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'MILTON: HIS LIFE AND CHARACTER.'

Mr J. Marwick, M.A., delivered a lecture in the Moray place Congregational Hall on Monday evening on ' Milton : His Life and Character.' Mr W. Coull was in the chair. There was a very good attendance, and the lecturer was listened to with great interest. On the motion of Mr J. W. Jago, seconded by Mr M'Gill, a very cordial vote of thanks was accorded to the lecturer.

After examining the leading incidents in Milton's life, Mr Marwick went on to speak of some of the striking features of Milton's character. He said : " The fundamental principle which prompted his utterances and actions, however varied and apparently inconsistent, was his passionate enthusiasm for liberty. He valued liberty above all things. He regarded the central motive force of the Reformation as a principle of universal application. He strove to awako men from their lethargy and to open their eyes to the tyranny of the King, of the Executive, of the prelateß, of legal and ecclesiastical conservatism, of the antiquated political machinery which cramped and dwarfed the free unfolding of the human soul. Milton was, in the literal sense of the word, a Protestant; for he protested with restless eager eloquence against the enslavement of the intellect and of the spirit. The ultimate emancipation of human thought from the bonds of tradition took rank as a possibility when the Reformers disputed the authority of the church ; and Milton, in the prophetic strain that marks all great minds, truly indicated the channel in which modern thought should run. The self-reliant manhood of independent thought cannot be reached in a day.' Although intellects of unusual penetration, like that of Milton, may see afar what the issue is to be, and proclaim the glad tidings of ultimate liberation from the swaddling-clothes of superstition and merely symbolic truth, yet the mighty organism of humanity needs time to accumulate material out of which to build its future growth, and gradually to reject what is no longer essential to the maintenance of its moral and religious growth. The voice of Milton was as " the voice of one crying in the wilderness," and, although it fell upon the ears of an unheeding generation, his words have resounded down the succession of years since his death, and are to-day working out their noble harvest of individual and social enfranchisement. Honor, then, is due to Milton, who fearlessly demanded the recognition of a principle which is every day of our lives winning for itself a more and more abundant realisation. Consistency a staunch adherence through years of political and religious upheaval to certain clearly-defined and unchanging rules of action was another salient feature of Milton's character. It might seem that one who was in turn Church Puritan, Presbyterian, Royalist, Independent, Commonweal thman, and Oliverian was more a vacillating turncoat than the faithful supporter of a fixed political principle. But, in truth, it was the parties that changed the import of their titles, not Milton that was false to their original doctrines. The Puritan of Milton's early years was of the essence of freedom—tolerant, humane, magnanimous ; but Puritanism did not long maintain the high standard of its first profession ; and when Puritanism had fallen away from its ideal, it seemed to Milton that Presbyterianism would harmonise with his principles, and seek to cherish liberty and beauty. But that, too, crystallised into a hard formalism and an intolerant zeal. And while Royalism allowed every latitude to the graces of culture and liberal study, its freedom lapsed into license, its higher knowledge paved the way for the despotic rule of superior power. It was thus to the Independent scheme of thought that Milton at last attached himself—not ranging himself under its banner as one convinced that whatever Congregationalism sanctioned was necessarily right, but as one satisfied in his own mind that the independence of private thought and action which that body upheld was a principle of universal application in politics, in religion, in social life. Milton, therefore, was consistent because of his loyalty not to creed or to sect, but to principle. If those of his own denomination declined from their confession of faith, or if the central doctrines of the denomination could no longer be recognised in its later faith, Milton ceased to acknowledge allegiance to it or them. He was loyal not to kings or rulers in their fallibility, but to heartfelt conviction in its integrity. Fidelity to principle was inseparable from his nature ; it was an organic part of his mental and moral constitution. All he said and all he did was a passionate advocacy of what he believed to be truth.

Milton insisted upon a high standard of moral achievement. Moral lapses, and a more or less serious obliquity of moral vision, are commonly supposed to be not inconsistent with genius; indeed, the moral ground is usually surrendered to men of great intellectual brilliancy, in recognition of their merits in other non-moral regions. Great mental power is apologetically pictured to us as developing to such dimensions as overshadow and dwarf the moral nature. It may be admitted that some forms of genius verge on the confines of insanity ; that the whole force of the being may concentrate itself in one voluminous torrent of imaginative energy, to the detriment alike of the physical and moral natures. A charitable explanation of this sort must be extended to the anti-social vagaries of a Shelley, and the unprincipled libertinism of a Byron, and perhaps even to the curious idiosyncrasies of some men of our own day ; while, in other caseß, intense absorption in intellectual work has been accepted as sufficient warrant for frequent transgression of the moral code. The rapturous admiration of the followers of such heroes draws off the scrutinising gaze of those who are less familiar with the great man's character and the unsavory details of his biography, and the plenary indulgence which is too often panted to the shortcomings of worshipped heroes is a curious contrast to the social ostracism which is decreed against any more prosaic member of the race who is unblessed by protracted visitations of the Muses. But to all who too readily condone the backslidings of exalted genius, let Milton stand forth in all the strength of his manly principle and austere virtue as a perpetual condemnation of complacent immorality. His youth passed in easy circumstances ; his every wish was fulfilled by a devoted father ; the years passed away in ceaseless study and meditation —yet he emerged from the fiery furnace of youth unscathed. His manhood, beset with the solicitations of faction, and devoted to the vindication of highborn thoughts, was unsullied by any sin, save the hurling of vile words at vile opponents. The gathering darkness of age found him broken in spirit, tortured in body, his ideals shattered, his hopes blasted, with the fair England that was to shelter a perfect Puritanism overrun and desolated by the devouring Bpirit of licentiousness; and yet his heart remained steadfast to the immaculate virtue he had loved in his youth. The blotting out of the happy prospect of a liberal England which had been opening out before him never induced him to swerve for a moment from the straight and narrow way of virtue which he had chosen: it only intensified the fire of his poetic soul, which poured itself forth in the intense vehemence of his immortal verse.

Milton sought to preserve in all his work a high level of excellence. In these days of restless, mechanic energy, no less than amid the general mental apathy and limited sympathies of Milton's time, the best antidote for the numbing effects of a defective ideal is to be found in the habitual contemplation

of real excellence. Commonness is the prevailing vice of our time: a low standard of individual achievement too readily satisfies our social requisitions. There is an absence of the aspiration after high perfection, which alone can prompt to worthy effort. Expediency has become the constant test of conduct, and the criterion by which we estimate our doings in the world. In politics, the principle is paramount: in education it is equally potent: in social life wo seek not the blameless honor comprehended in true gentility, we hold it enough if there be a tolerable outward conformity with the current rules of society and the accepted codes of social virtue. Even in religion, the inherent defects of our creeds and our religious organisations are glossed over in a timid, temporising spirit; and the cordial acceptance of necessary innovations is a virtue little cultivated by those who have ends to Berve. Men are so intent upon sordid aims that they never dream of the true nobility that cornea of self-forget-f ulness; and in the midst of a gold-getting community, or an industrial age, high moral purpose is not reckoned the most valuable personal qualification. The study of Milton's life and work would do much to correct this sad defect of our times. Everything that he did bears the stamp of a finelywrought excellence. His studies, though limited in area, were directed only upon great subjects and upon minds of transcendent power. The Greek poets and dramatists, and the stately bards and divinely eloquent prophets of the Hebrews, were the constant companions of his life. In the company of these mighty spirits, Milton shines with the bright effulgence of moral and intellectual excellence, and it would be well for our age to take the lesson of that excellence deeply to heart. A hundred years ago Wordsworth, startled by the falling ruins cf longestablished monarchy, spoke with touching regret of the power for good which another Milton would have proved amid the social and religious cataclysms of his time:—

Milton, thou should'st be living at this hour; England hath reed of thee ; she is a fen 0! stagnant waters; altar, sword, and pen, Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower, Have forfeited their ancient English dower Of inward happinesß. We are selfish men : Ob! raise us up, return to us again, And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power. And although we may not believe that the temper of Milton, or his impatience of a mean Materialism, would have cared to gird themselves to the task of elevating a people which has slowly won all the liberty he fought for, yet for one virtue at least we might pray to have the spirit of Milton restored to us—for a heroism which is all too rare in these days. A Rationalism which ousts all idealistic thought, the deification of the palpable and the expedient, and the gross spiritual callousness which are the besetting sins of the undisciplined heart, would all be dispelled could we only view, as did Milton, our every thought and duty in the light of the great divine purpose. And as we gaze upon the mighty singer of ' Paradise Lost,' sightless and abandoned, rising in solemn greatness above the arid desert of a debased Puritanism and a debasing Royalism, and still cherishing somewhere in his great heart a sublime faith in righteousness, let us remember that the truth and excellence which he proclaimed in the ringing voice of an archangel are principles which, when transfused into the common dealings of everyday life, yield the divine peace and satisfaction of a rightlydirected life. That peace and that satisfaction were Milton's, even amid the terrible collapse of Puritan supremacy; and high unselfish endeavor will reap to-dsy the same reward, despite the lowering gloom of a Materialism which threatens to quench all spiritual fervor.

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https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/ESD18890615.2.41.6

Bibliographic details

'MILTON: HIS LIFE AND CHARACTER.', Issue 7934, 15 June 1889, Supplement

Word Count
1,926

'MILTON: HIS LIFE AND CHARACTER.' Issue 7934, 15 June 1889, Supplement

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