Emerson’s essay on Milton pretty much goes along a lot like his essay on Michelangelo. Milton is a genius. Milton is a moral giant. Milton’s only fault is that most of his prose stinks, but oh! his poetry! Someone who writes poetry like Milton must also be a good, fine upstanding person tuned into the very voice of God.
As with other biographical pieces, Emerson sees his subject through rose-colored glasses. He makes Milton out to be, if not a saint, at the very least an apostle (so Emerson actually describes him at one point). Emerson is really only interesting in this piece when he is doing literary analysis. While he gives Milton great credit for the ideas behind his pamphlets and other prose writings, he asserts that Milton never approaches the likes of Swift and Burke. He criticizes Milton for not writing with reality in view:
Milton seldom deigns a glance at the obstacles that are to be overcome before that which he proposes can be done. There is no attempt to conciliate,–no mediate, no preparatory course suggested,–but, peremptory and impassioned, he demands, on the instant, an ideal justice.
Emerson faults him for wanting to explain every idea in every detail and so failing to subordinate his thoughts to the main argument. He also accuses Milton of writing “whilst he is heated,” rambling with indignation, and fatiguing the reader. Emerson goes so far as to say The Defense of the People of England is the worst of Milton’s works and says, “We could be well content if the flames to which it was condemned at Paris, at Toulouse, and at London, had utterly consumed it.” Ouch!
Areopagitica, on the other hand, is “the most splendid of his prose works.” As much as Emerson trashed Defense of the People, he praises Areopagitica. It is better than Erasmus and still one of the most valuable pieces we have on the reasons for freedom of the press.
Milton’s greatness is really due to his poetry, because
Better than any other he has discharged the office of every great man, namely, to raise the idea of Man in the minds of his contemporaries and of posterity, –to draw after Nature a life of man, exhibiting such a composition of grace, of strength and of virtue, as poet not described nor hero lived. Human nature in these ages is indebted to him for its best portrait.
Bacon, Locke, Addison, Pope, Hume and Johnson can’t hold a candles to Milton. Nor can Rousseau, Pascal or Fenelon. Milton’s mastery of language rivals Shakespeare.
While Emerson’s criticism of Milton’s prose is detached, he mixes biography with discussion of Milton’s poetry so that, while not one and the same, Milton’s life is praised as a poem and Milton’s poetry is praised as being part of his life. It is a bit uncomfortable to my modern taste how much Emerson conflates the two.
Overall the essay is pretty forgettable. Good thing Emerson never tried to make a living as a literary critic!
Next week’s Emerson: Art and Criticism