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- The Life of John Milton Vol. 3 1643-1649 - 10/128 -


her family to have her with them during the rest of the summer--to which my uncle consented, on the understanding that she was to come hack about Michaelmas (Sept. 29, 1643)." Such, re-expressed in words for the nonce, is Phillips's account as we have already given it. But, as the Divorce Tract was published August 1, 1643, it is clear that, if the cause of that Tract was the persistent, protracted, and contemptuous absence of his wife, then Phillips's memory must have been at fault, and he must have somewhat post-dated the marriage itself. The marriage in that case must have been before Whitsuntide 1643; and the return of the wife to her relations, her refusal to come hack, and Milton's chagrin and anger so occasioned, must have been matters not of after Michaelmas 1643, but of at least a month or two before the August of that year. This is quite a tenable supposition; for there are other inaccuracies in Phillips, and the register of the place and date of Milton's marriage with Mary Powell has not been found. (2) On the whole, however, Phillips's recollections about the marriage are so circumstantial, and there is such a likelihood of their being true, that, until contradictory records shall be produced, it seems right to accept his dating. But then his explanation of the cause of his uncle's speculations about divorce must be wrong. The cause in that case cannot have been the obstinate refusal of his wife to return; for the Divorce Tract must have been written and ready for the press while she was still with him in the Aldersgate Street house (July 1643), and it was actually out (Aug. 1) before she can have reached her father's house at Forest Hill on her granted two months of leave till Michaelmas. What are we to make of this discrepancy? One is puzzled. That a man should have occupied himself on a Tract on Divorce ere his honeymoon was well over--should have written it perseveringly day after day within sound of his newly-wedded wife's footsteps and the very rustle of her dress on the stairs or in the neighbouring room--is a notion all but dreadful. And yet to some such notion, if Phillips's dating is correct, we seem to be shut up. But, if so, more is involved than Phillips knew. The cause of Milton's thoughts about divorce, in that case, must have been the agony of a deadly discovery of his wife's utter unfitness for him when as yet she had not been two months his wife. It must have been the unutterable pain of the dis-illusioned bridegroom, the gnawing sense of his irretrievable mistake, The vision must then pass before our minds of scenes in the Aldersgate Street house, the reverse of the happily connubial, _before_ that sudden departure of the bride back to her father's home, and leading to that incident perhaps rather violently. One seems to hear the sound of differences, of conflicting opinions about this and that, of weeping girlish wilfulness opposed to steady and perhaps too austere prohibitions. "Well, then, I will go back to my mother: I am sure I wish I had never----": "Go": And so the parting may have come about, not wholly by her arrangement, but harshly and with some quarrel on his part. There are not wanting subsequent facts that might lend a plausibility to this version of the story. [Footnote: Milton's mother-in-law, having occasion, seven years afterwards (1651), to advert to her daughter's return home so soon after her marriage, distinctly attributed it to Milton himself. The words are, "He having turned away his wife heretofore for a long space upon some other occasion." I do not think Mrs. Powell was a very accurate lady, and she had no fondness for Milton; but the words seem to imply more than a mere passive consent of Milton to his wife's proposal to revisit her family.] Yet it is the other that one would wish to be true, and that would fit in most naturally with the facts as a whole. That version is that Milton, good-naturedly and perhaps taken by surprise, allowed his wife to go home for two months at her own request, or the request of her relatives, before he had been three months married, and that it was the insult of her nonreturn that revealed to him his mistake in her, and drove him into his speculations about divorce. Only, then, we repeat, Phillips's dating of the marriage and its incidents requires amendment.

In any case the first edition of Milton's _Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce_ was out in London on the 1st of August, 1643. [Footnote: The supposition is always open that, by some oversight, Thomason misdated his copy, putting "Aug." for a much later month. But this is the unlikeliest thing of all.] It was a pamphlet of forty-eight small quarto pages, with an extra page supplying two omitted passages. The text was printed continuously, without division into chapters; at the end.

Both in matter and in manner the Tract was one of the boldest that had ever been submitted to the reading of England. Its thesis is laid down near the beginning in these terms: "_That indisposition, unfitness, or contrarity of mind, arising from a cause in nature unchangeable, hindering and ever likely to hinder the main benefits of conjugal society, which are solace and peace, is a greater reason of divorce than natural frigidity, especially if there be no children, and that there be mutual consent._" This thesis Milton sets himself to argue in all sorts of ways--from natural reason and expediency; from the Scripture doctrine of marriage as it might be gathered from the Mosaic Law and the right interpretation of texts in the Old and New Testaments, notwithstanding one or two individual texts (like that of Matth. v. 31, 32) that had been hackneyed and misunderstood by mere literalists; and from opinions or indications of opinion on the subject that might be found in the works of some of the Protestant Reformers, and other eminent writers. His conclusion was that the notion of the indissolubility of marriage, or even the modified law of England and of other countries, authorizing divorce only for certain gross reasons, were mere relics of superstitious tradition, the concoction of the Canonists and Sacramentalists in the ages of sacerdotal tyranny, unworthy of more enlarged views of justice and liberty, and a canker and cause of incalculable misery in the heart of modern society. Again and again he indicates his consciousness that in announcing this conclusion, and trying to rouse his fellow-countrymen to the necessity of at once including a revision of the Marriage Law in the general Reformation then in progress, he is performing a great public service. Thus, at the very opening: "By which [the precedent of certain liberal hints on the subject by Hugo Grotius], and mine own apprehension of what public duty each man owes, I conceive myself exhorted among the rest to communicate such thoughts as I have, and offer them now, in this general labour of Reformation, to the candid view both of Church and Magistrate; especially because I see it the hope of good men that those irregular and unspiritual courts have spun their utmost date in this land, and some better course must now be constituted. He, therefore, that by adventuring shall be so happy as with success to ease and set free the minds of ingenuous and apprehensive men from this needless thraldom; he that can prove it lawful and just to claim the performance of a fit and matchable conversation no less essential to the prime scope of marriage than the gift of bodily conjunction, or else to have an equal plea of divorce as well as for that corporal deficiency; he that can but lend us the clue that winds out this labyrinth of servitude to such a reasonable and expedient liberty as this--deserves to be reckoned among the public benefactors of civil and human life, above the inventors of wine and oil." [Footnote: This passage is from the first edition; it is not nearly so full in the second.] As such a benefactor, such a champion of a neglected truth and a suppressed human liberty, the anonymous writer offers himself. He knows that he stands alone at present, but he trusts to the power of demonstration addressed to the mind of England, then newly awakened and examining all institutions to their roots.

There is not a word of avowed reference to his own case throughout; and yet from first to last we are aware of young Mary Powell in the background. Inability for "fit and matchable conversation": this is that supreme fault in a wife on which the descant is from first to last, and from which, when it is plainly ingrained and unamendable, the right of divorce is maintained to be, by the law of God and all civil reason, the due deliverance. Hopeless intellectual and spiritual incompatibility between husband and wife: it is on this, though not in these exact words, that Milton harps again and again as in his view the clearest invalidation of marriage, the frustration of the noblest and most divine ends of the institution; an essentially worse frustration, he dares to say in one place, than even that conjugal infidelity which "a gross and boorish opinion, how common soever," would alone resent or recognise. It is marvellous with what richness of varying language he paints to the reader the horrible condition of a man tied for life to a woman with whom he can hold no rational or worthy conversation. "A familiar and co- inhabiting mischief"; "spite of antipathy to fudge together and combine as they may, to their unspeakable weariness and despair of all sociable delight"; "a luckless and helpless matrimony"; "the unfitness and effectiveness of an unconjugal mind"; "a worse condition than the loneliest single life"; "unconversing inability of mind"; "a mute and spiritless mate"; "that melancholy despair which we see in many wedded persons"; "a polluting sadness and perpetual distemper"; "ill-twisted wedlock"; "the disturbance of her unhelpful and unfit society"; "one that must be hated with a most operative hatred"; "forsaken and yet continually dwelt with and accompanied"; "a powerful reluctance and recoil of nature on either side, blasting all the content of their mutual society"; "a violence to the reverend secret of nature"; "to force a mixture of minds that cannot unite"; "two incoherent and uncombining dispositions"; "the undoing or the disheartening of his life"; "the superstitious and impossible performance of an ill-driven bargain"; "bound fast to an uncomplying discord of nature, or, as it oft happens, to an image of earth and phlegm"; "shut up together, the one with a mischosen mate, the other in a mistaken calling"; "committing two ensnared souls inevitably to kindle one another, not with the fire of love, but with a hatred irreconcilable, who, were they severed, would be straight friends in any other relation"; "two carcases chained unnaturally together, or, as it may happen, a living soul bound to a dead corpse"; "enough to abase the mettle of a generous spirit and sink him to a low and vulgar pitch of endeavour in all his actions": such are a few specimens of the phrases with which the tract abounds. [Footnote: Some of the phrases quoted occur in passages added in the second edition; but it is not worth while to distinguish those. Most of the phrases, and those of the same, occur in the third edition.] But one passage may be quoted entire:--

"But some are ready to object that the disposition ought seriously to be considered before. But let them know again that, for all the wariness can be used, it may yet befall a discreet man to be mistaken in his choice, and we have plenty of examples. The soberest and best-governed men are least practised in these affairs; and who knows not that the bashful muteness of a virgin may oft-times hide all the unliveliness and natural sloth which is really unfit for conversation? Nor is there that freedom of access granted or presumed as may suffice to a perfect discerning till too late; and, where any indisposition is suspected, what more usual than the persuasion of friends that acquaintance, as it increases, will amend all? And, lastly, it is not strange though many who have spent their youth chastely are in some things not so quick-sighted while they haste too eagerly to light the nuptial torch: nor is it therefore that for a modest error a man should forfeit so great a happiness, and no charitable means to release him; since they who have lived most loosely, by reason of their bold accustoming, prove most successful in their matches, because their wild affections, unsettling at will, have been as so many divorces to teach them experience; whenas the sober man, honouring the appearance of modesty, and hoping well of every social virtue under that veil, may easily chance to meet ... often with a mind to all other due conversation inaccessible, and to all the more estimable and superior purposes of matrimony useless and almost lifeless; and what a solace, what a fit help, such a consort would be through the whole life of a man is less pain to conjecture than to have experience."

Oh! and is it come to this? Then, as now, nothing so common as that such mischances of marriage, heard of by the world, and the rather if published by the sufferers or one of them, should be received only as excellent amusement for people round about. It is as if the one thing intrinsically and unceasingly comic in the world, for most people, were the fact that it consists of man and woman, as if the institution on which human society is built and by which the succession of earth's generations is maintained, were the one only subject, with most people, for nothing else than laughter. Even now perhaps our disposition to


The Life of John Milton Vol. 3 1643-1649 - 10/128

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