Critical Opinions about Milton as a Writer of Prose -Prose Works of John Milton

Milton’s Faulty Controversial Methods

“The subject of Milton’s prose work is not a very easy one, and it has been often neglected—comparatively, at least—in general surveys of his work. Poets have usually been good prose-writers is a commonplace; and that some of Milton’s prose passages are among the finest in English is hardly denied by anybody. Yet, even here, there have been gainsayers who were not political partisans, and whose competence was not to be questioned; while, if we stop short of absolute gainsaying, there has been hardly anybody, whose competence and impartiality are not questionable, to praise without abundant and uncomfortable allowance and exception. The difficulty arises mainly from the fact that, except in the Education tractate, and in the curious Histories, Milton was always fighting a prize in his prose compositions; and that hardly ever, except in the Areopagitica, had he a prize before him which was worth the fight in a literary sense. One would suppose that no one, unless entirely carried away by sympathy with Milton’s causes, could approve Milton’s controversial methods. His capital fault is that he never succeeds in bringing the matter under any consideration which his opponents can be imagined as sharing, or reasonably invited to share. To convict your adversary on your own statement of the case is quite idle: and that is what Milton is constantly doing.

His Long Sentences

“And it so happened that some of his special characteristics of style, which were harmless and even beneficial in verse, were dangerous, more especially at the time, in prose. He was very fond of long sentences—the very first of Paradise Lost contains sixteen lines and, perhaps, six score words, while there are others longer. In verse, this did no harm, and much good—indeed, without it, he could hardly have achieved his famous ‘verse- paragraph’s His unerring sense of verse-form prevented these sentences from being in any way formless. But in prose it was different. Destitute of the girth and band of the line, enabled to expand and expatiate, to indulge in parenthesis and additional relative clause, by the treacherous confusion of English and Latin grammar which prevailed, his sentences too frequently became a mere welter; and, in citing some of the finest, it is customary to commit the minor fraud of stopping short where he ought to have stopped, but did not.

Striking Phrases; Rhythmical Adjustment; the Long Cumulative Sentence

“If there had been—as it was practically impossible that there should be then—an accomplished critic who, at the same time, was not a political or ecclesiastical partisan, he must have been genuinely distressed by Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England, when it appeared in 1641. It is impossible to read a page or two (of this tract) without seeing that here was a writer who united the gifts of striking phrase and rhythmical adjustment as, even in that age of marvelous achievement in these respects, few had done; but who exaggerated the defects of composition, usual after Hooker’s time, in an almost unbelievable way. The second sentence, not without premonition of the great flights later, is almost a pattern of Milton’s style when not at its best. There is no necessary harm in the long cumulative sentence: it may be found (for instance in Ruskin) of something like double the above length, but building up a picture whose every stroke is a clear and congruous addition. Milton’s, at first sight and not at first sight only, is a daub of plastered touches. One or two of the sections (if they can be called sections) could, indeed, be kept clear by punctuation. But, for the most part, they are not hinged and jointed together; they are thrust bodily into each other’s substance so far as composition goes, while the actual words could be thinned out, with, in many cases, almost infinite advantage,

The Strong and the Weak Aspects of Milton’s Prose Style

“This passionate, voluminous, eloquent, unequal medium served Milton when he did not use Latin, throughout his life, and on almost all occasions. An in tenser passion, with a nobler subject, elevated it into the noble, but even then not always faultless, style of the great Areopagitica passages; of the fine prayers at the close of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England; of some parts even of the unfortunate divorce tracts. Less fortunate occasions and a lower mood degrade it into the rude railing and insolent swagger of Eikonoklastes which Mark Pattison, for all his liberalism and his Milton-worship, describes as ‘grossly indecent’; or into the inconceivably dreary horseplay—or worse—-of the Animadversions. With passion and interest almost entirely absent, it composes itself into the sober, business-like, yet very far from inelegant, vehicle of the Education tractate. It is really curious to see how, for the most part, the sentences shorten themselves, how the composition is clarified, the epithets are thinned and carefully sifted, in this tract.’ —George Saintsbury  

The Style, the Structure, and the Theme of the “Areopagitica”

“Originally of argument need not be sought in Areopagitica for it will not be found. Commonplaces, indeed, abound; but there are commonplaces raised to the level of great literature. Bishop Joseph Hall, Milton’s antagonist in the anti-episcopal tracts, rephrased a familiar notion thus: “There can be but one truth; and that one truth oft-times must be fetched piece-meal out of divers branches of contrary opinions. But Milton’s restatement is a touchstone of English prose:

Truth indeed came into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after him were laid asleep, then arose a wicked race of deceivers, who as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces…..

The style is the work. It looks beyond Milton’s other work—and other styles—to the only other classical oration in English literature, Sidney’s Defense of Poesie. The Areopagitica like the Defense weds style and argument in such a manner that, while style and structure reflect the practice of classical rhetoricians, the thesis appeals to the most liberal instincts in man. Milton has appreciated by now what he would later transmute into poetry, that rhetoric by itself could be put to perverse uses, witness its deployment by Satan in Paradise Lost.’ But rhetoric exerted on behalf of truth—the truth of moral precepts immemorially upheld—could so imprint a cause upon the consciousness of man as he should not willingly let it dies.’ —C.A. Patrides

The “Areopagitica” as an Oration

“In form the Areopagitica is a majestic example of the classical oration. The title is that of a written speech of Isocrates addressed, in a private capacity, to the Athenian Court of the Areopagus. It conforms to all the principles of oratory laid down by Quintilian and embodied in Demosthenes and Cicero. The speeches of the fallen angels in the second book of Paradise Lost, the description of Satan’s address to Eve, and the characterization of the Athenian orators who “wielded at will that fierce democracy” in the days of a noble eloquence “since mute” show how deeply Milton had studied and admired this branch of ancient literature. The general principle of toleration, applied essentially to publication in Areopagitica, had been maintained before Milton’s time against the prevailing doctrine by other Independents, including Roger Williams in his Bloody Tenet of Persecution”. —James Holly Hanford.

Milton’s on the Episcopacy, Divorce, Censorship, Etc.

‘‘The twenty years of Milton’s life as a public disputant were preceded by a period of travel abroad (1638-1639), chiefly in Italy, during which he may have met Galileo, was entertained by the Italian literary academies and pondered much upon a projected epic or drama on the subject of King Arthur’s wars, a subject suggested to him by the epics of Tasso and Ariosto. His return was hastened by news of King Charles’s expedition against the Scots, a step whose seriousness Milton well knew. Once back in London, he was drawn into a pamphlet-war on the vexed question of episcopacy. Then followed his ill-starred marriage into a Royalist family, and the writing of his pamphlets on divorce. These were received with astonishment and execration by his countrymen, who did not see that Milton was only bringing to bear upon one issue of domestic life, that spirit of free inquiry everywhere being applied to public institutions, and everywhere spreading change through the social fabric of England. Another signal illustration of Milton’s revolutionary questioning followed, in the shape of an attack upon the censorship of the press. The time-honored institution of the censorship he saw to be an intolerable hindrance to freedom of thought; in a pamphlet entitled Areopagitica (1644) he launched against it all the thunders and lightings of his magnificent rhetoric. On the execution of King Charles I (1649) Milton was the first to lift up his voice, amid the hush and awe of consternation, in defense of the deed. His pamphlet On the Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) was of such timely service to the Commonwealth party that he was appointed to the position of Latin Secretary to Cromwell’s government, his duties being to invite correspondence with foreign powers, and to reply to attacks by foreign pamphleteers of importance. In the midst of a controversy of this sort his eyes failed, and in a short time he was totally blind. He continued his duties, with the poet Andrew Marvell as his assistant. After the Restoration in 1660 Milton was imprisoned for a short time and then forced to live in retirement in order to escape paying with his life for his fearless support of the ideals and actions of the Commonwealth party.” —Fred B. Millett

The Most Famous of Milton’s Prose Writings

“The Areopagitica is probably the most famous of Milton’s prose writings, as it is the only one familiar to any but the student. By an ordinance which came into operation in 1643, it was rendered obligatory on the author of a new publication to get the license of the Commissioners appointed to supervise the press before such work could be issued. Milton set the ordinance at defiance by publishing his first divorce pamphlet without license and without the printer’s name, and added insult to injury by dedicating it to the Parliament. He followed this up by an open (and quite unsuccessful) attack on the censorship of the press in the tract which he entitled Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. ‘The name of the tract was taken from the Areopagitic oration of Isocrates, a written speech like Milton’s, also addressed to the national council. Areopagus (Ares or Mars’ Hill) was the meeting-place of the Athenian Senate. Here he denounces the restrictions on the liberty of expressing opinion with the stately eloquence and passionate rhetoric of which he was a master. He strays more rarely than is usual with him in prose into labyrinthine constructions and syntactical jungles, while there is none of the rancor and scurrility which mar so much of his polemical prose. An intense love of liberty and truth glows through it; the majestic soul of Milton breathes such high thoughts as had not been uttered before. It is impossible to select a passage from-Milton’s prose which does not give too high or too low an idea of his general style. We will, then, choose one here from the Areopagitica which exhibits him at his best:

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out and sort asunder were not more intermixed. It was from……. through the cave of Mammon and the bower of earthly bliss that he might see and know and yet abstain.

Milton’s is not a prose that will do for everyday purposes; it is too rarely pedestrian. When it is not soaring high aloft amid the clouds, it is only too frequently dragging flabbily and formlessly. Through the mire.” —Wyatt and Collins

A Two-Fold Appeal

“His aversion from any censure of the press caused him to publish the most eloquent of his prose works, Areopagitica, a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing (1644). Here he appeals both to patriotic pride and to the passion for liberty. He desires that England shall champion the noble cause he advocates, and he has a vision of his country regenerate by the abolition of intellectual tyranny:

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks: methinks I see her as an eagle muing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam; purging and upscaling her long abused sight at the fountain itself of heavenly radiance; while the whole noise of timorous and flocking birds, with those also that love the twilight, flutter about, amazed at what she means

He admits that books acknowledged to be maleficent should be proscribed, but is opposed to censorship as a preventive measure, giving his reasons in a passage as lofty and beautiful as his most famous verses and as lastingly young” —Emile Legouis

“He published about the same time his Areopagitica, a speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. Danger of such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of government which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved bower must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every sceptic in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The remedy against these evils is to punish the authors; for it is yet allowed that every society may punish, though not prevent, the publication of opinions which that society shall think pernicious, but this punishment though it may crush the author, promotes the book; and it seems not more reasonable to leave the right of printing unrestrained because writers may be afterwards censured, than it would be to sleep with doors unbolted because by our laws we can hang a thief. —Samuel Johnson

Note. From the chronological point of view this comment should have come at the top of all the others in this chapter. But it has been placed last because the opinion expressed by the learned doctor seems to strike a balance between the two extremes—censorship of books and complete freedom to authors and publishers to publish books. At the same time it is noteworthy that Dr. Johnson’s style of writing is syntactically no less involved than Milton’s.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.