Our earliest specimen of Milton is a little poem which was first printed among the commendatory verses prefixed, according to a custom then prevailing, to the Shakspeare folio of 1632, where it is headed, An epitaph on the admirable dramatick poet, W. Shakspere. It was written in 1630, aet. 22. Though not Milton's earliest effort, it is the first piece of which it can be said that its merit does not lie chiefly in its promise. What he had written before this date, was, besides college exercises, an ode On the morning of Christ's nativity, Upon the circumcision, The Passion, On the death of a fair infant, &c. In all these early pieces is discernible in germ that mental quality which became in his mature production his poetic characteristic. This quality, which the poverty of our language tries to express by the words solemnity, gravity, majesty, nobility, loftiness, and which, name it as we may, we all feel in reading Paradise Lost, is already conspicuous in the sixteen lines of the epitaph on Shakspeare. This sublimity does not reside in the thesis which is logically enunciated, nor in the image presented. These are, as often in Milton, commonplace enough. The elevation is communicated to us not by the dogma or deliverance, but by sympathy. We catch the contagion of the poet's mental attitude. He makes us bow with him before the image of Shakspeare, though there is not a single discriminating epithet to point out in what the greatness which we are made to feel consists. An eighteenth century poet would have offered some clever analysis, or judicious criticism. "Avant done que d'ecrire, apprenez a penser," was the precept of that age for prose and poetry alike. To be sensible of the sudden decadence of poetry after 1660 we have only to compare, with this Miltonic tribute to Shakespeare, Dryden's lines on Milton himself prefixed to the first folio of 1688: — "Three poets, in three distant ages born." &c. In Milton's sixteen lines the lofty tone is so independent of the thought presented, that we overlook the inadequacy of the thought itself. Were we to suppress the feeling, and look only at the logical sentence, as Johnsonian criticism used to do, we should be obliged to say that the residuum is a frigid conceit in the style of Marini. We, the readers, are turned into marble monuments to the memory of Shakespeare — a farfetched fancy, which deadens, instead of excites, awe and admiration.
The dates of the two pieces headed L'Allegro and Il Penseroso can only be approximately given. They are with great probability assigned to the early years of Milton's residence at Horton, 1632 and folIowing. The Italian titles show that they were written as a time when Milton had already begun to learn Italian, while the incorrect form "penseroso" shows that he was only beginning. L'Allegro = "the cheerful man"; Il Penseroso is intended to mean "the thoughtful man." But from "pensiero" the adjectival form is "pensieroso". There was an old form "pensero," but the Italian dictionaries do not acknowledge any adjective "penseroso" as derived from it. Petrarch, with whom Milton must have been early acquainted, habitually uses "pensoso," but always with the connotation of "sadness," "melancholy."
The two Odes, taken together, present contrasted views of the scholar's life. It is what the rhetoricians call an antiperistasis, or development of an idea by its opposite. Or we may rather regard them as alternating moods, buoyant spirits and solemn recollectedness succeeding and displacing each other, as in life. They are Milton's own moods, and might be employed as autobiography, depicting his studious days in those years when he was forming his mind and hiving wisdom. But they are ideally and not literally true, just as the landscape of the odes is ideally, but not literally, that of the neighbourhood of Horton. The joyous mood is the mood of daytime, beginning with the first slight of the lark before dawn, and closing with music inducing sleep. The thoughtful mood is that of the same scholar studying through the night, or meditating in his solitary moonlight walk. For the country life of these idylls is not the life of the native of the country, peasant or proprietor, but of the scholar to whose emotions all the country objects are subordinated. Milton does not set himself to tell us what rural objects are like, but indicates them by their bearing on the life lived among them by his studious youth. Whereas in Browne's Britannia's Pastorals (1613-16), with which Milton was well acquainted, there is generally the faintest possible breath of human interest, in Milton, town and country are but scenery to the moods of the human agent. Milton, like all poets of the first order, knew or rather felt, that human action or passion is the only subject of poetry. This is no mere conventional rule established by the critics, or by custom; it rests upon the truth that poetry must be a vehicle of emotion. Poetry is an address to the feelings and imagination, not to the judgment and the understanding. The world and its cosmical processes, or nature and natural scenery, are in themselves only objects of science. They become matter for the poet only after they have been impregnated with the joys and distresses, the hopes and fears, of man. "We receive but what me give." This truth, the foundation of any sufficient "poetic," is itself contained in the still wider law, under which colour and form, light itself, are but affections of our human organs of perception.
The doctrine that human action and passion are the only material of poetic fiction was the first theorem of Greek aesthetic. But it had been lost sight of, and was not introduced into modern criticism till its revival by Lessing in 1766. The practice both of our poets, and of our English critics, in the eighteenth century, had forgotten this capital distinction between the art of language, and the art of design. The English versifiers of that century had not the poetic impulse in sufficient intensity to feel the distinction. And the Addison-Johnson criticism, which regarded a poem as made up of images and propositions in verse, could not teach the truth. So the poets went to work to describe scenery. And our collections are filled with verse, didactic and descriptive, which, with many merits of style and thought, has no title to rank as poetry.
Descriptive poetry is in fact a contradiction in terms. A landscape can be represented to the eye by imitative colours laid on a flat surface. But is cannot be presented in words which, being necessarily successive, cannot render juxtaposition in space. To exhibit in space is the privilege of the arts of design. Poetry, whose instrument is language, involves succession in time, and can only present that which comes to pass — "das geschehene" — under one or other of its two forms, action or passion.
Milton was in possession of this secret, not as a trick taught him by the critics, but in virtue of the intensity of human passion which glowed in his bosom. He has exemplified the principle in these two lyrics. In them, as in Wordsworth's best passages, the imagery is not there for its own sake, it is the vehicle of the personal feelings of the Man. The composition derives its unity and its denomination from his mental attitude as spectator.
It is misleading, then, when these odes are spoken of as "masterpieces of description." A naturalist discerns at once, in more than one minute touch, that the poet is not an accurate observer of nature, or thoroughly familiar with country life. As a town-bred youth, "in populous city pent," Milton missed that intimacy with rural sights and sounds, which belongs, like the mother tongue, to those who have been born and bred among them. But the same want of familiarity which makes his notice of the object inaccurate, intensifies the emotion excited in him by the objects, when he is first brought in contact with them. Nature has for Milton the stimulus of novelty. Like other town poets, he knows nature less, but feels is more. What he does exactly render for us is not objective nature, but its effect upon the emotional life of the lettered student.
If Milton is not ideally descriptive, still less is he the copyist of a given scene. That the locality of Horton suggested the scenery of these odes is one thing that they describe that locality, that the "mountains" are the Chilterns, and the "towers and battlements" are Windsor, is quite another. It might seem hardly necessary to dwell upon this, but that this confusion of poetical truth with historical truth is so widely spread, even among the educated. While pilgrims are still found endeavouring to identify the Troy sung by Homer with some one Asiatic site, Hissarlik or other, the critic must continue to repeat the trite lesson that poetry feigns, and does not describe. Fact and fiction are contradictories, and exclude each other. Truth of poetry may be called philosophical truth; truth of fact, historical. So beauty in nature is one thing, beauty of a work of an quite another thing. And this is how it is that L'Allegro and Il Penseroso have the highest beauty as works of art, while they may abound with naturalistic solecism.
Comus, 1634, bears the title of a "Mask," and may be described as a lyrical drama. It was written at words to a musical composition by Henry Lawes, and intended to be performed by amateurs, at an entertainment given by the Earl of Bridgwater to celebrate his entry on his office as Lord President of Wales. These shows, in which the dramatic element was subordinated to the pageantry and the music, had been popular at court in the beginning of the century. But the gradual growth of Puritan sentiment throughout the nation was chilling the taste for such entertainments. The "mask" would have died out but for the publication, in 1633, of a violent and onesided invective against the stage, in Prynne's Histriomastix. This overt attack occasioned a reaction in favour of the drama, and there was, for a short time, a spasmodic revival of the "mask" in cavalier and courtly circles. It was during this brief revival that Comus as written, a chance thus making the future Puritan poet the lass compute, of a cavalier mask. The extract we give from Comus, ll. 93-330, comprises, in one continuous scene, specimens of its (1) lyrical measures, (2) its monologue, and (3) its dialogue. For while Comus was to be a "mask," after the model of those written by the dramatists of the previous age, Milton endeavoured to mould its parts on the pattern of those Greek tragedies, the perfection of whose form his pure taste had already recognised. In "The star that bids the shepherd fold &c." we have a close imitation of the dithyrambic monody of Euripides as in the brief dialogue between the Lady and Comus ("What chance, good lady, hath bereft you thus?") we have the Greek stichomythia in single alternate lines exactly reproduced.
Comus (1634) was followed by Lycidas (November, 1637), which we give entire. Lycidas is an elegiac ode contributed by Milton to a volume of memorial verse, printed at Cambridge on the occasion of the death of one of the Fellows of Christ's College. Edward King had been a contemporary and companion of Milton at Christ's, and in 1630 had been elected to a fellowship in that college, in obedience to a royal mandate, and, as it should seem, over Milton's head. King, who is described to us as a young man of great promise, perished by shipwreck on the passage from Chester to Dublin in the long vacation of 1637. This piece, unmatched in the whole range of English poetry, and never again equalled by Milton himself, leaves all criticism behind. Indeed so high is the poetic note here reached, that the common ear fails to catch it. Lycidas is the touchstone of taste; the 18th century criticism could not make anything of it. The very form of the poem is a stumbling-block to the common-sense critic. For while the equable and temperate emotion of L'Allegro allowed of direct expression in the poet's own person, the burning heat of passion in Lycidas has to be transferred into the artificial framework of the conventional pastoral to make it approachable. At the same time it will be observed that this passion is not stirred by personal attachment, such as lends its pathos to In Memoriam. It is obvious from the elegy itself that Milton's relation to Edward King was not a specially tender relation. The sorrow for his loss does not go beyond such regret as may have been generally excised as Cambridge by the shock of such a casualty. It is when the poet passes on from the individual bereavement to generalise as to the fortunes of the Church, that he attains to a rapt grandeur of enigmatic denunciation in the lines "Last came and last did go," &c. In the suppressed passion of this Cassandra prophecy first emerges the Milton of Paradise Lost and Samson. The effect or the passage is enhanced by the contrast of the quiet beauty of the pastoral dirge in the preceding part of the poem. Lycidas accordingly marks the point of transition from the early Milton, the Milton of mask, pastoral, and idyll, to the quite other Milton, who, after twenty years of hot party struggle, returned to poetry in another vein, — never to the woods and pastures of which he look a final leave in Lycidas.
Between the composition of Lycidas, 1637, and the commencement of Paradise Lost, 1657, a space of twenty years, the course of Milton's life and thoughts was such as did not admit of the abstraction necessary for a sustained poetical effort. Officially, as Latin secretary to the Commonwealth, and unofficially, as an ardent partisan of the republican movement, he was absorbed in the interests of the day. Occasionally, during this interval, his feeling found vent in a sonnet, "the Petrarchian stanza," as he calls it, now first put to martial use. The sonnets are of two kinds, personal or political. Our selections offer two examples of each kind. The personal sonnets are not the expression of a transitory mood or an occasional sentiment, but of abiding, governing mental states, which pervaded either long periods of the poet's life or the whole of it. The first sonnet, "How soon hath time, &c," written aet. 23, proceeds from the uneasy sense that he himself was idling, while others were already doing. His still preparation of his powers — "growing wings" — the poet's education he was industriously giving himself, was a slow and invisible process. It lasted into manhood. He feels that an apology is due to others, — to his father, to admonitory friends; — still more is he dissatisfied himself with the progress he has made.
The second sonnet in our selections, "When I consider, &c." continues, aet. 50, the strain of reproach which first found vent, aet. 23, in the foregoing sonnet, with this difference, that in youth he excused himself to his friends, in mature age he is only careful so present "his true account" to his "Maker." This sonnet is remarkable for its direct assertion of the doctrine of "living" as against that of "doing."
The subject of the third sonnet is the massacre, in 1655, of his own subjects by the reigning Duke of Savoy. It gives voice to the horror and indignation which ran through Puritan England when the dreadful tidings reached our shores. Even at this distance of time the passion that dictated them still burns in Milton's lines; how must they have moved men's minds when the bloody deed was still recent. It is to this sonnet that Wordsworth's lines are specially applicable, in his hands
The thing became a trumpet whence he blew
Soul-animating strains, alas too few!
The fourth and last sonnet which see have selected is an appeal to Cromwell in 1652 not to establish a paid ministry, one of the points of public policy on which Milton felt most deeply, and on which he differed from the policy adopted by the Protector.
But all this while Milton never lost sight of his fixed purpose to write a great poem. This life aim was in abeyance, not relinquished. From a very early date this purpose had taken possession of his mind, and governed his conduct. He educated himself for it, and even during the twenty years of seeming alienation, he was but making himself "more fit." In a pamphlet written in 1641 he put in print a public pledge to execute his design of a great poem in English. "Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist, or the trencher-fury of a riming parasite, nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her Siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added industriously select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs — till which in some measure be compassed at mine own peril and cost, I refute not so sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them."
It is material to a right judgment on Paradise Lost to come to the study of it with this knowledge of its origin. For it is one of the most artificial poems in the world; having this, among other qualities in common with the Aeneid. It belongs to the class which the Greek critics (and all modern critics have adopted their nomenclature) called "Epic." This division of poems into Epic and Dramatic is founded upon a prominent difference in their manner of recital. Both alike present to us a story, or transaction. In the Epic the story is narrated to us by a third person; in the Drama the personages of the story come themselves before us as speaking and acting. This classification, however, though convenient for the purposes of a catalogue, does not reach the essential poetic qualities of composition in verse. Such a division, founded upon poetic quality, we should obtain, if we divided narrative poems into the "naive," and the artificial." The poet may be wholly preoccupied with his story, bent upon preserving the memory of events transmitted to him by tradition. Or the story may be a secondary consideration, and only used by him as a medium of producing a given mental impression, and satisfying by choice of language and rhythm the demands of imagination and taste. Paradise Lost is an epic of the latter class. Milton's mind was full so overflowing with vague conceptions of the lofty, the vast, and the sublime, and he cast about for a transaction in which he could embody them. He first thought of some conspicuous event in English history, in which Shakespeare had found his dramatic material. For in order to constitute a national epic, the events narrated must be of general national concernment. They must neither be foreign, nor taken from the byeways of history. Such a topic Milton at first thought he had found in the Arthurian legend, the outlines of which are given in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Latin paraphrase of Tysilio. He afterwards abandoned national history in favour of a scriptural subject, as possessing more universality, being every man's property and concernment, and having also the highest guarantee of truth. Among possible scriptural subjects his choice wavered for some time, but settled at last upon the Fall and Restoration of Man, a subject involving the fortunes of the whole human race from before the world began to be. The merits of this material for a work of art are, that its interest extends to every human being, and is perennial; the struggle of moral freedom against external temptation in combination with fate, or divine decree, presenting the still unsolved problem which is ever urging human speculation to fresh efforts. The form in which Milton adopted the theme, viz, the story as told in Genesis, offers to a poet the further advantage of concreting the eternal conflict offend and evil in two persons, our ancestors, upon whose behaviour the fortunes of us, their descendants, hang trembling in the balance. It is not for Hector or for Dido, that our sympathy is demanded, it is our happiness or misery that is at stake.
The disadvantages of the story for epic treatment are, the paucity of agents, and the want of naturalness or verisimilitude, in the events. There are but two human beings in the twelve books. And they are not entirely human till after the Fall, i.e. till after the tragic catastrophe of the plot. The preponderance of super-human personages, demoniac or divine, creates a demand upon the imagination greater than what any, but poetic natures, can supply. The supernatural is a necessary ingredient of a fictitious history, but to be in credible proportions is must always be sparingly mingled with the ordinary and probable course of events. In a realistic age constantly fed with fiction which dwells among the realities of domestic life, it becomes difficult to assimilate the deities and devils of Paradise Lost, and the heaven and hell, their respective dwelling-places.
The defects of the plot or fable have to be redeemed by poetic ornament, language, harmony. And here Milton is beyond comparison the greatest artist who has yet employed our language in verse. Dr. Guest says he "diligently tutored an ear which nature had gifted with delicate sensibility .... His verse almost ever fits the subject, and so insensibly does poetry blend with this — the last beauty of exquisite versification — that the reader may sometimes doubt whether it be the thought itself, or merely the happiness of its expression, which is the source of a gratification so deeply felt." If the personages in the two poems are unimaginable, and the situations unnatural, the an of exciting poetic emotion by the employment and collocation of words has never been practised by any English writer with such refinement. Single lines are alive with feeling, and there is a long swell which accompanies us even through the same and dreary flats of the poem, such as the 5th, 6th, and 7th books. "There are no such vistas and avenues of verse as Milton's. In reading Paradise Lost one has a feeling of spaciousness such as no other poet gives. He showed from the first that larger style which was to be his peculiar distinction. The strain heard in his earlier productions is of a higher mood as regards metrical construction than anything that had thrilled the English ear before, giving no uncereain augury of him who "as to show what sonorous metal lay silent, till he touched the keys in the epical organ-pipes of our various language, that have never since felt the strain of such prevailing breath." (Lowell.)
Paradise Regained was written, in whole, or in part, during the poet's retirement to Chalfont S. Giles' from the Great Plague, 1665-6. Ellwood, Milton's young quaker friend, tells us that he himself was the person who first suggested this subject. But, without questioning the literal exactness of Ellwood's report of his conversation with Milton, it is probable that Milton originally conceived the subject of his great work — the Fall and Recovery of Man — in one, and only when he came to write, found that the two parts of the drama of humanity must be separately treated. He therefore contented himself with a prophetic reference to the recovery, and the Messiah, in an awkward supplement, Book 12 of Paradise Lost. From Ellwood's suggestion, too, Milton has taken no more than the title of his poem. For though he calls it Paradise Regained, the subject of the poem is the Temptation; and this would have been its proper title.
It is observed by the critic, that the later epic has, in every country, a tendency to pass into the drama. Paradise Regained cannot be ranked as an epic, as not being full enough of personages or events. At the same time, it is not a drama, as the one transaction of which it consists is narrated to us by the poet, and not performed before us by the only two actors introduced. The bulk of the poem consists of dialogue. It is an astonishing feat of amplification, that more than 2000 lines should have been constructed out of some twenty verses of the synoptical gospels, without our anywhere having the sense of circumlocution and weakened effect, which paraphrases ordinarily produce.
Paradise Regained is undoubtedly inferior in interest to Paradise Lost. This is owing to its exaggerating the defects of the former poem, which were too little action, too few agents, and the superhuman character of chose few. The language of the later poem is also less ornate, less charged with subtle suggestion than was that of Paradise Lost. But, though barren of human interest, and denuded of all verbal ornamentation, the patient student of Paradise Regained will find himself impressed by it with a sense of power which awes all the more because it is latent. Phillips tells us that the poet himself "could not bear with patience" to hear that it was inferior to Paradise Lost. Johnson, with his habitual carelessness, conversed this statement into the different one that "his last poetical offspring was his favourite." This is not warranted by the authority which Johnson quotes, that of Phillips. But it is remarkable that two poet, of the early part of our century, Coleridge and Wordsworth, have each given expression to a similar opinion. Wordsworth says: "Paradise Regained is the most perfect in execution of anything written by Milton;" Coleridge, that "in its kind it is the most perfect poem extant, though its kind may be inferior in interest."
With Samson Agonistes, written 1667, published 1671, Milton closed his authorship as poet. In composing this piece he fulfilled more than one cherished intention. Samson is a drama, and though Milton had, after mature deliberation, chosen the epic form for his chief work, it was not without secretly reserving the intention to repeat the experiment of a drama, in which the Greek model should be even more closely adhered to than in Comus Milton's taste had been offended by the want of art and regularity of the English drama, and he tried so give a specimen of a tragedy in conformity with the severest type. In Samson not only are the unities of time and place observed, but dialogue is varied by choral odes; no division of act or scene is made, but the transitions are managed by the intervention of a chorus of compatriots and sympathisers. How much, in composing this piece, Milton's thoughts were occupied with the question of form, is proved by his choosing to preface it by some remarks with a bearing on that point only. He says nothing, in this preface, which could point the references to his own fate and fortunes. The prefatory remarks are apologetic, and explain why he has adopted the dramatic form, in spite of the objection of religious men to the stage, and why he has modelled his drama after the ancients and Italians.
Besides reviving the more correct form of drama, Milton's intention, in Samson, is to offer one which in substance is free from the coarse buffooneries of the Restoration stage. Though taste and friendship both forbade his naming Dryden, or any living dramatist, we see of whom he is thinking, when he "would vindicate tragedy from the small esteem, or rather infamy, which in the account of many it undergoes at this day, with other common interludes, suffering through the poet's error of intermixing comic stuff with tragic sadness and gravity or introducing trivial and vulgar persons; which by all judicious hath been counted absurd, and brought in without discretion, corruptly to gratify the people."
Lastly, under the story of Samson, as here presented, the poet has adumbrated his own fate — the splendid promise of his God-dedicated youth, in contrast with the tragic close in blind and forsaken age, poor, despised, and if not a prisoner himself, witness of the captivity of his friends, and the triumph of the Philistine foe — all this is distinctly imaged throughout this piece. The resemblance is completed by the scene with Dalila, in which we see how bitter, even at the distance of five and twenty years, is Milton's remembrance of what he suffered in his first marriage with the daughter of a Philistine house. When we remember that the line, "with fear of change Perplexes monarchs," in Paradise Lost had staggered a not unfriendly censor, we may wonder that the unmistakable allusion in Samson—
To dogs and fowls a prey, or else captiv'd;
Or to th' unjust tribunals under charge of times
And condemnation of th' multitude.
should have passed unchallenged in 1671.