Page images
PDF
EPUB

for the man whom he also called "my hero, and the guide of my paths." "Idolators" is the expression used by George Hardinge, who adds, "Few, if any, can out-idolize me."2 Among these "idolators" was Jonathan Richardson the painter, who devoted the "Beloved Retir'd Hours" of many years to the loving study and service of "One to Whom," he declared, "I am Infinitely Oblig'd." "I, even I," Richardson writes in his pleasant, garrulous way, "while a Youth ... happening to find the First Quarto [of what he elsewhere terms "the Best Poem in the World"] . . . was Dazzled with it, and from that Hour all the rest (Shakespear excepted) Faded in my Estimation, or Vanish'd." This recalls the experience of another idolater, Cowper, who "at so ripe an age As twice seven years ""danced for joy" over his discovery of Paradise Lost, a work which he too thought "the finest poem in the world" and the author of which he referred to as "this greatest of men, your idol and mine."

This exaggerated estimate was by no means so rare in the "age of reason" as might be expected. It is to be encountered as early as 1704, when the epic was characterized by a leading critic as "the greatest Poem that ever was written by Man," and as late as 1796, when it was described as "the noblest poem, perhaps, that ever the wit of man produced." Indeed, John Wesley mentions this as a common opinion. "Of all the Poems which have hitherto appeared in the World, in whatever Age or Nation," he writes, carefully weighing his words, "the Preference has generally been given, by impartial Judges, to Milton's Paradise Lost." Richard Bentley, who had little appreciation of the poem, unintentionally confirms this remark when he tries to explain how the work "could pass upon

1 Francis Blackburne, Memoirs of Hollis (1780), 74, 93, 112, and cf. 71, 620.

2 Miscellaneous Works (ed. J. Nichols, 1818), iii. 120. His idolatry was shown in his conduct; for in his first call upon the Swan of Lichfield he "abruptly, and à propos de rien, asked her had she ever heard Milton read? The Paradise Lost was produced, and opened at a venture; the judge jumped upon the table, and read some pages, not to her astonishment only, but to her profound admiration. . . As abruptly, her visitant closed the volume, descended from the table, made his bow, and without a word disappeared. . . . The next morning a pacquet was transmitted to Miss Seward, enclosing an elaborate critique on the English Homer" (Notes and Queries, 3d series, i. 26). • Explanatory Notes on P. L. (1734), pp. clxxix-clxxxi, cxviii-cxix. For full quotations and references, see pp. 161-2 below.

John Dennis, Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), 54. In the preface to the prose version of Paradise Lost (1745) it is characterized as "the finest Poem that ever was wrote."

* Life of Milton, prefixed to Samson Agonistes (Bell's British Theatre, 1797, vol. xxxiv), p. viii.

Extract from P. L. (1791), 3. James Paterson, in his Complete Commentary on P. L. (1744, p. i), starts with the assumption that it is "the prime Poem in the World."

[ocr errors]

the whole Nation for a perfect, absolute, faultless Composition: The best Pens in the Kingdom contending in its Praises, as eclipsing all modern Essays whatever; and rivaling, if not excelling, both HOMER and VIRGIL." Even Dr. Johnson, who disliked Milton's character, opposed blank verse, and ridiculed Lycidas and the sonnets, commended the epic as "a poem which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind.” 2 Goldsmith, too, though he shared many of Johnson's prejudices, had a hand in the preparation of a book which exhausts the vocabulary in praise of the English writer who "seems to have rivalled and excelled all other Epic poets." Paradise Lost, according to this treatise, is "wonderfully described, painted with such bold and noble strokes, and delivered in such nervous language. . . so original and noble in its plan and contrivance, and wrought up with such wonderful art," that "there is a nobleness and sublimity in the whole. . . . which transcends, perhaps, that of any other poem." 3 Still more emphatically Philip Neve declared the "genius" of Milton to be "above example, or comparison. . . . His subject, and his conduct of it, exalt him to a supreme rank with which all other poets compare but as a second class." 4

Sometimes no specific work is mentioned by an admirer, but Milton is invoked as the "supreme of Verse," 5 or characterized as "an Author of that Excellence of Genius and Learning, that none of any Age or Nation, I think, has excel'd him," or as "perhaps the greatest [genius] that ever appeared among men." Yet it was unquestion

1 Preface to his edition of Paradise Lost (1732).

2 Lives of the Poets (ed. Birkbeck Hill, Oxford, 1905), i. 170. Cf. Johnson's preface to Lauder's Essay on Milton's Use of the Moderns (1750): "Mankind... have endeavoured to compensate the error of their first neglect [of Paradise Lost], by lavish praises and boundless veneration. There seems to have arisen a contest, among men of genius and literature, who should most advance its honour, or best distinguish its beauties."

John Newbery's Art of Poetry on a New Plan (1762), ii. 318, 326. Similarly, Daniel Neal, in his History of the Puritans (1738, iv. 466–7), speaks of Milton's “incomparable Poem. . . in which he manifested such a wonderful Sublimeness of Thought, as, perhaps, was never exceeded in any Age or Nation in the World” (Good, pp. 122–3).

Cursory Remarks on English Poets (1789), 141. Later (p. 144) Neve calls Paradise Lost "the greatest work of human genius."

' Sneyd Davies, Rhapsody to Milton (w. 1740), in John Whaley's Collection of Poems (1745), 182. Cf. Song by Mr. T. (w. 1767), in J. Nichols's Collection (1780), viii. 135:

But let me with reverence kneel

O'er the grave of the greatest in verse.

• Charles Gildon's continuation of Langbaine's English Dramatick Poets (1699), 100; Richard Baron's preface to Milton's Eikonoklastes (1756), p. iv. Some of the other references to Milton in Gildon's works contain extravagant praise: see his Miscellaneous Letters and Essays (1694), 41–4 (“To Mr. T. S., in Vindication of Mr. Milton's Paradise

ably Paradise Lost that such writers had chiefly in mind; for the modern heresy of exalting the shorter poems at the expense of the longer was scarcely known in an age which, whatever its deficiencies, at least appreciated the solid things of literature. The contrary opinion is widely held, to be sure, owing to the attention given to the influence of the 1645 volume upon Gray, Collins, and their contemporaries; but it is quite unwarranted. Even lyric poets, who naturally made more use of the octosyllabics, sonnets, and other short pieces, were as whole-hearted in their admiration of the epic as they were unblushing in adopting its phraseology and diction. During the first forty years of the century, when praise was being lavished upon Paradise Lost, the shorter pieces were seldom mentioned, and at no time do they seem to have exerted an influence at all comparable to that of the epic. Evidence of every kind and from a great variety of sources points to the same conclusion, that from the boyhood of Pope to the death of Cowper the preeminence of Paradise Lost among the works of its author was never seriously questioned.

But, although the shorter pieces did not receive a tithe of the critical consideration or of the extravagant praise that was showered upon the epic, they were enthusiastically admired. Burke called

Lost"); Examen Miscellaneum (1702), pp. ii, iii, and first p. 51; Libertas Triumphans (1708), 6; Complete Art of Poetry (1718), i. 108, 268-9; and Laws of Poetry (1721), 34. See also John Duncombe's Ode to John, Earl of Corke (1757), in his Works of Horace, 1767, ii. 239 (Good, p. 82):

Though foremost in the Lists of Fame

We matchless Milton place.

1 The total number of poems which I have found to be significantly influenced by the minor pieces before 1742 is only 41, while in the same period 196 were affected by Paradise Lost. The largest number of poems influenced in any decade by any of the shorter pieces was 75 (those affected by the octosyllabics between 1780 and 1790). In this same period 100 poems showed the influence of the epic.

* This was pointed out in my Seventeenth Century Notices of Milton (Englische Studien, xl. 184-5), and has been proved in great detail by Mr. Good, who, indeed, goes too far in the opposite direction. The only exceptions I remember among the hundreds of references to the poems that have come to my attention are in a letter from Lord Monboddo to Sir George Baker, Oct. 2, 1782, and in the Bee for 1793 (xvi. 276), where Comus is preferred to Paradise Lost; in the letters of Miss Seward (see p. 501 below), where the best of Milton's sonnets are thought equal to anything he wrote; and in Goldsmith's Beauties of English Poesy (1767, i. 39), where we are told that "a very judicious critic" thought the octosyllabics gave "an higher idea of Milton's stile in poetry" than the epic did. It is interesting to know that Joseph Warton, a great admirer and imitator of the minor poems, arranged Milton's works in the order of their poetic excellence thus, Paradise Lost, Comus, Samson, Lycidas, Allegro, Penseroso (T. Warton's edition of the minor poems, 1785, p. 34); and that Ann Yearsley, the Bristol milkwoman, was "well acquainted" with the epic but ignorant of Milton's having written anything else (Mo. Rev., lxxiii. 218).

Penseroso "the finest poem in the English language";1 Cowper as a boy was "so charmed" with it and its companion piece that he "was never weary of them"; and Hugh Blair thought them "of all the English Poems in the Descriptive Style, the richest and most remarkable." It was these pieces that Gray had particularly in mind when he mentioned their author as "the best example of an exquisite ear" that he could produce. "If he had written nothing else," said another, apropos of the octosyllabics, he "has displayed such extensive powers of imagination, as would have given him a place among the foremost of the sons of Phoebus." A similar opinion had been expressed more than twenty years earlier: "His Juvenile Poems . . . are sufficient to have set him among the most Celebrated of the Poets, even of the Ancients themselves; his Mask and Lycidas are perhaps Superior to all in their Several Kinds . . . the Allegro and Penseroso are Exquisite Pictures." Nathan Drake went even farther: "L'Allegro ed Il Penseroso are the most exquisite and accurately descriptive poems in his own, or any other, language, and will probably for ever remain unrivalled." John Aikin said much the same, ranking the octosyllabics as "perhaps the most captivating pieces of the descriptive kind that all poetry affords"; while Christopher Smart, in speaking of Dryden's and Pope's odes for St. Cecilia's day, threw all "perhaps's" to the winds and affirmed, "Neither is there to be found two more finished pieces of Lyric Poetry in our Language, L'allegro and Il penseroso of Milton excepted, which are the finest in any." Miss Seward, who "lisped these companion poems "when only in her third year," and who often delighted herself by repeating Lycidas from memory, was "almost" of George Hardinge's opinion, that "the best of Milton's sonnets [are] equal to any thing he has written." 10 As she held that he had but one superior in the world, this is high praise for the

sonnets.

1 Letter to Matthew Smith, c. 1750, in Prior's Burke (5th ed., 1854), 35.

2 Letter to William Unwin, Jan. 17, 1782.

3 Lectures on Rhetoric (1783), ii. 375.

♦ Observations on English Metre (w. 1760-61), in Works, ed. Mitford, 1858, v. 233. "T. W.," in Old Maid, no. 12 (Jan. 31, 1756): Drake's Gleaner (1811), ii. 381.

• Richardson, Explanatory Notes (1734), pp. xv-xvi. The similar praise to be found in Toland's and Fenton's biographies of Milton, published in 1698 and 1725 respectively, is given on p. 424 below.

7 Literary Hours (3d ed., 1804), ii. 89.

8 Letters on English Poetry (2d ed., 1807), 124.

• Preface to his Ode for Musick on St. Cecilia's Day (c. 1755), reprinted in Poems (Reading, 1791), i. 39.

10 See E. V. Lucas, A Swan and her Friends (1907), 21; Miss Seward's Letters (Edin., 1811), i. 66; and p. 501 below.

But long before Miss Seward and her friends essayed the lyre, in fact while Dryden was still living, the juvenile poems had been declared "incomparable"; before 1728 Comus was called "the best [masque] ever written . . . in the Praise of which no Words can be too many"; as early as 1729 there were some who felt for Lycidas "the same Veneration, and Partiality, which is paid to the most accomplish'd Works of Antiquity," and in 1756 some who held it "one of the most poetical and moving elegies that ever was wrote."1 It will be clear later, when we see the great number of poems modelled upon the shorter pieces and the frequency with which phrases were taken from them, that these utterances by no means exaggerate the feelings of a large part of the public. Of course there were not a few who, like Johnson, thought Lycidas and the sonnets absurd and were indifferent to the remaining minor poems; but, on the other hand, the commendations that have been quoted fail to give any adequate conception of the widespread, enthusiastic admiration which the poems aroused.

Regarding Paradise Lost we have seen that a remarkable unanimity of opinion prevailed. There must have been those who did not care for it, but they either like Chesterfield kept discreetly silent, or else like Bentley made themselves ridiculous in the eyes of their fellows. It is astounding that scarcely one of the innumerable eighteenth-century allusions to the poem speaks of it with the indifference, dislike, or flippancy which are almost the rule to-day. Nor can it be urged that this praise is a perfunctory acceptance of a conventional opinion, for it is usually more enthusiastic and spontaneous than it is judicial. Still less is there warrant for believing that these admirers were willing to pay the epic any tribute save that of reading it; for their familiarity with it - with even the later books - and the frequency with which they quote from it entirely disprove any such charge.3 "Who has not read . . . Paradise lost, and Paradise Regained?" exclaimed a reviewer in 1796, a remark 1 For references and other quotations, see pp. 423, 422, 426 n. 1, 427, below. 2 See below, p. 24.

* Addison, for example, writes, "I have drawn more quotations out of him [Milton] than from any other" (Spectator, no. 262); and Lord Monboddo says, “I ... shall .. quote him oftener than any other English writer, because I consider him as the best standard for style, and all the ornaments of speech, that we have" (Origin and Progress of Language, 2d ed., 1786, iii. 68 n.). John Constable, in his Reflections upon Accuracy of Style (1731, pp. 14-16), quotes from Paradise Lost four times in three successive pages; Daniel Webb, in Observations on Poetry and Music (1769, pp. 14-18), quotes from it six times on five successive pages; and Thomas Sheridan draws almost all the illustrations for his Lectures on the Art of Reading (1775) from the same work. Instances of the kind might be multiplied indefinitely.

'Mo. Rev., enl. ed., xxi. 226.

« PreviousContinue »