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The Progress of the Nation page 5


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So prayed, more gaining than he asked, the bard, Holiest of men.

So he waited, fighting the battles of his country side by side with Cromwell and Hampden, Pym and Marvel; and when at length he found leisure to achieve his last great triumph, he was left alone in the field. He had outlived the great battle of king and people, in which extraordinary men and as extraordinary events had arisen, and shaken the whole civilised world. Charles I., Laud, and Strafford had fallen in their blood; the monarchy and the church had fallen; Pym, Hampden, Marvel, Vane, and the dictator Cromwell, had not only pulled down the greatest throne in Europe, but had made all others seem to reel by the terrific precedent. All these stern agents, with the generals Ireton, Harrison, Lambert, Fleetwood, and their compeers, who had risen from the people to fight for the people, were gone like the actors in an awful tragedy who had played their role. Some had perished in their blood, others had been torn from their graves; the monarchy and the church, the peerage, and all the old practices and maxims were again in the ascendant, and had taken bloody vengeance; yet this one man - he who had incited and applauded, who had defended and made glorious through his mighty talents, his unrivalled eloquence, and unapproachable learning, the whole republican cause - was left untouched. Blind, poor, and old, as if some special guardianship of Providence had shielded him, or as if the very foes who had dragged the dreaded Cromwell from his grave feared the imprecations of posterity, and shrunk from the touch of that sacred head, - there sate the sublime old man at his door, feeling, with grateful enjoyment, the genial sunshine falling upon him, making of his very darkness immortal harvest.

Thee-I revisit safe,
And feel thy sov'reign, vital lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that roll in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quench'd their orbs,
Or dim suffusion veil'd. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Clear spring, or shady grove, or sunny hill,
Smit with the love of sacred song; but chief,
Thee, Sion, and the flow'ry brooks beneath,
That wash thy hallow'd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor sometimes forget
Those other two equall'd with me in fate,
So were I equall'd with them in renown –
Blind Thamyris, and blind Maeonides,
And Tyresias, and Phineas - prophets old:
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntary move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid,
Tunes her nocturnal note.

There he sate, undaunted as ever, like some superb column left amid the ruins of vast cities, erect, serene, calm, and trusting to God, the Father of mankind. Though all else that he and his august compeers had yearned after and striven for had perished for the time, he had lived to fulfil that long-deferred task of poetic glory; the vision of "Paradise Lost" had been sung in faith in the most majestic strains that had ever made classical the English tongue. His trust in Providence had been justified; he had served his country, and yet had not missed his immortality. The great and wise came from every quarter and from foreign lands to visit him; and the wonderful passages through which he and his nation had lived became the theme of the world's perpetual wonder.

Much has been said of the small sum received for his "Paradise Lost," and the slow recognition which it received. But the only wonder is that it sold at all, for Milton was at the moment the most hated and dreaded man alive. It could not be soon forgotten that he had stimulated Cromwell and the republicans to the destruction of the monarchy; that he defended the death of the king in his famous "Eiconoclastes," a reply to the ''Icon Basilike" - supposed to be Charles I.'s own work - and in his " Defensio Populi," in answer to "Salmatius." But it is not a fact that "Paradise Lost" was coolly received. Long before Addison gave his laudatory critique in the "Spectator," the glory of Milton's great poem had been attested by Barrow, Andrew Marvel, Lord Anglesea, who used often to visit him in Bunhill Fields, by the duke of Buckingham, and by many other celebrated men. Sir John Denham appeared in the house of commons with a proof-sheet of "Paradise Lost" in his hand, wet from the press, and, being asked what it was, replied, "part of the noblest poem that ever was written in any language or age." The poem went into two editions during the author's life, and he corrected it for a third, which was published soon after his death. In fact, Milton's fame had to rise from under piled heaps of hatred and ignominy on account of his politics and religion, for he had attacked the church as formidably as the state in his treatise on "The Best Mode of Removing Hirelings" out of it, as well as in his book against prelacy; but it flung off all that load of prejudice, and rose to universal acknowledgment.

We need not detain ourselves with much detail of his other poetical works, which are now familiar to all readers. They consist of his early poems, including the exquisite "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," his "Comus" and "Lycidas," a mask, and an elegy; his magnificent sonnets, his "Samson Agonistes," a sacred drama, but constructed strictly on the Grecian model. It has been often said that Milton had no genius for the drama; the "Samson" is a sufficient refutation of that opinion. It is full of dramatic power and interest; it is like some ancient piece of sculpture, unique, grand, massive, and solemn; and, indeed, had Milton devoted himself to the drama, it would have been rather in the style of Euripides than Shakspeare, for he was too lofty and earnest in his whole nature for real humour, or for much variation in mood and manner. He could never have been a comic poet, but, had he willed it, would undoubtedly have been a great tragic one. The epic character, however, prevailed in him, and decided his career.

Besides these poetical works, were his odes, including the splendid ones of the "Nativity" and the "Passion," and a great number of translations from the great poets of Greece, Rome, and Italy, original poems written in Latin and Italian, portion of the Psalms "done into metre," and "Paradise Regained." This last poem, though bearing no degree of equality to the "Paradise Lost," is yet a noble poem, and would have made a great reputation for any other man. It is clearly not so well thought out and elaborated as the "Paradise Lost," which was the dream of his youth, the love and the labour of his prime; whilst "Paradise Regained" was the chance suggestion of Thomas Elwood, his Latin reader, and closed with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, instead of including the crucifixion and ascension, which might have given the poet a scope equal in magnificence to that of his former great epic. Of his prose works we shall speak anon.

The most popular of all poets of this period was Abraham Cowley. He is a striking example of those authors whom the critics of the time cry to the skies, and whom more discerning or less interested posterity are very willing to forget. Cowley, in his lifetime, had ten times the fame of Milton; and who now could wade through his poems, deformed by all the vapid conceits of the preceding age, and by the filth of the current period? Johnson, so unjust to many of our poets, can hardly be said to be so to Cowley. He says - "Though in his own time considered of unrivalled excellence, and as having taken a flight beyond all that went before him, Cowley's reputation could not last. His character of writing was not his own; he unhappily adopted that which was predominant. He saw a certain way to present praise; and, not sufficiently inquiring by what means the ancients have continued to delight through all the changes of human manners, he contented himself with a deciduous laurel."

He, in fact, for popularity's sake, preferred art, or rather artifice, to nature. Yet there are many beautiful thoughts, much real fancy and wit scattered through his poems; but then they are so buried in outrageous conceits, distorted and even lumbering metre, and sheer indecency, that the gems are scarcely worth picking out of the reeking dunghill. lie never seems really in earnest, but always playing with his subject, and constructing gewgaws instead of raising immortal structures. In his satirical lyric called "The Chronicle," in which he runs through a list of imaginary sweethearts, and in "The Inconstant," in the poem of "The Mistress," where he finds a charm in every kind of female beauty, though probably copied from the Spanish of Garcilasso de la Vega, there is much elegant badinage, but who could now wade through pages of such doggerel as this? -

Since 'tis my doom, love's under-shrieve,
Why this reprieve?
Why doth my she-advowson fly
Incumbency?
To sell thyself dost thou intend,
Or, after a grand invocation, endure to drop into verses like these? -
But stop, my muse;
Hold thy Pindaric Pegasus closely in,
Which does to rage begin -
'Tis an unruly and a hard-mouthed horse –
'Twill no unskilful touch endure,
But flings rider and reader too that sits not sure.

Cowley, in his "Dandies," aspired to the honours of the epopee, but what a contrast to Milton! Take a description of the costume of the angel Gabriel:-
He took for skin a cloud most soft and bright,
That e'er the mid-day sun pierced through with light;
Upon his cheeks a lively blush he spread,
Washed from th' morning beauties' deepest red;
A harmless, fluttering meteor shone for hair,
And fell adown his shoulders with loose care;
He cuts out a silk mantle from the skies,
Where the most sprightly azure pleased the eyes;
This he with starry vapours sprinkles all,
Took in their prime, ere they grow ripe and fall.
Of a new rainbow, ere it fret or fade,
The choicest piece cut out, a scarf is made. &c.

Cowley was a zealous royalist; he went over to France when the queen of Charles I. retired thither, and became her secretary for her private Correspondence with Charles. Afterwards he was sent over in the character of a spy on the republican party and its proceedings. "Under pretence of privacy and retirement, he was to take occasion of giving notice of the posture of things in this nation;" but became suspected, and was arrested. He then fawned on Cromwell, wrote verses in his honour, which, however, were only shown in private; and, when the commonwealth began to show signs of dissolution, he again hastened to the exiled court in France, and came back in the crowd of royalists eager for promotion. But his flattering of Cromwell had been reported, and he was treated with coldness. Yet, after some time, through Buckingham and the earl of St. Albans, he obtained a lease of some lands, and, after the ill reception of his play of " The 'Cutler of Colman Street," he retired into the country, first to Barn Elms, and next to Chertsey, in Surrey, where he died in his forty-ninth year. No one who reads such dialogues as those from which these few lines are taken, will wonder at the utter failure of his "Cutler of Colman Street": -

Cutler. What health do we lack?
Worm. Confusion to the quack!
Both. Confound him, confound him! Diseases all around him!
Cutler. And fill again the sack;
Worm. That no man may lack.
Cutler. Confusion to the quack!
Both. Confusion to the quack! Confound him, confound him! Diseases all around him!
Worm. He's a kind of grave-maker.
Cutler. A urinal shaker.
Worm. A wretched groat-taker.
Cutler. A stinking close-stool raker.
Worm. He's a quack, that's worse than a quaker.
Both. He's a quack, &c.
Worm. Hey, boys, gingo! &c.
"We should be sorry to soil our pages with the least of the obscenities of Cowley. Such are the men who are in almost every age the darlings of critics, and the popular luminaries of their little day. Such was Cowley in times which possessed a Milton, which had just seen a Shakspeare and a Ben Jonson, and which had a Dryden, a Butler, a Denham, an Otway, a Wither, and a Marvel!

The great satirist of the age was Samuel Butler, who in his "Hudibras" introduced a totally new kind of poetry - a most comic doggerel, now styled, as sui-generis, Hudibrastic. Butler was the son of a yeoman, who had been educated for the church without those connections which lead to promotion. With an immense accumulation of learning, and talent enough to have made half-a-dozen bishops,, he became at one time a clerk to one Jeffreys, a justice of the peace, at Earl's Coomb, in Worcestershire, and afterwards to Sir Samuel Lake, at Woodend, in Bedfordshire. In these situations he gleaned up the characters and materials for his "Hudibras," a burlesque on the puritans. Sir Samuel Lake was the actual Hudibras, if we are to believe Butler himself, though some of his critics - of course, wiser than the author - will insist that it was a Sir Henry Rosewell, of Devonshire. The poem ridicules the puritans in every way, but especially for attempting to put down bear-baiting; and accordingly the first canto -

The adventure of the bear and fiddle
Is sung, but breaks off in the middle.

Hudibras and his man Ralpho attack the bear, but are defeated, and then Hudibras retires and makes love to a rich widow. He is a presbyteriän, and Ralpho an independent; and in the course of the story all the leading characters of the commonwealth, Cromwell, Fleetwood, Desborough, Lambert, are ridiculed by name, as are Pym, Calamy, Case, Byfield, Lentham, and the rest, as Ashley Cooper, under the name of "the politician," and John Lilbourne, under that of "brother haberdasher," &c. The first part was published in 1663, the second in 1664, and the third in 1678, fourteen years later. Still the poem remained unfinished. It did not require, however, even the second part to appear to make it famous. It was received with one universal burst of laughter and applause by the royalists. Charles II. and his courtiers were merrier over it than all, and Charles quoted it continually with unfading gusto. The earl of Dorset resolved to seize the opportunity, and introduce the author, through Buckingham, to Charles. Buckingham gave him an audience, but, just as they were entering on conversation, Buckingham saw some ladies of loose character going past, ran out after them, and the poet was not only forgotten, but could never get a second interview. Clarendon, however, promised to see him duly rewarded, but never kept his word, and Butler lived poor and died neglected, at the age of sixty-eight. This shameful neglect has been much commented on; but no one seems to have reflected that there may have been more in this than mere neglect. Butler, in his double-edged satire, made some very hard hits at the church, and, while ridiculing the puritans, gave some not very light back-strokes to the licentiousness of the royalists. He wrote, an avowed " Satire on the Licentiousness of the' Age;" and in his third part so far vented his resentment at his neglect as to satirise Charles himself for being led by the apron-strings of his numerous mistresses. He laughed at the sages of the newly-established Royal Society, by his "Elephant in the Moon;" and such a man is more frequently kicked than rewarded. The church did not forget his sallies against it, and refused him burial in Westminster Abbey. When he wrote the questions and answers betwixt the man disguised as a devil and Hudibras -

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Pictures for The Progress of the Nation page 5

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