« EelmineJätka »
Above her master-piece. You are the image
Phil. I see it to my grief, pray counsel him.
Colax. This vanity in your nice lady's humours,
Lup. To clothe the soul? must the soul too be cloth'd ?
Art. V.-The History of Britain, that part especially now called
England. From the first Traditional Beginning, continued to the Norman Conquest, collected out of the Ancientest and best Authors thereof. By John Milton. London, 1677.
Some apology may be thought necessary for making a work so accessible as the present the subject of criticism. The truth is, however, that it is a work which very few read, and which has for the greater part no attractions for the generality of readers ; there are, nevertheless, a few passages of story and sentiment, which are calculated to be universally interesting ; and it is with the purpose of separating these from the other matter, and presenting them to the reader in a collected form, that we have adopted it as the subject of an article.
In reading the latter works of Milton, it is impossible not to be struck with the different view there given of the author's feelings and state of mind, from that exhibited in his earlier publications. At the former period, we see him moving forward “ with thoughts inflamed of highest resolve,” in the strength of youth and hope, conscious of unrivalled genius and extraordinary acquirements, and confident in the truth of his yet untried speculations. But the scene was now changed; his public hopes were defeated; the friends of his youth and partners of his expectations, separated from him by death and calamity; himself oppressed with poverty and blindness, bodily suffering, and domestic disquietude ; seeking, in the pursuits of literature, like Cicero of old, at once a refuge from personal affliction, and a means of service to his country, and supporting himself with the hope, that his past exertions, if unsuccessful as to their immediate objects, had not been wholly unacceptable to the “ Great Task-Master," in whose
he laboured. Hence his early works are redolent of promise, of lofty design, and confident expectation ; while, in his latter, we see the bitterness of disappointed hope, a desire of explaining the confounding events of the time, by causes, which no individual virtue could obviate, and a frequent recurrence to the great unchangeable maxims of political and moral truth, as if to strengthen and support himself amidst the numerous and disheartening misapplications of the former, and violations of both. Such is the character of Samson Agonistes, Paradise Regained, and the prophetic parts of Paradise Lost; and the same strain of feeling is visible throughout this history. He writes evidently with a view to his own and succeeding times ; and in the events of his country's early history, he reads a perpetual comment upon his favourite maxims of a visible providential superintendance in the affairs of nations, and the inseparable connection of public liberty with private virtue and religion ; a truth, his constant inculcation of which, distinguishes him as widely from those spurious advocates of liberty, who degrade his name by associating it with their own profligate tenets, as his unwearied zeal for the advancement of freedom and public knowledge separates him from those who would confound the cause of bigotry and servility with that of public morals. But we are wandering from our subject : our intention was not so much to draw the attention of our readers to a work, by which the greater portion of them would most probably be disappointed, as to place before them a set of extracts, which might save them the trouble of perusing the original work ; we shall, therefore, be excused from making more than a very few remarks on the manner of its execution. The style of narration is neat, concise, and clear, modelled on that of the classical historians, and in the more important and interesting parts rises to a degree of animation. There is not much display of deep philosophical research; but the author's
characteristic freedom of judgement is every where apparent. It would not be easy to point out a better executed précis of early English history, considering its conciseness. The diction is impregnated with classical idioms, to a degree utterly inconsistent with the purity of English style.
The first book, containing the legendary history of Britain from the earliest ages to the invasion of Cæsar, is by far the most entertaining. The author's motives for telling over again the tales of the old chroniclers, are thus stated in the exordium.
“The beginning of nations, those excepted' of whom sacred books have spoken, is to this day unknown. Nor only the beginning, but the deeds also of many succeeding ages, yea, periods of ages, either wholly unknown, or obscured and blemished with fables. Whether it were that the use of letters came in long after, or were it the violence of barbarous inundations, or they themselves at certain revolutions of time, fatally decaying, and degenerating into sloth and ign rance, whereby the monuments of more ancient civility have been some destroyed, some lost : perhaps dis-esteem and contempt of the public affairs then present, as not worth recording, might partly be in
Certainly ofttimes we see that wise men, and of best ability, have forborne to write the acts of their own days, while they beheid with a just loathing and disdain, not only how unworthy, how perverse, how corrupt, but often how ignoble, how petty, how below all history the persons and their actions were; who, either by fortune, or some rude election, had attained, as a sore judgement and ignominy upon the land, to have chief sway in managing the common wealth.
“ Nevertheless there being others besides the first supposed author, men not unread, nor unlearned in antiquity, who admit that for approved story, which the former explode for fiction, and seeing that oft-times relations heretofore accounted fabulous, have been after found to contain in them many footsteps, and relics of something true, as what we read in poets of the flood, and giants little believed, till undoubted witnesses taught us, that all was not fained; I have therefore determined to bestow the telling over even of these reputed tales; be it for nothing else but in favour of our English poets and rhetoricians, who by their art will know how to use them judiciously.
" I might also produce example, as Diodorus among the Greeks, Livy and others of the Latins, Polydore and Virunnius accounted among our own writers. But I intend not with controversies and quotations to delay or interrupt the smooth course of history; much less to argue and debate long who were the first inhabitants, with what probabilities, what authorities each opinion hath been upheld, but shall endeavour that which hitherto hath been needed most, with plain and lightsome brevity, to relate, well and orderly, things worth the noting, so as may best instruct and benefit them that read. Which, imploring divine assistance, that it may redound to his glory, and the good of the British nation, I now begin.”
Whether the present article will have the effect of drawing more of the attention of our poets and orators to the fables alluded to, we cannot tell; it is, however, partly for the benefit of the former that we transcribe the most interesting of them. As to the latter, we fear the poet's gift will be thrown away upon them, however aptly an allusion to the Gallic victories of Brennus and Belinus might chime in with a panegyric on the late war, or however effectual the story of king Archigallo might prove, by way of illustration, in the mouth of a radical orator.
Among the fables relative to the original colonization of Britain, is one which attributes it to the fifty daughters of Danaus, famed in story.
“ These daughters, by appointment of Danaus on the marriage night, having murdered all their husbands, except Linceus, whom his wife's loyalty saved, were by him, at the suit of his wife, their sister, not put to death, but turned out to sea in a ship unmanned;* of which whole sex they had incurred the hate : and as the tale goes, were driven on this island: where the inhabitants, none but devils, as some write, or as others, a lawless crew left here by Albion without head or governor, both entertained them, and had issue by them a second breed of giants, who tyrannized the isle till Brutus came.
“ The eldest of these dames, in their legend, they call Albina ; and from thence, for which cause the whole scene was framed, will have the name Albion derived."
The story of Brutus the Trojan, and his immediate successors in the kingdom of Britain, is given as follows. We need not point out to the classical reader the sources from which many of the fables are obviously derived.
“ All of them agree in this, that Brutus was the son of Silvius; he of Ascanius, whose father was Æneas, a Trojan prince, who at the burning of that city, with his son Ascanius, and a collected number that escaped, after long wandering on the sea, arrived in Italy: where at length, by the assistance of Latinus, King of Latium, who had given him his daughter Lavinia, he obtained to succeed in that kingdom, and left it to Ascanius, whose son Silvius (though Roman histories deny Silvius to be son of Ascanius) had married secretly a niece of Lavinia.
* A Greek idiom.
“ She being with child, the matter became known to Ascanius; who commanding his magicians to enquire by art, what sex the maid had conceived, had answer, that it was one who should be the death of both his parents; and banished for the fact, should, after all, in a far country, attain to highest honour. The prediction failed not, for in travail, the mother died. And Brutus (the child was so called) at fifteen
years age, attending his father to the chace, with an arrow, unfortunately killed him.
“ Banished therefore by his kindred, he retires into Greece; where meeting with the race of Helenus, King Priam's son, held there in servile condition by Pandrasus, then king, with them he abides. For Pyrrhus, in revenge of his father slain at Troy, had brought thither with him Helenus, and many others, into servitude. There Brutus, among his own stock, so thrives in virtue and in arms, as renders him beloved to kings and great captains, above all the youth of that land. Whereby the Trojans not only begin to hope, but secretly to move him, that he would lead them the way to liberty. They allege their numbers, and the promised help of Assaracus, a noble Greekish youth, by the mother's side a Trojan, whom for that cause his brother went about to dispossess of certain castles bequeathed him by his father. Brutus, considering both the forces offered him, and the strength of those holds, not unwillingly consents.
“ First, therefore, having fortified those castles, he with Assaracus, and the whole multitude, betake them to the woods and hills, as the safest place from whence to expostulate; and, in the name of all, sends to Pandrasus this message, “ That the Trojans, holding it unworthy their ancestors to serve in a foreign kingdom, had retreated to the woods, choosing rather a savage life than a slavish; if that displeased him, that then, with his leave, they might depart to some other soil.""
Our readers, we are sure, will be desirous to hear the story of king Lear, as related by Milton.
“ Hitherto, from father to son, the direct line hath run on: but Lear, who next reigned, had only three daughters, and no male issue; governed laudably, and built Caer-Leir, now Leicester, on the bank of Sora. But at last failing through age, he determines to bestow his daughters, and so among them to divide his kingdom. Yet first to try which of them loved him best, (a trial that might have made him, had he known as wisely how to try, as he seemed to know how much the trying behoved him), he resolves a simple resolution, to ask them solemnly in order, and which of them should profess largest, her to believe. Gonoril, the eldest, apprehending too well her father's weakness, makes answer, invoking heaven, that she loved him above her soul.' Therefore, quoth the old man overjoyed, since thou so honourest
my declined age, to thee and the husband whom thou shalt choose, I give the third part of my realm.' So fair a speeding for a few words soon uttered, was to Regan, the second, ample instruction