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THERE is no less difference in the literature than in the moral state of man in the several ages of society. At the early dawn of civilization we meet with poetry full of bold and lofty conception, of that power and eloquence with which strong passions are generally expressed by the uneducated; teeming with the masculine efforts of an imagination nursed amidst the wilds of nature, glowing with the illusions of superstition, and untamed by that acquaintance with science and philosophy, which while it renders us wiser and better, and makes us familiar with the hidden secrets of creation, destroys in some measure the enthusiasm of those first impressions, the awe and the wonder with which the ignorant mind is filled by the complicated grandeur of the external world, and the
sensible but mysterious workings of human passions and perceptions. All is bold, nervous, and substantial, but at the same time wild, irregular, and unsystematized. The authors are without models, almost without design, and their poetry seems the beautiful outpouring of those many and disconnected images which have floated upon the mind, and at last burst out in one mingled and overwhelming torrent.
Then comes the union of partial knowledge with imagination: a perception of moral truths, a regard for human affections, martial fables and legends of love; and we trace the first successful attempts at design, although rudely and obscurely developed. Afterwards appear the classical allusion, the refined allegory, tales of sustained interest, and lyrical effusions of healthy imagination, verse regular in metre, bold in expression, and somewhat artfully constructed. Then break in the glitter of learning, the affectation of wit, the courtly compliment, and the quaint conceit, language fluent but artificial, fancy exuberant yet fantastic—the verse improves, but the soul that should inspire it is wanting; the taint of disease comes over the more highly intellectual powers of the mind, and Ingenuity usurps the throne from which Genius has departed.
Such almost was the poetry of the period when Milton
He came with a new spirit, but with the power and inspiration of old. He was as the cedar of Lebanon
among the lesser trees of the forest; but wild flowers were blooming at its feet and threw their rich fragrance above, till the topmost branches of the lofty and gloomy tree waved with the breath and lived amidst the perfume of the simple and beautiful children of the spring. The sublimity and moral dignity of Milton's conception did not.chill his feelings of natural tenderness, but we see in his works the warm and susceptible spirit searching for poetry in the commonest objects and affections of nature, as well as in her grandest and loftiest attributes; and the man who sang the warfare of angels and the proud contentions of spiritual hosts, had a fine and delicate sense of the ordinary household virtues of the humblest of mankind.
It was the lot of Milton to live in an eventful age. The revival of learning first, and subsequently the reformation in religion had necessarily rendered men inquisitive, reflective, and argumentative, and lessened their reverence for old established institutions and opinions. The Reformation was not effected without some temporary inconveniences.
It shook the antique belief, it threw down those idols, it abolished those ceremonies which the ignorant and credulous had learned to venerate as essential parts of the great system of religion ; and it appealed to the reason and judgment of many who on such topics had as yet but little reason or judgment to exercise. They saw the vast and ancient fabric fall into decay, and were too skilless to assist
unitedly in constructing a better and a simpler one. Religious faith was unsettled, and sectarians arose whose homely arguments appealed to the unlettered, or whose plausible sophistries convinced the credulous. Establishment required time to inculcate its tenets and settle its authority in the hearts and affections of the many,
and wanted at first those associations and ancient ties which bind men to their ancestral religion. These causes produced internal division in the ranks of the reformers, which the study of ancient philosophy by no means tended to diminish. The arguments of the classical writers are speculative and discursive, full of brilliant and plausible reasoning, but also of conflicting principles. It is sect arrayed against sect, school against school, where every one according to his peculiar temperament may select his peculiar system of moral perfection. The study of such authors is well adapted to render the reasoning powers subtle and acute; but as a trifling fallacy in the premises of an argument will often lead to conclusions essentially wrong, and as the facts of metaphysics are less defined and comprehensible than those of natural philosophy, it will not appear surprising that men in the sixteenth and early part of the seventeenth century, scarcely free from the errors they attempted to discard, and warped by party feelings and prejudices, should have formed contrary and conflicting opinions, and entered with warmth into the defence of those many views, each of which had its advocates, and was equally believed to be right.
Political circumstances tended in the end to foment these differences. While the Establishment was yet in its infancy, it was subject to the persecutions and proscription of Mary, and in the reign of Elizabeth there was almost a new Reformation to effect. Happily the attention of the nation was for a time diverted by the domestic vigor and foreign glories of the administration; hut under the first James those discussions were heard, and that spirit was alive which darkened the reign and overthrew the government of the unfortunate Charles. These religious discussions being based on first principles, and asserting the liberties of conscience, soon drew the attention of men to their social liberties, at that time invaded by a weak and misguided prince, and but inadequately secured against the high and increasing exercises of kingly prerogative. Then appeared the noble and uncompromising spirit that distinguished Hampden, Pym, Elliott, and the other patriots of the time ; and the heavings of the coming tempest were heard throughout the land. A people arose to assert and battle for rights which in the darkness and silence of former ages they had lost without a murmur, and the proud authority to which their ancestors had submitted was now looked
with coldness and distrust. The court was filled with the generous and devoted admirers of princely dignity and splendor—men moreover personally attached to a monarch whose private life was distinguished by natural piety, by family affections, and by engaging
On either side there was zeal, principle, and