Great Rebellion, its causes and concomitants. His analyses of the two armies, of the Parliament, and the Westminster Assembly, are sensible additions to our knowledge. A too painful thoroughness, indeed, is the criticism we should make on his work as a biography. Even as a history, the reader might complain that it confuses by the multiplicity of its details, while it wearies by want of continuity. Mr. Masson lacks the skill of an accomplished story-teller. A fact is to him a fact, never mind how unessential, and he misses the breadth of truth in his devotion to accuracy. The very order of his title-page, “The Life of Milton, narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his Time,” shows, it should seem, a misconception of the true nature of his subject. Milton’s chief importance, it might be fairly said his only importance, is a literary one. His place is fixed as the most classical of our poets.

Neither in politics, theology, nor social ethics, did Milton leave any distinguishable trace on the thought of his time or in the history of opinion. In both these lines of his activity circumstances forced upon him the position of a controversialist whose aims and results are by the necessity of the case desultory and ephemeral. Hooker before him and Hobbes after him had a far firmer grasp of fundamental principles than he. His studies in these matters were perfunctory and occasional, and his opinions were heated to the temper of the times and shaped to the instant exigencies of the forum, sometimes to his own convenience at the moment, instead of being the slow result of a deliberate judgment enlightened by intellectual and above all historical sympathy with his subject. His interest was rather in the occasion than the matter of the controversy.  No aphorisms of political science are to be gleaned from his writings as from those of Burke. His intense personality could never so far dissociate itself from the question at issue as to see it in its larger scope and more universal relations. He was essentially a doctrinaire, ready to sacrifice everything to what at the moment seemed the abstract truth, and with no regard to historical antecedents and consequences, provided those of scholastic logic were carefully observed. He has no respect for usage or tradition except when they count in his favor, and sees no virtue in that power of the past over the minds and conduct of men which alone insures the continuity of national growth and is the great safeguard of order and progress. The life of a nation was of less importance to him than that it should be conformed to certain principles of belief and conduct. Burke could distill political wisdom out of history because he had a profound consciousness of the soul that underlies and outlives events, and of the national character that gives them meaning and coherence. Accordingly his words are still living and operative, while Milton’s pamphlets are strictly occasional and no longer interesting except as they illustrate him. In the Latin ones especially there is an odd mixture of the pedagogue and the public orator. His training, so far as it was thorough, so far, indeed, as it may be called optional, was purely poetical and artistic. A true Attic bee, he made boot on every lip where there was a trace of truly classic honey.

Milton, indeed, could hardly have been a match for some of his antagonists in theological and ecclesiastical learning. But he brought into the contest a white heat of personal conviction that counted for much. His self-consciousness, always active, identified him with the cause he undertook. “I conceived myself to be now not as mine own person, but as a member incorporate into that truth whereof I was persuaded and whereof I had declared myself openly to be the partaker.”[361] Accordingly it does not so much seem that he is the advocate of Puritanism, Freedom of Conscience, or the People of England, as that all these are he, and that he is speaking for himself. He was not nice in the choice of his missiles, and too often borrows a dirty lump from the dunghill of Luther; but now and then the gnarled sticks of controversy turn to golden arrows of Phoebus in his trembling hands, singing as they fly and carrying their messages of doom in music. Then, truly, in his prose as in his verse, his is the large utterance of the early gods, and there is that in him which tramples all learning under his victorious feet. From the first he looked upon himself as a man dedicated and set apart. He had that sublime persuasion of a divine mission which sometimes lifts his speech from personal to cosmopolitan significance; his genius unmistakably asserts itself from time to time, calling down fire from heaven to kindle the sacrifice of irksome private duty, and turning the hearthstone of an obscure man into an altar for the worship of mankind.  Plainly enough here was a man who had received something other than Episcopal ordination. Mysterious and awful powers had laid their unimaginable hands on that fair head and devoted it to a nobler service.  Yet it must be confessed that, with the single exception of the “Areopagitica,” Milton’s tracts are wearisome reading, and going through them is like a long sea-voyage whose monotony is more than compensated for the moment by a stripe of phosphorescence heaping before you in a drift of star-sown snow, coiling away behind in winking disks of silver, as if the conscious element were giving out all the moonlight it had garnered in its loyal depths since first it gazed upon its pallid regent.  Which, being interpreted, means that his prose is of value because it is Milton’s, because it sometimes exhibits in an inferior degree the qualities of his verse, and not for its power of thought, of reasoning, or of statement. It is valuable, where it is best, for its inspiring quality, like the fervencies of a Hebrew prophet. The English translation of the Bible had to a very great degree Judaized, not the English mind, but the Puritan temper. Those fierce enthusiasts could more easily find elbow-room for their consciences in an ideal Israel than in a practical England. It was convenient to see Amalek or Philistia in the men who met them in the field, and one unintelligible horn or other of the Beast in their theological opponents. The spiritual provincialism of the Jewish race found something congenial in the English mind. Their national egotism quintessentialized in the prophets was especially sympathetic with the personal egotism of Milton. It was only as an inspired and irresponsible person that he could live on decent terms with his own self-confident individuality. There is an intolerant egotism which identifies itself with omnipotence,[362] and whose sublimity is its apology; there is an intolerable egotism which subordinates the sun to the watch in its own fob. Milton’s was of the former kind, and accordingly the finest passages in his prose and not the least fine in his verse are autobiographic, and this is the more striking that they are often unconsciously so. Those fallen angels in utter ruin and combustion hurled, are also cavaliers fighting against the Good Old Cause; Philistia is the Restoration, and what Samson did, that Milton would have done if he could.

The “Areopagitica” might seem an exception, but that also is a plea rather than an argument, and his interest in the question is not one of abstract principle, but of personal relation to himself. He was far more rhetorician than thinker. The sonorous amplitude of his style was better fitted to persuade the feelings than to convince the reason. The only passages from his prose that may be said to have survived are emotional, not argumentative, or they have lived in virtue of their figurative beauty, not their weight of thought. Milton’s power lay in dilation.

Touched by him, the simplest image, the most obvious thought,

“Dilated stood
Like Teneriffe or Atlas....
.... nor wanted in his grasp
What seemed both spear and shield.” 

But the thin stiletto of Macchiavelli is a more effective weapon than these fantastic arms of his. He had not the secret of compression that properly belongs to the political thinker, on whom, as Hazlitt said of himself, “nothing but abstract ideas makes any impression.” Almost every aphoristic phrase that he has made current is borrowed from some one of the classics, like his famous

“License they mean when they cry liberty,”

from Tacitus. This is no reproach to him so far as his true function, that of poet, is concerned. It is his peculiar glory that literature was with him so much an art, an end and not a means. Of his political work he has himself told us, “I should not choose this manner of writing, wherein, knowing myself inferior to myself (led by the genial power of nature to another task), I have the use, as I may account, but of my left hand.”

Mr. Masson has given an excellent analysis of these writings, selecting with great judgment the salient passages, which have an air of blank-verse thinly disguised as prose, like some of the corrupted passages of Shakespeare. We are particularly thankful to him for his extracts from the pamphlets written against Milton, especially for such as contain criticisms on his style. It is not a little interesting to see the most stately of poets reproached for his use of vulgarisms and low words. We seem to get a glimpse of the schooling of his “choiceful sense” to that nicety which could not be content till it had made his native tongue “search all her coffers round.” One cannot help thinking also that his practice in prose, especially in the long involutions of Latin periods, helped him to give that variety of pause and that majestic harmony to his blank-verse which have made it so unapproachably his own.  Landor, who, like Milton, seems to have thought in Latin, has caught somewhat more than others of the dignity of his gait, but without his length of stride. Wordsworth, at his finest, has perhaps approached it, but with how long an interval! Bryant has not seldom attained to its serene equanimity, but never emulates its pomp. Keats has caught something of its large utterance, but altogether fails of its nervous severity of phrase. Cowper’s muse (that moved with such graceful ease in slippers) becomes stiff when (in his translation of Homer) she buckles on her feet the cothurnus of Milton. Thomson grows tumid wherever he assays the grandiosity of his model. It is instructive to get any glimpse of the slow processes by which Milton arrived at that classicism which sets him apart from, if not above, all our other poets.

In gathering up the impressions made upon us by Mr. Masson’s work as a whole, we are inclined rather to regret his copiousness for his own sake than for ours. The several parts, though disproportionate, are valuable, his research has been conscientious, and he has given us better means of understanding Milton’s time than we possessed before. But how is it about Milton himself? Here was a chance, it seems to me, for a fine bit of portrait-painting. There is hardly a more stately figure in literary history than Milton’s, no life in some of its aspects more tragical, except Dante’s. In both these great poets, more than in any others, the character of the men makes part of the singular impressiveness of what they wrote and of its vitality with after times. In them the man somehow overtops the author. The works of both are full of autobiographical confidences. Like Dante, Milton was forced to become a party by himself.  He stands out in marked and solitary individuality, apart from the great movement of the Civil War, apart from the supine acquiescence of the Restoration, a self-opinionated, unforgiving, and unforgetting man. Very much alive he certainly was in his day. Has Mr. Masson made him alive to us again? I fear not. At the same time, while we cannot praise either the style or the method of Mr. Masson’s work, we cannot refuse to be grateful for it. It is not so much a book for the ordinary reader of biography as for the student, and will be more likely to find its place on the library-shelf than the centre-table. It does not in any sense belong to light literature, but demands all the muscle of the trained and vigorous reader. “Truly, in respect of itself, it is a good life; but in respect that it is Milton’s life it is naught.”

Mr. Masson’s intimacy with the facts and dates of Milton’s career renders him peculiarly fit in some respects to undertake an edition of the poetical works. His edition, accordingly, has distinguished merits. The introductions to the several poems are excellent and leave scarcely anything to be desired. The general Introduction, on the other hand, contains a great deal that might well have been omitted, and not a little that is positively erroneous. Mr. Masson’s discussions of Milton’s English seem often to be those of a Scotsman to whom English is in some sort a foreign tongue. It is almost wholly inconclusive, because confined to the Miltonic verse, while the basis of any altogether satisfactory study should surely be the Miltonic prose; nay, should include all the poetry and prose of his own age and of that immediately preceding it. The uses to which Mr. Masson has put the concordance to Milton’s poems tempt one sometimes to class him with those whom the poet himself taxed with being “the mousehunts and ferrets of an index.” For example, what profits a discussion of Milton’s [Greek: hapax legomena], a matter in which accident is far more influential than choice?[363] What sensible addition is made to our stock of knowledge by learning that “the word woman does not occur in any form in Milton’s poetry before ‘Paradise Lost,’” and that it is “exactly so with the word female”? Is it any way remarkable that such words as Adam, God, Heaven, Hell, Paradise, Sin, Satan, and Serpent should occur “very frequently” in “Paradise Lost”? Would it not rather have been surprising that they should not? Such trifles at best come under the head of what old Warner would have called cumber-minds. It is time to protest against this minute style of editing and commenting great poets. Gulliver’s microscopic eye saw on the fair skins of the Brobdignagian maids of honor “a mole here and there as broad as a trencher,” and we shrink from a cup of the purest Hippocrene after the critic’s solar microscope has betrayed to us the grammatical, syntactical, and, above all, hypothetical monsters that sprawl in every drop of it. When a poet has been so much edited as Milton, the temptation of whosoever undertakes a new edition to see what is not to be seen becomes great in proportion as he finds how little there is that has not been seen before.

Mr. Masson is quite right in choosing to modernize the spelling of Milton, for surely the reading of our classics should be made as little difficult as possible, and he is right also in making an exception of such abnormal forms as the poet may fairly be supposed to have chosen for melodic reasons. His exhaustive discussion of the spelling of the original editions seems, however, to be the less called-for as he himself appears to admit that the compositor, not the author, was supreme in these matters, and that in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases to the thousand Milton had no system, but spelt by immediate inspiration. Yet Mr. Masson fills nearly four pages with an analysis of the vowel sounds, in which, as if to demonstrate the futility of such attempts so long as men’s ears differ, he tells us that the short a sound is the same in man and Darby, the short o sound in God and does, and what he calls the long o sound in broad and wrath. Speaking of the apostrophe, Mr. Masson tells us that “it is sometimes inserted, not as a possessive mark at all, but merely as a plural mark: hero’s for heroes, myrtle’s for myrtles, Gorgons and Hydra’s, etc.” Now, in books printed about the time of Milton’s the apostrophe was put in almost at random, and in all the cases cited is a misprint, except in the first, where it serves to indicate that the pronunciation was not heróës as it had formerly been.[364] In the “possessive singular of nouns already ending in s” Mr. Masson tells us, “Milton’s general practice is not to double the s; thus, Nereus wrinkled look, Glaucus spell. The necessities of metre would naturally constrain to such forms. In a possessive followed by the word sake or the word side, dislike to [of] the double sibilant makes us sometimes drop the inflection. In addition to ‘for righteousness’ sake’ such phrases as ‘for thy name sake’ and ‘for mercy sake,’ are allowed to pass; bedside is normal and riverside nearly so.” The necessities of metre need not be taken into account with a poet like Milton, who never was fairly in his element till he got off the soundings of prose and felt the long swell of his verse under him like a steed that knows his rider. But does the dislike of the double sibilant account for the dropping of the s in these cases? Is it not far rather the presence of the s already in the sound satisfying an ear accustomed to the English slovenliness in the pronunciation of double consonants? It was this which led to such forms as conscience sake and on justice side, and which beguiled Ben Jonson and Dryden into thinking, the one that noise and the other that corps was a plural,[365] What does Mr. Masson say to hillside, Bankside, seaside, Cheapside, spindleside, spearside, gospelside (of a church), nightside, countryside, wayside, brookside, and I know not how many more?  Is the first half of these words a possessive? Or is it not rather a noun impressed into the service as an adjective? How do such words differ from hilltop, townend, candlelight, rushlight, cityman, and the like, where no double s can be made the scapegoat? Certainly Milton would not have avoided them for their sibilancy, he who wrote

“And airy tongues that syllable men’s names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses,”

“So in his seed all nations shall be blest,”

“And seat of Salmanasser whose success,”

verses that hiss like Medusa’s head in wrath, and who was, I think, fonder of the sound than any other of our poets. Indeed, in compounds of the kind we always make a distinction wholly independent of the doubled s. Nobody would boggle at mountainside; no one would dream of saying on the fatherside or motherside.

Mr. Masson speaks of “the Miltonic forms vanquisht, markt, lookt, etc.”

Surely he does not mean to imply that these are peculiar to Milton?  Chapman used them before Milton was born, and pressed them farther, as in nak’t and saf’t for naked and saved. He often prefers the contracted form in his prose also, showing that the full form of the past participle in ed was passing out of fashion, though available in verse.[366] Indeed, I venture to affirm that there is not a single variety of spelling or accent to be found in Milton which is without example in his predecessors or contemporaries. Even highth, which is thought peculiarly Miltonic, is common (in Hakluyt, for example), and still often heard in New England. Mr. Masson gives an odd reason for Milton’s preference of it  “as indicating more correctly the formation of the word by the addition of the suffix th to the adjective high.” Is an adjective, then, at the base of growth, earth, birth, truth, and other words of this kind? Horne Tooke made a better guess than this.  If Mr. Masson be right in supposing that a peculiar meaning is implied in the spelling bearth (Paradise Lost, IX. 624), which he interprets as “collective produce,” though in the only other instance where it occurs it is neither more nor less than birth, it should seem that Milton had hit upon Horne Tooke’s etymology. But it is really solemn trifling to lay any stress on the spelling of the original editions, after having admitted, as Mr. Masson has honestly done, that in all likelihood Milton had nothing to do with it. And yet he cannot refrain. On the word voutsafe he hangs nearly a page of dissertation on the nicety of Milton’s ear. Mr. Masson thinks that Milton “must have had a reason for it,”[367] and finds that reason in “his dislike to [of] the sound ch, or to [of] that sound combined with s.... His fine ear taught him not only to seek for musical effects and cadences at large, but also to be fastidious as to syllables, and to avoid harsh or difficult conjunctions of consonants, except when there might be a musical reason for harshness or difficulty. In the management of the letter s, the frequency of which in English is one of the faults of the speech, he will be found, I believe, most careful and skilful. More rarely, I think, than in Shakespeare will one word ending in s be found followed immediately in Milton by another word beginning with the same letter; or, if he does occasionally pen such a phrase as Moab’s sons, it will be difficult to find in him, I believe, such a harsher example as earth’s substance, of which many writers would think nothing. [With the index to back him Mr. Masson could safely say this.] The same delicacy of ear is even more apparent in his management of the sh sound. He has it often, of course; but it may be noted that he rejects it in his verse when he can. He writes Basan for Bashan, Sittim for Shittim, Silo for Shiloh, Asdod for Ashdod. Still more, however, does he seem to have been wary of the compound sound ch as in church. Of his sensitiveness to this sound in excess there is a curious proof in his prose pamphlet entitled ‘An Apology against a Pamphlet, called A Modest Completion, etc.,’ where, having occasion to quote these lines from one of the Satires[368] of his opponent, Bishop Hall,

“’Teach each hollow grove to sound his love,
Wearying echo with one changeless word,’

“he adds, ironically, ‘And so he well might, and all his auditory besides, with his teach each!’” Generalizations are always risky, but when extemporized from a single hint they are maliciously so. Surely it needed no great sensitiveness of ear to be set on edge by Hall’s echo of teach each. Did Milton reject the h from Bashan and the rest because he disliked the sound of sh, or because he had found it already rejected by the Vulgate and by some of the earlier translators of the Bible into English? Oddly enough, Milton uses words beginning with sh seven hundred and fifty four times in his poetry, not to speak of others in which the sound occurs, as, for instance, those ending in tion. Hall, had he lived long enough, might have retorted on Milton his own

“Manliest, resolutest, breast,
As the magnetick hardest iron draws,” 

or his

“What moves thy inquisition?
Know’st thou not that my rising is thy fall,
And my promotion thy destruction?”

With the playful controversial wit of the day he would have hinted that too much est- est is as fatal to a blank-verse as to a bishop, and that danger was often incurred by those who too eagerly shunned it. Nay, he might even have found an echo almost tallying with his own in

“To begirt the almighty throne
Beseeching or besieging,”

a pun worthy of Milton’s worst prose. Or he might have twitted him with “a sequent king who seeks.” As for the sh sound, a poet could hardly have found it ungracious to his ear who wrote,

“Gnashing for anguish and despite and shame,”

or again,

“Then bursting forth
Afresh with conscious terrors vex me round
That rest or intermission none I find.
Before mine eyes in opposition sits
Grim Death, my son.” 

And if Milton disliked the ch sound, he gave his ears unnecessary pain by verses such as these,--

“Straight couches close; then, rising, changes oft
His couchant watch, as one who chose his ground”;

still more by such a juxtaposition as “matchless chief.”[369] The truth is, that Milton was a harmonist rather than a melodist. There are, no doubt, some exquisite melodies (like the “Sabrina Fair “) among his earlier poems, as could hardly fail to be the case in an age which produced or trained the authors of our best English glees, as ravishing in their instinctive felicity as the songs of our dramatists, but he also showed from the first that larger style which was to be his peculiar distinction. The strain heard in the “Nativity Ode,” in the “Solemn Music,” and in “Lycidas,” is of a higher mood, as regards metrical construction, than anything that had thrilled the English ear before, giving no uncertain augury of him who was to show what sonorous metal lay silent till he touched the keys in the epical organ-pipes of our various language, that have never since felt the strain of such prevailing breath. It was in the larger movements of metre that Milton was great and original. I have spoken elsewhere of Spenser’s fondness for dilatation as respects thoughts and images. In Milton it extends to the language also, and often to the single words of which a period is composed. He loved phrases of towering port, in which every member dilated stands like Teneriffe or Atlas. In those poems and passages that stamp him great, the verses do not dance interweaving to soft Lydian airs, but march rather with resounding tread and clang of martial music. It is true that he is cunning in alliterations, so scattering them that they tell in his orchestra without being obvious, but it is in the more scientific region of open-voweled assonances which seem to proffer rhyme and yet withhold it (rhyme-wraiths one might call them), that he is an artist and a master. He even sometimes introduces rhyme with misleading intervals between and unobviously in his blank-verse:--

“There rest, if any rest can harbour there;
And, reassembling our afflicted powers,
Consult how we may henceforth most offend
Our enemy, our own loss how repair,
How overcome this dire calamity,
What reinforcement we may gain from hope,
If not, what resolution from despair.”[370] 

There is one almost perfect quatrain,--

“Before thy fellows, ambitious to win
From me some plume, that thy success may show
Destruction to the rest. This pause between
(Unanswered lest thou boast) to let thee know”;

and another hardly less so, of a rhyme and an assonance,--

“If once they hear that voice, their liveliest pledge
Of hope in fears and dangers, heard so oft
In worst extremes and on the perilous edge
Of battle when it raged, in all assaults.” 

There can be little doubt that the rhymes in the first passage cited were intentional, and perhaps they were so in the others; but Milton’s ear has tolerated not a few perfectly rhyming couplets, and others in which the assonance almost becomes rhyme, certainly a fault in blank verse:--

“From the Asian Kings (and Parthian among these),
From India and the Golden Chersonese”;

“That soon refreshed him wearied, and repaired
What hunger, if aught hunger, had impaired”;

“And will alike be punished, whether thou
Reign or reign not, though to that gentle brow”;

“Of pleasure, but all pleasure to destroy,
Save what is in destroying, other joy”;

“Shall all be Paradise, far happier place
Than this of Eden, and far happier days”; 

“This my long sufferance and my day of grace
They who neglect and scorn shall never taste”;

“So far remote with diminution seen,
First in his East the glorious lamp was seen.”[371]

These examples (and others might be adduced) serve to show that Milton’s ear was too busy about the larger interests of his measures to be always careful of the lesser. He was a strategist rather than a drill-sergeant in verse, capable, beyond any other English poet, of putting great masses through the most complicated evolutions without clash or confusion, but he was not curious that every foot should be at the same angle. In reading “Paradise Lost” one has a feeling of vastness. You float under an illimitable sky, brimmed with sunshine or hung with constellations; the abysses of space are about you; you hear the cadenced surges of an unseen ocean; thunders mutter round the horizon; and if the scene change, it is with an elemental movement like the shifting of mighty winds. His imagination seldom condenses, like Shakespeare’s, in the kindling flash of a single epithet, but loves better to diffuse itself. Witness his descriptions, wherein he seems to circle like an eagle bathing in the blue streams of air, controlling with his eye broad sweeps of champaign or of sea, and rarely fulmining in the sudden swoop of intenser expression. He was fonder of the vague, perhaps I should rather say the indefinite, where more is meant than meets the ear, than any other of our poets. He loved epithets (like old and far) that suggest great reaches, whether of space or time. This bias shows itself already in his earlier poems, as where he hears

“The far off curfew sound
Over some widewatered shore,” 

or where he fancies the shores[372] and sounding seas washing Lycidas far away; but it reaches its climax in the “Paradise Lost.” He produces his effects by dilating our imaginations with an impalpable hint rather than by concentrating them upon too precise particulars. Thus in a famous comparison of his, the fleet has no definite port, but plies stemming nightly toward the pole in a wide ocean of conjecture. He generalizes always instead of specifying,--the true secret of the ideal treatment in which he is without peer, and, though everywhere grandiose, he is never turgid. Tasso begins finely with

“Chiama gli abitator dell’ ombre eterne
II rauco suon della tartarea tromba;
Treman le spaziose atre caverne,
E l’aer cieco a quel rumor rimbomba,” 

but soon spoils all by condescending to definite comparisons with thunder and intestinal convulsions of the earth; in other words, he is unwary enough to give us a standard of measurement, and the moment you furnish Imagination with a yardstick she abdicates in favor of her statistical poor-relation Commonplace. Milton, with this passage in his memory, is too wise to hamper himself with any statement for which he can be brought to book, but wraps himself in a mist of looming indefiniteness;

“He called so loud that all the hollow deep
Of hell resounded,”

thus amplifying more nobly by abstention from his usual method of prolonged evolution. No caverns, however spacious, will serve his turn, because they have limits. He could practise this self-denial when his artistic sense found it needful, whether for variety of verse or for the greater intensity of effect to be gained by abruptness. His more elaborate passages have the multitudinous roll of thunder, dying away to gather a sullen force again from its own reverberations, but he knew that the attention is recalled and arrested by those claps that stop short without echo and leave us listening. There are no such vistas and avenues of verse as his. In reading the “Paradise Lost” one has a feeling of spaciousness such as no other poet gives. Milton’s respect for himself and for his own mind and its movements rises wellnigh to veneration. He prepares the way for his thought and spreads on the ground before the sacred feet of his verse tapestries inwoven with figures of mythology and romance. There is no such unfailing dignity as his. Observe at what a reverent distance he begins when he is about to speak of himself, as at the beginning of the Third Book and the Seventh. His sustained strength is especially felt in his beginnings. He seems always to start full-sail; the wind and tide always serve; there is never any fluttering of the canvas In this he offers a striking contrast with Wordsworth, who has to go through with a great deal of yo-heave-ohing before he gets under way. And though, in the didactic parts of “Paradise Lost,” the wind dies away sometimes, there is a long swell that will not let us forget it, and ever and anon some eminent verse lifts its long ridge above its tamer peers heaped with stormy memories. And the poem never becomes incoherent; we feel all through it, as in the symphonies of Beethoven, a great controlling reason in whose safe-conduct we trust implicitly.

Mr. Masson’s discussions of Milton’s English are, it seems to me, for the most part unsatisfactory He occupies some ten pages, for example, with a history of the genitival form its, which adds nothing to our previous knowledge on the subject and which has no relation to Milton except for its bearing on the authorship of some verses attributed to him against the most overwhelming internal evidence to the contrary. Mr. Masson is altogether too resolute to find traces of what he calls oddly enough “recollectiveness of Latin constructions” in Milton, and scents them sometimes in what would seem to the uninstructed reader very idiomatic English. More than once, at least, he has fancied them by misunderstanding the passage in which they seem to occur. Thus, in “Paradise Lost,” XI. 520, 521,

“Therefore so abject is their punishment,
Disfiguring not God’s likeness but their own,”

has no analogy with eorum deformantium, for the context shows that it is the punishment which disfigures. Indeed, Mr. Masson so often finds constructions difficult, ellipses strange, and words needing annotation that are common to all poetry, nay, sometimes to all English, that his notes seem not seldom to have been written by a foreigner. On this passage in “Comus,”—

“I do not think my sister so to seek
Or so unprincipled in virtue’s book
And the sweet peace that virtue bosoms ever
As that the single want of light and noise

         *       *       *       *       *

“(Not being in danger, as I trust she is not)
Could stir the constant mood of her calm thoughts,”

Mr. Masson tells us, that “in very strict construction, not being would cling to want as its substantive; but the phrase passes for the Latin ablative absolute.” So on the words forestalling night, “i. e. anticipating. Forestall is literally to anticipate the market by purchasing goods before they are brought to the stall.” In the verse

“Thou hast immanacled while Heaven sees good,”

he explains that “while here has the sense of so long as.” But Mr.  Masson’s notes on the language are his weakest. He is careful to tell us, for example, “that there are instances of the use of shine as a substantive in Spenser, Ben Jonson, and other poets.” It is but another way of spelling sheen, and if Mr. Masson never heard a shoeblack in the street say, “Shall I give you a shine, sir?” his experience has been singular.[373] His notes in general are very good (though too long).  Those on the astronomy of Milton are particularly valuable. I think he is sometimes a little too scornful of parallel passages,[374] for if there is one thing more striking than another in this poet, it is that his great and original imagination was almost wholly nourished by books, perhaps I should rather say set in motion by them. It is wonderful how, from the most withered and juiceless hint gathered in his reading, his grand images rise like an exhalation; how from the most battered old lamp caught in that huge drag-net with which he swept the waters of learning, he could conjure a tall genius to build his palaces. Whatever he touches swells and towers. That wonderful passage in Comus of the airy tongues, perhaps the most imaginative in suggestion he ever wrote, was conjured out of a dry sentence in Purchas’s abstract of Marco Polo. Such examples help us to understand the poet. When I find that Sir Thomas Browne had said before Milton, that Adam “was the wisest of all men since,” I am glad to find this link between the most profound and the most stately imagination of that age. Such parallels sometimes give a hint also of the historical development of our poetry, of its apostolical succession, so to speak. Every one has noticed Milton’s fondness of sonorous proper names, which have not only an acquired imaginative value by association, and so serve to awaken our poetic sensibilities, but have likewise a merely musical significance. This he probably caught from Marlowe, traces of whom are frequent in him. There is certainly something of what afterwards came to be called Miltonic in more than one passage of “Tamburlaine,” a play in which gigantic force seems struggling from the block, as in Michel Angelo’s Dawn.

Mr. Masson’s remarks on the versification of Milton are, in the main, judicious, but when he ventures on particulars, one cannot always agree with him. He seems to understand that our prosody is accentual merely, and yet, when he comes to what he calls variations, he talks of the “substitution of the Trochee, the Pyrrhic, or the Spondee, for the regular Iambus, or of the Anapaest, the Dactyl, the Tribrach, etc., for the same.” This is always misleading. The shift of the accent in what Mr.  Masson calls “dissyllabic variations” is common to all pentameter verse, and, in the other case, most of the words cited as trisyllables either were not so in Milton’s day,[375] or were so or not at choice of the poet, according to their place in the verse. There is not an elision of Milton’s without precedent in the dramatists from whom he learned to write blank-verse. Milton was a greater metrist than any of them, except Marlowe and Shakespeare, and he employed the elision (or the slur) oftener than they to give a faint undulation or retardation to his verse, only because his epic form demanded it more for variety’s sake. How Milton would have read them, is another question. He certainly often marked them by an apostrophe in his manuscripts. He doubtless composed according to quantity, so far as that is possible in English, and as Cowper somewhat extravagantly says, “gives almost as many proofs of it in his ‘Paradise Lost’ as there are lines in the poem.”[376] But when Mr. Masson tells us that

“Self-fed and self-consumed: if this fail,”


“Dwells in all Heaven charity so rare,”

are “only nine syllables,” and that in

“Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream,”

“either the third foot must be read as an anapaest or the word hugest must be pronounced as one syllable, hug’st,” I think Milton would have invoked the soul of Sir John Cheek. Of course Milton read it

“Created hugest that swim th’ ocean-stream,”

just as he wrote (if we may trust Mr. Masson’s facsimile)

“Thus sang the uncouth swain to th’ oaks and rills,”

a verse in which both hiatus and elision occur precisely as in the Italian poets.[377]

“Gest that swim” would be rather a knotty anapaest, an insupportable foot indeed! And why is even hug’st worse than Shakespeare’s

“Young’st follower of thy drum”?

In the same way he says of

“For we have also our evening and our morn,”

that “the metre of this line is irregular,” and of the rapidly fine

“Came flying and in mid air aloud thus cried,”

that it is “a line of unusual metre.”  Why more unusual than

“As being the contrary to his high will”?

What would Mr. Masson say to these three verses from Dekkar?--

“And knowing so much, I muse thou art so poor”;

“I fan away the dust flying in mine eyes”;

“Flowing o’er with court news only of you and them.”

All such participles (where no consonant divided the vowels) were normally of one syllable, permissibly of two.[378] If Mr. Masson had studied the poets who preceded Milton as he has studied him, he would never have said that the verse

“Not this rock only; his omnipresence fills,”

was “peculiar as having a distinct syllable of overmeasure.” He retains Milton’s spelling of hunderd without perceiving the metrical reason for it, that d, t, p, b, &c., followed by l or r, might be either of two or of three syllables. In Marlowe we find it both ways in two consecutive verses:--

“A hundred [hundered] and fifty thousand horse,
Two hundred thousand foot, brave men at arms.”[379]

Mr. Masson is especially puzzled by verses ending in one or more unaccented syllables, and even argues in his Introduction that some of them might be reckoned Alexandrines. He cites some lines of Spenser as confirming his theory, forgetting that rhyme wholly changes the conditions of the case by throwing the accent (appreciably even now, but more emphatically in Spenser’s day) on the last syllable.

“A spirit and judgment equal or superior,”

he calls “a remarkably anomalous line, consisting of twelve or even thirteen syllables.” Surely Milton’s ear would never have tolerated a dissyllabic “spirit” in such a position. The word was then more commonly of one syllable, though it might be two, and was accordingly spelt spreet (still surviving in sprite), sprit, and even spirt, as Milton himself spells it in one of Mr. Masson’s facsimiles.[380]

Shakespeare, in the verse

“Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,”

uses the word admirably well in a position where it cannot have a metrical value of more than one syllable, while it gives a dancing movement to the verse in keeping with the sense. Our old metrists were careful of elasticity, a quality which modern verse has lost in proportion as our language has stiffened into uniformity under the benumbing fingers of pedants.

This discussion of the value of syllables is not so trifling as it seems. A great deal of nonsense has been written about imperfect measures in Shakespeare, and of the admirable dramatic effect produced by filling up the gaps of missing syllables with pauses or prolongations of the voice in reading. In rapid, abrupt, and passionate dialogue this is possible, but in passages of continuously level speech it is barbarously absurd. I do not believe that any of our old dramatists has knowingly left us a single imperfect verse. Seeing in what a haphazard way and in how mutilated a form their plays have mostly reached us, we should attribute such faults (as a geologist would call them) to anything rather than to the deliberate design of the poets. Marlowe and Shakespeare, the two best metrists among them, have given us a standard by which to measure what licenses they took in versification,--the one in his translations, the other in his poems. The unmanageable verses in Milton are very few, and all of them occur in works printed after his blindness had lessened the chances of supervision and increased those of error. There are only two, indeed, which seem to me wholly indigestible as they stand. These are,

“Burnt after them to the bottomless pit,”


“With them from bliss to the bottomless deep.”

This certainly looks like a case where a word had dropped out or had been stricken out by some proof-reader who limited the number of syllables in a pentameter verse by that of his finger-ends. Mr. Masson notices only the first of these lines, and says that to make it regular by accenting the word bottomless on the second syllable would be “too horrible.” Certainly not, if Milton so accented it, any more than blasphémous and twenty more which sound oddly to us now. However that may be, Milton could not have intended to close not only a period, but a paragraph also, with an unmusical verse, and in the only other passage where the word occurs it is accented as now on the first syllable:

“With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell.” 

As bottom is a word which, like bosom and besom, may be monosyllabic or dissyllabic according to circumstances, I am persuaded that the last passage quoted (and all three refer to the same event) gives us the word wanting in the two others, and that Milton wrote, or meant to write,--

“Burnt after them down to the bottomless pit,”

which leaves in the verse precisely the kind of ripple that Milton liked best.[381] 

Much of what Mr. Masson says in his Introduction of the way in which the verses of Milton should be read is judicious enough, though some of the examples he gives, of the “comicality” which would ensue from compressing every verse into an exact measure of ten syllables, are based on a surprising ignorance of the laws which guided our poets just before and during Milton’s time in the structure of their verses. Thus he seems to think that a strict scansion would require us in the verses

“So he with difficulty and labor hard,”


“Carnation, purple, azure, or specked with gold,”

to pronounce diffikty and purp’. Though Mr. Masson talks of “slurs and elisions,” his ear would seem somewhat insensible to their exact nature or office. His diffikty supposes a hiatus where none is intended, and his making purple of one syllable wrecks the whole verse, the real slur in the latter case being on azure or.[382] When he asks whether Milton required “these pronunciations in his verse,” no positive answer can be given, but I very much doubt whether he would have thought that some of the lines Mr. Masson cites “remain perfectly good Blank Verse even with the most leisurely natural enunciation of the spare syllable,” and I am sure he would have stared if told that “the number of accents” in a pentameter verse was “variable.” It may be doubted whether elisions and compressions which would be thought in bad taste or even vulgar now were more abhorrent to the ears of Milton’s generation than to a cultivated Italian would be the hearing Dante read as prose. After all, what Mr. Masson says may be reduced to the infallible axiom that poetry should be read as poetry.

Mr. Masson seems to be right in his main principles, but the examples he quotes make one doubt whether he knows what a verse is. For example, he thinks it would be a “horror,” if in the verse

“That invincible Samson far renowned”

we should lay the stress on the first syllable of invincible. It is hard to see why this should be worse than cónventicle or rémonstrance or súccessor or incómpatible, (the three latter used by the correct Daniel) or why Mr. Masson should clap an accent on surfàce merely because it comes at the end of a verse, and deny it to ínvincible. If one read the verse just cited with those that go with it, he will find that the accent must come on the first syllable of invincible or else the whole passage becomes chaos.[383] Should we refuse to say obleeged with Pope because the fashion has changed? From its apparently greater freedom in skilful hands, blank-verse gives more scope to sciolistic theorizing and dogmatism than the rhyming pentameter couplet, but it is safe to say that no verse is good in the one that would not be good in the other when handled by a master like Dryden. Milton, like other great poets, wrote some bad verses, and it is wiser to confess that they are so than to conjure up some unimaginable reason why the reader should accept them as the better for their badness. Such a bad verse is

“Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens and shapes of death,”

which might be cited to illustrate Pope’s

“And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

Milton cannot certainly be taxed with any partiality for low words. He rather loved them tall, as the Prussian King loved men to be six feet high in their stockings, and fit to go into the grenadiers. He loved them as much for their music as for their meaning,--perhaps more. His style, therefore, when it has to deal with commoner things, is apt to grow a little cumbrous and unwieldy. A Persian poet says that when the owl would boast he boasts of catching mice at the edge of a hole. Shakespeare would have understood this. Milton would have made him talk like an eagle. His influence is not to be left out of account as partially contributing to that decline toward poetic diction which was already beginning ere he died. If it would not be fair to say that he is the most artistic, he may be called in the highest sense the most scientific of our poets. If to Spenser younger poets have gone to be sung-to, they have sat at the feet of Milton to be taught. Our language has no finer poem than “Samson Agonistes,” if any so fine in the quality of austere dignity or in the skill with which the poet’s personal experience is generalized into a classic tragedy.

Gentle as Milton’s earlier portraits would seem to show him, he had in him by nature, or bred into him by fate, something of the haughty and defiant self-assertion of Dante and Michel Angelo. In no other English author is the man so large a part of his works. Milton’s haughty conception of himself enters into all he says and does. Always the necessity of this one man became that of the whole human race for the moment. There were no walls so sacred but must go to the ground when he wanted elbow-room; and he wanted a great deal. Did Mary Powell, the cavalier’s daughter, find the abode of a roundhead schoolmaster incompatible and leave it, forthwith the cry of the universe was for an easier dissolution of the marriage covenant. If he is blind, it is with excess of light, it is a divine partiality, an over-shadowing with angels’ wings. Phineus and Teiresias are admitted among the prophets because they, too, had lost their sight, and the blindness of Homer is of more account than his Iliad. After writing in rhyme till he was past fifty, he finds it unsuitable for his epic, and it at once becomes “the invention of a barbarous age to set off wretched matter and lame metre.” If the structure of his mind be undramatic, why, then, the English drama is naught, learned Jonson, sweetest Shakespeare, and the rest notwithstanding, and he will compose a tragedy on a Greek model with the blinded Samson for its hero, and he will compose it partly in rhyme.  Plainly he belongs to the intenser kind of men whose yesterdays are in no way responsible for their to-morrows. And this makes him perennially interesting even to those who hate his politics, despise his Socinianism, and find his greatest poem a bore. A new edition of his poems is always welcome, for, as he is really great, he presents a fresh side to each new student, and Mr. Masson, in his three handsome volumes, has given us, with much that is superfluous and even erroneous, much more that is a solid and permanent acquisition to our knowledge.

It results from the almost scornful withdrawal of Milton into the fortress of his absolute personality that no great poet is so uniformly self-conscious as he. We should say of Shakespeare that he had the power of transforming himself into everything; of Milton, that he had that of transforming everything into himself. Dante is individual rather than self-conscious, and he, the cast-iron man, grows pliable as a field of grain at the breath of Beatrice, and flows away in waves of sunshine. But Milton never let himself go for a moment. As other poets are possessed by their theme, so is he self-possessed, his great theme being John Milton, and his great duty that of interpreter between him and the world.  I say it with all respect, for he was well worthy translation, and it is out of Hebrew that the version is made. Pope says he makes God the Father reason “like a school divine.” The criticism is witty, but inaccurate. He makes Deity a mouthpiece for his present theology, and had the poem been written a few years later, the Almighty would have become more heterodox.  Since Dante, no one had stood on these visiting terms with heaven.

Now it is precisely this audacity of self-reliance, I suspect, which goes far toward making the sublime, and which, falling by a hair’s-breadth short thereof, makes the ridiculous. Puritanism showed both the strength and weakness of its prophetic nurture; enough of the latter to be scoffed out of England by the very men it had conquered in the field, enough of the former to intrench itself in three or four immortal memories. It has left an abiding mark in politics and religion, but its great monuments are the prose of Bunyan and the verse of Milton. It is a high inspiration to be the neighbor of great events; to have been a partaker in them and to have seen noble purposes by their own self-confidence become the very means of ignoble ends, if it do not wholly depress, may kindle a passion of regret deepening the song which dares not tell the reason of its sorrow. The grand loneliness of Milton in his latter years, while it makes him the most impressive figure in our literary history, is reflected also in his maturer poems by a sublime independence of human sympathy like that with which mountains fascinate and rebuff us. But it is idle to talk of the loneliness of one the habitual companions of whose mind were the Past and Future. I always seem to see him leaning in his blindness a hand on the shoulder of each, sure that the one will guard the song which the other had inspired.



[358] The Life of John Milton: narrated in Connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his Time. By David Masterson, M.D., LL.D. Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Edinburgh. Vols. I., II.  1638-1643. London and New York: Macmillan & Co. 1871. 8vo. pp. xii, 608.

The Poetical Works of John Milton, edited, with Introduction, Notes and an Essay on Milton’s English by David Masson, M.A., LL.D.  Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature in the University of Edinburgh. 3 vols. 8vo. Macmillan & Co. 1874.

[359] Book I. 562-567.

[360] Ibid., 615-618.

[361] Apology for Smectymnuus.

[362]  “For him I was not sent, nor yet to free
That people, victor once, now vile and base,
Deservedly made vassal.”
—P.R. IV. 131-133.

[363] If things are to be scanned so micrologically, what weighty inferences might not be drawn from Mr. Masson’s invariably printing [Greek: apax legomena!]

[364] “That you may tell heroës, when you come
To banquet with your wife.”

Chapman’s Odyssey, VIII. 336, 337.

In the facsimile of the sonnet to Fairfax I find “Thy firm unshak’n vertue ever brings,” which shows how much faith we need give to the apostrophe. 

[365] Mr. Masson might have cited a good example of this from Drummond, whom (as a Scotsman) he is fond of quoting for an authority in English,--

“Sleep, Silence’ child, sweet father of soft rest.”

The survival of Horse for horses is another example. So by a reverse process pult and shay have been vulgarly deduced from the supposed plurals pulse and chaise.

[366] Chapman’s spelling is presumably his own. At least he looked after his printed texts. I have two copies of his “Byron’s Conspiracy,” both dated 1608, but one evidently printed later than the other, for it shows corrections. The more solemn ending in ed was probably kept alive by the reading of the Bible in churches.  Though now dropped by the clergy, it is essential to the right hearing of the more metrical passages in the Old Testament, which are finer and more scientiflc than anything in the language, unless it be some parts of “Samson Agonistes.” I remember an old gentleman who always used the contracted form of the participle in conversation, but always gave it back its embezzled syllable in reading. Sir Thomas Browne seems to have preferred the more solemn form. At any rate he has the spelling empuzzeled in prose.

[367] He thinks the same of the variation strook and struck, though they were probably pronounced alike. In Marlowe’s “Faustus” two consecutive sentences (in prose) begin with the words “Cursed be he that struck.” In a note on the passage Mr. Dyce tells us that the old editions (there were three) have stroke and strooke in the first instance, and all agree on strucke in the second. No inference can be drawn from such casualties.

[368] The lines are not “from one of the Satires,” and Milton made them worse by misquoting and bringing love jinglingly near to grove. Hall’s verse (in his Satires) is always vigorous and often harmonious. He long before Milton spoke of rhyme almost in the very terms of the preface to Paradise Lost.

[369] Mr. Masson goes so far as to conceive it possible that Milton may have committed the vulgarism of leaving a t out of slep’st, “for ease of sound.” Yet the poet could bear boast’st and—one stares and gasps at it—doat’dst. There is, by the way, a familiar passage in which the ch sound predominates, not without a touch of sh, in a single couplet:--

“Can any mortal mixture of earth’s mould
Breathe such divine enchanting ravishment?”


“Blotches and blains must all his flesh emboss,”

and perhaps

“I see his tents Pitched about Sechem” might be added.

[370] I think Coleridge’s nice ear would have blamed the nearness of enemy and calamity in this passage. Mr. Masson leaves out the comma after If not, the pause of which is needful, I think, to the sense, and certainly to keep not a little farther apart from what, (“teach each”!)

[371] “First in his East,” is not soothing to the ear.

[372] There seems to be something wrong in this word shores. Did Milton write shoals?

[373] But his etymological notes are worse. For example, “recreant, renouncing the faith, from the old French recroire, which again is from the mediaeval Latin recredere, to ‘believe back,’ or apostatize.” This is pure fancy. The word had no such meaning in either language. He derives serenate from sera, and says that parle means treaty, negotiation, though it is the same word as parley, had the same meanings, and was commonly pronounced like it, as in Marlowe’s

“What, shall we parlé with this Christïan?”

It certainly never meant treaty, though it may have meant negotiation. When it did it implied the meeting face to face of the principals. On the verses

“And some flowers and some bays
For thy hearse to strew the ways,”

he has a note to tell us that hearse is not to be taken “in our sense of a carriage for the dead, but in the older sense of a tomb or framework over a tomb,” though the obvious meaning is “to strew the ways for thy hearse.” How could one do that for a tomb or the framework over it?

[374] A passage from Dante (Inferno, XI. 96-105), with its reference to Aristotle, would have given him the meaning of “Nature taught art,” which seems to puzzle him. A study of Dante and of his earlier commentators would also have been of great service in the astronomical notes.

[375] Almost every combination of two vowels might in those days be a diphthong or not, at will. Milton’s practice of elision was confirmed and sometimes (perhaps) modified by his study of the Italians, with whose usage in this respect he closely conforms.

[376] Letter to Rev. W. Bagot, 4th January, 1791.

[377] So Dante:--

“Ma sapienza e amore e virtute.”

So Donne:--

“Simony and sodomy in churchmen’s lives.”

[378] Mr. Masson is evidently not very familiar at first hand with the versification to which Milton’s youthful ear had been trained, but seems to have learned something from Abbott’s “Shakespearian Grammar” in the interval between writing his notes and his Introduction. Walker’s “Shakespeare’s Versification” would have been a great help to him in default of original knowledge.

[379] Milton has a verse in Comus where the e is elided from the word sister by its preceding a vowel:--

“Heaven keep my sister! again, again, and near!”

This would have been impossible before a consonant.

[380] So spirito and spirto in Italian, esperis and espirs in Old French.

[381] Milton, however, would not have balked at th’ bottomless any more than Drayton at th’ rejected or Donne at th’ sea. Mr. Masson does not seem to understand this elision, for he corrects i’ th’ midst to i’ the midst, and takes pains to mention it in a note. He might better have restored the n in i’, where it is no contraction, but merely indicates the pronunciation, as o’ for of and on.

[382] Exactly analogous to that in treasurer when it is shortened to two syllables.

[383] Milton himself has ínvísible, for we cannot suppose him guilty of a verse like

“Shoots invisible virtue even to the deep,”

while, if read rightly, it has just one of those sweeping elisions that he loved.




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