III. THE REFORMER: 1640–42

In 1639 Milton took a bachelor’s apartment in St. Bride’s Churchyard, London, where he tutored his sister’s sons. A year later he moved with them to Aldersgate Street. There (1643) he received additional pupils between ten and sixteen years of age, boarded and taught them, and earned a modest income to fill out the allowance from his father. In a “Letter to Mr. Hartlib” (1644) he formulated his views on education. He gave the word a mighty definition: “I call a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” 34 The first task of the teacher is to form moral character in the student, “to repair the ruins of our first parents”—i.e., to overcome the natural wickedness of man (“original sin”)—or (as we should now say) to readjust to the needs of civilized life the native character formed by the needs of the hunting stage. This, Milton felt, can be done best by inculcating in the growing mind a strong faith in an all-seeing God, and inuring it to self-control by a stoic discipline. He set his pupils an example of “hard study and spare diet,” seldom permitting himself a day of “festivity and enjoyment.” 35 Next to religion and morals should come the Greek and Latin classics, which Milton used not merely as models of literature but as vehicles of instruction in natural science, geography, history, law, morality, physiology, medicine, agriculture, architecture, oratory, poetry, philosophy, and theology. If this unique compromise between science and the humanities assumed that very little had been added to science since the fall of Rome, we should note that this was substantially true except for Galileo; even Copernicus had had his Greek forebear in Aristarchus. Moreover, Milton proposed also to acquaint his students with some modern texts in science and history, and even some living exemplars in practical arts; he hoped to bring hunters, mariners, gardeners, anatomists, apothecaries, engineers, architects to his classroom to convey the latest knowledge in their fields. 36 He allotted considerable time to music and drama, and an hour and a half every day to athletic exercises and martial games. “In vernal seasons” his pupils would “ride out in companies with prudent and staid guides to all quarters of the land, learning and observing”; they would “join the navy for a while to learn sailing and sea-fight”; and finally, after their twenty-third year, they might travel abroad. It was an arduous curriculum; we have no evidence that it was fully followed in Milton’s school; but if his students caught some of his enthusiasm and industry, it might have been realized.

He dreamed at times of developing an academy that should rival those of Plato and Aristotle, but his spirit was allured by the epochal events of the age. The gathering of the Long Parliament (1640) was a turning point in his life, an almost violent veering from poetry and scholarship to politics and reform. On December 11 the “Root and Branch” party of the Puritans, to which some of his friends belonged, presented to Parliament a monster petition, signed with fifteen thousand names (probably including Milton’s 37) and asking for the elimination of bishops from the English Church. Joseph Hall, bishop of Exeter, countered the petition with An Humble Remonstrance to the High Court of Parliament (January, 1641), in which he defended episcopacy as derived “from the times of the blessed Apostles, without interruption . . . unto the present age.” 38 Five Presbyterian divines joined their pens in An Answer to . . . an Humble Remonstrance (March, 1641), which they signed “Smectymnuus,” a pseudonym made up of their initials.*Hall and other episcopal-ians replied; the Commons passed the proposal, the Lords rejected it; the controversy boiled in pulpit, press, and Parliament; and Milton leaped into it with a ninety-page booklet, Of Reformation Touching Church Discipline in England(June, 1641).

With powerful and breathless sentences running at times to half a page, he ascribed the deterioration of the Established Church to two causes: the retention of Catholic ceremonies, and the episcopal monopoly of the power to ordain. He scorned “those senseless ceremonies which we only retain as a dangerous earnest of sliding back to Rome, and serving merely as . . . an interlude [drama] to set out the pomp of prelatism.” 39 The bishops have been stealthily moving back to Catholicism in their ritual—a palpable hit at Archbishop Laud, who had been offered a cardinal’s hat. Milton repudiated the claim of James I and Charles I that bishops were necessary to church government and monarchical institutions. He called upon the Presbyterian Scots to continue their old war against episcopacy; and he appealed to the Trinity to serve in the good cause:

Thou Tripersonal godhead! look upon this thy poor and almost spent and expiring church; leave her not thus a prey to those importunate wolves, that wait and think long till they devour thy tender flock; these wild boars that have broke into thy vineyard, and left the print of their polluting hoofs on the souls of thy servants. O let them not bring about their damned designs, that stand now at the entrance of the bottomless pit, expecting the watchward to open and let out those dreadful locusts and scorpions, to reinvolve us in that pitchy cloud of infernal darkness, where we shall never more see the sun of thy truth again, never hope for the cheerful dawn, never more hear the bird of morning sing. 40

He ended by consigning the High Church party to hell:

But they . . . that by the impairing and diminution of the true faith, the distresses and servitude of their country aspire to high dignity, rule, and promotion here, after a shameful end in this life (which God grant them) shall be thrown down eternally into the darkest and deepest gulf of hell, where, under the despiteful control, the trample and spurn of all the other damned, that in the anguish of their torture shall have no other ease than to exercise a raving and bestial tyranny over them as their slaves and negroes, they shall remain in that plight forever, the basest, the lowermost, the most dejected, most underfoot and downtrodden vassals of perdition. 41

When Bishop Hall answered and abused the “Smectymnuans,” Milton came to their support with a blast that must have shaken the sixty-five-year-old prelate out of his canonicals. The Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s Defence against Smectymnuusappeared anonymously in July, 1641. In a preface Milton apologized for his vehemence:

In the detecting and convincing [convicting] of any notorious enemy to truth and his country’s peace, especially that is conceited to have a voluble and smart influence of tongue . . . , it will be nothing disagreeing from Christian meekness to handle such a one in a rougher accent, and to send home his haughtiness well besprinkled with his own holy water. 42

The bishop and his son came back with A Modest Confutation (January [?], 1642), attacking the author of the Animadversions in the hot manner of that infuriate age. 43 Milton retorted in An Apology against. . . a Modest Confutation (April ?). He further excused his rough treatment of the bishop; he denounced as a “commodious lie” the charge that he, Milton, had been “vomited” from Cambridge; he assured the world that the Fellows of Christ’s College had invited him to stay with them after his graduation; and he reaffirmed his impugned chastity:

Though Christianity had been but slightly taught me, yet a certain reservedness of natural disposition, and moral discipline learned out of the noblest philosophy, was enough to keep me in disdain of far less incontinences than this of the bordello. But having had the doctrine of Holy Scripture, unfolding those chaste and high mysteries . . . , that “the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body,” thus also I argued to myself, that if unchastity in a woman, whom St. Paul terms the glory of man, be such a scandal and dishonor, then certainly in a man, who is both the image and glory of God, it must . . . be much more deflouring and dishonorable, in that he sins both against his own body, which is the perfecter sex, and his own glory, which is in the woman, and, that which is worst, against the image and glory of God, which is in himself. 44

Therefore Milton deplored the morality of many classic poets, and preferred to them Dante and Petrarch,

who never write but honor of them to whom they devote their verse, displaying sublime and pure thoughts, without transgression. And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion, that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well . . . ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and practice of all which is praiseworthy. 45

After this exemplary passage Milton proceeded to talk of the bishop’s socks and feet sending a “fouler stench to heaven”; and if such language should seem uncongenial to theology, he defended it by “the rules of the best rhetoricians,” and the example of Luther; and he reminded his readers that “Christ himself, speaking of unsavory traditions, scruples not to name the dunghill and the jakes.” 46

But enough of this dreary controversy, so quotable because of the light it sheds on Milton’s character and the manners of the time, and because, amid the virulent nonsense, the grammatical chaos, and the sesquipedalian sentences, there are passages of organlike prose as splendid and moving as Milton’s verse. Meanwhile (March, 1642) he had published over his own name a more impersonal booklet, The Reason of Church Government Urged against Prelaty—“this impertinent yoke of prelaty under whose inquisitorious and tyrannous duncery no free and splendid wit [intelligence] can flourish.” 47 He admitted the necessity of moral and social discipline; indeed, he saw in the rise and fall of discipline the key to the rise and fall of states:

There is not that thing in the world of more grave and urgent importance throughout the whole life of man than discipline. What need I instance? He that hath read with judgment of nations and commonwealths . . . will readily agree that the flourishing and decaying of all civil societies, all the movements and turnings of human occasions, are moved to and fro as upon the axle of Discipline. . . . Nor is there any sociable perfection in this life, civil or sacred, that can be above Discipline; but she is that which with her musical cords preserves and holds all the parts thereof together. 48

Such discipline, however, should be derived not from an ecclesiastical hierarchy, but from the conception of every man as a potential priest.

As at all stages Milton was conscious of his own abilities, he prefaced the second part of his treatise with an autobiographical fragment mourning that the controversy had diverted him from the composition of a great work which he had long had in mind, “that what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old, did for their country, I, in my proportion, with this over and above, of being a Christian, might do for mine.” 49 He told how already he was examining subjects for such a work, but wished it to be one that would allow him “to paint out and describe . . . the whole book of sanctity and virtue,” and “whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime.” 50 And as if foreseeing that sixteen years would pass before the Great Rebellion would let him set his pen to this task, he excused his tardiness:

Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite; nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughters; but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim, with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases: to this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs; till which in some measures be compassed, at mine own peril and cost, I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them. 51

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