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MILTON'S FAME IN THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
A Few years ago one of America's most distinguished citizens wrote, "As to the Paradise Lost . . . I have never read it as a whole, and I doubt whether I have known any other person who has ever done so." These words carry weight, for their author was a gentleman of fine culture and of unusually wide acquaintance among cultivated persons both in academic and in diplomatic circles. Nor is his testimony unique. A well-known orator won the smiling approval of a large audience some twenty-five years since, when he referred to Milton's epic as “a poem that every one talks about and no one reads.” Conditions may be better in Great Britain and her colonies; yet within the last decade an English author has likened Milton to "the colossal image of some god in a remote and rarely visited shrine."! It is to be feared that most persons, though willing to concede the greatness of Paradise Lost, regard it as a long, dreary work which no one ever disturbs of his own free will. Of course we are not now concerned with the large class whose reading is confined almost exclusively to newspapers and cheap magazines, but with that fit audience which does turn for inspiration, comfort, and joy to Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, and Tennyson. Even in this select company an admirer of Milton seems to be rare.
Most of us, therefore, have no hesitation in agreeing with the assertion, “Milton has never been a popular poet as Shakespeare is popular, never perhaps even as Scott is popular, or as Byron was in his day and generation."? Nor do we question Mr. Saintsbury's dictum that, although the eighteenth century “did not thoroughly understand them, it accepted even Shakespeare and Milton. . It regarded Dryden ... very much as we should regard Shakespeare and Milton rolled into one." 3 Towards the middle of that century, to be sure, Milton and Spenser are known to have played a considerable part in the “romantic revival”; but “by the Augus
· W. M. Dixon, English Epic and Heroic Poetry (1912), 201.
Peace of the Augustans, a Survey of Eighteenth-Century Literature as a Place of Rest and Refreshment (1916, a work almost as stimulating and unhackneyed as its title leads one to expect), 91.
tans,” it is agreed, Milton "was shunned and practically neglected.”'i Austin Dobson, whose familiarity with the period is unrivalled, says, in speaking of Mrs. Delany (1700-1788), “During the earlier half of her lifetime, Pope reigned paramount in poetry, and Milton was practically forgotten: during the latter half, people were beginning to forget Pope, and to remember Milton.”? These views are not
2 only accepted by most students, but, as they agree with what we know of Milton and of the age of prose, there would seem to be no reason for questioning them; yet, since almost any generalization regarding the eighteenth century needs to be closely scrutinized, it may be well to discover on what basis they rest.3
We naturally turn first of all to the editions of Milton's works, and, in order to speak with greater certainty on a highly-complicated matter, we had better confine ourselves to his principal poem. Here a genuine surprise awaits us, for we find that between 1705 and 1800 Paradise Lost was published over a hundred times. The wonder grows when we look at the Faerie Queene, which, we are accustomed to think, had approximately the same number of readers as the epic. If so, they must have borrowed most of their copies, for Spenser's poem appeared only seven times in the same period. Shakespeare,
1 W. L. Phelps, Beginnings of the English Romantic Movement (Boston, 1893), 87. ? Miscellanies (2d series, 1902), 110.
3 Since the present chapter covers much the same ground as J. W. Good's Studies in the Milton Tradition (Univ. of Illinois, Urbana, 1915) and makes use of similar evidence, it seems only fair to indicate the references to Milton for which I am indebted to Mr. Good. I have not, however, specified any of the material used in his book which I had collected before the Studies appeared, not a little of which, indeed, was in my hands some years before he began his researches. At the same time, the passages to which his name is attached do not show all my obligations to him; for many suggestions which it would be impossible to point out definitely, and which were often remote from the subject he was considering, have come to me as I have read the material that he has so painstakingly collected.
* I have left the number indefinite because without a careful, personal examination of each edition it is impossible to say how many there are. Several in my bibliography, which differs considerably from that published by Mr. Good (Studies, 25–7), may be duplicates, while others that should be in it have probably escaped me. A number that Mr. Good omits I found in English and American libraries which he may not have consulted, and the same is presumably true of many of those in his list that are not in mine. But, even if we had a faultless bibliography, there would still be the question as
how much of it ought to be included under the term "editions” or “publications" of Paradise Lost. Do such categories embrace translations, prose versions, adaptations (oratorios, for example), issues containing only part of the poem, and Irish, Scottish, and American editions? Assuming that they do not, and accordingly omitting the six versions in prose and all other adaptations and translations even when accompanied by the original text, as well as all publications outside of the British Isles and all selections (except one of 335 pages devoted exclusively to Milton's epic), and adding thirteen editions from Mr. Good's list that are not in mine, I have 105 separate publications of Paradise Lost in the eighteenth century.
to be sure, is in a different category: every family must possess his works even if no one reads them. But what is our astonishment to learn that the eighteenth century was satisfied with fifty editions of his plays! It is true that a number of his dramas appeared separately; but the most popular of these, Macbeth, was published by itself only thirteen times, whereas Comus in its original form saw three printings and as adapted for the stage over thirty. Furthermore, Paradise Lost had the unique honor of being the first poem to be sold by subscription, the first English poem to appear in a critical edition, the first to have a variorum edition, and the first to be made the subject of a detailed critical study.? Is it any wonder that when Jacob Tonson, a leading printer of the day, was asked “what poem he ever got the most by," he immediately named Paradise Lost? :
Obviously, Milton scholarship was active in the eighteenth century; indeed, it was much more active, and aside from Masson's monumental Life more fruitful, than it has been since. To prove this, or to give any adequate conception of the extent of the critical attention devoted to Milton, would, however, require not a chapter but a volume. Editions of the poet and essays on his works contain but a fraction of the writings on the subject. Periodicals, histories, biographies, letters, novels, poems, religious tracts, and political pamphlets, as well as discussions of Homer, Longinus, the French Revolution, rhetoric, education, marriage, liberty, and even gardening, all lead to Milton. Francis Blackburne's Memoirs of Thomas Hollis and Joseph Warton's Essay on Pope are largely devoted to the "mighty-mouthed inventor of harmonies,” and for the allusions to him in such writers as John Dennis a proper reference would be, “See works passim.” Some idea of the unusual attention he was attracting may be gained from an examination of a single periodical
· These figures regarding the number of editions of Spenser and Shakespeare are taken from the printed catalogue of the British Museum, which presumably does not list all the issues published. It may be added that Samson Agonistes, besides being translated into Greek, was four times adapted for the stage or for music, and that the version made for Handel's oratorio was published at least nine times before 1800.
• Tonson's sumptuous folio of 1688 was the second book to be published in England by subscription, the first was Walton's Polyglot Bible (see Masson's edition of Milton's poems, 1874, i. 19 n.). Patrick Hume's notes on Paradise Lost, which accompanied the 1095 edition, fill 321 closely printed folio pages, and antedate by fourteen years the first critical edition of Shakespeare (Rowe's), which was in comparison a very simple affair. Newton's first variorum edition of the epic appeared in 1749, a second by Marchant was issued in 1751, apparently a third (which I have not seen) by J. H. Rice in 1791, and a fourth by Todd in 1801. There may have been others in 1765 and 1766,- I know only the dubious titles. Addison's Specialor papers were published in 1712. Furthermore, Warton's edition of Milton's minor poems (1785) is one of the earliest of the separately-published critical editions of short English pieces. • Spence's Anecdotes (ed. Singer, 1820), 344.
like the Gentleman's Magazine. This, the leading journal of the day, printed eight pieces dealing with him in both the second and the eighth year of its existence (1732 and 1738), while in the seventeenth (1747) it gave space to twenty and in the twentieth (1750) to eleven.' These figures are unusual, to be sure; but from five to seven papers on this supposedly neglected poet frequently appeared in a single year, and the average number was probably greater than any magazine devoted to him on the tercentenary of his birth.
Beyond question, the attitude of the eighteenth century was quite unlike our own, so unlike that it is hardly possible for us to conceive it. Milton's shrine, instead of being, as it is now, "remote and rarely visited,” was, like that of Thomas à Becket or of St. James of Compostella in earlier times, closely associated with the life and thought of the day and thronged with persons of all classes, each bearing his gift. In the twentieth century there are few even of Milton's admirers whose feeling for the poet could be characterized as enthusiasm; yet this seems to be the fittest word to describe the attitude of Pope's friend Bishop Atterbury, of Cowper, of Thomas Hollis, of the Wartons, and of many of their contemporaries. For some of them, indeed, the term is not strong enough. Leonard Welsted writes, for example, “I have a fondness” for Waller, but “I pay adoration" to Milton. Warburton, who himself thought the English epic superior to those of Greece and Rome, must have been sneering at more extreme views when he spoke of “all the silly adorers of Milton, who deserve to be laughed at.” 3 This recalls the “Gentleman of Oxford” who feared to criticize one whose popularity was so "immeasurably great, and his Reverence little less than divine." 4 "The divine Milton" is Thomas Hollis's favorite phrase
1 These forty-seven pieces include articles bearing on the Lauder controversy, with long extracts from Masenius and from Grotius (of whose Adamus Exul ten translations were received in one month, “besides what may come to-morrow”'); a prose “apotheosis” of Milton (counted as three pieces, since its parts appeared in three issues); an inscription under Milton's bust; half a dozen poems, including a prologue for Comus; and three Latin translations from Paradise Lost (counted as one, since in one issue of the magazine).
? “Remarks on Longinus,” 1712, Works (ed. J. Nichols, 1787), 422. Compare an anonymous tribute to Milton (Verses to the Author, “by a Divine,” in Stephen Duck's Poems, 1738, p. 131),
His Lays, inimitably fine,
With Ecstasy each Passion move. • Letter to Richard Hurd, Dec. 23, 1749, in J. Nichols's Illustrations of Literary History (1817), ii. 177 n.
A New Version of the P. L. (Oxford, 1756), preface. Earlier in the preface we are told that Milton is "the greatest Genius among our English Poets,” and that “his Poem is generally allowed to exceed all others for Sublimity of Thought and Grandeur of Expression.”