Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Prose Works of John Milton,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 244-247


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[page 244, continued:]

THE PROSE WORKS OF JOHN MILTON, WITH A BIOGRAPHICAL INTRODUCTION BY RUFUS WILMOT GRISWOLD. IN TWO VOLUMES. PHILADELPHIA: HERMAN HOOKER.

[Text: Broadway Journal, Sept. 27, 1845.]

DR. GRISWOLD deserves the thanks of his countrymen for what he has here done: — it certainly is no [page 245:] credit to us, either as republicans or reverers of the true and noble in Literature, that no edition of the Prose Works of John Milton has hitherto been issued in America. Independently of the subject-matter, his treatises are among the most remarkable ever written, Their mere style (we use the word in its widest sense) is absolutely unrivalled. It is a very difficult thing, indeed, to decide properly on the style of a period so remote as that of Milton; we are perpetually misled in our judgment, by the impossibility of identifying ourselves with the writers — of inducing a full sympathy with the circumstances which impelled them, and thus with the objects for which they wrote the ends proposed in composition. In fact, it is only by the degree of its adjustment to the result intended, that any style can be justly commended as good or condemned as bad. But, holding in view this adjustment, and making the necessary allowances for lapses, effected through Time, in the language, we feel ourselves fully warranted in saying, that no man has ever surpassed, if, indeed, any man has ever equalled the author of the “Areopagitica” in purity — in force — in copiousness — in majesty — or, in what may be termed without the least exaggeration, a gorgeous magnificence of style. Some of his more directly controversial works rise at times into a species of lyrical rhapsody — divinely energetic — constituting for itself a department of composition which is neither prose nor poetry, but something with all the best qualities of each, and upon the whole superior to either.

These two large volumes contain nearly all the prose works of Milton. We say nearly; for there is an unwarrantable omission in “The Christian Doctrine.” Of the authenticity of this treatise there can [page 246:] be no doubt. It was found in 1823, by Mr. Lemon, Deputy Keeper of the State Papers, in the course of some researches among his book-shelves. It was a Latin MS. enveloped with some foreign despatches in Milton’s own hand, and superscribed “To Mr. Skinner, Merchant.” According to Toland, this treatise was finished by its author soon after the Restoration: — a host of concurring circumstances render its genuineness certain. Its value depends chiefly on the curious developments it affords in relation to the poet’s Arianism and opinions about polygamy — but its Latinity is so peculiarly forcible and fluent, in spite of the difficulties of the matter handled, that, on this score alone, the treatise demands insertion in any and every collection of the author’s prose: it should be left untranslated, of course: Dr. Sumner’s version is feeble. Of the “Christian Doctrine,” Dr. Griswold says, in his Introduction, “it is a work which he [Milton] never would have given to the press himself.” For this idea there is but little authority. The MS. was no doubt taken to the State Paper office, in consequence of a general seizure of Milton’s papers, during the persecution of the Whigs upon the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament; for the poet must have fallen under suspicion. The publication was thus prevented; but evidence of the intent to publish is discoverable in the work itself. Dr. Griswold says also, that “in none of his great works is there a passage from which it can be inferred that he [Milton] was an Arian.” Here we entirely disagree with the compiler. The “Paradise Lost” abounds in such passages. Dr. Griswold’s Introduction is, nevertheless, well written and well adapted to its purposes. At points, however, it may be thought extravagant or dogmatic. We have [page 247:] no patience with the initial sneer at Bacon, as “the meanest of mankind.” These assertions are passés, and a truly profound philosophy might readily prove them ill based. We would undertake to show, á priori, that no man, with Bacon’s thorough appreciation of the true and beautiful, could, by any possibility, be “the meanest,” although his very sensibility might make him the weakest “of mankind.”

When Dr. Griswold, in conclusion, terms Milton “the greatest of all human beings,” we really do think that he should have appended the words — “in the opinion, at least, of Dr. Griswold.”

But these things are trifles. An important service has been rendered to our Letters, and he who renders it is entitled to thanks. The volumes are well printed and bound, and no one, pretending to even ordinary scholarship, can afford to do without them.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Prose Works of John Milton)