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Milton's numerous followers in the sonnet were, indeed, widely and justly criticized for what Coleridge termed "their quaint phrases, and incongruous mixture of obsolete and Spenserian words," 1 language which undoubtedly injured the popularity of the genre.
An especially undesirable feature of this tumid diction was the use of periphrases, such as "glossy kind" or "plumy race" for "birds," or "the sable rock inflammable" for "coal," or "frequent the gelid cistern" for "take a cold bath." These objectionable and often absurd circumlocutions were generally admired and used, by writers of blank verse in particular. Indirectly they owed much to Milton, not because he was addicted to them himself, but because his followers employed them in the hope of capturing the sonorous grandeur and aloofness from common things to which his epic owes much of its beauty. The influence of Paradise Lost was unquestionably away from simple directness and towards the high-sounding and the elaborate. Yet the relish for inflated Latinisms and periphrases which Milton's usage fostered, if it did not originate, would never have fastened itself upon poetry if there had not been in the air a genuine and general love of grandiloquence, a love which is plainly revealed in the Swan of Lichfield's letters and the prose of Johnson, Burke, and Gibbon!
Still another force that made strongly for unnaturalness of diction was the constant dread of being prosaic.2 Nothing shows the unpoetic nature of the eighteenth century more clearly than this fear, which, based as it was on the realization that there was no essential difference between the prose and much of the verse of the period, led to the creation of mechanical and adventitious differences. In consequence, writers who had courage to give up the most obvious of
1 "Introduction to the Sonnets," Poems, 2d ed., 1797, p. 73. Cf. Crit. Rev., new arr., xxi. 151 (1797), where contemporary sonnets were assailed for not using "the genuine language of simple . . . nature."
2 Parnell asked (in a dialogue prefixed to his Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice, 1717, A 4) if a blank-verse translation of Homer would be "remov'd enough from Prose, without greater Inconveniences "; and Alexander Kellet wrote in 1778 (see Crit. Rev., xlvi. 457), "In an age of ignorance an expedient turned up, that so obviously distinguished prose and poetry, as to lay claim for a time to constitute the essential of the last; and this was the Gothic invention of rhyme." The general understanding of the matter was voiced in the preface to James Buchanan's First Six Books of P. L. (Edin., 1773, p. 4), where we read, "Rhime, without any other assistance, throws the language off from prose; but, in blank verse, the poet is obliged to use inversion, as well as pomp of sound, and energy of expression, in order to give harmony and variety to his numbers, and keep his stile from falling into the flatness of prose." The same idea is expressed in John Aikin's Letters on English Poetry (2d ed., 1807, p. 118), and in Sir William Jones's Design of an Epic Poem (Works, 1807, ii. 433). On the entire subject, see my Poetic Diction of the English Classicists (Kittredge Anniversary Papers, Boston, 1913, pp. 435-44).
these distinctions, rime, felt constrained to substitute for it a style stiffened with strange words arranged in an unusual order. The widespread conviction that, if an unrimed work was made sufficiently unlike prose, it would be good blank verse illustrates again how completely the measure was misunderstood.
This vicious diction, "the Miltonic dialect" as it was called, is to be found as late as The Task (1785), and occasionally in the work of Tennyson's early contemporaries, or even in our own day;1 but its force was largely spent by the middle of the century. As more blank verse was written and read, people came to understand it better and to distinguish what was essential from what was peculiar to Milton; at the same time poets were gaining greater mastery of it, making it more and more supple in style and natural in language, till in Tintern Abbey no trace of evil influence from Paradise Lost is to be found. Yet Milton had by no means ceased to affect the language of poets. Wordsworth quoted his practice as authoritative in diction, and often copied it, while Keats, a lover of words, appropriated not a few from the epic, the masque, and the monody.
The usage of these men may well remind us that in diction, as in all other matters, Milton's example, notwithstanding its undesirable aspects, was on the side of freedom. It would certainly have gratified him to know that much of his popularity was due to the inspiration which lovers of liberty of every kind found in his life and works, that his influence was a potent force towards enfranchisement in political, religious, and literary fields.
But any assertion as to Milton's influence must be taken partly on faith until more evidence for it has been offered. Even the testimony which has been presented regarding his popularity is of the more external sort, consisting largely in an enumeration of editions and in opinions and controversies about the poems. The great proof of his vogue, as well as of his influence, will be found in the succeeding chapters, which will trace through the poetry of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the unmistakable evidences of his style, diction, prosody, and subject-matter. For the closeness with which his various poems were copied is almost incredible: no one to-day would think of writing a serious poem modelled obviously and in detail after the Blessed Damosel or the Hound of Heaven, much less after Allegro. But it was not so in the days of our forefathers. With them imitation flourished openly and universally. They liked it, and referred frankly to Mason's and Warton's "imitations of Milton" without a thought of disparagement, just as Gray compli
1 A familiar instance is the "reeking tube and iron shard" of Kipling's Recessional.
mented West on his "very picturesque, Miltonic, and musical" Ode to May.1 Reviewers referred to the "happy imitation of the Miltonic style" in Crowe's Lewesdon Hill; they were pleased with Drummond's Odin for its general resemblance to Paradise Lost, and praised Cowper as "perhaps the most successful" imitator of Milton.2 One popular writer even maintained that imitation was a higher art than original writing: ""Tis easier to strike out a new Course of Thought, than to equal old Originals, and therefore it is more Honour to surpass, than to invent anew. Verrio is a great Man from his own Designs, but if he had attempted upon the Cartons, and outdone Raphael Urbin in Life and Colours, he had been acknowledged greater than that celebrated Master, but now we must think him less." Every successful poem was imitated, — Dryden's Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, Pope's Dunciad, Philips's Cyder, Gray's Elegy, Collins's Ode to Evening, and many others; while the Faerie Queene alone furnished the model for hundreds of pieces. Even the greatest writers in some of their highest flights were clearly imitating. The eighteenth century produced few finer poems than Thomson's Castle of Indolence, yet even in language it is an imitation. William Mason, besides following L'Allegro and Il Penseroso about as closely as he could in his Il Bellicoso and Il Pacifico, wrote Musaeus, a Monody, in imitation of Milton's Lycidas, and apparently no one objected, not even his intimate friend the fastidious Gray, who revised all three poems for him. Indeed, the detecting of imitations seems to have been one of the pleasures our ancestors derived from reading verse.
The additional testimony of the following chapters is, however, not needed to show that only by gross self-righteousness and ignorance can we accuse the eighteenth century of neglecting Milton. On the contrary, its enthusiasm for him was something that we can hardly understand. His life and his works furnished reading and topics of discussion as inexhaustible and as unescapable as the weather. In truth, a contemporary of Johnson or Cowper would have found it exceedingly difficult to avoid the poet whom he is
1 Letter to West, May 8, 1742.
2 See Mo. Rev., lxxviii. 308; and below, pp. 170, 307. In 1790 the Critical Review (lxix. 156) praised John Roberts's Deluge for being "no unhappy imitation of Milton's forcible and classic style."
* Henry Felton, Dissertation on Reading the Classics (5th ed., 1753), 15-16; quoted in R. S. Crane's Imitation of Spenser and Milton (Univ. of North Carolina, Studies in Philology, 1918, xv. 195–206), where the whole subject is discussed.
See an undated and unaddressed letter "from Mason," in Gray's Letters (ed. Tovey), i. 187, n. 3; also one from Gray to Mason, June 7, 1760, ib. ii. 140, n. 5.
charged with slighting. If he went to the theater, he was likely to witness a production of Comus, or at least to pass a "busto" of the god in the lobby, and he might hear Sheridan recite from Paradise Lost; if he preferred music, there were several popular oratorios drawn from Milton's poems; if he fled to the "movies" of the day, Pandemonium confronted him; if he chose to wander through Vauxhall, he passed under the "temple of Comus" and encountered a statue of the blind bard as Il Penseroso. He went to church only to hear the religious epic quoted, and returned to find his children committing passages of it to memory. His son had probably caught the Miltonic madness at college; at any rate, the "Pietas et Gratulatio" volume, which the fond parent preserved in full leather binding because of his offspring's academic verses, contained little English poetry that was not Miltonic. If his friends were clergymen or lawyers, they were likely to be literary and have ideas on blank verse or be writing letters to the Gentleman's Magazine on Paradise Lost; if they were ardent republicans, they made him listen to passages from the Areopagitica, if dilettantes they spouted Allegro. If he picked up a magazine, Miltonic blank verse stared him in the face, and he would turn the page only to encounter Miltonic sonnets and octosyllabics or an essay on the indebtedness of Paradise Lost to the Iliad; the letters to the editor were likely to deal with some Miltonic controversy then raging, and the reviews discussed poems "in imitation of Milton" and editions of the poet's works. If he turned to books it was no better, even though he chose his reading carefully; for poetry, essays, biographies, volumes of letters, works on theology, language, and literature, were sure to quote, imitate, or discuss "the greatest writer the world has ever seen."
If he fled London for Edinburgh, he ran into a "nest of ninnies on the subject of Milton among both poets and critics; if he turned to Bath, there was Lady Miller's coterie prattling phrases from the minor poems, if to Lichfield, he encountered its famous Swan
Between her white wings mantling proudly
and rowing her state with Miltonic feet. In remote Devonshire and Cornwall there were Richard Polwhele and his group of sonneteers and scribblers of blank verse, while in remoter Wales lurked Milton's follower John Dyer. No village was free from the contagion; and if he sought peace in the country, he came upon Il Penseroso alcoves, upon travellers reading Paradise Lost by the roadside, ploughboys with copies of it in their pockets, and shepherds, real shepherds, 'poring upon it in the fields.' Even among the poor and
the uneducated it was the same: not only ploughboys and shepherds, but threshers, cotters, cobblers, and milkwomen read and imitated the poet who expected his audience to be "few."
If he finally crossed the Channel in search of a refuge, he would do well to avoid Italy; for at Vallombrosa and Fiesole travellers were declaiming "Of man's first disobedience," and at Florence the English colony was publishing volumes of patent imitations of the poet whom he was trying to escape. Nor would he be better off in other countries, for cultivated Frenchmen and Germans would be sure to speak to him of his nation's epic and its influence upon their own poetry, and would probably quote from Addison's critique. There were, of course, many parts of the continent and some remote places in Great Britain where Milton's voice was not heard, but the only Englishmen who were certain of getting beyond its reach were the Alexander Selkirks lost on "some unremembered isle in far-off seas."
Other writers may have dominated, or have seemed to dominate, English literature more completely than Milton did, but on closer scrutiny their influence will be found to have been limited to relatively short periods of time and to comparatively small, though it may be very important, fractions of the public. More than this, most of them failed to rouse at the same time the profound admiration and the enthusiastic devotion which were felt for the author of Paradise Lost, Comus, Penseroso, and the Areopagitica. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that from Pope's day to Wordsworth's Milton occupied a place, not only in English literature but in the thought and life of Englishmen of all classes, which no poet has held since and none is likely to hold again.