Dealing with critics


John Milton responds to ‘a phlegmy clod of an antagonist…a paltry solicitor’ who had ‘cast the gracious eye of his duncery upon the small deserts’ of Milton’s Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce 

Now therefore to your attorney, since no worthier an adversary makes his appearance, nor this neither his appearance, but lurking under the safety of his nameless obscurity; such as ye turn him forth at the postern, I must accept him; and in a better temper than Ajax do mean to scourge this ram for ye, till I meet with his Ulysses.

He begins with law, and we have it of him as good cheap as any huckster at law, newly set up, can possibly afford, and as impertinent; but for that he hath received his handsel. He presumes also to cite the civil law, which I perceive by his citing, never came within his dormitory: yet what he cites, makes but against himself…

Yet can he not leave this argument, but he must needs first show us a curvet of his madness, holding out an objection, and running himself upon the point…[His] own confession declares the weakness of this argument, yet his ungoverned arrogance could not be dissuaded from venting it…

His arguments are spun; now follows the chaplain with his antiquities, wiser if he had refrained, for his very touching aught that is learned soils it, and lays him still more and more open, a conspicuous gull…

I mean not to dispute philosophy with this pork, who never read any. But I appeal to all experience…Came this doctrine out of some school, or some sty? […The] dull argument itself burns too for want of stirring; and yet all this burning is not able to expel the frigidity of his brain…

I believe him heartily: for how should he, a serving-man both by nature and by function, an idiot by breeding, and a solicitor by presumption, ever come to know or feel within himself what the meaning is of “gentle?”…

Only in the passage following I cannot but admire the ripeness and the pregnance of his native treachery, endeavouring to be more a fox than his wit will suffer him…as a country hind, sometimes ambitious to show his betters that he is not so simple as you take him, and that he knows his advantages, will teach us a new trick to confute by…a mere and arrant pettifogger, who lately was so hardy, as to lay aside his buckram-wallet, and make himself a fool in print, with confuting books which are above him… But what should a man say more to a snout in this pickle? What language can be low and degenerate enough? […What] a right handicraftsman he is of petty cases, and how unfit to be aught else at highest, but a hackney of the law…Weigh, gentlemen, and consider whether my affirmations, backed with reason may hold balance against the bare denials of this ponderous confuter, elected by his ghostly patrons to be my copesmate…

Proceeding on to speak of mysterious things in nature, I had occasion to fit the language thereafter; matters not, for the reading of this odious fool, who thus ever, when he meets with aught above the cogitation of his breeding, leaves the noisome stench of his rude slot behind him, maligning that any thing should be spoke or understood above his own genuine baseness; and gives sentence that his confuting hath been employed about a frothy, immeritous, and undeserving discourse. Who could have believed so much insolence durst vent itself from out the hide of a varlet, as thus to censure that which men of mature judgment have applauded to be writ from good reason? But this contents him not; he falls now to rave in his barbarous abusiveness…

I say again, that I abominate the censure of rascals and their licensers. With difficulty I return to what remains of this ignoble task, for the disdain I have to change a period more with the filth and venom of this gourmand, swelled into a confuter; yet for the satisfaction of others I endure all this….Barbarian, the shame of all honest attorneys! why do they not hoist him over the bar and blanket him?

[…At] last, and in good hour, we are come to his farewell, which is to be a concluding taste of his jabberment in law, the flashiest and the fustiest that over corrupted in such an unswilled hogshead….I have now done that, which for many causes I might have thought could not likely have been my fortune, to be put to this underwork of scouring and unrubbishing the low and sordid ignorance of such a presumptuous lozel. Yet Hercules had the labour once imposed upon him to carry dung out of the Augean stable. At any hand I would be rid of him: for I had rather, since the life of man is likened to a scene, that all my entrances and exits might mix with such persons only, whose worth erects them and their actions to a grave and tragic deportment, and not to have to do with clowns and vices. But if a man cannot peaceably walk into the world, but must be infested; sometimes at his face with dors and horseflies, sometimes beneath with bawling whippets and shin barkers, and these to be set on by plot and consultation with a junto of clergymen and licensers…And what defence can properly be used in such a despicable encounter as this, but either the slap or the spurn? If they can afford me none but a ridiculous adversary, the blame belongs not to me, though the whole dispute be strewed and scattered with ridiculous. And if he have such an ambition to know no better who are his mates, but among those needy thoughts, which, though his two faculties of serving-man and solicitor should compound into one mongrel, would be but thin and meagre, if in this penury of soul he can be possible to have the lustiness to think of fame, let him but send me how he calls himself, and I may chance not fail to indorse him on the backside of posterity, not a golden, but a brazen ass. Since my fate extorts from me a talent of sport, which I had thought to hide in a napkin, he shall be my Batrachomuomachia, my Bavius, my Calandrino, the common adagy of ignorance and overweening: nay, perhaps, as the provocation may be, I may be driven to curl up this gliding prose into a rough Sotadic, that shall rhyme him into such a condition, as instead of judging good books to be burnt by the executioner, he shall be readier to be his own hangman. Thus much to this nuisance.


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