CHAPTER XIX. THE POETRY OF MILTON.
The Blind Poet. Paradise Lost. Milton and Dante. His Faults.
Characteristics of the Age. Paradise Regained. His Scholarship. His
Sonnets. His Death and Fame.
THE BLIND POET.
Milton's blindness, his loneliness, and his loss of power, threw him upon himself. His imagination, concentrated by these disasters and troubles, was to see higher things in a clear, celestial light: there was nothing to distract his attention, and he began that achievement which he had long before contemplated—a great religious epic, in which the heroes should be celestial beings and our sinless first parents, and the scenes Heaven, Hell, and the Paradise of a yet untainted Earth. His first idea was to write an epic on King Arthur and his knights: it is well for the world that he changed his intention, and took as a grander subject the loss of Paradise, full as it is of individual interest to mankind.
In a consideration of his poetry, we must now first recur to those pieces which he had written at an earlier day. Before settling in London, he had, as we have seen, travelled fifteen months on the Continent, and had been particularly interested by his residence in Italy, where he visited the blind Galileo. The poems which most clearly show the still powerful influence of Italy in all European literature, and upon him especially, are the Arcades, Comus, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Lycidas, each beautiful and finished, and although Italian in their taste, yet full of true philosophy couched in charming verse.
The Arcades, (Arcadians,) composed in 1684, is a pastoral masque, enacted before the Countess Dowager of Derby at Harefield, by some noble persons of her family. The Allegro is the song of Mirth, the nymph who brings with her
Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods and becks and wreathed smiles,
* * * * *
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.
The poem is like the nymph whom he addresses,
Buxom, blithe, and debonaire.
The Penseroso is a tribute to tender melancholy, and is designed as a pendant to the Allegro:
Pensive nun devout and pure,
Sober, steadfast, and demure,
All in a robe of darkest grain,
Flowing with majestic train.
We fall in love with each goddess in turn, and find comfort for our varying moods from “grave to gay.”
Burke said he was certain Milton composed the Penseroso in the aisle of a cloister, or in an ivy-grown abbey.
Comus is a noble poem, philosophic and tender, but neither pastoral nor dramatic, except in form; it presents the power of chastity in disarming Circe, Comus, and all the libidinous sirens. L'Allegro and Il Penseroso were written at Horton, about 1633.
Lycidas, written in 1637, is a tender monody on the loss of a friend named King, in the Irish Channel, in that year, and is a classical pastoral, tricked off in Italian garb. What it loses in adherence to classic models and Italian taste, is more than made up by exquisite lines and felicitous phrases. In it he calls fame “that last infirmity of noble mind.” Perhaps he has nowhere written finer lines than these:
So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed.
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky.
Besides these, Milton wrote Latin poems with great vigor, if not with remarkable grace; and several Italian sonnets and poems, which have been much admired even by Italian critics. The sonnet, if not of Italian origin, had been naturalized there when its birth was forgotten; and this practice in the Italian gave him that power to produce them in English which he afterward used with such effect.
PARADISE LOST.—Having thus summarily disposed of his minor poems, each of which would have immortalized any other man, we come to that upon which his highest fame rests; which is familiarly known by men who have never read the others, and who are ignorant of his prose works; which is used as a parsing exercise in many schools, and which, as we have before hinted, has furnished Protestant pulpits with pictorial theology from that day to this. It occupied him several years in the composition; from 1658, when Cromwell died, through the years of retirement and obscurity until 1667. It came forth in an evil day, for the merry monarch was on the throne, and an irreligious court gave tone to public opinion.
The hardiest critic must approach the Paradise Lost with wonder and reverence. What an imagination, and what a compass of imagination! Now with the lost peers in Hell, his glowing fancy projects an empire almost as grand and glorious as that of God himself. Now with undazzled, presumptuous gaze he stands face to face with the Almighty, and records the words falling from His lips; words which he has dared to place in the mouth of the Most High—words at the utterance of which
... ambrosial fragrance filled
All heaven, and in the blessed spirits elect
Sense of new joy ineffable diffused.
Little wonder that in his further flight he does not shrink from colloquy with the Eternal Son—in his theology not the equal of His Father—or that he does not fear to describe the fearful battle between Christ with his angelic hosts against the kingdom of darkness:
... At his right hand victory
Sat eagle-winged: beside him hung his bow
And quiver with three-bolted thunder stored.
* * * * *
... Them unexpected joy surprised,
When the great ensign of Messiah blazed,
Aloft by angels borne his sign in heaven.
How heart-rending his story of the fall, and of the bitter sorrow of our first parents, whose fatal act
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat.
How marvellous is the combat at Hell-gate, between Satan and Death; how terrible the power at which “Hell itself grew darker”! How we strive to shade our mind's eye as we enter again with him into the courts of Heaven. How refreshingly beautiful the perennial bloom of Eden:
Picta velut primo Vere coruscat humus.
What a wonderful story of the teeming creation related to our first parents by the lips of Raphael:
When from the Earth appeared
The tawny lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds,
And rampant shakes his brinded mane.
And withal, how compact the poem, how perfect the drama. It is Paradise, perfect in beauty and holiness; attacked with devilish art; in danger; betrayed; lost!
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked and ate;
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat,
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe
That all was lost!
Unit-like, complete, brilliant, sublime, awful, the poem dazzles criticism, and belittles the critic. It is the grandest poem ever written. It almost sets up a competition with Scripture. Milton's Adam and Eve walk before us instead of the Adam and Eve of Genesis. Milton's Satan usurps the place of that grotesque, malignant spirit of the Bible, which, instead of claiming our admiration, excites only our horror, as he goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He it is who can declare
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be?
MILTON AND DANTE.—It has been usual for the literary critic to compare Milton and Dante; and it is certain that in the conception, at least, of his great themes, Milton took Dante for his guide. Without an odious comparison, and conceding the great value, principally historical, of the Divina Commedia, it must be said that the palm remains with the English poet. Take, for a single illustration, the fall of the arch-fiend. Dante's Lucifer falls with such force that he makes a conical hole in the earth to its centre, and forces out a hill on the other side—a physical prediction, as the antipodes had not yet been established. The cavity is the seat of Hell; and the mountain, that of Purgatory. So mathematical is his fancy, that in vignette illustrations we have right-lined drawings of these surfaces and their different circles. Science had indeed progressed in Milton's time, but his imagination scorns its aid; everything is with him grandly ideal, as well as rhetorically harmonious:
... Him the Almighty power,
Hurled headlong flaming from th' ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal power,
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent in arms.
And when a lesser spirit falls, what a sad AEolian melody describes the downward flight:
... How he fell
From Heaven they fabled thrown by angry Jove,
Sheer o'er the crystal battlements: from morn
To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve
A summer's day; and with the setting sun,
Dropt from the zenith like a falling star.
The heavenly colloquies to which we have alluded between the Father and the Son, involve questions of theology, and present peculiar views—such as the subordination of the Son, and the relative unimportance of the third Person of the Blessed Trinity. They establish Milton's Arianism almost as completely as his Treatise on Christian Doctrine.
HIS FAULTS.—Grand, far above all human efforts, his poems fail in these representations. God is a spirit; he is here presented as a body, and that by an uninspired pen. The poet has not been able to carry us up to those infinite heights, and so his attempt only ends in a humanitarian philosophy: he has been obliged to lower the whole heavenly hierarchy to bring it within the scope of our objective comprehension. He blinds our poor eyes by the dazzling effulgence of that light which is
... of the Eternal co-eternal beam.
And it must be asserted that in this attempt Milton has done injury to the cause of religion, however much he has vindicated the power of the human intellect and the compass of the human imagination. He has made sensuous that which was entirely spiritual, and has attempted with finite powers to realize the Infinite.
The fault is not so great when he delineates created intelligences, ranging from the highest seraph to him who was only “less than archangel ruined.” We gaze, unreproved by conscience, at the rapid rise of Pandemonium; we watch with eager interest the hellish crew as they “open into the hill a spacious wound, and dig out ribs of gold.” We admire the fabric which springs
... like an exhalation, with the sound
Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet.
Nothing can be grander or more articulately realized than that arched roof, from which,
Pendent by subtle magic, many a row
Of starry lamps and blazing cressets, fed
With naphtha and asphaltus, yields the light
As from a sky.
It is an illustrative criticism that while the painter's art has seized these scenes, not one has dared to attempt his heavenly descriptions with the pencil. Art is less bold or more reverent than poetry, and rebukes the poet.
CHARACTERISTICS OF THE AGE.—And here it is particularly to our purpose to observe, that in this very boldness of entrance into the holy of holies—in this attempted grasp with finite hands of infinite things, Milton was but a sublimated type of his age, and of the Commonwealth, when man, struggling for political freedom, went, as in the later age of the French Illuminati, too far in the regions of spirit and of faith. As Dante, with a powerful satire, filled his poem with the personages of the day, assigning his enemies to the girone of the Inferno, so Milton vents his gentler spleen by placing cowls and hood and habits in the limbo of vanity and paradise of fools:
... all these upwhirled aloft
Fly o'er the backside of the world far off,
Into a limbo large and broad, since called
The paradise of fools.
It was a setting forth of that spirit which, when the Cavaliers were many of them formalists, and the Puritans many of them fanatics, led to the rise of many sects, and caused rude soldiers to bellow their own riotous fancies from the pulpit. In the suddenness of change, when the earthly throne had been destroyed, men misconceived what was due to the heavenly; the fancy which had been before curbed by an awe for authority, and was too ignorant to move without it, now revelled unrebuked among the mysteries which are not revealed to angelic vision, and thus “fools rushed in where angels fear to tread.”
The book could not fail to bring him immense fame, but personally he received very little for it in money—less than L20.
PARADISE REGAINED.—It was Thomas Ellwood, Milton's Quaker friend, who, after reading the Paradise Lost, suggested the Paradise Regained. This poem will bear no comparison with its great companion. It may, without irreverence, be called “The gospel according to John Milton.” Beauties it does contain; but the very foundation of it is false. Milton makes man regain Paradise by the success of Christ in withstanding the Devil's temptations in the wilderness; a new presentation of his Arian theology, which is quite transcendental; whereas, in our opinion, the gate of Paradise was opened only “by His precious death and burial; His glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Ghost.” But if it is immeasurably inferior in its conception and treatment, it is quite equal to the Paradise Lostin its execution.
A few words as to Milton's vocabulary and style must close our notice of this greatest of English poets. With regard to the first, the Latin element, which is so manifest in his prose works, largely predominates in his poems, but accords better with the poetic license. In a list of authors which Mr. Marsh has prepared, down to Milton's time, which includes an analysis of the sixth book of the Paradise Lost, he is found to employ only eighty per cent. of Anglo-Saxon words—less than any up to that day. But his words are chosen with a delicacy of taste and ear which astonishes and delights; his works are full of an adaptive harmony, the suiting of sound to sense. His rhythm is perfect. We have not space for extended illustrations, but the reader will notice this in the lady's song in Comus—the address to
Sweet Echo, sweeter nymph that liv'st unseen
Within thy airy shell,
By slow Meander's margent green!
* * * * *
Sweet queen of parley, daughter of the sphere,
So may'st thou be translated to the skies,
And give resounding grace to all heaven's harmonies.
And again, the description of Chastity, in the same poem, is inimitable in the language:
So dear to Heaven is saintly Chastity,
That when a soul is found sincerely so,
A thousand liveried angels lackey her.
HIS SCHOLARSHIP.—It is unnecessary to state the well-known fact, attested by all his works, of his elegant and versatile scholarship. He was the most learned man in England in his day. If, like J. C. Scaliger, he did not commit Homer to memory in twenty-one days, and the whole of the Greek poets in three months, he had all classical learning literally at his fingers' ends, and his works are absolutely glistening with drops which show that every one has been dipped in that Castalian fountain which, it was fabled, changed the earthly flowers of the mind into immortal jewels.
Nor need we refer to what every one concedes, that a vein of pure but austere morals runs through all his works; but Puritan as he was, his myriad fancy led him into places which Puritanism abjured: the cloisters, with their dim religious light, in Il Penseroso—and anon with mirth he cries:
Come and trip it as you go,
On the light fantastic toe.
SONNETS.—His sonnets have been variously estimated: they are not as polished as his other poems, but are crystal-like and sententious, abrupt bursts of opinion and feeling in fourteen lines. Their masculine power it was which caused Wordsworth, himself a prince of sonneteers, to say:
In his hand,
The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
That to his dead wife, whom he saw in a vision; that to Cyriac Skinner on his blindness, and that to the persecuted Waldenses, are the most known and appreciated. That to Skinner is a noble assertion of heart and hope:
Cyriac, this three-years-day these eyes, though clear
To outward view, of blemish and of spot,
Bereft of light, their seeing have forgot:
Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear
Of sun, or moon, or star, throughout the year,
Or man, or woman. Yet I argue not
Against Heaven's hand or will, nor bate a jot
Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer
Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?
The conscience friend to have lost them over-plied
In liberty's defence, my noble task,
Of which all Europe talks from side to side,
This thought might lead me through the world's vain mask
Content, though blind, had I no better guide.
Milton died in 1674, of gout, which had long afflicted him; and he left his name and works to posterity. Posterity has done large but mistaken justice to his fame. Men have not discriminated between his real merits and his faults: all parties have conceded the former, and conspired to conceal the latter. A just statement of both will still establish his great fame on the immutable foundations of truth—a fame, the honest pursuit of which caused him, throughout his long life,
To scorn delights, and live laborious days.
No writer has ever been the subject of more uncritical, ignorant, and senseless panegyric: like Bacon, he is lauded by men who never read his works, and are entirely ignorant of the true foundation of his fame. Nay, more; partisanship becomes very warlike, and we are reminded in this controversy of the Italian gentleman, who fought three duels in maintaining that Ariosto was a better poet than Tasso: in the third he was mortally wounded, and he confessed before dying that he had never read a line of either. A similar logomachy has marked the course of Milton's champions; words like sharp swords have been wielded by ignorance, and have injured the poet's true fame.
He now stands before the world, not only as the greatest English poet, except Shakspeare, but also as the most remarkable example and illustration of the theory we have adopted, that literature is a very vivid and permanent interpreter of contemporary history. To those who ask for a philosophic summary of the age of Charles I. and Cromwell, the answer may be justly given: “Study the works of John Milton, and you will find it.”