In no country, and in no age, have the works of any poet, historian, or philosopher, been the subject of so much virulent criticism, unjustifiable suspicion, and ignorant neglect as the poetical works of John Milton.
At the time he wrote his first poems, so far from receiving that applause and patronage, which is the due of every man of letters: he was not even regarded as a man of any poetical talents or abilities.
The commotion of faction, the violence of party prejudice, and the superstitious errors of fanaticism, crushed the rising growth of literature, and buried science in a temporary oblivion. A political defence of any violent measure on either side, or the bitter invectives of disappointment and chagrin, uttered in all the unrestrained licence of invidious malevolence, were the only things which were sought with eagerness, or written with applause. But even when the tumults of faction had subsided, and literature had again "raised her drooping head;" the Paradise Lost, and other poems of this author hardly received any notice or regard. As yet the public taste was not sufficiently matured for the reception of works so nearly approaching to perfection. Though by his relations, and a few learned friends, his works had been spoken of with praise; yet those who read them, were but very few. No standard of true taste had as yet been affixed to poetry; wit, pointed sentences, and lively numbers, had long held undisturbed sway over sublimity and picturesque imagery. It was not till late in the present century that fine taste made its appearance. Then it was that Milton was received and read universally. The sublimity of his diction, the richness of his description, and boldness of his imagery, called forth their long merited admiration, and it was a subject of astonishment to every one, that works like his could have remained so long neglected and unobserved. His Paradise Lost is justly esteemed one of the first poems in the English language; it has undergone every trial of just and accurate criticism, which baying examined with precision its beauties and defects, and unfolded all its hidden excellencies, has established it on a foundation, never to be shaken by the impotent attacks of ignorance or envy. But before the thorough establishment of Milton's reputation, while he was yet increasing in fame, there was not wanting some malevolent and invidious critic, to asperse his honor, and question his originality. Lauder, a man of most infamous character, though an acute critic, did not hesitate to prostitute his pen to a subject, by which he thought he might gain a temporary subsistence. His aim was to prove, that Milton had chiefly copied his poems from some Latin poems, which be pretended had been written some years before. He collected, therefore, several passages from Milton, with their imitations in Latin, (same of which had perhaps been written with his own hand) and published a work, in which he inserted them, declaring, that he had in his possession several later poems, from which Milton had copied every thing most elegant and sublime, and that he had given these as specimens of his fraud. So bold and open an attack, on one who was daily increasing in public favor, struck every one with astonishment, and called forth the abilities of every man or learning to investigate its truth. Many treaties were written to prove its impossibility and inconsistency. Still Lauder repeated his assertions, and added more extracts, to prove what he had affirmed; and indeed he had art enough to deceive several men of great reputation in the literary world. Till at length, in a most elaborate, acute, and ingenious defence of Milton, Bishop Douglas completely detected and exposed the deceit and infamy of Lauder. An open attack so honorably and irresistibly repelled, added new vigour to the cause it was intended to weaken. Roused to resentment by the detection of a deceit which had nearly imposed upon their understanding; men of literature were anxious to express their conviction of the genius and originality of Milton, and to make reparation for the injustice they had done him in giving the least credit to an accusation so unfounded in truth. Thus was Milton completely reestablished in reputation. No one indeed can take up the Paradise Lost without owning its superior excellence, both with respect to sentiments and expression. The flights of genius, and the energies of expression, are so superior to the general compositions of man, that we should almost suppose them to be the effects of inspiration. Nothing but an uncommonly strong mind, totally abstracted from the contemplation of human affairs, and wholly absorbed in divine meditations on the attributes and perfections of an omnipotent deity, could have given birth to such elevated sentiments expressed in so much sublime majesty.
The Paradise Regained has by many been censured, both on account of the choice of its subject, and the manner of treating it.
But Milton had already composed one work, in which he had displayed all the richness and sublimities of poetical description, and had almost exhausted the treasures of elevated and sublime poetry. Every species of poetic excellence in these are strikingly exhibited. Every secret spring of love and tenderness, there bursts forth in all its native and touching simplicity. The dark designs of malevolence and deceit are there inimitably displayed and exposed; and the universal beauty and omnipotence of an all-wise creator are adored in, language as worthy of its object, as the mind of man is capable of conveying, or his tongue uttering. In short, human sublimity has in this work attained its utmost height. What then could follow the mild, yet energetic language; of perception and evangelical instruction was alone capable of holding the second place. To instruct mortals, to regain what the sins of their first parents had forfeited, was surely no unworthy subject. The Paradise Regained may justly be compared to the mild influence of the evening, which revives and refreshes what the blazing heat of noon had almost overpowered.
There are many, who through negligence have overlooked, or through want of candor have undervalued, Milton's lesser poems. It must be remembered that most of them were composed before the author had attained his twentieth year. The opinion of their inferiority is certainly erroneous; for whoever will give them a fair, candid, and impartial perusal, must confess that they exhibit every where proofs of extensive reading, intimate acquaintance with the classics, and well placed judgment; and that for purity of versification, harmony of numbers, and elegance of composition, they are equal to the best modern productions of later poetry since the days of the Augustan age. For although Milton chiefly made Ovid his model, yet he is entirely. free from those petty conceits and trifling witticisms, by which that poet has so often diminished the dignity, and weakened the force and simple tenderness of his most beautiful compositions. Considering the age of the author, they may certainly be esteemed poems of the greatest merit, independently of their composition, they are highly valuable, as letting us into some knowledge of the private concerns, and early years, of so great a man. His natural dispositions there expand themselves unbiassed and unrestrained.
That zeal for liberty, which afterwards shone forth so conspicuously in his character, here first began to shew itself. His address to his father, and his epitaph on the death of his intimate friend, Charles Deodate, under the name of Damon, are instances of paternal affections, and disinterested friendship. And in another poem he bursts out into a degree of poetical imagery and sublimity, which gives a fine taste of the beauties of Paradise. Milton, besides his poems, wrote several political works; the value and importance of which survived not the factions of the times in which they were written. For though the subjects of which they treated, were intimately connected with the affairs of the age, yet they were written in defence of some particular actions, doctrines or tenets, which have either never since occurred, or have else been entirely exploded, or firmly established, and consequently beyond the necessity or possibility of disputation. Thus it ever must be with the generality of popular political productions.