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writings was to him but the preface to experiments like those recorded in his Natural History. His caution and practical keenness reflect one phase of the time.
In the works of his friend Ben Jonson, the drama has undergone a complete change. It had been an exhibition of humanity from its highest nobility to its lowest degradation, in subordination indeed to art, but to art instinctive, so working in and through its creations, that these have a life and being of their own. Jonson presents us with a certain amount of humourous or of didactic matter cast into dramatic moulds as fixed as the ancient masks of comedy and tragedy. By his own confession, this was the ever-recurring cause of quarrel with his public, who had been educated in Shakespeare's school. But he was not in permanent disfavour with his countrymen. His pedantry became less conspicuous as the age became more pedantic. In conjunction with his better qualities of mind, it at last promoted him to acknowledged headship over the contemporary men of letters—a presidency since held by Dryden and by Johnson. His plays retained possession of the stage long after his death, and with those of Beaumont and Fletcher were performed much oftener than the works of Shakespeare.
Thus the chief poet of the new reign yielded to the dominant tendency, and by his deliberate obedience to a system of definite rules shewed 'the very age and body of the time its form and pressure.' For a reaction had taken place from poetic impulse and heroic achievement to prosaic weariness and worldly wisdom. As the spiritual tension of the nation relaxed, the free healthy belief-the faith which had removed mountains-was replaced by questioning hesitation or by narrow dogmatism. In devout souls, the clear inspiration of simple duty was exchanged for aspiration after some model of supposed perfection. As the sense of an actual Divine government became weaker, the problem of the best possible form of polity became more urgent. The principal interest of the coming time centres in the Puritan, as the most prominent and consistent representative of this great change. By taking a view of Milton's poems in chronological order,
we may trace the operation of the new influences, pervading his nature, moral and artistic, and giving the tone and direction to his whole life and work.
Milton's writings fall naturally into three periods, each having a distinct character. These are :1. The Early Verse period : ending with his return from
the continent in 1638. II. The Prose period : from 1638 to the Restoration. III. The Later Verse period : from the Restoration to the
end of his life. I. During the whole of this period the external influences on Milton's life are favourable to what we may call by anticipation the Cavalier alternative. We learn from Mr. Masson's elaborate Life, that in the home of Milton's childhood the memory of the last Tudor was held in especial honour. An old 'Queen Elizabeth gentleman' was a frequent visitor. The master of the house had himself celebrated the fair Oriana' in strains that gave him a place among the first composers of his time, and that must have been among the earliest impressions of the dawning life of his
He had a share, too, in the Whole Book of Psalms, a musical venture of Thomas Ravenscroft, and to him we owe the tunes known as 'Norwich’and ‘York,' which were favourite airs for chimes of country churches. It might well be by his father's suggestion that John Milton, at fifteen, began his poetical career by versified paraphrases of the 104th and 136th Psalms. These songs of praise were in less than twenty years to assume a new force from their directly personal application by thousands of Englishmen, who believed themselves engaged in a cause as unequivocally favoured by the Almighty as that of Israel of old.
Keen-eyed commentators have detected in these exercises several indications of Milton's perusal of Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas. We know the book to have been a favourite one with Milton, as with Dryden and most readers of the time. A happy phrase here and there was naturally retained in a poet's memory. It was a canon of last-century criticism that every great poem was a word-mosaic, and that
it was the critic's chief business to trace the fragments to the composition in which they first appeared. To Milton's case this canon is not inapplicable. Indeed his poems bear, and even require, ample illustration of this kind. He has often amplified and exalted the conceptions derived from or suggested by books. His genius lay rather in this felicitous appropriation—in the strict sense of that word-heightening, and enrichment of such suggestions, than in taking them at first hand from Nature. In the various readings appended to Todd's edition of the Comus, much of that work is seen to be the laborious adjustment of remembered epithets. Phrases or lines are struck out, and saved as material for use farther on. Sometimes the words first written are frigid, even technical. We are therefore precluded from attributing the final result to any sustained impulse, or to that perception of his subject as a reality apart from his cogitations about it, which enabled Shakespeare to express himself with such ease that his editors 'scarcely received from him a blot in his papers.”
As to the manner of his working, Milton passed under different influences, indicated by the varying metre and style of these early poems. The next in order, On a Fair Infant, is both in diction and treatment evidently an imitation of Spenser, whose stanza is adopted with the excision of its sixth and seventh lines, and whose manner is happily followed in the quaint and elaborate beauty of the opening, and in the mingling of classic with scriptural associations throughout.
Two years afterwards, Milton uses, in addressing his 'native language,' the simple old decasyllabic metre of Chaucer, and shews how well it is adapted for the treatment of high and heroic themes. When he is recalled to his immediate task, he proves himself an adept in the manufacture of conceits, here applied to their proper purpose--a riddle.
The'graver subject' he would then have chosen if he might, he found the next year in the Nativity. The modified Spenserian stanza is again used for the introduction. Of the stanzas 4-7 of the Hymn itself, Landor says it is incomparably the noblest piece of lyric poetry in any modern language that I am conversant with,' adding a regret that the remainder is here and there marred by the bubbles and fetid mud of the Italian'-to the influence of which literature, in its then degraded state, he attributes many of the redundancies and exaggerations of Milton's verse. In this Hymn, the suggestiveness peculiar to its author's language for the first time fully asserts itself. It abounds in felicities that strike the fancy and abide in the memory. The few defects owe their disagreeable prominence to the vigour of the metre, by which an awkward metaphor or a forced conceit is not veiled as by the gently-falling drapery of the Spenserian numbers. In his lines on the Passion, Milton achieved a very tolerable imitation of Spenser's manner, but quite lost sight of his own subject and its requirements. Not only did he, 'nothing satisfied with what was begun,' leave it unfinished, but when time and inward ripeness had removed any incapacity derived from the years he had,' he never resumed the theme or reverted to the use of the metre associated with his failure. The cause of that failure deserves some consideration.
The two poets who most closely followed the footsteps of Spenser, Phineas and Giles Fletcher, applied the style and (with certain modifications) the measure of the Faërie Queen to the subjects respectively of man in his physical and moral nature, and of the life of Christ. Each strove unsuccessfully to avoid the main difficulty of his task. An allegory should be able to stand alone-a dream with an interpretation, not a translation of definite facts into a continued metaphor. The First Book of the Faërie Queen is a complete allegory, bearing a consistent surface meaning which might be its only meaning. Its author was at liberty to create the circumstances of his story and to adorn them with such accessories as might help to render them definite to the reader. He wishes, first of all, that you should see his knight and lady and dwarf; and his description of their adventures is as graphic as if the tale had no second hidden sense. Compare the effect with that of Fletcher's Purple Island, which means man's body, its geography being his anatomy, its chief city his heart, in the palace of which dwell Life and Heat and their companions.
The island, city, palace, and the rest are only intelligible by continual reference to the secondary or rather the sole meaning of the poem. So in the later Books of the Faërie Queen various historic incidents are set forth under a transparent veil of metaphor which renders the work dull and anomalous, as neither history nor allegory.
The only method in which the Spenserian manner could be made available for the theme of the Passion-an event whose details are so awful and significant that the simplest narrative of them is the most impressive—had been already adopted by Giles Fletcher. His devotional commentary, though full of those freaks and fantasies in which our elder writers exhibited and often abused their strength, has yet a grace and force that finds no parallel in the tawdry and cumbrous rhetoric of this fragment. Happily, the turgid absurdity of the closing lines gave the poet warning of his error.
Between the Nativity Ode and the lines on the Passion we shall probably be right in placing the verses on the Circumcision. The influence of Fletcher is still perceptible in the conclusion, more doctrinal than poetical, and there is a taint of euphuistic absurdity in the diction; but the pleasure Milton found in the broken, varied rhythm probably induced him to employ it, in an improved form, for the odes On Time and At a Solemn Music, which are the last examples in his early poems of the style we are considering.
In them is expressed the ideal of a passive celestial felicity, in an expansion and exaggeration of the figurative language of Scripture: à theme often repeated, but never with the glorious force and brevity of the lines that, a century later, Handel was to 'wed to divine sounds.'
Another series of imitative studies culminates in the Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester. Ben Jonson's best known epitaphs are written in the metre of these lines—a metre much used by Carew and other poets of the time. Jonson's characteristics are happily caught: the terseness, the abrupt transitions from rugged strength to calm and gliding strains, and from elegant and classic imagery to cold and trivial conceits; and the occasional yielding to the ever-present