The reader who has traced with me thus far the course of Milton's mental development will perhaps be ready to believe, that this idea had taken entire possession of his mind from a very early age. The earliest written record of it is of date 1632, In Sonnet II. This was written as early as the poet's twenty-third year; and in these lines the resolve is uttered, not as then just conceived, but as one long brooded upon, and its non-fulfilment matter of self-reproach.
If this sonnet stood alone, its relevance to a poetical, or even a literary performance, might he doubtful. But at the time of its composition it is enclosed in a letter to an unnamed friend, who seems to have been expressing his surprise that the Cambridge B.A. was not settling himself, now that his education was complete, to a profession. Milton's apologetic letter is extant, and was printed by Birch in 1738. It intimates that Milton did not consider his education, for the purposes he had in view, as anything like complete. It is not "the endless delight of speculation," but "a religious advisement how best to undergo; not taking thought of being late, so it give advantage to be more fit." He repudiates the love of learning for its own sake; knowledge is not an end, it is only equipment for performance. There is here no specific engagement as to the nature of the performance. But what it is to be, is suggested by the enclosure of the "Petrarchian stanza" (i.e. the sonnet). This notion that his life was like Samuel's, a dedicated life, dedicated to a service which required a long probation, recurs again more than once in his writings. It is emphatically repeated, in 1641, in a passage of the pamphlet No. 4:—
None hath by mote studious ways endeavoured, and with more unwearied spirit none shall,—that I dare almost aver of myself, as far as life and full license will extend. Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, not to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the life of whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous acts and affairs. Till which in some measure be compassed, at mine own peril and cost, I refuse not to sustain this expectation, from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them.
In 1638, at the age of nine and twenty, Milton has already determined that this lifework shall be a poem, an epic poem, and that its subject shall probably be the Arthurian legend.
Si quando indigenas revocabo in carmina regea, Arturumque etiam sub terris bella moventem, Aut dicam invictae sociali foedere mensae Magnanimos heroas, et, o modo spiritus adsit! Frangam Saxonicas Britonum sub marte phalangas.
May I find such a friend ... when, if ever, I shall revive in song our native princes, and among them Arthur moving to the fray even in the nether world, and when I shall, if only inspiration be mine, break the Saxon bands before our Britons' prowess.
The same announcement is reproduced in the Epitaphium Damonis, 1639, and, in Pamphlet No. 4, in the often-quoted words:—
Perceiving that some trifles which I had in memory, composed at under twenty, or thereabout, met with acceptance.... I began to assent to them (the Italians) and divers of my friends here at home, and not less to an inward prompting which now grows dally upon me, that by labour and intent study, which I take to be my portion in this life, joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes as they should not willingly let it die.
Between the publication of the collected Poems in 1645, and the appearance of Paradise Lost in 1687, a period of twenty-two years, Milton gave no public sign of redeeming this pledge. He seemed to his cotemporaries to have renounced the follies of his youth, the gewgaws of verse; and to have sobered down into the useful citizen, "Le bon poete," thought Malherbe, "n'est pas plus utile a l'etat qu'un bon joueur de quilles." Milton had postponed his poem, in 1641, till "the land had once enfranchished herself from this impertinent yoke of prelatry, under whose inquisitorious and tyrannical duncery no free and splendid wit can flourish." Prelatry was swept away, and he asked for further remand on account of the war. Peace was concluded, the country was settled under the strong government of a Protector, and Milton's great work did not appear. It was not even preparing. He was writing not poetry but prose, and that most ephemeral and valueless kind of prose, pamphlets, extempore articles on the topics of the day. He poured out reams of them, in simple unconsciousness that they had no influence whatever on the current of events.
Nor was it that, during all these years, Milton was meditating in secret what he could not bring forward in public; that he was only holding back from publishing, because there was no public ready to listen to his song. In these years Milton was neither writing nor thinking poetry. Of the twenty-four sonnets indeed—twenty-four, reckoning the twenty-lined piece, "The forcers of conscience," as a sonnet—eleven belong to this period. But they do not form a continuous series, such as do Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sonnets, nor do they evince a sustained mood of poetical meditation. On the contrary, their very force and beauty consist in their being the momentary and spontaneous explosion of an emotion welling up from the depths of the soul, and forcing itself into metrical expression, as it were, in spite of the writer. While the first eight sonnets, written before 1645, are sonnets of reminiscence and intention, like those of the Italians, or the ordinary English sonnet, the eleven sonnets of Milton's silent period, from 1645 to 1658, are records of present feeling kindled by actual facts. In their naked, unadorned simplicity of language, they may easily seem, to a reader fresh from Petrarch, to be homely and prosaic. Place them in relation to the circumstance on which each piece turns, and we begin to feel the superiority for poetic effect of real emotion over emotion meditated and revived. History has in it that which can touch us more abidingly than any fiction. It is this actuality which distinguishes the sonnets of Milton from any other sonnets. Of this difference Wordsworth was conscious when he struck out the phrase, "In his hand the thing became a trumpet." Macaulay compared the sonnets in their majestic severity to the collects, They remind us of a Hebrew psalm, with its undisguised outrush of rage, revenge, exultation, or despair, where nothing is due to art or artifice, and whose poetry is the expression of the heart, and not a branch of literature. It is in the sonnets we most realise the force of Wordsworth's image—
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea.
We are not then to look in the sonnets for latent traces of the suspended poetic creation They come from the other side of Milton's nature, the political, not the artistic. They are akin to the prose pamphlets, not to Paradise Lost. Just when the sonnets end, the composition of the epic was taken in hand. The last of the sonnets (23 in the ordinary numeration) was written in 1658, and it is to the same year that our authority, Aubrey-Phillips, refers his beginning to occupy himself with Paradise Lost. He had by this time settled the two points about which he had been long in doubt, the subject, and the form. Long before bringing himself to the point of composition, he had decided upon the Fall of man as subject, and upon the narrative, or epic, form, in preference to the dramatic. It is even possible that a few isolated passages of the poem, as it now stands, may have been written before. Of one such passage we know that it was written fifteen or sixteen years before 1658, and while he was still contemplating a drama. The lines are Satan's speech, P. L. iv. 32, beginning,—
O, thou that with surpassing glory crowned.
These lines, Phillips says, his uncle recited to him, as forming the opening of his tragedy. They are modelled, as the classical reader will perceive, upon Euripides. Possibly they were not intended for the very first lines, since if Milton intended to follow the practice of his model, the lofty lyrical tone of this address should have been introduced by a prosaic matter-of-fact setting forth of the situation, as in the Euripidean prologue. There are other passages in the poem which have the air of being insititious in the place where they stand. The lines in Book iv, now in question, may reasonably be referred to 1640-42, the date of those leaves in the Trinity College MS., in which Milton has written down, with his own hand, various sketches of tragedies, which might possibly be adopted as his final choice.
A passage in The Reason of Church Government, written at the same period, 1641, gives us the the fullest account of his hesitation. It was a hesitation caused, partly by the wealth of matter which his reading suggested to him, partly by the consciousness that he ought not to begin in haste while each year was ripening his powers. Every one who has undertaken a work of any length has made the experience, that the faculty of composition will not work with ease, until the reason is satisfied that the subject chosen is a congenial one. Gibbon has told us himself of the many periods of history upon which he tried his pen, even after the memorable 16 October, 1764, when he "sate musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter." We know how many sketches of possible tragedies Recine would make before he could adopt one as the appropriate theme, on which he could work with that thorough enjoyment of the labour, which is necessary to give life and verve to any creation, whether of the poet or the orator.
The leaves of the Trinity College MS., which are contemporary with his confidence to the readers of his tract Of Church Government, exhibit a list of nearly one hundred subjects, which, had occurred to him from time to time as practicable subjects. From the mode of entry we see that, already in 1641, a scriptural was likely to have tie preference over a profane subject, and that among scriptural subjects Paradise Lost (the familiar title appears in this early note), stands out prominently above the rest. The historical subjects are all taken from native history, none are foreign, and all are from the time before the Roman conquest. The scriptural subjects are partly from the Old, partly from the New, Testament. Some of these subjects are named and nothing more, while others are slightly sketched out. Among these latter—are Baptistes, on the death of John the Baptist, and Christus Patiens, apparently to be confined to the agony in the garden. Of Paradise Lost there are four drafts in greater detail than any of the others. These drafts of the plot or action, though none of them that which was finally adopted, are sufficiently near to the action of the poem as it stands, to reveal to as the fact that the author's imaginative conception of what he intended to produce was generated, cast, and moulded, at a comparatively early age. The commonly received notion, therefore, with which authors, as they age, are wont to comfort themselves, that one of the greatest feats of original invention achieved by man, was begun after fifty, must be thus far modified. Paradise Lost was composed after fifty, but was conceived at thirty-two. Hence the high degree of perfection realised in the total result. For there were combined to produce it the opposite virtues of two distinct periods of mental development; the daring imagination and fresh emotional play of early manhood, with the exercised judgment and chastened taste of ripened years. We have regarded the twenty-five years of Milton's life between 1641 and the commencement of Paradise Lost, as time ill laid out upon inferior work which any one could do, and which was not worth doing by any one. Yet it may be made a question if in any other mode than by adjournment of his early design, Milton could have attained to that union of original strength with severe restraint, which distinguishes from all other poetry, except that of Virgil, the three great poems of his old age. If the fatigue of age is sometimes felt in Paradise Regained, we feel in Paradise Lost only (in the words of Chateaubriand), "la maturite de l'age a travers les passions des legeres annees; une charme extraordinaire de vieillesse et de jeunesse."
A still further inference is warranted by the Trinity College jottings of 1641. Not the critics merely, but readers ready to sympathise, have been sometimes inclined to wish that Milton had devoted his power to a more human subject, in which the poet's invention could have had freer play, and for which his reader's interest could have been more ready. And it has been thought that the choice of a Biblical subject indicates the narrowing effect of age, adversity, and blindness combined. We now know that the Fall was the theme, if not determined on, at least predominant in Milton's thoughts, at the age of thirty-two. His ripened judgment only approved a selection made in earlier years, and in days full of hope. That in selecting a scriptural subject he was not In fact exercising any choice, but was determined by his circumstances, is only what must be said of all choosing. With all his originality, Milton was still a man of his age. A Puritan poet, in a Puritan environment, could not have done otherwise. But even had choice been in his power, it is doubtful if he would have had the same success with a subject taken from history.
First, looking at his public. He was to write in English. This, which had at one time been matter of doubt, had at an early stage come to be his decision. Sot had the choice of English been made for the sake of popularity, which he despised. He did not desire to write for the many, but for the few. But he was enthusiastically patriotic. He had entire contempt for the shouts of the mob, but the English nation, as embodied in the persons of the wise and good, he honoured and reverenced with all the depth of his nature. It was for the sake of his nation that he was to devote his life to a work, which was to ennoble her tongue among the languages of Europe.
He was then to write in English, for the English, not popularly, but nationally. This resolution at once limited his subject. He who aspires to be the poet of a nation is bound to adopt a hero who is already dear to that people, to choose a subject and characters which are already familiar to them. This is no rule of literary art arbitrarily enacted by the critics, it is a dictate of reason, and has been the practice of all the great national poets. The more obvious examples will occur to every reader, But it may be observed that even the Greek tragedians, who addressed a more limited audience than the epic poets, took their plots from the best known legends touching the fortunes of the royal houses of the Hellenic race. Now to the English reader of the seventeenth century—and the same holds good to this day—there were only two cycles of persons and events sufficiently known beforehand to admit of being assumed by a poet. He must go either to the Bible, or to the annals of England. Thus far Milton's choice of subject was limited by the consideration of the public for whom he wrote.
Secondly, he was still farther restricted by a condition which the nature of his own intelligence imposed upon himself. It was necessary for Milton that the events and personages, which were to arouse and detain his interests, should be real events and personages. The mere play of fancy with the pretty aspects of things could not satisfy him; he wanted to feel beneath him a substantial world of reality. He had not the dramatist's imagination which can body forth fictitious characters with such life-like reality that it can, and does itself, believe in their existence. Macaulay has truly said that Milton's genius is lyrical, not dramatic. His lyre will only echo real emotion, and his imagination is only stirred by real circumstances. In his youth he had been within the fascination of the romances of chivalry, as well in their original form, as in the reproductions of Ariosto and Spenser. While under this influence he had thought of seeking his subject among the heroes of these lays of old minstrelsy. And as one of his principles was that his hero must be a national hero, it was of course upon the Arthurian cycle that his aspiration fixed. When he did so, he no doubt believed at least the historical existence of Arthur. As soon, however, as he came to understand the fabulous basis of the Arthurian legend, it became unfitted for his use. In the Trinity College MS. of 1641, Arthur has already disappeared from the list of possible subjects, a list which contains thirty-eight suggestions of names from British or Saxon history, such as Vortigern, Edward the Confessor, Harold, Macbeth, &c. While he demanded the basis of reality for his personages, he at the same time, with a true instinct, rejected all that fell within the period of well-ascertained history. He made the Conquest the lower limit of his choice. In this negative decision against historical romance we recognise Milton's judgment, and his correct estimate of his own powers. Those who have been thought to succeed best in engrafting fiction upon history, Shakspeare or Walter Scott, have been eminently human poets, and have achieved their measure of success by investing some well-known name with the attributes of ordinary humanity such as we all know it. This was precisely what Milton could not have done. He had none of that sympathy with which Shakspeare embraced all natural and common affections of his brother men. Milton, burning as he did with a consuming fire of passion, and yearning for rapt communion with select souls, had withal an aloofness from ordinary men sad women, and a proud disdain of commonplace joy and sorrow, which has led hasty biographers and critics to represent him as hard, austere, an iron man of iron mould. This want of interest in common life disqualified him for the task of revivifying historic scenes.
Milton's mental constitution, then, demanded in the material upon which it was to work, a combination of qualities such as very few subjects could offer. The events and personages must be real and substantial, for he could not occupy himself seriously with airy nothings and creatures of pure fancy. Yet they must not be such events and personages as history had pourtrayed to us with well-known characters, and all their virtues, faults, foibles, and peculiarities. And, lastly, it was requisite that they should be the common property and the familiar interest of a wide circle of English readers.
These being the conditions required in the subject, it is obvious that no choice was left to the poet in the England of the seventeenth century but a biblical subject. And among the many picturesque episodes which the Hebrew Scriptures present, the narrative of the Fall stands out with a character of all-embracing comprehensiveness which belongs to no other single event in the Jewish annals. The first section of the book of Genesis clothes in a dramatic form the dogmatic idea from which was developed in the course of ages the whole scheme of Judaico-Christian anthropology. In this world-drama, Heaven above and Hell beneath, the powers of light and those of darkness, are both brought upon the scene in conflict with each other, over the fate of the inhabitants of our globe, a minute ball of matter suspended between two infinities. This gigantic and unmanageable material is so completely mastered by the poet's imagination, that we are made to feel at one and the same time the petty dimensions of our earth in comparison with primordial space and almighty power, and the profound import to us of the issue depending on the conflict. Other poets, of inferior powers, have from time to time attempted, with different degrees of success, some of the minor Scriptural histories; Bodmer, the Noachian Deluge; Solomon Gessner, the Death of Abel, &c. And Milton himself, after he had spent his full strength upon his greater theme, recurred in Samson Agonistes to one such episode, which he had deliberately set aside before, as not giving verge enough for the sweep of his soaring conception.
These considerations duly weighed, it will be found, that the subject of the Fall of Man was not so much Milton's choice as his necessity. Among all the traditions of the peoples of the earth, there is not extant another story which, could have been adequate to his demands. Biographers may have been, somewhat misled by his speaking of himself as "long choosing and beginning late." He did not begin till 1658, when he was already fifty, and it has been somewhat hastily inferred that he did not choose till the date at which he began, But, as we have seen, he had already chosen at least as early as 1642, when, the plan of a drama on the subject, and under the title, of Paradise Lost was fully developed. In the interval between 1642 and 1658, he changed the form from a drama to an epic, but his choice remained unaltered. And as the address to the sun (Paradise Lost, iv, 32) was composed at the earlier of these dates, it appears that he had already formulated even the rhythm and cadence of the poem that was to be. Like Wordsworth's "Warrior"—
He wrought Upon the plan that pleas'd his boyish thought.
I have said that this subject of the Fall was Milton's necessity, being the only subject which his mind, "in the spacious circuits of her musing," found large enough. But as it was no abrupt or arbitrary choice, so it was not forced upon him from without, by suggestion of friends, or command of a patron, We must again remind ourselves that Milton had a Calvinistic bringing up. And Calvinism in pious Puritan souls of that fervent age was not the attenuated creed of the eighteenth century, the Calvinism which went not beyond personal gratification of safety for oneself, and for the rest damnation. When Milton was being reared, Calvinism was not old and effete, a mere doctrine. It was a living system of thought, and one which carried the mind upwards towards the Eternal will, rather than downwards towards my personal security. Keble has said of the old Catholic views, founded on sacramental symbolism, that they are more poetical than any other religious conception. But it must be acknowledged that a predestinarian scheme, leading the cogitation upward to dwell upon "the heavenly things before the foundation of the world," opens a vista of contemplation and poetical framework, with which none other in the whole cycle of human thought can compare. Not election and reprobation as set out in the petty chicanery of Calvin's Institutes, but the prescience of absolute wisdom revolving all the possibilities of time, space, and matter. Poetry has been defined as "the suggestion by the image of noble grounds for noble emotions," and, in this respect, none of the world-epics—there are at most five or six such in existence—can compete with Paradise Lost. The melancholy pathos of Lucretius indeed pierces the heart with a two-edged sword more keen than Milton's, but the compass of Lucretius' horizon is much less, being limited to this earth and its inhabitants. The horizon of Paradise Lost is not narrower than all space, its chronology not shorter than eternity; the globe of our earth becomes a mere spot in the physical universe, and that universe itself a drop suspended in the infinite empyrean. His aspiration had thus reached "one of the highest arcs that human contemplation circling upwards can make from the glassy sea whereon she stands" (Doctr. and Disc.), Like his contemporary Pascal, his mind had beaten her wings against the prison walls of human thought.
The vastness of the scheme of Paradise Lost may become more apparent to us if we remark that, within its embrace, there to be equal place for both the systems of physical astronomy which were current in the seventeenth century. In England, about the time Paradise Lost was being written, the Copernican theory, which placed the sun in the centre of our system, was already the established belief of the few well-informed. The old Ptolemaic or Alphonsine system, which explained the phenomena on the hypothesis of nine (or ten) transparent hollow spheres wheeling round the stationary earth, was still the received astronomy of ordinary people. These two beliefs, the one based on science, though still wanting the calculation which Newton was to supply to make it demonstrative, the other supported by the tradition of ages, were, at the time we speak of, in presence of each other in the public mind. They are in presence of each other also in Milton's epic. And the systems confront each other in the poem, in much the same relative position which they occupied in the mind of the public. The ordinary, habitual mode of speaking of celestial phenomena is Ptolemaic (see Paradise Lost, vii. 339; iii. 481). The conscious, or doctrinal, exposition of the same phenomena is Copernican (see Paradise Lost, viii. 122). Sharp as is the contrast between the two systems, the one being the direct contradictory of the other, they are lodged together, not harmonised, within the vast circuit of the poet's imagination. The precise mechanism of an object so little as is our world in comparison with the immense totality may be justly disregarded. "De minimis non curat poeta." In the universe of being the difference between a heliocentric and a geocentric theory of our solar system is of as small moment, as the reconcilement of fixed fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute is in the realm of absolute intelligence. The one Is the frivolous pastime of devils; the other the Great Architect
Hath left to there disputes, perhaps to move His laughter at their quaint opinions wide.
As one, and the principal, inconsistency in Milton's presentment of his matter has now been, mentioned, a general remark may be made upon the conceptual incongruities in Paradise Lost. The poem abounds in such, and the critics, from Addison downwards, have busied themselves in finding out more and more of them. Milton's geography of the world is as obscure and untenable as that of Herodotus. The notes of time cannot stand together. To give an example: Eve says (Paradise Lost, iv. 449)—
That day I oft remember, when from sleep I first awak'd.
But in the chronology of the poem, Adam himself, whose creation preceded that of Eve, was but three days old at the time this reminiscence is repeated to him. The mode in which the Son of God is spoken of is not either consistent Athanasianism or consistent Arianism. Above all there is an incessant confusion of material and immaterial in the acts ascribed to the angels. Dr. Johnson, who wished for consistency, would have had it preserved "by keeping immateriality out of sight." And a general arraignment has been laid against Milton of a vagueness and looseness of imagery, which contrasts unfavourably with the vivid and precise detail of other poets, of Homer or of Dante, for example.
Now first, it must be said that Milton is not one of the poets of inaccurate imagination. He could never, like Scott, have let the precise picture of the swan on "still Saint Mary's lake" slip into the namby-pamby "sweet Saint Mary's lake." When he intends a picture, he is unmistakably distinct; his outline is firm and hard. But he is not often intending pictures. He is not, like Dante, always seeing—he is mostly thinking in a dream, or as Coleridge best expressed it, he is not a picturesque, but a musical poet. The pictures in Paradise Lost are like the paintings on the walls of some noble hall—only part of the total magnificence. He did not aim at that finish of minute parts in which, each bit fits into every other. For it was only by such disregard of minutiae that the theme could be handled at all. The impression of vastness, the sense that everything, as Bishop Butler says, "runs up into infinity," would have been impaired if he had drawn attention to the details of his figures. Had he had upon his canvas only a single human incident, with ordinary human agents, he would have known, as well as other far inferior artists, how to secure perfection of illusion by exactness of detail. But he had undertaken to present, not the world of human experience, but a supernatural world, peopled by supernatural beings, God and his Son, angels and archangels, devils; a world in which Sin and Death, may be personified without palpable absurdity. Even his one human pair are exceptional beings, from whom we are prepared not to demand conformity to the laws of life which now prevail in our world. Had he presented all these spiritual personages in definite form to the eyes the result would have been degradation. We should have had the ridiculous instead of the sublime, as in the scene of the Iliad, where Diomede wounds Aphrodite in the hand, and sends her crying home to her father. Once or twice Milton has ventured too near the limit of material adaptation, trying to explain how angelic natures subsist, as in the passage (Paradise Lost, v. 405) where Raphael tells Adam that angels eat and digest food like man. Taste here receives a shock, because the incongruity, which before was latent, is forced upon our attention. We are threatened with being transported out of the conventional world of Heaven, Hell, Chaos, and Paradise, to which we had well adapted ourselves, into the real world in which we know that such beings could not breathe and move.
For the world of Paradise Lost is an ideal, conventional world, quite as much as the world of the Arabian Nights, or the world of the chivalrous romance, or that of the pastoral novel. Not only dramatic, but all, poetry is founded on illusion. We must, though it be but for the moment, suppose it true. We must be transported out of the actual world into that world in which the given scene is laid. It is chiefly the business of the poet to effect this transportation, but the reader (or hearer) must aid. "Willst du Dichter ganz verstehen, musst in Dichter's Lande gehen." If the reader's imagination is not active enough to assist the poet, he must at least not resist him. When we are once inside the poet's heaven, our critical faculty may justly require that what takes place there shall be consistent with itself, with the laws of that fantastic world. But we may not begin by objecting that it is impossible that such a world should exist. If, in any age, the power of imagination is enfeebled, the reader becomes more unable to make this effort; he ceases to co-operate with the poet. Much of the criticism on Paradise Lost which we meet with resolves itself into a refusal on the part of the critic, to make that initial abondonment to the conditions which the poet demands; a determination to insist that his heaven, peopled with deities, dominations, principalities, and powers, shall have the same material laws which govern our planetary system. It is not, as we often hear it said, that the critical faculty is unduly developed in the nineteenth century. It is that the imaginative faculty fails us; and when that is the case, criticism is powerless—it has no fundamental assumption upon which its judgments can proceed,
It is the triumph of Milton's skill to have made his ideal world actual, if not to every English mind's eye, yet to a larger number of minds than have ever been reached by any other poetry in our language. Popular (in the common use of the word) Milton has not been, and cannot be. But the world he created has taken possession of the public mind. Huxley complains that the false cosmogony, which will not yield, to the conclusions of scientific research, is derived from the seventh, book of Paradise Lost, rather than, from Genesis. This success Milton owes partly to his selection of his subject, partly to his skill in handling it. In his handling, he presents his spiritual existences with just so much relief as to endow them with life and personality, and not with, that visual distinctness which would at once reveal their spectral immateriality, and so give a shock to the illusion. We might almost say of his personages that they are shapes, "if shape it might be called, that shape had none." By his art of suggestion by association, he does all he can to aid us to realise his agents, and at the moment when distinctness would disturb, he withdraws the object into a mist, and so disguises the incongruities which he could not avoid. The tact that avoids difficulties inherent in the nature of things, is an art which gets the least appreciation either in life or in literature.
But if we would have some measure of the skill which in Paradise Lost has made impossible beings possible to the imagination, we may find it in contrasting them with the incarnated abstraction and spirit voices, which we encounter at every turn in Shelley, creatures who leave behind them no more distinct impression than that we have been in a dream peopled with ghosts. Shelley, too,
Voyag'd th' unreal, vast, unbounded deep Of horrible confusion.
Paradise Lost, x. 470.
and left it the chaos which he found it. Milton has elicited from similar elements a conception so life-like that his poetical version has inseparably grafted itself upon, if it has not taken the place of, the historical narrative of the original creation.
So much Milton has effected by his skilful treatment. But the illusion was greatly facilitated by his choice of subject. He had not to create his supernatural personages, they were already there. The Father, and the Son, the Angels, Satan, Baal and Moloch, Adam and Eve, were in full possession of the popular imagination, and more familiar to it than any other set of known names. Nor was the belief accorded to them a half belief, a bare admission of their possible existence, such as prevails at other times or in some countries. In the England of Milton, the angels and devils of the Jewish Scriptures were more real beings, and better vouched, than any historical personages could be. The old chronicles were full of lies, but this was Bible truth. There might very likely have been a Henry VIII, and he might have been such as he is described, but at any rate he was dead and gone, while Satan still lived and walked the earth, the identical Satan who had deceived Eve.
Nor was it only to the poetic public that his personages were real, true, and living beings. The poet himself believed as entirely in their existence as did his readers. I insist upon this point, because one of the first of living critics has declared of Paradise Lost that it is a poem in which every artifice of invention, is consciously employed, not a single fact being, for an instant, conceived as tenable by any living faith. (Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, p. 138). On the contrary, we shall not rightly apprehend either the poetry or the character of the poet until we feel that throughout Paradise Lost, as in Paradise Regained and Samson, Milton felt himself to he standing on the sure ground of fact and reality. It was not in Milton's nature to be a showman, parading before an audience a phantasmagoria of spirits, which he himself knew to be puppets tricked up for the entertainment of an idle hour. We are told by Lockhart, that the old man who told the story of Gilpin Horner to Lady Dalkeith bona fide believed the existence of the elf. Lady Dalkeith repeated the tale to Walter Scott, who worked it up with consummate skill into the Lay of the Last Minstrel. This is a case of a really believed legend of diablerie becoming the source of a literary fiction. Scott neither believed in the reality of the goblin page himself, nor expected his readers to believe it. He could not rise beyond the poetry of amusement, and no poetry with only this motive can ever be more than literary art.
Other than this was Milton's conception of his own function. Of the fashionable verse, such as was written in the Caroline age, or in any age, he disapproved, not only because it was imperfect art, but because it was untrue utterance. Poems that were raised "from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite," were in his eyes treachery to the poet's high vocation.
* * * * *
Poetical powers "are the inspired gift of God rarely bestowed ... in every nation, and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbation of the mind, and set the affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his church; to sing victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of just and pious nations, doing valiantly through faith against the enemies of Christ; to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and states from justice and God's true worship."
* * * * *
So he had written in 1642, and this lofty faith in his calling supported him twenty years later, in the arduous labour of his attempt to realise his own ideal. In setting himself down to compose Paradise Lost and Regained, he regarded himself not as an author, but as a medium, the mouthpiece of "that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and all knowledge: Urania, heavenly muse," visits him nightly,
And dictates to me Blumb'ring, or inspires Easy my unpremeditated verse.
Paradise Lost, ix. 24.
Urania bestows the flowing words and musical sweetness; to God's Spirit he looks to
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell Of things invisible to mortal sight.
_Paradise Lost,/i>, iii, 50.
The singers with whom he would fain equal himself are not Dante, or Tasso, or, as Dryden would have it, Spenser, but
Blind Thamyris, and blind Maeonides, And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old.
As he in equalled with these in misfortune—loss of sight—he would emulate them in function. Orpheus and Musaeus are the poets he would fain have as the companions of his midnight meditation (Penseroso). And the function of the poet is like that of the prophet in the old dispensation, not to invent, but to utter. It is God's truth which passes His lips—lips hallowed by the touch of sacred fire. He is the passive instrument through whom flows the emanation from on high; His words are not his own, but a suggestion. Even for style Milton is indebted to his "celestial patroness who deigns her nightly visitation unimplor'd."
Milton was not dependent upon a dubious tradition in the subject he had selected. Man's fall and recovery were recorded in the Scriptures. And the two media of truth, the internal and the external, as deriving from the same source, must needs be in harmony. That the Spirit enlightens the mind within, in this belief the Puritan saint, the poet, and the prophet, who all met in Milton, were at one. That the Old Testament Scriptures were also a revelation, from God, was an article of faith which he had never questioned. Nor did he only receive these books as conveying in substance a divine view of the world's history, he regarded them as in the letter a transcript of fact. If the poet-prophet would tell the story of creation or redemption, he was thus restrained not only by the general outline and imagery of the Bible, but by its very words. And here we must note the skill of the poet in surmounting an added or artificial difficulty, in the subject he had chosen as combined with his notion of inspiration. He must not deviate in a single syllable from the words of the Hebrew books. He must take up into his poem the whole of the sacred narrative. This he must do, not merely because his readers would expect such literal accuracy from him, but because to himself that narrative was the very truth which he was, undertaking to deliver. The additions which his fancy or inspiration might supply must be restrained by this severe law, that they should be such as to aid the reader's imagination to conceive how the event took place. They must by no means be suffered to alter, disfigure, traduce the substance or the letter of the revelation. This is what Milton has done. He has told the story of creation in the very words of Scripture. The whole of the seventh book, is little more than a paraphrase of a few verses of Genesis. What he has added is so little incongruous with his original, that most English men and women would probably have some difficulty in discriminating in recollection the part they derive from Moses, from that which they have added from the paraphrast. In Genesis it is the serpent who tempts Eve, in virtue of his natural wiliness. In Milton it is Satan who has entered into the body of a serpent, and supplied the intelligence. Here indeed Milton was only adopting a gloss, as ancient at least as the Book of Wisdom (ii. 24). But it is the gloss, and not the text of Moses, which is in possession of our minds, and who has done most to lodge it there, Milton or the commentators?
Again, it is Milton and not Moses who makes the serpent pluck and eat the first apple from the tree. But Bp. Wilson comments upon the words of Genesis (iii, 6) as though they contained this purely Miltonic circumstance,
It could hardly but he that one or two of the incidents which Milton has supplied, the popular imagination has been unable to homologate. Such an incident is the placing of artillery in the wars in heaven, We reject this suggestion, and find it mars probability. But It would not seam so Improbable to Milton's contemporaries; not only because it was an article of the received poetic tradition (see Ronsard 6, p. 40), but also because fire-arms had not quite ceased to be regarded as a devilish enginery of a new warfare, unfair in the knightly code of honour, a base substitute of mechanism for individual valour. It was gunpowder and not Don Quixote which had destroyed, the age of chivalry,
Another of Milton's fictions which has been found too grotesque is the change (P, L., x. 508) of the demons into serpents, who hiss their Prince on his return from his embassy. Here it is not, I think, so much the unnatural character of the incident itself, as its gratuitousness which offends. It does not help us to conceive the situation. A suggestion of Chateaubriand may therefore go some way towards reconciling the reader even to this caprice of imagination. It indicates, he says, the degradation of Satan, who, from the superb Intelligence of the early scenes of the poem, is become at its close a hideous reptile. He has not triumphed, but has failed, and is degraded into the old dragon, who haunts among the damned. The braising of his head has already commenced.
The bridge, again, which Sin and Death construct (Paradise Lost, x. 300), leading from the mouth of hell to the wall of the world, has a chilling effect upon the imagination of a modern reader. It does not assist the conception of the cosmical system which we accept in the earlier books. This clumsy fiction seems more at home in the grotesque and lawless mythology of the Turks, or in the Persian poet Sadi, who is said by Marmontel to have adopted it from the Turk. If Milton's intention were to reproduce Jacob's ladder, he should, like Dante (Parad, xxi. 25), have made it the means of communication between heaven and earth.
It is possible that Milton himself, after the experiment of Paradise Lost was fully before him, suspected that he had supplemented too much for his purpose; that his imagery, which was designed to illustrate history, might stand in its light. For in the composition of Paradise Regained (published 1671) he has adopted a much severer style. In this poem he has not only curbed his imagination, but has almost suppressed it. He has amplified, but has hardly introduced any circumstance which is not in the original. Paradise Regained is little more than a paraphrase of the Temptation as found in the synoptical gospels. It is a marvel of ingenuity that more than two thousand lines of blank verse can have been constructed out of some twenty lines of prose, without the addition of any invented incident, or the insertion of any irrelevant digression. In the first three books of Paradise Regained there is not a single simile. Nor yet can it be said that the version of the gospel narrative has the fault of most paraphrases, viz., that of weakening the effect, and obliterating the chiselled features of the original. Let a reader take Paradise Regained not as a theme used as a canvas for poetical embroidery, an opportunity for an author to show off his powers of writing, but as a bona fide attempt to impress upon the mind the story of the Temptation, and he will acknowledge the concealed art of the genuine epic poet, bent before all things upon telling his tale. It will still be capable of being alleged that the story told does not interest; that the composition is dry, hard, barren; the style as of set purpose divested of the attributes of poetry. It is not necessary indeed that an epic should be in twelve books; but we do demand in an epic poem multiplicity of character and variety of incident. In Paradise Regained there are only two personages, both of whom are supernatural. Indeed, they can scarcely be called personages; the poet, in his fidelity to the letter, not having thought fit to open up the fertile vein of delineation which was afforded by the human character of Christ. The speakers are no more than the abstract principles of good and evil, two voices who hold a rhetorical disputation through four books and two thousand lines.
The usual explanation of the frigidity of Paradise Regained is the suggestion, which is nearest at hand, viz., that it is the effect of age. Like Ben Jonson's New Inn, it betrays the feebleness of senility, and has one of the most certain marks of that stage of authorship, the attempt to imitate himself in those points in which he was once strong. When "glad no more, He wears a face of joy, because He has been glad of yore." Or it is an "oeuvre de lassitude," a continuation, with the inevitable defect of continuations, that of preserving the forms and wanting the soul of the original, like the second parts of Faust, of Don Quixote, and of so many other books.
Both these explanations of the inferiority of Paradise Regained have probability. Either of them may be true, or both may have concurred to the common effect. In favour of the hypothesis of senility is the fact, recorded by Phillips, that Milton "could not hear with patience any such thing when related to him." The reader will please to note that this is the original statement, which the critics have improved into the statement that he preferred Paradise Regained to Paradise Lost. But his approval of his work, even if it did not amount to preference, looks like the old man's fondness for his youngest and weakest offspring.
Another view of the matter, however, is at least possible. Milton's theory as to the true mode of handling a biblical subject was, as I have said, to add no more dressing, or adventitious circumstance, than should assist the conception of the sacred verity. After he had executed Paradise Lost, the suspicion arose that he had been too indulgent to his imagination; that he had created too much. He would make a second experiment, in which he would enforce his theory with more vigour. In the composition of Paradise Lost he must have experienced that the constraint he imposed upon himself had generated, as was said of Racine, "a plenitude of soul." He might infer that were the compression carried still further, the reaction of the spirit might be still increased. Poetry he had said long before should be "simple, sensuous, impassioned" (Tractate of Education). Nothing enhances passion like simplicity. So in Paradise Regained Milton has carried simplicity of dress to the verge of nakedness. It is probably the most unadorned poem extant in any language. He has pushed severe abstinence to the extreme point, possibly beyond the point, where a reader's power is stimulated by the poet's parsimony.
It may elucidate the intention of the author of Paradise Regained, if we contrast it for a moment with a poem constructed upon the opposite principle, that, viz., of the maximum of adornment, Claudian's Rape of Proserpine (A.D. 400) is one of the most rich and elaborate poems ever written. It has in common with Milton the circumstance that its whole action is contained in a solitary event, viz., the carrying off of Proserpine from the vale of Henna by Pluto, All the personages, too, are superhuman; and the incident itself supernatural. Claudian's ambition was to overlay his story with the gold and jewellery of expression and invention. Nothing is named without being carved, decked, and coloured from the inexhaustible resources of the poet's treasury. This is not done with ostentatious pomp, as the hyperbolical heroes of vulgar novelists are painted, but always with taste, which though lavish is discriminating.
Milton, like Wordsworth, urged his theory of parsimony farther in practice than he would have done, had he not been possessed by a spirit of protest against prevailing error. Milton's own ideal was the chiselled austerity of Greek tragedy. Bat he was impelled to overdo the system of holding back, by his desire to challenge the evil spirit which was abroad. He would separate himself not only from the Clevelands, the Denhams, and the Drydens, whom he did not account as poets at all, but even from the Spenserians. Thus, instead of severe, he became rigid, and his plainness is not unfrequently jejune.
"Pomp and ostentation of reading," he had once written, "is admired among the vulgar; but, in matters of religion, he is learnedest who is plainest." As Wordsworth had attempted to regenerate poetry by recurring to nature and to common objects, Milton would revert to the pure Word of God. He would present no human adumbration of goodness, but Christ Himself. He saw that here absolute plainness was best. In the presence of this unique Being silence alone became the poet. This "higher argument" was "sufficient of itself" (Paradise Lost, ix., 42).
There are some painters whose work appeals only to painters, and not to the public. So the judgment of poets and critics has been more favourable to Paradise Regained than the opinion of the average reader. Johnson thinks that "if it had been written, not by Milton, but by some imitators, it would receive universal praise." Wordsworth thought it "the most perfect in execution of anything written by Milton." And Coleridge says of it, "in its kind it is the most perfect poem extant."
There is a school of critics which maintains that a poem is, like a statue or a picture, a work of pure art, of which beauty is the only characteristic of which the reader should be cognisant. And beauty is wholly ideal, an absolute quality, out of relation to person, time, or circumstance. To such readers Samson Agonistes will seem tame, flat, meaningless, and artificial. From the point of view of the critic of the eighteenth century, it is "a tragedy which only ignorance would admire and bigotry applaud" (Dr. Johnson). If, on the other hand, it be read as a page of contemporary history, it becomes human, pregnant with real woe, the record of an heroic soul, not baffled by temporary adversity, but totally defeated by an irreversible fate, and unflinchingly accepting the situation, in the firm conviction of the righteousness of the cause. If fiction is truer than fact, fact is more tragic than fiction. In the course of the long struggle of human liberty against the church, there had been terrible catastrophes. But the St. Bartholomew, the Revocation of the Edict, the Spanish Inquisition, the rule of Alva in the Low Countries,—these and other days of suffering and rebuke have been left to the dull pen of the annalist, who has variously diluted their story in his literary circumlocution office. The triumphant royalist reaction of 1680, when the old serpent bruised the heel of freedom by totally crushing Puritanism, is singular in this, that the agonised cry of the beaten party has been preserved in a cotemporary monument, the intensest utterance of the most intense of English poets—the Samson Agonistes.
In the covert representation, which we have in this drama, of the actual wreck of Milton, his party, and his cause, is supplied that real basis of truth which was necessary to inspire him to write. It is of little moment that the incidents of Samson's life do not form a strict parallel to those of Milton's life, or to the career of the Puritan cause. The resemblance lies in the sentiment and situation, not in the bare event. The glorious youth of the consecrated deliverer, his signal overthrow of the Philistine foe with means so inadequate that the hand of God was manifest in the victory; his final humiliation, which he owed to his own weakness and disobedience, and the present revelry and feasting of the uncircumsised Philistines in the temple of their idol,—all these things together constitute a parable of which no reader of Milton's day could possibly mistake the interpretation. More obscurely adumbrated is the day of vengeance, when virtue should return to the repentant backslider, and the idolatrous crew should be smitten with a swift destruction in the midst of their insolent revelry. Add to these the two great personal misfortunes of the poet's life, his first marriage with a Philistine woman, out of sympathy with him or his cause, and his blindness; and the basis of reality becomes so complete, that the nominal personages of the drama almost disappear behind the history which we read through them.
But while for the biographer of Milton Samson Agonistes is charged with a pathos, which as the expression of real suffering no fictive tragedy can equal, it must be felt that as a composition the drama is languid, nerveless, occasionally halting, never brilliant. If the date of the composition of the Samson be 1663, this may have been the result of weariness after the effort of Paradise Lost. If this drama were composed in 1667, it would be the author's last poetical effort, and the natural explanation would then be that his power over language was failing. The power of metaphor, i.e. of indirect expression, is, according to Aristotle, the characteristic of genius. It springs from vividness of conception of the thing spoken of. It is evident that this intense action of the presentative faculty is no longer at the disposal of the writer of Samson. In Paradise Regained we are conscious of a purposed restraint of strength. The simplicity of its style is an experiment, an essay of a new theory of poetic words. The simplicity of Samson Agonistes is a flagging of the forces, a drying up of the rich sources from which had once flowed the golden stream of suggestive phrase which makes Paradise Lost a unique monument of the English language. I could almost fancy that the consciousness of decay utters itself in the lines (594)—
I feel my genial spirits droop, My hopes all flat, nature within me seems In all her functions weary of herself, My race of glory run, and race of shame, And I shall shortly be with them that rest.
The point of view I have insisted on is that Milton conceives a poet to be one who employs his imagination to make a revelation of truth, truth which the poet himself entirely believes. One objection to this point of view will at once occur to the reader, the habitual employment in both poems of the fictions of pagan mythology. This is an objection as old as Miltonic criticism. The objection came from those readers who had no difficulty in realising the biblical scenes, or in accepting demoniac agency, but who found their imagination repelled by the introduction of the gods of Greece or Rome. It is not that the biblical heaven and the Greek Olympus are incongruous, but it is that the unreal is blended with the real, in a way to destroy credibility.
To this objection the answer has been supplied by De Quincey. To Milton the personages of the heathen Pantheon were not merely familiar fictions or established poetical properties; they were evil spirits. That they were so was the creed of the early interpreters. In their demonology, the Hebrew and the Greek poets had a common ground. Up to the advent of Christ, the fallen angels had been permitted to delude mankind. To Milton, as to Jerome, Moloch was Mars, and Chemosh Priapus. Plato knew of hell as Tartarus, and the battle of the giants in Hesiod is no fiction, but an obscured tradition of the war once waged in heaven. What has been adverse to Milton's art of illusion is, that the belief that the gods of the heathen world were the rebellious angels has ceased to be part of the common creed of Christendom. Milton was nearly the last of our great writers who was fully possessed of the doctrine. His readers now no longer share it with the poet. In Addison's time (1712) some of the imaginary persons in Paradise Lost were beginning to make greater demands upon the faith of readers, than those cool rationalistic times could meet.
There is an element of decay and death in poems which we vainly style immortal. Some of the sources of Milton's power are already in process of drying up. I do not speak of the ordinary caducity of language, in virtue of which every effusion of the human spirit is lodged in a body of death. Milton suffers little as yet from this cause. There are few lines in his poems which are less intelligible now, than they were at the time they were written. This is partly to be ascribed to his limited vocabulary, Milton, in his verse, using not more than eight thousand words, or about half the number used by Shakespeare. Nay, the position of our earlier writers has been improved by the mere spread of the English language over a wider area. Addison apologised for Paradise Lost falling short of the Aeneid, because of the inferiority of the language in which it was written. "So divine a poem in English is like a stately palace built of brick." The defects of English for purposes of rhythm and harmony are as great now as they ever were, but the space that our speech fills in the world is vastly increased, and this increase of consideration is reflected back upon our older writers.
But if, as a treasury of poetic speech, Paradise Lost has gained by time, it has lost far more as a storehouse of divine truth. We at this day are better able than ever to appreciate its force of expression, its grace of phrase, its harmony of rhythmical movement, but it is losing its hold over our imagination. Strange to say, this failure of vital power in the constitution of the poem is due to the very selection of subject by which Milton sought to secure perpetuity. Not content with being the poet of men, and with describing human passions and ordinary events, he aspired to present the destiny of the whole race of mankind, to tell the story of creation, and to reveal the councils of heaven and hell. And he would raise this structure upon no unstable base, but upon the sure foundation of the written word. It would have been a thing incredible to Milton that the hold of the Jewish Scriptures over the imagination of English men and women could ever be weakened. This process, however, has already commenced. The demonology of the poem has already, with educated readers, passed from the region of fact into that of fiction. Not so universally, but with a large number of readers, the angelology can be no more than what the critics call machinery. And it requires a violent effort from any of our day to accommodate their conceptions to the anthropomorphic theology of Paradise Lost. Were the sapping process to continue at the same rate for two more centuries, the possibility of epic illusion would be lost to the whole scheme and economy of the poem. Milton has taken a scheme of life for life itself. Had he, in the choice of subject, remembered the principle of the Aristotelean Poetic (which he otherwise highly prized), that men in action are the poet's proper theme, he would have raised his imaginative fabric on a more permanent foundation; upon the appetites, passions, and emotions of men, their vices and virtues, their aims and ambitions, which are a far more constant quantity than any theological system. This perhaps was what Goethe meant, when he pronounced the subject of Paradise Lost, to be "abominable, with a fair outside, but rotten inwardly."
Whatever fortune may be in store for Paradise Lost in the time to come, Milton's choice of subject was, at the time he wrote, the only one which offered him the guarantees of reality, authenticity, and divine truth, which he required. We need not therefore search the annals of literature to find the poem which may have given the first suggestion of the fall of man as a subject. This, however, has been done by curious antiquaries, and a list of more than two dozen authors has been made, from one or other of whom Milton may have taken either the general idea or particular hints for single incidents. Milton, without being a very wide reader, was likely to have seen the Adamus Exul of Grotius (1601), and he certainly had read Giles Fletcher's Christ's Victory and Triumph (1610). There are traces of verbal reminiscence of Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas. But out of the long catalogue of his predecessors there appear only three, who can claim to have conceived the same theme with anything like the same breadth, or on the same scale as Milton has done. These are the so-called Caedmon, Andreini, and Vondel.
1. The anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem which passes under the name of Caedmon has this one point of resemblance to the plot of Paradise Lost, that in it the seduction of Eve is Satan's revenge for his expulsion from heaven. As Francis Junius was much occupied upon this poem of which he published the text in 1655, it is likely enough that he should have talked of it with his friend Milton.
2. Voltaire related that Milton during his tour in Italy (1638) had seen performed L'Adamo, a sacred drama by the Florentine Giovanni Battista Andreini, and that he "took from that ridiculous trifle" the hint of the "noblest product of human imagination." Though Voltaire relates this as a matter of fact, it is doubtful if it be more than an on dit which he had picked up in London society. Voltaire could not have seen Andreini's drama, for it is not at all a ridiculous trifle. Though much of the dialogue is as insipid as dialogue in operettas usually is, there is great invention in the plot, and animation in the action. Andreini is incessantly offending against taste, and is infected with the vice of the Marinists, the pursuit of concetti, or far-fetched analogies between things unlike. His infernal personages are grotesque and disgusting, rather than terrible; his scenes in heaven childish—at once familiar and fantastic, in the style of the Mysteries of the age before the drama. With all these faults the Adamo is a lively and spirited representation of the Hebrew legend, and not unworthy to have been the antecedent of Paradise Lost. There is no question of plagiarism, for the resemblance is not even that of imitation or parentage, or adoption. The utmost that can be conceded is to concur in Hayley's opinion that, either in representation or in perusal, the Adamo of Andreini had made an impression on the mind of Milton; had, as Voltaire says, revealed to him the hidden majesty of the subject. There had been at least three editions of the Adamo by 1641, and Milton may have brought one of these with him, among the books which he had shipped from Venice, even, if he had not seen the drama on the Italian stage, or had not, as Todd suggests, met Andreini in person.
So much appears to me to be certain from the internal evidence of the two compositions as they stand. But there are further some slight corroborative circumstances, (i.) The Trinity College sketch, so often referred to, of Milton's scheme when it was intended to be dramatic, keeps much more closely, both in its personages and in its ordering, to Andreini. (ii.) In Phillips's Theatrum Poetarum, a compilation in which he had his uncle's help, Andreini is mentioned as author "of a fantastic poem entitled Olivastro, which was printed at Bologna, 1642." If Andreini was known to Edward Phillips, the inference is that he was known to Milton.
3. Lastly, though external evidence is here wanting, it cannot be doubted that Milton was acquainted with the Lucifer of the Dutch poet, Joost van den Vondel, which appeared in 1654. This poem is a regular five-act drama in the Dutch language, a language which Milton was able to read. In spite of commercial rivalry and naval war there was much intercourse between the two republics, and Amsterdam books came in regular course to London. The Dutch drama turns entirely on the revolt of the angels, and their expulsion from heaven, the fall of man being but a subordinate incident. In Paradise Lost the relation of the two events is inverted, the fall of the angels being there an episode, not transacted, but told by one of the personages of the epic. It is therefore only in one book of Paradise Lost, the sixth, that the influence of Vondel can be looked for. There may possibly occur in other parts of our epic single lines of which an original may be found in Vondel's drama. Notably such a one is the often-quoted—
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Paradise Lost, i. 263.
which is Vondel's—
En liever d'eerste Vorst in eenigh lager hof Dan in't gezalight licht de tweede, of noch een minder!
But it is in the sixth book only in which anything more than a verbal similarity is traceable. According to Mr. Gosse, who has given an analysis, with some translated extracts, of Vondel's Lucifer, the resemblances are too close and too numerous to be mere coincidences. Vondel is more human than Milton, just where human attributes are unnatural, so that heaven is made to seem like earth, while in Paradise Lost we always feel that we are in a region aloft. Miltonic presentation has a dignity and elevation, which is not only wanting but is sadly missed in the Dutch drama, even the language of which seems common and familiar.
The poems now mentioned form, taken together, the antecedents of Paradise Lost. In no one instance, taken singly, is the relation of Milton to a predecessor that of imitation, not even to the extent in which the Aeneid, for instance, is an imitation of the Iliad and Odyssey. The originality of Milton lies not in his subject, but in his manner; not in his thoughts, but in his mode of thinking. His story and his personages, their acts and words, had been the common property of all poets since the fall of the Roman Empire. Not only the three I have specially named had boldly attempted to set forth a mythical representation of the origin of evil, but many others had fluttered round the same central object of poetic attraction. Many of these productions Milton had read, and they had made their due impression on his mind according to their degree of force. When he began to compose Paradise Lost he had the reading of a life-time behind him. His imagination worked upon an accumulated store, to which books, observation, and reflection had contributed in equal proportions. He drew upon this store without conscious distinction of its sources. Not that this was a recollected material, to which the poet had recourse whenever invention failed him; it was identified with himself. His verse flowed from his own soul, but his was a soul which had grown up nourished with the spoil of all the ages. He created his epic, as metaphysicians have said that God created the world, by drawing it out of himself, not by building it up out of elements supplied ab extra.
The resemblances to earlier poets, Greek, Latin, Italian, which could be pointed out in Paradise Lost, were so numerous that in 1695, only twenty-one years after Milton's death, an editor, one Patrick Hume, a schoolmaster in the neighbourhood of London, was employed by Tonson to point out the imitations in an annotated edition. From that time downwards, the diligence of our literary antiquaries has been busily employed in the same track of research, and it has been extended to the English poets, a field which was overlooked, or not known to the first collector. The result is a valuable accumulation of parallel passages, which have been swept up into our variorum Miltons, and make Paradise Lost, for English phraseology, what Virgil was for Latin in the middle ages, the centre round which the study moves. The learner, who desires to cultivate his feeling for the fine shades and variations of expression, has here a rich opportunity, and will acknowledge with gratitude the laborious services of Newton, Pearce, the Wartons, Todd, Mitford, and other compilers. But these heaped-up citations of parallel passages somewhat tend to hide from us the secret of Miltonic language. We are apt to think that the magical effect of Milton's words has been produced by painfully inlaying tesserae of borrowed metaphor—a mosaic of bits culled from extensive reading, carried along by a retentive memory, and pieced together so as to produce a new whole, with the exquisite art of a Japanese cabinet-maker. It is sometimes admitted that Milton was a plagiary, but it is urged in extenuation that his plagiarisms were always reproduced in finer forms.
It is not in the spirit of vindicating Milton, but as touching the mystery of metrical language, that I dwell a few moments upon this misconception. It is true that Milton has a way of making his own even what he borrows. While Horace's thefts from Alcaeus or Pindar are palpable, even from the care which he takes to Latinise them, Milton cannot help transfusing his own nature into the words he adopts. But this is far from all. When Milton's widow was asked "if he did not often read Homer and Virgil, she understood it as an imputation upon him for stealing from those authors, and answered with eagerness, that he stole from nobody but the muse who inspired him." This is more true than she knew. It is true there are many phrases or images in Paradise Lost taken from earlier writers—taken, not stolen, for the borrowing is done openly. When Adam, for instance, begs Raphael to prolong his discourse deep into night,—
Sleep, listening to thee, will watch; Or we can bid his absence, till thy song End, and dismiss thee ere the morning shine;
we cannot be mistaken, in saying that we have here a conscious reminiscence of the words of Alcinous to Ulysses in the eleventh book of the Odyssey. Such imitation is on the surface, and does not touch the core of that mysterious combination of traditive with original elements in diction, which Milton and Virgil, alone of poets known to us, have effected. Here and there, many times, in detached places, Milton has consciously imitated. But, beyond this obvious indebtedness, there runs through the whole texture of his verse a suggestion of secondary meaning, a meaning which has been accreted to the words, by their passage down the consecrated stream of classical poetry. Milton quotes very little for a man of much reading. He says of himself (Judgment of Bucer) that he "never could delight in long citations, much less in whole traductions, whether it be natural disposition or education in me, or that my mother bore me a speaker of what God made mine own, and not a translator." And the observation is as old as Bishop Newton, that "there is scarce any author who has written so much, and upon such various subjects, and yet quotes so little from his contemporary authors." It is said that "he could repeat Homer almost all without book." But we know that common minds are apt to explain to themselves the working of mental superiority, by exaggerating the power of memory. Milton's own writings remain a sufficient evidence that his was not a verbal memory. And, psychologically, the power of imagination and the power of verbal memory, are almost always found in inverse proportion.
Milton's diction is the elaborated outcome of all the best words of all antecedent poetry, not by a process of recollected reading and storage, but by the same mental habit by which we learn to speak our mother tongue. Only, in the case of the poet, the vocabulary acquired has a new meaning superadded to the words, from the occasion on which they have been previously employed by others. Words, over and above their dictionary signification, connote all the feeling which has gathered round them by reason of their employment through a hundred generations of song. In the words of Mr. Myers, "without ceasing to be a logical step in the argument, a phrase becomes a centre of emotional force. The complex associations which it evokes, modify the associations evoked by other words in the same passage, in a way distinct from logical or grammatical connection." The poet suggests much more than he says, or as Milton himself has phrased it, "more is meant than meets the ear."
For the purposes of poetry a thought is the representative of many feelings, and a word is the representative of many thoughts. A single word may thus set in motion in us the vibration of a feeling first consigned to letters 3000 years ago. For oratory words should be winged, that they may do their work of persuasion. For poetry words should be freighted, with associations of feeling, that they may awaken sympathy. It is the suggestive power of words that the poet cares for, rather than their current denotation. How laughable are the attempts of the commentators to interpret a line in Virgil as they would a sentence in Aristotle's Physics! Milton's secret lies in his mastery over the rich treasure of this inherited vocabulary. He wielded it as his own, as a second mother-tongue, the native and habitual idiom of his thought and feeling, backed by a massive frame of character, and "a power which is got within me to a passion." (Areopagitica)
When Wordsworth came forward at the end of the eighteenth century with his famous reform of the language of English poetry, the Miltonic diction was the current coin paid out by every versifier. Wordsworth revolted against this dialect as unmeaning, hollow, gaudy, and inane. His reform consisted in dropping the consecrated phraseology altogether, and reverting to the common language of ordinary life. It was necessary to do this in order to reconnect poetry with the sympathies of men, and make it again a true utterance instead of the ingenious exercise in putting together words, which it had become. In projecting this abandonment of the received tradition, it may be thought that Wordsworth was condemning the Miltonic system of expression in itself. But this was not so. Milton's language had become in the hands of the imitators of the eighteenth century sound without sense, a husk without the kernel, a body of words without the soul of poetry. Milton had created and wielded an instrument which was beyond the control of any less than himself. He used it as a living language; the poetasters of the eighteenth century wrote it as a dead language, as boys make Latin verses. Their poetry is to Paradise Lost, as a modern Gothic restoration is to a genuine middle-age church. It was against the feeble race of imitators, and not against the master himself, that the protest of the lake poet was raised. He proposed to do away with the Miltonic vocabulary altogether, not because it was in itself vicious, but because it could now only be employed at secondhand.
One drawback there was attendant upon the style chosen by Milton, viz. that it narrowly limited the circle of his readers. All words are addressed to those who understand them. The Welsh triads are not for those who have not learnt Welsh; an English poem is only for those who understand English. But of understanding English there are many degrees; it requires some education to understand literary style at all. A large majority of the natives of any country possess, and use, only a small fraction of their mother tongue. These people may be left out of the discussion. Confining ourselves only to that small part of our millions which we speak of as the educated classes, that is those whose schooling is carried on beyond fourteen years of age, it will be found that only a small fraction of the men, and a still smaller fraction of the women, fully apprehend the meaning of words. This is the case with what is written in the ordinary language of books. When we pass from a style in which words have only their simple signification, to a style of which the effect depends on the suggestion of collateral association, we leave behind the majority even of these few. This is what is meant by the standing charge against Milton that he is too learned.
It is no paradox to say that Milton was not a learned man. Such men there were in his day, Usher, Selden, Voss, in England; in Holland, Milton's adversary Salmasius, and many more. A learned man was one who could range freely and surely over the whole of classical and patristic remains in the Greek and Latin languages (at least), with the accumulated stores of philological, chronological, historical criticism, necessary for the interpretation of those remains. Milton had neither made these acquisitions, nor aimed at them. He even expresses himself, in his vehement way, with contempt of them. "Hollow antiquities sold by the seeming bulk," "marginal stuffings," "horse-loads of citations and fathers," are some of his petulant outbursts against the learning that had been played upon his position by his adversaries. He says expressly that he had "not read the Councils, save here and there" (Smectymnuus). His own practice had been "industrious and select reading." He chose to make himself a scholar rather than a learned man. The aim of his studies was to improve faculty, not to acquire knowledge. "Who would be a poet must himself be a true poem;" his heart should "contain of just, wise, good, the perfect shape." He devoted himself to self-preparation with the assiduity of Petrarch or of Goethe, "In wearisome labour and studious watchings I have tired out almost a whole youth." "Labour and intense study I take to be my portion in this life." He would know, not all, but "what was of use to know," and form himself by assiduous culture. The first Englishman to whom the designation of our series, Men of Letters, is appropriate, Milton was also the noblest example of the type. He cultivated, not letters, but himself, and sought to enter into possession of his own mental kingdom, not that he might reign there, but that he might royally use its resources in building up a work, which should bring honour to his country and his native tongue.
The style of Paradise Lost is then only the natural expression of a soul thus exquisitely nourished upon the best thoughts and finest words of all ages. It is the language of one who lives in the companionship of the great and the wise of past time. It is inevitable that when such a one speaks, his tones, his accent, the melodies of his rhythm, the inner harmonies of his linked thoughts, the grace of his allusive touch, should escape the common ear. To follow Milton one should at least have tasted the same training through which he put himself. "Te quoque dignum finge deo." The many cannot see it, and complain that the poet is too learned. They would have Milton talk like Bunyan or William Cobbett, whom they understand. Milton did attempt the demagogue in his pamphlets, only with the result of blemishing his fame and degrading his genius. The best poetry is that which calls upon us to rise to it, not that which writes down to us.
Milton knew that his was not the road to popularity. He thirsted for renown, but he did not confound renown with vogue. A poet has his choice between the many and the few; Milton chose the few. "Paucis hujusmodi lectoribus contentus," is his own inscription in a copy of his pamphlets sent by him to Patrick Young. He derived a stern satisfaction from the reprobation with which the vulgar visited him. His divorce tracts were addressed to men who dared to think, and ran the town "numbering good intellects." His poems he wished laid up in the Bodleian Library, "where the jabber of common people cannot penetrate, and whence the base throng of readers keep aloof" (Ode to Rouse). If Milton resembled a Roman republican in the severe and stoic elevation of his character, he also shared the aristocratic intellectualism of the classical type. He is in marked contrast to the levelling hatred of excellence, the Christian trades-unionism of the model Catholic of the mould of S. Francois de Sales whose maxim of life is "marchons avec la troupe de nos freres et compagnons, doucement, paisiblement, et amiablement." To Milton the people are—
But a herd confus'd, A miscellaneous rabble, who extol Things vulgar.
Paradise Regained, iii. 49.
At times his indignation carries him past the courtesies of equal speech, to pour out the vials of prophetic rebuke, when he contemplates the hopeless struggle of those who are the salt of the earth, "amidst the throng and noises of vulgar and irrational men" (Tenure of Kings), and he rates them to their face as "owls and cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs" (Sonnet xii.); not because they will not listen to him, but "because they "hate learning more than toad or asp" (Sonnet ix.).
Milton's attitude must be distinguished from patrician pride, or the noli-me-tangere of social exclusiveness. Nor, again, was it, like Callimachus's, the fastidious repulsion of a delicate taste for the hackneyed in literary expression; it was the lofty disdain of aspiring virtue for the sordid and ignoble.
Various ingredients, constitutional or circumstantial, concurred to produce this repellent or unsympathetic attitude in Milton. His dogmatic Calvinism, from the effects of which his mind never recovered—a system which easily disposes to a cynical abasement of our fellow-men—counted for something. Something must be set down to habitual converse with the classics—a converse which tends to impart to character, as Platner said of Godfrey Hermann, "a certain grandeur and generosity, removed from the spirit of cabal and mean cunning which prevail among men of the world." His blindness threw him out of the competition of life, and back upon himself, in a way which was sure to foster egotism. These were constitutional elements of that aloofness from men which characterised all his utterance. These disposing causes became inexorable fate, when, by the turn of the political wheel of fortune, he found himself alone amid the mindless dissipation and reckless materialism of the Restoration. He felt himself then at war with human society as constituted around him, and was thus driven to withdraw himself within a poetic world of his own creation.
In this antagonism of the poet to his age much was lost; much energy was consumed in what was mere friction. The artist is then most powerful when he finds himself in accord with the age he lives in. The plenitude of art is only reached when it marches with the sentiments which possess a community. The defiant attitude easily slides into paradox, and the mind falls in love with its own wilfulness. The exceptional emergence of Milton's three poems, Paradise Lost, Regained, and Samson, deeply colours their context. The greatest achievements of art—in their kinds have been the capital specimens of a large crop; as the Iliad and Odyssey are the picked lines out of many rhapsodies, and Shakespeare the king of an army of contemporary dramatists. Milton was a survival, felt himself such, and resented it.
Unchang'd, ....Though Fall'n on evil days, On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues; In darkness, and with dangers compass'd round, And solitude.
Paradise Lost, vii. 24.
Poetry thus generated we should naturally expect to meet with more admiration than sympathy. And such, on the whole, has been Milton's reception. In 1678, twenty years after the publication of Paradise Lost, Prior spoke of him (Hind transversed) as "a rough, unhewn fellow, that a man must sweat to read him," And in 1842, Hallam had doubts "if Paradise Lost, published eleven years since, would have met with a greater demand" than it did at first. It has been much disputed by historians of our literature what inference is to be drawn from the numbers sold of Paradise Lost at its first publication. Between 1667 and 1678, a space of twenty years, three editions had been printed, making together some 4500 copies. Was this a large or a small circulation? Opinions are at variance on the point. Johnson and Hallam thought it a large sale, as books went at that time. Campbell, and the majority of our annalists of books, have considered it as evidence of neglect. Comparison with what is known of other cases of circulation leads to no more certain conclusion. On the one hand, the public could not take more than three editions—say 3000 copies—of the plays of Shakespeare in sixty years, from 1623 to 1684. If this were a fair measure of possible circulation at the time, we should have to pronounce Milton's sale a great success. On the other hand, Cleveland's poems ran through sixteen or seventeen editions in about thirty years. If this were the average output of a popular book, the inference would be that Paradise Lost was not such a book.
Whatever conclusion may be the true one from the amount of the public demand, we cannot be wrong in asserting that from the first, and now as then, Paradise Lost has been more admired than read. The poet's wish and expectation that he should find "fit audience, though few," has been fulfilled. Partly this has been due to his limitation, his unsympathetic disposition, the deficiency of the human element in his imagination, and his presentation of mythical instead of real beings. But it is also in part a tribute to his excellence, and is to be ascribed to the lofty strain which requires more effort to accompany, than an average reader is able to make, a majestic demeanour which no parodist has been able to degrade, and a wealth of allusion demanding more literature than is possessed by any but the few whose life is lived with the poets. An appreciation of Milton is the last reward of consummated scholarship; and we may apply to him what Quintilian has said of Cicero, "Ille se profecisse sciat, cui Cicero valde placebit."
Causes other than the inherent faults of the poem long continued to weigh down the reputation of Paradise Lost. In Great Britain the sense for art, poetry, literature, is confined to a few, while our political life has been diffused and vigorous. Hence all judgment, even upon a poet, is biassed by considerations of party. Before 1688 it was impossible that the poet, who had justified regicide, could have any public beyond the suppressed and crouching Nonconformists. The Revolution of 1688 removed this ban, and from that date forward the Liberal party in England adopted Milton as the republican poet. William Hogg, writing in 1690, says of Paradise Lost that "the fame of the poem is spread through the whole of England, but being written in English, it is as yet unknown in foreign lands." This is obvious exaggeration. Lauder, about 1748, gives the date exactly, when he speaks of "that infinite tribute of veneration that has been paid to him these sixty years past." One distinguished exception there was. Dryden, royalist and Catholic though he was, was loyal to his art. Nothing which Dryden ever wrote is so creditable to his taste, as his being able to see, and daring to confess, in the day of disesteem, that the regicide poet alone deserved the honour which his cotemporaries were for rendering to himself. Dryden's saying; "This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too," is not perfectly well vouched, but it would hardly have been invented, if it had not been known to express his sentiments. And Dryden's sense of Milton's greatness grew with his taste. When, in the preface to his State of Innocence (1674), Dryden praised Paradise Lost, he "knew not half the extent of its excellence," John Dennis says, "as more than twenty years afterwards he confessed to me." Had he known it, he never could have produced his vulgar parody, The State of Innocence, a piece upon which he received the compliments of his cotemporaries, as "having refined the ore of Milton."
With the one exception of Dryden, a better critic than poet, Milton's repute was the work of the Whigs. The first edition de luxe of Paradise Lost (1688) was brought out by a subscription got up by the "Whig leader, Lord Somers. In this edition Dryden's pinchbeck epigram so often quoted, first appeared—
Three poets in three distant ages born, &c.
It was the Whig essayist, Addison, whose papers in the Spectator (1712) did most to make the poem popularly known. In 1737, in the height of the Whig ascendancy, the bust of Milton penetrated Westminster Abbey, though, in the generation before, the Dean of that day had refused to admit an inscription on the monument erected to John Phillips, because the name of Milton occurred in it.
The zeal of the Liberal party in the propagation of the cult of Milton was of course encountered by an equal passion on the part of the Tory opposition. They were exasperated by the lustre which was reflected upon Revolution principles by the name of Milton. About the middle of the eighteenth century, when Whig popularity was already beginning to wane, a desperate attempt was made by a rising Tory pamphleteer to crush the new Liberal idol. Dr. Johnson, the most vigorous writer of the day, conspired with one William Lauder, a native of Scotland seeking fortune in London, to stamp out Milton's credit by proving him to be a wholesale plagiarist. Milton's imitations—he had gathered pearls wherever they were to be found—were thus to be turned into an indictment against him. One of the beauties of Paradise Lost is, as has been already said, the scholar's flavour of literary reminiscence which hangs about its words and images. This Virgilian art, in which Milton has surpassed his master, was represented by this pair of literary bandits as theft, and held to prove at once moral obliquity and intellectual feebleness. This line of criticism was well chosen; It was, in fact, an appeal to the many from the few. Unluckily for the plot, Lauder was not satisfied with the amount of resemblance shown by real parallel passages. He ventured upon the bold step of forging verses, closely resembling lines in Paradise Lost, and ascribing these verses to older poets. He even forged verses which he quoted as if from Paradise Lost, and showed them as Milton's plagiarisms from preceding writers. Even these clumsy fictions might have passed without detection at that uncritical period of our literature, and under the shelter of the name of Samuel Johnson. But Lauder's impudence grew with the success of his criticisms, which he brought out as letters, through a series of years, in the Gentleman's Magazine. There was a translation of Paradise Lost into Latin hexameters, which had been made in 1690 by William Hogg. Lander inserted lines, taken from this translation, into passages taken from Massenius, Staphorstius, Taubmannus, neo-Latin poets, whom Milton had, or might have read, and presented these passages as thefts by Milton.
Low as learning had sunk in England in 1750, Hogg's Latin Paradisus amissus was just the book, which tutors of colleges who could teach Latin verses had often in their hands. Mr. Bowle, a tutor of Oriel College, Oxford, immediately recognised an old acquaintance in one or two of the interpolated lines. This put him upon the scent, he submitted Lauder's passages to a closer investigation, and the whole fraud was exposed. Johnson, who was not concerned in the cheat, and was only guilty of indolence and party spirit, saved himself by sacrificing his comrade. He afterwards took ample revenge for the mortification of this exposure, in his Lives of the Poets, in which he employed all his vigorous powers and consummate skill to write down Milton. He undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow at the poet's reputation, and succeeded in damaging it for at least two generations of readers. He did for Milton what Aristophanes did for Socrates, effaced the real man and replaced him by a distorted and degrading caricature.
It was again a clergyman to whom Milton owed his vindication from Lauder's onslaught. John Douglas, afterwards bishop of Salisbury, brought Bowle's materials before the public. But the high Anglican section of English life has never thoroughly accepted Milton. R.S. Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, himself a poet of real feeling, gave expression, in rabid abuse of Milton, to the antipathy which more judicious churchmen suppress. Even the calm and gentle author of the Christian Year, wide heart ill-sorted with a narrow creed, deliberately framed a theory of Poetic for the express purpose, as it would seem, of excluding the author of Paradise Lost from the first class of poets.
But a work such as Milton has constructed, at once intense and elaborate, firmly knit and broadly laid, can afford to wait. Time is all in its favour, and against its detractors. The Church never forgives, and faction does not die out. But Milton has been, for two centuries, getting beyond the reach of party feeling, whether of friends or foes. In each national aggregate an instinct is always at work, an instinct not equal to exact discrimination of lesser degrees of merit, but surely finding out the chief forces which have found expression in the native tongue. This instinct is not an active faculty, and so exposed to the influences which warp the will, it is a passive deposition from unconscious impression. Our appreciation of our poet is not to be measured by our choosing him for our favourite closet companion, or reading him often. As Voltaire wittily said of Dante, "Sa reputation s'affirmera toujours, parce qu'on ne le lit guere." We shall prefer to read the fashionable novelist of each season as it passes, but we shall choose to be represented at the international congress of world poets by Shakespeare and Milton; Shakespeare first, and next MILTON.