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Then compare them with some other descriptive lines or passages, and you will do better in seeing just what is Miltonic about them. For instance, take such lines as these from "The Passing of Arthur," in the "Idylls of the King":
“And on a sudden, lo! the level lake
The many knotted water flags
Those are fine lines, but they are of a very different character. Or take Shakespeare:
This guest of summer
For longer passages compare with the description of the great gate in "Gareth and Lynette," or the city of Camelot and Arthur's Hall in "The Holy Grail;" or of Ophelia's brook in "Hamlet," or of Dover Cliff in King Lear."
Such passages are truly Miltonic; the more we realize them, the more we realize Milton. Further, we may note something else without difficulty,—we have been speaking of the speeches and the descriptions, but this is something common to the speeches and the descriptions, and to the narrative parts as well,-I mean the quality of sustained movement which almost anybody will recognize in the poem, the unhasting, unresting flow of the language, the marshalling of clause after clause in never-ceasing march, or, if we choose to vary the figure, the sustained power of the flight which rises against the wind like some great eagle, or like his own Satan flying through Chaos. Really to get the idea, take such passages as i. 692–730, or ii.
871-928; take such a sentence as i. 192-220, or ii. 596614; find out such passages for yourself, and you will know more than you could get from a dozen figures of speech and a dozen adjectives to boot.
If, now, we have rightly appreciated the preceding passages, we may gain something further from this judgment of Matthew Arnold, who is comparing Milton with Homer. "Milton," he says, "charges himself so full with thought, imagination, knowledge, that his style will hardly contain them. He is too full-stored to show us in much detail one conception, one piece of knowledge; he just shows it to us in a pregnant, allusive way, and then he presses on to another; and all this fulness, this pressure, this condensation, this self-restraint enters into his movement, and makes it what it is,-noble, but difficult and austere." Thought, imagination, knowledge, a great wealth of these things, we find in Milton, and all expressed in a style which is noble, although austere and even difficult. To these three words, which are excellently chosen, I would add a fourth not so good, but it may stand as a token for what we have already mentioned,-namely, powerful. When we allow Milton to be difficult, we admit merely that he is not to be enjoyed without previous effort. When we call his manner austere, we recognize that although we may gain pleasure from him, it is not a lovable, companionable pleasure. When we say that he is powerful, we mean that he imposes himself upon us, so that we feel the force of his ideas, and see things as he sees them. And when we say Milton is noble, we mean that his ideas are on a high plane, and that things as he sees them are fine things to see.
So much will be useful in giving a general appreciation of Milton's style; there are one or two minor matters which may be treated more at length as illustrating more important points, and there is also the question of his metre.
'On Translating Homer, p. 206.
2. The Epic Similes.
One element of Milton's style may strike a modern reader as a little strained, or even pedantic, although in the poet's own day and for some time afterward it was much admired. I mean the similes, formal similes, one might almost call them, of which there are a number in our two books, as, for example, the comparison of the crowd of fallen angels with the swarming bees (Book i. 768-776). Milton is telling of the crowding horde of angels pushing into the great capitol which Mulciber has just devised for them. He compares them to bees: "As bees, In spring-time when the Sun with Taurus rides, Pour forth their populous youth about the hive In clusters; they among fresh dews and flowers Fly to and fro, or, on the smoothed plank, The suburb of their straw-built citadel, New rubbed with balm, expatiate and confer Their state affairs; so thick the aery crowd Swarmed and were straitened.”
Here the aptness of the figure strikes one at once; but one notices, too, that not only is there a resemblance between the two pictures, but that the picture of the bees is attractive in itself. It was evidently so to Milton, for it will be observed that he does not confine himself to the points of resemblance; he mentions not merely their flying to and fro, their conferring together; he suggests not only their swarming and crowding, but he goes on farther and fills out the picture. It is spring; the bees are buzzing about their straw hives standing in line upon a smooth plank; they flit about among the dewy flowers. These are not points of likeness; indeed, nothing could be much more unlike than a fresh, dewy spring morning and the terrible place Milton has been forcing upon our imagination; than the quaint straw bee-hives among the old-fashioned flowers and this great palace Pandemonium. But the poet, having
called up a picture, must make it as concrete as possible, and the points of likeness amid the differences give probably a greater pleasure than if the comparison exactly tallied in every point, as was one great aim of some of the writers just before Milton.
These rather detailed similes are not an invention of Milton's: they were a part of the traditional epic manner, coming down to modern literature from Homer.1 They may be said to be a mark of the classic style as opposed to what is sometimes called the romantic. Read, if you like, Tennyson's Idylls of the King," or one of them, and then Matthew Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum,"1 and you I will see the difference. Matthew Arnold's poem is very simple and plain, except for these marked similes; Tennyson's has few figures of any such length, but the whole fabric of his poem is so interwoven with figure that the reader comes near being dazzled by the irridescence.
Addison, whose criticism on "Paradise Lost" is interesting, has a word to say on this subject, which I quote to show the feeling of a man of letters, himself a poet, who was much nearer Milton in point of time than we are.
66 There are also several noble Similes and Allusions in the First Book of Paradise Lost. And here I must observe, that when Milton alludes either to Things or Persons, he never quits his Simile till it rises to some very great Idea, which is often foreign to the Occasion which gave Birth to it. The Resemblance does not, perhaps, last above a Line or two, but the Poet runs on with the Hint, till he has raised out of it some glorious Image or Sentiment, proper to inflame the Mind of the Reader, and to give it that sublime Kind of Entertainment, which is suitable to an Heroic Poem. Those, who are acquainted with Homer's and Virgil's way of Writing cannot but be pleased with this Kind of Structure in Milton's Similitudes. I am the more particular on this Head, because ignorant Readers, who have formed their Taste upon the
'A few examples, ancient and modern, will be found in Ap pendix, B. "See Bibliography, p. lxi.
quaint Similes, and little Turns of Wit, which are now so much in Vogue among Modern Poets, cannot relish these Beauties which are of a much higher nature, and are therefore apt to censure Milton's Comparisons, in which they do not see any surprising points of likeness."
(Criticism on Milton's Paradise Lost. "Spectator," No. 303.)
He then goes on to mention a certain M. Perrault, who had made fun of some of Homer's similes, calling them Comparaisons à longue queue, and gives also the answer to such talk of Boileau, a critic much esteemed in Addison's day, ending his paper thus:
"In short, if we look into the Conduct of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, as the great Fable1 is the soul of each Poem, so to give their Works an agreeable Variety, their Episodes are so many short Fables, and their Similes so many short Episodes; to which you may add, if you please, that their Metaphors are so many short Similes. If the Reader considers the Comparisons in the First Book of Milton, of the Sun in an Eclipse, of the Sleeping Leviathan, of the Bees swarming about their Hive, of the Fairy Dance, in the view wherein I have placed them, he will easily discover the great Beauties that are in each of those Passages."
3. Milton's Use of Geographical Names.
Another marked thing about Milton's way of writing in 66 Paradise Lost " is his use of geographical names, or, we might almost say, of proper names in general. The subject is one so easily misconceived that it is worth while to say a few words upon it. Take, for example, the lines,
"And all who since, baptised or infidel,
The action of the whole poem.