VI. THE LATIN SECRETARY: 1649–59

The new regime needed a good Latinist to compose its foreign correspondence. Milton was the obvious choice; he could write Latin, Italian, and French like an ancient Roman, a Florentine, or a Parisian; and he had proved through dangerous years his fidelity to the Parliamentary cause against the bishops and the King. It was the Council, not Cromwell, that engaged him; he had no close relations with the new ruler, but he must have seen him frequently, and must have felt in his thought and writing the nearness of that awesome personality. The Council used Milton not merely to translate its foreign correspondence into Latin, but to explain to other governments, by Latin brochures, the justice of its domestic policies, and, above all, how reasonable had been the decapitation of the King.

In April, 1649, soon after his induction into office, Milton joined with other employees of the Council in suppressing royalist and Leveller publications against the new regime. 70 Censorship was now more severe than at any time in England’s history, following the general rule that censorship increases with the insecurity of the government. The man who had written the most eloquent appeal ever made for freedom of the press was now looking at censorship from the view of the ruling power. We should note, however, that in the Areopagitica Milton had allowed that “it is of the greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves, as well as men; and thereafter to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors.” 71

As John Lilburne was an especially troublesome Leveller, Milton was instructed by the Council to write a reply to his radical pamphlet, New Chains Discovered. We do not know if he carried out this assignment. But he himself tells us 72 that he was “ordered” to answer the Eikon Basilike. He complied by publishing (October 6, 1649) a book of 242 pages, entitled Eikonoklastes (“Image Breaker”). Doubting but assuming that the Eikon Basilike was what it purported to be, the work of Charles I, Milton took up step by step the royalist argument, and countered it with all the force he could muster. He defended the policy of Cromwell throughout, justified the execution of the King, and expressed his scorn of the “inconstant, irrational, and image-doting rabble . . . , a credulous and helpless herd, begotten to servility . . . and enchanted with . . . tyranny.” 73

Charles II, fretting on the Continent, paid Europe’s greatest scholar, Claude Saumaise, to come to the defense of the dead King. “Salmasius” hurriedly composed the Defensio Regia pro Carolo I, which appeared at Leiden in November, 1649. He described Cromwell and his followers as “fanatical scoundrels . . . , the common enemy of the human race,” and called upon all kings, for their own sake, to

fit out an armament for the extermination of these pests . . . Surely the blood of the great King . . . calls to its revenge all monarchs and princes of the Christian world. Nor can they appease his spirit more worthily than by restoring to his full rights the legitimate heir . . . , reseating him on his paternal throne . . . and slaying, as victims at the tomb of the saintly dead, those most outrageous beasts who conspired for the murder of so great a king. 74

Cromwell, fearing that this attack by a scholar of European fame would intensify the resentment, general on the Continent, against his government, asked Milton to answer Salmasius. The Latin secretary labored at the task for almost a year, working at it by candlelight despite his doctor’s warning that he was slowly becoming blind. One eye was already useless. On December 31, 1650, appeared Joannis Miltoni, Angli, pro Populo Anglicano Defensio contra Claudii Salmasii Defensionem Regiam. It began by taunting Salmasius for selling his services to Charles II, and went on to show that Salmasius only four years earlier had written against episcopacy, which now he defended.

O you venal and fee-taking agent! . . . O the sneak and turncoat! . . . You, silliest of blockheads, are worthy of the fool’s staff itself for thinking to persuade kings and princes to war with such puerile arguments . . . Do you then, without wit, without genius, a mouther and a pettifogger, born only to rifle and transcribe good authors, imagine that you can produce anything of your own that will live—you, whose foolish writings, bundled up with yourself, the next age, believe me, will consign to oblivion? Unless perchance this Defensio regia of yours shall owe something to the Answer to it, and shall therefore, though already for some time neglected and laid to sleep, be again taken up 75

—which is precisely what has happened. Salmasius had idealized Charles I, Milton degrades him. He suspects Charles of having abetted the Duke of Buckingham to poison his father, James I; he accuses the dead King of “all kinds of viciousness” with the said Duke; he charges Charles with kissing women at the theater, and of publicly fondling the breasts (papillas) of virgins and matrons. 76 Salmasius had called Milton many names; Milton retaliates by describing Salmasius as a fool, beetle, ass, liar, slanderer, apostate, idiot, ignoramus, vagabond, slave. He taunts Salmasius with being dominated by his wife, chides him for Latin errors, invites him to hang himself, and guarantees him admission to hell. 77 Thomas Hobbes, viewing the rival books from some perch of philosophy, declared himself unable to decide whose language was best, or whose arguments were worse. 78 The Council of State gave Milton a vote of thanks.

Salmasius received a copy of Milton’s Defensio while at the court of Queen Christina in Stockholm. He promised, but delayed, to reply. Meanwhile Milton passed from foreign to domestic affairs. In 1649 he moved to a house in Charing Cross to be nearer his work. There his wife bore a son, who soon died, and, in 1652, a daughter, Deborah, whose birth cost the mother’s life. In that year Milton’s blindness became complete. Now he wrote one of his greatest sonnets—“When I consider how my light is spent.” The Council continued him as Latin secretary, providing him with an amanuensis.

In his darkness he suffered another loss: the republic that he had so fervently hailed collapsed (1653) into a military monarchy, and Cromwell, “Protector,” became in effect king. Milton resigned himself to these developments with the remark that “the ways of Providence are inscrutable.” 79 He continued to admire Cromwell, and praised him as “the greatest and most glorious of our countrymen, . . . the father of your country,” and assured him that “in the coalition of human society nothing is more pleasing to God, or more agreeable to reason, than that the highest mind should have the sovereign power.” 80

He was soon called upon to defend the Protector against a powerful indictment. In 1652 there had appeared a book whose very title was a battle cry: Regii Sanguinis Clamor ad Coelum Adversus Parracidas Anglicanos—The Cry of the Royal Blood to Heaven against the English Parricides. It began with a description of Milton as “a monster hideous, ugly, huge, bereft of sight, . . . a hangman, . . . a gallows bird.” It compared the execution of Charles I with the crucifixion of Christ, and reckoned the regicide the greater crime. 81 It scorned the religious professions of the “usurpers”:

The language of their public documents is stuffed with piety; the style of Cromwell or his tribunes is to match; it would move anyone’s bile and bitter laughter to mark with what impudence the secret rogues and open robbers mask their wickedness with a pretext of religion . . . Verily an egg is not liker an egg than Cromwell’s like to Mahomet. 82

And the anonymous author, like Salmasius, appealed to the Continental powers to invade England and restore the Stuart monarchy. The book closed with an address “To the Bestial Blackguard John Milton, Advocate of Parricides and Parricide,” and a hope that he would soon be mercilessly flogged:

           Round this perjured head

Ply well the stick; lard every inch with weals,

Till you have thonged the carcass to one jelly.

Cease you already? Lay on, till he shed

Gall from his liver through his bleeding eyes. 83

The Council of State urged Milton to reply to this fury. He waited a while, expecting a blast from Salmasius, and hoping to impale both antagonists upon one pen. But Salmasius died (1653), leaving his rebuttal unfinished. Milton was misled into believing that the author of the Regii Sanguinis Clamor was Alexander Morus, a pastor and scholar at Middelburg. He asked his correspondents in the United Provinces to send him data about Morus’ public and private life. 84 Adrian Ulacq, the printer of the book, wrote to Milton’s friend Hartlib, assuring him that Morus was not the author, 85 but Milton refused to believe this, and Amsterdam gossip agreed with him. In April, 1654, John Drurie wrote to Milton warning him that he was mistaken in ascribing the Clamor to Morus; Milton ignored the warning. On May 30 he published Joannis Miltoni pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda.

The eloquence of these 173 pages is remarkable, for they were dictated in Latin by a man completely blind. His enemies had described that blindness as a divine punishment for egregious sins; Milton replies that this cannot be, for he has led an exemplary life. He rejoices that his first Defensio

so routed my opponent . . . that he yielded at once, broken alike in spirit and reputation, and in the whole three years of his subsequent life, though threatening and fuming much, gave us no further trouble, save that he called to his aid the obscure labor of some utterly despicable person, and suborned I know not what silly and extravagant adulations to repatch by their eulogies, as far as might be, the unexpected and recent ruin of his character. 86

Turning upon his new enemy, Milton notes that morus in Greek meant fool; he accuses him of heresy, profligacy, and fornication, of getting Salmasius’ maidservant with child and then abandoning her. Even the printer of the Clamor gets a lashing; everyone knows that he is a “notorious cheat and bankrupt.” 87

In better humor Milton reviews the career of Cromwell. He defends the campaigns in Ireland, the dissolutions of Parliament, the assumption of supreme power. He addresses the Protector:

We all yield to your insuperable worth . . . Go on, therefore, in your magnanimous course, O Cromwell, . . . the liberator of your country, the author of its freedom, . . . you who have excelled by your actions hitherto not only the exploits of kings, but even the legendary adventures of our Heroes. 88

But after this obeisance he does not hesitate to advise the Protector on policy. Cromwell should surround himself with men like Fleetwood and Lambert (radicals); he should establish freedom of the press; he should leave religion entirely separate from the state. No tithes should be collected for the clergy; these men are already overfed; “all in general is fat about them, even their intellects not excepted.” 89 Milton warns Cromwell that “if he, than whom none among us is reckoned more just, more saintly, or a better man, should afterwards invade that Liberty which he has defended . . . , the result would be disastrous and deadly, not only to himself but also to the universal interests of virtue and piety.” 90 By “Liberty” Milton makes plain that he does not mean democracy. He asks the people:

Why should anyone assert for you the right of free suffrage, or the power of electing whom you will to the Parliament? Is it that you should be able . . . to elect in the cities men of your faction, or that person in the boroughs, however worthy, who may have feasted yourselves most sumptuously, or treated the country people and boors to the greatest quantity of drink? Then we should have our members of Parliament made for us not by prudence and authority, but by faction and feeding; we should have vintners and hucksters from city taverns, and graziers and cattlemen from the country districts. Should one entrust the Commonwealth to those to whom nobody would entrust a matter of private business? 91

No, such universal suffrage would not be freedom.

To be free is the same thing exactly as to be pious, wise, just, temperate, self-providing, abstinent from the property of other people, and in fine, to be magnanimous and brave. To be the opposite of all this is the same as being a slave. And by the judgment of God it comes to pass that a nation that cannot rule and govern itself, but has surrendered itself in slavery to its own lusts, is surrendered also to other masters . . . and made a slave both with and against its own will. 92

In October, 1654, Ulacq reprinted Milton’s Defensio Secunda at The Hague, with an answer by Morus entitled Fides publica (Public Testimony). In a preface the printer asserted that Morus was not the author of the Clamor; that the manuscript had been given him (Ulacq) by Salmasius, who had refused to reveal the author’s name. Morus solemnly denied his authorship, affirmed that Milton had been repeatedly informed of this, and charged that Milton had refused to alter the Defensio, since very little of it would have remained if all the abuse of Morus had been taken out. In August, 1655, Milton issued a volume of 204 pages, Pro se Defensio (A Self-Defense); he refused to believe Morus’ denial; he repeated the scandal about Salmasius’ maid, and added that the maid, in a fair fight, had beaten Morus, knocked him down, and almost scratched his eyes out. 93 In a sequel it appeared that a French Protestant theologian, Pierre de Moulin, had written the Clamor, and that Morus had edited it and written its dedication. 94 When Morus was invited (1657) to become the minister of a Reformed church near Paris, the poet sent several copies of his Defensio Secunda to the parish to prevent the appointment. 95 The parish consistory accepted Morus nevertheless, and he ended his troubled career (1670) as the most eloquent Protestant preacher in or about Paris.

Milton appears in a softer light in his powerful sonnet on the Piedmont massacre of 1655.* It was probably he who wrote the letters by which Cromwell appealed to the Duke of Savoy to end the persecution of the Vaudois, and to Mazarin and the rulers of Sweden, Denmark, the United Provinces, and the Swiss cantons to intercede with the Duke.

In 1656, after four years of widowhood, Milton married, sight unseen, Katharine Woodcock. She proved a blessing to him, serving as patient nurse to a blind and tempestuous husband, and mothering his three daughters; but she died in 1658 in giving birth to a short-lived child. That was a bitter year for Milton, since it took Cromwell too, and left the Latin secretary to keep his post as best he could amid the chaos of factions that reduced Richard Cromwell to a benevolent nonentity. Though Milton must have known that England was now moving toward a Stuart restoration, he issued a new edition (October, 1658) of his Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio, justifying the execution of Charles I in terms that almost courted martyrdom. In a characteristic preface he described this firstDefense as “a monument . . . not easily to perish,” claimed for it divine inspiration, and ranked it only next to Cromwell’s deeds as having saved England’s liberty. 96

He resisted with blind bravery the movement for recalling Charles II. When Monck’s army reached London, and Parliament hesitated between a republic and a monarchy, Milton published (February, 1660), as an address to Parliament, an eighteen-page pamphlet,The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth, and the Excellence Thereof Compared with Inconveniences and Dangers of Readmitting Kingship in this Nation; and he boldly signed it “The author, J.M.” He pleaded with Parliament not to make

vain and viler than dirt the blood of so many thousand faithful and valiant Englishmen who left us this liberty, bought with our own lives . . . What will they [our neighbors] at best say of us, and of the whole English name, but scoffingly, as of that foolish builder mentioned by our Saviour, who began to build a tower, and was unable to finish it? Where is this goodly tower of a commonwealth, which the English boasted they would build to overshadow kings, and be another Rome in the West? . . . What madness is it for them who might manage nobly their own affairs themselves, sluggishly and weakly to devolve all in a single person! . . . How unmanly must it needs be, to count such a one the breath of our nostrils, to hang all our felicity on him, all our safety, our wellbeing, for which, if we were aught else but sluggards and babies, we need depend on none but God and our own counsels, our own active virtue and industry! 97

He predicted that all “the old encroachments” of monarchy on the freedom of the people will return soon after restoration. He proposed to replace Parliament with a “General Council” of ablest men, elected by the people, its members to serve till death, subject to removal only by conviction of some crime, and replenished by periodical elections. This Council, however, is to allow the greatest possible freedom of speech and worship, and of local autonomy. “I trust,” Milton concluded, “I shall have spoken persuasion to abundance of sensible and ingenuous men—to some perhaps whom God may raise of these stones to become Children of Liberty, and may enable and unite in their noble resolutions to give a stay to these our ruinous proceedings, and to this general defection of the unguided and abused multitude.” 98

Parliament ignored this plea to destroy itself. Attacks on Milton appeared in print; one pamphlet recommended hanging him. The Council of State, now royalist, ordered the arrest of Milton’s printer, and discharged Milton from his post as Latin secretary. Milton replied by publishing a second and enlarged edition of The Ready and Easy Way (April, 1660). He warned Parliament that promises now made by Charles II could easily be broken after the consolidation of the new royal power. He admitted that the majority of the people desired the restoration of Charles II, but he urged that the majority had no right to enslave a minority. “More just it is . . . if it come to force, that the less number compel a greater to return . . . their liberty than that a greater number . . . compel a less most injuriously to be their fellow slaves.” 99 Attacks upon Milton multiplied; one called upon Charles II, then at Breda, to remember the insults that Milton, in Eikonoklastes and elsewhere, had heaped upon Charles I, and suggested that Milton should be joined with the actual regicides as meriting death. 100

Before this pamphlet could reach Charles, he had already sailed for England. On May 7 Milton, having taken leave of his children, disappeared into hiding with a friend. He was discovered and imprisoned. For three months his fate hung in the balance of the royalist Parliament. Many members argued that he, if anyone, should be hanged. The general expectation was that he would be; but Marvell, Davenant, and others pleaded his age and blindness. Parliament contented itself with ordering that certain of his books, wherever found, should be burned. On December 15 he was released. He took a house in Holborn, moved into it with his children, and passed, after eleven turbulent years of prose, into the second and noblest period of his poetry.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!