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THE CHARACTERISTICS OF PARADISE LOST AND THEIR RELATION TO EIGHTEENTH
CENTURY BLANK VERSE
BLANK-VERSE poems have long since become so much a matter of course that we accept them as we do matches, telephones, trains, or religious liberty, without much thought. It does not ordinarily occur to us that these things ever had a beginning or that they were once subjects of wonder, doubt, and strife. To-day, when blank verse is the recognized medium for long poems, the one in which many of the pieces we like best are written, we have difficulty in realizing that as late as 1785 men of the ability and position of Johnson and Goldsmith could hardly speak about it calmly.
But, though it is generally assumed that this kind of verse has always existed, the average lover of poetry would be put to it to name half a dozen examples that he has read which were published before Tintern Abbey. He knows of The Seasons, The Task, Night Thoughts, and perhaps a few others; but he knows very little of them, and is obliged to confess that to him blank-verse poetry means the nineteenth century and Milton. Nor is this all; for of the halfdozen poems he can mention not one was written before Paradise Lost. Did Milton compose the first unrimed poem? Most of us are quite sure he did not; we assume that blank verse is as old as the couplet, which, as we know, goes back to Chaucer. When, however, we are asked to name some early blank verse we hesitate. A scholar will remember that Surrey's translation of parts of the Aeneid (1557) is supposed to be the first unrimed English poem, and he may recall Gascoigne's Steele Glas (1576); but if he can name any other blank verse off-hand he will do well.1 The pieces that he does remember, moreover, he may never have read; and even if he has gone through them it is unlikely that they have left any definite impression on his mind,— they mean little or nothing to him. In other words, there are few persons living to-day who really know any non-dramatic
1 For a list of blank-verse poems published before Paradise Lost, with some account of them, see J. P. Collier's Poetical Decameron (1820), i. 54–8, 88–145, ii. 231.
blank verse written before 1667. Paradise Lost is, to all intents and purposes, our earliest unrimed poem.
If such is the case now, when the literature which flourished from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth has so many admirers, what must have been the situation in an age that was in Cimmerian darkness regarding nearly every English work written before its own time? Very few of the contemporaries of Dryden had ever read or even heard of any blank-verse poem in English except Paradise Lost; and Milton himself had written, "This neglect then of rime ... is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem." Isaac Watts had the same idea in 1734, when he said, "Mr. Milton is esteemed the parent and author of blank verse among us;" and Johnson, when writing his life of Milton forty-five years later, could remember but two unrimed poems before Paradise Lost, and one of those he had only heard about. Undoubtedly the critic who wrote in 1793, "Milton introduced a new species of verse into the English language which he called blank verse," expressed the all-but-universal opinion.
But, it will be objected, these men had the drama,― Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Lee, Otway, Dryden, and plenty of others; blank verse was perfectly familiar to them. True, blank verse was perfectly familiar to them, and it would seem to have been a simple matter to transfer this verse from the plays to poems. Yet no one did it; indeed, no one seems even to have thought of doing it. The fact is that to the eighteenth century dramatic blank verse was one thing and poetic blank verse an entirely different thing. Even so late as 1814 C. A. Elton declared, "Of blank verse there are two species. The Epic and Dramatic measure have little more in common than the absence of rhyme;" and William Crowe's Treatise on English Versification (1827) has a chapter "Of Blank Verse" and another "Of Dramatic Verse." Many of the greatest and most popular plays of the later seventeenth century were unrimed, Lee's Rival Queens, Mithridates, and Caesar Borgia, Otway's Orphan and Venice Preserved, the tragedies of Southern and Rowe, as well as Dryden's All for Love and most of his Spanish Friar and Don Sebastian; yet I have found only nine poems written between 1605 and 1700 that
1 "The Verse," prefixed to the fifth issue of the first edition of Paradise Lost. The italics are mine.
2 Miscellaneous Thoughts, no. Ixxiii (Works, 1810, iv. 619).
3 Lives (ed. Hill), i. 192.
▲ Bee, xvi. 272 (Aug. 21, 1793). So Thomson spoke of Philips as "the second" who "nobly durst" to sing "in rhyme-unfettered verse” (Autumn, 645–6).
5 Specimens of the Classic Poets, vol. i, p. xiii.