1712 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Anonymous, in Preface to On the Death of Mr. Edmund Smith (1712) Sigs Bv-B3.



Every one indeed ought to be copy'd in his Excellencies, but avoided in his Mistakes, and if we consider in what Milton excell'd, we may find Scope enough for the Exercise of the most Luxuriant Fancy, without Distortion or Confinement, and with this Advantage to our selves, that if we imitate the very worst of him, we can scarce be led into a Fault. He was undoubtedly a perfect Master of the Classicks, his Connections and Transitions, the Majesty of his Idea's, and the Loftiness of his Diction, the Vastness of his Argument, and the Transposition of his Words, which in our Language is peculiar only to himself, carry in them something so inimitably fine and graceful, that so nearly resembles the Politest of the Greeks and Romans, that none but the Politest of the Greeks and Romans, can presume to parallel. His Epithets are plac'd in such a Manner, that the meanest Reader, though he knows nothing of the Beauties, must lay the Emphasis as he ought. His obsolete Words are so far from being Vicious, that they are highly commendable; and to write Miltonic in the Modish Expressions of the present Age, would be like drawing the Picture of Queen Elizabeth in a Modern Dress, which, though her Person be still the same, would give her a very different Air, and make some seeming Alteration in the very Lineaments of her Face. But if we reflect more narrowly on the extensive Fulness, the Strength, the Sinews, of the compound and de-compounded Epithets and Words in Spencer and Others in that Age, so well plac'd, as I have hinted, in Blank Verse, it may be no ill Conclusion to suppose we have alter'd our Poetical Language for the Worse: Nor is it hard to conjecture, this might be Milton's Reason for using such Phrases as were old fashion'd even in his time. Besides, his Residence abroad, and his adopting several significant Latin Phrases into our Language, may induce us further to believe he had imbib'd the Notions of some of our Neighbours, who make a considerable Difference, and perhaps very justly, between the Language of Poetry and Prose. Sentiments that are exquisitely noble and sublime, cannot but be debased, when deliver'd in a Stile that is impotent and insipid; That Vigour, that comely Manliness which gives a Lustre to heroic Numbers, must lose it self extreamly, when cloath'd in a Dress improper and unbecoming: Nor has Rhime been the least Occasion of this Alteration, since some of our strongest Epithets can never be introduc'd into that way of Writing, without murdering the Softness of a Cadence, or the Harmony of a Sound.