Front Page Titles (by Subject) X.: Style. - The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates
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X.: Style. - John Milton, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates 
The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, edited with Introduction and Notes by William Talbot Allison (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1911).
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Although Milton once confessed that he wrote prose with his left hand, he did not entertain too poor an opinion of his power in that respect. He prided himself upon ‘this just and honest manner of speaking.’ He tells us that he loves ‘the sober, plain, and unaffected style of the Scripture,’ and compares it with the ‘crabbed and abstruse writing, knotty Africanisms, the pampered metaphors, the intricate and involved sentences of the fathers, besides the fantastic and declamatory flashes, the cross-jingling periods, which cannot but distrub, and come athwart a settled devotion, worse than the din of bells and rattles.’1 He disliked a ‘coy, flirting style,’ and would not be ‘girded with frumps and curtal gibes, by one who makes sentences by the statute, as if all above three inches long were confiscate.’2 He did not, however, approve a style utterly devoid of humor. He would mix, here and there, ‘such a grim laughter, as may appear at the same time in an austere visage,’ but which would avoid levity or insolence, ‘for even this vein of laughing hath ofttimes a strong and sinewy force in teaching and confuting.’3 Regarding the use of quotations and authorities, he criticizes an opponent for ‘cutting out large docks and creeks into his text to unlade the foolish frigate of his unreasonable authorities.’1 To sum up, Milton holds that a good prose style should be sober, plain, and unaffected, free from foreign idioms, overdrawn metaphors, flashy rhetoric; the periods should be well-sized, but not intricate or involved; humor, an element of force, should be used, so long as it does not shade over into levity; ‘paroxysms of citations’2 should be avoided.
Measuring the style of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates by his own standard, we are of opinion that he fails to uphold it in only two respects: his sentences are frequently intricate and involved, and he uses occasional Latinisms. The modern reader may be inclined to believe that Milton has transgressed the bounds set up for himself in the matter of citations of Scripture, of sentences from the pamphlet Scripture and Reason, and quotations from the Protestant theologians and from the ancients. But one has only to read the First Defence to see how moderate he has been in comparison with himself, and such a work as Dr. Ferne’s Conscience Satisfied, or any of Prynne’s volumes, to receive the impression that Milton has been very sparing in his use of citations in this treatise. It was the fashion of every writer of the seventeenth century to support his claim to learning by much quoting, by long parentheses, and by lugging in ‘scholastical trash,’ as Milton once called it in a moment of loathing of syllogisms. If he seems to indulge somewhat in these sins in this treatise,3 let us be thankful that, on the whole, even in conducting an argument on a theme which is by nature heavy and abstruse, he contrives to be so easy to understand, and so forceful. For in spite of numerous assertions to the contrary, we agree with Professor Trent that Milton is a writer of lucid prose.1 The first part of this treatise, where he takes up ‘the original of kings,’ is highly praised by Tulloch as being ‘one of the most clear and consistent arguments in Milton’s controversial writings.’2 To clearness Milton has added force in the style of this treatise. Except in his failure to explain in whom the power of the people was legitimately vested, whether in the majority of the members of the House of Commons, or in what Prynne called an ‘unparliamentary junto,’ he has shaped a powerful, even an overwhelming argument against tyrannical rulers, Presbyterian divines, and all opponents of the Independent party. Masson speaks of the ‘hammer-like force’ of this piece of writing, and it is easy to gather that a great deal of this vigor is due to Milton’s power as a maker of striking phrases, such as ‘apostate scar crowes,’ ‘dancing divines,’ ‘barking monitories,’ ‘the spleene of a frustrated faction,’ ‘greas’d them thick and deepe,’ ‘presumptuous Sion,’ and scores of others of equal merit. The freshness of his metaphors appeals to us on nearly every page, and his style is loaded with color in all passages of personal description, and in those which deal with the events of history. There are no purple patches in this treatise, no ‘fits of eloquence,’ but plenty of pen-portraits, often thumb-nail sketches, (‘apostate scar crowes,’ for example), of his enemies, and numerous fits of indignation. Milton’s satire, although sharp enough, is less objectionable in this pamphlet than in the majority of his prose pieces. What more delightful specimen of his mordant humor, the grim humor in an austere visage, as he would himself describe it, can be found than his description of the postures and motions of the Presbyterian drill-company of divines?1 If we find in his prose ‘the real Milton,’ as Seeley declares2 —his fire, his sympathy with heroism, his ardor of spirit, his enthusiasm for liberty, and his uncompromising courage—these personal qualities are all fused in the forceful style of this pamphlet. But we find no tenderness in the midst of his strictures, and of his revilings of tyrants on the throne and in the pulpit, no sensible appreciation of the fact that there was some merit in the arguments of his adversaries, and some goodness in their hearts. For this reason, his style in this prose work lacks grace, the tolerant grace of Comus, of L’Allegro, and Il Penseroso; and surely the real Milton was also sending forth his soul in those lovely poems. Iron vigor he shows in abundance in this first apology for the Commonwealth, a noble passion for freedom, a splendid courage, and vast learning, but, alas, a spirit of cruel disdain for fellow-Christians and fellow-countrymen, who also had souls, and who also loved England.
[1 ]Of Reform. in Eng. (Bohn 2. 388).
[2 ]Apol. for Smect. (Bohn 3. 99).
[3 ]Animad. Rem. Def. (Bohn 3. 44).
[1 ]Apol. for Smect. (Bohn 3. 145).
[2 ]Of Reform. in Eng. (Bohn 2. 388).
[3 ]See pp. 25 ff.
[1 ]See his John Milton, Life and Works pp. 155 ff.
[2 ]English Puritanism and its Leaders, p. 224.
[1 ]See pp. 54 ff.
[2 ]‘On Milton’s Political Opinions,’ in Lectures and Addresses, p. 112.