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THE influence of Paradise Lost as we have seen it thus far has been almost exclusively literary. Writers have been attracted not by Milton's message but by his art, not by his character and opinions but by his versification and diction, not by what he said but by how he said it. His admirers have used his tools and tried to imitate his method of handling them, but for the most part they have been indifferent to his personality, as well as to his conceptions of poetry and life. The Miltonism of Milton is, therefore, exactly what they have lacked. They could copy his diction, mimic his style, and at times catch something of the roll of his lines; but the character behind all this, the spirit which animated and the purpose which consecrated it, they did not even strive for. It was not necessary, in most cases it was not desirable, that they should; if Thomson and Cowper, for example, had done so they would have written poems quite unlike The Seasons and The Task. Yet the fact remains that the admirers of Pope, Keats, Tennyson, and Whitman have caught much of the spirit and message as well as the form of their favorites, whereas Milton's followers have found him so unlike other poets that as a rule they have been content with merely reproducing his manner.
In one writer, however, these conditions are reversed, and with most significant results. For the familiar evidences of the influence of Paradise Lost — adjectives employed as adverbs or substantives, unusual compound epithets, parentheses, appositives, omitted words, and the rest - indicate very inadequately the extent of that influence on the poetry of Wordsworth. Such peculiarities of style and diction do occur here and there, but they are not sufficiently marked to give a noticeable Miltonic ring to any large number of lines. Yet there sounds throughout Wordsworth's verse a note, scarcely heard in the simpler pieces but often unmistakable in the profounder ones, which at times rises till it becomes the dominant tone, almost drowning all others, a note which recalls the lofty severity, the intensity of moral purpose, and the organ tone of the most exalted of English poets. To be sure, this note was natural to Wordsworth, and it is impossible to say where temperamental similarity
ends and influence begins; yet similarity of this sort obviously furnishes the best possible ground for influence to work upon. It is because Wordsworth was in essentials so much like the earlier Puritan that he admired him so highly, was so susceptible to his influence and so capable of profiting by it.1
The two men were, indeed, as regards the fundamentals of life and poetry, much more alike than is at first apparent. Both were Puritans, deeply religious men with high ideals, strong convictions, and a tendency towards narrowness and intolerance. Both were somewhat austere and aloof, believers in "plain living and high thinking,' absolutely sincere, confident of their powers, and unswayed by popular opinion. Neither possessed a sense of humor or the grace of doing little things with ease, and neither was what is commonly known as "a good fellow"; yet both were fond of romances, tales of impossible adventure, and the poetry of Spenser. Each was devoted heart and soul to the cause of liberty and to England's political welfare, each took a profoundly serious view of poetry, each regarded his life as dedicated to the service of God and his fellow-men. Wordsworth declared, "Every great poet is a teacher; I wish either to be considered as a teacher or as nothing." And the purpose of Milton's epic was: "Whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime, in vertu amiable, or grave, whatsoever hath passion or admiration in all the changes of that which is call'd fortune from without, or the wily suttleties and refluxes of mans thoughts from within, all these things with a solid and treatable smoothnesse to paint out and describe. Teaching over the whole book of sanctity and vertu. . . . The two men were alike, it should be noticed, in their defects no less than in their virtues. Wordsworth was not repelled, as many have been, by the elder poet's egotism, his exacting nature, or his lack of easy geniality, for he had the same faults himself and thought lightly of them. He regarded Milton as an "awful soul" and admired him on that account.
Externally, of course, there were great differences between the two. The lake poet was a kind of Milton in homespun. Milton was an aristocrat with an air of distinction, and in a way a man of the
1 Conversely, it is because Wordsworth was so unlike Spenser that the Faerie Queene, for which he had a great admiration, exerted only a slight influence upon him.
* Letter to Sir George Beaumont, 1807? (Letters of the Wordsworth Family, ed. Knight, Boston, 1907, i. 331). To Landor's remark that he was "disgusted with all books that treat of religion," Wordsworth replied (Jan. 21, 1824): "I have little relish for any other. Even in poetry it is the imagination only, viz., that which is conversant with, or turns upon infinity, that powerfully affects me.'
Reason of Church-Government, 1641, in Works (Pickering ed., 1851), iii. 147.
world, whereas in Wordsworth there was something of the rustic. Milton's great learning, wide culture, and intellectual curiosity caused him to be sought after, and, together with his strong though well-controlled passions, gave vigor, variety, and brilliance to his conversation. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was at least in his later years slow, ponderous, and introspective, and perhaps to most persons never a particularly interesting companion. In their verse the two men seem at first glance even farther apart than in their social qualities. The earlier poet chose the sublimest of themes and handled it in the loftiest of styles; the later one usually dealt in a simple way with wild-flowers, birds, his own quiet life and that of the peasants about him. Not only as a poet but as a man each had much in common with the period in which he spent his youth, Milton with the renaissance, Wordsworth with the eighteenth century. Yet the differences are not essential; for the purposes, the ideals of life, and the conceptions of poetry of the two were surprisingly alike. In fundamentals Wordsworth was closer to the author of Paradise Lost than any other English poet has been.
This basic similarity was largely responsible for the profound veneration that Wordsworth felt for his predecessor. As the resemblances between the two men were no less personal than literary, it was natural that the devotion of the later poet to the earlier should be quite as much to the man as to his works. At times, indeed, it would seem as if he revered the man above the poet, for in the sonnet "Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour," he devoted twelve lines to his favorite's character and two to his verse. We may well pause for a moment over the circumstances that gave rise to this sonnet. Wordsworth had been in France, deeply concerned for the cause of liberty. Returning to his own country, he was depressed by its lack of heroism, by its wealth, its smug ease, its "vanity and parade." In this state of mind he thought of whom? the Greek and Roman patriots? Alfred? Hampden? Cromwell? No, of Milton, — not the poet, but the man among men, the pamphleteer who had given his eyes in liberty's defense. Stirred to his depths, the young patriot cried out:
Milton! thou should'st be living at this hour:
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Nor was this a passing mood. In the same month he wrote,
Great men have been among us; hands that penned
Young Vane, and others who called Milton friend;
and in still another sonnet of that month he exclaimed,
We must be free or die, who speak the tongue
That Shakespeare spake; the faith and morals hold
These are significant lines: it is the "tongue," or poetry, of Shakespeare and the "faith and morals" of Milton of which England should be proud. A year later, when fearing the Napoleonic invasion, Wordsworth summoned those who,
like the Pyms and Miltons of that day, Think that a State would live in sounder health If Kingship bowed its head to Commonwealth."
Similarly, in his prose Convention of Cintra he refers to England's "long train of deliverers and defenders, her Alfred, her Sidneys, and her Milton." 3
Long before 1802, however, Wordsworth had felt the appeal of Milton's personality. Even in his idle Cambridge days it had impressed him; for he wrote in The Prelude,
1 "Great men," 1-4; "It is not to be thought of," 11-13.
2 Lines on the Expected Invasion, 7-9.
3 Prose Works (ed. Grosart, 1876), i. 112.
♦ iii. 283-92.
In the lines following these, Wordsworth confessed that the only time he was affected by liquor was when he "poured out Libations" to the "temperate Bard" in the room the latter had occupied as a student. On another occasion, in speaking of the degenerate days of Charles II, he recalled Milton's fearless service to truth:
Yet Truth is keenly sought for, and the wind
Charged with rich words poured out in thought's defence. .
Sad thoughts; for from above the starry sphere
Come secrets, whispered nightly to his ear;
And the pure spirit of celestial light
Shines through his soul - "that he may see and tell
He contrasted Milton's unselfish heroism with the conduct of Goethe, who, in Wordsworth's opinion, "was amusing himself with fine fancies when his country was invaded; how unlike Milton, who only asked himself whether he could best serve his country as a soldier or a statesman, and decided that he could fight no better than others, but he might govern them better."2 Finally, in one of his prefaces he goes out of his way to make "a public acknowledgment of one of the innumerable obligations, which," he declares, "as a Poet and a Man, I am under to our great fellow-countryman." 3 Wordsworth was, in truth, inspired as no other writer has been by the life and character of this "great fellow-countryman," and it was such inspiration, together with the admiration lying back of it, that made possible the influence which Milton's work exerted upon his own.
It is a matter of some importance that Wordsworth's delight in Paradise Lost and the other works of its author began in boyhood days. "The Poet's father," we are informed, "set him very early to learn portions of the works of the best English poets by heart, so that at an early age he could repeat large portions of Shakespeare, Milton, and Spenser;" and Wordsworth himself told Mrs. Davy that Milton's poetry "was earlier a favourite with him than that of Shakespeare."5 Nor is there any question as to the permanence of
1 Ecclesiastical Sonnets, III. iv (“Latitudinarianism”).
2 Caroline Fox, Memories of Old Friends (3d ed., 1882), ii. 41, Oct. 6, 1844.
* “Advertisement" to the first edition of his Sonnets (1838). The italics are mine.
* Christopher Wordsworth, Memoirs of Wordsworth (ed. Henry Reed, Boston, 1851),
5 "Conversations," etc., Prose Works (ed. Grosart), iii. 457.