1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 89.



Milton's English sonnets, seventeen in number, are happily described by Wordsworth as "soul-animating strains, alas! too few." Johnson, however, could not see their grandeur, and explained what he considered Milton's "failure" by remarking to Hannah More, "Milton's was a a genius that could hew a Colossus out of a rock, but could not carve heads on cherry-stones." In his youth Milton was remarkable for his beauty of countenance. His life was the pattern of simplicity and purity, almost to austerity. He acted from his youth as "under his great Taskmaster's eye."

Milton's two juvenile poems, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, hardly deserve the reputation they have long held. He evidently took his hints for them partly from a forgotten poem prefixed to Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, and partly from the song, by Beaumont and Fletcher, Hence, all you vain delights! (which see). The poem in Burton's book has these lines:

When I go musing all alone,
Thinking of diverse things foreknown;
When I build castles in the air,
Void of sorrow, void of fear,
Pleasing myself with phantasms sweet,
Methinks the time runs very fleet.
All my joys to this are folly;
Naught so sweet as Melancholy!

The remainder of the poem is still more suggestive of resemblance, both in the measure and the general tone. The following tribute to the nobility of Milton's character is paid by Macaulay: "If ever despondency and asperity could be excused in any man, it might have been excused in Milton. But the strength of his mind overcame every calamity. Neither blindness, nor gout, nor age, nor penury, nor domestic afflictions, nor political disappointments, nor abuse, nor proscription, nor neglect, had power to disturb his sedate and majestic patience." The fame of this eminent poet seems to have been undisturbed by the lapse of time.