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ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost. A Poem written in Ten Books. The Author John Milton.

John Milton


The significance of John Milton's later verse for the Spenserian tradition has less to do with its contiguity than its departures from precedent. Like Drayton, Cowley and Davenant before, Milton imitated Spenser's ambitions rather than his mannerisms; unlike them, however, he was successful in the long poem, and consequently became an "original" in his own right. But local echoes and imitations of Spenser abound in Milton's later poetry.

Edmund Waller: "The old blind schoolmaster hath published a tedious poem on the Fall of Man. If its length be not considered as merit it hath no other" in Russell, Book of Authors (1869) 66.

John Dryden: "Spencer has a better plea [for epic status] for his Fairy-Queen, had his action been finish'd, or had been one. And Milton, if the Devil had not been his Heroe instead of Adam, if the Gyant had not foil'd the Knight, and driven him out of his strong hold, to wander through the World with his Lady Errant: and if there had not been more Machining Persons than Humane, in his Poem" Dedication to the Aeneid in Works of Virgil (1697) 208.

Francis Atterbury to Alexander Pope: "I protest to you, this last perusal of him has given me such new degrees, I will not say of pleasure, but of admiration and astonishment, that I look upon the sublimity of Homer, and the majesty of Virgil, with somewhat less reverence than I used to do. I challenge you, with all your partiality, to show me in the first of these any thing equal to the Allegory of Sin and Death, either as to the greatness and justness of the invention, or the height and beauty of the colouring" 8 November 1717; Works of Pope, ed. Elwin and Courthope (1871-1889) 9:9-10.

John Hughes: "Spenser's particular manner, which (if it may be allowed) I would call his painter-like genius, immediately shows itself in the figure of Error, who is drawn as a monster, and that of Hypocrisy, as a hermit. The description of the former of these, in the mixed shape of a woman and a serpent, surrounded with her offspring, and especially that circumstance of their creeping into her mouth on the sudden light which glanced upon them from the Knight's armour, incline one to think that our great Milton had it in his eye when he wrote his famous episode of Sin and Death" quoted in Todd, Works of Spenser (1805) 2:xxvi, who adds in a note, "Milton then had in his eye the disciple of Spenser, rather than Spenser himself. I have cited the passage from P. Fletcher's Purple Island, in the note on Par. Lost, B.ii.650."

Richard Hurd: "Milton, as fond as we have seen he was of the Gothic fictions, durst only admit them on the bye, and in the way of simile and illustration only. And this, no doubt, was the main reason of his relinquishing his long-projected design of Prince Arthur, at last, for that of Paradise Lost; where, instead of Giants and Magicians, he had Angels and Devils to supply him with the marvellous, with greater probability. Yet, tho' he dropped the tales, he still kept to the allegories of Spenser. And even this liberty was thought too much, as appears from the censure passed on his Sin and Death by the severer critics" Letters on Chivalry (1762) 117-18.

John Aikin: "Milton, whose genius soared infinitely above the pitch of common imaginations, has given a very sublime, but at the same time indistinct, image of this terrific power. It is in the well-known allegory of Sin and Death.... Here is a striking example of the power of poetry to excite grand and impressive images, which painting cannot follow, though they refer to the sense which it peculiarly addresses. The gloomy indistinctness of outline in this shadowy figure, and its questionable form and substance, which render it totally unfit for the determinate strokes of the pencil, do not prevent the imagination from embodying a mass of black cloud, through which appear the obscure lineaments of a horrid, phantom, sufficiently resembling the poet's idea, to produce all the effect he intended. Though it is possible Milton might have taken a hint from the following passage of Spenser, yet I think it can scarcely be said that the former was borrowed from the latter, as Mr. Thyer represents. 'But after all came Life; and lastly Death, | Death with most grim and griesly visages seen, | Yet he is nought but parting of the breath, | No ought to see, but like a shade to ween, | Unbodied, unsouled, unheard, unseen' F. Q. VII. 7. The whole of "picture" is in the second of these lines: it is the metaphysical account of Death alone, to which the rest refer" "Personification in Poetry" Monthly Magazine 8 (October 1799) 709.

Thomas Green: "Finished the perusal of the First Six Books of Milton's Paradise Lost. The scene betwixt Satan, Sin, and Death, in the 2d. Book, is transcendantly sublime: the Allegory, to which Addison objects, is lost amidst such force and vividness and majesty of description, as I think with Atterbury, renders the grandest passages in Homer and Virgil comparatively feeble and dwarfish. — In the 3d. Book, not all the powers of Milton's skill and genius, though vigorously exerted for the purpose, can palliate the monstrous absurdities, or reconcile the glaring inconsistencies, of the orthodox faith; they rather stare out in higher and more offensive relief, from the strength with which he has brought before us, the personages, and the state of being, to which they attach. — Relieved from these shackles, in the 4th. Book, Milton once more towers in native excellence, and 'is himself again'" 2 February 1800; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 192.

Percival Stockdale: "The imagery of this picture is in the height of poetical vigour, and sublimity. The simile of the immense, and fiery comet, shedding pestilence, and war; that of two black clouds, that come rattling on, over the Caspian; and the darkness of hell, grown darker by the frowns of the combatants; are, all, thrown out, with an unrivalled force, and manner. In the former quotation; the undefined likeness of a kingly crown, which the spectre had on; emblematick of his future universal empire; the ambiguity of his form, which had neither shape, nor substance, that could be described; — his semblance of a head, left to be more distinctly, but infinitely figured, by imagination; — these are the productions of a mighty master, who could give animated being, and bold relief, to the slightest shades; the productions of a of a great maker, who could call into life, and action, all poetical possibilities; in short, they are the atchievements only of Miltonian genius; as happy in art, as disdainful of bounds. Who can think, for a moment, of allegory violating probability, while he is fired with such imagery, and with such description? The dreadful dart which Death shakes, in the Miltonic painting, should be as fatal to the sophistry of Johnson; and I add, with some regret, even to the fairer criticism of Addison, as it was, afterwards, destructive to the human kind" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 1:148-49.

Thomas Campbell: "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" (1819; 1842) lxxx.

Richard Henry Dana: "Not to speak profanely, the Faery Queene should be to the poet, what his bible is to the christian. Milton must have read Spenser continually; compare the description of Errour, with that of Sin, and the voyage of Guyon, with that of Satan through Chaos. How many, too, of those words and phrases which he has used, and which are forever sounding in our ears and filling our hearts and minds with undefined sensations and beautiful images, may be followed home to this work!" review of Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets, North American Review 8 (March 1819) 289.

European Magazine: "Spenser excels most of his successors in the creations of an imagination at once vigorous, versatile, and correct. Milton indeed displays a more expanded grasp of mind, and lifts us to the contemplation of sublimer prospects, but his pictures are overcharged, and he seldom presents nature to our eyes in the simple, chaste, and unaffected colouring of Spenser. In the Fairy Queen we instantly, and instinctively recognize the reality and truth of the images which are placed before us. We have no difficulty in conceiving and picturing to ourselves the originals, which they represent; but Milton too often confuses us with images of undefined and undefinable being, which leave no distinct impression on the mind, and fill it with vague, and unembodied conceptions. Fancy then would seem to have been born with Spenser" "On the Spenserians School of Poetry" 82 (October 1822) 338.

Newcastle Magazine: "Milton in his allegory of Sin and Death displays great strength of fancy, and after all the twattle concerning the admittance of such flimsy personages into an epic, I am persuaded there is no reader of Paradise Lost but thinks more genius is shown in the allegory than in many of the argumentative speeches put into the mouth of the Divine Being; because in the one he could give his imagination her full liberty, whereas in the other he was bound to follow the opinions of narrow and pedantic theologians. When Milton excites universal admiration on account of the almost magic power he exhibits in this single allegory of Sin and Death, what ought to be our admiration of that genius which was capable of conceiving one of the longest poems in the English language, and from beginning to end purely allegorical? Such is the Fairy Queen" "Poetry of Spenser" NS 8 (October 1829) 449.

George Saintsbury: "Of his own poetical powers I trust that I shall not be considered a niggard admirer, because, both in the character of its subject (if we are to consider subjects at all) and in its employment of rhyme, that greatest mechanical aid of the poet, The Faerie Queene seems to me greater, or because Milton's own earlier work seems to me to rank higher than Paradise Lost. The general opinion is, of course, different; and one critic of no mean repute, Christopher North, has argued that Paradise Lost is the only 'great poem' in existence" History of Elizabethan Literature (1887; 1909) 329.

Wells, Spenser Allusions (1972) includes a table of allusions for Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes; see also the index in Todd, Works of Spenser (1805).

The last four books of Paradise Lost were reinvented as a Spenserian burlesque in Glocester Ridley's Psyche, or the Great Metamorphosis which first appeared in Robert Dodsley's Museum 3 (25 April 1747).



Before the gates there sat
On either side a formidable shape;
The one seem'd woman to the waist, and fair;
But ended foul in many a scaly fold
Voluminous and vast; a serpent arm'd
With mortal sting: About her middle round
A cry of Hell-hounds never ceasing bark'd
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal; yet, when they list, would creep
If aught disturb'd their noise, into her womb,
And kennel there; yet there still bark'd and howl'd,
Within unseen. Far less abhorr'd than these
Vex'd Scylla, bathing in the seat that parts
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore:
Nor uglier fellow the night-hag, when, call'd
In secret, riding through the air she comes,
Lur'd with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring moon
Eclipses at their charms. The other shape,
If shape it might be call'd that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd,
For each seem'd either; black it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful dart; what seem'd his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on. . . .

[Works, ed. Henry John Todd (1826) 2:155-60]