Lives of the Poets, Vol. 1
Part 3 out of 10
reasonably court the conversation of a man so generally illustrious,
that foreigners are reported, by Wood, to have visited the house in
Bread street, where he was born.
According to another account, he was seen in a small house, "neatly
enough dressed in black clothes, sitting in a room hung with rusty
green; pale but not cadaverous, with chalkstones in his hand. He said,
that, if it were not for the gout, his blindness would be tolerable."
In the intervals of his pain, being made unable to use the common
exercises, he used to swing in a chair, and sometimes played upon an
He was now confessedly and visibly employed upon his poem, of which the
progress might be noted by those with whom he was familiar; for he
was obliged, when he had composed as many lines as his memory would
conveniently retain, to employ some friend in writing them, having, at
least for part of the time, no regular attendant. This gave opportunity
to observations and reports.
Mr. Philips observes, that there was a very remarkable circumstance in
the composure of Paradise Lost, "which I have a particular reason," says
he, "to remember; for whereas I had the perusal of it from the very
beginning, for some years, as I went from time to time to visit him, in
parcels of ten, twenty, or thirty verses at a time, which, being written
by whatever hand came next, might possibly want correction, as to the
orthography and pointing; having, as the summer came on, not been showed
any for a considerable while, and desiring the reason thereof, was
answered, that his vein never happily flowed but from the autumnal
equinox to the vernal; and that whatever he attempted at other times was
never to his satisfaction, though he courted his fancy never so much; so
that, in all the years he was about this poem, he may be said to have
spent half his time therein."
Upon this relation Toland remarks, that in his opinion, Philips has
mistaken the time of the year; for Milton, in his elegies, declares,
that with the advance of the spring he feels the increase of his
poetical force, "redeunt in carmina vires." To this it is answered, that
Philips could hardly mistake time so well marked; and it may be added,
that Milton might find different times of the year favourable to
different parts of life. Mr. Richardson conceives it impossible that
"such a work should be suspended for six months, or for one. It may
go on faster or slower, but it must go on." By what necessity it must
continually go on, or why it might not be laid aside and resumed, it is
not easy to discover.
This dependance of the soul upon the seasons, those temporary and
periodical ebbs and flows of intellect, may, I suppose, justly be
derided, as the fumes of vain imagination: "Sapiens dominabitur astris."
The author that thinks himself weather-bound will find, with a little
help from hellebore, that he is only idle or exhausted. But while this
notion has possession of the head, it produces the inability which it
supposes. Our powers owe much of their energy to our hopes: "possunt
quia posse videutur." When success seems attainable, diligence is
enforced; but when it is admitted that the faculties are suppressed by a
cross wind, or a cloudy sky, the day is given up without resistance; for
who can contend with the course of nature?
From such prepossessions Milton seems not to have been free. There
prevailed, in his time, an opinion, that the world was in its decay, and
that we have had the misfortune to be produced in the decrepitude of
nature. It was suspected, that the whole creation languished, that
neither trees nor animals had the height or bulk of their predecessors,
and that every thing was daily sinking by gradual diminution. Milton
appears to suspect that souls partake of the general degeneracy, and is
not without some fear that his book is to be written in "an age too
late" for heroick poesy.
Another opinion wanders about the world, and sometimes finds reception
among wise men; an opinion that restrains the operations of the mind to
particular regions, and supposes that a luckless mortal may be born in a
degree of latitude too high or too low for wisdom or for wit. From this
fancy, wild as it is, he had not wholly cleared his head, when he
feared lest the climate of his country might be too cold for flights of
Into a mind already occupied by such fancies, another not more
reasonable might easily find its way. He that could fear lest his
genius had fallen upon too old a world, or too chill a climate, might
consistently magnify to himself the influence of the seasons, and
believe his faculties to be vigorous only half the year.
His submission to the seasons was, at least, more reasonable than his
dread of decaying nature, or a frigid zone; for general causes must
operate uniformly in a general abatement of mental power; if less could
be performed by the writer, less, likewise, would content the judges of
his work. Among this lagging race of frosty grovellers he might still
have risen into eminence, by producing something, which "they should not
willingly let die." However inferiour to the heroes who were born in
better ages, he might still be great among his contemporaries, with the
hope of growing every day greater in the dwindle of posterity. He
might still be a giant among the pygmies, the one-eyed monarch of the
Of his artifices of study, or particular hours of composition, we have
little account, and there was, perhaps, little to be told. Richardson,
who seems to have been very diligent in his inquiries, but discovers
always a wish to find Milton discriminated from other men, relates, that
"he would sometimes lie awake whole nights, but not a verse could he
make; and on a sudden his poetical faculty would rush upon him with an
impetus or oestrum, and his daughter was immediately called to secure
what came. At other times he would dictate, perhaps, forty lines in a
breath, and then reduce them to half the number."
These bursts of light, and involutions of darkness, these transient
and involuntary excursions and retrocessions of invention, having some
appearance of deviation from the common train of nature, are eagerly
caught by the lovers of a wonder. Yet something of this inequality
happens to every man in every mode of exertion, manual or mental. The
mechanick cannot handle his hammer and his file at all times with equal
dexterity; there are hours, he knows not why, when "his hand is out."
By Mr. Richardson's relation, casually conveyed, much regard cannot be
claimed. That, in his intellectual hour, Milton called for his daughter
to "secure what came," may be questioned; for unluckily it happens to be
known, that his daughters were never taught to write; nor would he have
been obliged, as is universally confessed, to have employed any casual
visitor in disburdening his memory, if his daughter could have performed
The story of reducing his exuberance has been told of other authors,
and, though, doubtless, true of every fertile and copious mind, seems
to have been gratuitously transferred to Milton.
What he has told us, and we cannot now know more, is, that he composed
much of this poem in the night and morning, I suppose, before his mind
was disturbed with common business; and that he poured out, with great
fluency, his "unpremeditated verse." Versification, free, like his, from
the distresses of rhyme, must, by a work so long, be made prompt and
habitual; and, when his thoughts were once adjusted, the words would
come at his command.
At what particular times of his life the parts of his work were written,
cannot often be known. The beginning of the third book shows that he had
lost his sight; and the introduction to the seventh, that the return of
the king had clouded him with discountenance: and that he was offended
by the licentious festivity of the restoration. There are no other
internal notes of time. Milton, being now cleared from all effects of
his disloyalty, had nothing required from him but the common duty of
living in quiet, to be rewarded with the common right of protection;
but this, which, when he skulked from the approach of his king, was,
perhaps, more than he hoped, seems not to have satisfied him; for, no
sooner is he safe, than he finds himself in danger: "fallen on evil days
and evil tongues, and with darkness and with danger compass'd round."
This darkness, had his eyes been better employed, had undoubtedly
deserved compassion; but to add the mention of danger was ungrateful
and unjust. He was fallen, indeed, on "evil days;" the time was come in
which regicides could no longer boast their wickedness. But of "evil
tongues" for Milton to complain, required impudence, at least, equal to
his other powers; Milton, whose warmest advocates must allow, that he
never spared any asperity of reproach, or brutality of insolence.
But the charge itself seems to be false; for it would be hard to
recollect any reproach cast upon him, either serious or ludicrous,
through the whole remaining part of his life. He pursued his studies, or
his amusements, without persecution, molestation, or insult. Such is
the reverence paid to great abilities, however misused: they who
contemplated in Milton the scholar and the wit, were contented to forget
the reviler of his king.
When the plague, 1665, raged in London, Milton took refuge at Chalfont,
in Bucks; where Elwood, who had taken the house for him, first saw a
complete copy of Paradise Lost, and, having perused it, said to him:
"Thou hast said a great deal upon Paradise Lost; what hast thou to say
upon Paradise Found?"
Next year, when the danger of infection had ceased, he returned to
Bunhill fields, and designed the publication of his poem. A license was
necessary, and he could expect no great kindness from a chaplain of the
archbishop of Canterbury. He seems, however, to have been treated with
tenderness; for though objections were made to particular passages, and
among them to the simile of the sun, eclipsed in the first book, yet the
license was granted; and he sold his copy, April 27, 1667, to Samuel
Simmons, for an immediate payment of five pounds, with a stipulation to
receive five pounds more, when thirteen hundred should be sold of the
first edition; and again, five pounds after the sale of the same number
of the second edition; and another five pounds after the same sale of
the third. None of the three editions were to be extended beyond fifteen
The first edition was of ten books, in a small quarto. The titles were
varied from year to year; and an advertisement and the arguments of the
books were omitted in some copies, and inserted in others.
The sale gave him, in two years, a right to his second payment, for
which the receipt was signed April, 26, 1669. The second edition was not
given till 1674; it was printed in small octavo; and the number of books
was increased to twelve, by a division of the seventh and twelfth; and
some other small improvements were made. The third edition was published
in 1678; and the widow, to whom the copy was then to devolve, sold all
her claims to Simmons for eight pounds, according to her receipt given
December 21, 1680. Simmons had already agreed to transfer the whole
right to Brabazon Aylmer, for twenty-five pounds; and Aylmer sold to
Jacob Tonson half, August 17, 1683, and half, March 24, 1690, at a price
considerably enlarged. In the history of Paradise Lost, a deduction thus
minute will rather gratify than fatigue.
The slow sale and tardy reputation of this poem have been always
mentioned as evidences of neglected merit, and of the uncertainty of
literary fame; and inquiries have been made, and conjectures offered,
about the causes of its long obscurity and late reception. But has the
case been truly stated? Have not lamentation and wonder been lavished on
an evil that was never felt?
That in the reigns of Charles and James the Paradise Lost received no
publick acclamations, is readily confessed. Wit and literature were on
the side of the court; and who, that solicited favour or fashion would
venture to praise the defender of the regicides? All that he himself
could think his due, from "evil tongues" in "evil days," was that
reverential silence which was generously preserved. But it cannot be
inferred, that his poem was not read, or not, however unwillingly,
The sale, if it be considered, will justify the publick. Those who have
no power to judge of past times, but by their own, should always doubt
their conclusions. The call for books was not in Milton's age what it
is in the present. To read was not then a general amusement; neither
traders, nor often gentlemen, thought themselves disgraced by ignorance.
The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house
supplied with a closet of knowledge. Those, indeed, who professed
learning, were not less learned than at any other time; but of that
middle race of students who read for pleasure or accomplishment, and
who buy the numerous products of modern typography, the number was
then comparatively small. To prove the paucity of readers, it may be
sufficient to remark, that the nation had been satisfied from 1623 to
1664, that is, forty-one years, with only two editions of the works of
Shakespeare, which, probably, did not together make one thousand copies.
The sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in opposition to so
much recent enmity, and to a style of versification new to all, and
disgusting to many, was an uncommon example of the prevalence of genius.
The demand did not immediately increase; for many more readers than were
supplied at first the nation did not afford. Only three thousand were
sold in eleven years; for it forced its way without assistance; its
admirers did not dare to publish their opinion; and the opportunities
now given of attracting notice by advertisements were then very few; the
means of proclaiming the publication of new books have been produced by
that general literature which now pervades the nation through all its
But the reputation and price of the copy still advanced, till the
revolution put an end to the secrecy of love, and Paradise Lost broke
into open view with sufficient security of kind reception.
Fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed
the silent progress of his work, and marked its reputation stealing its
way in a kind of subterraneous current, through fear and silence. I
cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at
all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and
waiting, without impatience, the vicissitudes of opinion, and the
impartiality of a future generation.
In the mean time he continued his studies, and supplied the want of
sight by a very odd expedient, of which Philips gives the following
Mr. Philips tells us, "that though our author had daily about him one or
other to read, some persons of man's estate, who, of their own accord,
greedily catched at the opportunity of bring his readers, that they
might as well reap the benefit of what they read to him, as oblige him
by the benefit of their reading; and others of younger years were sent
by their parents to the same end; yet excusing only the eldest daughter
by reason of her bodily infirmity, and difficult utterance of speech,
(which, to say truth, I doubt was the principal cause of excusing her,)
the other two were condemned to the performance of reading, and exactly
pronouncing of all the languages of whatever book he should, at one
time or other, think fit to peruse, viz. the Hebrew, (and I think the
Syriac,) the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish, and French. All
which sorts of books to be confined to read, without understanding one
word, must needs be a trial of patience almost beyond endurance. Yet
it was endured by both for a long time, though the irksomeness of this
employment could not be always concealed, but broke out more and more
into expressions of uneasiness; so that, at length, they were all, even
the eldest also, sent out to learn some curious and ingenious sorts
of manufacture, that are proper for women to learn, particularly
embroideries in gold or silver."
In the scene of misery which this mode of intellectual labour sets
before our eyes, it is hard to determine whether the daughters or the
father are most to be lamented. A language not understood can never be
so read as to give pleasure, and, very seldom, so as to convey
meaning. If few men would have had resolution to write books with such
embarrassments, few, likewise, would have wanted ability to find some
Three years after his Paradise Lost, 1667, he published his History
of England, comprising the whole fable of Geoffrey of Monmouth, and
continued to the Norman invasion. Why he should have given the first
part, which he seems not to believe, and which is universally rejected,
it is difficult to conjecture. The style is harsh; but it has something
of rough vigour, which, perhaps, may often strike, though it cannot
On this history the licenser again fixed his claws, and, before he would
transmit it to the press, tore out several parts. Some censures of the
Saxon monks were taken away, lest they should be applied to the modern
clergy; and a character of the long parliament, and assembly of divines,
was excluded; of which the author gave a copy to the earl of Anglesea,
and which, being afterwards published, has been since inserted in its
The same year were printed Paradise Regained; and Sampson Agonistes, a
tragedy written in imitation of the ancients, and never designed by
the author for the stage. As these poems were published by another
bookseller, it has been asked, whether Simmons was discouraged from
receiving them by the slow sale of the former? Why a writer changed
his bookseller a hundred years ago, I am far from hoping to discover.
Certainly, he who in two years sells thirteen hundred copies of a volume
in quarto, bought for two payments of five pounds each, has no reason to
repent his purchase.
When Milton showed Paradise Regained to Elwood, "this," said he, "is
owing to you; for you put it in my head by the question you put to me at
Chalfont, which otherwise I had not thought of."
His last poetical offspring was his favourite. He could not, as Elwood
relates, endure to hear Paradise Lost preferred to Paradise Regained.
Many causes may vitiate a writer's judgment of his own works. On that
which has cost him much labour he sets a high value, because he is
unwilling to think that he has been diligent in vain; what has been
produced without toilsome efforts, is considered with delight, as a
proof of vigorous faculties and fertile invention; and the last work,
whatever it be, has, necessarily, most of the grace of novelty. Milton,
however it happened, had this prejudice, and had it to himself.
To that multiplicity of attainments, and extent of comprehension, that
entitled this great author to our veneration, may be added a kind
of humble dignity, which did not disdain the meanest services to
literature. The epick poet, the controvertist, the politician, having
already descended to accommodate children with a book of rudiments,
now, in the last years of his life, composed a book of logick, for the
initiation of students in philosophy; and published, 1672, Artis Logicae
plenior Institutio ad Petri Rami Methodum concinnata; that is, a new
scheme of logick, according to the method of Ramus. I know not whether,
even in this book, he did not intend an act of hostility against the
universities; for Ramus was one of the first oppugners of the old
philosophy, who disturbed with innovations the quiet of the schools.
His polemical disposition again revived. He had now been safe so long,
that he forgot his fears, and published a Treatise of true Religion,
Heresy, Schism, Toleration, and the best means to prevent the growth of
But this little tract is modestly written, with respectful mention of
the church of England, and an appeal to the thirty-nine articles.
His principle of toleration is, agreement in the sufficiency of the
scriptures; and he extends it to all who, whatever their opinions are,
profess to derive them from the sacred books. The papists appeal to
other testimonies, and are, therefore, in his opinion, not to be
permitted the liberty of either publick or private worship; for, though
they plead conscience, "we have no warrant," he says, "to regard
conscience, which is not grounded in scripture."
Those who are not convinced by his reasons, may be, perhaps, delighted
with his wit. The term "Roman catholick is," he says, "one of the pope's
bulls; it is particular universal, or catholick schismatick."
He has, however, something better. As the best preservative against
popery, he recommends the diligent perusal of the scriptures, a duty,
from which he warns the busy part of mankind not to think themselves
He now reprinted his juvenile poems, with some additions.
In the last year of his life he sent to the press, seeming to take
delight in publication, a collection of Familiar Epistles in Latin;
to which, being too few to make a volume, he added some academical
exercises, which, perhaps, he perused with pleasure, as they recalled to
his memory the days of youth, but for which nothing but veneration for
his name could now procure a reader.
When he had attained his sixty-sixth year, the gout, with which he had
been long tormented, prevailed over the enfeebled powers of nature. He
died by a quiet and silent expiration, about the tenth of November,
1674, at his house in Bunhill fields; and was buried next his father in
the chancel of St. Giles at Cripplegate. His funeral was very splendidly
and numerously attended.
Upon his grave there is supposed to have been no memorial; but in our
time a monument has been erected in Westminster Abbey "to the author of
Paradise Lost," by Mr. Benson, who has, in the inscription, bestowed
more words upon himself than upon Milton.
When the inscription for the monument of Philips, in which he was said
to be "soli Miltono secundus," was exhibited to Dr. Sprat, then dean
of Westminster, he refused to admit it; the name of Milton was, in his
opinion, too detestable to be read on the wall of a building dedicated
to devotion. Atterbury, who succeeded him, being author of the
inscription, permitted its reception. "And such has been the change of
publick opinion," said Dr. Gregory, from whom I heard this account,
"that I have seen erected in the church a statue of that man, whose name
I once knew considered as a pollution of its walls."
Milton has the reputation of having been, in his youth, eminently
beautiful, so as to have been called the lady of his college. His hair,
which was of a light brown, parted at the foretop, and hung down upon
his shoulders, according to the picture which he has given of Adam. He
was, however, not of the heroick stature, but rather below the middle
size, according to Mr. Richardson, who mentions him as having
narrowly escaped from being "short and thick." He was vigorous and
active, and delighted in the exercise of the sword, in which he is
related to have been eminently skilful. His weapon was, I believe, not
the rapier, but the backsword, of which he recommends the use in his
book on education.
His eyes are said never to have been bright; but, if he was a dexterous
fencer, they must have been once quick.
His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe
student. He drank little strong drink of any kind, and fed without
excess in quantity, and, in his earlier years, without delicacy of
choice. In his youth he studied late at night; but afterwards changed
his hours, and rested in bed from nine to four in the summer, and five
in the winter. The course of his day was best known after he was blind.
When he first rose, he heard a chapter in the Hebrew Bible, and then
studied till twelve; then took some exercise for an hour; then dined,
then played on the organ, and sang, or heard another sing; then studied
to six; then entertained his visiters till eight; then supped, and,
after a pipe of tobacco and a glass of water, went to bed.
So is his life described: but this even tenour appears attainable only
in colleges. He that lives in the world will, sometimes, have the
succession of his practice broken and confused. Visiters, of whom
Milton is represented to have had great numbers, will come and stay
unseasonably; business, of which every man has some, must be done when
others will do it.
When he did not care to rise early, he had something read to him by his
bedside; perhaps, at this time, his daughters were employed. He composed
much in the morning, and dictated in the day, sitting obliquely in an
elbowchair, with his leg thrown over the arm.
Fortune appears not to have had much of his care. In the civil wars he
lent his personal estate to the parliament; but when, after the contest
was decided, he solicited repayment, he met not only with neglect, but
"sharp rebuke;" and, having tired both himself and his friends, was
given up to poverty and hopeless indignation, till he showed how able he
was to do greater service. He was then made Latin secretary, with two
hundred pounds a year; and had a thousand pounds for his Defence of
the People. His widow, who, after his death, retired to Namptwich, in
Cheshire, and died about 1729, is said to have reported, that he lost
two thousand pounds by intrusting it to a scrivener; and that, in the
general depredation upon the church, he had grasped an estate of about
sixty pounds a year belonging to Westminster Abbey, which, like other
sharers of the plunder of rebellion, he was afterwards obliged to
return. Two thousand pounds, which he had placed in the excise-office,
were also lost. There is yet no reason to believe that he was ever
reduced to indigence. His wants, being few, were competently supplied.
He sold his library before his death, and left his family fifteen
hundred pounds, on which his widow laid hold, and only gave one hundred
to each of his daughters.
His literature was unquestionably great. He read all the languages
which are considered either as learned or polite: Hebrew, with its two
dialects, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish. In Latin his skill
was such as places him in the first rank of writers and criticks; and he
appears to have cultivated Italian with uncommon diligence. The books
in which his daughter, who used to read to him, represented him as most
delighting, after Homer, which he could almost repeat, were Ovid's
Metamorphoses and Euripides. His Euripides is, by Mr. Cradock's
kindness, now in my hands: the margin is sometimes noted; but I have
found nothing remarkable.
Of the English poets, he set most value upon Spenser, Shakespeare, and
Cowley. Spenser was apparently his favourite; Shakespeare he may easily
be supposed to like, with every other skilful reader; but I should not
have expected that Cowley, whose ideas of excellence were so different
from his own, would have had much of his approbation. His character of
Dryden, who sometimes visited him, was, that he was a good rhymist,
but no poet. His theological opinions are said to have been first
Calvinistical; and afterwards, perhaps, when he began to hate the
presbyterians, to have tended towards Arminianism. In the mixed
questions of theology and government, he never thinks that he can recede
far enough from popery, or prelacy; but what Bandius says of Erasmus
seems applicable to him, "magis habuit quod fugeret, quam quod
sequeretur." He had determined rather what to condemn, than what
to approve. He has not associated himself with any denomination of
protestants; we know rather what he was not, than what he was. He was
not of the church of Rome; he was not of the church of England.
To be of no church is dangerous. Religion, of which the rewards are
distant, and which is animated only by faith and hope, will glide by
degrees out of the mind, unless it be invigorated and reimpressed by
external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary
influence of example. Milton, who appears to have had full conviction of
the truth of Christianity, and to have regarded the holy scriptures with
the profoundest veneration, to have been untainted by any heretical
peculiarity of opinion, and to have lived in a confirmed belief of the
immediate and occasional agency of providence, yet grew old without any
visible worship. In the distribution of his hours, there was no hour of
prayer, either solitary or with his household; omitting publick prayers,
he omitted all.
Of this omission the reason has been sought upon a supposition, which
ought never to be made, that men live with their own approbation, and
justify their conduct to themselves. Prayer certainly was not thought
superfluous by him, who represents our first parents as praying
acceptably in the state of innocence, and efficaciously after their
fall. That he lived without prayer can hardly be affirmed; his studies
and meditations were an habitual prayer. The neglect of it in his family
was, probably, a fault for which he condemned himself, and which he
intended to correct, but that death, as too often happens, intercepted
his reformation. His political notions were those of an acrimonious and
surly republican, for which it is not known that he gave any better
reason than that "a popular government was the most frugal; for the
trappings of a monarchy would set up an ordinary commonwealth." It is
surely very shallow policy that supposes money to be the chief good; and
even this, without considering that the support and expense of a court
is, for the most part, only a particular kind of traffick, by which
money is circulated, without any national impoverishment.
Milton's republicanism was, I am afraid, founded in an envious hatred of
greatness, and a sullen desire of independence; in petulance impatient
of control, and pride disdainful of superiority. He hated monarchs in
the state, and prelates in the church; for he hated all whom he was
required to obey. It is to be suspected, that his predominant desire was
to destroy, rather than establish, and that he felt not so much the love
of liberty, as repugnance to authority.
It has been observed, that they who most loudly clamour for liberty do
not most liberally grant it. What we know of Milton's character, in
domestick relations, is, that he was severe and arbitrary. His family
consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a
Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferiour beings. That
his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be
depressed by a mean and penurious education. He thought women made only
for obedience, and man only for rebellion.
Of his family some account may be expected. His sister, first married to
Mr. Philips, afterwards married Mr. Agar, a friend of her first husband,
who succeeded him in the crown-office. She had, by her first husband,
Edward and John, the two nephews whom Milton educated; and, by her
second, two daughters.
His brother, sir Christopher, had two daughters, Mary and Catharine;
and a son, Thomas, who succeeded Agar in the crown-office, and left a
daughter living, in 1749, in Grosvenor street.
Milton had children only by his first wife; Anne, Mary, and Deborah.
Anne, though deformed, married a master-builder, and died of her first
child. Mary died single. Deborah married Abraham Clark, a weaver in
Spital fields, and lived seventy-six years, to August, 1727. This is the
daughter of whom publick mention has been made. She could repeat the
first lines of Homer, the Metamorphoses, and some of Euripides, by
having often read them. Yet here incredulity is ready to make a
stand. Many repetitions are necessary to fix in the memory lines not
understood; and why should Milton wish or want to hear them so often?
These lines were at the beginning of the poems. Of a book written in a
language not understood, the beginning raises no more attention than the
end; and as those that understand it know commonly the beginning best,
its rehearsal will seldom be necessary. It is not likely that Milton
required any passage to be so much repeated, as that his daughter could
learn it; nor likely that he desired the initial lines to be read at
all; nor that the daughter, weary of the drudgery of pronouncing unideal
sounds, would voluntarily commit them to memory.
To this gentlewoman Addison made a present, and promised some
establishment, but died soon after. Queen Caroline sent her fifty
guineas. She had seven sons and three daughters; but none of them had
any children, except her son Caleb and her daughter Elizabeth. Caleb
went to Fort St. George, in the East Indies, and had two sons, of whom
nothing is now known. Elizabeth married Thomas Foster, a weaver in
Spital fields; and had seven children, who all died. She kept a petty
grocer's or chandler's shop, first at Holloway, and afterwards in Cock
lane, near Shoreditch church. She knew little of her grandfather, and
that little was not good. She told of his harshness to his daughters,
and his refusal to have them taught to write; and, in opposition to
other accounts, represented him as delicate, though temperate, in his
In 1750, April 5, Comus was played for her benefit. She had so little
acquaintance with diversion or gaiety, that she did not know what was
intended, when a benefit was offered her. The profits of the night were
only one hundred and thirty pounds, though Dr. Newton brought a large
contribution; and twenty pounds were given by Tonson, a man who is to
be praised as often as he is named. Of this sum one hundred pounds were
placed in the stocks, after some debate between her and her husband, in
whose name it should be entered; and the rest augmented their little
stock, with which they removed to Islington. This was the greatest
benefaction that Paradise Lost ever procured the author's descendants;
and to this he, who has now attempted to relate his life, had the honour
of contributing a prologue.
In the examination of Milton's poetical works, I shall pay so much
regard to time as to begin with his juvenile productions. For his early
pieces he seems to have had a degree of fondness not very laudable; what
he has once written he resolves to preserve, and gives to the publick an
unfinished poem, which he broke off, because he was "nothing satisfied
with what he had done," supposing his readers less nice than himself.
These preludes to his future labours are in Italian, Latin, and English.
Of the Italian I cannot pretend to speak as a critick; but I have heard
them commended by a man well qualified to decide their merit. The Latin
pieces are lusciously elegant; but the delight which they afford is
rather by the exquisite imitation of the ancient writers, by the purity
of the diction, and the harmony of the numbers, than by any power of
invention, or vigour of sentiment. They are not all of equal value; the
elegies excel the odes; and some of the exercises on Gunpowder Treason
might have been spared.
The English poems, though they make no promises of Paradise Lost,
have this evidence of genius, that they have a cast original and
unborrowed. But their peculiarity is not excellence; if they differ from
the verses of others, they differ for the worse; for they are too often
distinguished by repulsive harshness; the combinations of words are
new, but they are not pleasing; the rhymes and epithets seem to be
laboriously sought, and violently applied.
That, in the early part of his life, he wrote with much care appears
from his manuscripts, happily preserved at Cambridge, in which many
of his smaller works are found, as they were first written, with the
subsequent corrections. Such relicks show how excellence is acquired;
what we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with
Those who admire the beauties of this great poet sometimes force their
own judgment into false approbation of his little pieces, and prevail
upon themselves to think that admirable which is only singular. All that
short compositions can commonly attain, is neatness and elegance. Milton
never learned the art of doing little things with grace; he overlooked
the milder excellence of suavity and softness: he was a lion, that had
no skill "in dandling the kid."
One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is Lycidas;
of which the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers
unpleasing. What beauty there is, we must, therefore, seek in the
sentiments and images. It is not to be considered as the effusion of
real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure
opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls
upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough "satyrs and fauns with
cloven heel." Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief.
In this poem there is no nature, for there is no truth; there is no art,
for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral: easy, vulgar,
and, therefore, disgusting; whatever images it can supply are long ago
exhausted; and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction
on the mind. When Cowley tells of Hervey, that they studied together, it
is easy to suppose how much he must miss the companion of his labours,
and the partner of his discoveries; but what image of tenderness can be
excited by these lines?
We drove afield, and both together heard,
What time the grey fly winds her sultry horn,
Batt'ning our flocks with the fresh dews of night.
We know that they never drove afield, and that they had no flocks
to batten; and, though it be allowed that the representation may be
allegorical, the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is
never sought, because it cannot be known when it is found.
Among the flocks, and copses, and flowers, appear the heathen deities;
Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Aeolus, with a long train of mythological
imagery, such as a college easily supplies. Nothing can less display
knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has
lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone, without any
judge of his skill in piping; and how one god asks another god what is
become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He who thus grieves
will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour.
This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are
mingled the most awful and sacred truths, such as ought never to be
polluted with such irreverend combinations. The shepherd, likewise,
is now a feeder of sheep, and afterwards an ecclesiastical pastor, a
superintendent of a Christian flock. Such equivocations are always
unskilful; but here they are indecent, and, at least, approach to
impiety, of which, however, I believe the writer not to have been
conscious. Such is the power of reputation justly acquired, that its
blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could
have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known the
Of the two pieces, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, I believe, opinion is
uniform; every man that reads them, reads them with pleasure. The
author's design is not, what Theobald has remarked, merely to show
how objects derive their colours from the mind, by representing the
operation of the same things upon the gay and the melancholy temper, or
upon the same man, as he is differently disposed; but rather how, among
the successive variety of appearances, every disposition of mind takes
hold on those by which it may be gratified.
The cheerful man hears the lark in the morning; the pensive man hears
the nightingale in the evening. The cheerful man sees the cock strut,
and hears the horn and hounds echo in the wood; then walks, "not
unseen," to observe the glory of the rising sun, or listen to the
singing milkmaid, and view the labours of the ploughman and the mower:
then casts his eyes about him over scenes of smiling plenty, and looks
up to the distant tower, the residence of some fair inhabitant; thus he
pursues rural gaiety through a day of labour or of play, and delights
himself at night with the fanciful narratives of superstitious
The pensive man, at one time, walks "unseen" to muse at midnight; and,
at another, hears the sullen curfew. If the weather drives him home, he
sits in a room lighted only by "glowing embers;" or, by a lonely lamp,
outwatches the north star, to discover the habitation of separate souls,
and varies the shades of meditation, by contemplating the magnificent or
pathetick scenes of tragick or epick poetry. When the morning comes, a
morning gloomy with rain and wind, he walks into the dark, trackless
woods, falls asleep by some murmuring water, and with melancholy
enthusiasm expects some dream of prognostication, or some musick played
by aerial performers.
Both mirth and melancholy are solitary, silent inhabitants of the
breast, that neither receive nor transmit communication; no mention is,
therefore, made of a philosophical friend, or a pleasant companion. The
seriousness does not arise from any participation of calamity, nor the
gaiety from the pleasures of the bottle.
The man of cheerfulness, having exhausted the country, tries what
"towered cities" will afford, and mingles with scenes of splendour, gay
assemblies, and nuptial festivities; but he mingles a mere spectator,
as, when the learned comedies of Jonson, or the wild dramas of
Shakespeare, are exhibited, he attends the theatre.
The pensive man never loses himself in crowds, but walks the cloister,
or frequents the cathedral. Milton probably had not yet forsaken the
Both his characters delight in musick; but he seems to think, that
cheerful notes would have obtained, from Pluto, a complete dismission of
Eurydice, of whom solemn sounds only procured a conditional release.
For the old age of cheerfulness he makes no provision; but melancholy he
conducts with great dignity to the close of life. His cheerfulness is
without levity, and his pensiveness without asperity.
Through these two poems the images are properly selected, and nicely
distinguished; but the colours of the diction seem not sufficiently
discriminated. I know not whether the characters are kept sufficiently
apart. No mirth can, indeed, be found in his melancholy; but I am afraid
that I always meet some melancholy in his mirth. They are two noble
efforts of imagination.
The greatest of his juvenile performances is the Masque of Comus, in
which may very plainly be discovered the dawn or twilight of Paradise
Lost. Milton appears to have formed very early that system of diction,
and mode of verse, which his maturer judgment approved, and from which
he never endeavoured nor desired to deviate.
Nor does Comus afford only a specimen of his language; it exhibits,
likewise, his power of description and his vigour of sentiment, employed
in the praise and defence of virtue. A work more truly poetical is
rarely found; allusions, images, and descriptive epithets, embellish
almost every period with lavish decoration. As a series of lines,
therefore, it may be considered as worthy of all the admiration with
which the votaries have received it.
As a drama it is deficient. The action is not probable. A mask, in those
parts where supernatural intervention is admitted, must, indeed, be
given up to all the freaks of imagination; but, so far as the action is
merely human, it ought to be reasonable, which can hardly be said of the
conduct of the two brothers; who, when their sister sinks with fatigue
in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together, in search of
berries, too far to find their way back, and leave a helpless lady to
all the sadness and danger of solitude. This, however, is a defect
overbalanced by its convenience.
What deserves more reprehension is, that the prologue spoken in the wild
wood, by the attendant spirit, is addressed to the audience; a mode of
communication so contrary to the nature of dramatick representation,
that no precedents can support it.
The discourse of the spirit is too long; an objection that may be made
to almost all the following speeches; they have not the sprightliness
of a dialogue animated by reciprocal contention, but seem rather
declamations deliberately composed, and formally repeated, on a moral
question. The auditor, therefore, listens as to a lecture, without
passion, without anxiety.
The song of Comus has airiness and jollity; but, what may recommend
Milton's morals, as well as his poetry, the invitations to pleasure are
so general, that they excite no distinct images of corrupt enjoyment,
and take no dangerous hold on the fancy.
The following soliloquies of Comus and the Lady are elegant, but
tedious. The song must owe much to the voice, if it ever can delight. At
last, the brothers enter with too much tranquillity; and, when they have
feared, lest their sister should be in danger, and hoped that she is
not in danger, the elder makes a speech in praise of chastity, and the
younger finds how fine it is to be a philosopher.
Then descends the spirit, in form of a shepherd; and the brother,
instead of being in haste to ask his help, praises his singing, and
inquires his business in that place. It is remarkable, that, at this
interview, the brother, is taken with a short fit of rhyming. The spirit
relates that the lady is in the power of Comus; the brother moralizes
again; and the spirit makes a long narration, of no use, because it is
false, and, therefore, unsuitable to a good being.
In all these parts the language is poetical, and the sentiments are
generous; but there is something wanting to allure attention.
The dispute between the lady and Comus is the most animated and
affecting scene of the drama, and wants nothing but a brisker
reciprocation of objections and replies to invite attention and detain
The songs are vigorous and full of imagery; but they are harsh in their
diction, and not very musical in their numbers.
Throughout the whole the figures are too bold, and the language too
luxuriant, for dialogue. It is a drama in the epick style, inelegantly
splendid, and tediously instructive.
The sonnets were written in different parts of Milton's life, upon
different occasions. They deserve not any particular criticism; for of
the best it can only be said, that they are not bad; and, perhaps, only
the eighth and the twenty-first are truly entitled to this slender
commendation. The fabrick of a sonnet, however adapted to the Italian
language, has never succeeded in ours, which, having greater variety of
termination, requires the rhymes to be often changed.
Those little pieces may be despatched without much anxiety; a greater
work calls for greater care. I am now to examine Paradise Lost, a poem,
which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and
with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the
By the general consent of criticks, the first praise of genius is due
to the writer of an epick poem, as it requires an assemblage of all the
powers which are singly sufficient for other compositions. Poetry is the
art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help
of reason. Epick poetry undertakes to teach the most important truths by
the most pleasing precepts, and, therefore, relates some great event
in the most affecting manner. History must supply the writer with the
rudiments of narration, which he must improve and exalt by a nobler art,
must animate by dramatick energy, and diversify by retrospection and
anticipation; morality must teach him the exact bounds, and different
shades, of vice and virtue; from policy and the practice of life, he
has to learn the discriminations of character, and the tendency of the
passions, either single or combined; and physiology must supply him with
illustrations and images. To put these materials to poetical use, is
required an imagination capable of painting nature, and realizing
fiction. Nor is he yet a poet till he has attained the whole extension
of his language, distinguished all the delicacies of phrase, and all the
colours of words, and learned to adjust their different sounds to all
the varieties of metrical modulation.
Bossu is of opinion, that the poet's first work is to find a moral,
which his fable is afterwards to illustrate and establish. This seems
to have been the process only of Milton; the moral of other poems
is incidental and consequent; in Milton's only it is essential and
intrinsick. His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous:
"to vindicate the ways of God to man;" to show the reasonableness of
religion, and the necessity of obedience to the divine law.
To convey this moral, there must be a fable, a narration artfully
constructed, so as to excite curiosity, and surprise expectation. In
this part of his work, Milton must be confessed to have equalled every
other poet. He has involved, in his account of the fall of man, the
events which preceded, and those that were to follow it; he has
interwoven the whole system of theology with such propriety, that every
part appears to be necessary; and scarcely any recital is wished shorter
for the sake of quickening the progress of the main action.
The subject of an epick poem is naturally an event of great importance.
That of Milton is not the destruction of a city, the conduct of a
colony, or the foundation of an empire. His subject is the fate of
worlds, the revolutions of heaven and of earth; rebellion against
the supreme king, raised by the highest order of created beings; the
overthrow of their host, and the punishment of their crime; the creation
of a new race of reasonable creatures; their original happiness and
innocence, their forfeiture of immortality, and their restoration to
hope and peace.
Great events can be hastened or retarded only by persons of elevated
dignity. Before the greatness displayed in Milton's poem, all other
greatness shrinks away. The weakest of his agents are the highest and
noblest of human beings, the original parents of mankind; with whose
actions the elements consented; on whose rectitude, or deviation of
will, depended the state of terrestrial nature, and the condition of all
the future inhabitants of the globe. Of the other agents in the poem,
the chief are such as it is irreverence to name on slight occasions. The
rest were lower powers;
----of which the least could wield
Those elements, and arm him with the force
Of all their regions;
powers, which only the control of omnipotence restrains from laying
creation waste, and filling the vast expanse of space with ruin and
confusion. To display the motives and actions of beings thus superiour,
so far as human reason can examine them, or human imagination represent
them, is the task which this mighty poet has undertaken and performed.
In the examination of epick poems much speculation is commonly employed
upon the characters. The characters in the Paradise Lost, which admit of
examination, are those of angels and of man; of angels good and evil; of
man in his innocent and sinful state.
Among the angels, the virtue of Raphael is mild and placid, of easy
condescension and free communication; that of Michael is regal and
lofty, and, as may seem, attentive to the dignity of his own nature.
Abdiel and Gabriel appear occasionally, and act as every incident
requires; the solitary fidelity of Abdiel is very amiably painted.
Of the evil angels the characters are more diversified. To Satan, as
Addison observes, such sentiments are given as suit "the most exalted
and most depraved being." Milton has been censured by Clarke, for
the impiety which, sometimes, breaks from Satan's mouth; for there are
thoughts, as he justly remarks, which no observation of character can
justify, because no good man would willingly permit them to pass,
however transiently, through his own mind. To make Satan speak as
a rebel, without any such expressions as might taint the reader's
imagination, was, indeed, one of the great difficulties in Milton's
undertaking; and I cannot but think that he has extricated himself with
great happiness. There is in Satan's speeches little that can give pain
to a pious ear. The language of rebellion cannot be the same with that
of obedience. The malignity of Satan foams in haughtiness and obstinacy;
but his expressions are commonly general, and no otherwise offensive
than as they are wicked.
The other chiefs of the celestial rebellion are very judiciously
discriminated in the first and second books; and the ferocious character
of Moloch appears, both in the battle and the council, with exact
To Adam and to Eve are given, during their innocence, such sentiments
as innocence can generate and utter. Their love is pure benevolence and
mutual veneration; their repasts are without luxury, and their diligence
without toil. Their addresses to their maker have little more than the
voice of admiration and gratitude. Fruition left them nothing to ask;
and innocence left them nothing to fear.
But with guilt enter distrust and discord, mutual accusation, and
stubborn self-defence; they regard each other with alienated minds, and
dread their creator as the avenger of their transgression. At last
they seek shelter in his mercy, soften to repentance, and melt in
supplication. Both before and after the fall, the superiority of Adam is
Of the probable and the marvellous, two parts of a vulgar epick poem,
which immerge the critick in deep consideration, the Paradise Lost
requires little to be said. It contains the history of a miracle, of
creation and redemption; it displays the power and the mercy of
the supreme being; the probable, therefore, is marvellous, and the
marvellous is probable. The substance of the narrative is truth; and, as
truth allows no choice, it is, like necessity, superiour to rule. To the
accidental or adventitious parts, as to every thing human, some slight
exceptions may be made; but the main fabrick is immovably supported. It
is justly remarked by Addison, that this poem has, by the nature of its
subject, the advantage above all others, that it is universally and
perpetually interesting. All mankind will, through all ages, bear the
same relation to Adam and to Eve, and must partake of that good and evil
which extend to themselves.
Of the machinery, so called from 'theos apo maechanaes', by which
is meant the occasional interposition of supernatural power, another
fertile topick of critical remarks, here is no room to speak, because
every thing is done under the immediate and visible direction of heaven;
but the rule is so far observed, that no part of the action could have
been accomplished by any other means.
Of episodes, I think, there are only two, contained in Raphael's
relation of the war in heaven, and Michael's prophetick account of the
changes to happen in this world. Both are closely connected with the
great action; one was necessary to Adam, as a warning, the other, as a
To the completeness or integrity of the design, nothing can be objected;
it has, distinctly and clearly, what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a
middle, and an end. There is, perhaps, no poem, of the same length, from
which so little can be taken without apparent mutilation. Here are no
funeral games, nor is there any long description of a shield. The short
digressions at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books,
might, doubtless, be spared; but superfluities so beautiful, who would
take away? or who does not wish that the author of the Iliad had
gratified succeeding ages with a little knowledge of himself? Perhaps
no passages are more frequently or more attentively read, than those
extrinsick paragraphs; and, since the end of poetry is pleasure, that
cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.
The questions, whether the action of the poem be strictly one, whether
the poem can be properly termed heroick, and who is the hero, are raised
by such readers as draw their principles of judgment rather from books
than from reason. Milton, though he entitled Paradise Lost only a poem,
yet calls it himself heroick song. Dryden petulantly and indecently
denies the heroism of Adam, because he was overcome; but there is no
reason why the hero should not be unfortunate, except established
practice, since success and virtue do not go necessarily together. Cato
is the hero of Lucan; but Lucan's authority will not be suffered by
Quintilian to decide. However, if success be necessary, Adam's deceiver
was at last crushed; Adam was restored to his maker's favour, and,
therefore, may securely resume his human rank.
After the scheme and fabrick of the poem, must be considered its
component parts, the sentiments and the diction.
The sentiments, as expressive of manners, or appropriated to characters,
are, for the greater part, unexceptionably just.
Splendid passages, containing lessons of morality, or precepts of
prudence, occur seldom. Such is the original formation of this poem,
that, as it admits no human manners, till the fall, it can give little
assistance to human conduct. Its end is to raise the thoughts above
sublunary cares or pleasures. Yet the praise of that fortitude, with
which Abdiel maintained his singularity of virtue against the scorn of
multitudes, may be accommodated to all times; and Raphael's reproof of
Adam's curiosity after the planetary motions, with the answer returned
by Adam, may be confidently opposed to any rule of life which any poet
The thoughts which are occasionally called forth in the progress, are
such as could only be produced by an imagination in the highest degree
fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study
and unlimited curiosity. The heat of Milton's mind may be said to
sublimate his learning, to throw off into his work the spirit of
science, unmingled with its grosser parts.
He had considered creation, in its whole extent, and his descriptions
are, therefore, learned. He had accustomed his imagination to
unrestrained indulgence, and his conceptions, therefore, were extensive.
The characteristick quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes
descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can
occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural port is
gigantick loftiness. He can please, when pleasure is required; but
it is his peculiar power to astonish.
He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know
what it was that nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon
others; the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid,
enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful;
he, therefore, chose a subject on which too much could not be said, on
which he might tire his fancy, without the censure of extravagance.
The appearances of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate
his appetite of greatness. To paint things as they are requires a minute
attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton's
delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a
scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery,
into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form
new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superiour
beings, to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of
But he could not be always in other worlds; he must sometimes revisit
earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder
by the sublimity of his mind, he gives delight by its fertility.
Whatever be his subject, he never fails to fill the imagination. But his
images and descriptions of the scenes, or operations of nature, do not
seem to be always copied from original form, nor to have the freshness,
raciness, and energy of immediate observation. He saw nature, as Dryden
expresses it, "through the spectacles of books;" and, on most occasions,
calls learning to his assistance. The garden of Eden brings to his mind
the vale of Enna, where Proserpine was gathering flowers. Satan makes
his way through fighting elements, like Argo between the Cyanean
rocks, or Ulysses between the two Sicilian whirlpools, when he shunned
Charybdis on the "larboard." The mythological allusions have been justly
censured, as not being always used with notice of their vanity; but they
contribute variety to the narration, and produce an alternate exercise
of the memory and the fancy.
His similes are less numerous, and more various, than those of his
predecessors. But he does not confine himself within the limits of
rigorous comparison; his great excellence is amplitude; and he expands
the adventitious image beyond the dimensions which the occasion
required. Thus comparing the shield of Satan to the orb of the moon, he
crowds the imagination with the discovery of the telescope, and all the
wonders which the telescope discovers.
Of his moral sentiments it is hardly praise to affirm that they excel
those of all other poets; for this superiority he was indebted to his
acquaintance with the sacred writings. The ancient epick poets, wanting
the light of revelation, were very unskilful teachers of virtue: their
principal characters may be great, but they are not amiable. The reader
may rise from their works with a greater degree of active or passive
fortitude, and sometimes of prudence; but he will be able to carry away
few precepts of justice, and none of mercy.
From the Italian writers it appears, that the advantages of even
Christian knowledge may be possessed in vain. Ariosto's pravity is
generally known; and, though the Deliverance of Jerusalem may be
considered as a sacred subject, the poet has been very sparing of moral
In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought, and purity
of manners, except when the train of the narration requires the
introduction of the rebellious spirits; and even they are compelled
to acknowledge their subjection to God, in such a manner as excites
reverence, and confirms piety.
Of human beings there are but two; but those two are the parents of
mankind, venerable before their fall for dignity and innocence, and
amiable after it for repentance and submission. In the first state,
their affection is tender without weakness, and their piety sublime
without presumption. When they have sinned, they show how discord begins
in mutual frailty, and how it ought to cease in mutual forbearance; how
confidence of the divine favour is forfeited by sin; and how hope of
pardon may be obtained by penitence and prayer. A state of innocence we
can only conceive, if, indeed, in our present misery, it be possible
to conceive it; but the sentiments and worship proper to a fallen and
offending being, we have all to learn, as we have all to practise.
The poet, whatever be done, is always great. Our progenitors, in their
first state, conversed with angels; even when folly and sin had degraded
them, they had not, in their humiliation, "the port of mean suitors;"
and they rise again to reverential regard, when we find that their
prayers were heard.
As human passions did not enter the world, before the fall, there is, in
the Paradise Lost, little opportunity for the pathetick; but what little
there is has not been lost. That passion which is peculiar to rational
nature, the anguish arising from the consciousness of transgression, and
the horrours attending the sense of the divine displeasure, are very
justly described and forcibly impressed. But the passions are moved only
on one occasion; sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of this
poem; sublimity variously modified, sometimes descriptive, sometimes
The defects and faults of Paradise Lost, for faults and defects every
work of man must have, it is the business of impartial criticism to
discover. As, in displaying the excellence of Milton, I have not made
long quotations, because of selecting beauties there had been no end, I
shall, in the same general manner, mention that which seems to deserve
censure; for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages,
which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish, in some
degree, the honour of our country?
The generality of my scheme does not admit the frequent notice of verbal
inaccuracies; which Bentley, perhaps, better skilled in grammar than in
poetry, has often found, though he sometimes made them, and which he
imputed to the obtrusions of a reviser, whom the author's blindness
obliged him to employ; a supposition rash and groundless, if he thought
it true; and vile and pernicious, if, as is said, he, in private,
allowed it to be false.
The plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises
neither human actions nor human manners. The man and woman who act
and suffer are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know.
The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged; beholds no
condition in which he can, by any effort of imagination, place himself;
he has, therefore, little natural curiosity or sympathy.
We all, indeed, feel the effect of Adam's disobedience; we all sin, like
Adam, and, like him, must all bewail our offences; we have restless and
insidious enemies in the fallen angels; and in the blessed spirits we
have guardians and friends; in the redemption of mankind we hope to be
included; and in the description of heaven and hell we are, surely,
interested, as we are all to reside, hereafter, either in the regions of
horrour or of bliss.
But these truths are too important to be new; they have been taught to
our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar
conversations, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of
life. Being, therefore, not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in
the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected,
Of the ideas suggested by these awful scenes, from some we recede with
reverence, except when stated hours require their association; and
from others we shrink with horrour, or admit them only as salutary
inflictions, as counterpoizes to our interests and passions. Such images
rather obstruct the career of fancy than incite it.
Pleasure and terrour are, indeed, the genuine sources of poetry; but
poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can, at least,
conceive; and poetical terrour, such as human strength and fortitude may
combat. The good and evil of eternity are too ponderous for the wings of
wit; the mind sinks under them, in passive helplessness, content with
calm belief and humble adoration.
Known truths, however, may take a different appearance, and be conveyed
to the mind by a new train of intermediate images. This Milton has
undertaken, and performed with pregnancy and vigour of mind peculiar
to himself. Whoever considers the few radical positions which the
scriptures afforded him, will wonder by what energetick operation he
expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety,
restrained, as he was, by religious reverence from licentiousness of
Here is a full display of the united force of study and genius; of a
great accumulation of materials, with judgment to digest, and fancy to
combine them: Milton was able to select from nature or from story, from
ancient fable or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or
adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind,
fermented by study, and exalted by imagination.
It has been, therefore, said, without an indecent hyperbole, by one
of his encomiasts, that in reading Paradise Lost, we read a book of
But original deficience cannot be supplied. The want of human interest
is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader
admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it
longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read
Milton for instruction, retire harassed and over-burdened, and look
elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.
Another inconvenience of Milton's design is, that it requires the
description of what cannot be described, the agency of spirits. He saw
that immateriality supplied no images, and that he could not show angels
acting but by instruments of action; he, therefore, invested them with
form and matter. This, being necessary, was, therefore, defensible;
and he should have secured the consistency of his system, by keeping
immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from
his thoughts. But he has, unhappily, perplexed his poetry with his
philosophy. His infernal and celestial powers are sometimes pure spirit,
and sometimes animated body. When Satan walks with his lance upon the
"burning marl," he has a body; when, in his passage between hell and the
new world, he is in danger of sinking in the vacuity, and is supported
by a gust of rising vapours, he has a body; when he animates the toad,
he seems to be mere spirit, that can penetrate matter at pleasure; when
he starts "up in his own shape," he has, at least, a determined form;
and, when he is brought before Gabriel, he has "a spear and a shield,"
which he had the power of hiding in the toad, though the arms of the
contending angels are evidently material.
The vulgar inhabitants of Pandaemonium, being "incorporeal spirits,"
are "at large, though without number," in a limited space: yet, in the
battle, when they were overwhelmed by mountains, their armour hurt them,
"crushed in upon their substance, now grown gross by sinning." This,
likewise, happened to the uncorrupted angels, who were overthrown the
"sooner for their arms, for unarmed they might easily, as spirits,
have evaded by contraction or remove." Even as spirits they are hardly
spiritual; for "contraction" and "remove" are images of matter; but if
they could have escaped without their armour, they might have escaped
from it, and left only the empty cover to be battered. Uriel, when he
rides on a sunbeam, is material; Satan is material when he is afraid of
the prowess of Adam.
The confusion of spirit and matter, which pervades the whole narration
of the war of heaven, fills it with incongruity; and the book in which
it is related is, I believe, the favourite of children, and gradually
neglected, as knowledge is increased.
After the operation of immaterial agents which cannot be explained, may
be considered that of allegorical persons, which have no real existence.
To exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form, and
animate them with activity, has always been the right of poetry. But
such airy beings are, for the most part, suffered only to do their
natural office, and retire. Thus fame tells a tale, and victory hovers
over a general, or perches on a standard; but fame and victory can do no
more. To give them any real employment, or ascribe to them any material
agency, is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by
ascribing effects to nonentity. In the Prometheus of Aeschylus, we see
violence and strength, and in the Alcestis of Euripides, we see death
brought upon the stage, all as active persons of the drama; but no
precedents can justify absurdity.
Milton's allegory of sin and death is, undoubtedly, faulty. Sin is,
indeed, the mother of death, and may be allowed to be the portress of
hell; but when they stop the journey of Satan, a journey described as
real, and when death offers him battle, the allegory is broken. That sin
and death should have shown the way to hell, might have been allowed;
but they cannot facilitate the passage by building a bridge, because the
difficulty of Satan's passage is described as real and sensible, and the
bridge ought to be only figurative. The hell assigned to the rebellious
spirits is described as not less local than the residence of man. It
is placed in some distant part of space, separated from the regions of
harmony and order by a chaotick waste and an unoccupied vacuity; but
sin and death worked up "a mole of aggravated soil," cemented with
"asphaltus;" a work too bulky for ideal architects.
This unskilful allegory appears to me one of the greatest faults of the
poem; and to this there was no temptation but the author's opinion of
To the conduct of the narrative some objections may be made. Satan is,
with great expectation, brought before Gabriel in Paradise, and is
suffered to go away unmolested. The creation of man is represented as the
consequence of the vacuity left in heaven by the expulsion of the rebels;
yet Satan mentions it as a report "rife in heaven" before his departure.
To find sentiments for the state of innocence was very difficult; and
something of anticipation, perhaps, is now and then discovered. Adam's
discourse of dreams seems not to be the speculation of a new-created
being. I know not whether his answer to the angel's reproof for curiosity
does not want something of propriety; it is the speech of a man
acquainted with many other men. Some philosophical notions, especially
when the philosophy is false, might have been better omitted. The
angel, in a comparison, speaks of "timorous deer," before deer were yet
timorous, and before Adam could understand the comparison.
Dryden remarks, that Milton has some flats among his elevations. This is
only to say, that all the parts are not equal. In every work, one part
must be for the sake of others; a palace must have passages; a poem must
have transitions. It is no more to be required that wit should always be
blazing, than that the sun should always stand at noon. In a great work
there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the
world a succession of day and night. Milton, when he has expatiated in
the sky, may be allowed, sometimes, to revisit earth; for what other
author ever soared so high, or sustained his flight so long?
Milton, being well versed in the Italian poets, appears to have borrowed
often from them; and, as every man catches something from his companions,
his desire of imitating Ariosto's levity has disgraced his work with
the Paradise of Fools; a fiction not, in itself, ill imagined, but too
ludicrous for its place.
His play on words, in which he delights too often; his equivocations,
which Bentley endeavours to defend by the example of the ancients; his
unnecessary and ungraceful use of terms of art; it is not necessary to
mention, because they are easily remarked, and generally censured; and,
at last, bear so little proportion to the whole, that they scarcely
deserve the attention of a critick.
Such are the faults of that wonderful performance, Paradise Lost; which
he who can put in balance with its beauties must be considered not as
nice but as dull; as less to be censured for want of candour, than pitied
for want of sensibility.
Of Paradise Regained, the general judgment seems now to be right, that it
is, in many parts, elegant, and everywhere instructive. It was not to be
supposed that the writer of Paradise Lost could ever write without great
effusions of fancy, and exalted precepts of wisdom. The basis of Paradise
Regained is narrow; a dialogue without action can never please, like an
union of the narrative and dramatick powers. Had this poem been written
not by Milton, but by some imitator, it would have claimed and received
If Paradise Regained has been too much depreciated, Sampson Agonistes
has, in requital, been too much admired. It could only be by long
prejudice, and the bigotry of learning, that Milton could prefer the
ancient tragedies, with their encumbrance of a chorus, to the exhibitions
of the French and English stages; and it is only by a blind confidence
in the reputation of Milton, that a drama can be praised, in which the
intermediate parts have neither cause nor consequence, neither hasten nor
retard the catastrophe.
In this tragedy are, however, many particular beauties, many just
sentiments and striking lines; but it wants that power of attracting the
attention, which a well-connected plan produces.
Milton would not have excelled in dramatick writing; he knew human nature
only in the gross, and had never studied the shades of character, nor the
combinations of concurring, or the perplexity of contending passions. He
had read much, and knew what books could teach; but had mingled little
in the world, and was deficient in the knowledge which experience must
Through all his greater works there prevails an uniform peculiarity of
diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to
that of any former writer; and which is so far removed from common use,
that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself
surprised by a new language.
This novelty has been, by those who can find nothing wrong in Milton,
imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suitable to the grandeur
of his ideas. "Our language," says Addison, "sunk under him." But the
truth is, that, both in prose and verse, he had formed his style by a
perverse and pedantick principle. He was desirous to use English words
with a foreign idiom. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned;
for there judgment operates freely, neither softened by the beauty, nor
awed by the dignity of his thoughts; but such is the power of his poetry,
that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself
in captivity to a higher and a nobler mind, and criticism sinks in
Milton's style was not modified by his subject; what is shown with
greater extent in Paradise Lost may be found in Comus. One source of his
peculiarity was his familiarity with the Tuscan poets; the disposition of
his words is, I think, frequently Italian; perhaps, sometimes, combined
with other tongues.
Of him, at last, may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that "he wrote
no language," but has formed what Butler calls a "Babylonish dialect,"
in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive
learning the vehicle of so much instruction, and so much pleasure, that,
like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.
Whatever be the faults of his diction, he cannot want the praise of
copiousness and variety; he was master of his language in its full
extent; and has selected the melodious words with such diligence, that
from his book alone the art of English poetry might be learned.
After his diction, something must be said of his versification. The
"measure," he says, "is the English heroick verse without rhyme." Of
this mode he had many examples among the Italians, and some in his own
country. The earl of Surrey is said to have translated one of Virgil's
books without rhyme; and, beside our tragedies, a few short poems had
appeared in blank verse, particularly one tending to reconcile the nation
to Raleigh's wild attempt upon Guiana, and probably written by Raleigh
himself. These petty performances cannot be supposed to have much
influenced Milton, who, more probably took his hint from Trissino's
Italia Liberata; and, finding blank verse easier than rhyme, was desirous
of persuading himself that it is better.
"Rhyme," he says, and says truly, "is no necessary adjunct of true
poetry." But, perhaps, of poetry, as a mental operation, metre or musick
is no necessary adjunct: it is, however, by the musick of metre that
poetry has been discriminated in all languages; and, in languages
melodiously constructed with a due proportion of long and short
syllables, metre is sufficient. But one language cannot communicate its
rules to another; where metre is scanty and imperfect, some help is
necessary. The musick of the English heroick lines strikes the ear so
faintly, that it is easily lost, unless all the syllables of every
line cooperate together; this cooperation can be only obtained by the
preservation of every verse unmingled with another, as a distinct system
of sounds; and this distinctness is obtained and preserved by the
artifice of rhyme. The variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers
of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods
of a declaimer; and there are only a few skilful and happy readers of
Milton, who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or
begin. "Blank verse," said an ingenious critick, "seems to be verse only
to the eye." Poetry may subsist without rhyme, but English poetry will
not often please; nor can rhyme ever be safely spared, but where the
subject is able to support itself. Blank verse makes some approach to
that which is called the lapidary style; has neither the easiness
of prose, nor the melody of numbers, and, therefore, tires by long
continuance. Of the Italian writers without rhyme, whom Milton alleges as
precedents, not one is popular; what reason could urge in its defence,
has been confuted by the ear.
But, whatever be the advantage of rhyme, I cannot prevail on myself to
wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be
other than it is; yet, like other heroes, he is to be admired rather than
imitated. He that thinks himself capable of astonishing may write blank
verse; but those that hope only to please must condescend to rhyme.
The highest praise of genius is original invention. Milton cannot be said
to have contrived the structure of an epick poem, and, therefore, owes
reverence to that vigour and amplitude of mind to which all generations
must be indebted for the, art of poetical narration, for the texture of
the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and
all the stratagems that surprise and enchain attention. But, of all the
borrowers from Homer, Milton is, perhaps, the least indebted. He was
naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and
disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the
thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From
his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is
in his writings nothing by which the pride of other authors might be
gratified, or favour gained; no exchange of praise, nor solicitation of
support. His great works were performed under discountenance, and in
blindness; but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for
whatever is arduous; and his work is not the greatest of heroick poems,
only because it is not the first.
[Footnote 26: In this assertion Dr. Johnson was mistaken. Milton was
admitted a pensioner, and not a sizar, as will appear by the following
extract from the college register: "Johannes Milton, Londinensis, filius
Johannis, institutus fuit in literarum elementis sub Mag'ro Gill Gymnasii
Paulini praefecto, admissus est _Pensionarius Minor_, Feb. 12░, 1624, sub
M'ro Chappell, solvitq. pro Ingr. 0l. 10s. 0d." R.]
[Footnote 27: Published 1632. R.]
[Footnote 28: On this subject, see Dr. Symons's Life of Milton, 71, 72.
[Footnote 29: By the mention of this name, he evidently refers to
Albumazar, acted at Cambridge, in 1614. Ignoramus, and other plays were
performed at the same time. The practice was then very frequent. The
last dramatick performance at either university, was the Grateful Fair,
written by Christopher Smart, and represented at Pembroke college,
Cambridge, about 1747. R.]
[Footnote 30: It has, nevertheless, its foundation in reality. The earl
of Bridgewater, being president of Wales, in the year 1634, had his
residence at Ludlow castle, in Shropshire, at which time lord Brackly
and Mr. Egerton, his sons, and lady Alice Egerton, his daughter, passing
through a place called the Haywood forest, or Haywood, in Herefordshire,
were benighted, and the lady for a short time lost: this accident, being
related to their father upon their arrival at his castle, Milton, at the
request of his friend, Henry Lawes, who taught music in the family, wrote
this masque. Lawes set it to music, and it was acted on Michaelmas night:
the two brothers, the young lady, and Lawes himself, bearing each a part
in the representation.
The lady Alice Egerton became afterwards the wife of the earl of Carbury,
who, at his seat called Golden grove, in Caermarthenshire, harboured Dr.
Jeremy Taylor in the time of the usurpation. Among the doctor's sermons
is one on her death, in which her character is finely portrayed. Her
sister, lady Mary, was given in marriage to lord Herbert, of Cherbury.
Notwithstanding Dr. Johnson's assertion, that the fiction is derived from
Homer's Circe, it may be conjectured, that it was rather taken from the
Comus of Erycius Puteanus, in which, under the fiction of a dream, the
characters of Comus and his attendants are delineated, and the delights
of sensualists exposed and reprobated. This little tract was published
at Louvain, in 1611, and afterwards at Oxford, in 1634, the very year in
which Milton's Comus was written. H. Milton evidently was indebted to the
Old Wives' Tale of George Peele for the plan of Comus. R.]
[Footnote 31: This is inaccurately expressed: Philips, and Dr. Newton,
after him, say a garden-house, i.e. a house situated in a garden, and of
which there were, especially in the north suburbs of London, very many,
if not few else. The term is technical, and frequently occurs in the
Athen. and Fast. Oxon. The meaning thereof may be collected from the
article, Thomas Farnaby, the famous schoolmaster, of whom the author
says, that he taught in Goldsmith's rents, in Cripplegate parish, behind
Redcross street, where were large gardens and handsome houses. Milton's
house in Jewin street was also a garden-house, as were, indeed, most of
his dwellings after his settlement in London. H.]
[Footnote 32: Johnson did not here allude to Philips's Theatrum Poetarum,
as has been ignorantly supposed, but, as he himself informed Mr. Malone,
to another work by the same author, entitled, Tractatulus de carmine
dramatico poetarum veterum praesertim in choris tragicis et veteris
comoediae. Cui subjungitur compendiosa enumeratio poetarum (saltern
quorum fama maxima enituit) qui a tempore Dantis Aligerii usque ad hanc
aetatem claruerunt, etc. J. B.]
[Footnote 33: Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, Thomas Young, Matthew
Newcomen, William Spurstow. R.]
[Footnote 34: It was animadverted upon, but without any mention of
Milton's name, by bishop Hall, in his Cases of Conscience, Decade 4, Case
[Footnote 35: He terms the author of it a shallow-brained puppy; and thus
refers to it in his index: "Of a noddy who wrote a book about wiving."
[Footnote 36: This charge, as far as regards Milton, is examined by Dr.
Symons with more moderation than usually characterizes his high-sounding
and wordy panegyrics. See Life of Milton. ED.]
[Footnote 37: The work here referred to is Selectarum de Lingua Latina
Observationum Libri duo. Ductu et cura Joannis Ker, 1719. Ker observes,
that vapulandum is pinguis solaecismus. J.B.]
[Footnote 38: It may be doubted whether _gloriosissimus_ be here used
with Milton's boasted purity. _Res gloriosa_ is an _illustrious thing_;
but _vir gloriosus_ is _commonly_ a _braggart_, as in _miles gloriosus_.
[Footnote 39: The Cambridge dictionary, published in 4to. 1693, is
no other than a copy, with some small additions, of that of Dr. Adam
Littleton in 1686, by sundry persons, of whom though their names are
concealed, there is great reason to conjecture that Milton's nephew,
Edward Philips, is one: for it is expressly said by Wood, Fasti, vol. i.
p. 266, that Milton's Thesaurus came to his hands; and it is asserted in
the preface thereto, that the editors thereof had the use of three large
folios in manuscript, collected and digested into alphabetical order by
Mr. John Milton. It has been remarked, that the additions, together
with the preface above mentioned, and a large part of the title of
the Cambridge dictionary, have been incorporated and printed with the
subsequent editions of Littleton's dictionary, till that of 1735. Vid.
Biogr. Brit. 2985, in not. So that, for aught that appears to the
contrary, Philips was the last possessor of Milton's manuscripts. H.]
[Footnote 40: _Id est_, to be the subject of an heroick poem, written by
sir Richard Blackmore. H.]
[Footnote 41: Trinity college. R.]
[Footnote 42: The dramas in which Justice, Mercy, Faith, &c. were
introduced, were moralities, not mysteries. MALONE.]
[Footnote 43: Philips says expressly, that Milton was excepted and
disqualified from bearing any office; but Toland says he was not excepted
at all, and consequently included in the general pardon, or act of
indemnity, passed the 29th of August, 1660. Toland is right, for I find
Goodwin and Ph. Nye, the minister, excepted in the act, but Milton not
named. However, he obtained a special pardon in December, 1660, which
passed the privy seal, but not the great seal. MALONE.]
[Footnote 44: It was told before by A. Wood in Ath. Oxon. vol. ii. p.
412. second edition.]
[Footnote 45: That Milton saved Davenant, is attested by Aubrey, and by
Wood, from him; but none of them say that Davenant saved Milton: this is
Richardson's assertion merely. MALONE.]
[Footnote 46: A different account of the means by which Milton secured
himself, is given by an historian lately brought to light: "Milton,
Latin secretary to Cromwell, distinguished by his writings in favour of
the rights and liberties of the people, pretended to be dead, and had a
publick funeral procession. The king applauded his policy in escaping
the punishment of death, by a seasonable show of dying." Cunningham's
History of Great Britain, vol. i. p. 14. R.]
[Footnote 47: Gildon, in his continuation of Langbaine's account of the
dramatick poets, 8vo. 1693, says, that he had been told that Milton,
after the restoration, kept a school at or near Greenwich. The
publication of an Accidence at that period gives some countenance to this
[Footnote 48: It is scarcely necessary to inform the reader, that this
relation of Voltaire's was perfectly true, as far as relates to the
existence of the play which he speaks of, namely, the Adamo of Andreini;
but it is still a question whether Milton ever saw it. J.B.]
[Footnote 49: This opinion is, with great learning and ingenuity,
refuted in a book now very little known, an Apology or Declaration of
the Power and Providence of God in the Government of the World, by Dr.
George Hakewill, London, folio, 1635. The first who ventured to propagate
it in this country was Dr. Gabriel Goodman, bishop of Gloucester, a man
of a versatile temper, and the author of a book entitled, the Fall of Man,
or the Corruption of Nature proved by Natural Reason. Lond. 1616, and
1624. quarto. He was plundered in the usurpation, turned Roman catholick,
and died in obscurity. See Athen, Oxon. vol. i. p. 727. H.]
--Unless _an age too late_, or cold
Climate, or years damp my intended wing.
Par. Lost. b. ix. l. 44.]
[Footnote 51: Johnson has, in many places of
his Rambler and Idler, ridiculed the notion of a dependance of our mental
powers on the variations of atmosphere. In Boswell's life, however,
there are some recorded instances of his own subjection to this
common infirmity. We cannot refrain from denouncing, as unfeeling and
ungenerous, Johnson's sarcasms at Milton's distempered imagination, when
old age, disease, and darkness had come upon him. Dr. Symons runs into
the diametrically opposite extreme. ED.]
[Footnote 52: "Statura fateor non sum procera: seel quae mediocri tamen
quam parvae propior sit: sed quid si parva, qua et summi saepe tum pace
tum bello viri fuere, quanquam parva cur dicitur, quae ad virtutem satis
magna est." Defensio Secunda. ED.]
[Footnote 53: Both these persons were living at Holloway, about the year
1734, and, at that time, possessed such a degree of health and strength,
as enabled them, on Sundays and prayer-days, to walk a mile up a steep
hill to Highgate chapel. One of them was ninety-two at the time of her
death. Their parentage was known to few, and their names were corrupted
into Melton. By the crown-office, mentioned in the two last paragraphs,
we are to understand the crown-office of the court of Chancery. H.]
[Footnote 54: Printed in the first volume of this collection.]
[Footnote 55: With the exception of Comus, in which, Dr. J. afterwards
says, may very plainly be discovered the dawn or twilight of Paradise
[Footnote 56: Here, as Warton justly observes, "Johnson has confounded
The melancholy man does not go
out while it rains, but waits, till----the sun begins to fling
His flaring beams. J. B.]
[Footnote 57: Mr. Warton intimates, and there can be little doubt of the
truth of his conjecture, that Milton borrowed many of the images in these
two fine poems from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a book published
in 1621, and, at sundry times since, abounding in learning, curious
information, and pleasantry. Mr. Warton says, that Milton appears to have
been an attentive reader thereof; and to this assertion I add, of my own
knowledge, that it was a book that Dr. Johnson frequently resorted to,
as many others have done, for amusement after the fatigue of study.
H.--Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, Johnson said, was the only book
that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.
Boswell's Life, ii. 120.]
[Footnote 58: Surely there are precedents enough for the practice,
though pessimi exempli, in Milton's favourite tragedian Euripides. ED.]
[Footnote 59: Author of the Essay on Study.]
[Footnote 60: Algarotti terms it, "gigantesca sublimitÓ Miltoniana."
[Footnote 61: But, says Dr. Warton, it has, throughout, a reference to
human life and actions. C.]
[Footnote 62: The earl of Surrey translated two books of Virgil without
rhyme; the second and the fourth. J.B.]
Of the great author of Hudibras there is a life prefixed to the later
editions of his poem, by an unknown writer, and, therefore, of disputable
authority; and some account is incidentally given by Wood, who confesses
the uncertainty of his own narrative; more, however, than they knew
cannot now be learned, and nothing remains but to compare and copy them.
Samuel Butler was born in the parish of Strensham, in Worcestershire,
according to his biographer, in 1612. This account Dr. Nash finds
confirmed by the register. He was christened Feb. 14.
His father's condition is variously represented: Wood mentions him as
competently wealthy; but Mr. Longneville, the son of Butler's principal
friend, says he was an honest farmer, with some small estate, who made a
shift to educate his son at the grammar school of Worcester, under Mr.
Henry Bright, from whose care he removed, for a short time, to
Cambridge; but, for want of money, was never made a member of any college.
Wood leaves us rather doubtful whether he went to Cambridge or Oxford;
but, at last, makes him pass six or seven years at Cambridge, without
knowing in what hall or college; yet it can hardly be imagined that he
lived so long in either university but as belonging to one house or
another; and it is still less likely that he could have so long inhabited
a place of learning with so little distinction as to leave his residence
uncertain. Dr. Nash has discovered that his father was owner of a house
and a little land, worth about eight pounds a year, still called Butler's
Wood has his information from his brother, whose narrative placed him at
Cambridge, in opposition to that of his neighbours, which sent him to
Oxford. The brother's seems the best authority, till, by confessing his
inability to tell his hall or college, he gives reason to suspect that he
was resolved to bestow on him an academical education; but durst not name
a college, for fear of detection.
He was, for some time, according to the author of his life, clerk to Mr.
Jefferys, of Earl's Croomb, in Worcestershire, an eminent justice of
the peace. In his service he had not only leisure for study, but for
recreation: his amusements were musick and painting; and the reward of
his pencil was the friendship of the celebrated Cooper. Some pictures,
said to be his, were shown to Dr. Nash, at Earl's Croomb; but, when he
inquired for them some years afterwards, he found them destroyed, to stop
windows, and owns that they hardly deserved a better fate.
He was afterwards admitted into the family of the countess of Kent, where
he had the use of a library; and so much recommended himself to Selden,
that he was often employed by him in literary business. Selden, as is
well known, was steward to the countess, and is supposed to have gained
much of his wealth by managing her estate.
In what character Butler was admitted into that lady's service, how long
he continued in it, and why he left it, is, like the other incidents of
his life, utterly unknown. The vicissitudes of his condition placed him
afterwards in the family of sir Samuel Luke, one of Cromwell's officers.
Here he observed so much of the character of the sectaries, that he is
said to have written or begun his poem at this time; and it is likely
that such a design would be formed in a place where he saw the principles
and practices of the rebels, audacious and undisguised in the confidence
At length the king returned, and the time came in which loyalty hoped
for its reward. Butler, however, was only made secretary to the earl of
Carbury, president of the principality of Wales; who conferred on him the
stewardship of Ludlow castle, when the court of the marches was revived.
In this part of his life, he married Mrs. Herbert, a gentlewoman of a
good family; and lived, says Wood, upon her fortune, having studied
the common law, but never practised it. A fortune she had, says his
biographer, but it was lost by bad securities.
In 1663 was published the first part, containing three cantos, of the
poem of Hudibras, which, as Prior relates, was made known at court by
the taste and influence of the earl of Dorset. When it was known, it was
necessarily admired: the king quoted, the courtiers studied, and the
whole party of the royalists applauded it. Every eye watched for the
golden shower which was to fall upon the author, who certainly was not
without his part in the general expectation.
In 1664 the second part appeared; the curiosity of the nation was
rekindled, and the writer was again praised and elated. But praise was
his whole reward. Clarendon, says Wood, gave him reason to hope for
"places and employments of value and credit;" but no such advantages did
he ever obtain. It is reported that the king once gave him three hundred
guineas; but of this temporary bounty I find no proof.
Wood relates that he was secretary to Villiers, duke of Buckingham, when
he was chancellor of Cambridge: this is doubted by the other writer, who
yet allows the duke to have been his frequent benefactor. That both these
accounts are false there is reason to suspect, from a story told by
Packe, in his account of the life of Wycherley; and from some verses
which Mr. Thyer has published in the author's Remains.
"Mr. Wycherley," says Packe, "had always laid hold of an opportunity
which offered of representing to the duke of Buckingham how well Mr.
Butler had deserved of the royal family, by writing his inimitable
Hudibras; and that it was a reproach to the court, that a person of his
loyalty and wit should suffer in obscurity, and under the wants he did.
The duke always seemed to hearken to him with attention enough; and,
after some time, undertook to recommend his pretensions to his majesty.
Mr. Wycherley, in hopes to keep him steady to his word, obtained of his
grace to name a day, when he might introduce that modest and unfortunate
poet to his new patron. At last an appointment was made, and the place of
meeting was agreed to be the Roebuck. Mr. Butler and his friend attended
accordingly; the duke joined them; but, as the d--l would have it, the
door of the room where they sat was open, and his grace, who had seated
himself near it, observing a pimp of his acquaintance (the creature too
was a knight) trip by with a brace of ladies, immediately quitted his
engagement to follow another kind of business, at which he was more ready
than in doing good offices to men of desert, though no one was better
qualified than he, both in regard to his fortune and understanding, to
protect them; and, from that time to the day of his death, poor Butler
never found the least effect of his promise!"
Such is the story. The verses are written with a degree of acrimony, such
as neglect and disappointment might naturally excite; and such as it
would be hard to imagine Butler capable of expressing against a man who
had any claim to his gratitude.
Notwithstanding this discouragement and neglect, he still prosecuted his
design; and, in 1678, published the third part, which still leaves the
poem imperfect and abrupt. How much more he originally intended, or with
what events the action was to be concluded, it is vain to conjecture. Nor
can it be thought strange that he should stop here, however unexpectedly.
To write without reward is sufficiently unpleasing. He had now arrived
at an age when he might think it proper to be in jest no longer, and,
perhaps, his health might now begin to fail.
He died in 1680; and Mr. Longueville, having unsuccessfully solicited a
subscription for his interment in Westminster Abbey, buried him, at his
own cost, in the church-yard of Covent garden. Dr. Simon Patrick read
Granger was informed by Dr. Pearce, who named for his authority Mr.
Lowndes, of the treasury, that Butler had a yearly pension of an hundred
pounds. This is contradicted by all tradition, by the complaints of
Oldham, and by the reproaches of Dryden; and, I am afraid, will never be
About sixty years afterwards, Mr. Barber, a printer, mayor of London,
and a friend to Butler's principles, bestowed on him a monument in
Westminster Abbey, thus inscribed:
Qui Strenshamiae in agro Vigorn. nat. 1612,
obijt Lond. 1680.
Vir doctus imprimis, acer, integer;
Operibus ingenii, non item praemiis, foelix:
Satyrici apud nos carminis artifex egregius;
Quo simulatae religionis larvam detraxit,
Et perduellium scelera liberrime exagitavit;
Scriptorum in suo genere, primus et postremus.
Ne, cui vivo deerant fere omnia,
Deesset etiam mortuo tumulus,
Hoc tandem posito marmore, curavit
JOHANNES BARBER, Civis Londinensis, 1721.
After his death were published three small volumes of his posthumous
works; I know not by whom collected, or by what authority
ascertained; and, lately, two volumes more have been printed by Mr.
Thyer, of Manchester, indubitably genuine. From none of these pieces can
his life be traced, or his character discovered. Some verses, in the
last collection, show him to have been among those who ridiculed the
institution of the Royal Society, of which the enemies were, for some
time, very numerous and very acrimonious; for what reason it is hard to
conceive, since the philosophers professed not to advance doctrines, but
to produce facts: and the most zealous enemy of innovation must admit
the gradual progress of experience, however he may oppose hypothetical
In this mist of obscurity passed the life of Butler, a man whose name can
only perish with his language. The mode and place of his education are
unknown; the events of his life are variously related; and all that can
be told with certainty is, that he was poor.
* * * * *
The poem of Hudibras is one of those compositions of which a nation
may justly boast; as the images which it exhibits are domestick, the
sentiments unborrowed and unexpected, and the strain of diction original
and peculiar. We must not, however, suffer the pride, which we assume
as the countrymen of Butler, to make any encroachment upon justice, nor
appropriate those honours which others have a right to share. The poem of
Hudibras is not wholly English; the original idea is to be found in the
history of Don Quixote; a book to which a mind of the greatest powers may
be indebted without disgrace.
Cervantes shows a man, who having, by the incessant perusal of incredible
tales, subjected his understanding to his imagination, and familiarized
his mind by pertinacious meditation to trains of incredible events, and
scenes of impossible existence; goes out, in the pride of knighthood, to
redress wrongs, and defend virgins, to rescue captive princesses, and
tumble usurpers from their thrones; attended by a squire, whose cunning,
too low for the suspicion of a generous mind, enables him often to cheat
The hero of Butler is a presbyterian justice, who, in the confidence of
legal authority and the rage of zealous ignorance, ranges the country to
repress superstition, and correct abuses, accompanied by an independent
clerk, disputatious and obstinate, with whom he often debates, but never
Cervantes had so much kindness for Don Quixote, that, however he
embarrasses him with absurd distresses, he gives him so much sense and
virtue as may preserve our esteem; wherever he is, or whatever he does,
he is made, by matchless dexterity, commonly ridiculous, but never
But for poor Hudibras, his poet had no tenderness; he chooses not that
any pity should be shown, or respect paid him; he gives him up at once to
laughter and contempt, without any quality that can dignify or protect
In forming the character of Hudibras, and describing his person and
habiliments, the author seems to labour with a tumultuous confusion of
dissimilar ideas. He had read the history of the mock knights-errant; he
knew the notions and manners of a presbyterian magistrate, and tried to
unite the absurdities of both, however distant, in one personage. Thus he
gives him that pedantick ostentation of knowledge which has no relation
to chivalry, and loads him with martial encumbrances that can add nothing
to his civil dignity. He sends him out a "colonelling," and yet never
brings him within sight of war.
If Hudibras be considered as the representative of the presbyterians, it
is not easy to say why his weapons should be represented as ridiculous or
useless; for, whatever judgment might be passed upon their knowledge or
their arguments, experience had sufficiently shown that their swords were
not to be despised. The hero, thus compounded of swaggerer and pedant, of
knight and justice, is led forth to action, with his squire Ralpho, an
Of the contexture of events planned by the author, which is called the
action of the poem, since it is left imperfect, no judgment can he
made. It is probable, that the hero was to be led through many luckless
adventures, which would give occasion, like his attack upon the "bear
and fiddle," to expose the ridiculous rigour of the sectaries; like his
encounter with Sidrophel and Whacum, to make superstition and credulity
contemptible; or, like his recourse to the low retailer of the law,
discover the fraudulent practices of different professions.
What series of events he would have formed, or in what manner he would
have rewarded or punished his hero, it is now vain to conjecture. His
work must have had, as it seems, the defect which Dryden imputes to
Spenser; the action could not have been one; there could only have been
a succession of incidents, each of which might have happened without the
rest, and which could not all cooperate to any single conclusion.
The discontinuity of the action might, however, have been easily
forgiven, if there had been action enough; but, I believe, every reader
regrets the paucity of events, and complains that, in the poem of
Hudibras, as in the history of Thucydides, there is more said than done.
The scenes are too seldom changed, and the attention is tired with long
It is, indeed, much more easy to form dialogues than to contrive
adventures. Every position makes way for an argument, and every objection
dictates an answer. When two disputants are engaged upon a complicated
and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end
the controversy. But whether it be that we comprehend but few of the
possibilities of life, or that life itself affords little variety, every
man, who has tried, knows how much labour it will cost to form such a
combination of circumstances as shall have, at once, the grace of novelty
and credibility, and delight fancy without violence to reason.
Perhaps the dialogue of this poem is not perfect. Some power of engaging
the attention might have been added to it by quicker reciprocation, by
seasonable interruptions, by sudden questions, and by a nearer approach
to dramatick sprightliness; without which, fictitious speeches will
always tire, however sparkling with sentences, and however variegated
The great source of pleasure is variety. Uniformity must tire at last,
though it be uniformity of excellence. We love to expect; and, when
expectation is disappointed or gratified, we want to be again expecting.
For this impatience of the present, whoever would please must make
provision. The skilful writer "irritat, mulcet," makes a due distribution
of the still and animated parts. It is for want of this artful
intertexture, and those necessary changes, that the whole of a book may
be tedious, though all the parts are praised.
If inexhaustible wit could give perpetual pleasure, no eye would ever
leave half-read the work of Butler; for what poet has ever brought so
many remote images so happily together? It is scarcely possible to peruse
a page without finding some association of images that was never found
before. By the first paragraph the reader is amused, by the next he is
delighted, and by a few more strained to astonishment; but astonishment
is a toilsome pleasure; he is soon weary of wondering, and longs to be
"Omnia vult belle Matho dicere, dic aliquando
Et bene, die neutrum, dic aliquando male."
Imagination is useless without knowledge: nature gives in vain the power
of combination, unless study and observation supply materials to be
combined. Butler's treasures of knowledge appear proportioned to his
expense: whatever topick employs his mind, he shows himself qualified to
expand and illustrate it with all the accessories that books can furnish:
he is found not only to have travelled the beaten road, but the by-paths
of literature; not only to have taken general surveys, but to have
examined particulars with minute inspection.
If the French boast the learning of Rabelais, we need not be afraid of
confronting them with Butler.
But the most valuable parts of his performance are those which retired
study and native wit cannot supply. He that merely makes a book from
books may be useful, but can scarcely be great. Butler had not suffered
life to glide beside him unseen or unobserved. He had watched, with great
diligence, the operations of human nature, and traced the effects of
opinion, humour, interest, and passion. From such remarks proceeded
that great number of sententious distichs, which have passed into
conversation, and are added as proverbial axioms to the general stock of
When any work has been viewed and admired, the first question of
intelligent curiosity is, how was it performed? Hudibras was not a hasty
effusion; it was not produced by a sudden tumult of imagination, or a
short paroxysm of violent labour. To accumulate such a mass of sentiments
at the call of accidental desire, or of sudden necessity, is beyond the
reach and power of the most active and comprehensive mind. I am informed
by Mr. Thyer, of Manchester, the excellent editor of this author's
relicks, that he could show something like Hudibras in prose. He has in
his possession the commonplace-book, in which Butler reposited, not
such events or precepts as are gathered by reading, but such remarks,
similitudes, allusions, assemblages, or inferences, as occasion prompted,
or meditation produced; those thoughts that were generated in his own
mind, and might be usefully applied to some future purpose. Such is the
labour of those who write for immortality.
But human works are not easily found without a perishable part. Of the
ancient poets every reader feels the mythology tedious and oppressive.
Of Hudibras, the manners, being founded on opinions, are temporary and
local, and, therefore, become every day less intelligible, and less
striking. What Cicero says of philosophy is true, likewise, of wit and
humour, that "time effaces the fictions of opinion, and confirms the
determinations of nature." Such manners as depend upon standing relations
and general passions are coextended with the race of man; but those
modifications of life, and peculiarities of practice, which are the
progeny of errour and perverseness, or, at best, of some accidental
influence or transient persuasion, must perish with their parents.
Much, therefore, of that humour which transported the last century
with merriment, is lost to us, who do not know the sour solemnity, the
sullen superstition, the gloomy moroseness, and the stubborn scruples of
the ancient puritans; or, if we know them, derive our information only
from books, or from tradition, have never had them before our eyes, and
cannot, but by recollection and study, understand the lines in which they
are satirized. Our grandfathers knew the picture from the life; we judge
of the life by contemplating the picture.
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