Studies of a Biographer/New Lights on Milton
NEW LIGHTS ON MILTON
Political economists in former days puzzled themselves over the attempt to find a constant standard of value. Literary critics may congratulate themselves upon possessing such a standard for their own purposes in Milton's poetry. Many reputations have risen and set, and sometimes risen again, while he has been shining as a fixed star. Dryden recognised his genius in the days of Charles II.; Addison paid him homage on behalf of the wits of Anne's reign; Johnson's prejudices against the republican only emphasise his testimony to the enduring fame of the epic poet; and Wordsworth, while renouncing the style sanctioned by Milton's authority, was among the most reverential worshippers of Milton himself. The unsurpassed industry of Professor Masson is a sufficient indication of Milton's power in later years; and we have before us ample proofs of the loving zeal with which he is still studied. Mr. Bridges has examined his prosody; Mr. Beeching has edited the poetry, reproducing for the first time the spelling and punctuation of the early poems; a facsimile of the invaluable manuscripts in the library of Trinity has been published under the superintendence of Dr. Aldis Wright; and the University Press of Cambridge has issued a series of poetical works elaborately annotated by Mr. A. W. Verity. The student who desires to investigate the minutest secrets of Milton's art will be at no loss for an appropriate critical apparatus. Such services perhaps deserve more gratitude than they will get. Mr. Beeching has made himself so well known as an appreciative critic that we may doubt at first sight whether his talents are employed to the best account in regulating commas and deciding in which cases 'wee' is a misprint and in which a deliberate correction of 'we.' Still, everything helps. The microscope has been so useful in natural science that we are encouraged to apply it to literature; and the genuine lover of a great poet shrinks from no labour which can bring out a particle of new meaning.
Milton has had obvious attractions for commentators ever since Bentley's days. His peculiarities of spelling and grammar, his obligations to previous literature, his geographical, astronomical, and theological theories all call for elucidation. Those who have come under his spell will be grateful for help in innumerable directions. The mass of subsidiary information supposed to be necessary may to others suggest a certain misgiving. The series of poems excellently edited by Mr. Verity is intended for educational purposes, and the notes answer exhaustively all the questions which may reasonably occur to students. They remind us, however, that ingenuous youth in these days has an eye to the ubiquitous examiner. He reads the invocation to Sabrina, and is told—most undeniably—that it is 'golden.' He takes that for granted. The examiner will not ask him for rhetoric, but inquire, Who was the 'Carpathian wizard? 'What is the locus classicus describing the wizard's wiles? Who had previously told the story of Sabrina? The attendant spirit, he will notice, has learnt from 'Melibœus' the right mode of invoking her; and Professor Masson thinks that this is 'a somewhat sarcastic allusion' to Geoffrey of Monmouth (the 'sarcasm,' it must be admitted, is carefully hidden). This suggests the desirability of reading Geoffrey's narrative, and then of remarking how it was modified by Milton in his history of England. Some young gentlemen will wish by this time that Sabrina had been left at the bottom of the Severn. It is presumed that one who understands the allusions will be so far better qualified for enjoying the melody. We could wish to be more sure that he will begin by his enjoyment, and not regard the poem as a mass of pegs on which to hang questions. We are told that English youths ought to study English literature. That is undeniable; but there is a way of compelling them to study it which will make them loathe the subject for the rest of their days. 'Does anybody,' we once heard a young gentleman ask, after cramming Hamlet for such purposes, 'does anybody ever read Shakespeare for pleasure?'
This, of course, is not intended to decry such books as Mr. Verity's. I only point out that there is a wrong as well as a right way of using them; and it is not for him, but for teachers, to do their best to discourage the wrong method. They cannot do better than by accepting the method of Professor Raleigh. Professor Raleigh admits that the task of literary criticism is at best one of 'disheartening difficulty.' To appreciate a great author, he says, requires knowledge and industry, and in the end 'it is the critic, and not the author, who is judged by it.' That is clearly true if 'appreciation' means a reasoned estimate of the author's qualities. 'An appreciation of Milton,' said Pattison, 'is the last reward of consummated scholarship'; and yet it is probable that the unlearned John Bright 'appreciated' Milton in another sense as well as Pattison, and incomparably better than Bentley. The first and essential step is the spontaneous love of the poet; where that exists, learning and critical knowledge may reveal new beauties and deepen the sense of the old; to explain and justify the fully-developed sentiment requires the knowledge and industry of which Professor Raleigh speaks, as well as his conspicuous impartiality and power of analysis. Writers of all schools have felt Milton's power. What has changed has been, not their admiration, but the grounds upon which they proposed to justify it. Successive critics have tried to prove, with more or less plausibility, that Milton's poetry conformed to the canons which they accepted as orthodox. Their reasons often strike us as obsolete even when we accept their conclusions. We judge not only the critic, but the code of criticism. Professor Raleigh can hardly say anything absolutely new in the way of eulogy upon Milton, but he can give tenable grounds for the faith that is in him. He can extricate the real causes of his predecessors' enthusiasm from the sham reasons intended to justify it. Moreover, though he has enlightened his judgment by studying previous critics, he is a thoroughly independent thinker, and accepts no dictum without careful scrutiny. Perhaps here and there he takes the slightly supercilious tone of the aesthetic expert anxious to rebuff the Philistine. But he can flout the 'New Criticism'—whatever that may be—and, unlike most Miltonians, he speaks with emphatic respect of Johnson's opinions. Professor Raleigh, that is, values the masculine common-sense which to many more squeamish critics has appeared to be the embodiment of brutal iconoclasm. The critic who can be subtle and delicate without losing touch of Johnsonian common-sense would represent the ideal eclecticism. Professor Raleigh approximates at least to that desirable combination; and he has also the merits of an admirable style, and most commendable conciseness of exposition.
Professor Raleigh begins by speaking of Milton himself. The singular simplicity and dignity of Milton's character could never have been quite missed by any reader. His superb egoism is unrivalled in literature; and Pattison gives the obvious answer to his own rather superfluous question, why such egoism is not offensive. It is because Milton's egoism is identical with consciousness of a lofty vocation and a great responsibility. From his earliest years his powers were dedicated to a great cause, and his life was governed by the desire to be worthy of his calling. A smaller man, indeed, who claimed such a position, might strike us as presumptuous, perhaps as simply ridiculous. As Professor Raleigh puts it, Milton virtually anticipated Dryden's saying: 'This man cuts us all out and the Ancients too.' Milton had announced his intention of cutting them out in one of his first pamphlets, and requested his readers to let him 'go on trust' with them for a few years. 'His most enthusiastic eulogists are compelled merely to echo the remarks of his earliest and greatest critic, himself.' They can only say, that is, that the pledge was not disproportionate to his power, and that he redeemed it amply. Though Milton's mood changed under hard experiences, the essential Milton remains identical from boyhood to age; and, to exhibit the man fully is also to characterise his work. The old critics assume that epic poetry is to be judged by certain rules equally applicable to the Paradise Lost and the Iliad, and make no more reference to Milton's personality than to Homer's. Biography had not formed an alliance with criticism. Though Johnson's admirable Lives marked the growing importance of biographical data, he still keeps the two subjects apart. A poem must, of course, stand upon its own basis. If we knew as little of Milton as we know of Shakespeare, we might find the same pleasure in Paradise Lost; and the Comus would be equally exquisite if it were anonymous. Yet even in Comus, that excellent elder brother, who has unkindly been called a prig, speaks more clearly when his voice becomes that of the young poet taking up his function as the laureate of virtue.
In any case, biography enables us to divine better the secret of the charm already felt. Johnson, as even Professor Raleigh has to admit, was a little hard upon Lycidas. 'In this poem, there is no nature, for there is no truth. … Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone, without any judge of his skill in piping; and how one god asks another god what has become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour.' Perhaps a young reader would really learn more from such remarks than from the critic who simply shrieks at them. They are so undeniable in a sense that he may be driven to justify his pleasure by detecting their inconclusiveness. We cannot quite agree with Professor Raleigh's view that the musical lamentation may, in spite of Johnson, be considered 'as the effusion of real passion.' Lycidas does not convince us that Milton's breakfast was spoilt when he heard that King was drowned. It is more to the purpose that Milton was 'thinking as much of himself as of his dead companion,' Lycidas was Edward King, but he also personified the Cambridge culture struggling against the dry scholastic stupidity of the college authorities. The poetry in this sense represents a genuine emotion. Milton is still steeping his mind in literary studies, reading alternately classical tragedy and the comedy of learned Jonson and 'sweetest Shakespeare,' losing himself in old romances, calling up
him that left half-told
The story of Cambuscan bold,
out-watching the Bear with thrice-great Hermes; and holding that our 'sage and serious Spenser … is a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas.' The college dons, certainly Mr. William Chappell, represented spiritual slavery equally in literature and theology. They embodied the obscurantism against which he felt himself to be already set apart as a champion of liberty. St. Peter therefore introduces himself quite naturally in company with Father Camus and the 'herald of the sea.' Laud is the common enemy of both; and Milton is already preparing himself, as he puts it, to 'blow a dolorous and jarring blast' at the divine command. Lycidas becomes intelligible as Milton's utterance when 'looking to his equipment' (as Professor Raleigh says) 'if perchance he may live to do that in poetry and politics which King had died leaving unaccomplished.' In his mind, the cause of Puritanism is identical with the cause of liberal culture in general. Mr. Verity makes the remark, natural to a Cambridge man, that it might have been better had Milton been sent to the great Puritan college, Emmanuel. Its Puritanism, he thinks, would have made Cambridge life more congenial. At Emmanuel, I may add, he would have been brought into relations with the remarkable set of men known afterwards as the Cambridge Platonists. Whichcote was nearly his contemporary, and Cudworth, Culverwell, and John Smith a little his juniors. With them, perhaps, he might have 'unsphered the spirit of Plato' to better purpose; and found out that there was a more philosophical method of escaping from the ecclesiastical tyranny of Laud than the acceptance of the harshest Puritanic dogmatism. Milton, however, was as little as possible of a philosophic reasoner; and for the present his vocation meant an uncompromising hostility to the prelates by whom he was 'church-outed,' and unconditional adherence to their most determined opponents.
This suggests the problem discussed by previous critics—the diversion of Milton's energies from poetry to politics. Pattison gave the uncompromising view of the pure scholar. Milton's pamphlets, he says, now serve only as 'a record of the prostitution of genius to political party. They never did any good to the cause.' The man who was meditating the erection of an enduring monument was unfortunately distracted into 'the most ephemeral of all hackwork.' He was writing, in his own phrase, 'to catch the worthless approbation of an inconstant, irrational, and image-doting rabble.' This sweeping condemnation is pleasantly characteristic of the critic; and, moreover, expresses what most readers feel. If we were able to exchange all the prose pamphlets for another Comus or a 'Christmas Hymn,' the modern world would certainly be the gainer. Professor Raleigh answers the complaint as Dr. Garnett has done. No 'dainty shy poet-scholar,' he urges, could have given us anything half as good as Paradise Lost. Milton's purpose even in poetry was essentially patriotic. He would not, he said, make 'verbal curiosity' his end, but would be 'an interpreter of the best and sagest things among his own citizens throughout this island in the mother dialect.' To keep Milton out of politics, that is, we should have had to emasculate him; and the emasculation would certainly have been fatal to the great poems. The modern 'stylist' is generally an 'interesting invalid,' with a voice too weak to be heard in the market-place. We may quite agree that we would not exchange Milton for a dozen invalids, interesting or otherwise. But is this really the dilemma? Must we choose between the 'invalid' and the savage pamphleteer? Was Milton, because a patriot, bound to be scurrilous? It is easy to recall the fierceness of the time: we may possibly admit with Professor Raleigh that the use of Latin is an apology for abuse, and that the English tracts, equally abusive, were written for people accustomed to controversy in Latin. But the argument from the 'standard of the time,' and the proof that at any given period that standard was exceptionally low, has become a trifle commonplace. Milton's abusiveness scandalised even his contemporaries, and their reproofs extorted from him a sufficiently lame apology. Some people could carry on controversies decently even in those days; and we might have hoped that a man distinguished above all men for lofty self-respect would have set a good example instead of sanctioning a bad practice. Milton might have taken a lesson from Hooker, who wrote in the spirit of his famous saying: 'Your next argument consists of railing and of reasons; to your railing I say nothing; to your reasons I say what follows.' Milton never perceives the immense advantage which railing gives to the man who can reply by ignoring it. Therefore he allows a controversy about the rights of Englishmen to degenerate into a squabble about Morus's behaviour to a cookmaid. He is, as Pattison says, like a blind Ajax castigating sheep instead of the Achæans. It is quite true that we still see the Ajax, though his blows might be better directed. Milton invariably convinces us of his absolute fidelity to his lofty vocation, and his noblest utterances of scorn for base motives are wrung from him by his passionate indignation. Still his irascibility perverts his reasoning, though it does not degrade his character.
In Milton the personal element is always present. It disfigures his first controversy upon Church government. He writes upon divorce because he has quarrelled with his wife; and upon the freedom of the press because his writings on divorce are censured. He cannot abstract his cause from himself. Since he represents virtue, his adversaries must be embodiments of vice. He not only assumes that his enemies are in the wrong, but he often seems to expect that they will grant so obvious an assumption. He complains, for example, that the 'table of communion' is fortified 'with bulwark and barricado to keep off the profane touch of the laics whilst the obscene and surfeited priest scruples not to paw and mammock the sacramental bread as familiarly as his tavern biscuit.' Why must the priest be 'obscene and surfeited'? Simply because he is a priest. That may be true; but the priest can hardly be expected to admit the fact. Controversy which starts from such assumptions must degenerate into personal abuse. The divorce pamphlets give the other side of the method. Milton, arguing from his own case, thinks only of the hardship upon the good man linked to an unworthy partner. He complains quaintly in one passage that on account of his chastity he has not had that practical experience of transitory connections which often enables a loose liver to make a happy choice in marriage. The good man ought to have the same opportunity for making experiments, and it does not occur to him that the practice might be demoralising.
This example illustrates what, for want of a better name, must be called Milton's method of reasoning. He generalises from a single case, and that case his own. 'Logical Milton always was,' says Professor Raleigh; 'he learnt little or nothing from the political events of his time.' The 'logic' which rejects experience has a strong resemblance to the simpler process of dispensing with logic. Milton, no doubt, was, as Professor Raleigh calls him, 'an idealist, pure and simple,' and expected to realise the dream of setting up in England a republic on the old classical model. He may be so far compared to theorists of the Rousseau type, who went upon a priori principles and were equally scornful of appeals to experience. But the 'rights of man' doctrine admitted at least of being set forth as a coherent system of reasoning. Its first principles might be erroneous, but they led by logical process to its conclusion. Milton does not reason to his conclusions; he simply jumps at them. He feels intensely, and judges by his instincts. He does not formulate theories clearly enough to make them consistent or to distinguish between the accidental and the universal element. The most serious disenchantment awaited him in his political doctrine. His strongest political passion was a really noble love of liberty; and by liberty he understood at once he removal of all obstacles to the full moral and intellectual development of a Milton, and the voluntary subordination of the nation to its Miltons and Cromwells. The time came when the two ideals became inconsistent. Set the nation free, and it would restore Charles II. Milton had accordingly to propose, in the name of liberty, that it should be permanently ruled by an irresponsible oligarchy. He was, of course, untouched by democratic ideas of modern growth; but it would be hard, even on his own terms, to construct any coherent theory out of his instinctive aversions and enthusiasms.
The Areopagitica survives alone among Milton's prose works; partly because he is endeavouring to conciliate instead of to brow-beat, and can therefore keep his temper, and partly because Milton's own case happened to be the typical case. His arguments have become commonplace, but they are still to the point. Professor Raleigh denies the assertion that the other pamphlets are neglected because their subjects are obsolete. The proposal for freedom of divorce, as he remarks, is so far from obsolete that it is only too prominent at the present day. Milton's argument, however, is obsolete enough. As Bagehot remarks, he is frankly and honestly anxious not for the rights of women, but for the rights of the man. He may be dealing with modern questions, but from a point of view so dependent upon his own prejudices and the accidents of the day that it has ceased to appeal to us. We may go further. 'Neither in politics, theology, nor social ethics,' says Lowell, 'did Milton leave any distinguishable trace upon the thought of his time or in the history of opinion.' His speculations on such topics are forgotten, because they were never really effectual. The theories of Hobbes may be as obsolete in some senses as Milton's; but no one could write the history of political thought without acknowledging their remarkable influence. Even Harrington—insignificant as his actual value has become—probably made a greater mark than Milton upon the speculations of the day. Political theories have an unpleasant way of falling into oblivion; but some of them have at least counted as affecting contemporary thinkers; and it is difficult to say that even that is true of Milton's performances.
When, therefore, Professor Raleigh says that Milton's prose works 'raise every question they touch' even if they do not 'advance it,' we must make a reservation. He approaches his problems from a lofty point of view, and desires that politics should be the incarnation of morality. The tone is as rare in political writings as it is admirable. No one can wish that Milton should be one whit less high-minded and patriotic or less anxious to see his ideals applied to practice. It may be as unseemly for politicians to grumble 'as for the herdsmen of Admetus to complain of the presence among them of a god.' Still we may regret that the god so lost his temper as to join in a mere 'rough and tumble'; and, moreover, that he devoted so much energy to a fray in which, as he admits, he was fighting with his 'left hand.' No one ever saw more clearly what a long and arduous training was desirable for a great poet; but to be a great publicist, he assumed, it was enough to be in a towering passion. Professor Raleigh, indeed, argues ingeniously that it was good for Milton occasionally to give 'a loose to his pen and his thought.' 'Irresponsible paradox and nonsense' may be 'a useful and pleasant recreation-ground.' I will not argue the point. To me it seems that fierce indignation might have been turned to better purposes. His good genius might have persuaded him to remain upon the level of his 'Areopagitica,' and to keep clear of the personalities which only injured his cause. But a man's good genius rarely secures the attention which he deserves. Without arguing 'might-have-beens,' we can admit that Milton was going through an ordeal which was not thrown away when it bore fruit in Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. The prose works are not easy reading; but it is worth while to study them in order to understand more clearly the sources of the unapproachable majesty of Milton at his best. The heroic attitude of his last days shows the essentially noble elements of the old passion, and is in turn made intelligible by the previous emotion.
When Milton at last turned to his true function, and spoke to a backsliding generation as a prophet of high thinking, he had to fulfil two conditions. He was to announce a theodicy, or in his own words 'to justify the ways of God to man'; and he had decided that his teaching was to be in the form of an epic poem. He therefore gives both a creed, as Professor Raleigh says, 'and a cosmical scheme of imagination.' The creed may not bear examination; but the scheme appears all the more wonderful as a work of art. 'By the most delicate skill of architecture this gigantic filamented structure has been raised into the air. … That it should stand at all is the marvel, seeing that it is spanned on frail arches over the abyss of the impossible, the unnatural, and the grotesque.' Milton's creed, of course, is the creed of contemporary theologians. He accepts unhesitatingly the speculative position represented by the Westminster divines. He holds, indeed, that most of them were wrong in their conclusions, but he has not the least doubt that truth is attainable by their methods. A complete theodicy may be reached by hitting off the right mean between Calvin and Arminius. He is indeed so little of a philosopher that he is hardly aware of the difficulties. When Pope complains that 'God the Father turns a school-divine' and asserts the compatibility of prescience and freewill, he does injustice, says Professor Raleigh, 'to the scholastic philosophers. There was never one of them who could have walked into a metaphysical bramble-bush with the blind recklessness that Milton displays.' This is perhaps an overstatement, for Milton is here simply repeating a familiar dogma of scholastic and contemporary divinity. But Pope, at any rate, is fully justified. To introduce the Creator as a moderator, if not as a disputant, in such discussions is certainly offensive, and shows the characteristic weakness of Milton's position. He not only accepts the dogmatism of the time at a period when it was already losing its hold upon the philosophic thinkers, but identifies it with the essence of religion. He holds, as Professor Raleigh puts it, that 'everything is as plain as a pikestaff'; he is convinced that there are no mysteries in the government of the universe which cannot be solved by our dialectical skill. The weakness is connected with the most obvious limitations of Milton's intellect. In theology as in politics he can be a thorough partisan, and supposes with the ordinary man that the whole truth can be packed into a dogma. That is partly due to his characteristic want of the sympathy which enables a man to see the world from other points of view. He is the exact antithesis to Shakespeare, who could throw himself into every character. He is equally incapable of the mysticism of some contemporaries. Professor Raleigh draws a striking contrast between the 'solid materialism' of Milton's heroics and the spiritual vision of Vaughan the 'Silurist.' The interminable controversies of the day had led some keen intellects to scepticism and others to the mystical view which sees in all human dogmas and systems the 'broken lights' of absolute truth. Milton remained an uncompromising and unhesitating dogmatist. The 'scheme of salvation' could be expounded as clearly and definitively as a body of human law, though nobody but himself had perhaps hit upon precisely the right set of formulæ.
Milton's 'theodicy,' therefore, was already becoming obsolete; and even his first readers seem to have paid no attention to his merits or defects as a justifier of Providence. Indeed, the justification is obviously preposterous. The relations between man and his Creator are expressed, according to him, by a definite legal code. The defect of Paradise Lost, says Bagehot, is that it is 'founded on a political transaction.' It treats of a rebellion against an absolute, and moreover an arbitrary, sovereign. The offence committee by Adam and Eve is an offence against a positive' law, not against the essential principles of morality. As Professor Raleigh puts it, the ruler of the universe becomes a 'whimsical tyrant,' issuing commands from time to time, often utterly incapable of being carried out, and given merely to test the submissiveness of his subjects. The corruption of human nature is a Christian doctrine, the plausibility of which was admitted, as we have been lately reminded, by such a freethinker as Huxley. With Milton it seems to be a superficial phenomenon. His morality usually rests upon a lofty sense of the dignity of human nature. 'A pious and just honouring of ourselves,' he says 'is the radical moisture and fountain-head whence every laudable and worthy enterprise issues forth.' He claims for himself an 'honest haughtiness and self-esteem,' 'which let envy call pride.' In Paradise Lost, Satan's pride has so strong an affinity to this honest haughtiness that we feel his error to have been rather of the head than of the heart. He has miscalculated his position, and applied a noble quality to a mistaken end. Milton, therefore, has more real sympathy with the Stoic than with the Christian ethics. He tells us how, during his study of 'Greek and Roman exploits,' he had 'found many things both worthily done and nobly spoken,' but that when he turned to the history of the Church under a Christian emperor, he was amazed to find it all 'quite contrary'—nothing but ambition, corruption, contention, combustion. The Catholic version of Christianity, at least, is altogether repugnant to him; and Newman couples Milton with Gibbon (not a very similar pair in other respects), 'each breathing hatred to the Catholic Church in his own way; each a proud and rebellious creature of God; each gifted with incomparable gifts.' Dislike to Milton was for that reason one of the 'notes' of the literary representatives of the Oxford 'movement.'
If Milton took for pure Christianity a system into which it is hard to fit the doctrines of corruption or of humility, his heterodoxy was combined with the most absolute faith in the historical revelation. As his theodicy is also to be an epic, he has to make his 'fable' out of the events entwined into the whole system of Protestant theology. The first chapter of Genesis, taken as literally and absolutely true, gives the catastrophe to the accomplishment of which the action of all the characters concerned is exclusively directed. If, therefore, we are to accept the book as a serious theodicy, our interest must depend upon our belief in the facts. Milton's poem, says M. Scherer, is intended to support a thesis. We cannot separate the form from the contents in a didactic work. If the thesis collapses, the poem will cease to interest, except, of course, in its parentheses. Pattison argues that the change in our conceptions has already sapped our interest in the poetry, and that, if the process continues, the 'possibility of epic illusion' will be lost. But why, one asks, should the decay in our belief be fatal to the poetry? We need not be pagans to enjoy the Iliad, and we may give up Dante's material hell without much loss of interest in the Divina Commedia. One possible answer is suggested in a striking passage of Ruskin. Milton's history, he declares, 'is evidently unbelievable to himself.' The war in heaven is adapted from Hesiod, and throughout the rest of the poem every artifice 'of invention is visibly and consciously employed.' Milton, of course, knew when he was inventing the allegory of Sin and Death that he was not writing history. The visions which he created could only be a projection upon his imagination of realities essentially beyond human perception. But we cannot doubt that he believed that the visions reflected realities, and especially that the biblical story of the Fall was true. He held his beliefs so strongly that the tortures of the Inquisition would not have extorted a recantation.
The question, however, from a poetical point of view is not whether he could believe, but whether, in modern phrase, he could 'visualise' the objects of his belief; and in this respect, the contrast with Dante is significant. Dante can hardly have believed that his elaborate plan of the Inferno was precisely accurate. When a man is deliberately contriving an imaginary world, he cannot, unless he is actually insane, suppose that he is mapping a real world. He must know that he is creating, not surveying. But Dante's vision could, at any rate, be as distinct and definite as reality. The circles of hell are as visible to Dante, and therefore to us, as the streets of Florence, while Milton's scheme is so vague that he does not even know clearly whether the Ptolemaic or the Copernican system is correct. And the reason is obvious. Dante was a profounder student of theology and philosophy than Milton; but he does not mix his philosophy with his statement of facts. Throughout his journey, he is still in presence of matters of fact, which, however startling, are continuous with the realities of actual experience. The problems about freewill and foreknowledge are not supposed to be solved by stating the facts. He may be 'justifying Providence' in the sense that his personages obviously (to him at least) deserve what they get; but he does not profess to explain why there should be a hell and a purgatory and a heaven. They are there, and we must behave accordingly. Milton, on the contrary, has to be at one and the same time a philosopher and a historian. He tells a story as the embodiment of a dogmatic system. The supernatural characters must be anthropomorphic for the purposes of poetry, but they are also principles of a philosophy. Milton, we are told, believed sincerely that the pagan gods were the fallen angels. Still, the devils have almost become personified abstractions of pride, greed, and lust. In his early drafts of a drama, Milton has a number of such actors as Death, Hatred, Conscience, Faith, Hope, and Charity. Though they become angels and devils in the actual poem, Satan is still abstract enough to hold conversation with Sin and Death. The devils are utterly unlike the concrete and grotesque devils of mediæval superstition. They not only discuss metaphysical puzzles, but are themselves metaphysical entities. The difficulty reaches its height when it compels him to introduce the Creator as an actor in the story, and leads to those strange incongruities upon which it is needless to dwell. If we do not accuse him of profanity, it is because he is plainly abashed by his own daring. Most people—in spite of enthusiastic critics—agree with Johnson that no one ever wished Paradise Lost longer. Readers are generally bored when a poet is bored himself; and Milton, if not bored, is clearly writing under constraint, which has much the same effect. His imagination, if not quenched, is paralysed. He has to cling closely to the text, or moves cautiously, and diverges into a common-place historical summary. The contrast between the incomparable majesty of the opening, and the flagging which begins when he ventures into heaven, makes itself felt in spite of the continued dignity of style.
The criticism represented by Addison did not trouble itself with this problem. The theodicy dropped out of sight. Addison, indeed, though he declines to admit with Le Bossu that every epic poet 'pitches upon a certain moral' as a starting-point, agrees that from every 'just heroic poem' some one great moral may be deduced. Paradise Lost teaches us the unexceptionable but simple moral that obedience to the will of God makes men happy. But the metaphysical problem which Milton took himself to be solving was handed over to the directly didactic poets. Addison takes occasion to puff the good Whig Blackmore, whose poem on the 'Creation' confuted Lucretius and supplied the reasoning omitted in the seventh book of Paradise Lost. Pope was to take up the task of 'vindicating' the 'ways of God to man.' He 'vindicates' instead of 'justifies,' as Warburton explains, because he 'has to deal with unbelievers.' The controversies of his day had made it impossible to fuse the theodicy with the epic. The epic poem therefore came to be treated, in spite of Le Bossu's moral, as simply a work of art, to which the justification of Providence is really irrelevant. Homer, Virgil, and Milton, it is assumed, devised the 'fables' and the 'machinery' of their poems by an equally deliberate and artificial process, though in the two first cases the Pagan mythology, and in the last the book of Genesis, supplied the necessary materials. The epic poem, no doubt, was becoming slightly absurd, as is shown by the famous recipe in Martinus Scriblerus. Still it was accepted as the highest form of poetry; and when Wilkie in 1757 published the Epigoniad, he was hailed by the patriotic Hume as a 'Scottish Homer.' That poetry was quite independent of the vitality of the conceptions which it embodied, was taken to be too obvious for demonstration. Paradise Lost was accepted on these terms simply as the noblest English specimen of the class; and if Johnson shows a certain sense that Milton had been too daring in venturing into the highest regions, the audacity was pardonable in the absence of any irreverent intention. Ordinary readers could shut their eyes to incongruities and refuse to see profanity where so clearly none was intended. The critic could take Paradise Lost simply as an epic; and the ordinary reader accepted it as a kind of gorgeous paraphrase of the book of Genesis.
In more modern times the difficulties presented by the combination have obviously increased. Are we to admit with Pattison that our interest in the poetry will inevitably be sapped; or can we throw ourselves back into his intellectual position sufficiently to revive the classic for the time? We may, it is suggested, arrive at 'that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.' That is a difficult attitude of mind to preserve. The truth, I think, is indicated by Professor Raleigh in a striking remark. The more we study Paradise Lost the more we see the hand of the author. 'The epic poem, which in its natural form is a kind of cathedral for the ideas of a nation, is by him transformed into a chapel-of-ease for his own mind, a monument to his own genius and to his own habits of thought.' As the tombs of the Medici suggest—not Lorenzo or Giovanni, but—Michel Angelo, Paradise Lost suggests Milton; and 'the same dull convention that calls Paradise Lost a religious poem might call them Christian statues.' The denial that Paradise Lost is a religious poem would have startled Milton and many modern disciples. It should perhaps be qualified by saying that it represents Milton's religion, and is one product of very genuine convictions of the day which had varying outcomes in the faiths of Cromwell and Baxter and George Fox, and again in that of the more narrow and bigoted Puritans. To define its essential nature would be a very difficult and very interesting problem. The inference, however, remains. To read Paradise Lost without a shock, we must not only 'suspend disbelief' but get rid of our positive beliefs. We must forget as far as possible that the supernatural actors are really the personages suggested by the names. So long as we are in hell, that is easy. We are in presence of gigantic figures, with heroic impulses and intelligible motives—if only we do not ask too closely what was the warfare in which they were engaged. When we venture to the highest regions, the discord is harder to resolve; and we are painfully aware that Milton is writing 'in fetters.'
This, in fact, is implied in the opinion which Professor Raleigh shares with the best critics since Dryden's day, that Satan is the hero of the poem. If Paradise Lost be really a religious poem, that would seem to imply a stupendous blunder somewhere; and yet it is inevitable. Johnson quaintly praises Milton because 'there is in Satan's speeches little that can give pain to a pious ear.' That is perhaps the last compliment that we could have expected the genuine devil to deserve. In fact, it is impossible not to feel a strong admiration for so heroic a being, and to be even glad that he has found so sympathetic, we might say so loving, a portrait-painter. The first book of Paradise Lost holds the very first place in English, if not in all existing, poetry; and the marvellous passage in which the 'Dread Commander' presents himself to his comrades enthrals the imagination and casts into utter oblivion the irrelevant question as to the accidental goodness or badness of his cause. He is not only himself the embodiment of heroic endurance, but obviously deserves the absolute confidence of his followers. He preserves his grandeur even when he is detected in stratagems, and rises to meet overpowering enemies
Like Teneriff or Atlas unremov'd.
We have, in short, to put aside our theological and philosophical prepossessions; to be content without forcing Milton's imagery into too close a contact with fact or asking too curiously who are the personages and what their motives. We must accept the transcendent grandeur of the actors, and admit in general that the grandeur is somehow the outcome of Milton's own character. His poetry is like the 'spectre of the Brocken'—a gigantic shape which is really a reflection of himself.
Yet Milton's conviction that he is in some sense writing true history has important results, admirably explained by Professor Raleigh. Milton's method is at the opposite pole to Shakespeare's. He gives the general type, where Shakespeare gives the concrete individual. He describes the emotion excited, where Shakespeare gives the specific details which excite the emotion. The danger of the Shakespearean method is that it may suggest grotesque and trivial associations and injure the unity and symmetry of the whole. Milton's method involves the danger of becoming vague and insipid. The general is apt to be commonplace. Milton, as Professor Raleigh points out with great clearness, is saved from this weakness by his 'concrete epic realities.' Keats's Hyperion, he says, fails by want of Milton's 'exact physical system.' The world in which the history takes place is so shadowy and indefinite that there is 'nothing for the poem to hang on by.' Milton is anthropomorphic and materialistic, and in his posthumous treatise explicitly defends the corresponding principles. Even in heaven events happen in the time and place of human chronology and geography—though at vast distances. The angels and devils, therefore, though vast and shadowy, have still tangible clothing of flesh and blood. They do not become properly abstractions, however nearly they approach that consummation. They are but highly generalised types. Milton has 'no deep sense of mystery.' His figures are of superhuman proportions, but vagueness and dim visions of remote perspectives take the place of the properly mystic. There is always a firm and definite outline behind the shadowy figure; Death has a head and a crown, though they are such as become a phantom. Milton's weakness in metaphysics, and his undoubting acceptance of rigid dogmas, naturally go with the conviction that he is dealing with history and fact; and, so to speak, prevent the poetry from evaporating in the thin air of philosophical concepts. Hence we have one aspect of the extraordinary power in which Milton is unrivalled. 'His natural port,' as Johnson puts it, 'is gigantic loftiness'; and every critic has to say the same and illustrate it by the same famous passages. The famous 'Far off his coming shone' is enough to recall his special power of concentrating the most majestic effects in a single image. It would be idle to insist upon this specially Miltonic magic, which, besides informing particular passages, animates the whole poem and gives a fainter glory even where we cannot deny the flagging power.
How, precisely, is this effect produced? Critics would fain get beyond generalities, and seek to detect the finer secret of Milton's power in the style which reflects his idiosyncrasy. Sometimes they investigate the mechanism of the versification and hope to learn something from minute examination of Milton's stresses and 'assonances' and alliterations. Professor Raleigh remarks that the passage describing the heavenward procession, in the seventh book, would 'justify an entire treatise.' A treatise would be amply justified if it could really reveal the secret of the music. Professor Raleigh appears, however, to admit that the prospect is a bad one; the 'laws of music in verse are very subtle … and, it must be added, very imperfectly ascertained.' Are they ascertained at all? Or, if ascertained, would they help us? There can, of course, be no doubt that a poet must have the musical power. Milton could not have produced his organ-tones on a 'scrannel pipe'; and a character of equal grandeur might have been combined with as little power of expression as was possessed by Cromwell. But a consideration of the instrument abstractedly, apart from the performer, can tell us little. It could only reveal that part of the charm of the poem which depends upon the sound, and which would be equally enjoyable in 'nonsense verses' or to a foreigner ignorant of the meaning. That is a very small part of the charm of Paradise Lost. The musical power is an essential condition of uttering the thought effectually, hard as it may be to explain the connection. But the ultimate secret must always lie in the grandeur of the thought, without which the best verses would be mere jingle; and no skill in arranging sibilants and aspirates and labials can be a substitute for the poetic inspiration.
When a man is moved by the 'serious and hearty love of truth, his words, like so many nimble and airy servitors, trip about him at command, and in well-ordered files, as he would wish, fall aptly into their own places.' Milton is speaking of his prose, and, of course, laboured his poetic style most carefully. Only, the words followed the thought. Professor Raleigh describes admirably the characteristic results. He points out how every word is of value: 'In Milton's versification there is no mortar between the stones; each is held in place by the weight of the others, and helps to uphold the building.' Milton himself says that one secret lies partly in the 'sense variously drawn out from one verse into another.' 'He varies the verse,' says Professor Raleigh, 'till he has hardly a rule left, save the iambic pattern, which he treats merely as a point of departure and reference, a background or framework to carry the variations imposed upon it by the luxuriance of perfectly composed art.' The metre is like the canvas which shows through the pictures woven in tapestry. In some early blank verse the sentence is forced to conform to the music; while the later Elizabethans had taken such licences that the verse became indistinguishable from prose. When Milton, for the first time, applied blank verse to a great narrative poem, he entirely reformed this laxity and reached the perfect balance, in which the sentences and the line reciprocally strengthen each other. No one has ever equalled him in this. The 'secret is lost'—as Professor Raleigh puts it—or, rather, no later poet has possessed the delicate instinct which arranged Milton's words in their 'well-ordered files.' The 'secret' was never expressible in a formula. It means simply that Milton had a marvellous ear; but even if we could assign certain 'laws of verse' which he unconsciously obeyed, we should still be as far as ever from the power of applying them.
Milton is a master of the 'grand style' because the exquisite ear was also at the service of a character of unique dignity, moved by intense convictions, contemptuous of all that was mean and trivial; hard, dogmatic, and unsympathetic, but constantly under the stress of intense and massive emotion, which finds its natural clothing in his unequalled diction. The impossibility of adopting the diction when the thought is feeble is curiously illustrated by Milton's influence on the eighteenth century. Professor Raleigh declares that 'English verse went Milton-mad' during the reign of Pope, and exemplifies the remark abundantly from such men as Thomson, Young, and Akenside. Milton is partly responsible for the mannerism which excited Wordsworth's revolt. Addison already gives the theory. A poet, he says, who seeks for 'perspicuity' alone is in danger of becoming vulgar. He must avoid that fault by 'guarding himself against idiomatic ways of speaking'; and for that purpose, among other expedients, he may use the idioms of other languages; as Milton indulges in Latinisms, and grammatical inversions. To the school of Pope 'perspicuity' became the cardinal virtue, as suited to an age in which the imagination was kept in strict bondage by the reason; and Pope's language was simply that of the most cultivated society of the day. It was quite adequate for purposes of satire or argument in verse: when, that is, the metre was used only to give point and smartness to the substance of prose. But when the writer was ambitious of some more distinctively poetic effect, he had to 'raise his language' by some judicious artifice. Pascal had shown how this is done. As men do not know, he says, in what poetic beauty consists, they invent 'certains termes bizarres, "siècle d'or, merveille de nos jours, fatal laurier, bel astre," etc., et on appelle ce jargon beauté poëtique.' So shepherds in English become 'conscious swains,' and their sheep are the 'flocks that graze the verdant mead.' Paradise Lost for such purposes was an invaluable treasure-house, and applicable almost in proportion to the prosaic nature of the subject. The excellent Dr. Grainger undertook to write a didactic poem about the sugar-cane. He had written, so Boswell tells us, 'Now muse, let's sing of mice'; and substituted 'rats' for 'mice' as more dignified. But he made a more promising attempt when he echoed Milton—
Spirit of Inspiration, that didst lead
Th' Ascrean poet to the sacred mount, etc.
invented a system of preternaturally majestic diction, perfectly fitted for the utterance of his own conceptions, but, when divorced from those conceptions, so monstrously artificial in effect that his imitators and followers, hoisting themselves on the Miltonic stilts, brought the very name of 'poetic diction' into a contempt that lasted for more than a century and is not yet wholly extinct.
We should qualify this judgment by adding that they had to find some stilts; and that, if their gait was awkward on the inappropriate elevation, Milton's magnificent power helped to preserve an ideal of poetic excellence through a period in which the highest sources of inspiration were almost closed by the general attitude of thought. I return, in short, to the point from which I started. When we criticise Milton as a religious poet, as the expounder of a theodicy or the creator of an epic, we are forced to justify admiration at the cost of condoning palpable absurdities. It becomes evident that we must rather seek to justify ourselves by showing what a surpassing power was manifested in spite of innumerable trammels imposed by the task and by the conditions of thought which made his conception of it inevitable. The diction is admirable because it gives the man himself, but, for that reason, could be effectively used by no one but himself. The gigantic figure stands out more clearly by the help of his last interpreter; though Professor Raleigh would be the first to admit that to see Milton clearly is not to explain him. The full analysis of a personality is beyond the reach of any psychologist. I can only say that Professor Raleigh's portrait is among the most lifelike in existence; and that he has discussed many interesting topics at which I have not been able even to glance.
- Milton. By Walter Raleigh. London: Edward Arnold, 1900.
- Poetical Works of John Milton. Edited after the original texts by the Rev. H. C. Beeching. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1900.
- Milton's Prosody. By Robert Bridges. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893.
- Milton's Poems. Edited by A. Wilson Verity in 'Pitt Press Series.' Cambridge University Press, 1897, etc.
- Facsimile of the Manuscript of Milton s Minor Poems preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1899.