1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Thomas Campbell, in "Essay on English Poetry" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1841) lxxx-lxxxii.



In Milton there maybe traced obligations to several minor English poets; but his genius had too great a supremacy to belong to any school. Though he acknowledged a filial reverence for Spenser as a poet, he left no Gothic irregular tracery in the design of his own great work, but gave a classical harmony of parts to its stupendous pile. It thus resembles a dome, the vastness of which is at first sight concealed by its symmetry, but which expands more and more to the eye while it is contemplated. His early poetry seems to have neither disturbed nor corrected the bad taste of his age. Comus came into the world unacknowledged by its author, and Lycidas appeared at first only with his initials. These, and other exquisite pieces, composed in the happiest years of his life, at his father's country-house at Horton, were collectively published, with his name affixed to them, in 1645; but that precious volume, which included L'Allegro and II Penseroso, did not come to a second edition, till it was republished by himself at the distance of eight-and-twenty years. Almost a century elapsed before his minor works obtained their proper fame. Handel's music is said, by Dr. Warton, to have drawn the first attention to them; but they must have been admired before Handel set them to music; for he was assuredly not the first to discover their beauty. But of Milton's poetry being above the comprehension of his age, we should have a sufficient proof, if we had no other, in the grave remark of Lord Clarendon, that Cowley had, in his time, "taken a flight above all men in poetry." Even when "Paradise Lost" appeared, though it was not neglected, it attracted no crowd of imitators, and made no visible change in the poetical practice of the age. He stood alone, and aloof above his times, the bard of immortal subjects, and, as far as there is perpetuity in language, of immortal fame. The very choice of those subjects bespoke a contempt for any species of excellence that was attainable by other men. There is something that overawes the mind in conceiving his long deliberated selection of that theme — his attempting it when his eyes were shut upon the face of nature — his dependence, we might almost say, on supernatural inspiration, and in the calm air of strength with which he opens "Paradise Lost," beginning a mighty performance without the appearance of an effort. Taking the subject all in all, his powers could nowhere else have enjoyed the same scope. It was only from the height of this great argument that he could look back upon eternity past, and forward upon eternity to come; that he could survey the abyss of infernal darkness, open visions of Paradise, or ascend to heaven and breathe empyreal air. Still the subject had precipitous difficulties. It obliged him to relinquish the warm, multifarious interests of human life. For these indeed he could substitute holier things; but a more insuperable objection to the theme was, that it involved the representation of a war between the Almighty and his created beings. To the vicissitudes of such a warfare it was impossible to make us attach the same fluctuations of hope and fear, the same curiosity, suspense, and sympathy, which we feel amidst the battles of the Iliad, and which make every brave young spirit long to be in the midst of them.

Milton has certainly triumphed over one difficulty of his subject, the paucity and the loneliness of its human agents; for no one in contemplating the garden of Eden would wish to exchange it for a more populous world. His earthly pair could only be represented, during their innocence, as beings of simple enjoyment and negative virtue, with no other passions than the fear of heaven, and the love of each other. Yet from these materials what a picture has he drawn of their homage to the Deity, their mutual affection, and the horrors of their alienation. By concentrating all exquisite ideas of external nature in the representation of their abode-by conveying an inspired impression of their spirits and forms, whilst they first shone under the fresh light of creative heaven-by these powers of description, he links our first parents, in harmonious subordination, to the angelic natures — he supports them in the balance of poetical importance with their divine coadjutors and enemies, and makes them appear at once worthy of the friendship and envy of gods.

In the angelic warfare of the poem, Milton has done whatever human genius could accomplish. But, although Satan speaks of having "put to proof his (Maker's) high supremacy, in dubious battle, on the plains of heaven," the expression, though finely characteristic of his blasphemous pride, does not prevent us from feeling that the battle cannot for a moment he dubious. Whilst the powers of description and language are taxed and exhausted to portray the combat, it is impossible not to feel, with regard to the blessed spirits, a profound and reposing security that they have neither great dangers to fear, nor reverses to suffer. At the same time it must be said that, although in the actual contact of the armies the inequality of the strife becomes strongly visible to the imagination, and makes it a contest more of noise than terror; yet, while positive action is suspended, there is a warlike grandeur in the poem, which is nowhere to be paralleled. When Milton's genius dares to invest the Almighty himself with arms, "his bow and thunder," the astonished mind admits the image with a momentary credence. It is otherwise when we are involved in the circumstantial details of the campaign. We have then leisure to anticipate its only possible issue, and can feel no alarm for any temporary check that may be given to those who fight under the banners of Omnipotence. The warlike part of Paradise Lost was inseparable from its subject. Whether it could have been differently managed, is a problem which our reverence for Milton will scarcely permit us to state. I feel that reverence too strongly to suggest even the possibility that Milton could have improved his poem, by having thrown his angelic warfare into more remote perspective; but it seems to me to be most sublime when it is least distinctly brought home to the imagination. What an awful effect has the dim and undefined conception of the conflict, which we gather from the opening of the first book There the veil of mystery is left undrawn between us and a subject which the powers of description were inadequate to exhibit. The ministers of divine vengeance and pursuit had been recalled — the thunders had ceased

To bellow through the vast and boundless deep,
Par. Lost, Book i. v. 177.

(in that line what an image of sound and space is conveyed!) — and our terrific conception of the past is deepened by its indistinctness. In optics there are some phenomena which are beautifully deceptive at a certain distance, but which lose their illusive charm on the slightest approach to them that changes the light and position in which they are viewed. Something like this takes place in the phenomena of fancy. The array of the fallen angels in hell — the unfurling of the standard of Satan — and the march of his troops

In perfect phalanx, to the Dorian mood
Of flutes and soft recorders — Book i. 1. 550;

all this human pomp and circumstance of war — is magic and overwhelming illusion. The imagination is taken by surprise. But the noblest efforts of language are tried with very unequal effect to interest us, in the immediate and close view of the battle itself in the sixth book; and the martial demons, who charmed us in the shades of hell, lose some portion of their sublimity when their artillery is discharged in the daylight of heaven.

If we call diction the garb of thought, Milton, in his style, may be said to wear the costume of sovereignty. The idioms even of foreign languages contributed to adorn it. He was the most learned of poets; yet his learning interferes not with his substantial English purity. His simplicity is unimpaired by glowing ornament, like the bush in the sacred flame, which burnt but "was not consumed."

In delineating the blessed spirits, Milton has exhausted all the conceivable variety that could he given to pictures of unshaded sanctity; but it is chiefly in those of the fallen angels that his excellence is conspicuous above everything ancient or modern. Tasso had, indeed, portrayed an infernal council, and had given the hint to our poet of ascribing the origin of pagan worship to those reprobate spirits. But how poor and squalid in comparison of the Miltonic Pandaemonium are the Scyllas, the Cyclopses, and the Chimeras of the Infernal Council of the Jerusalem! Tasso's conclave of fiends is a den of ugly incongruous monsters.

O come strane, o come orribil forme!
Quant e negli ocohi lor terror, e morte!
Stampano alcuni il suol di ferine orme
E'n fronte umana han chiome d' angui attorte
E lor s'aggira dietro immensa loda
Che quasi sferza si ripiega, e snoda.
Qui mille immonde Arpie vedresti, e mille
Contauri, e Sfingi, e pallide Gorgoni,
Molte e molte latrar voraci Scille
E fischiar Idre, e sibilar Pitoni,
E vomitar Chimere atre faville
E Polifemi orrondi, e Gerioni.
———*———*———*———*———
La Gerusalemme, Canto IV.

The powers of Milton's hell are god-like shapes and forms. Their appearance dwarfs every other poetical conception, when we turn out dilated eyes from contemplating them. It is not their external attributes alone which expand the imagination, but their souls, which are as colossal as their stature — their "thoughts that wander through eternity" — the pride that burns amidst the ruins of their divine natures — and their genius, that feels with the ardour and debates with the eloquence of heaven.

The subject of Paradise Lost was the origin of evil — an era in existence — an event more than all others dividing past from future time — an isthmus in the ocean of eternity. The theme was in its nature connected with everything important in the circumstances of human history; and amidst these circumstances Milton saw that the fables of Paganism were too important and poetical to be emitted. As a Christian, he was entitled wholly to neglect them; but as a poet, he chose to treat them, not as dreams of the human mind, but as the delusions of infernal existences. Thus anticipating a beautiful propriety for all classical allusions, thus connecting and reconciling the co-existence of fable and of truth, and thus identifying the fallen angels with the deities of "gay religions, full of pomp and gold," he yoked the heathen mythology in triumph to his subject, and clothed himself in the spoils of superstition.