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POETRY OF MILTON.
From the appearance of his minor poems, in 1645, Milton had published no poetry, with the exception of a sonnet to Henry Lawes, the musician, prefixed to a collection of Psalm tunes by that
composer in 1648, till he gave to the world his Paradise Lost, in Ten Books, in 1667. In 1671 appeared his Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes; in 1673 a new edition of his minor poems, with nine new sonnets and other additions; and in 1674, what is properly the second edition of the Paradise Lost, now distributed (by the bisection of the seventh and tenth) into twelve books. He died on Sunday the 8th of November, in that year, when within about a month of completing the sixty-sixth year of his age. His prose writings have been already noticed. Verse, however, was the form in which his genius had earliest expressed itself, and also that in which he had first come forth as an author. Passing over his paraphrases of one or two Psalms, done at a still earlier age, we have abundant promise of the future great poet in his lines On the Death of a Fair Infant, beginning,
O fairest flower, no sooner blown but blasted, written in his seventeenth year; and still more in the College Exercise, written in his nineteenth year. A portion of this latter is almost as prophetic as it is beautiful ; and, as the verses have not been much noticed, we will here give a few of them :
Hail, native Language, that by sinews weak
I have some naked thoughts that rove about,
1 Mr. Hallam, in his work on the Literature of Europe (iii. 269), inadvertently assumes that we have no English verse of Milton's written before his twenty-sec
Yet I had rather, if I were to choose,
In willing chains and sweet captivity. This was written in 1627. Fourteen years later, after his return from Italy, where some of his juvenile Latin compositions, and some others in the same language, which, as he tells us, he “ had shifted in scarcity of books and conveniences to patch up amongst them, were received with written encomiums, which the Italian is not forward to bestow on men of this side the Alps ;” and when assenting in so far to these commendations, and not less to an inward prompting which now grew daily upon him, he had ventured to indulge the hope that, by labor and study, – 66 which I take,” he nobly says, “ to be my portion in this life,” — joined with the strong propensity of nature, he “might perhaps leave something so written in after-times as they should not willingly let it die,' - he continued still inclined to fix all the industry and art he could unite to the adorning of his native tongue,
goes on to say, “ to be an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things among mine own citizens, throughout this island, in the mother-dialect; that what the greatest and choicest wits of
Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old, did for their country, I, in my proportion, with this over and above of being a Christian, might do for mine; not caring to be once named abroad, though perhaps I could attain to that, but content with these British islands as my world;" and he again, more distinctly than before, though still only in general expressions, announced the great design, “ of highest hope and hardest attempting,” which he proposed to himself one day to accomplish,
whether in the epic form, as exemplified by Homer, Virgil, and Tasso, or after the dramatic, “wherein Sophocles and Euripides reign,” - or in the style of “ those magnific odes and hymns of Pindarus and Callimachus ; not forgetting that of all these kinds of writing the highest models are to be found in the Holy Scriptures in the Book of Job, in the Song of Solomon and the Apocalypse of St. John, in the frequent songs interspersed throughout the Law and the Prophets. “ The thing which I had to say,” concluded this remarkable announcement, “ and those intentions which have lived within me ever since I could conceive myself anything worth to my country, I return to crave excuse that urgent reason hath plucked from me by an abortive and foredated discovery. And the accomplishment of them lies not but in a power above man's to promise ; but that none hath by more studious ways endeavoured, and with more unwearied spirit that none shall, that I dare almost aver of myself, as far as life and free leisure will extend; and that the land had once enfranchised herself from this impertinent yoke of prelaty, under whose inquisitorious and tyrannical duncery no free and splendid wit can flourish. 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 amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming 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 seraphin., with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs. Till which in some measure be accom
plished, at mine own peril and cost I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard as much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them.” 1
Before this, there had appeared in print of Milton's poetry only his Comus and Lycidas ; the former in 1637, the latter with some other Cambridge verses on the same occasion, the loss at sea of his friend Edward King, in 1638 ; but, besides some of his sonnets and other minor pieces, he had also written the fragment entitled Arcades, and the two companion poems the L’Allegro and the Il Penseroso. These productions already attested the worthy successor of the greatest writers of English verse in the preceding age, — recalling the fancy and the melody of the minor poems of Spenser and Shakspeare, and of the Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher. The Comus, indeed, might be considered as an avowed imitation of the last-mentioned production. The resemblance in poetical character between the two sylvan dramas of Fletcher and Milton is very close ; and they may be said to stand apart from all else in our literature, for Ben Jonson's Sad Shepherd is not for a moment to be compared with either, and in the Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakspeare, ever creative, passionate, and dramatic beyond all other writers, has soared so high above both, whether we look to the supernatural part of his fable or to its scenes of human interest, that we are little reminded of his peopled woodlands, his fairies, his lovers, or his glorious “rude mechanicals,” either by the Faithful Shepherdess or the Comus. Of these two compositions, Milton's must be admitted to have the higher moral inspiration, and it is also the more elaborate and exact as a piece of writing; but in all that goes to make up dramatic effect, in the involvement and conduct of the story, and in the eloquence of natural feeling, Fletcher's is decidedly superior. It has been remarked that even in Shakspeare's early narrative poems — his Venus and Adonis, and his Tarquin and Lucrece — we may discern the future great dramatist by the full and unwithholding abandonment with which he there projects himself into whatever character he brings forward, and the power of vivid conception with which he realizes the visionary scene, and brings it around him almost in the distinctness of broad daylight, as shown by a peculiar directness and life of expression evidently coming everywhere unsought, and
1 The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty (published in 1641).
escaping from his pen, one might almost say without his own con sciousness, without apparently any feeling, at least, of either art exercised or feat achieved. In the case of Milton, on the contrary, his first published poem and earliest poetical attempt of any considerable extent, although in the dramatic form, affords abundant evidence that his genius was not dramatic. Comus is an exquisitely beautiful poem, but nearly destitute of everything we more especially look for in a drama - of passion, of character, of story, of action or movement of any kind. It flows on in a continued stream of eloquence, fancy, and most melodious versification ; but there is no dialogue, properly so called, no replication of diverse emotions or natures; it is Milton alone who sings or declaims all the while, sometimes of course on one side of the argument, sometimes on the other, and not, it may be, without changing his attitude and the tone of his voice, but still speaking only from one head, from one heart, from one ever-present and ever-dominant constitution of being. And from this imprisonment within himself Milton never escapes, either in his dramatic or in his other poetry; it is the characteristic which distinguishes him not only from our great dramatists, but also from other great epic and narrative poets. His poetry has been sometimes described as to an unusual degree wanting in the expression of his own personal feelings; and, notwithstanding some remarkable instances of exception, not only in his minor pieces, but in his great epic, the remark is true in a certain sense. He is no habitual brooder over his own emotions, no self-dissector, no systematic resorter for inspiration to the accidents of his own personal history. His subject in some degree forbade this ; his proud and lofty nature still more withheld him from it. But, although disdaining thus to picture himself at full length either for our pity or admiration, he has yet impressed the stamp of his own individuality — of his own character, moral as well as intellectual - as deep on all he has written as if his theme had been ever so directly himself. Compare him in this respect with Homer. We scarcely conceive of the old Greek poet as having a sentient existence at all, any more than we do of the sea or the breezes of heaven, whose music his continuous, undulating verse, ever various, ever the same, resembles. Who in the delineation of the wrath of Achilles finds a trace of the temper or character of the delineator? Who in Milton's Satan does not recognize
1 See this illustrated in Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, vol. ii.