The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 60. Masson’s Life of Milton

The most important English biography produced in the mid-Victorian age was David Masson’s Life of Milton, narrated in connection with the Political, Ecclesiastical, and Literary History of his Time (1859–80). The full title of the book must be given in order to indicate its range; since, when the author had, at last, brought the work to a conclusion, he was warranted in expressing his satisfaction in having “been able to persevere to the very end in the original plan, omitting nothing, slurring nothing, that the plan required.” In a word, this classical book is a history of as momentous a period of twoscore years as is to be found in the national life of England—grouped, on the principle enunciated by Carlyle, round the personal life and labours of one of its greatest men and one of the greatest of English writers. Everything Milton wrote is here taken into account: of every important poem or prose-work from his hand a complete history and a critical analysis are supplied; and he is consistently viewed in connection with his times, with the movements which shaped their course, and with the men from whom those movements sprang, in state and in church, in peace and in war, in learning and in literature. Whether it be in the fascinating picture of Milton in his youth, pure as the Castalian fount from which his soul drank inspiration, and rich with ten talents and the resolve to multiply by cultivating them—or in the complete review of the prose-works which Pattison and others deplored, but which Masson preferred to explain—or in the survey of the last seven years, and of Milton’s surroundings in life and literature, and his solitude in the presence of Paradise Lost—this biography nowhere loses sight of its subject or contracts it within narrower limits than are necessary in relating the life of a great man who, while his name belongs to all times, was himself part of his own. Though the magnitude of the scheme necessitates frequent surveys or retrospects, which sometimes look like digressions, but are not really such, the general arrangement is clear; here and there, perhaps, the scaffolding is still visible. Masson’s style, rather conspicuously, lacked ease and grace, without possessing that irresistible note of individuality—the individuality of genius—which belonged to the style of his friend Carlyle. But, in candour and sincerity, at all events, the biographer of Milton was equal to the editor of Cromwell’s letters, and he surpassed the greater writer in assiduity of research and in the simplicity of his attitude towards the facts of history.

Of the great masters of continental literatures, Dante missed an English biographer of the highest qualities in Richard William Church, though the essays on him by this delightful writer and admirable critic are among the most notable of his literary productions, which include short lives of St. Anselm and of Spenser Goethe, to whom, from Henry Crabb Robinson, the author of the Diary, onwards, a growing body of English readers had, largely under the influence of Carlyle, come to look up with veneration, found in George Henry Lewes the most widely popular of all his biographers. Lewes had made a name for himself by his Biographical History of Philosophy (1845–6), as well as by less ambitious work; in his Life of Goethe (1855) he produced a work of great literary skill; yet it unmistakably lacks the deeper note, which he may have been well-judged in not attempting to force.