'Tis you that say it, not I. You do the deeds, And your ungodly deeds find me the words.
The exigencies of controversy revealed in Milton not only an inexhaustible store of coarse invective, but also, at times, the flash of real wit. "My fate," he says, with some sense of the incongruity of the thing, "extorts from me a talent of sport, which I had thought to hide in a napkin." We are privileged to hear Milton laugh. It is not mirthful nor gentle laughter, but rather the fierce, harsh, vehement laughter of the Hebrew Psalms, the laughter of scorn, the shooting out of the lips, the saying "Ha, ha." He speaks with his mouth, and swords are in his lips. Thus, of Alexander Morus, Professor of Sacred History at Amsterdam, whom he suspected to be the author of a tract in support of Salmasius, he says: "There is one More, part Frenchman and part Scot, so that one country or one people cannot be quite overwhelmed with the whole infamy of his extraction"; and he indulges himself in a debauch of punning on Morus, the Latin word for a mulberry. In the prelatical controversy, after discussing with his opponent the meaning of the word "angel," he continues: "It is not ordination nor jurisdiction that is angelical, but the heavenly message of the Gospel, which is the office of all ministers alike.... And if you will contend still for a superiority in one person, you must ground it better than from this metaphor, which you may now deplore as the axe-head that fell into the water, and say, 'Alas, master! for it was borrowed'; unless you have as good a faculty to make iron swim, as you had to make light froth sink." In the Apology for Smectymnuus he heaps one grotesque comparison on another. His adversary, the son of Bishop Hall, is like "some empiric of false accusations to try his poisons upon me, whether they would work or not." The learning that was displayed by the champion of Episcopacy and the very typographical arrangement of his book incur an equal contempt: the margin of his treatise "is the sluice most commonly that feeds the drought of his text.... Nor yet content with the wonted room of his margin, but he must cut out large docks and creeks into his text, to unlade the foolish frigate of his unseasonable authorities." His best folios "are predestined to no better end than to make winding-sheets in Lent for pilchers." With this last stroke Milton is so well pleased that he repeats the same prediction in an elaborated form over the works of Salmasius, and even celebrates in numerous verse the forethought and bounty of one who has thus taken pity on the nakedness of fishes.
The fantastic nature of these quips and taunts reminds us that Milton belonged to the age of the metaphysical poets and satirists, the age of Cowley, and Cleveland, and Butler. His prose works have been searched chiefly for passages that may be used to illustrate his poetry; and although the search has been rewarded with many natural coincidences of expression, not a few passages of lofty self-confidence, and some raptures of poetic metaphor, the result has been in the main a disappointment. His admirers, too jealous for the poetic dignity of their hero, have turned away sorrowfully from this memorial heap of odd-shaped missiles, hurled from his dire left hand for the confusion of his enemies. And yet, rightly judged, there is instruction, and an increased reverence for the poet, to be found in these also—in all that wild array of subjects and methods which he commands for the purposes of his prose, but dismisses from the service of his verse. It was a strict and rare selection that he made among the auxiliaries when he addressed himself to the more arduous attempt. Here and there, even in Paradise Lost, his education in the handling of satire and invective stood him in stead. The poem contains more than one "flyting"—to use the Scottish term—and the high war of words between Satan and Abdiel in heaven, or between Satan and Gabriel on earth, could not have been handled save by a master of all the weapons of verbal fence and all the devices of wounding invective. In the great close of the Fourth Book, especially, where the arch-fiend and the archangel retaliate defiance, and tower, in swift alternate flights, to higher and higher pitches of exultant scorn, Milton puts forth all his strength, and brings into action a whole armoury of sarcasm and insult whetted and polished from its earlier prosaic exercise. Even the grotesque element in his humour is not wholly excluded from the Paradise Lost; it has full scope, for once, in the episodical description of the Paradise of Fools—that barren continent, beaten on by the storms of chaos, dark save for some faint glimmerings from the wall of heaven, the inhabitants a disordered and depraved multitude of philosophers, crusaders, monks, and friars, blown like leaves into the air by the winds that sweep those desert tracts. Unlike the Paradise that was lost, this paradise is wholly of Milton's invention, and is the best extant monument to that spirit of mockery and savage triumph which is all the humour that he knows.
The style of his prose works is a style formed upon oratorical models. The long winding sentence, propped on epithets and festooned with digressions, was the habitual vehicle of his meaning. The effect it produces at its best was well described by Marvell, who, in a letter to Milton thanking him for a copy of the Defence of the People of England, remarks: "When I consider how equally it turns and rises with so many figures, it seems to me a Trajan's column, in whose winding ascent we see embossed the several monuments of your learned victories." The clink of the rhyming couplet was not more displeasing to Milton's ear than the continued emphatic bark of a series of short sentences. Accustomed as he was to the heavy-armed processional manner of scholarly Renaissance prose, he felt it an indignity to "lie at the mercy of a coy, flirting style; to be girded with frumps and curtal jibes, by one who makes sentences by the statute, as if all above three inches long were confiscate." Later on in the Apology he returns to this grievance, and describes how his adversary "sobs me out half a dozen phthisical mottoes, wherever he had them, hopping short in the measure of convulsion fits; in which labour the agony of his wit having escaped narrowly, instead of well-sized periods, he greets us with a quantity of thumb-ring posies." The men of the Renaissance despised the homely savour of the native English syntax with its rude rhetoric and abrupt logic and its lore of popular adages and maxims; they had learned to taste a subtler pleasure in the progressive undulations of a long mobile sentence, rising and falling alternately, reaching the limit of its height towards the middle, and at the close either dying away or breaking in a sudden crash of unexpected downward emphasis. This is the sentence preferred by Milton, and, where haste or zeal does not interfere with the leisurely ordering, handled by him with excellent skill. At its best and at its worst alike his prose is the prose of a poet. His sentences rarely conform to any strict periodic model; each idea, as it occurs to him, brings with it a train of variation and enrichment, which, by the time the sentence closes, is often found in sole possession. The architecture depends on melody rather than on logic. The emphasis and burden of the thought generally hangs on the epithets, descriptive terms, and phrases, which he strengthens by arranging them in pairs, after a fashion much practised by poets. Thus, to take a few examples from the Divorce pamphlets, a wife, who should be "an intimate and speaking help," "a ready and reviving associate," to comfort "the misinformed and wearied life of man" with "a sweet and gladsome society," is too often "a mute and spiritless mate," united to her husband in "a disconsolate and unenjoined matrimony," whereby the blessing that was expected with her is changed "into a familiar and coinhabiting mischief, at least into a drooping and disconsolate household captivity, without refuge or redemption." "The mystical and blessed union of marriage can be no way more unhallowed and profaned, than by the forcible uniting of such disunions and separations." "And it is a less breach of wedlock to part with wise and quiet consent betimes, than still to foil and profane that mystery of joy and union with a polluting sadness and perpetual distemper."
The balance of epithet, the delicate music, the sentence that resembles a chain with link added to link rather than a hoop whose ends are welded together by the hammer—these are the characteristics of Milton's prose. They are illustrated in that short passage of the Areopagitica, well known to all readers of English: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat." Or in the striking description of London during the Civil War: "Behold now this vast city, a city of refuge, the mansion-house of liberty, encompassed and surrounded with his protection; the shop of war hath not there more anvils and hammers working, to fashion out the plates and instruments of armed justice in defence of beleaguered truth, than there be pens and heads there, sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching reformation; others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement."
This sonorous balance of phrase and epithet cannot always escape what Milton himself calls "the heathenish battology of multiplying words." It serves the uses of rhetoric rather than of logic, and by the fervour of its repetitions and enlargements unfits his prose for the plainer purposes of argument or exposition. His argument is sometimes destroyed or blemished by the fire that it kindles, his narrative overwhelmed in the tide of passions that it sways.
His vocabulary is extraordinarily rich, and here again the contrast is great between his prose and his verse. A full-bodied and picturesque dictionary might be made of the words that occur only in the prose. Most of these words would be found to derive from the Saxon stock, which yields him almost all his store of invective and vituperation. The resources of his Latinised vocabulary enable him to rise by successive gyrations to a point of vantage above his prey, and then the downward rush that strikes the quarry is a Saxon monosyllable. In this cardinal point of art for those who have to do with the English speech he became the teacher of Burke, who, with a lesser wealth of Saxon at his command, employed it with a more telling parsimony.
Milton avoids no word of humble origin, so it serve his purpose. His contempt finds voice in such expressions as to "huddle" prayers, and to "keck" at wholesome food. Gehazi "rooks" from Naaman; the bishops "prog and pander for fees," and are "the common stales to countenance every politic fetch that was then on foot." The Presbyterians were earnest enough "while pluralities greased them thick and deep"; the gentlemen who accompanied King Charles in his assault on the privileges of the House of Commons were "the spawn and shipwreck of taverns and dicing-houses." The people take their religion from their minister "by scraps and mammocks, as he dispenses it in his Sunday's dole"; and "the superstitious man by his good will is an atheist, but being scared from thence by the pangs and gripes of a boiling conscience, all in a pudder shuffles up to himself such a God and such a worship as is most agreeable to remedy his fear."
There were few incidents in Milton's career, from his personal relations with his college tutor to his choice of blank verse for his epic, that he was not called upon at some time or other in his life to explain and defend. When his free use of homely figures and turns of speech was objected to him, his answer was ready: "Doth not Christ Himself teach the highest things by the similitude of old bottles and patched clothes? Doth He not illustrate best things by things most evil? His own coming to be as a thief in the night, and the righteous man's wisdom to that of an unjust steward?" But the defence is misleading, for the rules that governed Milton's usage are not what it would suggest. When he came to treat of the best and highest things his use of native English became more sparing and dainty, while the rank, strong words that smack of the home soil were all foregone.
His prose works, therefore, help us to appreciate better the tribulations of the process whereby he became a classic poet. Eclecticism and the severe castigation of style are dangerous disciplines for any but a rich temperament; from others they produce only what is exquisite and thin and vapid. The "stylist" of the modern world is generally an interesting invalid; his complexion would lose all its transparency if it were exposed to the weather; his weak voice would never make itself heard in the hubbub of the bazaar. Sunbeams cannot be extracted from cucumbers, nor can the great manner in literature emanate from a chill self-culture. But Milton inherited the fulness and vigour of the Elizabethans, and so could afford to write an epic poem in a selection of the language really used by men. The grandeur of Paradise Lost or Samson Agonistes could never, by any conceivable device of chemistry or magic, be compounded from delicate sensibilities and a superfine ear for music. For the material of those palaces whole provinces were pillaged, and the waste might furnish forth a city.
CHAPTER III PARADISE LOST: THE SCHEME
A prerogative place among the great epics of the world has sometimes been claimed for Paradise Lost, on the ground that the theme it handles is vaster and of a more universal human interest than any handled by Milton's predecessors. It concerns itself with the fortunes, not of a city or an empire, but of the whole human race, and with that particular event in the history of the race which has moulded all its destinies. Around this event, the plucking of an apple, are ranged, according to the strictest rules of the ancient epic, the histories of Heaven and Earth and Hell. The scene of the action is Universal Space. The time represented is Eternity. The characters are God and all his Creatures. And all these are exhibited in the clearest and most inevitable relation with the main event, so that there is not an incident, hardly a line of the poem, but leads backwards or forwards to those central lines in the Ninth Book:—
So saying, her rash hand in evil hour Forth-reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she eat. Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat, Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe That all was lost.
From this point radiates a plot so immense in scope, that the history of the world from the first preaching of the Gospel to the Millennium occupies only some fifty lines of Milton's epilogue. And if the plot be vast, the stage is large enough to set it forth. The size of Milton's theatre gives to his imagination those colossal scenical opportunities which are turned to such magnificent account. De Quincey enumerates some of them—"Heaven opening to eject her rebellious children; the unvoyageable depths of ancient Chaos, with its 'anarch old' and its eternal war of wrecks; these traversed by that great leading Angel that drew after him the third part of the heavenly host; earliest Paradise dawning upon the warrior-angel out of this far-distant 'sea without shore' of chaos; the dreadful phantoms of Sin and Death, prompted by secret sympathy and snuffing the distant scent of 'mortal change on earth,' chasing the steps of their great progenitor and sultan; finally the heart-freezing visions, shown and narrated to Adam, of human misery through vast successions of shadowy generations: all these scenical opportunities offered in the Paradise Lost become in the hands of the mighty artist elements of undying grandeur not matched on earth."
All these grandeurs and beauties are as real and living to-day as they were on the day when Milton conceived them. But the other advantage claimed for his epic, that it deals with matters of the dearest concern to all of us, has been sharply questioned. It was Mr. Pattison's complaint of Paradise Lost that in it "Milton has taken a scheme of life for life itself," and that it requires a violent effort from the modern reader to accommodate his conceptions to the anthropomorphic theology of the poem. The world is now thickly peopled with men and women who, having bestowed their patronage on other ancestors, care little about Adam and Eve, and who therefore feel that Milton's poem is wanting in the note of actuality. Satan himself is not what he used to be; he is doubly fallen, in the esteem of his victims as well as of his Maker, and indeed
Comes to the place where he before had sat Among the prime in splendour, now deposed, Ejected, emptied, gazed, unpitied, shunned, A spectacle of ruin.
"He who aspires," says Mr. Pattison, "to be the poet of a nation is bound to adopt a hero who is already dear to that people." But how if the hero subsequently fall out of vogue, and his name lose its power with a fickle populace? Can even a poet save him?
The drifting away of the popular belief from the tenets of Milton's theology doubtless does something to explain the lukewarm interest taken by most educated English readers in Paradise Lost. But it is a mistake to make much of this explanation. Certainly Milton held his own theological beliefs, as expounded in the poem, in perfect good faith and with great tenacity. But the generation after his own, which first gave him his great fame, was not seduced into admiration by any whole-hearted fellowship in belief. Dryden laments the presence in the poem of so many "machining persons,"—as he calls the supernatural characters of Paradise Lost. At almost the same date Dr. Thomas Burnet was causing a mild sensation in the theological world by expounding the earlier chapters of the Book of Genesis in an allegorical sense, and denying to them the significance of a literal history. Voltaire, while he praises Milton, remarks that the topic of Paradise Lost has afforded nothing among the French but some lively lampoons, and that those who have the highest respect for the mysteries of the Christian religion cannot forbear now and then making free with the devil, the serpent, the frailty of our first parents, and the rib that was stolen from Adam. "I have often admired," he goes on, "how barren the subject appears, and how fruitful it grows under his hands."
It seems likely that Milton himself, before he was fairly caught in the mesh of his own imagination, was well aware that his subject demanded something of the nature of a tour de force. He had to give physical, geometric embodiment to a far-reaching scheme of abstract speculation and thought,—parts of it very reluctant to such a treatment. The necessities of the epic form constrained him. When Satan, on the top of Mount Niphates, exclaims—
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
when Michael promises to Adam, after his expulsion from the garden—
A Paradise within thee; happier far;
Milton must have known as well as any of his critics that this conception of Hell and of Paradise, if insisted on, would have shattered the fabric of his poem. His figures of Sin and Death were of his own invention, and we must not suppose him so obtuse as never to have realised the part that his shaping imagination bore in the presentment of other and greater figures in the poem. In some respects he tried rather to impose a scheme of thought and imagination upon his age than to express the ideas that he found current. His theology and his cosmical conceptions are equally tainted with his individual heresies. He flies in the face of the Athanasian Creed by representing the generation of the Son as an event occurring in time—"on such day as Heaven's great year brings forth." His later poem of Paradise Regained and the posthumous treatise of Christian Doctrine show him an Arian; in the poem the Almighty is made to speak of
This perfect man, by merit called my Son.
His account of the creation of the World as a mere ordering or re-arrangement of the wild welter of an uncreated material Chaos receives no countenance from the Fathers. In many points of theological teaching he is compelled to form definite and even visual conceptions where orthodoxy had cautiously confined itself to vague general propositions. So that the description of Sin and Death and of the causeway built by them between Hell-gates and the World, much as it has been objected to even by admirers of the poem, is only an extreme instance of the defining and hardening process that Milton found needful throughout for the concrete presentment of the high doings which are his theme. He congealed the mysteries of Time and Space, Love and Death, Sin and Forgiveness, into a material system; and in so doing, while paying the utmost deference to his authorities, he yet exercised many a choice with regard to matters indifferent or undefinable. Thus, for instance, he borrows from the Talmud the notion that Satan first learned the existence of a prohibited tree from overhearing a conversation between Adam and Eve. He was surely conscious of what he was doing, and would have been not ill-pleased to learn that the Universe, as he conceived of it, has since been called by his name. It is Milton's Paradise Lost, lost by Milton's Adam and Eve, who are tempted by Milton's Satan, and punished by Milton's God. The stamp of his clear hard imagination is on the whole fabric; and it is not much harder for us to coax ourselves into the belief that his is indeed the very world we inhabit than it was for the men of his own time. The senses and the intellect are older than modern science, and were employed to good effect before the invention of the spectroscope; it is they in their daily operation that make it difficult to leap the gulf which separates the amenities and trivialities of common life from the solemn theatre of the poet's imagination. The objection that the poem has lost much of its value because we are compelled to imagine where our elders believed is of little weight in a case like this, where our lack of belief is not brought home to us until insuperable difficulties are placed in the way of our imagination. Where Milton was freest, there we follow him most gladly; where he wrote in fetters, as notably in some of the scenes transacted in Heaven, our imagination, not our belief, is the first to rebel.
We are deceived by names; the more closely Paradise Lost is studied, the more does the hand of the author appear in every part. The epic poem, which in its natural form is a kind of cathedral for the ideas of a nation, is by him transformed into a chapel-of-ease for his own mind, a monument to his own genius and his own habits of thought. The Paradise Lost is like the sculptured tombs of the Medici in Florence; it is not of Night and Morning, nor of Lorenzo and Giuliano, that we think as we look at them, but solely of the great creator, Michael Angelo. The same dull convention that calls the Paradise Lost a religious poem might call these Christian statues. Each is primarily a great work of art in each the traditions of two eras are blended in a unity that is indicative of nothing but the character and powers of the artist. The Paradise Lost is not the less an eternal monument because it is a monument to dead ideas.
We do not know exactly when Milton made his choice of subject. His Latin verses addressed to Manso, Marquis of Villa, in January 1638-9, show that Arthur and the Round Table was at that time the uppermost theme in his mind, and that the warlike achievement of heroes was the aspect of it that most attracted him. After his return to England in 1639, it is mentioned once again in his elegy on Charles Diodati, and then we hear no more of it. In the tentative list of subjects, made in 1641, Arthur has disappeared, and the story of Paradise Lost already occupies the most conspicuous place, with four separate drafts suggesting different treatments of the theme.
It would be idle to speculate on what Milton might have made of the Arthur legends. One thing is certain; he would have set up the warrior king as a perfectly objective figure, hampered by no allegory, and with no inward and spiritual signification. The national cause, maintained heroically in a hundred battles, and overwhelmed at last by the brute violence of the foreign oppressor, was subject enough for him; he would never have marred his epic by sickly irresolution and the struggles of a divided will in the principal characters. Perhaps his mind reverted to his old dreams when he came to describe the pastimes wherewith the rebel angels beguile their time in Hell:—
Others, more mild, Retreated in a silent valley, sing With notes angelical to many a harp Their own heroic deeds, and hapless fall By doom of battle, and complain that Fate Free Virtue should enthrall to Force or Chance. Their song was partial; but the harmony (What could it less when Spirits immortal sing?) Suspended Hell, and took with ravishment The thronging audience.
This is only one of the very numerous places in Paradise Lost where, before he is well aware of it, we catch Milton's sympathies dilating themselves upon the wrong side.
His researches in British annals, begun at the time when he was still in quest of a theme, convinced him that the whole story of Arthur was "obscured and blemished with fables." He foraged among other British subjects, feeling that the great poem which was designed to raise England to the literary peerage and set her by the side of countries of older fame must deal with a theme of truly national import. Some of the subjects that he jotted down were obviously of too incidental and trivial a nature for his purpose, and a wise instinct confined him to the earlier history of the island, where his own freedom of treatment was less likely to be hampered by an excess of detail. And then, precisely how or when we do not know, the idea came to him that he would treat a subject still larger and of a more tremendous import,—the fortunes, not of the nation, but of the race:—
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful seat.
The attractions that this theme, once hit on, exercised on Milton's mind may easily be guessed. In the first place, it was a sacred subject: an opportunity for leading poetry back to its divine allegiance; and, by the creation of a new species of epic, an escape from a danger which must have been very present to his mind—the danger of too close an imitation of the ancients. More specific reasons concurred in recommending it. In the Garden of Eden he might present to an age which was overrun with a corrupt religion and governed by a decadent court the picture of a religion without a church, of life in its primitive simplicity, and of patriarchal worship without the noisome accretions of later ceremonial. His attitude to the Laudian movement is eloquently expressed, at this same time, in the treatise Of Reformation in England, where he describes how the religious teachers of his own and preceding ages "began to draw down all the divine intercourse betwixt God and the soul, yea, the very shape of God himself into an exterior and bodily form, urgently pretending a necessity and obligement of joining the body in a formal reverence and worship circumscribed; they hallowed it, they fumed it, they sprinkled it, they bedecked it, not in robes of pure innocency, but of pure linen, with other deformed and fantastic dresses, in palls and mitres, gold, and gewgaws fetched from Aaron's old wardrobe or the flamen's vestry: then was the priest set to con his motions and his postures, his liturgies and his lurries, till the soul by this means of over-bodying herself, given up justly to fleshly delights, bated her wing apace downward: and finding the ease she had from her visible and sensuous colleague, the body, in performance of religious duties, her pinions now broken and flagging, shifted off from herself the labour of high soaring any more, forgot her heavenly flight, and left the dull and droiling carcase to plod on in the old road and drudging trade of outward conformity."
But Adam and Eve, Milton is careful to explain, were not ritualists. They recite their evening hymn of praise as they stand at the entrance to their shady lodge:—
This said unanimous, and other rites Observing none, but adoration pure Which God likes best, into their inmost bower Handed they went.
The traits of Milton's Puritanism peep out at unexpected places in the poem. The happy Garden, Adam is told, will be destroyed after the Flood, for a reason that would have been approved by the image-breakers of the Commonwealth:—
To teach thee that God attributes to place No sanctity, if none be thither brought By men who there frequent, or therein dwell.
The palace of Pandemonium is built by Satan's host in an hour, whence men may
Learn how their greatest monuments of fame, And strength, and art, are easily outdone By spirits reprobate;
—a perfectly sound moral, well illustrating Mr. Swinburne's remark that Puritanism has nothing to do with Art, and that the great Puritans and the great artists have never confused them.
Milton must also have been drawn to the theme of Paradise Lost by the scope it promised for scenes of quiet natural beauty:—
All that bowery loneliness, The brooks of Eden mazily murmuring And bloom profuse and cedar arches.
His imagination was so susceptible to a touch of beauty that even in the bare sketch he has left for a drama dealing with the story of Lot and his escape from Sodom we see how likely he was, here also, to fall into the error of Comus. As Lot entertains the angels at supper, "the Gallantry of the town passe by in Procession, with musick and song, to the temple of Venus Urania." The opening Chorus is to relate the course of the city, "each evening every one with mistresse, or Ganymed, gitterning along the streets, or solacing on the banks of Jordan, or down the stream." But in the story of the Garden of Eden the beauty was, for once, on the side of the morality; innocence and purity might be depicted, not, as in a fallen world, clad in complete steel, but at ease in their native haunts, surrounded by all the inexhaustible bounty of an unsubdued and uncorrupted Nature.
The chief dramatic interest of the poem, however, comes in with the great outcast angel, stirred up by his passions of envy and revenge to assault the new-created inhabitants of the Garden. It seems likely that Milton was drawn to this part of his theme by chains of interest and sympathy stronger than he confessed or knew. He was an epic poet, striving to describe great events worthily, but the dramatic situation betrayed him. He knew only that he could draw a rebel leader, noble in bearing, superbly outlined, a worthy adversary of the Most High. But it happened to him, as it has happened to others who have found themselves in a position where Satan could do them a service; before long, as if by some mediaeval compact, the relations are reversed, and the poet is in the service of the Devil. He can hardly have foreseen this chance; although there are not wanting signs in the poem itself that, before it was half completed, he became uneasily conscious of what was happening, and attempted, too late, to remedy it. When he chose his subject he doubtless intended that the centre of interest should be fixed in the Garden of Eden, and did not perceive how of necessity it must tend to sink lower, to that realm in the shadow of darkness, innumerably more populous, inhabited by beings of a nobler origin, of greater (and more human) passions, with a longer and more distinguished history, and with this further claim upon the sympathy of the reader, that they are doomed to an eternity of suffering.
It is worth our while as critics to try to put ourselves in Milton's place at the time when he had made his choice, that we may realise not only the attractions but also the difficulties of the theme. An Italian poet of the early seventeenth century, Giovanni Battista Andreini, from whose drama, entitled Adamo, Milton is alleged to have borrowed some trifles, has made a very full and satisfactory statement of these difficulties in the preface to his play. He mentions, for instance, the unpromising monotony of Adam's life during the time spent in the earthly paradise, and the difficulty of giving verisimilitude to the conversation between the woman and the snake. But he waxes most eloquent on the last and greatest difficulty—"since the composition must remain deprived of those poetic ornaments so dear to the Muses; deprived of the power to draw comparisons from implements of art introduced in the course of years, since in the time of the first man there was no such thing; deprived also of naming (at least while Adam speaks or discourse is held with him), for example, bows, arrows, hatchets, urns, knives, swords, spears, trumpets, drums, trophies, banners, lists, hammers, torches, bellows, funeral piles, theatres, exchequers, infinite things of a like nature, introduced by the necessities of sin;... deprived moreover of introducing points of history, sacred or profane, of relating fictions of fabulous deities, of rehearsing loves, furies, sports of hunting or fishing, triumphs, shipwrecks, conflagrations, enchantments, and things of a like nature, that are in truth the ornament and the soul of poetry."
All these difficulties for Andreini's drama were difficulties also for Milton's poem. Yet no reader of Paradise Lost is found to complain that the poem is lacking in poetic ornament. Milton has successfully surmounted or evaded many of this formidable catalogue of limitations, without the sacrifice of dramatic propriety. It is true that in the course of their morning orisons, addressed to their Maker, Adam and Eve apostrophise the Mists and Exhalations—
that now rise From hill or steaming lake, dusky or gray, Till the sun paint your fleecy skirts with gold;
—where, a purist might urge, neither of them had any right to be acquainted with paint, or skirts, or gold. But anachronisms like these are, after all, only a part of the great anachronism, or postulate rather, whereby Adam and Eve are made to speak the English tongue. In the Twelfth Book Michael is guilty of a graver lapse where he mentions baptism without explanation or apology. On the other hand, Raphael, who had a pleasanter occasion and more time for his retrospective summary, explains the military manoeuvring of angels by what Adam had already seen of the flight of birds, and after describing the great war in Heaven and the fierce hosting of the opposed forces, ventures, at a later point in his story, to illustrate the flowing together of the congregated waters at the Creation by a simile drawn, with apology, from the massing of troops:—
As armies at the call Of trumpet (for of armies thou hast heard) Troop to their standard, so the watery throng, Wave rolling after wave.
In the main Milton studies propriety with regard to the forbidden matters enumerated by Andreini. But he escapes from the full effect of the prohibition by a variety of devices. In the first place, there are the two chief episodes of the poem; Raphael's narration, from the Fifth to the Eighth Book, imparted to Adam as a warning against impending dangers, and conveying an account of the history of the Universe before the Creation of Man; and Michael's narration, in the Eleventh and Twelfth Books, consoling and strengthening Adam, before the Expulsion from the Garden, by a rapid survey of the prospective history of the World from that event down to the Millennium. Considered as a narrator, Michael is very subject to dullness; were it not for the unfailing dignity and magniloquence of his diction, his tale would be merely a bleak compendium of the outlines of Scripture history; but to Raphael is committed the story of the war in Heaven and its amazing sequel,—a story containing passages so brilliant, and so little necessary to be narrated at length, that there is some flavour of inconsistency in Milton's apology for his theme, prefixed to the Ninth Book, where he describes himself as—
Not sedulous by nature to indite Wars, hitherto the only argument Heroic deemed, chief mastery to dissect With long and tedious havoc fabled knights In battles feigned (the better fortitude Of patience and heroic martyrdom Unsung), or to describe races and games Or tilting furniture, emblazoned shields, Impresses quaint, caparisons and steeds, Bases and tinsel trappings, gorgeous knights At joust and tournament; then marshalled feast Served up in hall with sewers and seneshals: The skill of artifice and office mean; Not that which justly gives heroic name To person or to poem! Me, of these Nor skilled nor studious, higher argument Remains, sufficient of itself to raise That name, unless an age too late, or cold Climate, or years, damp my intended wing Depressed; and much they may if all be mine, Not hers who brings it nightly to my ear.
To depreciate war as a subject for the heroic Muse was ungrateful in Milton, who had devoted the whole of his Sixth Book to a description of the "wild work in Heaven" caused by the great rebellion, and had indulged his imagination with some most extravagant fantasies; such as the digging in the soil of Heaven for sulphur and nitre (where the soil of Hell, it may be remarked, yielded gold to the miner), the invention of artillery, and the use of mountains as missiles,
Hurled to and fro with jaculation dire.
He had, moreover, attained to the height of the sublime in that terrific closing scene where the Son, riding forth in single majesty, drives the rebel host over the crystal bounds of Heaven into the wasteful abyss. Wars, in short, hold a conspicuous place in the poem,—conflicts and broils so enormous that—
War seemed a civil game To this uproar.
Races and athletic sports are among the melancholy diversions of the dwellers in Hell during their forced leisure. Even tilts and tournaments are not absent from Paradise Lost, but they are introduced by the second of the devices which enable Milton to extend the scope of his poem; the free and frequent use, namely, of illustrative and decorative comparisons. Thus the spacious hall of Pandemonium is compared to—
A covered field, where champions bold Wont ride in armed, and at the Soldan's chair Defied the best of Panim chivalry To mortal combat, or career with lance.
It is plain that although almost all of the characters of the poem are precluded from making allusion to the events of human history, the poet himself is free; and he uses his freedom throughout. Most of the passages that have gained for Milton the name of a learned poet are introduced by way of simile. At times he employs the simplest epic figure, drawn from the habits of rustic or animal life. But his favourite figure is the "long-tailed simile," or, as it is better called, the decorative comparison, used for its ennobling, rather than for its elucidating virtue. Here he parts company with Homer, and even with Virgil, who could draw on no such vast and various store of history, geography, and romance. From Herodotus to Olaus Magnus, and onward to the latest discoveries in geography and astronomy, the researches of Galileo, and the descriptions given by contemporary travellers of China and the Chinese, or of the North American Indians, Milton compels the authors he had read, both ancient and modern, to contribute to the gracing of his work. It is partly this wealth of implicit lore, still more, perhaps, the subtly reminiscent character of much of his diction, that justifies Mr. Pattison in the remark that "an appreciation of Milton is the last reward of consummated scholarship."
A third device, not the least remarkable of those by which he gives elasticity to his theme, is to be found in the tradition that he adopts with regard to the later history of the fallen angels. A misunderstanding of four verses in the fourteenth chapter of Isaiah, and some cryptic allusions in the Book of Revelations are the chief Scriptural authorities for the Miltonic account of the Fall of the Angels, which is not borrowed from the Fathers, but corresponds rather with the later version popularised in England by the cycles of Miracle Plays. According to the Divine Institutes of Lactantius, the nameless Angel, to whom from the first had been given power over the new-created Earth, was alone infected with envy of the Son of God, his elder and superior, and set himself to vitiate and destroy mankind in the cradle. He tempted Eve, and she fell; after the expulsion from Paradise he set himself also to corrupt the guardian angels who were sent down from Heaven for the protection and education of the increasing race of men. In this attempt also he succeeded; "the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and they took them wives of all which they chose." And they forgot their heavenly estate, and made for themselves a Godless dominion upon Earth. This is the Fall of the Angels as it is narrated at greater length in the recently recovered apocryphal Book of Enoch, and alluded to, perhaps in the Epistles of Peter and of Jude, where are mentioned "the angels that sinned," and "the angels which kept not their first estate." Milton's version brings these angels to the earth, not as protectors of mankind, but as conquerors come from Hell, to possess and occupy the spacious world delivered over to them by the victory of Satan. From that point forward, however, he adopts the tradition whereby Jerome, Lactantius, and others had identified the fallen angels with the gods of the heathen. Whether as conquerors or as corrupted guardians of the human race, they seek the same ends,—to divert worship from the true God, and by the destruction of man, to contrive a solace for their own perdition. They are the inventors of astrology, sooth-saying, divination, necromancy, and black magic; they were once the ministers of God, and still have a presentiment of his acts, so that they can sometimes speak truly of the future by means of oracles and magicians, claiming the while the credit of bringing that to pass which in fact they only foresaw. Milton, in adopting this doctrine, merely followed current belief, and did not, as De Quincey seems to think, hit upon it by a fortunate stroke of genius. He might have found it incidentally but fully set forth in so recent a book as Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, I. iv. "The fall of the angels, therefore," says Hooker, "was pride. Since their fall, their practices have been the clean contrary unto those just mentioned. For, being dispersed, some in the air, some in the earth, some in the water, some among the minerals, dens, and caves that are under the earth; they have by all means laboured to effect a universal rebellion against the laws, and as far as in them lieth utter destruction of the works of God. These wicked spirits the heathen honoured instead of Gods, both generally under the name of dii inferi, 'gods infernal,' and particularly, some in oracles, some in idols, some as household gods, some as nymphs; in a word, no foul or wicked spirit which was not one way or other honoured of men as god, till such time as light appeared in the world, and dissolved the works of the Devil." The argument which Milton himself sets forth for the support of this view was accepted as conclusive in his own age. The Ionian gods, he says, Titan, and Saturn, and Jove, and the rest, the youngest branch of that evil and influential family, were—
Held Gods, yet confessed later than Heaven and Earth Their boasted parents.
They ruled the middle air and had access to no higher or purer heaven. Howsoever Milton came by the doctrine, it was of enormous use to him; it gave him names for his devils, and characters, and a detailed history of the part they had played in human affairs; it was, in short, a key to all the mythologies.
By these devices the author of Paradise Lost escapes the impoverishment of imagination that his subject seemed to impose upon him. On looking once more over Andreini's list of prohibited topics, we are surprised to find how many of them Milton has found a place for. He does introduce points of history, sacred and profane; he relates fictions of fabulous deities; he rehearses loves, furies, triumphs, conflagrations, and things of a like nature. The principal conflagration that he describes is on a very large scale; and the majestic ascent of the Son—
Up to the Heaven of Heavens, his high abode, * * * * * Followed with acclamation, and the sound Symphonious often thousand harps, that tuned Angelic harmonies,
is the grandest triumphal procession in all literature. On the other hand, he manages to dispense with some of the institutions and implements "introduced by the necessities of sin." He has swords and spears, trumpets and drums in plenty. But he has no knives, nor hatchets, nor bellows; and no theatres nor exchequers. There are no urns nor funeral piles, because there is no death; or rather, because the only Death that there is increases the number of persons in the poem by one. Sports of hunting and fishing there are, of course, none; and, although it is an heroic poem, the horse takes little part in the celestial war, is hardly known in hell, and is unheard of on earth until Adam beholds in vision the armed concourse of his corrupt descendants. Nevertheless, the general impression left by the poem is one of richness rather than poverty of poetic ornament. The wealth is most profusely displayed in the books treating of Satan and his followers, but it is not absent from Eden nor from the empyreal Heaven, although in the one case the monotony of the situation, and in the other the poet's evident anxiety to authorise his every step from Scripture, prevent the full display of his power. But Milton is a difficult poet to disable; he is often seen at his best on the tritest theme, which he handles after his own grave fashion by comprehensive statement, measured and appropriate, heightened by none save the most obvious metaphors, and depending for almost all its charm on the quiet colouring of the inevitable epithet, and the solemn music of the cadence:—
Now came still Evening on, and Twilight gray Had in her sober livery all things clad; Silence accompanied; for beast and bird They to their grassy couch, these to their nests, Were slunk, all but the wakeful nightingale. She all night long her amorous descant sung: Silence was pleased. Now glowed the firmament With living sapphires; Hesperus, that led The starry host, rode brightest, till the Moon, Rising in clouded majesty, at length Apparent queen, unveiled her peerless light, And o'er the dark her silver mantle threw.
Darkness, silence, rest, the nightingale's song, the stars, the rising of the moon—these are all the material of this wonderful passage. Yet did ever such beauty fall with night upon such peace, save in Paradise alone?
Once he had got his story, based on his few authorities, with hints unconsciously taken and touches added, perhaps, from his reading of other poets—of Caedmon, Andreini, and Vondel, of Spenser, Sylvester, Crashaw, and the Fletchers—Milton's first task was to reduce it to the strict relations of time and space. His blindness probably helped him by relieving him from the hourly solicitations of the visible world, and giving him a dark and vacant space in which to rear his geometric fabric. Against this background the figures of his characters are outlined in shapes of light, and in this vacancy he mapped out his local Heaven and Hell.
Heaven, as Milton portrays it, is a plain of vast extent, diversified with hills, valleys, woods and streams. In the Second Book he speaks of it as—
Extended wide In circuit, undetermined square or round;
in the Tenth Book it is determined, and is square. It is bounded by battlements of living sapphire, and towers of opal. In the midst is situated a Mount, the dwelling place of the Most High, surrounded by golden lamps, which diffuse night and day alternately—for without twilight and dawn, his dearest memories, Heaven would have been no Heaven to Milton. On a mountain far to the north of this great plain, Satan erects his pyramids and towers of diamond and gold, and establishes his empire, which lasts exactly three days. At his final overthrow the crystal wall of Heaven rolls back, disclosing a gap into the abyss; the rebels, tortured with plagues and thunder, fling themselves in desperation over the verge. They fall for nine days, through Chaos. Chaos is the realm of a king of the same name, who reigns over it with his consort Night. It is of immeasurable extent, quite dark, and turbulent with the raw material of the Cosmos. Just as Milton, for the purposes of his poem, followed the older astronomy, and gave to it a new lease of life in the popular imagination, so also he abides by the older physics. The orderly created World, or Cosmos, is conceived as compounded of four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. None of these four is to be found in Chaos, for each of them is composed of the simpler atoms of Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry, symmetrically arranged in pairs. Thus Air is Hot and Moist, Fire is Hot and Dry, Water is Cold and Moist, Earth is Cold and Dry. Before they are separated and blended by Divine command, the four rudimentary constituents of creation are crowded in repulsive contiguity; they bubble and welter, fight and jostle in the dark, with hideous noises. In its upper strata Chaos is calmer, and is faintly lighted by the effulgence from the partially transparent walls of Heaven.
Below is Hell, newly prepared for the rebels. Like Heaven it is a vast plain; a bituminous lake, played over by livid flames, is one of its principal features; and hard by stands a volcanic mountain, at the foot of which the devils build their palace, and hold their assembly. The nine-fold gates of Hell, far distant, are guarded by Sin and Death, the paramour and the son of Satan. No one has plausibly explained how they came by their office. It was intended to be a perfect sinecure; there was no one to be let in and no one to be let out. The single occasion that presented itself for a neglect of their duty was by them eagerly seized.
During the nine days while the rebels lay on the burning lake, drowsed by its fumes, the World was created. It consists, according to the astronomy followed by Milton, of ten concentric spheres fitted, like Chinese boxes, one within another, and the Earth in the centre. Nine of these are transparent, the spheres, that is to say, of the seven planets (the Sun and the Moon being reckoned as planets), the sphere of the fixed stars, and the crystalline sphere. The outermost sphere, or primum mobile, is opaque and impervious. The whole orbicular World hangs by a golden chain from that part of the battlements of Heaven whence the angels fell. It is connected with Heaven by richly jewelled stairs, to be let down or taken up at pleasure, and can be entered only through an orifice or passage at the top. Between the foot of the stairs and the entrance to the World is a sea or lake of jasper and liquid pearl.
All the interest and meaning of the World is centred in one favoured spot of Earth. Eden is a district of Mesopotamia, and the happy garden, called Paradise, is situated in the east of Eden. It is a raised table-land, surrounded on all sides by a high ridge of hill, thickly wooded, and impenetrable. Its single gate, hewn out of a rock of alabaster, faces eastward, and is accessible only by a pass leading up from the plain and overhung by craggy cliffs. Through Eden runs a river which passes by a tunnel under Paradise, and, rising through the porous earth, waters the garden with springs. It was by this underground passage that Satan entered the garden a second time, when, having been discovered by Ithuriel, and expelled by Gabriel, he had circled the Earth seven times, keeping on the shady side to avoid the gaze of Uriel, and at the end of the week had resolved on another attempt.
The Fall of Man wrought some few changes in the physical configuration of the Universe. Sin and Death built the mighty causeway that connects the orifice of the World with Hell-gates. Provision had to be made under the new dispensation for the peopling of the whole surface of the Earth; so the axis was turned askew, and the beginning ordained of extremes of cold and heat, of storms and droughts, and noxious planetary influences. Night and day were known to man in his sinless state, but the seasons date from his transgression.
The time-scheme of the poem is less carefully defined; indeed, it is not certain that Milton intended accurately to define it. The recurrence of the numbers three and nine, numbers traditionally honoured by poetry, throws suspicion on the efforts of the exact commentators. Even in his statements with regard to spatial relations the poet was not always minutely consistent with himself. The distance from the plain of Heaven to the plain of Hell is said in the First Book to be three times the radius of the World, or, in his own words, the prison of Hell is
As far removed from God and light of Heaven As from the centre thrice to the utmost pole.
The great globe, therefore, that hangs from the floor of Heaven reaches two-thirds of the way down to Hell. Yet in the Second Book Satan, after a long and perilous journey from Hell, comes in view of
This pendent World, in bigness as a star Of smallest magnitude close by the moon.
So small is the World, compared with the wide extent of the empyreal Heaven. But it is not easy to conceive how, in the limited space between Heaven and Hell, the World could so appear to Satan.
A like curious consideration of the passages where time is mentioned reveals a gap in the tale of days enumerated by Milton. We are not told how long it took Satan to reach the Earth. Driven back on precedents and analogies we find them conflicting. The outcast angels took nine days to fall the same distance. But falling, as Moloch points out in his speech at the Infernal Council, was to them less natural than rising; and Raphael, who was subsequently sent to guard the gates of Hell during the Creation, made the ascent easily in part of a day. If we allow a day and a night for Satan's exploratory voyage, the action of the poem, from the heavenly decree which occasioned the rebellion, to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, has been found to occupy thirty-three days, some measured by a heavenly, some by an earthly standard. This would make Adam and Eve about ten days old when they fell. But St. Augustine says that they spent six years in the Earthly Paradise, and the question is better left open.
A graver inconsistency is brought to light by a close study of the framework of the poem. Milton seems to have hesitated as to which of two theories he would adopt concerning the Creation of Man. After their fall both Satan and Beelzebub mention a rumour which had long been current in Heaven of a new race, called Man, shortly to be created. That rumour could hardly have reached the rebels during the progress of the war. Yet in the Seventh Book the Creation appears as a compliment paid to Satan, a counter-move devised after the suppression of the great rebellion. The Omnipotent thus declares his intention:—
But, lest his heart exalt him in the harm Already done, to have dispeopled Heaven— My damage fondly deemed,—I can repair That detriment, if such it be to lose Self-lost, and in a moment will create Another world; out of one man a race Of men innumerable.
This last is the account we must accept. Milton no doubt was attracted by the dramatic superiority of this version, which makes the Creation of Man a minor incident in the great war, so that the human race comes, a mere token and pawn—
Between the pass and fell incensed points Of mighty opposites.
But he was probably also aware that this view had not the highest warrant of orthodoxy.
There is something absurd, perhaps even something repulsive, to the modern mind in this careful, matter-of-fact anatomy of Milton's poem. But it is a useful and necessary exercise, for all his greatest effects are achieved in the realm of the physical and moral sublime, where the moral relations are conditioned chiefly by the physical. There is no metaphysic, nothing spiritual, nothing mysterious, except in name, throughout the whole poem. The so-called spiritual beings are as definitely embodied as man. The rules that Milton followed in dealing with his heavenly essences are very fully laid down in the Treatise of Christian Doctrine. He consigned the Fathers to limbo, and built up his entire system from the words of Scripture. Now the Scriptures, in a hundred passages, attribute human passions and actions to Divine beings. We have no choice, said Milton, but to accept these expressions as the truest to which we can attain. "If after the work of six days it be said of God that 'He rested and was refreshed,' Exodus, xxxi. 17; if it be said that 'He feared the wrath of the enemy,' Deuteronomy, xxxii. 27; let us believe that it is not beneath the dignity of God ... to be refreshed in that which refresheth Him, or to fear in that He feareth." Milton had here the sharp logical dilemma that he loved. Either these expressions are literally true, or they are not. If they are, well and good; if they are not, how can we hope to frame for ourselves better and truer notions of the Deity than those which he has dictated to us as within the reach of our understanding, and fit and proper for us to entertain? So also with angelic beings: Milton dismisses the nine orders of the apocryphal hierarchy—although he enumerates five of them, in the wrong order, in the roll of that recurring verse—
Thrones, Dominations, Princedoms, Virtues, Powers—
and bases himself upon Scripture. There he finds mention of seven chief angels, with some kind of pre-eminence enjoyed by Michael. In the poem he finds employment for only four, Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel, with a few Seraphim and Cherubim, to whom he invariably, and very improperly, assigns a subordinate position.
His angels fight and play games, as they were doing at the gate of Paradise on the evening when Satan first appeared there. They wear solid armour, and so fall a ready prey to the artillery of their foes—
Unarmed they might Have easily, as spirits, evaded swift By quick contraction or remove; but now Foul dissipation followed, and forced rout.
They eat and drink and digest; they even—and here, though we be armed with triple brass, we cannot avoid a sense of shock—they even blush when an indiscreet question is asked of them. When Raphael colours at the inquisitive demands of Adam, it gives a melancholy force to his earlier suggestion—
What if Earth Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein Each to other like more than on Earth is thought?
This is the scheme of things, and these are the actors, that Milton sets in motion. We shall do well to accept the limitations he assigns, and to look in his poem only for what is to be found there. It would be a wearisome and fruitless quest to journey through the Paradise Lost in search of those profound touches of humanity, and those sudden felicities of insight, which abound in the Elizabethans. Subtleties of thought, fine observation of truths that almost evade the attempt to express them, sentences and figures illuminative of the mysteries of human destiny and the intricacies of human character—of all these there is none. If an author's works are to be used as a treasury or garner of wise and striking sayings, the harvest of sensibility and experience, Paradise Lost will yield only a poor handful of gleanings. One such reflection, enforced by a happy figure, occurs in the Third Book, where Satan, disguised as a youthful Cherub, deceives the Archangel Uriel—
So spake the false dissembler unperceived; For neither man nor angel can discern Hypocrisy—the only evil that walks Invisible, except to God alone, By His permissive will, through Heaven and Earth; And oft, though Wisdom wake, Suspicion sleeps At Wisdom's gate, and to Simplicity Resigns her charge, while Goodness thinks no ill Where no ill seems.
Milton plainly had known hypocrisy, and had been deceived by it. But it would be difficult to match this reflection with any single other passage in the whole poem. To say that such reflections are common in Shakespeare would be too moderate a statement; they are the very air he breathes. And even in the lesser dramatists the happy embodiment of observation in a telling figure is to be found on every page. An acute criticism, for instance, is condensed in a dramatic form by Ford, where he describes what may be called low politeness—
Smooth formality Is usher to the rankness of the blood, But impudence bears up the train.
The peculiar combination of formality and impudence that marks ill-breeding was never more happily described than in this figure; the mock solemnity of the usher comes first, and is soon followed by the grimacing antics of the page, while each in his own way implies that the advances of courtesy are a pomp and a deceit. Metaphors of the same kind abound in the work of more modern analytic poets. Here is another parable of a door-keeper, more poetic than Milton's:—
They say that Pity in Love's service dwells, A porter at the rosy temple's gate. I missed him going; but it is my fate To come upon him now beside his wells; Whereby I know that I Love's temple leave, And that the purple doors have closed behind.
In Milton's poetry we find ourselves in a remote atmosphere; far indeed from the shrewd observation of daily life, farther even from that wonderful analysis of emotion which is the pastime of Shakespeare and of Meredith. Beautiful figured writing and keen psychological observation of this kind are beside the purpose of Milton, and beyond his power.
For the time we must forego the attempt to see into the life of things, and must accept in imagination our position as citizens in this strange majestic commonwealth of angels and men. It is no mean city. Noble shapes pass before our eyes. High language is held, and great wars are waged. Events of tremendous import roll on to their destined accomplishment. Golden processions move across the dim expanse of Chaos. Worlds are blown and broken like bubbles. There is concerted song, feasting, and gratulation; dire plots are hatched and blaze forth into light; will clashes with will; Heaven opens, and a torrent of flaming ruin is poured forth into the deep. The Victor, ensconced in his omnipotence, is fiercely triumphant; and in the dark below there is the dull gleam of unconquered pride, deadly courage, and immortal despair. But in the midst of all this vast rivalry of interests and jar of opposed systems, a cry is heard, like that muffled cry which caught Macbeth's ear as he nerved himself for his last fight. It is the cry of the human soul, left homeless and derelict in a universe where she is the only alien. For her the amaranth of the empyreal Heaven is as comfortless as the adamant of Hell. She has lost her Paradise even while Adam's was building—the Paradise where the flowers fade, and loves and hates are mortal.
In the poem itself signs are not wanting that Milton felt the terrible strain imposed upon him by the intense and prolonged abstraction of his theme—its unreality and superhuman elevation. Some of the comparisons that he chooses to illustrate scenes in Hell are taken from the incidents of simple rustic life, and by their contrast with the lurid creatures of his imagination come like a draught of cold water to a traveller in a tropical waste of sand and thorns. It is almost as if the poet himself were oppressed by the suffocation of the atmosphere that he has created, and, gasping for breath, sought relief by summoning up to remembrance the sweet security of pastoral life. So, when the devils are shrunk to enter Pandemonium, they are compared to
Faery elves Whose midnight revels, by a forest-side Or fountain, some belated peasant sees, Or dreams he sees, while overhead the Moon Sits arbitress, and nearer to the Earth Wheels her pale course.
The rejoicings, again, at the end of the infernal consultation, are described in a figure that makes a like impression, and brings the same momentary relief—
As, when from mountain-tops the dusky clouds Ascending, while the North-wind sleeps, o'erspread Heaven's cheerful face, the louring element Scowls o'er the darkened landskip snow or shower, If chance the radiant sun, with farewell sweet, Extend his evening beam, the fields revive, The birds their notes renew, and bleating herds Attest their joy, that hill and valley rings.
The splendid artifice of contrast, noted by De Quincey as one of the subtlest of Milton's devices, is illustrated, perhaps, by both these passages. De Quincey instances neither, but chooses, as examples of the way in which two images may act and react, heightening each other by contrast—first, the use of architectural terms in describing Paradise; next, the exhibition of a banquet in the desert in Paradise Regained—"stimulating the sense of its utter solitude and remotion from men and cities"; and, last and best, the comparison of Satan, in the same poem, to an old man gathering sticks upon a winter's day. "The household image of old age, of human infirmity, and of domestic hearths, are all meant as a machinery for provoking and soliciting the fearful idea to which they are placed in collision, and as so many repelling poles."
This is clever criticism and true philosophy. But the chief effect from the more elaborate figures of this kind is to be found merely in the reprieve and refreshment that they bring. There is a sense of pathos, almost of tears, in being allowed, for one moment only, to taste reality again, to revisit familiar scenes, before we are once more bound on the slow wheel of unnatural events that is urged forward by the poet. Nothing in Eden comes home to the feelings more directly than the simile used to describe Satan as he watches Eve on the morning of the temptation—
As one who, long in populous city pent, Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air, Forth issuing on a summer's morn, to breathe Among the pleasant villages and farms Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight— The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine, Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound— If chance with nymph-like step fair virgin pass, What pleasing seemed for her now pleases more, She most, and in her look sums all delight: Such pleasure took the Serpent to behold This flowery plot, the sweet recess of Eve.
The Serpent is glad to escape from Hell, to breathe the morning air of Eden. But how glad we are to escape from Eden
To breathe Among the pleasant villages and farms!
There are no villages and farms in Eden, no smell of hay, no sheaves of corn, no cottages, no roads, and no trace of that most human of symbols, the thin blue scarf of smoke rising from a wayside encampment. Even when we are privileged to assist at the first festal celebration of hospitality on Earth, the dinner given to the Angel, for which Eve gathers
Fruit of all kinds, in coat Rough or smooth rined, or bearded husk, or shell,
and heaps them, with bountiful hand, on the table of raised turf, we are not perfectly at ease with our hosts. Not all the dignity of Adam, nor all the beauty of Eve, can make us forget that they are nut-eaters, that they have not the art of cooking, and do not ferment the juice of the grape. A short stay in Eden teaches us the sad truth that we are dependent, not only for the pleasures of our life, but even for many of the dearest pleasures of our imagination, on the devices "introduced by the necessities of sin." We cannot settle down in the midst of this "enormous bliss"; we wander through the place, open-mouthed with wonder, like country visitors admiring the Crown jewels, and then—we long to be at home.
There are no children in any of Milton's poems. The introduction, in Paradise Lost, of a real human child, such as Shakespeare brings into Coriolanus or Macbeth, would be like the bringing of a spark of fire into a powder magazine. None of these edifying speeches could be made in the presence of such an auditor, or such a critic. The whole system would be blown into fragments; the artificial perspective that Milton preserves with so great care would lose its glamour at a touch. Hell and Heaven and Eden would dissolve away like the baseless fabric of a vision, a scholar's nightmare, if once they were subjected to the free scrutiny of a child.
Paradise Lost will not bear—it could at no time, not even in the most theological of ages, have borne—the more searching tests of realism, of verisimilitude, and credibility. It is all the greater skill in the poet that by his careful handling of our imagination and feelings he actually does produce "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith." The less it will endure the trial as a system or theory of the universe, the more wonderful does it appear as a work of art. By the most delicate skill of architecture this gigantic filamented structure has been raised into the air. It looks like some enchanted palace that has lighted on the ground for a moment, resting in its flight. It is really the product of the most elaborate and careful engineering science; the strains and stresses put on every part of the material have been calculated and allowed for. The poise and balance are so minutely exact that it just stands, and no more. But that it should stand at all is the marvel, seeing that it is spanned on frail arches over the abyss of the impossible, the unnatural, and the grotesque. Let it be granted that, in its main features, the system of Paradise Lost does correspond with what was and is the religious creed of not a few people. There is many a religious creed, strongly held, which is convincing enough until the imagination begins to work it out in detail, to try to realise it, in a clear light, as a connected whole. Then either the imagination or the creed must give way. The remarkable thing about Milton's achievement is that Paradise Lost is both a creed and a cosmical scheme of imagination, and that, except here and there, it is impossible to point to parts of the poem and say, "Here he ceased to believe," or "Here he gave up the effort to imagine." He both imagined and believed throughout; he projected himself, like a sleep-walker, into the mammoth caves of his antediluvian dreams, and lived among his own radiant and shadowy creations. We need not, therefore, be surprised to find that, in the first place, his daughters ran wild, and neither liked nor understood their father; and that, in the second place, for the rendering of his thought he invented a system of preternaturally majestic diction, perfectly fitted for the utterance of his own conceptions, but, when divorced from those conceptions, so monstrously artificial in effect, that his imitators and followers, hoisting themselves on the Miltonic stilts, brought the very name of "poetic diction" into a contempt that has lasted for more than a century, and is not yet wholly extinct.
CHAPTER IV PARADISE LOST: THE ACTORS. THE LATER POEMS
The difficulties which Milton felt and conquered in the making of his epic masterpiece had their origin, for the most part, in the intractable and barren nature of his chosen theme. The dangers that beset him, and sometimes tripped his feet, arose, on the other hand, from his own declared intention in the handling of that theme:—
That, to the highth of this great argument, I may assert Eternal Providence And justify the ways of God to men.
The pursuit of this argumentative end led him through strange passes. A less courageous or a more sensitive man might well have hesitated at the entrance. But Milton hesitated at nothing. The ultimate mysteries of human existence and Divine government were no mysteries to him.
The living Throne, the sapphire blaze, Where angels tremble, while they gaze, He saw;
—and he did not tremble. His persons are visible, their characters are known, the nature of their relations is easily ascertained and expounded. Everything, in short, is as plain as a pikestaff. So he came to picture scenes which criticism is reluctant to traverse, and to make statements which it is equally irreverent either to affirm or to deny.
Dr. Johnson, with a fearful and sincere piety, refused to follow Milton into Heaven. "Of the agents in the poem," he says, "the chief are such as it is irreverence to name on slight occasions." And again:—"The characters in the Paradise Lost which admit of examination are those of angels and of man." It is impossible not to respect Johnson's attitude, but later critics have found it difficult to follow his example, and Milton himself would have been the last to claim sanctuary in Heaven for the imaginations on which the whole fabric of the poem depends.
Coleridge is one of the very few critics who have praised the conduct of the celestial part of the story:—"Wherever God is represented as acting directly as Creator, without any exhibition of his own essence, Milton adopts the simplest and sternest language of the Scriptures.... But, as some personal interest was demanded for the purposes of poetry, Milton takes advantage of the dramatic representation of God's address to the Son, the Filial Alterity, and in those addresses slips in, as it were by stealth, language of affection, or thought, or sentiment.... He was very wise in adopting the strong anthropomorphism of the Hebrew Scriptures at once." Yet this is hardly an answer to the chief objections that have been urged against Milton's conduct of the poem. These are grounded, not on his adoption of the strong anthropomorphism of the Hebrew Scriptures, but on the nature of the matter that he slips in, "as if by stealth," and the character that he attributes to his Divine persons. Had he been a pagan, pure and simple, he might have been frankly and explicitly materialistic in his conceptions. Had he been touched by the spirit of the greatest of Christian poets, he might have shrouded the Godhead in a mystery of silence and light. But he had something to prove to the men of his own time, and neither course served him.
Milton's theodicy is of his own devising, and is neither Catholic nor Calvinist. His heresies may be reduced to a single point; the ultimate basis on which he rests the universe is political, not religious. The fierce simplicity of his processes of thought here led him straight into a trap. Law to him is an expression of Will, enforced by due penalties. As promulgated by human authority, laws are to be obeyed only if they do not clash with the dictates of a higher Power. The laws of God are subject to no such restraint. They are; and, save by faith, there is no further word to be said. But Milton had set himself to justify these laws by reason. Destitute as he was of speculative power, he attempted no transcendental amalgam of diverse conceptions, of Love and Law, of Mercy and Justice. He fell back on Law as the naked assertion of Will, and helped out the ancient argument of the pot and the potter with a utilitarian appeal, which he puts into the mouth of a Seraph, to the happy working of the Divine laws in practice.
So it comes about that the main argument of the poem is founded on an outrage done to religion. In the place and under the name of Him "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning," Milton set up in Heaven a whimsical Tyrant, all of whose laws are arbitrary and occasional, and who exacts from his creatures an obedience that differs from brute submission in one point only, that by the gift of free-will it is put within their power to disobey. His commands, like his laws, are issued from time to time. Sometimes they enjoin the impossible on his subjects; as when Michael and Gabriel, at the head of the heavenly host, are ordered to drive Satan and his crew out of Heaven into the abyss—a task they prove wholly unable to accomplish. Sometimes orders are given merely as an assertion of power, and to test submission; as when Raphael is sent to keep the rebels confined in Hell, and explains subsequently to Adam:—
Not that they durst without his leave attempt; But us he sends upon his high behests For state, as sovran King, and to inure Our prompt obedience.
The particular event with which, according to Milton, the whole history begins is presented with a crudity that would have horrified the Fathers. The appointment of a Vicegerent to the Almighty, and the edict requiring homage to be done to him, are announced "on a day" to the host of Angels assembled by special summons for this purpose. During the night following, one of the chief Archangels, thereafter called Satan, draws off his forces to the north under pretext of preparing a welcome for the new Commander, who is to make a progress through his domain, promulgating more new laws. The purpose of the rebels is discerned by the All-Knowing, who makes this strange speech to the Son:—
Let us advise, and to this hazard draw With speed what force is left, and all employ In our defence, lest unawares we lose This our high place, our sanctuary, our hill.
It is unnecessary to quote more of the speeches in Heaven; they are tangles of Scriptural phrase, from which there can be extracted neither good divinity nor good humanity. "The glory of God," says the Wisdom of Solomon, "is to conceal a thing; the glory of the King is to find it out." But the glory of Milton's Deity is to explain a thing. The proud voluble candour of some of these speeches reminds us only of the author of A Defence of the People of England. In some of them there is even a flavour of uneasy boastfulness, as of one who is anxious not to be lessened in the estimation of the rebel adversary.
It may be pleaded that the epical necessities of the poem imposed finite conceptions, of one sort or another, upon Milton; and that, when once he had begun to define and explain, he was carried further and further along that perilous way without being fully conscious of whither he was tending. Yet his persistent accumulation of harsh and dread traits seems wilful in its nature; he bases his description, no doubt, on hints from Scripture, but he pays no attention to any that do not fall in with his own narrow and gloomy conception. Satan is permitted to rise from the burning lake—
That with reiterated crimes he might Heap on himself damnation.
When he arrives at the foot of the stairway that joins Heaven and the World—
The stairs were then let down, whether to dare The Fiend by easy ascent, or aggravate His sad exclusion from the doors of bliss.
Astronomy, it is suggested by "the affable Archangel," has perhaps been made a difficult subject in order to produce the droll fallacies of astronomers:
He his fabric of the Heavens Hath left to their disputes—perhaps to move His laughter at their quaint opinions wide.
And this conjecture is borne out by what happened when the builders of the tower of Babel were frustrated, for then—
Great laughter was in Heaven, And looking down to see the hubbub strange And hear the din.
Milton, in short, has hardened the heart of the God that hardened Pharaoh's heart, and has narrowed his love and his power.
Some kind of internal blindness must have visited him if he did not perceive what must inevitably be the effect of all this on the sympathies and interest of the reader. And the irony of the thing is that his own sympathies were not proof against the trial that he had devised for them. He lavished all his power, all his skill, and, in spite of himself, the greater part of his sympathy, on the splendid figure of Satan. He avoids calling Paradise Lost "an heroic poem"; when it was printed, in 1667, the title-page ran merely—Paradise Lost, A Poem in Ten Books. Had he inserted the word "heroic," the question as to who is the hero would have been broached at once. And to that question, if it be fairly faced, only one answer can be given,—the answer that has already been given by Dryden and Goethe, by Lord Chesterfield and Professor Masson. It was not for nothing that Milton stultified the professed moral of his poem, and emptied it of all spiritual content. He was not fully conscious, it seems, of what he was doing; but he builded better than he knew. A profound poetic instinct taught him to preserve epic truth at all costs. And the epic value of Paradise Lost is centred in the character and achievements of Satan.
Satan unavoidably reminds us of Prometheus, and although there are essential differences, we are not made to feel them essential. His very situation as the fearless antagonist of Omnipotence makes him either a fool or a hero, and Milton is far indeed from permitting us to think him a fool. The nobility and greatness of his bearing are brought home to us in some half-dozen of the finest poetic passages in the world. The most stupendous of the poet's imaginative creations are made the foil for a greater than themselves. Was ever terror more magnificently embodied than in the phantom figure of Death?—
The other Shape— If shape it might be called that shape had none Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb; Or substance might be called that shadow seemed, For each seemed either—black it stood as Night, Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell, And shook a dreadful dart: what seemed his head The likeness of a kingly crown had on. Satan was now at hand, and from his seat The monster moving onward came as fast With horrid strides; Hell trembled as he strode.
This is the passage that drew from Burke a rapture of praise. But as it stands in the poem its elevation is a scaffolding merely, whence we may view the greatness of Satan:—
The undaunted Fiend what this might be admired— Admired, not feared (God and his Son except, Created thing naught valued he nor shunned).
The same magnificent effect of suggestion is wrought even more subtly in the scene where Satan approaches
the throne Of Chaos, and his dark pavilion spread Wide on the wasteful Deep.
Courteously and fearlessly Satan addresses himself to the monarch of the nethermost abyss. His speech contains no threats; he asks guidance in his quest; and, with politic forethought, promises that that quest, if successful, shall restore an outlying lost province to Chaos. There is nothing in his words to cause consternation; but the King is afraid:—
Him thus the anarch old, With faltering speech and visage incomposed, Answered:—"I know thee, stranger, who thou art— That mighty leading Angel, who of late Made head against Heaven's King, though overthrown."
In the war on the plains of Heaven Satan ranges up and down the fighting line, like Cromwell; he fortifies his comrades to endurance, and encourages them to attack. In Hell he stands like a tower:—
His form had yet not lost All her original brightness, nor appeared Less than Archangel ruined, and the excess Of glory obscured.
In his contests with Michael in Heaven and with Gabriel on Earth he never falls below himself:—
"If I must contend," said he, "Best with the best—the sender, not the sent; Or all at once."
But his motive passions, it is objected, were envy, ambition, and hate, and his end was a crime. To which objection a modern poet has replied that a crime will serve as a measure for the spirit. Certainly to Satan there could never be imputed the sin of "the unlit lamp and the ungirt loin." And Milton has not left him devoid of the gentlest passion, the passion of pity:—
Cruel his eye, but cast Signs of remorse and passion, to behold The fellows of his crime, the followers rather (Far other once beheld in bliss), condemned For ever now to have their lot in pain— Millions of Spirits for his fault amerced Of Heaven, and from eternal splendours flung For his revolt—yet faithful how they stood, Their glory withered.
Thrice he attempts to address them, and thrice—
in spite of scorn Tears, such as Angels weep, burst forth.
His followers are devotedly attached to him; they admire him "that for the general safety he despised his own"; and the only scene of rejoicing recorded in the annals of Hell, before the Fall of Man, is at the dissolution of the Stygian Council, when the devils come forth "rejoicing in their matchless Chief."
As if of set purpose to raise Satan high above the heads of the other Archangels, Milton devises a pair of similar scenes, in Heaven and in Hell. In the one Satan takes upon himself the unknown dangers of the enterprise that has been approved by the assembly. In the other, which occurs in the very next book, the Heavenly Powers are addressed from the Throne, and asked—
"Which of ye will be mortal, to redeem Man's mortal crime, and just, the unjust to save? Dwells in all Heaven charity so dear?" He asked, but all the Heavenly Quire stood mute, And silence was in Heaven: on Man's behalf Patron or intercessor none appeared— Much less that durst upon his own head draw The deadly forfeiture, and ransom set.
No wonder that Landor—although in another place he declares that Adam is the hero of Paradise Lost, and that "there is neither truth nor wit" in giving that name to Satan—is nevertheless startled by this passage into the comment, "I know not what interest Milton could have had in making Satan so august a creature, and so ready to share the dangers and sorrows of the angels he had seduced. I know not, on the other hand, what could have urged him to make the better ones so dastardly that even at the voice of their Creator not one among them offered his service to rescue from eternal perdition the last and weakest of intellectual beings."
When Satan first comes in sight of Paradisal bliss and the new-created pair, here surely was a chance for attributing to him the foul passions of envy and hate unalloyed? On the contrary, he is struck with admiration for their grace and infused divinity. He could love and pity them—so he muses—though himself unpitied. He seeks alliance with them, and is prepared to give them a share in all he has—which, it must be allowed, is the spirit of true hospitality. He feels it beneath him to attack innocence and helplessness, but public reasons compel him to do what otherwise he would abhor:—
So spake the Fiend, and with necessity, The tyrant's plea, excused his devilish deeds.
But no imputation is cast on the sincerity of the plea, and we are left to conceive of Satan as of a lover of beauty reluctantly compelled to shatter it in the pursuit of his high political aims. In the same way, when he finds Eve alone, on the morning of the temptation, he is disarmed by her beauty and innocence, and, for a spell, is struck "stupidly good." Truly, Adam might boast, with Gibbon, that he fell by a noble hand.
It is possible that by the time he had completed the Fourth Book, Milton became uneasy as to the effect he was producing. Up to that point magnanimity and courage had been almost the monopoly of Satan. He had been the Great Dissenter, the undaunted and considerate leader of an outcast minority. But now, in the description of the war in Heaven, there came a chance of doing something to right the balance. Milton makes the most of the episode of Abdiel, who has been led away with the rest of Satan's followers, upon false pretences, and who, when he discovers the true purpose of the expedition, makes a lonely stand for the right:—
Among the faithless faithful only he; ... Nor number nor example with him wrought To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind, Though single.
And Abdiel, when he meets Satan again after the outbreak of the war, glories in his nonconformity, and hisses out defiance:—
Thou seest All are not of thy train; there be who faith Prefer, and piety to God, though then To thee not visible when I alone Seemed in thy world erroneous to dissent From all: my Sect thou seest; now learn too late How few sometimes may know when thousands err.
In this way Milton attempted to allay his scruples, and to divide the honours of dissent. Later on, after the Fall, when Satan returns to Hell with tidings of his exploit, the change of all the devils to serpents, and of their applause to "a dismal universal hiss" was perhaps devised to cast a slur upon the success of his mission. Some critics have professed to discern a certain progressive degradation and shrinkage in Satan as the poem proceeds. But his original creation lived on in the imagination and memory of Milton, and was revived, with an added pathos, in Paradise Regained. The most moving of all Satan's speeches is perhaps the long pleading there made in answer to the challenge of Christ, and its tone of unutterable despair is deepened by the terrible severity of the speech made in answer.
The other leaders of the rebel troops take little part in the action outside the scene of the Infernal Council. In his memories of the Long Parliament Milton could easily find examples of the types he has embodied under the names of Belial, Mammon, Moloch, and Beelzebub. Nor has he forgotten the Westminster Assembly of divines. The precise employments of that historic body are described by him as the recreation of the lost spirits:—
Others apart sat on a hill retired, In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate— Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute— And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.