Mark Pattison

Part 3 out of 4

everything that was ridiculous. I do not speak of the gallantries of
Whitehall, which figure so prominently in the histories of the reign.
Far too much is made of these, when they are made the scapegoat of
the moralist. The style of court manners was a mere incident on the
surface of social life. The national life was more profoundly tainted
by the discouragement of all good men, which penetrated every shire
and every parish, than by the distant reports of the loose behaviour
of Charles II. Servility, meanness, venality, time-serving, and
a disbelief in virtue diffused themselves over the nation like a
pestilential miasma, the depressing influence of which was heavy, even
upon those souls which individually resisted the poison. The heroic
age of England had passed away, not by gradual decay, by imperceptible
degeneration, but in a year, in a single day, like the winter's snow
in Greece. It is for the historian to describe, and unfold the sources
of this contagion. The biographer of Milton has to take note of the
political change only as it affected the worldly circumstances of the
man, the spiritual environment of the poet, and the springs of his

The consequences of the Restoration to Milton's worldly fortunes were
disastrous. As a partisan he was necessarily involved in the ruin of
his party. As a matter of course he lost his Latin secretaryship.
There is a story that he was offered to be continued in it, and that
when urged to accept the offer by his wife, he replied, "Thou art in
the right; you, as other women, would ride in your coach; for me, my
aim is to live and die an honest man." This tradition, handed on by
Pope, is of doubtful authenticity. It is not probable that the man who
had printed of Charles I. what Milton had printed, could have been
offered office under Charles II. Even were court favour to be
purchased by concessions, Milton was not the man to make them, or to
belie his own antecedents, as Marchmont, Needham, Dryden, and so many
others did. Our wish for Milton is that he should have placed himself
from the beginning above party. But he had chosen to be the champion
of a party, and he loyally accepted the consequences. He escaped with
life and liberty. The reaction, though barbarous in its treatment of
its victims, was not bloodthirsty. Milton was already punished by the
loss of his sight, and he was now mulcted in three-fourths of his
small fortune. A sum of 2000 l. which he had placed in government
securities was lost, the restored monarchy refusing to recognise
the obligations of the protectorate. He lost another like sum by
mismanagement, and for want of good advice, says Phillips, or
according to his granddaughter's statement, by the dishonesty of a
money-scrivener. He had also to give up, without compensation, some
property, valued at 60 l. a year, which he had purchased when the
estates of the Chapter of Westminster were sold. In the great fire,
1666, his house in Bread-street was destroyed. Thus, from easy
circumstances, he was reduced, if not to destitution, at least to
narrow means. He left at his death 1500 l., which Phillips calls a
considerable sum. And if he sold his books, one by one, during his
lifetime, this was because, knowing their value, he thought he could
dispose of them to greater advantage than his wife would be able to

But far outweighing such considerations as pecuniary ruin, and
personal discomfort, was the shock which the moral nature felt from
the irretrievable discomfiture of all the hopes, aims, and aspirations
which had hitherto sustained and nourished his soul. In a few months
the labour of twenty years was swept away without a trace of it being
left. It was not merely a political defeat of his party, it was the
total wreck of the principles, of the social and religious ideal, with
which Milton's life was bound up. Others, whose convictions only had
been engaged in the cause, could hasten to accommodate themselves to
the new era, or even to transfer their services to the conqueror. But
such flighty allegiance was not possible for Milton, who had embarked
in the Puritan cause not only intellectual convictions, but all the
generosity and ardour of his passionate nature. "I conceive myself to
be," he had written in 1642, "not as mine own person, but as a member
incorporate into that truth whereof I was persuaded, and whereof I had
declared myself openly to be the partaker." It was now in the moment
of overthrow that Milton became truly great. "Wandellos im ewigen
Ruin," he stood alone, and became the party himself. He took the
only course open to him, turned away his thoughts from the political
disaster, and directed the fierce enthusiasm which burned within,
upon an absorbing poetic task. His outward hopes were blasted, and he
returned with concentrated ardour to woo the muse, from whom he had so
long truanted. The passion which seethes beneath the stately march of
the verse in _Paradise Lost_, is not the hopeless moan of despair, but
the intensified fanaticism which defies misfortune to make it "bate
one jot of heart or hope." The grand loneliness of Milton after 1668,
"is reflected in his three great poems by a sublime independence of
human sympathy, like that with which mountains fascinate and rebuff
us" (_Lowell_).

Late then, but not too late, Milton, at the age of fifty-two,
fell back upon the rich resources of his own mind, upon poetical
composition, and the study of good books, which he always asserted to
be necessary to nourish and sustain a poet's imagination. Here he had
to contend with the enormous difficulty of blindness. He engaged a
kind of attendant to read to him. But this only sufficed for English
books--imperfectly even for these--and the greater part of the choice,
not extensive, library upon which Milton drew, was Hebrew, Greek,
Latin, and the modern languages of Europe. In a letter to Heimbach, of
date 1666, he complains pathetically of the misery of having to
spell out, letter by letter, the Latin words of the epistle, to the
attendant who was writing to his dictation. At last he fell upon the
plan of engaging young friends, who occasionally visited him, to read
to him and to write for him. In the precious volume of Milton MSS.
preserved in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, six different
hands have been distinguished. Who they were is not always known. But
Phillips tells us that, "he had daily about him one or other to read
to him; some persons of man's estate, who of their own accord greedily
catch'd at the opportunity of being his reader, that they might as
well reap the benefit of what they read to him, as oblige him by
the benefit of their reading; others of younger years sent by their
parents to the same end." Edward Phillips himself, who visited his
uncle to the last, may have been among the number, as much as his own
engagements as tutor, first to the only son of John Evelyn, then in
the family of the Earl of Pembroke, and finally to the Bennets, Lord
Arlington's children, would permit him. Others of these casual readers
were Samuel Barrow, body physician to Charles II., and Cyriac Skinner,
of whom mention has been already made (above, p. 132).

To a blind man, left with three little girls, of whom the youngest was
only eight at the Restoration, marriage seemed equally necessary for
their sake as for his own. Milton consulted his judicious friend and
medical adviser, Dr. Paget, who recommended to him Elizabeth Minshull,
of a family of respectable position near Nantwich, in Cheshire. She
was some distant relation of Paget, who must have felt the terrible
responsibility of undertaking to recommend. She justified his
selection. The marriage took place in February 1663, and during the
remaining eleven years of his life, the poet was surrounded by the
thoughtful attentions of an active and capable woman. There is
but scanty evidence as to what she was like, either in person or
character. Aubrey, who knew her, says she was "a gent. (genteel?)
person, (of) a peaceful and agreeable humour." Newton, Bishop of
Bristol, who wrote in 1749, had heard that she was "a woman of a most
violent spirit, and a hard mother-in-law to his children." It is
certain that she regarded her husband with great veneration, and
studied his comfort. Mary Fisher, a maidservant in the house, deposed
that at the end of his life, when he was sick and infirm, his wife
having provided something for dinner she thought he would like, he
"spake to his said wife these or like words, as near as this deponent
can remember: 'God have mercy, Betty, I see thou wilt perform
according to thy promise, in providing me such dishes as I think fit
while I live, and when I die thou knowest I have left thee all.'"
There is no evidence that his wife rendered him literary assistance.
Perhaps, as she looked so thoroughly to his material comfort, her
function was held, by tacit agreement, to end there.

As casual visitors, or volunteer readers, were not always in the way,
and a hired servant who could not spell Latin was of very restricted
use, it was not unnatural that Milton should look to his daughters, as
they grew up, to take a share in supplying his voracious demand for
intellectual food. Anne, the eldest, though she had handsome features,
was deformed and had an impediment in her speech, which made her
unavailable as a reader. The other two, Mary and Deborah, might
now have been of inestimable service to their father, had their
dispositions led them to adapt themselves to his needs, and the
circumstances of the house. Unfortunate it was for Milton, that
his biblical views on the inferiority of woman had been reduced to
practice in the bringing up of his own daughters. It cannot indeed
be said that the poet whose imagination created the Eve of _Paradise
Lost_, regarded woman as the household drudge, existing only to
minister to man's wants. Of all that men have said of women nothing is
more loftily conceived than the well-known passage at the end of Book

When I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems,
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded; wisdom in discourse with her
Loses discountenanc'd, and like folly shows;
Authority and reason on her wait,
As one intended first, not after made

Occasionally; and, to consummate all,
Greatness of mind, and nobleness, their seat
Build in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic plac'd.

Bishop Newton thought that, in drawing Eve, Milton had in mind his
third wife, because she had hair of the colour of Eve's "golden
tresses." But Milton had never seen Elizabeth Minshull. If reality
suggested any trait, physical or mental, of the Eve, it would
certainly have been some woman seen in earlier years.

But wherever Milton may have met with an incarnation of female
divinity such as he has drawn, it was not in his own family. We cannot
but ask, how is it that one, whose type of woman is the loftiest known
to English literature, should have brought up his own daughters on so
different a model? Milton is not one of the false prophets, who turn
round and laugh at their own enthusiasms, who say one thing in their
verses, and another thing over their cups. What he writes in his
poetry is what he thinks, what he means, and what he will do. But in
directing the bringing up of his daughters, he put his own typical
woman entirely on one side. His practice is framed on the principle

Nothing lovelier can be found
In woman, than to study household good.

_Paradise Lost_, ix. 233.

He did not allow his daughters to learn any language, saying with a
gibe that one tongue was enough for a woman. They were not sent to any
school, and had some sort of teaching at home from a mistress. But in
order to make them useful in reading to him, their father was at the
pains to train them to read aloud in five or six languages, of none of
which they understood one word. When we think of the time and labour
which must have been expended to teach them to do this, it must occur
to us that a little more labour would have sufficed to teach them so
much of one or two of the languages, as would have made their reading
a source of interest and improvement to themselves. This Milton
refused to do. The consequence was, as might have been expected, the
occupation became so irksome to them, that they rebelled against it.
In the case of one of them, Mary, who was like her mother in person,
and took after her in other respects, this restiveness passed into
open revolt. She first resisted, then neglected, and finally came to
hate, her father. When some one spoke in her presence of her father's
approaching marriage, she said "that was no news to hear of his
wedding; but if she could hear of his death, that was something." She
combined with Anne, the eldest daughter, "to counsel his maidservant
to cheat him in his marketings." They sold his books without his
knowledge. "They made nothing of deserting him," he was often heard to
complain. They continued to live with him five or six years after
his marriage. But at last the situation became intolerable to both
parties, and they were sent out to learn embroidery in gold or silver,
as a means of obtaining their livelihood. Deborah, the youngest, was
included in the same arrangement, though she seems to have been more
helpful to her father, and to have been at one time his principal
reader. Aubrey says that he "taught her Latin, and that she was his
amanuensis." She even spoke of him when she was old--she lived to be
seventy-four--with some tenderness. She was once, in 1725, shewn
Faithorne's crayon drawing of the poet, without being told for whom it
was intended. She immediately exclaimed, "O Lord! that is the picture
of my father!" and stroking down the hair of her forehead, added,
"Just so my father wore his hair."

One of Milton's volunteer readers, and one to whom we owe the most
authentic account of him in his last years, was a young Quaker, named
Thomas Ellwood. Milton's Puritanism had been all his life slowly
gravitating in the direction of more and more liberty, and though he
would not attach himself to any sect, he must have felt in no remote
sympathy with men who repudiated state interference in religious
matters, and disdained ordinances. Some such sympathy with the pure
spirituality of the Quaker may have disposed Milton favourably
towards Ellwood. The acquaintance once begun, was cemented by mutual
advantage. Milton, besides securing an intelligent reader, had a
pleasure in teaching; and Ellwood, though the reverse of humble, was
teachable from desire to expand himself. Ellwood took a lodging near
the poet, and went to him every day, except "first-day," in the
afternoon, to read Latin to him.

Milton's frequent change of abode has been thought indicative of a
restless temperament, seeking escape from petty miseries by change of
scene. On emerging from hiding, or escaping from the serjeant-at-arms
in 1660, he lived or a short time in Holborn, near Red Lion Square.
From this he removed to Jewin Street, and moved again, on his
marriage, in 1662, to the house of Millington, the bookseller, who
was now beginning business, but who, before his death in 1704, had
accumulated the largest stock of second-hand books to be found in
London. His last remove was to a house in a newly-created row facing
the Artillery-ground, on the site of the west side of what is now
called Bunhill Row. This was his abode from his marriage till his
death, nearly twelve years, a longer stay than he had made in any
other residence. This is the house which, must be associated with the
poet of _Paradise Lost_, as it was here that the poem was in part
written, and wholly revised and finished. Bat the Bunhill Row house is
only producible "by the imagination; every trace of it has long
been swept away, though the name Milton Street, bestowed upon a
neighbouring street, preserves the remembrance of the poet's connexion
with the locality. Here "an ancient clergyman of Dorsetshire, Dr.
Wright, found John Milton in a small chamber, "hung with rusty green,
sitting in an elbow-chair, and dressed neatly in black; pale, but not
cadaverous, his hands and fingers gouty and with chalk-stones." At
the door of this house, sitting in the sun, looking out upon the
Artillery-ground, "in a, grey coarse cloth coat," he would receive his
visitors. On colder days he would walk for hours--three or four hours
at a time. In his garden. A garden was a _sine qua non_, and he took
care to have one to every house he lived in.

His habit in early life had been to study late into the night. After
he lost his sight, he changed his hours, and retired to rest at nine.
In summer he rose at four, in winter at five, and began the day with
having the Hebrew Scriptures read to him. "Then he contemplated. At
seven his man came to him again, and then read to him and wrote till
dinner. The writing was as much as the reading" (Aubrey). Then he took
exercise, either walking in the garden, or swinging in a machine. His
only recreation, besides conversation, was music. He played the organ
and the bass viol, the organ most. Sometimes he would sing himself or
get his wife to sing to him, though she had, he said, no ear, yet a
good voice. Then he went up to his study to be read to till six. After
six his friends were admitted to visit him, and would sit with him
till eight. At eight he went down to supper, usually olives or some
light thing. He was very abstemious in his diet, having to contend
with a gouty diathesis. He was not fastidious in his choice of meats,
but content with anything that was in season, or easy to be procured.
After supping thus sparingly, he smoked a pipe of tobacco, drank a
glass of water, and then retired to bed. He was sparing in his use of
wine. His Samson, who in this as in other things, is Milton himself,
allays his thirst "from the clear milky juice."

Bed with its warmth and recumbent posture he found favourable to
composition. At other times he would compose or prune his verses, as
he walked in the garden, and then, coming in, dictate. His verse was
not at the command of his will. Sometimes he would lie awake the whole
night, trying but unable to make a single line. At other times lines
flowed without premeditation "with a certain impetus and oestro." What
was his season of inspiration is somewhat uncertain. In the elegy
"To Spring," Milton says it was the spring which restored his poetic
faculty. Phillips, however, says, "that his vein never flowed happily
but from the autumnal equinox to the vernal," and that the poet told
him this. Phillips' reminiscence is perhaps true at the date of
_Paradise Lost_, when Milton's habits had changed from what they
had been at twenty. Or we may agree with Toland, that Phillips has
transposed the seasons, though preserving the fact of intermittent
inspiration. What he composed at night, he dictated in the day,
sitting obliquely in an elbow-chair, with his leg thrown over the arm.
He would dictate forty lines, as it were in a breath, and then reduce
them to half the number.

Milton's piety is admitted, even by his enemies; and it is a piety
which oppresses his writings as well as his life, The fact that a man,
with a deep sense of religion, should not have attended any place of
public worship, has given great trouble to Milton's biographers. And
the principal biographers of this thorough-going nonconformist have
been Anglican clergymen; Bishop Newton, Todd, Mitford; Dr. Johnson,
more clerical than any cleric, being no exception, Mitford would give
Milton a dispensation on the score of his age and infirmities. But the
cause lay deeper. A profound apprehension of the spiritual world leads
to a disregard of rites. To a mind so disposed externals become, first
indifferent, then impedient. Ministration is officious intrusion. I
do not find that Milton, though he wrote against paid ministers as
hirelings, ever expressly formulated an opinion against ministers as
such. But as has already been hinted, there grew up in him, in the
last period of his life, a secret sympathy with the mode of thinking
which came to characterise the Quaker sect. Not that Milton adopted
any of their peculiar fancies. He affirms categorically the
permissibility of oaths, of military service, and requires that women
should keep silence in the congregation. But in negativing all means
of arriving at truth except the letter of scripture interpreted by
the inner light, he stood upon the same platform as the followers of
George Fox.

Milton's latest utterance on theological topics is found in a tract
published by him the year before his death, 1673. The piece is
entitled _Of true religion, heresy, schism, toleration_; but its
meagre contents do not bear out the comprehensiveness of the title.
The only matter really discussed in the pages of the tract is the
limit of toleration. The stamp of age is upon the style, which is more
careless and incoherent even, than usual. He has here dictated his
extempore thoughts, without premeditation or revision, so that we have
here a record of Milton's habitual mind. Having watched him gradually
emancipating himself from the contracted Calvinistic mould of the
Bread-street home, it is disappointing to see that, at sixty-five,
his development has proceeded no further than we here find. He is now
willing to extend toleration to all sects who make the Scriptures
their sole rule of faith. Sects may misunderstand Scripture, but to
err is the condition of humanity, and will be pardoned by God, if
diligence, prayer, and sincerity have been used. The sects named as
to be tolerated are, Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, Arians,
Socinians, Arminians. They are to be tolerated to the extent of being
allowed, on all occasions, to give account of their faith, by arguing,
preaching in their several assemblies, writing and printing.

In this pamphlet the principle of toleration is flatly enunciated in
opposition to the practice of the Restoration. But the principle is
rested not on the statesman's ground of the irrelevancy of religious
dispute to good government, but on the theological ground of the
venial nature of religious error. And to permissible error there are
very narrow limits; limits which exclude Catholics. For Milton will
exclude Romanists from toleration, not on the statesman's ground
of incivism, but on the theologian's ground of idolatry. All his
antagonism in this tract is reserved for the Catholics. There is not
a hint of discontent with the prelatry, once intolerable to him. Yet
that prelatry was now scourging the nonconformists with scorpions
instead of with whips, with its Act of Uniformity, its Conventicle
Act, its Five-mile Act, filling the gaols with Milton's own friends
and fellow-religionists. Several times, in these thirteen pages, he
appeals to the practice or belief of the Church of England, once even
calling it "our church."

This tract alone is sufficient refutation of an idle story that Milton
died a Roman Catholic, The story is not well vouched, being hearsay
three times removed. Milton's younger brother. Sir Christopher, is
said to have said so at a dinner entertainment. If he ever did say as
much, it must be set down to that peculiar form of credulity which
makes perverts think that every one is about to follow their
example. In Christopher Milton, "a man of no parts or ability, and a
superstitions nature" (Toland), such credulity found a congenial soil.

The tract _Of true religion_ was Milton's latest published work. But
he was preparing for the press, at the time of his death, a more
elaborate theological treatise. Daniel Skinner, a nephew of his old
friend Cyriac, was serving as Milton's amanuensis in writing out a
fair copy. Death came before a third of the work of correction, 196
pages out of 735, had been completed, of which the whole rough draft
consists. The whole remained in Daniel Skinner's hands in 1674.
Milton, though in his preface he if aware that his pages contain not a
little which will be unpalatable to the reigning opinion in religion,
would have dared publication, if he could have passed the censor. But
Daniel Skinner, who was a Fellow of Trinity, and had a career before
him, was not equally free. What could not appear in London, however,
might be printed at Amsterdam. Skinner accordingly put both the
theological treatise, and the epistles written by the Latin Secretary,
into the hands of Daniel Elzevir. The English government getting
intelligence of the proposed publication of the foreign correspondence
of the Parliament and the Protector, interfered, and pressure was put
upon Skinner, through the Master of Trinity, Isaac Barrow. Skinner
hastened to save himself from the fate which in 1681 befel Locke, and
gave up to the Secretary of State, not only the Latin letters, but the
MS. of the theological treatise. Nothing further was known as to the
fate of the MS. till 1823, when it was disinterred from one of the
presses of the old State Paper Office. The Secretary of State, Sir
Joseph Williamson, when he retired from office in 1678, instead of
carrying away his correspondence as had been the custom, left it
behind him. Thus it was that the _Treatise of Christian doctrine_
first saw light, one hundred and fifty years after the author's death.

In a work which had been written as a text-book for the use of
learners, there can be little scope for originality. And Milton
follows the division of the matter into heads usual in the manuals
then current. But it was impossible for Milton to handle the dry bones
of a divinity compendium without stirring them into life. And divinity
which is made to live, necessarily becomes unorthodox.

The usual method of the school text-books of the seventeenth
century was to exhibit dogma in the artificial terminology of the
controversies of the sixteenth century. For this procedure Milton
substitutes the words of Scripture simply. The traditional terms of
the text-books are retained, but they are employed only as heads under
which to arrange the words of Scripture. This process, which in other
hands would be little better than index making, becomes here pregnant
with meaning. The originality which Milton voluntarily resigns, in
employing only the words of the Bible, he recovers by his freedom of
exposition. He shakes himself loose from the trammels of traditional
exposition, and looks at the texts for himself. The truth was

Left only in those written records pure,
Though not but by the spirit understood.

_Paradise Lost_, xii. 510.

Upon the points which interested him most closely, Milton knew that
his understanding of the text differed from the standard of Protestant
orthodoxy. That God created matter, not out of nothing, but out of
Himself, and that death is, in the course of nature, total extinction
of being, though not opinions received, were not singular. More
startling, to European modes of thinking, is his assertion that
polygamy is not, in itself, contrary to morality, though it may be
inexpedient. The religious sentiment of his day was offended by his
vigorous vindication of the freewill of man against the reigning
Calvinism, and his assertion of the inferiority of the Son in
opposition to the received Athanasianism. He labours this point of the
nature of God with especial care, showing how greatly it occupied
his thoughts. He arranges his texts so as to exhibit in Scriptural
language the semi-Arian scheme, i.e. a scheme which, admitting the
co-essentiality, denies the eternal generation. Through all this
manipulation of texts we seem to see, that Milton is not the school
logician erecting a consistent fabric of words, but that he is
dominated by an imagination peopled with concrete personalities, and
labouring to assign their places to the Father and the Son as separate
agents in the mundane drama. The _De doctrina Christiana_ is the prose
counterpart of _Paradise Lost_ and _Regained_, a caput mortuum of the
poems, with every ethereal particle evaporated.

In the royal injunctions of 1614, James I. had ordered students in the
universities not to insist too long upon compendiums, but to study the
Scriptures, and to bestow their time upon the fathers and councils. In
his attempt to express dogmatic theology in the words of Scripture,
Milton was unwittingly obeying this injunction. The other part of the
royal direction as to fathers and councils it was not in Milton's plan
to carry out. Neither indeed was it in his power, for he had not the
necessary learning. M. Scherer says that Milton "laid all antiquity,
sacred and profane, under contribution." So far is this from being the
case, that while he exhibits, in this treatise, an intimate knowledge
of the text of the canonical books, Hebrew and Greek, there is an
absence of that average acquaintance with Christian antiquity which
formed at that day the professional outfit of the episcopal divine.
Milton's references to the fathers are perfunctory and second-hand.
The only citation of Chrysostom, for instance, which I have noticed
is in these words: "the same is said to be the opinion of Chrysostom,
Luther, and other moderns." He did not esteem the judgment of
the fathers sufficiently, to deem them worth studying. In the
interpretation of texts, as in other matters of opinion, Milton
withdrew within the fortress of his absolute personality.

I have now to relate the external history of the composition of
_Paradise Lost_. When Milton had to skulk for a time in 1660, he was
already in steady work upon the poem. Though a few lines of it were
composed as early as 1642, it was not till 1658 that he took up the
task of composition continuously. If we may trust our only authority
(Aubrey-Phillips), he had finished it in 1663, about the time of his
marriage. In polishing, re-writing, and writing out fair, much might
remain to be done, after the poem was, in a way, finished. It is
in 1665, that we first make acquaintance with _Paradise Lost_ in a
complete state. This was the year of the plague, known in our annals
as the Great Plague, to distinguish its desolating ravages from former
slighter visitations of the epidemic. Every one who could fled from
the city of destruction. Milton applied to his young friend Ellwood to
find him a shelter, Ellwood, who was then living as tutor in the house
of the Penningtons, took a cottage for Milton, in their neighbourhood,
at Chalfont St. Giles, in the county of Bucks, Not only the
Penningtons, but General Fleetwood had also his residence near this
village, and a report is mentioned by Howitt that it was Fleetwood who
provided the ex-secretary with a refuge. The society of neither of
these friends was available for Milton. For Fleetwood was a sentenced
regicide, and in July, Pennington and Ellwood were hurried off to
Aylesbury gaol by an indefatigable justice of the peace, who was
desirous of giving evidence of his zeal for the king's government.
That the Chalfont cottage "was not pleasantly situated," must have
been indifferent to the blind old man, as much so as that the
immediate neighbourhood, with its heaths and wooded uplands,
reproduced the scenery he had loved when he wrote _Il Allegro_.

As soon as Ellwood was relieved from imprisonment, he returned to
Chalfont. Then it was that Milton put into his hands the completed
_Paradise Lost_, "bidding me take it home with me, and read it at my
leisure, and when I had so done, return it to him with my judgment
thereupon." On returning it, besides giving the author the benefit of
his judgment, a judgment not preserved, and not indispensable--the
Quaker made his famous speech, "Thou hast said much here of _Paradise
Lost_, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?" Milton afterwards
told Ellwood that to this casual question was due his writing
_Paradise Regained_, We are not, however, to take this complaisant
speech quite literally, for it is highly probable that the later poem
was included in the original conception, if not in the scheme of the
first epic. But we do get from Ellwood's reminiscence a date for the
beginning of _Paradise Regained_, which must have been at Chalfont in
the autumn of 1665.

When the plague was abated, and the city had become safely habitable,
Milton returned to Artillery Row. He had not been long back when
London was devastated by a fresh calamity, only less terrible than the
plague, because it destroyed the home, and not the life. The Great
Fire succeeded the Great Plague. 13,000 houses, two-thirds of the
city, were reduced to ashes, and the whole current of life and
business entirely suspended. Through these two overwhelming disasters,
Milton must have been supporting his solitary spirit by writing
_Paradise Regained_, _Samson Agonistes_, and giving the final touches
to _Paradise Lost_. He was now so wholly unmoved by his environment,
that we look in vain in the poems for any traces of this season of
suffering and disaster. The past and his own meditations were now all
in all to him; the horrors of the present were as nothing to a man who
had outlived his hopes. Plague and fire, what were they, after the
ruin of the noblest of causes? The stoical compression of _Paradise
Regained_ is in perfect keeping with the fact that it was in the
middle of the ruins of London that Milton placed his finished poem in
the hands of the licenser.

For licenser there was now, the Archbishop of Canterbury to wit, for
religious literature. Of course the Primate read by deputy, usually
one of his chaplains. The reader into whose hands _Paradise Lost_
came, though an Oxford man, and a cleric on his preferment, who had
written his pamphlet against the dissenters, happened to be one whose
antecedents, as Fellow of All Souls, and Proctor (in 1663), ensured
his taking a less pedantic and bigoted view of his duties. Still,
though Dryden's dirty plays would have encountered no objection before
such a tribunal, the same facilities were not likely to be accorded to
anything which bore the name of John Milton, ex-secretary to Oliver,
and himself an austere republican. Tomkyns--that was the young
chaplain's name--did stumble at a phrase in Book i, 598,

With fear of change
Perplexes monarchs.

There had been in England, and were to be again, times when men had
hanged for less than this. Tomkyns, who was sailing on the smooth sea
of preferment with a fair wind, did not wish to get into trouble, but
at last he let the book pass, Perhaps he thought it was only religious
verse written for the sectaries, which would never be heard of
at court, or among the wits, and that therefore it was of little
consequence what it contained.

A publisher was found, notwithstanding that Paul's, or as it now was
again, St, Paul's-Churchyard had ceased to exist, in Aldersgate, which
lay outside the circuit of the conflagration. The agreement, still
preserved in the national museum, between the author, "John Milton,
gent, of the one parte, and Samuel Symons, printer, of the other
parte," is among the curiosities of our literary history. The
curiosity consists not so much in the illustrious name appended (not
in autograph) to the deed, as in the contrast between the present fame
of the book, and the waste-paper price at which the copyright is being
valued. The author received 5 l. down, was to receive a second 5 l.
when the first edition should be sold, a third 5 l. when the second,
and a fourth 5 l., when the third edition should be gone. Milton lived
to receive the second 5 l., and no more, 10 l. in all, for _Paradise
Lost_. I cannot bring myself to join in the lamentations of the
biographers over this bargain. Surely it is better so; better to know
that the noblest monument of English letters had no money value, than
to think of it as having been paid for at a pound the line.

The agreement with Symons is dated 27 April, 1667, the entry in the
register of Stationers' Hall is 20th August. It was therefore in the
autumn of 1667 that _Paradise Lost_ was in the hands of the public.
We have no data for the time occupied in the composition of _Paradise
Regained_ and _Samson Agonistes_. We have seen that the former poem
was begun at Chalfont in 1665, and it may be conjecturally stated that
_Samson_ was finished before September, 1667. At any rate, both the
poems were published together in the autumn of 1670.

Milton had four years more of life granted him after this publication.
But he wrote no more poetry. It was as if he had exhausted his
strength in a last effort, in the Promethean agony of Samson, and knew
that his hour of inspiration was passed away. But, like all men who
have once tasted the joys and pangs of composition, he could not now
do without its excitement. The occupation, and the indispensable
solace of the last ten sad years, had been his poems. He would not
write more verse, when the oestrus was not on him, but he must write.
He took up all the dropped threads of past years, ambitious plans
formed in the fulness of vigour, and laid aside, but not abandoned. He
was the very opposite of Shelley, who could never look at a piece of
his own composition a second time, but when he had thrown it off at a
heat, rushed into something else. Milton's adhesiveness was such that
he could never give up a design once entered upon. In these four
years, as if conscious that his time was now nearly out, he laboured
to complete five such early undertakings.

(1.) Of his _Compendium of Theology_ I have already spoken. He was
overtaken by death while preparing this for the press.

(2.) His _History of Britain_ must hare cost him much labour, bestowed
upon comparison of the conflicting authorities. It is the record of
the studies he had made for his abandoned epic poem, and is evidence
how much the subject occupied his mind.

The _History of Britain_, 1670, had been preceded by (3) a Latin
grammar, in 1669, and was followed by (4) a Logic on, the method of
Ramus, 1672.

(5.) In 1673 he brought out a new edition of his early volume of
_Poems_. In this volume he printed for the first time the sonnets, and
other pieces, which had been written in the interval of twenty-seven
years, since the date of his first edition. Not, indeed, all the
sonnets which we now have. Four, in which Fairfax, Vane, Cromwell, and
the Commonwealth are spoken of as Milton would speak of them, were
necessarily kept back, and not put into print till 1694, by Phillips,
at the end of his life of his uncle.

In proportion to the trouble which Milton's words cost him, was his
care in preserving them. His few Latin letters to his foreign friends
are remarkably barren either of fact or sentiment. But Milton liked
them well enough to have kept copies of them, and now allowed a
publisher, Brabazon Aylmer, to issue them in print, adding to them,
with a view to make out a volume, his college exercises, which he had
also preserved.

Among the papers which he left at his death, were the beginnings of
two undertakings, either of them of overwhelming magnitude, which
he did not live to complete. We have seen that he taught his pupils
geography out of _Davity, Description de l'Univers_. He was not
satisfied with this, or with any existing compendium. They were all
dry; exact enough with their latitudes and longitudes, but omitted
such uninteresting stuff as manners, government, religion, &c. Milton
would essay a better system. All he had ever executed was Russia,
taking the pains to turn over and extract for his purpose all the best
travels in that country. This is the fragment which figures in his
Works as a _Brief History of Moscovia_.

The hackneyed metaphor of Pegasus harnessed to a luggage trolley,
will recur to us when we think of the author of _L'Allegro_, setting
himself to compile a Latin lexicon. If there is any literary drudgery
more mechanical than another, it is generally supposed to be that of
making a dictionary. Nor had he taken to this industry as a resource
in age, when the genial flow of invention had dried up, and original
composition had ceased to be in his power. The three folio volumes of
MS. which Milton left were the work of his youth; it was a work which
the loss of eyesight of necessity put an end to. It is not Milton
only, but all students who read with an alert mind, reading to grow,
and not to remember, who have felt the want of an occupation which
shall fill those hours when mental vigilance is impossible, and
vacuity unendurable. Index-making or cataloguing has been the resource
of many in such hours. But it was not, I think, as a mere shifting of
mental posture that Milton undertook to rewrite Robert Stephens; it
was as part of his language training. Only by diligent practice and
incessant exercise of attention and care, could Milton have educated
his susceptibility to the specific power of words, to the nicety which
he attained beyond any other of our poets. Part of this education is
recorded in the seemingly withered leaves of his Latin Thesaurus,
though the larger part must have been achieved, not by a reflective
and critical collection of examples, but by a vital and impassioned

Milton's complaint was what the profession of that day called gout.
"He would be very cheerful even in his gout fits, and sing," says
Aubrey. This gout returned again and again, and by these repeated
attacks wore out his resisting power. He died of the "gout struck in"
on Sunday, 8th November, 1674, and was buried, near his father, in the
chancel of St. Giles's, Cripplegate. The funeral was attended, Toland
says, "by all his learned and great friends in London, not without a
friendly concourse of the vulgar." The disgusting profanation of the
leaden coffin, and dispersion of the poet's bones by the parochial
authorities, during the repair of the church in August, 1790, has been
denied, but it is to be feared the fact is too true.



"Many men of forty," it has been said, "are dead poets;" and it might
seem that Milton, Latin secretary, and party pamphleteer, had died to
poetry about the fatal age. In 1645, when he made a gathering of his
early pieces for the volume published by Humphry Moseley, he wanted
three years of forty. That volume contained, besides other things,
_Comus_, _Lycidas_, _L'Allegro_, and _Il Penseroso_; then, when
produced, as they remain to this day, the finest flower of English
poesy. But, though thus like a wary husbandman, garnering his sheaves
in presence of the threatening storm, Milton had no intention of
bidding farewell to poetry. On the contrary, he regarded this volume
only as first-fruits, an earnest of greater things to come.

The ruling idea of Milton's life, and the key to his mental history,
is his resolve to produce a great poem. Not that the aspiration in
itself is singular, for it is probably shared by every young poet in
his turn. As every clever schoolboy is destined by himself or his
friends to become Lord Chancellor, and every private in the French
army carries in his haversack the baton of a marshal, so it is a
necessary ingredient of the dream on Parnassus, that it should embody
itself in a form of surpassing brilliance. What distinguishes Milton,
from the crowd of young ambition, "audax juventa," is the constancy
of resolve. He not only nourished through manhood the dream of youth,
keeping under the importunate instincts which carry off most ambitions
in middle life into the pursuit of place, profit, honour--the thorns
which spring up and smother the wheat--but carried out his dream in
its integrity in old age. He formed himself for this achievement, and
for no other. Study at home, travel abroad, the arena of political
controversy, the public service, the practice of the domestic virtues,
were so many parts of the schooling which was to make a poet.

The reader who has traced with me thus far the course of Milton's
mental development will perhaps be ready to believe, that this idea
had taken entire possession of his mind from a very early age. The
earliest written record of it is of date 1632, In Sonnet II. This was
written as early as the poet's twenty-third year; and in these lines
the resolve is uttered, not as then just conceived, but as one long
brooded upon, and its non-fulfilment matter of self-reproach.

If this sonnet stood alone, its relevance to a poetical, or even
a literary performance, might he doubtful. But at the time of its
composition it is enclosed in a letter to an unnamed friend, who seems
to have been expressing his surprise that the Cambridge B.A. was
not settling himself, now that his education was complete, to a
profession. Milton's apologetic letter is extant, and was printed
by Birch in 1738. It intimates that Milton did not consider his
education, for the purposes he had in view, as anything like complete.
It is not "the endless delight of speculation," but "a religious
advisement how best to undergo; not taking thought of being late, so
it give advantage to be more fit." He repudiates the love of learning
for its own sake; knowledge is not an end, it is only equipment for
performance. There is here no specific engagement as to the nature of
the performance. But what it is to be, is suggested by the enclosure
of the "Petrarchian stanza" (i.e. the sonnet). This notion that his
life was like Samuel's, a dedicated life, dedicated to a service
which required a long probation, recurs again more than once in his
writings. It is emphatically repeated, in 1641, in a passage of the
pamphlet No. 4:--

None hath by mote studious ways endeavoured, and with more unwearied
spirit none shall,--that I dare almost aver of myself, as far as
life and full license will extend. Neither do I think it shame to
covenant with any knowing reader that for some few years yet I may
go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted,
as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the
vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some
vulgar amorist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite, not
to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her siren
daughters, but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can
enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim
with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the life
of whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and select
reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous
acts and affairs. Till which in some measure be compassed, at mine
own peril and cost, I refuse not to sustain this expectation, from
as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best
pledges that I can give them.

In 1638, at the age of nine and twenty, Milton has already determined
that this lifework shall be a poem, an epic poem, and that its subject
shall probably be the Arthurian legend.

Si quando indigenas revocabo in carmina regea,
Arturumque etiam sub terris bella moventem,
Aut dicam invictae sociali foedere mensae
Magnanimos heroas, et, o modo spiritus adsit!
Frangam Saxonicas Britonum sub marte phalangas.

May I find such a friend ... when, if ever, I shall revive
in song our native princes, and among them Arthur moving to
the fray even in the nether world, and when I shall, if only
inspiration be mine, break the Saxon bands before our Britons'

The same announcement is reproduced in the _Epitaphium Damonis_, 1639,
and, in Pamphlet No. 4, in the often-quoted words:--

Perceiving that some trifles which I had in memory, composed at
under twenty, or thereabout, met with acceptance.... I began to
assent to them (the Italians) and divers of my friends here at home,
and not less to an inward prompting which now grows dally upon me,
that by labour and intent study, which I take to be my portion in
this life, joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might
perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes as they should not
willingly let it die.

Between the publication of the collected _Poems_ in 1645, and the
appearance of _Paradise Lost_ in 1687, a period of twenty-two years,
Milton gave no public sign of redeeming this pledge. He seemed to his
cotemporaries to have renounced the follies of his youth, the gewgaws
of verse; and to have sobered down into the useful citizen, "Le bon
poete," thought Malherbe, "n'est pas plus utile a l'etat qu'un bon
joueur de quilles." Milton had postponed his poem, in 1641, till "the
land had once enfranchished herself from this impertinent yoke of
prelatry, under whose inquisitorious and tyrannical duncery no free
and splendid wit can flourish." Prelatry was swept away, and he asked
for further remand on account of the war. Peace was concluded, the
country was settled under the strong government of a Protector, and
Milton's great work did not appear. It was not even preparing. He was
writing not poetry but prose, and that most ephemeral and valueless
kind of prose, pamphlets, extempore articles on the topics of the day.
He poured out reams of them, in simple unconsciousness that they had
no influence whatever on the current of events.

Nor was it that, during all these years, Milton was meditating in
secret what he could not bring forward in public; that he was only
holding back from publishing, because there was no public ready to
listen to his song. In these years Milton was neither writing nor
thinking poetry. Of the twenty-four sonnets indeed--twenty-four,
reckoning the twenty-lined piece, "The forcers of conscience," as
a sonnet--eleven belong to this period. But they do not form a
continuous series, such as do Wordsworth's _Ecclesiastical Sonnets_,
nor do they evince a sustained mood of poetical meditation. On the
contrary, their very force and beauty consist in their being the
momentary and spontaneous explosion of an emotion welling up from the
depths of the soul, and forcing itself into metrical expression, as it
were, in spite of the writer. While the first eight sonnets, written
before 1645, are sonnets of reminiscence and intention, like those of
the Italians, or the ordinary English sonnet, the eleven sonnets of
Milton's silent period, from 1645 to 1658, are records of present
feeling kindled by actual facts. In their naked, unadorned simplicity
of language, they may easily seem, to a reader fresh from Petrarch, to
be homely and prosaic. Place them in relation to the circumstance
on which each piece turns, and we begin to feel the superiority for
poetic effect of real emotion over emotion meditated and revived.
History has in it that which can touch us more abidingly than any
fiction. It is this actuality which distinguishes the sonnets of
Milton from any other sonnets. Of this difference Wordsworth was
conscious when he struck out the phrase, "In his hand the _thing
became_ a trumpet." Macaulay compared the sonnets in their majestic
severity to the collects, They remind us of a Hebrew psalm, with its
undisguised outrush of rage, revenge, exultation, or despair, where
nothing is due to art or artifice, and whose poetry is the expression
of the heart, and not a branch of literature. It is in the sonnets we
most realise the force of Wordsworth's image--

Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea.

We are not then to look in the sonnets for latent traces of the
suspended poetic creation They come from the other side of Milton's
nature, the political, not the artistic. They are akin to the prose
pamphlets, not to _Paradise Lost_. Just when the sonnets end, the
composition of the epic was taken in hand. The last of the sonnets (23
in the ordinary numeration) was written in 1658, and it is to the same
year that our authority, Aubrey-Phillips, refers his beginning to
occupy himself with _Paradise Lost_. He had by this time settled the
two points about which he had been long in doubt, the subject, and the
form. Long before bringing himself to the point of composition, he had
decided upon the Fall of man as subject, and upon the narrative, or
epic, form, in preference to the dramatic. It is even possible that
a few isolated passages of the poem, as it now stands, may have been
written before. Of one such passage we know that it was written
fifteen or sixteen years before 1658, and while he was still
contemplating a drama. The lines are Satan's speech, _P. L._ iv. 32,

O, thou that with surpassing glory crowned.

These lines, Phillips says, his uncle recited to him, as forming the
opening of his tragedy. They are modelled, as the classical reader
will perceive, upon Euripides. Possibly they were not intended for the
very first lines, since if Milton intended to follow the practice of
his model, the lofty lyrical tone of this address should have been
introduced by a prosaic matter-of-fact setting forth of the situation,
as in the Euripidean prologue. There are other passages in the poem
which have the air of being insititious in the place where they stand.
The lines in Book iv, now in question, may reasonably be referred to
1640-42, the date of those leaves in the Trinity College MS., in
which Milton has written down, with his own hand, various sketches of
tragedies, which might possibly be adopted as his final choice.

A passage in _The Reason of Church Government_, written at the same
period, 1641, gives us the the fullest account of his hesitation. It
was a hesitation caused, partly by the wealth of matter which his
reading suggested to him, partly by the consciousness that he ought
not to begin in haste while each year was ripening his powers. Every
one who has undertaken a work of any length has made the experience,
that the faculty of composition will not work with ease, until the
reason is satisfied that the subject chosen is a congenial one. Gibbon
has told us himself of the many periods of history upon which he tried
his pen, even after the memorable 16 October, 1764, when he "sate
musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars
were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter." We know how many
sketches of possible tragedies Recine would make before he could
adopt one as the appropriate theme, on which he could work with that
thorough enjoyment of the labour, which is necessary to give life and
verve to any creation, whether of the poet or the orator.

The leaves of the Trinity College MS., which are contemporary with his
confidence to the readers of his tract _Of Church Government_, exhibit
a list of nearly one hundred subjects, which, had occurred to him from
time to time as practicable subjects. From the mode of entry we see
that, already in 1641, a scriptural was likely to have tie preference
over a profane subject, and that among scriptural subjects _Paradise
Lost_ (the familiar title appears in this early note), stands out
prominently above the rest. The historical subjects are all taken from
native history, none are foreign, and all are from the time before
the Roman conquest. The scriptural subjects are partly from the Old,
partly from the New, Testament. Some of these subjects are named and
nothing more, while others are slightly sketched out. Among these
latter--are _Baptistes_, on the death of John the Baptist, and
_Christus Patiens_, apparently to be confined to the agony in the
garden. Of _Paradise Lost_ there are four drafts in greater detail
than any of the others. These drafts of the plot or action, though
none of them that which was finally adopted, are sufficiently near to
the action of the poem as it stands, to reveal to as the fact that the
author's imaginative conception of what he intended to produce was
generated, cast, and moulded, at a comparatively early age. The
commonly received notion, therefore, with which authors, as they age,
are wont to comfort themselves, that one of the greatest feats of
original invention achieved by man, was begun after fifty, must be
thus far modified. _Paradise Lost_ was _composed_ after fifty, but
was _conceived_ at thirty-two. Hence the high degree of perfection
realised in the total result. For there were combined to produce it
the opposite virtues of two distinct periods of mental development;
the daring imagination and fresh emotional play of early manhood, with
the exercised judgment and chastened taste of ripened years. We have
regarded the twenty-five years of Milton's life between 1641 and the
commencement of _Paradise Lost_, as time ill laid out upon inferior
work which any one could do, and which was not worth doing by any one.
Yet it may be made a question if in any other mode than by adjournment
of his early design, Milton could have attained to that union of
original strength with severe restraint, which distinguishes from all
other poetry, except that of Virgil, the three great poems of his old
age. If the fatigue of age is sometimes felt in _Paradise Regained_,
we feel in _Paradise Lost_ only (in the words of Chateaubriand), "la
maturite de l'age a travers les passions des legeres annees; une
charme extraordinaire de vieillesse et de jeunesse."

A still further inference is warranted by the Trinity College jottings
of 1641. Not the critics merely, but readers ready to sympathise, have
been sometimes inclined to wish that Milton had devoted his power to a
more human subject, in which the poet's invention could have had freer
play, and for which his reader's interest could have been more
ready. And it has been thought that the choice of a Biblical subject
indicates the narrowing effect of age, adversity, and blindness
combined. We now know that the Fall was the theme, if not determined
on, at least predominant in Milton's thoughts, at the age of
thirty-two. His ripened judgment only approved a selection made
in earlier years, and in days full of hope. That in selecting a
scriptural subject he was not In fact exercising any choice, but was
determined by his circumstances, is only what must be said of all
choosing. With all his originality, Milton was still a man of his
age. A Puritan poet, in a Puritan environment, could not have done
otherwise. But even had choice been in his power, it is doubtful if he
would have had the same success with a subject taken from history.

First, looking at his public. He was to write in English. This, which
had at one time been matter of doubt, had at an early stage come to be
his decision. Sot had the choice of English been made for the sake
of popularity, which he despised. He did not desire to write for the
many, but for the few. But he was enthusiastically patriotic. He had
entire contempt for the shouts of the mob, but the English nation,
as embodied in the persons of the wise and good, he honoured and
reverenced with all the depth of his nature. It was for the sake of
his nation that he was to devote his life to a work, which was to
ennoble her tongue among the languages of Europe.

He was then to write in English, for the English, not popularly,
but nationally. This resolution at once limited his subject. He who
aspires to be the poet of a nation is bound to adopt a hero who is
already dear to that people, to choose a subject and characters
which are already familiar to them. This is no rule of literary art
arbitrarily enacted by the critics, it is a dictate of reason, and has
been the practice of all the great national poets. The more obvious
examples will occur to every reader, But it may be observed that even
the Greek tragedians, who addressed a more limited audience than the
epic poets, took their plots from the best known legends touching the
fortunes of the royal houses of the Hellenic race. Now to the English
reader of the seventeenth century--and the same holds good to this
day--there were only two cycles of persons and events sufficiently
known beforehand to admit of being assumed by a poet. He must go
either to the Bible, or to the annals of England. Thus far Milton's
choice of subject was limited by the consideration of the public for
whom he wrote.

Secondly, he was still farther restricted by a condition which the
nature of his own intelligence imposed upon himself. It was necessary
for Milton that the events and personages, which were to arouse and
detain his interests, should be real events and personages. The mere
play of fancy with the pretty aspects of things could not satisfy him;
he wanted to feel beneath him a substantial world of reality. He
had not the dramatist's imagination which can body forth fictitious
characters with such life-like reality that it can, and does itself,
believe in their existence. Macaulay has truly said that Milton's
genius is lyrical, not dramatic. His lyre will only echo real emotion,
and his imagination is only stirred by real circumstances. In his
youth he had been within the fascination of the romances of chivalry,
as well in their original form, as in the reproductions of Ariosto
and Spenser. While under this influence he had thought of seeking his
subject among the heroes of these lays of old minstrelsy. And as one
of his principles was that his hero must be a national hero, it was of
course upon the Arthurian cycle that his aspiration fixed. When he did
so, he no doubt believed at least the historical existence of Arthur.
As soon, however, as he came to understand the fabulous basis of the
Arthurian legend, it became unfitted for his use. In the Trinity
College MS. of 1641, Arthur has already disappeared from the list of
possible subjects, a list which contains thirty-eight suggestions of
names from British or Saxon history, such as Vortigern, Edward the
Confessor, Harold, Macbeth, &c. While he demanded the basis of reality
for his personages, he at the same time, with a true instinct,
rejected all that fell within the period of well-ascertained history.
He made the Conquest the lower limit of his choice. In this negative
decision against historical romance we recognise Milton's judgment,
and his correct estimate of his own powers. Those who have been
thought to succeed best in engrafting fiction upon history, Shakspeare
or Walter Scott, have been eminently human poets, and have achieved
their measure of success by investing some well-known name with the
attributes of ordinary humanity such as we all know it. This was
precisely what Milton could not have done. He had none of that
sympathy with which Shakspeare embraced all natural and common
affections of his brother men. Milton, burning as he did with a
consuming fire of passion, and yearning for rapt communion with select
souls, had withal an aloofness from ordinary men sad women, and a
proud disdain of commonplace joy and sorrow, which has led hasty
biographers and critics to represent him as hard, austere, an iron man
of iron mould. This want of interest in common life disqualified him
for the task of revivifying historic scenes.

Milton's mental constitution, then, demanded in the material upon
which it was to work, a combination of qualities such as very few
subjects could offer. The events and personages must be real and
substantial, for he could not occupy himself seriously with airy
nothings and creatures of pure fancy. Yet they must not be such
events and personages as history had pourtrayed to us with well-known
characters, and all their virtues, faults, foibles, and peculiarities.
And, lastly, it was requisite that they should be the common property
and the familiar interest of a wide circle of English readers.

These being the conditions required in the subject, it is obvious
that no choice was left to the poet in the England of the seventeenth
century but a biblical subject. And among the many picturesque
episodes which the Hebrew Scriptures present, the narrative of the
Fall stands out with a character of all-embracing comprehensiveness
which belongs to no other single event in the Jewish annals. The first
section of the book of Genesis clothes in a dramatic form the dogmatic
idea from which was developed in the course of ages the whole scheme
of Judaico-Christian anthropology. In this world-drama, Heaven above
and Hell beneath, the powers of light and those of darkness, are both
brought upon the scene in conflict with each other, over the fate
of the inhabitants of our globe, a minute ball of matter suspended
between two infinities. This gigantic and unmanageable material is so
completely mastered by the poet's imagination, that we are made to
feel at one and the same time the petty dimensions of our earth in
comparison with primordial space and almighty power, and the profound
import to us of the issue depending on the conflict. Other poets, of
inferior powers, have from time to time attempted, with different
degrees of success, some of the minor Scriptural histories; Bodmer,
the Noachian Deluge; Solomon Gessner, the Death of Abel, &c. And
Milton himself, after he had spent his full strength upon his greater
theme, recurred in _Samson Agonistes_ to one such episode, which he
had deliberately set aside before, as not giving verge enough for the
sweep of his soaring conception.

These considerations duly weighed, it will be found, that the subject
of the Fall of Man was not so much Milton's choice as his necessity.
Among all the traditions of the peoples of the earth, there is not
extant another story which, could have been adequate to his demands.
Biographers may have been, somewhat misled by his speaking of himself
as "long choosing and beginning late." He did not begin till 1658,
when he was already fifty, and it has been somewhat hastily inferred
that he did not choose till the date at which he began, But, as we
have seen, he had already chosen at least as early as 1642, when, the
plan of a drama on the subject, and under the title, of _Paradise
Lost_ was fully developed. In the interval between 1642 and 1658, he
changed the form from a drama to an epic, but his choice remained
unaltered. And as the address to the sun (_Paradise Lost_, iv, 32) was
composed at the earlier of these dates, it appears that he had already
formulated even the rhythm and cadence of the poem that was to be.
Like Wordsworth's "Warrior"--

He wrought
Upon the plan that pleas'd his boyish thought.

I have said that this subject of the Fall was Milton's necessity,
being the only subject which his mind, "in the spacious circuits of
her musing," found large enough. But as it was no abrupt or arbitrary
choice, so it was not forced upon him from without, by suggestion of
friends, or command of a patron, We must again remind ourselves that
Milton had a Calvinistic bringing up. And Calvinism in pious Puritan
souls of that fervent age was not the attenuated creed of the
eighteenth century, the Calvinism which went not beyond personal
gratification of safety for oneself, and for the rest damnation. When
Milton was being reared, Calvinism was not old and effete, a mere
doctrine. It was a living system of thought, and one which carried the
mind upwards towards the Eternal will, rather than downwards towards
my personal security. Keble has said of the old Catholic views,
founded on sacramental symbolism, that they are more poetical than
any other religious conception. But it must be acknowledged that a
predestinarian scheme, leading the cogitation upward to dwell upon
"the heavenly things before the foundation of the world," opens a
vista of contemplation and poetical framework, with which none other
in the whole cycle of human thought can compare. Not election
and reprobation as set out in the petty chicanery of Calvin's
_Institutes_, but the prescience of absolute wisdom revolving all the
possibilities of time, space, and matter. Poetry has been defined as
"the suggestion by the image of noble grounds for noble emotions,"
and, in this respect, none of the world-epics--there are at most
five or six such in existence--can compete with _Paradise Lost_.
The melancholy pathos of Lucretius indeed pierces the heart with a
two-edged sword more keen than Milton's, but the compass of Lucretius'
horizon is much less, being limited to this earth and its inhabitants.
The horizon of _Paradise Lost_ is not narrower than all space, its
chronology not shorter than eternity; the globe of our earth becomes
a mere spot in the physical universe, and that universe itself a drop
suspended in the infinite empyrean. His aspiration had thus reached
"one of the highest arcs that human contemplation circling upwards can
make from the glassy sea whereon she stands" (_Doctr. and Disc_.),
Like his contemporary Pascal, his mind had beaten her wings against
the prison walls of human thought.

The vastness of the scheme of _Paradise Lost_ may become more apparent
to us if we remark that, within its embrace, there to be equal place
for both the systems of physical astronomy which were current in the
seventeenth century. In England, about the time _Paradise Lost_ was
being written, the Copernican theory, which placed the sun in the
centre of our system, was already the established belief of the few
well-informed. The old Ptolemaic or Alphonsine system, which explained
the phenomena on the hypothesis of nine (or ten) transparent hollow
spheres wheeling round the stationary earth, was still the received
astronomy of ordinary people. These two beliefs, the one based on
science, though still wanting the calculation which Newton was to
supply to make it demonstrative, the other supported by the tradition
of ages, were, at the time we speak of, in presence of each other in
the public mind. They are in presence of each other also in Milton's
epic. And the systems confront each other in the poem, in much the
same relative position which they occupied in the mind of the public.
The ordinary, habitual mode of speaking of celestial phenomena is
Ptolemaic (see _Paradise Lost_, vii. 339; iii. 481). The conscious,
or doctrinal, exposition of the same phenomena is Copernican (see
_Paradise Lost_, viii. 122). Sharp as is the contrast between the two
systems, the one being the direct contradictory of the other, they are
lodged together, not harmonised, within the vast circuit of the poet's
imagination. The precise mechanism of an object so little as is
our world in comparison with the immense totality may be justly
disregarded. "De minimis non curat poeta." In the universe of being
the difference between a heliocentric and a geocentric theory of our
solar system is of as small moment, as the reconcilement of fixed
fate, free-will, foreknowledge absolute is in the realm of absolute
intelligence. The one Is the frivolous pastime of devils; the other
the Great Architect

Hath left to there disputes, perhaps to move
His laughter at their quaint opinions wide.

As one, and the principal, inconsistency in Milton's presentment of
his matter has now been, mentioned, a general remark may be made upon
the conceptual incongruities in _Paradise Lost_. The poem abounds in
such, and the critics, from Addison downwards, have busied themselves
in finding out more and more of them. Milton's geography of the world
is as obscure and untenable as that of Herodotus. The notes of time
cannot stand together. To give an example: Eve says (_Paradise Lost_,
iv. 449)--

That day I oft remember, when from sleep
I first awak'd.

But in the chronology of the poem, Adam himself, whose creation
preceded that of Eve, was but three days old at the time this
reminiscence is repeated to him. The mode in which the Son of God
is spoken of is not either consistent Athanasianism or consistent
Arianism. Above all there is an incessant confusion of material and
immaterial in the acts ascribed to the angels. Dr. Johnson, who wished
for consistency, would have had it preserved "by keeping immateriality
out of sight." And a general arraignment has been laid against Milton
of a vagueness and looseness of imagery, which contrasts unfavourably
with the vivid and precise detail of other poets, of Homer or of
Dante, for example.

Now first, it must be said that Milton is not one of the poets of
inaccurate imagination. He could never, like Scott, have let the
precise picture of the swan on "still Saint Mary's lake" slip into the
namby-pamby "sweet Saint Mary's lake." When he intends a picture, he
is unmistakably distinct; his outline is firm and hard. But he is not
often intending pictures. He is not, like Dante, always seeing--he is
mostly thinking in a dream, or as Coleridge best expressed it, he is
not a picturesque, but a musical poet. The pictures in _Paradise Lost_
are like the paintings on the walls of some noble hall--only part of
the total magnificence. He did not aim at that finish of minute parts
in which, each bit fits into every other. For it was only by such
disregard of minutiae that the theme could be handled at all. The
impression of vastness, the sense that everything, as Bishop Butler
says, "runs up into infinity," would have been impaired if he had
drawn attention to the details of his figures. Had he had upon his
canvas only a single human incident, with ordinary human agents, he
would have known, as well as other far inferior artists, how to secure
perfection of illusion by exactness of detail. But he had undertaken
to present, not the world of human experience, but a supernatural
world, peopled by supernatural beings, God and his Son, angels and
archangels, devils; a world in which Sin and Death, may be personified
without palpable absurdity. Even his one human pair are exceptional
beings, from whom we are prepared not to demand conformity to the laws
of life which now prevail in our world. Had he presented all these
spiritual personages in definite form to the eyes the result would
have been degradation. We should have had the ridiculous instead of
the sublime, as in the scene of the _Iliad_, where Diomede wounds
Aphrodite in the hand, and sends her crying home to her father.
Once or twice Milton has ventured too near the limit of material
adaptation, trying to explain _how_ angelic natures subsist, as in the
passage (_Paradise Lost_, v. 405) where Raphael tells Adam that angels
eat and digest food like man. Taste here receives a shock, because the
incongruity, which before was latent, is forced upon our attention. We
are threatened with being transported out of the conventional world
of Heaven, Hell, Chaos, and Paradise, to which we had well adapted
ourselves, into the real world in which we know that such beings could
not breathe and move.

For the world of _Paradise Lost_ is an ideal, conventional world,
quite as much as the world of the _Arabian Nights_, or the world
of the chivalrous romance, or that of the pastoral novel. Not only
dramatic, but all, poetry is founded on illusion. We must, though it
be but for the moment, suppose it true. We must be transported out of
the actual world into that world in which the given scene is laid. It
is chiefly the business of the poet to effect this transportation, but
the reader (or hearer) must aid. "Willst du Dichter ganz verstehen,
musst in Dichter's Lande gehen." If the reader's imagination is not
active enough to assist the poet, he must at least not resist him.
When we are once inside the poet's heaven, our critical faculty may
justly require that what takes place there shall be consistent with
itself, with the laws of that fantastic world. But we may not begin by
objecting that it is impossible that such a world should exist. If,
in any age, the power of imagination is enfeebled, the reader becomes
more unable to make this effort; he ceases to co-operate with the
poet. Much of the criticism on _Paradise Lost_ which we meet with
resolves itself into a refusal on the part of the critic, to make
that initial abondonment to the conditions which the poet demands;
a determination to insist that his heaven, peopled with deities,
dominations, principalities, and powers, shall have the same material
laws which govern our planetary system. It is not, as we often hear it
said, that the critical faculty is unduly developed in the nineteenth
century. It is that the imaginative faculty fails us; and when that
is the case, criticism is powerless--it has no fundamental assumption
upon which its judgments can proceed,

It is the triumph of Milton's skill to have made his ideal world
actual, if not to every English mind's eye, yet to a larger number of
minds than have ever been reached by any other poetry in our language.
Popular (in the common use of the word) Milton has not been, and
cannot be. But the world he created has taken possession of the public
mind. Huxley complains that the false cosmogony, which will not
yield, to the conclusions of scientific research, is derived from the
seventh, book of _Paradise Lost_, rather than, from Genesis. This
success Milton owes partly to his selection of his subject, partly to
his skill in handling it. In his handling, he presents his spiritual
existences with just so much relief as to endow them with life and
personality, and not with, that visual distinctness which would at
once reveal their spectral immateriality, and so give a shock to the
illusion. We might almost say of his personages that they are shapes,
"if shape it might be called, that shape had none." By his art of
suggestion by association, he does all he can to aid us to realise
his agents, and at the moment when distinctness would disturb, he
withdraws the object into a mist, and so disguises the incongruities
which he could not avoid. The tact that avoids difficulties inherent
in the nature of things, is an art which gets the least appreciation
either in life or in literature.

But if we would have some measure of the skill which in _Paradise
Lost_ has made impossible beings possible to the imagination, we may
find it in contrasting them with the incarnated abstraction and spirit
voices, which we encounter at every turn in Shelley, creatures who
leave behind them no more distinct impression than that we have been
in a dream peopled with ghosts. Shelley, too,

Voyag'd th' unreal, vast, unbounded deep
Of horrible confusion.

_Paradise Lost_, x. 470.

and left it the chaos which he found it. Milton has elicited from
similar elements a conception so life-like that his poetical version
has inseparably grafted itself upon, if it has not taken the place of,
the historical narrative of the original creation.

So much Milton has effected by his skilful treatment. But the illusion
was greatly facilitated by his choice of subject. He had not to create
his supernatural personages, they were already there. The Father, and
the Son, the Angels, Satan, Baal and Moloch, Adam and Eve, were in
full possession of the popular imagination, and more familiar to it
than any other set of known names. Nor was the belief accorded to them
a half belief, a bare admission of their possible existence, such
as prevails at other times or in some countries. In the England of
Milton, the angels and devils of the Jewish Scriptures were more real
beings, and better vouched, than any historical personages could be.
The old chronicles were full of lies, but this was Bible truth. There
might very likely have been a Henry VIII, and he might have been such
as he is described, but at any rate he was dead and gone, while Satan
still lived and walked the earth, the identical Satan who had deceived

Nor was it only to the poetic public that his personages were real,
true, and living beings. The poet himself believed as entirely in
their existence as did his readers. I insist upon this point, because
one of the first of living critics has declared of _Paradise Lost_
that it is a poem in which every artifice of invention, is consciously
employed, not a single fact being, for an instant, conceived as
tenable by any living faith. (Ruskin, _Sesame and Lilies_, p. 138). On
the contrary, we shall not rightly apprehend either the poetry or the
character of the poet until we feel that throughout _Paradise Lost_,
as in _Paradise Regained_ and _Samson_, Milton felt himself to he
standing on the sure ground of fact and reality. It was not in
Milton's nature to be a showman, parading before an audience a
phantasmagoria of spirits, which he himself knew to be puppets tricked
up for the entertainment of an idle hour. We are told by Lockhart,
that the old man who told the story of Gilpin Horner to Lady Dalkeith
_bona fide_ believed the existence of the elf. Lady Dalkeith repeated
the tale to Walter Scott, who worked it up with consummate skill into
the _Lay of the Last Minstrel_. This is a case of a really believed
legend of diablerie becoming the source of a literary fiction. Scott
neither believed in the reality of the goblin page himself, nor
expected his readers to believe it. He could not rise beyond the
poetry of amusement, and no poetry with only this motive can ever be
more than literary art.

Other than this was Milton's conception of his own function. Of the
fashionable verse, such as was written in the Caroline age, or in
any age, he disapproved, not only because it was imperfect art, but
because it was untrue utterance. Poems that were raised "from the heat
of youth, or the vapours of wine, like that which flows at waste from
the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming
parasite," were in his eyes treachery to the poet's high vocation.

* * * * *

Poetical powers "are the inspired gift of God rarely bestowed ... in
every nation, and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit, to
imbreed and cherish in a great people the seeds of virtue and
public civility, to allay the perturbation of the mind, and set the
affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the
throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what he works, and what
he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his church; to sing
victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of
just and pious nations, doing valiantly through faith against the
enemies of Christ; to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and
states from justice and God's true worship."

* * * * *

So he had written in 1642, and this lofty faith in his calling
supported him twenty years later, in the arduous labour of his attempt
to realise his own ideal. In setting himself down to compose _Paradise
Lost_ and _Regained_, he regarded himself not as an author, but as a
medium, the mouthpiece of "that eternal Spirit who can enrich with
all utterance and all knowledge: Urania, heavenly muse," visits him

And dictates to me Blumb'ring, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated verse.

_Paradise Lost_, ix. 24.

Urania bestows the flowing words and musical sweetness; to God's
Spirit he looks to

Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence

Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

_Paradise Lost,/i>, iii, 50.

The singers with whom he would fain equal himself are not Dante, or
Tasso, or, as Dryden would have it, Spenser, but

Blind Thamyris, and blind Maeonides,
And Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old.

As he in equalled with these in misfortune--loss of sight--he would
emulate them in function. Orpheus and Musaeus are the poets he would
fain have as the companions of his midnight meditation (_Penseroso_).
And the function of the poet is like that of the prophet in the old
dispensation, not to invent, but to utter. It is God's truth which
passes His lips--lips hallowed by the touch of sacred fire. He is the
passive instrument through whom flows the emanation from on high; His
words are not his own, but a suggestion. Even for style Milton is
indebted to his "celestial patroness who deigns her nightly visitation

Milton was not dependent upon a dubious tradition in the subject he
had selected. Man's fall and recovery were recorded in the Scriptures.
And the two media of truth, the internal and the external, as deriving
from the same source, must needs be in harmony. That the Spirit
enlightens the mind within, in this belief the Puritan saint, the
poet, and the prophet, who all met in Milton, were at one. That the
Old Testament Scriptures were also a revelation, from God, was an
article of faith which he had never questioned. Nor did he only
receive these books as conveying in substance a divine view of the
world's history, he regarded them as in the letter a transcript
of fact. If the poet-prophet would tell the story of creation or
redemption, he was thus restrained not only by the general outline and
imagery of the Bible, but by its very words. And here we must note the
skill of the poet in surmounting an added or artificial difficulty, in
the subject he had chosen as combined with his notion of inspiration.
He must not deviate in a single syllable from the words of the
Hebrew books. He must take up into his poem the whole of the sacred
narrative. This he must do, not merely because his readers would
expect such literal accuracy from him, but because to himself that
narrative was the very truth which he was, undertaking to deliver.
The additions which his fancy or inspiration might supply must be
restrained by this severe law, that they should be such as to aid the
reader's imagination to conceive how the event took place. They must
by no means be suffered to alter, disfigure, traduce the substance or
the letter of the revelation. This is what Milton has done. He has
told the story of creation in the very words of Scripture. The whole
of the seventh book, is little more than a paraphrase of a few verses
of Genesis. What he has added is so little incongruous with his
original, that most English men and women would probably have some
difficulty in discriminating in recollection the part they derive from
Moses, from that which they have added from the paraphrast. In Genesis
it is the serpent who tempts Eve, in virtue of his natural wiliness.
In Milton it is Satan who has entered into the body of a serpent, and
supplied the intelligence. Here indeed Milton was only adopting a
gloss, as ancient at least as the Book of Wisdom (ii. 24). But it is
the gloss, and not the text of Moses, which is in possession of
our minds, and who has done most to lodge it there, Milton or the

Again, it is Milton and not Moses who makes the serpent pluck and eat
the first apple from the tree. But Bp. Wilson comments upon the words
of Genesis (iii, 6) as though they contained this purely Miltonic

It could hardly but he that one or two of the incidents which Milton
has supplied, the popular imagination has been unable to homologate.
Such an incident is the placing of artillery in the wars in heaven, We
reject this suggestion, and find it mars probability. But It would not
seam so Improbable to Milton's contemporaries; not only because it was
an article of the received poetic tradition (see _Ronsard_ 6, p. 40),
but also because fire-arms had not quite ceased to be regarded as a
devilish enginery of a new warfare, unfair in the knightly code of
honour, a base substitute of mechanism for individual valour. It
was gunpowder and not _Don Quixote_ which had destroyed, the age of

Another of Milton's fictions which has been found too grotesque is the
change (_P, L._, x. 508) of the demons into serpents, who hiss their
Prince on his return from his embassy. Here it is not, I think,
so much the unnatural character of the incident itself, as its
gratuitousness which offends. It does not help us to conceive the
situation. A suggestion of Chateaubriand may therefore go some way
towards reconciling the reader even to this caprice of imagination.
It indicates, he says, the degradation of Satan, who, from the superb
Intelligence of the early scenes of the poem, is become at its close a
hideous reptile. He has not triumphed, but has failed, and is degraded
into the old dragon, who haunts among the damned. The braising of his
head has already commenced.

The bridge, again, which Sin and Death construct (_Paradise Lost_, x.
300), leading from the mouth of hell to the wall of the world, has a
chilling effect upon the imagination of a modern reader. It does not
assist the conception of the cosmical system which we accept in the
earlier books. This clumsy fiction seems more at home in the grotesque
and lawless mythology of the Turks, or in the Persian poet Sadi, who
is said by Marmontel to have adopted it from the Turk. If Milton's
intention were to reproduce Jacob's ladder, he should, like Dante
(_Parad_, xxi. 25), have made it the means of communication between
heaven and earth.

It is possible that Milton himself, after the experiment of _Paradise
Lost_ was fully before him, suspected that he had supplemented
too much for his purpose; that his imagery, which was designed to
illustrate history, might stand in its light. For in the composition
of _Paradise Regained_ (published 1671) he has adopted a much severer
style. In this poem he has not only curbed his imagination, but has
almost suppressed it. He has amplified, but has hardly introduced any
circumstance which is not in the original. _Paradise Regained_ is
little more than a paraphrase of the Temptation as found in the
synoptical gospels. It is a marvel of ingenuity that more than two
thousand lines of blank verse can have been constructed out of some
twenty lines of prose, without the addition of any invented incident,
or the insertion of any irrelevant digression. In the first three
books of _Paradise Regained_ there is not a single simile. Nor yet can
it be said that the version of the gospel narrative has the fault of
most paraphrases, viz., that of weakening the effect, and obliterating
the chiselled features of the original. Let a reader take _Paradise
Regained_ not as a theme used as a canvas for poetical embroidery, an
opportunity for an author to show off his powers of writing, but as
a _bona fide_ attempt to impress upon the mind the story of the
Temptation, and he will acknowledge the concealed art of the genuine
epic poet, bent before all things upon telling his tale. It will still
be capable of being alleged that the story told does not interest;
that the composition is dry, hard, barren; the style as of set purpose
divested of the attributes of poetry. It is not necessary indeed that
an epic should be in twelve books; but we do demand in an epic poem
multiplicity of character and variety of incident. In _Paradise
Regained_ there are only two personages, both of whom are
supernatural. Indeed, they can scarcely be called personages; the
poet, in his fidelity to the letter, not having thought fit to open
up the fertile vein of delineation which was afforded by the human
character of Christ. The speakers are no more than the abstract
principles of good and evil, two voices who hold a rhetorical
disputation through four books and two thousand lines.

The usual explanation of the frigidity of _Paradise Regained_ is the
suggestion, which is nearest at hand, viz., that it is the effect
of age. Like Ben Jonson's _New Inn_, it betrays the feebleness of
senility, and has one of the most certain marks of that stage of
authorship, the attempt to imitate himself in those points in which he
was once strong. When "glad no more, He wears a face of joy, because
He has been glad of yore." Or it is an "oeuvre de lassitude," a
continuation, with the inevitable defect of continuations, that of
preserving the forms and wanting the soul of the original, like the
second parts of _Faust_, of _Don Quixote_, and of so many other books.

Both these explanations of the inferiority of _Paradise Regained_ have
probability. Either of them may be true, or both may have concurred
to the common effect. In favour of the hypothesis of senility is the
fact, recorded by Phillips, that Milton "could not hear with patience
any such thing when related to him." The reader will please to note
that this is the original statement, which the critics have improved
into the statement that he preferred _Paradise Regained_ to _Paradise
Lost_. But his approval of his work, even if it did not amount to
preference, looks like the old man's fondness for his youngest and
weakest offspring.

Another view of the matter, however, is at least possible. Milton's
theory as to the true mode of handling a biblical subject was, as I
have said, to add no more dressing, or adventitious circumstance,
than should assist the conception of the sacred verity. After he had
executed _Paradise Lost_, the suspicion arose that he had been too
indulgent to his imagination; that he had created too much. He would
make a second experiment, in which he would enforce his theory with
more vigour. In the composition of _Paradise Lost_ he must have
experienced that the constraint he imposed upon himself had generated,
as was said of Racine, "a plenitude of soul." He might infer that were
the compression carried still further, the reaction of the spirit
might be still increased. Poetry he had said long before should be
"simple, sensuous, impassioned" (_Tractate of Education_). Nothing
enhances passion like simplicity. So in _Paradise Regained_ Milton has
carried simplicity of dress to the verge of nakedness. It is probably
the most unadorned poem extant in any language. He has pushed severe
abstinence to the extreme point, possibly beyond the point, where a
reader's power is stimulated by the poet's parsimony.

It may elucidate the intention of the author of _Paradise Regained_,
if we contrast it for a moment with a poem constructed upon the
opposite principle, that, viz., of the maximum of adornment,
Claudian's _Rape of Proserpine_ (A.D. 400) is one of the most rich
and elaborate poems ever written. It has in common with Milton the
circumstance that its whole action is contained in a solitary event,
viz., the carrying off of Proserpine from the vale of Henna by Pluto,
All the personages, too, are superhuman; and the incident itself
supernatural. Claudian's ambition was to overlay his story with the
gold and jewellery of expression and invention. Nothing is named
without being carved, decked, and coloured from the inexhaustible
resources of the poet's treasury. This is not done with ostentatious
pomp, as the hyperbolical heroes of vulgar novelists are painted, but
always with taste, which though lavish is discriminating.

Milton, like Wordsworth, urged his theory of parsimony farther in
practice than he would have done, had he not been possessed by a
spirit of protest against prevailing error. Milton's own ideal was the
chiselled austerity of Greek tragedy. Bat he was impelled to overdo
the system of holding back, by his desire to challenge the evil
spirit which was abroad. He would separate himself not only from the
Clevelands, the Denhams, and the Drydens, whom he did not account as
poets at all, but even from the Spenserians. Thus, instead of severe,
he became rigid, and his plainness is not unfrequently jejune.

"Pomp and ostentation of reading," he had once written, "is admired
among the vulgar; but, in matters of religion, he is learnedest who
is plainest." As Wordsworth had attempted to regenerate poetry by
recurring to nature and to common objects, Milton would revert to the
pure Word of God. He would present no human adumbration of goodness,
but Christ Himself. He saw that here absolute plainness was best. In
the presence of this unique Being silence alone became the poet. This
"higher argument" was "sufficient of itself" (_Paradise Lost_, ix.,

There are some painters whose work appeals only to painters, and not
to the public. So the judgment of poets and critics has been more
favourable to _Paradise Regained_ than the opinion of the average
reader. Johnson thinks that "if it had been written, not by Milton,
but by some imitators, it would receive universal praise." Wordsworth
thought it "the most perfect in execution of anything written by
Milton." And Coleridge says of it, "in its kind it is the most perfect
poem extant."

There is a school of critics which maintains that a poem is, like a
statue or a picture, a work of pure art, of which beauty is the only
characteristic of which the reader should be cognisant. And beauty is
wholly ideal, an absolute quality, out of relation to person, time, or
circumstance. To such readers _Samson Agonistes_ will seem tame, flat,
meaningless, and artificial. From the point of view of the critic of
the eighteenth century, it is "a tragedy which only ignorance would
admire and bigotry applaud" (Dr. Johnson). If, on the other hand, it
be read as a page of contemporary history, it becomes human, pregnant
with real woe, the record of an heroic soul, not baffled by temporary
adversity, but totally defeated by an irreversible fate, and
unflinchingly accepting the situation, in the firm conviction of the
righteousness of the cause. If fiction is truer than fact, fact is
more tragic than fiction. In the course of the long struggle of human
liberty against the church, there had been terrible catastrophes.
But the St. Bartholomew, the Revocation of the Edict, the Spanish
Inquisition, the rule of Alva in the Low Countries,--these and other
days of suffering and rebuke have been left to the dull pen of the
annalist, who has variously diluted their story in his literary
circumlocution office. The triumphant royalist reaction of 1680,
when the old serpent bruised the heel of freedom by totally crushing
Puritanism, is singular in this, that the agonised cry of the beaten
party has been preserved in a cotemporary monument, the intensest
utterance of the most intense of English poets--the _Samson

In the covert representation, which we have in this drama, of the
actual wreck of Milton, his party, and his cause, is supplied that
real basis of truth which was necessary to inspire him to write. It
is of little moment that the incidents of Samson's life do not form
a strict parallel to those of Milton's life, or to the career of the
Puritan cause. The resemblance lies in the sentiment and situation,
not in the bare event. The glorious youth of the consecrated
deliverer, his signal overthrow of the Philistine foe with means so
inadequate that the hand of God was manifest in the victory; his final
humiliation, which he owed to his own weakness and disobedience, and
the present revelry and feasting of the uncircumsised Philistines in
the temple of their idol,--all these things together constitute a
parable of which no reader of Milton's day could possibly mistake the
interpretation. More obscurely adumbrated is the day of vengeance,
when virtue should return to the repentant backslider, and the
idolatrous crew should be smitten with a swift destruction in the
midst of their insolent revelry. Add to these the two great personal
misfortunes of the poet's life, his first marriage with a Philistine
woman, out of sympathy with him or his cause, and his blindness; and
the basis of reality becomes so complete, that the nominal personages
of the drama almost disappear behind the history which we read through

But while for the biographer of Milton _Samson Agonistes_ is charged
with a pathos, which as the expression of real suffering no fictive
tragedy can equal, it must be felt that as a composition the drama is
languid, nerveless, occasionally halting, never brilliant. If the date
of the composition of the _Samson_ be 1663, this may have been the
result of weariness after the effort of _Paradise Lost_. If this drama
were composed in 1667, it would be the author's last poetical effort,
and the natural explanation would then be that his power over language
was failing. The power of metaphor, i.e. of indirect expression, is,
according to Aristotle, the characteristic of genius. It springs from
vividness of conception of the thing spoken of. It is evident that
this intense action of the presentative faculty is no longer at the
disposal of the writer of _Samson_. In _Paradise Regained_ we are
conscious of a purposed restraint of strength. The simplicity of its
style is an experiment, an essay of a new theory of poetic words. The
simplicity of _Samson Agonistes_ is a flagging of the forces, a drying
up of the rich sources from which had once flowed the golden stream of
suggestive phrase which makes _Paradise Lost_ a unique monument of the
English language. I could almost fancy that the consciousness of decay
utters itself in the lines (594)--

I feel my genial spirits droop,
My hopes all flat, nature within me seems
In all her functions weary of herself,
My race of glory run, and race of shame,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest.

The point of view I have insisted on is that Milton conceives a poet
to be one who employs his imagination to make a revelation of truth,
truth which the poet himself entirely believes. One objection to
this point of view will at once occur to the reader, the habitual
employment in both poems of the fictions of pagan mythology. This is
an objection as old as Miltonic criticism. The objection came from
those readers who had no difficulty in realising the biblical scenes,
or in accepting demoniac agency, but who found their imagination
repelled by the introduction of the gods of Greece or Rome. It is not
that the biblical heaven and the Greek Olympus are incongruous, but
it is that the unreal is blended with the real, in a way to destroy

To this objection the answer has been supplied by De Quincey. To
Milton the personages of the heathen Pantheon were not merely familiar
fictions or established poetical properties; they were evil spirits.
That they were so was the creed of the early interpreters. In their
demonology, the Hebrew and the Greek poets had a common ground. Up to
the advent of Christ, the fallen angels had been permitted to delude
mankind. To Milton, as to Jerome, Moloch was Mars, and Chemosh
Priapus. Plato knew of hell as Tartarus, and the battle of the giants
in Hesiod is no fiction, but an obscured tradition of the war once
waged in heaven. What has been adverse to Milton's art of illusion is,
that the belief that the gods of the heathen world were the rebellious
angels has ceased to be part of the common creed of Christendom.
Milton was nearly the last of our great writers who was fully
possessed of the doctrine. His readers now no longer share it with
the poet. In Addison's time (1712) some of the imaginary persons in
_Paradise Lost_ were beginning to make greater demands upon the faith
of readers, than those cool rationalistic times could meet.

There is an element of decay and death in poems which we vainly style
immortal. Some of the sources of Milton's power are already in process
of drying up. I do not speak of the ordinary caducity of language, in
virtue of which every effusion of the human spirit is lodged in a body
of death. Milton suffers little as yet from this cause. There are few
lines in his poems which are less intelligible now, than they were
at the time they were written. This is partly to be ascribed to his
limited vocabulary, Milton, in his verse, using not more than eight
thousand words, or about half the number used by Shakespeare. Nay, the
position of our earlier writers has been improved by the mere spread
of the English language over a wider area. Addison apologised for
_Paradise Lost_ falling short of the _Aeneid_, because of the
inferiority of the language in which it was written. "So divine a poem
in English is like a stately palace built of brick." The defects of
English for purposes of rhythm and harmony are as great now as they
ever were, but the space that our speech fills in the world is vastly
increased, and this increase of consideration is reflected back upon
our older writers.

But if, as a treasury of poetic speech, _Paradise Lost_ has gained by
time, it has lost far more as a storehouse of divine truth. We at this
day are better able than ever to appreciate its force of expression,
its grace of phrase, its harmony of rhythmical movement, but it is
losing its hold over our imagination. Strange to say, this failure
of vital power in the constitution of the poem is due to the very
selection of subject by which Milton sought to secure perpetuity. Not
content with being the poet of men, and with describing human passions
and ordinary events, he aspired to present the destiny of the whole
race of mankind, to tell the story of creation, and to reveal the
councils of heaven and hell. And he would raise this structure upon no
unstable base, but upon the sure foundation of the written word. It
would have been a thing incredible to Milton that the hold of the
Jewish Scriptures over the imagination of English men and women could
ever be weakened. This process, however, has already commenced. The
demonology of the poem has already, with educated readers, passed from
the region of fact into that of fiction. Not so universally, but with
a large number of readers, the angelology can be no more than what the
critics call machinery. And it requires a violent effort from any
of our day to accommodate their conceptions to the anthropomorphic
theology of _Paradise Lost_. Were the sapping process to continue at
the same rate for two more centuries, the possibility of epic illusion
would be lost to the whole scheme and economy of the poem. Milton
has taken a scheme of life for life itself. Had he, in the choice of
subject, remembered the principle of the Aristotelean Poetic (which
he otherwise highly prized), that men in action are the poet's proper
theme, he would have raised his imaginative fabric on a more permanent
foundation; upon the appetites, passions, and emotions of men, their
vices and virtues, their aims and ambitions, which are a far more
constant quantity than any theological system. This perhaps was what
Goethe meant, when he pronounced the subject of _Paradise Lost_, to be
"abominable, with a fair outside, but rotten inwardly."

Whatever fortune may be in store for _Paradise Lost_ in the time to
come, Milton's choice of subject was, at the time he wrote, the only
one which offered him the guarantees of reality, authenticity, and
divine truth, which he required. We need not therefore search the
annals of literature to find the poem which may have given the first
suggestion of the fall of man as a subject. This, however, has been
done by curious antiquaries, and a list of more than two dozen authors
has been made, from one or other of whom Milton may have taken either
the general idea or particular hints for single incidents. Milton,
without being a very wide reader, was likely to have seen the _Adamus
Exul_ of Grotius (1601), and he certainly had read Giles Fletcher's
_Christ's Victory and Triumph_ (1610). There are traces of verbal
reminiscence of Sylvester's translation of _Du Bartas_. But out of the
long catalogue of his predecessors there appear only three, who can
claim to have conceived the same theme with anything like the same
breadth, or on the same scale as Milton has done. These are the
so-called Caedmon, Andreini, and Vondel.

1. The anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem which passes under the name of
Caedmon has this one point of resemblance to the plot of _Paradise
Lost_, that in it the seduction of Eve is Satan's revenge for his
expulsion from heaven. As Francis Junius was much occupied upon this
poem of which he published the text in 1655, it is likely enough that
he should have talked of it with his friend Milton.

2. Voltaire related that Milton during his tour in Italy (1638) had
seen performed _L'Adamo_, a sacred drama by the Florentine Giovanni
Battista Andreini, and that he "took from that ridiculous trifle" the
hint of the "noblest product of human imagination." Though Voltaire
relates this as a matter of fact, it is doubtful if it be more than an
_on dit_ which he had picked up in London society. Voltaire could not
have seen Andreini's drama, for it is not at all a ridiculous trifle.
Though much of the dialogue is as insipid as dialogue in operettas
usually is, there is great invention in the plot, and animation in
the action. Andreini is incessantly offending against taste, and is
infected with the vice of the Marinists, the pursuit of _concetti_, or
far-fetched analogies between things unlike. His infernal personages
are grotesque and disgusting, rather than terrible; his scenes in
heaven childish--at once familiar and fantastic, in the style of the
Mysteries of the age before the drama. With all these faults the
_Adamo_ is a lively and spirited representation of the Hebrew legend,
and not unworthy to have been the antecedent of _Paradise Lost_. There
is no question of plagiarism, for the resemblance is not even that of
imitation or parentage, or adoption. The utmost that can be conceded
is to concur in Hayley's opinion that, either in representation or in
perusal, the _Adamo_ of Andreini had made an impression on the mind of
Milton; had, as Voltaire says, revealed to him the hidden majesty of
the subject. There had been at least three editions of the _Adamo_ by
1641, and Milton may have brought one of these with him, among the
books which he had shipped from Venice, even, if he had not seen the
drama on the Italian stage, or had not, as Todd suggests, met Andreini
in person.

So much appears to me to be certain from the internal evidence of the
two compositions as they stand. But there are further some slight
corroborative circumstances, (i.) The Trinity College sketch, so often
referred to, of Milton's scheme when it was intended to be dramatic,
keeps much more closely, both in its personages and in its ordering,
to Andreini. (ii.) In Phillips's _Theatrum Poetarum_, a compilation in
which he had his uncle's help, Andreini is mentioned as author "of
a fantastic poem entitled Olivastro, which was printed at Bologna,
1642." If Andreini was known to Edward Phillips, the inference is that
he was known to Milton.

3. Lastly, though external evidence is here wanting, it cannot be
doubted that Milton was acquainted with the _Lucifer_ of the Dutch
poet, Joost van den Vondel, which appeared in 1654. This poem is a
regular five-act drama in the Dutch language, a language which Milton
was able to read. In spite of commercial rivalry and naval war there
was much intercourse between the two republics, and Amsterdam books
came in regular course to London. The Dutch drama turns entirely on
the revolt of the angels, and their expulsion from heaven, the fall of
man being but a subordinate incident. In _Paradise Lost_ the relation
of the two events is inverted, the fall of the angels being there an
episode, not transacted, but told by one of the personages of the
epic. It is therefore only in one book of _Paradise Lost_, the sixth,
that the influence of Vondel can be looked for. There may possibly
occur in other parts of our epic single lines of which an original may
be found in Vondel's drama. Notably such a one is the often-quoted--

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
_Paradise Lost_, i. 263.

which is Vondel's--

En liever d'eerste Vorst in eenigh lager hof
Dan in't gezalight licht de tweede, of noch een minder!

But it is in the sixth book only in which anything more than a verbal
similarity is traceable. According to Mr. Gosse, who has given an
analysis, with some translated extracts, of Vondel's _Lucifer_, the
resemblances are too close and too numerous to be mere coincidences.
Vondel is more human than Milton, just where human attributes are
unnatural, so that heaven is made to seem like earth, while in
_Paradise Lost_ we always feel that we are in a region aloft. Miltonic
presentation has a dignity and elevation, which is not only wanting
but is sadly missed in the Dutch drama, even the language of which
seems common and familiar.

The poems now mentioned form, taken together, the antecedents of
_Paradise Lost_. In no one instance, taken singly, is the relation of
Milton to a predecessor that of imitation, not even to the extent
in which the Aeneid, for instance, is an imitation of the Iliad and
Odyssey. The originality of Milton lies not in his subject, but in his
manner; not in his thoughts, but in his mode of thinking. His story
and his personages, their acts and words, had been the common property
of all poets since the fall of the Roman Empire. Not only the three
I have specially named had boldly attempted to set forth a mythical
representation of the origin of evil, but many others had fluttered
round the same central object of poetic attraction. Many of these
productions Milton had read, and they had made their due impression on
his mind according to their degree of force. When he began to compose
_Paradise Lost_ he had the reading of a life-time behind him. His
imagination worked upon an accumulated store, to which books,
observation, and reflection had contributed in equal proportions. He
drew upon this store without conscious distinction of its sources. Not
that this was a recollected material, to which the poet had recourse
whenever invention failed him; it was identified with himself. His
verse flowed from his own soul, but his was a soul which had grown
up nourished with the spoil of all the ages. He created his epic, as
metaphysicians have said that God created the world, by drawing it out
of himself, not by building it up out of elements supplied _ab extra_.

The resemblances to earlier poets, Greek, Latin, Italian, which could
be pointed out in _Paradise Lost_, were so numerous that in 1695, only
twenty-one years after Milton's death, an editor, one Patrick Hume, a
schoolmaster in the neighbourhood of London, was employed by Tonson
to point out the imitations in an annotated edition. From that time
downwards, the diligence of our literary antiquaries has been busily
employed in the same track of research, and it has been extended to
the English poets, a field which was overlooked, or not known to the
first collector. The result is a valuable accumulation of parallel
passages, which have been swept up into our _variorum_ Miltons, and
make _Paradise Lost_, for English phraseology, what Virgil was for
Latin in the middle ages, the centre round which the study moves. The
learner, who desires to cultivate his feeling for the fine shades
and variations of expression, has here a rich opportunity, and will
acknowledge with gratitude the laborious services of Newton, Pearce,
the Wartons, Todd, Mitford, and other compilers. But these heaped-up
citations of parallel passages somewhat tend to hide from us the
secret of Miltonic language. We are apt to think that the magical
effect of Milton's words has been produced by painfully inlaying
tesserae of borrowed metaphor--a mosaic of bits culled from extensive
reading, carried along by a retentive memory, and pieced together
so as to produce a new whole, with the exquisite art of a Japanese
cabinet-maker. It is sometimes admitted that Milton was a plagiary,
but it is urged in extenuation that his plagiarisms were always
reproduced in finer forms.

It is not in the spirit of vindicating Milton, but as touching the
mystery of metrical language, that I dwell a few moments upon this
misconception. It is true that Milton has a way of making his own even
what he borrows. While Horace's thefts from Alcaeus or Pindar are
palpable, even from the care which he takes to Latinise them, Milton
cannot help transfusing his own nature into the words he adopts. But
this is far from all. When Milton's widow was asked "if he did not
often read Homer and Virgil, she understood it as an imputation upon
him for stealing from those authors, and answered with eagerness, that
he stole from nobody but the muse who inspired him." This is more
true than she knew. It is true there are many phrases or images in
_Paradise Lost_ taken from earlier writers--taken, not stolen, for the
borrowing is done openly. When Adam, for instance, begs Raphael to
prolong his discourse deep into night,--

Sleep, listening to thee, will watch;
Or we can bid his absence, till thy song
End, and dismiss thee ere the morning shine;

we cannot be mistaken, in saying that we have here a conscious
reminiscence of the words of Alcinous to Ulysses in the eleventh book
of the Odyssey. Such imitation is on the surface, and does not touch
the core of that mysterious combination of traditive with original
elements in diction, which Milton and Virgil, alone of poets known to
us, have effected. Here and there, many times, in detached
places, Milton has consciously imitated. But, beyond this obvious
indebtedness, there runs through the whole texture of his verse a
suggestion of secondary meaning, a meaning which has been accreted to
the words, by their passage down the consecrated stream of classical
poetry. Milton quotes very little for a man of much reading. He says
of himself (_Judgment of Bucer_) that he "never could delight in long
citations, much less in whole traductions, whether it be natural
disposition or education in me, or that my mother bore me a speaker of
what God made mine own, and not a translator." And the observation
is as old as Bishop Newton, that "there is scarce any author who has
written so much, and upon such various subjects, and yet quotes so
little from his contemporary authors." It is said that "he could repeat
Homer almost all without book." But we know that common minds are
apt to explain to themselves the working of mental superiority, by
exaggerating the power of memory. Milton's own writings remain
a sufficient evidence that his was not a verbal memory. And,
psychologically, the power of imagination and the power of verbal
memory, are almost always found in inverse proportion.

Milton's diction is the elaborated outcome of all the best words of
all antecedent poetry, not by a process of recollected reading and
storage, but by the same mental habit by which we learn to speak our
mother tongue. Only, in the case of the poet, the vocabulary acquired
has a new meaning superadded to the words, from the occasion on which
they have been previously employed by others. Words, over and above
their dictionary signification, connote all the feeling which has
gathered round them by reason of their employment through a hundred
generations of song. In the words of Mr. Myers, "without ceasing to be
a logical step in the argument, a phrase becomes a centre of
emotional force. The complex associations which it evokes, modify
the associations evoked by other words in the same passage, in a way
distinct from logical or grammatical connection." The poet suggests
much more than he says, or as Milton himself has phrased it, "more is
meant than meets the ear."

For the purposes of poetry a thought is the representative of many
feelings, and a word is the representative of many thoughts. A single
word may thus set in motion in us the vibration of a feeling first
consigned to letters 3000 years ago. For oratory words should be
winged, that they may do their work of persuasion. For poetry words
should be freighted, with associations of feeling, that they may
awaken sympathy. It is the suggestive power of words that the poet
cares for, rather than their current denotation. How laughable are the
attempts of the commentators to interpret a line in Virgil as they
would a sentence in Aristotle's _Physics!_ Milton's secret lies in
his mastery over the rich treasure of this inherited vocabulary. He
wielded it as his own, as a second mother-tongue, the native and
habitual idiom of his thought and feeling, backed by a massive frame
of character, and "a power which is got within me to a passion."

When Wordsworth came forward at the end of the eighteenth century with
his famous reform of the language of English poetry, the Miltonic
diction was the current coin paid out by every versifier. Wordsworth
revolted against this dialect as unmeaning, hollow, gaudy, and
inane. His reform consisted in dropping the consecrated phraseology
altogether, and reverting to the common language of ordinary life.
It was necessary to do this in order to reconnect poetry with the
sympathies of men, and make it again a true utterance instead of the
ingenious exercise in putting together words, which it had become.
In projecting this abandonment of the received tradition, it may
be thought that Wordsworth was condemning the Miltonic system of
expression in itself. But this was not so. Milton's language had
become in the hands of the imitators of the eighteenth century sound
without sense, a husk without the kernel, a body of words without the
soul of poetry. Milton had created and wielded an instrument which was
beyond the control of any less than himself. He used it as a living
language; the poetasters of the eighteenth century wrote it as a dead
language, as boys make Latin verses. Their poetry is to _Paradise
Lost_, as a modern Gothic restoration is to a genuine middle-age
church. It was against the feeble race of imitators, and not against
the master himself, that the protest of the lake poet was raised.
He proposed to do away with the Miltonic vocabulary altogether, not
because it was in itself vicious, but because it could now only be


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