Thus Milton thought
September 2, 2013
And now, merely for example’s sake, I will, with your permission, read a few lines of a true book with you, carefully; and see what will come out of them. I will take a book perfectly known to you all. No English words are more familiar to us, yet few perhaps have been read with less sincerity. I will take these few following lines of Lycidas: —
Last came, and last did go,
The pilot of the Galilean lake.
Two massy keys he bore of metals twain,
(The golden opes, the iron shuts amain,)
He shook his mitred locks, and stern bespake,
‘How well could I have spared for thee, young swain,
Enow of such as for their bellies’ sake
Creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold!
Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast,
And shove away the worthy bidden guest
Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else, the least
That to the faithful herdsman’s art belongs!
What recks it them? What need they? They are sped;
And when they list, their lean and flashy songs
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw;
The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But, swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread;
Besides what the grim wolf with privy paw
Daily devours apace, and nothing said.’
Let us think over this passage, and examine its words.
First, is it not singular to find Milton assigning to St. Peter, not only his full episcopal function, but the very types of it which Protestants usually refuse most passionately? His ‘mitred’ locks! Milton was no Bishop-lover; how comes St. Peter to be ‘mitred’? ‘Two massy keys he bore.‘ Is this, then, the power of the keys claimed by the Bishops of Rome? and is it acknowledged here by Milton only in a poetical license, for the sake of its picturesqueness, that he may get the gleam of the golden keys to help his effect?
Do not think it. Great men do not play stage tricks with the doctrines of life and death: only little men do that. Milton means what he says; and means it with his might too — is going to put the whole strength of his spirit presently into the saying of it. For though not a lover of false bishops, he was a lover of true ones; and the Lake-pilot is here, in his thoughts, the type and head of true episcopal power. For Milton reads that text, ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,’ quite honestly. Puritan though he be, he would not blot it out of the book because there have been bad bishops; nay, in order to understand him, we must understand that verse first; it will not do eye it askance, or whisper it under our breath, as if it were a weapon of an adverse sect. It is a solemn, universal assertion, deeply to be kept in mind by all sects. But perhaps we shall be better able to reason on it if we go on a little farther, and come back to it. For clearly this marked insistence on the power of the true episcopate is to make us feel more weightily what is to be charged against the false claimants of the episcopate; or generally, against false claimants of power and rank in the body of the clergy; they who, ‘for their bellies’ sake, creep, and intrude, and climb into the fold.’
Never think Milton uses those three words to fill up his verse, as a loose writer would. He needs all the three; — especially those three, and no more than those — ‘creep,’ and ‘intrude,’ and ‘climb;’ no other words would or could serve the turn, and no more could be added. For they exhaustively comprehend the three classes, correspondent to the three characters, of men who dishonestly seek ecclesiastical power. First, those who ‘creep’ into the fold; who do not care for office, nor name, but for secret influence, and do all things occultly and cunningly, consenting to any servility of office or conduct, so only that they may intimately discern, and unawares direct, the minds of men. Then those who ‘intrude’ (thrust, that is) themselves into the fold, who by natural insolence of heart, and stout eloquence of tongue, and fearlessly perseverant self-assertion, obtain hearing and authority with the common crowd. Lastly, those who ‘climb,’ who, by labour and learning, both stout and sound, but selfishly exerted in the cause of their own ambition, gain high dignities and authorities, and become ‘lords over the heritage,’ though not ‘ensamples to the flock.’
Now go on: —
Of other care they little reckoning make,
Than how to scramble at the shearers’ feast.
Blind mouths —
I pause again, for this is a strange expression; a broken metaphor, one might think, careless and unscholarly.
Not so: its very audacity and pithiness are intended to make us look closely at the phrase and remember it. Those two monosyllables express the precisely accurate contraries of right character, in the two great offices of the Church — those of bishop and pastor.
A ‘Bishop’ means ‘a person who sees.’
A ‘Pastor’ means ‘a person who feeds.’
The most unbishoply character a man can have is therefore to be Blind.
The most unpastoral is, instead of feeding, to want to be fed, — to be a Mouth.
Take the two reverses together, and you have ‘blind mouths.’ We may advisably follow out this idea a little. Nearly all the evils in the Church have arisen from bishops desiring power more than light. They want authority, not outlook. Whereas their real office is not to rule; though it may be vigorously to exhort and rebuke: it is the king’s office to rule; the bishop’s office is to oversee the flock; to number it, sheep by sheep; to be ready always to give full account of it. Now it is clear he cannot give account of the souls, if he has not so much as numbered the bodies, of his flock. The first thing, therefore, that a bishop has to do is at least to put himself in a position in which, at any moment, he can obtain the history, from childhood, of every living soul in his diocese, and of its present state. Down to that back street, Bill, and Nancy, knocking each other’s teeth out! — Does the bishop know all about it? Has he his eye upon them? Has he had his eye upon them? Can he circumstantially explain to us how Bill got into the habit of beating Nancy about the head? If he cannot, he is no bishop, though he had a mitre as high as Salisbury steeple; he is no bishop, — he has sought to be at the helm instead of the masthead; he has no sight of things. ‘Nay,’ you say, ‘it is not his duty to look after Bill in the back street.’ What! the fat sheep that have full fleeces — you think it is only those he should look after while (go back to your Milton), ‘the hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, besides what the grim wolf, with privy paw‘ (bishops knowing nothing about it), ‘daily devours apace, and nothing said’?
‘But that’s not our idea of a bishop.’ Perhaps not; but it was St. Paul’s; and it was Milton’s. They may be right, or we may be; but we must not think we are reading either one or the other by putting our meaning into their words.
I go on.
But swoln with wind, and the rank mist they draw.
This is to meet the vulgar answer that ‘if the poor are not looked after in their bodies, they are in their souls; they have spiritual food.’
And Milton says, ‘They have no such thing as spiritual food; they are only swollen with wind.’ At first you may think that is a coarse type, and an obscure one. But again, it is a quite literally accurate one. Take up your Latin and Greek dictionaries, and find out the meaning of ‘Spirit.’ It is only a contraction of the Latin word ‘breath,’ and an indistinct translation of the Greek word for ‘wind.’ The same word is used in writing, ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth;’ and in writing, ‘So is every one that is born of the Spirit;’ born of the breath, that is; for it means the breath of God, in soul and body. We have the true sense of it in our words ‘inspiration’ and ‘expire.’ Now, there are two kinds of breath with which the flock may be filled, — God’s breath, and man’s. The breath of God is health, and life, and peace to them, as the air of heaven is to the flocks on the hills; but man’s breath — the word which he calls spiritual, — is disease and contagion to them, as the fog of the fen. They rot inwardly with it; they are puffed up by it, as a dead body by the vapours of its own decomposition. This is literally true of all false religious teaching; the first and last, and fatalest sign of it, is that ‘puffing up.’ Your converted children, who teach their parents; your converted convicts, who teach honest men; your converted dunces, who, having lived in cretinous stupefaction half their lives, suddenly awakening to the fact of there being a God, fancy themselves therefore His peculiar people and messengers; your sectarians of every species, small and great, Catholic or Protestant, of high church or low, in so far as they think themselves exclusively in the right and others wrong; and, pre-eminently, in every sect, those who hold that men can be saved by thinking rightly instead of doing rightly, by word instead of act, and wish instead of work; — these are the true fog children — clouds, these, without water; bodies, these, of putrescent vapour and skin, without blood or flesh: blown bag-pipes for the fiends to pipe with — corrupt, and corrupting, — ‘Swollen with wind, and the rank mist they draw.’
Lastly, let us return to the lines respecting the power of the keys, for now we can understand them. Note the difference between Milton and Dante in their interpretation of this power: for once, the latter is weaker in thought; he supposes both the keys to be of the gate of heaven; one is of gold, the other of silver: they are given by St. Peter to the sentinel angel; and it is not easy to determine the meaning either of the substances of the three steps of the gate, or of the two keys. But Milton makes one, of gold, the key of heaven; the other, of iron, the key of the prison in which the wicked teachers are to be bound who ‘have taken away the key of knowledge, yet entered not in themselves.’
We have seen that the duties of bishop and pastor are to see, and feed; and of all who do so it is said, ‘He that watereth, shall be watered also himself.’ But the reverse is truth also. He that watereth not, shall be withered himself; and he that seeth not, shall himself be shut out of sight — shut into the perpetual prison-house. And that prison opens here, as well as hereafter: he who is to be bound in heaven must first be bound on earth. That command to the strong angels, of which the rock-apostle is the image, ‘Take him, and bind him hand and foot, and cast him out,’ issues, in its measure, against the teacher, for every help withheld, and for every truth refused, and for every falsehood enforced; so that he is more strictly fettered the more he fetters, and farther outcast as he more and more misleads, till at last the bars of the iron cage close upon him, and as ‘the golden opes, the iron shuts amain.’
We have got something out of the lines, I think, and much more is yet to be found in them; but we have done enough by way of example of the kind of word-by-word examination of your author which is rightly called ‘reading;’ watching every accent and expression, and putting ourselves always in the author’s place, annihilating our own personality, and seeking to enter into his, so as to be able assuredly to say, ‘Thus Milton thought,’ not ‘Thus I thought, in misreading Milton.’ And by this process you will gradually come to attach less weight to your own ‘Thus I thought’ at other times. You will begin to perceive that what you thought was a matter of no serious importance; — that your thoughts on any subject are not perhaps the clearest and wisest that could be arrived at thereupon: — in fact, that unless you are a very singular person, you cannot be said to have any ‘thoughts’ at all; that you have no materials for them, in any serious matters; — no right to ‘think,’ but only to try to learn more of the facts. Nay, most probably all your life (unless, as I have said, you are a singular person) you will have no legitimate right to an ‘opinion’ on any business, except that instantly under your hand. What must of necessity be done, you can always find out, beyond question, how to do. Have you a house to keep in order, a commodity to sell, a field to plough, a ditch to cleanse? There need be no two opinions about these proceedings; it is at your peril if you have not much more than an ‘opinion’ on the way to manage such matters. And also, outside of your own business, there are one or two subjects on which you are bound to have but one opinion. That roguery and lying are objectionable, and are instantly to be flogged out of the way whenever discovered; — that covetousness and love of quarrelling are dangerous dispositions even in children, and deadly dispositions in men and nations; — that, in the end, the God of heaven and earth loves active, modest, and kind people, and hates idle, proud, greedy, and cruel ones; — on these general facts you are bound to have but one, and that a very strong, opinion. For the rest, respecting religions, governments, sciences, arts, you will find that, on the whole, you can know nothing, — judge nothing; that the best you can do, even though you be a well-educated person, is to be silent, and strive to be wiser every day, and to understand a little more of the thoughts of others, which so soon as you try to do honestly, you will discover that the thoughts even of the wisest are very little more than pertinent questions. To put the difficulty into a clear shape, and exhibit to you the grounds for indecision, that is all they can generally do for you! — and well for them and for us, if indeed they are able ‘to mix the music with our thoughts and sadden us with heavenly doubts.’ This writer, from whom I have been reading to you, is not among the first or wisest: he sees shrewdly as far as he sees, and therefore it is easy to find out its full meaning; but with the greater me, you cannot fathom their meaning; they do not even wholly measure it themselves, — it is so wide. Suppose I had asked you, for instance, to seek for Shakespeare’s opinion, instead of Milton’s on this matter of Church authority? — or for Dante’s? Have any of you, at this instant, the least idea what either thought about it? Have you ever balanced the scene with the bishops in ‘Richard III’ against the character of Cranmer? the description of St. Francis and St. Dominic against that of him who made Virgil wonder to gaze upon him, — ‘disteso, tanto vilmente, nell’ eterno esilio;’ or of him whom Dante stood beside, ‘come ‘l frate che confessa lo perfio assassin?’ Shakespeare and Alighieri knew men better than most of us, I presume! They were both in the midst of the main struggle between the temporal and spiritual powers. They had an opinion, we may guess. But where is it? Bring it into court! Put Shakespeare’s or Dante’s creed into articles, and send it up for trial by the Ecclesiastical Courts!
You will not be able, I tell you again, for many and many a day, to come at the real purposes and teaching of these great men; but a very little honest study of them will enable you to perceive that what you took for your own ‘judgment’ was mere chance prejudice, and drifted, helpless, entangled weed of castaway thought; nay, you will see that most men’s minds are indeed little better than rough heath wilderness, neglected and stubborn, partly barren, partly overgrown with pestilent brakes, and venemous, wind-sown herbage of evil surmise; that the first thing you have to do for them, and yourself, is eagerly and scornfully set fire to this; burn all the jungle into wholesome ash-heaps, and then plough and sow. All the true literary work before you, for life, must begin with obedience to that order, ‘Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns.’
From Ruskin’s ‘Sesame and Lilies.’