But if in this respect he falls, both in his earlier and later poems, far below Shakspere or Spenser, the deficiency is all but compensated by his nobleness of feeling and expression, the severity of his taste, his sustained dignity, and the perfectness and completeness of his work. The moral grandeur of the Puritan breathes, even in these lighter pieces of his youth, through every line. The "Comus," planned as a masque for the festivities which the Earl of Bridgewater was holding at Ludlow Castle, rises into an almost impassioned pleading for the love of virtue.
The historic interest of Milton's "Comus" lies in its forming part of a protest made by the more cultured Puritans at this time against the gloomier bigotry which persecution was fostering in the party at large. The patience of Englishmen, in fact, was slowly wearing out. There was a sudden upgrowth of virulent pamphlets of the old Martin Mar-prelate type. Men, whose names no one asked, hawked libels, whose authorship no one knew, from the door of the tradesman to the door of the squire. As the hopes of a Parliament grew fainter, and men despaired of any legal remedy, violent and weak-headed fanatics came, as at such times they always come, to the front. Leighton, the father of the saintly Archbishop of that name, had given a specimen of their tone at the outset of this period, by denouncing the prelates as men of blood, Episcopacy as Antichrist, and the Popish queen as a daughter of Heth. The " Histrio-mastix " of Prynne, a lawyer distinguished for his constitutional knowledge, but the most obstinate and narrow-minded of men, marked the deepening of Puritan bigotry under the fostering warmth of Laud's persecution.
The book was an attack on players as the ministers of Satan, on theatres as the devil's chapels, on hunting, maypoles, the decking of houses at Christmas with evergreens, on cards, music, and false hair. The attack on the stage was as offensive to the more cultured minds among the Puritan party as to the Court itself; Selden and Whitelock took a prominent part in preparing a grand masque by which the Inns of Court resolved to answer its challenge, and in the following year Milton wrote his masque of" Comus" for Ludlow Castle. To leave Prynne, however, simply to the censure of wiser men than himself was too sensible a course for the angry Primate. No man was ever sent to prison before or since for such a sheer mass of nonsense; but a passage in the book was taken as a reflection on the Queen, and his sentence showed the hard cruelty of the Primate. Prynne was dismissed from the bar, deprived of his university degree, and set in the pillory. His ears were clipped from his head, and he was taken back to prison. But the storm of popular passion which was gathering was not so pressing a difficulty to the royal ministers at this time as the old difficulty of the exchequer.
The ingenious devices of the Court lawyers, the revived prerogatives, the illegal customs, the fines and confiscations which were alienating one class after another and sowing in home after home the seeds of a bitter hatred to the Crown, were insufficient to meet the needs of the Treasury; and new exactions were necessary, at a time when the rising discontent made every new exaction a challenge to revolt. A fresh danger had suddenly appeared in an alliance of France and Holland which threatened English dominion over the Channel; and there were rumours of a proposed partition of the Spanish Netherlands between the two powers. It was necessary to put a strong fleet on the seas; and the money which had to be found at home was procured by a stretch of the prerogative which led afterwards to the great contest over ship-money. The legal research of Noy, one of the law officers of the Crown, found precedents among the records in the Tower for the provision of ships for the King's use by the port-towns of the kingdom, and for the furnishing of their equipment by the maritime counties. The precedents dated from times when no permanent fleet existed, and when sea warfare was waged by vessels lent for the moment by the various ports.
But they were seized as a means of equipping a permanent navy without cost to the exchequer; the first demand for ships was soon commuted into a demand of money for the payment of ships; and the writs which were issued to London and the chief English ports were enforced by fine and imprisonment. When Laud took the direction of affairs a more vigorous and unscrupulous impulse made itself felt. To Laud as to Wentworth, indeed, the King seemed over-cautious, the Star Chamber feeble, the judges over-scrupulous. "I am for Thorough," the one writes to the other in alternate fits of impatience at the slow progress they are making. Wentworth was anxious that his good work might not "be spoiled on that side." Laud echoed the wish, while he envied the free course of the Lord Lieutenant. " You have a good deal of honour here," he writes, "for your proceeding. Go on a' God's name. I have done with expecting of Thorough on this side." The financial pressure was seized by both to force the King on to a bolder course. "The debt of the Crown being taken off." Wentworth urged, "you may govern at your will." All pretence of precedents was thrown aside, and Laud resolved to find a permanent revenue in the conversion of the "ship-money," till now levied on ports and the maritime counties, into a general tax imposed by the royal will upon the whole country. "I know no reason," Went-worth had written significantly, "but you may as well rule the common lawyers in England as I, poor beagle, do here;" and the judges no sooner declared the new impost to be legal than he drew the logical deduction from their decision. " Since it is lawful for the King to impose a tax for the equipment of the navy, it must be equally so for the levy of an army: and the same reason which authorizes him to levy an army to resist, will authorize him to carry that army abroad that he may prevent invasion.