Page images
PDF
EPUB

ju

that, in contrast to the one with which our chapter opens, mirrors the difference between the twentieth- and the eighteenth-century attitude towards Milton.

Not, of course, that every one thought his epic "the greatest poem in the world." Some modestly claimed for it only a preeminence among English works. Gilbert Burnet, for example, who was entirely out of sympathy with Milton's political activities, qualified his statement that Paradise Lost "was esteemed the beautifulest and perfectest poem that ever was writ" by adding, "at least in our language." And such seems to have been the general opinion. The Spectator papers, it will be remembered, make no attempt to prove Milton's primacy among British bards; they assume it at the outset in the words, "As the first place among our English poets is due to Milton." So, also, does the Lay-Monastery, when it speaks casually of "our great Milton, whose Poem, which is justly now acknowledg'd to be the most admirable Production of British Genius." " Expressions to the same purport, which are to be met with constantly throughout the century and seem to have been rarely questioned, are the more important because it is generally thought to-day that Pope and Dryden were at this time regarded as the greatest English poets. The Edinburgh Review was nearer the truth when it declared in 1808, "That he [Pope] is not of the class of Milton and Shakespeare is indisputable; and, notwithstanding the two volumes,

1 History of my Own Time (ed. O. Airy, Oxford, 1897), i. 284. This part of the History was written about 1700 (ib. pp. xxvii, xxxi n.). In Jure Divino (1706, book vii, p. 14 n.) Defoe praised the 'Masterly Genius' displayed in Paradise Lost, and wrote, Milton's Pandemonium, is allow'd to be the deepest laid Thought, most capacious and extensive that ever appear'd in print." Defoe may have come to know Paradise Lost at the dissenting academy he attended four or five years.

[ocr errors]

2 No. 262.

3 No. xxxii, Jan. 27, 1713. Observe that the writer speaks as if Milton had written but one poem. So, too, does William Sewell, in the first version of his Life of Philips (1712), p. 3.

Cf. Henry Pemberton's Observations on Poetry (1738, p. 80), where Milton is termed "our greatest poet"; the Muse's Complaint (by “C,” in Scots Mag., 1742, iv. 166), which speaks of him as "chief of modern bards"; Charles Graham's Eulogium (Universal Mag., 1785, lxxvii. 98), which declares, “No poet since has equal'd him in song"; the "List of Dramatic Poets" appended to Thomas Whincop's Scanderbeg (1747), where Paradise Lost is called "the finest Piece in the English Language" (noted by Good, pp. 127-8); Catharine Macaulay's Modest Plea for Copy Right (1774, p. 23), where it is described as "a Poem, whose merit is of such magnitude, that it is impossible for a genius inferior to his own to do it justice” (Good, pp. 255–6); and the preface to Samuel Woodford's Paraphrase upon the Canticles (1679), where Dryden's praise, "one of the greatest . . . Poems . . . this Age. has produced," is repeated, and Woodford adds that if the work had been rimed "it had been so absolute a piece, that in spight of whatever the World Heathen, or Christian hitherto has seen, it must have remain'd as the standard to all succeeding Poets."

in which Dr. Warton thought it necessary to prove this truism, we doubt whether any critic, even during the flattery of his own age, ever thought of placing him so high." 1

What, then, did the Augustans, 'during the flattery of their age,' think as to the relative merits of Waller,2 Dryden, Pope, Shakespeare, and Milton? In view of the complacency of the neo-classicists, and of the apparent narrowness of esthetic sympathy shown in their remarks about the roughness of English verse before "Mr. Waller refined our numbers," this would seem to be an easy question to answer. Surely the masters of the couplet had little admiration

1 2d ed., xi. 409. Cf. John Duncombe's ode to the Earl of Corke (see above, p. 8, n. 6), where “matchless Milton” is "foremost in the Lists of Fame,” though Pope will long "the Muse's Annals grace." "We still prefer the extravagant beauties of Shakespeare and Milton to the cold and well-disciplined merit of Addison and . . . Pope," remarked Horace Walpole (letter to Élie de Beaumont, March 18, 1765). Even Johnson thought that in the proposed erection of monuments in St. Paul's cathedral Milton's "should have the precedence" over Pope's: "There is more thinking in him and in Butler," he adds, "than in any of our poets" (Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, ii. 239). Blair, in his Lectures on Rhetoric, which were published in 1783 but written much earlier, grants only that "within a certain limited region, he [Pope] has been outdone by no Poet" (ii. 369); and William Belsham writes (Essays, 2d ed., 1799, ii. 506), “Though the warmest admirers of Pope have never exalted him to the rank of the greatest poet, he has often been stiled the best versifier in the English language." Belsham allows him to be "the most polished and correct versifier," but not the one "affording the highest degree of delight," since he "does not sufficiently conceal his art." Expressions like that of Lord Middlesex in his poem to Pope (Chalmers's English Poets, xii. 135), "Like Milton, then, though in more polish'd strains," or that of A. Betson, who calls Pope "the most perfect Poet we ever had in this Nation" (Miscellaneous Dissertations, 1751, p. 86, and cf. pp. 88-91), are apt to be misleading. They do not imply that Pope is the greatest of English poets, but that he is the most regular, the one freest from faults. There were few leading neo-classicists who did not realize that something more than this negative virtue was needed for great poetry.

The question "Whether Milton and Waller were not the best English Poets? and which the better of the two?" was answered in the Athenian Mercury for January 16, 1691/2, as follows: "Milton was the fullest and loftiest, Waller the neatest and most correct Poet we ever had. . . . Mr. Waller, tho' a full and noble Writer, yet comes not up in our Judgments to that, Mens divinior atque os Magna Sonaturum, as Horace calls it, which Milton has, and wherein we think he was never equalled." When a similar question was raised in the British A pollo for 1708 (vol. 1, no. 25), that oracle gave high praise to Waller, but declared,

Millon do's to Nobler Flights aspire,

With Virgil's Beauty and with Homer's Fire.
In Every Image, TRUE SUBLIME, appears,
And Every Thought, The Stamp of Phoebus wears.
Sprung from the God, Divine are all his Lays,

And claim by true Desert, the Never DYING BAYS.

William Coward, in his Licentia Poetica (1709), discusses "Homer, Horace, Virgil, Milton, Waller, Cowley, Dryden, etc." as "the principal antient and modern Poets." Cf. Addison's Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694); A. Betson's Miscellaneous Dissertations (1751), 86-90; Defoe's remark quoted on p. 15 below; and the passage from Collins, p. 454 below.

for poetry in every way so unlike their own as was the blank-verse Puritan epic. Yet we have seen the dangers of a priori arguments as to what the eighteenth century must have thought, and we remember Addison's Spectator papers, and Dryden's famous distichs, which begin,

Three poets, in three distant ages born.

Indeed, if we are familiar with Dryden, we recall his visit to the blind poet and his dramatization of the epic, which he praised cordially, terming it "one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced."1 His friend Nathaniel Lee boldly adapted the following lines from the same poem within thirteen years of its publication:

They've blown us up with Wild fire in the Air . . .
Caps, Hats and Cardinals Coats, and Cowls and Hoods
Are tost about the sport the sport of winds
Indulgences, Dispences, Pardons, Bulls, see yonder!
Preist, they fly—they're whirl'd aloft. They fly,
They fly o'er the backside o' th' World,

Into a Limbo large, and broad, since call'd the Paradise
Of Fools.2

Nor was Addison's praise limited to his celebrated critique. As early as 1694, in his Account of the Greatest English Poets, he devoted thirty lines to Milton, and later imitated two of his poems; he had much to say about Paradise Lost in his Discourse on Ancient and Modern Learning, in the Tatler, and in the Spectator before and after the publication of his formal criticism; he commended Allegro in the Spectator, and agreed with a friend that of all masques Comus was "the best ever written." What makes his extended examination of the poem particularly significant in the present connection is the fact that it was written by the leading neo-classic critic of the time and was addressed to the neo-classicists. Addison succeeded in proving to his contemporaries that Paradise Lost was a correct poem according to Augustan standards, that it conformed to the laws laid done w for the epic and lost nothing by comparison with Homer and Virgil. Thanks to the popularity of the Spectator and to his own reputation, his papers had a strong influence; they were questioned only by the

1 Works (Scott-Saintsbury ed.), v. 112. See also v. 116, 124; xi. 162, 209-10; xii. 300-301; xiii. 17, 18-20, 30, 38, 39, 117; xiv. 143-4, 201-2 (“I dare not condemn so great a genius as Milton"), 214-15.

2 Caesar Borgia (1680), near the end of the last scene; cf. P. L., iii. 487–96. Mr. G. L. Kittredge called my attention to this very early and striking borrowing.

3 See pp. 104-5, 422, below.

See p. 422 below.

more romantic admirers of Milton, and seem to have been universally accepted as defining the classical attitude towards England's greatest classic poet.

It was not, however, to the Spectator that the other leading writers of the time owed their first acquaintance with Paradise Lost. Gay's humorous imitation of it, Wine, appeared four years before Addi son's critique,' while Defoe, Prior, Pope, and Swift each gave evidence of a knowledge of the epic before 1709. The biting satire and the distrust of things grand and romantic which one associates with Swift make him almost the last person from whom to expect praise of a lofty and imaginative poem in blank verse; yet he not only declared himself "an admirer of Milton," but annotated an edition of Paradise Lost for the use of Stella and "Mrs." Dingley, and in his writings showed familiarity with the entire work. After the Dean himself, the Augustan writer who would seem to have been least likely to appreciate the epic is Daniel Defoe. Yet so early as 1706 Defoe had composed three poems in a verse roughly modelled upon that of Paradise Lost, and had asked, "Who can read Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Milton, Waller, or Rochester, without touching the Strings of his Soul, and finding a Unison of the most charming Influence there?" The company in which Milton is here placed, and the omission from it of Shakespeare, Dryden, and others, should not be overlooked. Pope's frank expressions of admiration and his less frank but more numerous borrowings form too large a subject for discussion here; suffice it to say that he appears to have been more widely acquainted with the complete body of Milton's poems than any other man of his time. As for "Mat" Prior, one would hardly expect to find his light, deft pen employed on the cathedral harmonies of blank verse except in the way of parody. Yet Prior took the unrimed measure very seriously; he imitated it four times, and in his translations of two lofty hymns of Callimachus with some success, while in the preface to his Solomon (1718) he attacked rime

1 Another blank-verse burlesque, Fanscomb Barn (1713), was composed by the neoclassic poetess Anne, Countess of Winchilsea. It cannot be maintained that these parodies argue a low estimate of Milton, for both were suggested by the similar pieces of John Philips, one of the most ardent admirers of Paradise Lost.

* See indices to the Bohn editions of his prose and poetry, and that to F. E. Ball's edition of the Correspondence (1910-14). Besides these eleven references, there is Swift's part in the Grub-Street Journal, in the Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus, and in the satirical commentary that accompanies The Dunciad, all of which contain allusions to Milton (see pp. 113 n. 2, 116, below).

Review of the State of the English Nation, vol. iii, no. 104. For the poems, see pp. 100-101 below.

4 See pp. 112-18, 573-83, below.

and declared Paradise Lost to be "one of the sublimest Pieces of Invention that was ever yet produced." 1

1

Much the same opinion was held by the Duke of Buckingham; for his Essay on Poetry, which Dryden and Pope repeatedly praised, ends with a description of the ideal poet, who

Must above TASSO's lofty flights prevail,

Succeed where SPENCER, and ev'n MILTON fail.❜

[ocr errors]

The Earl of Roscommon's Essay on Translated Verse, which the classicists held as a classic, contains a plea for blank verse, a tribute to Paradise Lost, and an imitation of it.3 Congreve mentions an "Immortal Song" which is "As Spencer sweet, as Milton strong." Lady Mary Montagu, with whom Pope flirted and quarrelled, attacked "the thraldom of monastic rhymes" and praised "the beauties of each living page" of Milton's poem." "The horrid Discord of jingling Rhyme" is also condemned in the celebrated Characteristics of the Earl of Shaftesbury, which strongly influenced Pope and many other writers of the time. Shaftesbury's praise of Paradise Lost is worth quoting. "Our most approv'd heroick Poem," he wrote in 1710, “has neither the Softness of Language, nor the fashionable Turn of Wit; but merely solid Thought, strong Reasoning, noble Passion, and a continu'd Thred of moral Doctrine, Piety, and Virtue to recommend it." Parnell, whose assistance on the Iliad Pope requited by editing his friend's posthumous works, wrote two poems on the model of Allegro and is said to have been "a careful student of Milton." Curiously enough, Pope's helpers on his Odyssey, William Broome and Elijah Fenton, who between them translated half the poem, were likewise Miltonians; for, besides using many words and phrases from Paradise Lost in the work they did for Pope, each made an unrimed version of at least one book of Homer, and in addition

1 See also pp. 59-60, 105, below.

2 This is the latest version; the two earlier forms show less appreciation of Milton. Chalmers (English Poels, x. 77–8) quotes Dryden's, Addison's, and Pope's praise of the Essay.

See p. 89 below.

A Pindarique Ode, humbly offer'd to the Queen (1706), in Works, 1710, iii. 1085 (Good, p. 61). In his Mourning Muse of Alexis (1695, ib. 836) there is a reference to "Comus Feast" (Good, p. 141).

• Court of Dulness, in Letters and Works (Bohn ed.), ii. 487-9; cf. Lines written in a Blank Page of P. L. (ib. 523).

• Characteristics (3d ed., 1723), i. 276; cf. i. 217-18, and iii. 263-4. To the first of these references my attention was called by C. A. Moore's illuminating paper, Shaftesbury and the Ethical Poets (Modern Lang. Assoc., Publications, xxxi. 264–325).

7 Dict. Nat. Biog.; and cf. the preface to his Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice (1717). For the poems, see p. 444 below.

« PreviousContinue »