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he written at any other time. So far as the metre is concerned, “Paradise Lost” would have been very different (if we can conceive of it at all), before Shakespeare or after Pope. So far as the general epic form is concerned, Milton would have written something very different had he been contemporary with Chaucer or with Browning. There is much about Milton's literary expression that belongs distinctly to his time and to no other. But so far as the vital qualities of his work are concerned, they are not explained by the development of English Literature.
The true setting for Milton and his work is not so much English Literature as English History. The history of the seventeenth century makes Milton's work much clearer to us than the literature of the seventeenth century. We need to know the history of the rise and fall of the Puritan party in England, we need to know what was the temper and character of the Puritan, before we see clearly how Milton's genius took its actual course and form. Something of such knowledge is the easy possession of every American. We all know something, and generally we have no very false idea, of that remarkable body of men who for their own day were the rulers of England, and for their own day and many a long day more were the rulers of that new England which they founded. They were men of strong character, having pre-eminent faults and great virtues. They were men of religion, men to whom the inner life was a matter of vast import. They were men of earnestness, intolerant of frivolity and license, as also of gayety and liberalism. They were, on the whole, high-minded men, magnanimous men, who looked after great things, and strove at least to get at their vital relations. Few of them paid great attention to literature; the Bible was to them not literature but law. But considering the small number of them who turned their attention to letters, they produced a large number of mas, terpieces,-namely two. The Pilgrim's Progress" and “Paradise Lost” are both expressions of Puritan idealism,
one in the simple, natural form of a prose allegory, the other in the refined, highly-developed conventionality of an epic. Both, doubtless, have excellences that were rare in the Puritan, and both have faults that were not uncommon with him. But neither of them would have been written as it was written, had it not been for the work done by the Puritan in England.
II. ON “ PARADISE LOST.”
1. The Relation of the Poem to Milton's Other Work.
We shall be able to take a broader view of our two books, and to gain a particular kind of pleasure from them, if we understand clearly, not only the place that they hold in “Paradise Lost,” but the place that " Paradise Lost” itself holds among Milton's writings. We know, of course, that it was his greatest poem, but we shall do well also to know what it has to do with his other poems and with his prose writings, if there be any connection, and how far it grew out of the conditions of Milton's life and times. Such knowledge enables us to look at the poem in a particular way. It is not that we cannot enjoy it without knowing; doubtless many people have enjoyed “Paradise Lost” with very little definite knowledge about Milton. The theme, the construction of the poem, the characters, the descriptions, the figures, the language, the feeling,all these things which go to cause the general impression are much the same with or without a knowledge of who Milton was or when he wrote. We could admire the greatness of Milton's conception of Satan, the boldness of his flight from Hell, even if we had no idea of the name of the author. Still, one gains a different kind of pleasure, an added pleasure, by looking at the poem as a part in a larger whole; we are glad to become better acquainted with the poet whom we admire; perhaps here and there we understand a passage better, or a few words, by knowing somewhat
more of the way Milton's mind must have worked in conceiving them.
The most considerable of Milton's poems, besides“ Paradise Lost,” are “Comus," “Paradise Regained,” and
Samson Agonistes.” In these four poems we shall find that there is curious unity of theme, that Milton had something of the same idea in mind in all of them, varying its presentation in one way or another according to circumstances or necessities. When we think that “ Comus" and “Paradise Regained” are separated by thirty years of time, we may see how strong, how insistent was this idea. It was, to tell the truth, a question which came close home to every earnest Puritan, with a searching power that dominated every other thought. This idea was the continual antagonism in this world between Good and Evil, or we may call it more shortly the problem of Sin. The questions of Sin and of Salvation, the relation of the Individual, of each man, to God—these were matters over which the Puritans in England and in this country suffered agonies which were almost something new in the world. Milton thought and felt with the great body to which he belonged, and, after the fashion of poets, his thoughts and feelings come to our view in his work. In Comus” we have the gallant allegory of a young
Milton was writing not for grave and serious men and women, but for a cheerful and splendid festival. He was himself more fond of the joyous and beautiful things of this world than we are apt to remember.
The Masque was, in those days, an elaborate spectacular affair, in which the nobles and gentles of two generations took their delight, and Milton must have seen many at the University or in London. The subject was sometimes a fantastic legend, but more often it was allegorical in character, and Milton's temper, which was grave, even while gay, chose this form for ideas which had often been in his mind. He shows us Virtue tempted by Evil in the form of sensual
*Pointed out by Dowden ; see p. lxii.
pleasure,–Virtue represented by the chaste and beautiful Lady, Evil by the charming and dissolute young fellow whom Milton calls Comus, the son of the God of Wine and the Goddess of Love. For a time the Lady is in the power of the enchanter; she is in his power but never yields to him, never joins that herd of easy-going worldlings, who dance and sport about, unconscious of their beastliness. Then in time the Spirit of the place (for the masque was in compliment to a noble Earl) asserts her power, Vice is discomfited, the Lady is released from temptation, and the play ends. Couched in the form of a compliment as it is, we see here a light-handed dealing with the problem of Sin and the victory of Righteousness.
Not very long after “ Comus" came the Civil War, putting an end to many masques and gayeties, and among other things putting an end to Milton's serious but lighthearted poetry. For almost twenty years he turned, as we have seen,1 to public affairs and to prose.
The Puritan Commonwealth rose and fell, and Milton had his part in its rise and fall. And toward the end, when it began to be apparent that his work as a soldier in the church militant was coming to an end, Milton turned again to that other work to which he had long before solemnly devoted himself, to the writing of a great poem. He had often before thought of the undertaking, had perhaps conceived some tale of chivalry; at one time, as we have seen, had thought to write of Arthur, the mythical king of legendary England. But now he turned to a different subject. He had seen the Good Cause battle only half successfully against great difficulties; now he reviewed the matter philosophically, or rather theologically, in his mind. Evil days were ahead. Why should there be Evil ? How came it ever to exist ? And what was the triumphant end to which the zealous lover of Good might with surety look forward ? The answer as it stands in the doctrines of the Church assumed a poetic form long existent in his "See p. xii.
See p. xi.
mind, and we have in Paradise Lost an exhibition of the origin of Evil, of its victory over man, and of its final defeat and destruction.
Somewhat later his mind turned to another poem. Thomas Ellwood, a young Quaker who had often read to Milton, and acted as secretary, tells us that Milton gave him the manuscript of “Paradise Lost” to read. He read it and returned it to Milton with the question, “What hast thou to say of Paradise Found ? Milton made no answer, “but sat some time in a muse; then brake off that discourse and fell upon another subject.” Perhaps he saw that he had not made his idea plain. He had thought to account for the whole action, for the Defeat of Sin as well as for its Victory;1 but if Ellwood had seen in the poem no hint of Paradise Regained, doubtless there would also be many others equally blind. Whether especially for such, or not, Milton wrote his second great poem, not as a conclusion or completion to “ Paradise Lost,” but as a pendent, a smaller picture, as it were, to hang below a greater, reflecting or complementing its scheme of colour or its composition. But whereas in “ Paradise Lost” he had taken for his subject a whole action, in “Paradise Regained ” he took a single event, and yet an event so typical of the whole, that the whole was in a manner bound up in it. In the Temptation Christ and Satan meet, and the old victor over Adam finds in the Son of God his eternal Conqueror. Both poems deal with the same subject, the strife with Evil, but they present it to us in different ways.
At the same time as “Paradise Regained,” Milton published another poem,“ Samson Agonistes," Samson the Striver, or the Combatant. With something doubtless of a thought of himself, blind and beaten, and yet confident and in a manner triumphant, Milton conceives of Samson, the hero of the Chosen People, a hero typical in some ways of the Chosen People, powerful, misled, deluded, blinded, and yet finally victorious, although not with such a victory
* See Bk. i. 4, 5, and Bks. xi. and xii.