Mark Pattison

Part 4 out of 4

employed at secondhand.

One drawback there was attendant upon the style chosen by Milton, viz.
that it narrowly limited the circle of his readers. All words are
addressed to those who understand them. The Welsh triads are not for
those who have not learnt Welsh; an English poem is only for those
who understand English. But of understanding English there are many
degrees; it requires some education to understand literary style at
all. A large majority of the natives of any country possess, and use,
only a small fraction of their mother tongue. These people may be left
out of the discussion. Confining ourselves only to that small part of
our millions which we speak of as the educated classes, that is those
whose schooling is carried on beyond fourteen years of age, it will
be found that only a small fraction of the men, and a still smaller
fraction of the women, fully apprehend the meaning of words. This is
the case with what is written in the ordinary language of books.
When we pass from a style in which words have only their simple
signification, to a style of which the effect depends on the
suggestion of collateral association, we leave behind the majority
even of these few. This is what is meant by the standing charge
against Milton that he is too learned.

It is no paradox to say that Milton was not a learned man. Such men
there were in his day, Usher, Selden, Voss, in England; in Holland,
Milton's adversary Salmasius, and many more. A learned man was one
who could range freely and surely over the whole of classical and
patristic remains in the Greek and Latin languages (at least), with
the accumulated stores of philological, chronological, historical
criticism, necessary for the interpretation of those remains. Milton
had neither made these acquisitions, nor aimed at them. He even
expresses himself, in his vehement way, with contempt of them.
"Hollow antiquities sold by the seeming bulk," "marginal stuffings,"
"horse-loads of citations and fathers," are some of his petulant
outbursts against the learning that had been played upon his position
by his adversaries. He says expressly that he had "not read the
Councils, save here and there" (_Smectymnuus_). His own practice had
been "industrious and select reading." He chose to make himself a
scholar rather than a learned man. The aim of his studies was to
improve faculty, not to acquire knowledge. "Who would be a poet must
himself be a true poem;" his heart should "contain of just, wise,
good, the perfect shape." He devoted himself to self-preparation with
the assiduity of Petrarch or of Goethe, "In wearisome labour and
studious watchings I have tired out almost a whole youth." "Labour and
intense study I take to be my portion in this life." He would know,
not all, but "what was of use to know," and form himself by assiduous
culture. The first Englishman to whom the designation of our series,
_Men of Letters_, is appropriate, Milton was also the noblest example
of the type. He cultivated, not letters, but himself, and sought to
enter into possession of his own mental kingdom, not that he might
reign there, but that he might royally use its resources in building
up a work, which should bring honour to his country and his native

The style of _Paradise Lost_ is then only the natural expression of
a soul thus exquisitely nourished upon the best thoughts and finest
words of all ages. It is the language of one who lives in the
companionship of the great and the wise of past time. It is inevitable
that when such a one speaks, his tones, his accent, the melodies of
his rhythm, the inner harmonies of his linked thoughts, the grace of
his allusive touch, should escape the common ear. To follow Milton one
should at least have tasted the same training through which he put
himself. "Te quoque dignum finge deo." The many cannot see it, and
complain that the poet is too learned. They would have Milton talk
like Bunyan or William Cobbett, whom they understand. Milton did
attempt the demagogue in his pamphlets, only with the result of
blemishing his fame and degrading his genius. The best poetry is that
which calls upon us to rise to it, not that which writes down to us.

Milton knew that his was not the road to popularity. He thirsted for
renown, but he did not confound renown with vogue. A poet has his
choice between the many and the few; Milton chose the few. "Paucis
hujusmodi lectoribus contentus," is his own inscription in a copy
of his pamphlets sent by him to Patrick Young. He derived a stern
satisfaction from the reprobation with which the vulgar visited him.
His divorce tracts were addressed to men who dared to think, and ran
the town "numbering good intellects." His poems he wished laid up
in the Bodleian Library, "where the jabber of common people cannot
penetrate, and whence the base throng of readers keep aloof" (_Ode
to Rouse_). If Milton resembled a Roman republican in the severe and
stoic elevation of his character, he also shared the aristocratic
intellectualism of the classical type. He is in marked contrast to the
levelling hatred of excellence, the Christian trades-unionism of the
model Catholic of the mould of S. Francois de Sales whose maxim
of life is "marchons avec la troupe de nos freres et compagnons,
doucement, paisiblement, et amiablement." To Milton the people are--

But a herd confus'd,
A miscellaneous rabble, who extol
Things vulgar.

_Paradise Regained_, iii. 49.

At times his indignation carries him past the courtesies of
equal speech, to pour out the vials of prophetic rebuke, when he
contemplates the hopeless struggle of those who are the salt of the
earth, "amidst the throng and noises of vulgar and irrational men"
(_Tenure of Kings_), and he rates them to their face as "owls and
cuckoos, asses, apes, and dogs" (_Sonnet_ xii.); not because they will
not listen to him, but "because they "hate learning more than toad or
asp" (_Sonnet_ ix.).

Milton's attitude must be distinguished from patrician pride, or the
_noli-me-tangere_ of social exclusiveness. Nor, again, was it, like
Callimachus's, the fastidious repulsion of a delicate taste for the
hackneyed in literary expression; it was the lofty disdain of aspiring
virtue for the sordid and ignoble.

Various ingredients, constitutional or circumstantial, concurred
to produce this repellent or unsympathetic attitude in Milton.
His dogmatic Calvinism, from the effects of which his mind never
recovered--a system which easily disposes to a cynical abasement of
our fellow-men--counted for something. Something must be set down to
habitual converse with the classics--a converse which tends to impart
to character, as Platner said of Godfrey Hermann, "a certain grandeur
and generosity, removed from the spirit of cabal and mean cunning
which prevail among men of the world." His blindness threw him out of
the competition of life, and back upon himself, in a way which was
sure to foster egotism. These were constitutional elements of that
aloofness from men which characterised all his utterance. These
disposing causes became inexorable fate, when, by the turn of the
political wheel of fortune, he found himself alone amid the mindless
dissipation and reckless materialism of the Restoration. He felt
himself then at war with human society as constituted around him, and
was thus driven to withdraw himself within a poetic world of his own

In this antagonism of the poet to his age much was lost; much energy
was consumed in what was mere friction. The artist is then most
powerful when he finds himself in accord with the age he lives in. The
plenitude of art is only reached when it marches with the sentiments
which possess a community. The defiant attitude easily slides into
paradox, and the mind falls in love with its own wilfulness. The
exceptional emergence of Milton's three poems, _Paradise Lost,
Regained_, and _Samson_, deeply colours their context. The greatest
achievements of art--in their kinds have been the capital specimens of
a large crop; as the _Iliad_ and _Odyssey_ are the picked lines out of
many rhapsodies, and Shakespeare the king of an army of contemporary
dramatists. Milton was a survival, felt himself such, and resented it.

....Though Fall'n on evil days,
On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compass'd round,
And solitude.

_Paradise Lost_, vii. 24.

Poetry thus generated we should naturally expect to meet with more
admiration than sympathy. And such, on the whole, has been Milton's
reception. In 1678, twenty years after the publication of _Paradise
Lost_, Prior spoke of him (_Hind transversed_) as "a rough, unhewn
fellow, that a man must sweat to read him," And in 1842, Hallam had
doubts "if _Paradise Lost_, published eleven years since, would have
met with a greater demand" than it did at first. It has been much
disputed by historians of our literature what inference is to be drawn
from the numbers sold of _Paradise Lost_ at its first publication.
Between 1667 and 1678, a space of twenty years, three editions had
been printed, making together some 4500 copies. Was this a large or a
small circulation? Opinions are at variance on the point. Johnson and
Hallam thought it a large sale, as books went at that time. Campbell,
and the majority of our annalists of books, have considered it as
evidence of neglect. Comparison with what is known of other cases of
circulation leads to no more certain conclusion. On the one hand, the
public could not take more than three editions--say 3000 copies--of
the plays of Shakespeare in sixty years, from 1623 to 1684. If this
were a fair measure of possible circulation at the time, we should
have to pronounce Milton's sale a great success. On the other hand,
Cleveland's poems ran through sixteen or seventeen editions in about
thirty years. If this were the average output of a popular book, the
inference would be that _Paradise Lost_ was not such a book.

Whatever conclusion may be the true one from the amount of the public
demand, we cannot be wrong in asserting that from the first, and now
as then, _Paradise Lost_ has been more admired than read. The poet's
wish and expectation that he should find "fit audience, though few,"
has been fulfilled. Partly this has been due to his limitation, his
unsympathetic disposition, the deficiency of the human element in his
imagination, and his presentation of mythical instead of real beings.
But it is also in part a tribute to his excellence, and is to be
ascribed to the lofty strain which requires more effort to accompany,
than an average reader is able to make, a majestic demeanour which no
parodist has been able to degrade, and a wealth of allusion demanding
more literature than is possessed by any but the few whose life is
lived with the poets. An appreciation of Milton is the last reward of
consummated scholarship; and we may apply to him what Quintilian has
said of Cicero, "Ille se profecisse sciat, cui Cicero valde placebit."

Causes other than the inherent faults of the poem long continued to
weigh down the reputation of _Paradise Lost_. In Great Britain the
sense for art, poetry, literature, is confined to a few, while our
political life has been diffused and vigorous. Hence all judgment,
even upon a poet, is biassed by considerations of party. Before 1688
it was impossible that the poet, who had justified regicide, could
have any public beyond the suppressed and crouching Nonconformists.
The Revolution of 1688 removed this ban, and from that date forward
the Liberal party in England adopted Milton as the republican poet.
William Hogg, writing in 1690, says of _Paradise Lost_ that "the fame
of the poem is spread through the whole of England, but being written
in English, it is as yet unknown in foreign lands." This is obvious
exaggeration. Lauder, about 1748, gives the date exactly, when he
speaks of "that infinite tribute of veneration that has been paid to
him _these sixty years past_." One distinguished exception there was.
Dryden, royalist and Catholic though he was, was loyal to his art.
Nothing which Dryden ever wrote is so creditable to his taste, as his
being able to see, and daring to confess, in the day of disesteem,
that the regicide poet alone deserved the honour which his
cotemporaries were for rendering to himself. Dryden's saying; "This
man cuts us all out, and the ancients too," is not perfectly well
vouched, but it would hardly have been invented, if it had not been
known to express his sentiments. And Dryden's sense of Milton's
greatness grew with his taste. When, in the preface to his _State of
Innocence_ (1674), Dryden praised _Paradise Lost_, he "knew not half
the extent of its excellence," John Dennis says, "as more than twenty
years afterwards he confessed to me." Had he known it, he never could
have produced his vulgar parody, _The State of Innocence_, a piece
upon which he received the compliments of his cotemporaries, as
"having refined the ore of Milton."

With the one exception of Dryden, a better critic than poet, Milton's
repute was the work of the Whigs. The first _edition de luxe_ of
_Paradise Lost_ (1688) was brought out by a subscription got up by the
"Whig leader, Lord Somers. In this edition Dryden's pinchbeck epigram
so often quoted, first appeared--

Three poets in three distant ages born, &c.

It was the Whig essayist, Addison, whose papers in the _Spectator_
(1712) did most to make the poem popularly known. In 1737, in
the height of the Whig ascendancy, the bust of Milton penetrated
Westminster Abbey, though, in the generation before, the Dean of that
day had refused to admit an inscription on the monument erected to
John Phillips, because the name of Milton occurred in it.

The zeal of the Liberal party in the propagation of the cult of Milton
was of course encountered by an equal passion on the part of the Tory
opposition. They were exasperated by the lustre which was reflected
upon Revolution principles by the name of Milton. About the middle of
the eighteenth century, when Whig popularity was already beginning to
wane, a desperate attempt was made by a rising Tory pamphleteer to
crush the new Liberal idol. Dr. Johnson, the most vigorous writer
of the day, conspired with one William Lauder, a native of Scotland
seeking fortune in London, to stamp out Milton's credit by proving him
to be a wholesale plagiarist. Milton's imitations--he had gathered
pearls wherever they were to be found--were thus to be turned into an
indictment against him. One of the beauties of _Paradise Lost_ is, as
has been already said, the scholar's flavour of literary reminiscence
which hangs about its words and images. This Virgilian art, in which
Milton has surpassed his master, was represented by this pair of
literary bandits as theft, and held to prove at once moral obliquity
and intellectual feebleness. This line of criticism was well chosen;
It was, in fact, an appeal to the many from the few. Unluckily for the
plot, Lauder was not satisfied with the amount of resemblance shown
by real parallel passages. He ventured upon the bold step of forging
verses, closely resembling lines in _Paradise Lost_, and ascribing
these verses to older poets. He even forged verses which he quoted as
if from _Paradise Lost_, and showed them as Milton's plagiarisms
from preceding writers. Even these clumsy fictions might have passed
without detection at that uncritical period of our literature,
and under the shelter of the name of Samuel Johnson. But Lauder's
impudence grew with the success of his criticisms, which he brought
out as letters, through a series of years, in the _Gentleman's
Magazine_. There was a translation of _Paradise Lost_ into Latin
hexameters, which had been made in 1690 by William Hogg. Lander
inserted lines, taken from this translation, into passages taken from
Massenius, Staphorstius, Taubmannus, neo-Latin poets, whom Milton had,
or might have read, and presented these passages as thefts by Milton.

Low as learning had sunk in England in 1750, Hogg's Latin _Paradisus
amissus_ was just the book, which tutors of colleges who could teach
Latin verses had often in their hands. Mr. Bowle, a tutor of Oriel
College, Oxford, immediately recognised an old acquaintance in one
or two of the interpolated lines. This put him upon the scent, he
submitted Lauder's passages to a closer investigation, and the whole
fraud was exposed. Johnson, who was not concerned in the cheat, and
was only guilty of indolence and party spirit, saved himself by
sacrificing his comrade. He afterwards took ample revenge for the
mortification of this exposure, in his _Lives of the Poets_, in which
he employed all his vigorous powers and consummate skill to write down
Milton. He undoubtedly dealt a heavy blow at the poet's reputation,
and succeeded in damaging it for at least two generations of readers.
He did for Milton what Aristophanes did for Socrates, effaced the real
man and replaced him by a distorted and degrading caricature.

It was again a clergyman to whom Milton owed his vindication from
Lauder's onslaught. John Douglas, afterwards bishop of Salisbury,
brought Bowle's materials before the public. But the high Anglican
section of English life has never thoroughly accepted Milton. R.S.
Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, himself a poet of real feeling, gave
expression, in rabid abuse of Milton, to the antipathy which more
judicious churchmen suppress. Even the calm and gentle author of
the _Christian Year_, wide heart ill-sorted with a narrow creed,
deliberately framed a theory of Poetic for the express purpose, as it
would seem, of excluding the author of _Paradise Lost_ from the first
class of poets.

But a work such as Milton has constructed, at once intense and
elaborate, firmly knit and broadly laid, can afford to wait. Time
is all in its favour, and against its detractors. The Church never
forgives, and faction does not die out. But Milton has been, for two
centuries, getting beyond the reach of party feeling, whether of
friends or foes. In each national aggregate an instinct is always at
work, an instinct not equal to exact discrimination of lesser degrees
of merit, but surely finding out the chief forces which have found
expression in the native tongue. This instinct is not an active
faculty, and so exposed to the influences which warp the will, it is
a passive deposition from unconscious impression. Our appreciation of
our poet is not to be measured by our choosing him for our favourite
closet companion, or reading him often. As Voltaire wittily said of
Dante, "Sa reputation s'affirmera toujours, parce qu'on ne le lit
guere." We shall prefer to read the fashionable novelist of each
season as it passes, but we shall choose to be represented at the
international congress of world poets by Shakespeare and Milton;
Shakespeare first, and next MILTON.


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