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political environments, and (what is here the most important of all) of poetic purpose and performance—is almost fatiguingly conspicuous and uniform. An ordinary mind contemplating Milton can realize to itself the feeling of the Athenian who resented hearing Aristides for ever styled "the Just." Such a mind feels a little and excusably provoked at the serene and severe loftiness of a Milton, and casts about to find 'him blameworthy in his very superiority —an exacting husband and father, an over-learned writer, cumbrous or stilted in prose, and pedantically accoutred in verse, a political and religious extremist. There may be something in these objections, or the smaller kind of souls will please themselves by supposing there is something in them. Honour is the predominant emotion naturally felt towards Milton—hardly enthusiasm—certainly not sympathy. Perhaps a decided feeling of unsympathy would affect many of us, were it not for the one great misfortune of the poet. Nature had forbidden him to be infirm in himself, but gave him a crown of accidental or physical infirmity, and bowed him somewhat—a little lower than the angels—towards sympathy. This Aristides was blind.
Any one who has even a small inkling of self-knowledge must feel, two centuries after the death of Milton, that to pretend to say much about the quality of his poetry would be an impertinence. Admiration and eulogium are long ago discounted: objections sound insolent, and are at any rate supererogatory. One's portion is to read and reverence. Still, something remains to be defined by an independent appreciator, however deeply respectful. I shall reduce this something to a minimum: and have indeed, in the preceding general observations about Milton's personal and intellectual character, indicated most of the points which seem to deserve some sort of expression with regard to his poetry.
Among Milton's many great attributes, his masteryof the sublime is the one which has probably received the most frequent and most emphatic laudation. For my own part, I think it open to question whether, even in this preeminent possession of a most preeminent poetic gift, he shows so signal a superiority as he does in point of utterance (as it may be called), or sonority. His power over language, in its beauty and its majesty, his mastery of form and of verse, his dominance over all persuasion and all stress and sustainment of sound, its music and loveliness, its resources and charms, its dignity, austerity, and awe,—these form perhaps the most marked distinction of Milton, and his most genuinely and widely felt appeal. It seems conceivable that some readers, not strictly destitute of susceptibility to poetry, might remain cold and obtuse to the sublimity of Milton, or might acknowledge without truly admiring it : but anybody who has read Milton with some moderate degree of attention, and who yet fails to feel the noble delight of his diction and music—his "numbers," as an elder generation of critics used happily to phrase it— must be pronounced deficient in the primary sense of poetry.
From a certain point of view, there is no poet more difficult to estimate than Milton—salient and unmistakeable as his leading characteristics are to the least expert student of poetry. To appraise Milton is to appraise Paradise Lost; or, conversely, to appraise Paradise Lost is in the main to appraise Milton. Now Paradise Lost is an enormously difficult book to give a fair account of even to one's own instincts or intuitions—much more to one's critical or reasoning faculties, or, through the medium of words, to the like faculties of the reader. The great difficulty consists in this: That Paradise Lost is so interwoven with the religion and religious associations of the people, and is written from a standard of conception so lofty and ideal in many respects, that one can hardly bring oneself to apply any different standard to it, and yet one feels that in numerous instances the product is not commensurate with that standard. Not so much that it falls below it (though this also is indisputably true in a sense) as that it deviates entirely. To measure some things in the poem by the ideal standard is like trying chemical substances by the wrong test: they yield no response to the demandant. Hence, I think, some disappointment to the prepossessed reader of Paradise Lost, or to the reader who, being unprepossessed, has the courage also to be candid: the poem ought, he fancies, to be as true as a divine oracle, unswerving from the severe and impeccable ideal line, and behold it is considerably otherwise. The fault, or part of the fault, lies with the reader. There is no final reason why the spiritual afflatus which wrapped Milton, the atmosphere of ideas and data in which he lived, should be closer to ultimate truth and right, to the sublime of a divine equity, than those of Homer or any other great poet. The inextinguishable laughter of Olympus is alien to us, but has a poetic value of its own not likely soon to perish: the scholastic harangues of Jehovah and Messiah, or the cannonades of Satan and Moloch, may also be alien to us, and it is only our prejudices which, perceiving them to be thus alien, refuse to allow the fair consequence—that these things must be dismissed as having any connexion with supernal truth, and must henceforth be regarded as merely so much surplusage for any save poetic ends. It remains to be judged whether they are good poetry or bad. To Milton they were as ideal and profound as to Homer the laughter of the gods, and Ares wounded by Diomed; perhaps not more :—to us, neither need be profound or ideal. Like all other products of human mind, how great soever—and clearly it ranks among the very great—Paradise Lost is local and temporary: it belongs to the puritan Milton, it belongs to the England of the seventeenth century, inspired by Hebrew religionists and poets, and fancying that it possessed a final criterion of truth, and almost a final interpretation of truth. Local and temporary it is in its constituent parts— only in its essence or outcome universal and undying: like the Iliad of Homer, the Commcdia of Dante, the Prometheus of Shelley, the Faust of Gothe.
"the measure is English Heroic Verse without Rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; Rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; graced indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint, to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse, than else they would have expressed them. Not without cause, therefore, some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rhyme both in longer and shorter works ; as have also, long since, our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out frorri one verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoided by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good' Oratory. This neglect then of Rhyme so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to Heroic Poem, from the troublesome and modern bondage of Rhyming."
This First Book proposes, first in brief, the whole subject, man's disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise, wherein he was placed. Then touches the prime cause of his fall, the serpent, or rather Satan in the Serpent; who, revolting from God, and drawing to his side many legions of angels, was, by the command of God, driven out of Heaven; with all his crew, into the great deep. Which action passed over, the Poem hastens into the midst of things, presenting Satan with his angels now fallen into hell, described here, not in the centre, for Heaven and Earth may be supposed as yet not made, certainly not yet accursed, but in a place of utter darkness, fitliest called Chaos: Here Satan, with his angels, lying on the burning lake, thunderstruck and astonished, after a certain space recovers, as from confusion, calls up him who next in order and dignity lay by him; they confer of their miserable fall. Satan awakens all his legions, who lay till then in
the same manner confounded; they rise ; their numbers, array of battle, their chief leaders named, according to the idols known afterwards in Canaan and the countries adjoining. To these Satan directs his speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them lastly of a new world and new kind of creature to be created, according to an ancient prophecy or report in heaven; for, that angels were long before this visible creation, was the opinion of many ancient fathers. To find out the truth of this prophecy, and what to determine thereon, he refers to a full council. What his associates thence attempt. Pandemonium, the palace of Satan, rises, suddenly built out of the deep: the infernal peers there sit in council.
Of man's first disobedience and the fruit
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Say first, for Heaven hides nothing from thy view,