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. We are told by Aubrey that Paradise Lost was completed about three years after the Restoration. The battle of Milton's life was lost and won, and the sympathetic longings for onset and victory, that might once have kindled his triumphant song, were stilled for ever. It was no time to fulfil his youthful anticipation of celebrating the unconquered order of the Table Round, and the exploits of Arthur crashing through the Saxon ranks. He turns with sad serenity to contemplate the cradle of the race, to find in Eden the realisation of the purity, uprightness and strength from which his countrymen had so far departed.
In the selection of a sacred subject, Milton might seem to share the prejudices of some of his contemporaries, that secular themes were not merely beneath the dignity, but contrary to the profession of a Christian poet. But his treatment is distinctly original. His mental energy, guided by classical tradition, works in the Scripture material till a Biblical mythology is constructed, with persons, incidents, and accessories suggested or directly furnished from the storehouse in his memory of things new and old. In the outline of the poem we see the hard logical framework of Milton's theology; in its details the spoils of all previous literature are used to adorn till they nearly conceal the rigid unity of the substructure.
In the religious poetry of Milton's day-in the writings of Crashaw, Quarles and Herbert—the modes of expression, and often the feelings expressed, are too peculiar and personal to be recognised by the generality of readers as an accurate transcript of their own experience. Such books as the Steps to the Temple and the Divine Emblems are chiefly valuable as the exponents of one highly cultivated religious fancy dwelling on a few religious ideas with much variety of religious vocabulary. Contrasted with this, the dominant school of his day, Milton appears truly Catholic. His work is of loftier proportions: his conception of his subject embraces in its sweep all similar presentations in the literature of other times, and fuses them into a whole which possesses at once the charm of novelty and the grace of association. It would be
beyond the purpose and the limits of this Introduction to enter into any detailed examination of Paradise Lost. That written by Addison in the Spectator should be read by every student of Milton. Its delicate discrimination of the author's original excellences, and the degree in which he was indebted to antiquity, is sometimes marred by the prevailing vice of eighteenth-century criticism, the habit of regarding works of the highest order as mere elegant entertainments, diversified with pleasing strokes of genius' and skilful arrangements of incidents depending not on art but on artifice.
Dr. Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, has given a summary view of Paradise Lost arranged under the heads of the various requisites of an epic poem, the moral, the fable, &c. The warping prejudice which made Johnson'a dishonest man'in relation to Milton (as De Quincey has said) appears even in the eulogium which he is constrained to pronounce upon this great work. He insinuates that it is dull. De Quincey pertinently asks, 'to whom'? Allowing that its excellence is not continuously sustained 'to the height of its great argument,' yet perhaps no book, when it has been once carefully perused throughout, is more frequently recurred to by all lovers of literature, impelled to re-open it by the haunting visions of beauty or echoes of aërial melody that linger in the memory. But though Addison and Johnson have supplied the standard full-length notices of Paradise Lost, Miltonic criticism is deeply indebted to later and more appreciative writers. Coleridge, Landor, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, De Quincey, have each left us some flowers gathered in their passage through the
happy garden. Their observations, for the most part detached and fragmentary, are not made afar off from a bleak critical height, but in close contact and sympathy with their subject, arising spontaneously from their intimate knowledge of it, and giving real help to its better comprehension by others.
All that can here be attempted is to direct the attention of the student to the main idea of the great poem and its bearing on Milton's time. Obedience, and obedience of a negative kind, is set forth as the tenure by which man held
his original happiness. So far there is nothing distinctively Puritan. But in the longing retrospect to the state of innocence as the state of perfection, in the presentation of the solitary pair as the type of human society, we see the working of the spirit which, aiming at noble simplicity, had achieved barren nakedness, and which induced Milton to disparage all human arts and wisdom as vain and corrupt. Again, as in Puritan preaching the main emphasis is laid on the future world, the existing state of things being regarded as the insignificant 'point between two eternities,' we cannot expect from the Puritan poet any such proclamation of a present order and kingdom of a reigning God as we find in Dante, who resembled him in his stern firm belief in his own inspiration. In Milton, accordingly, the action takes place in the far-away past and refers to the far-away future; while in his Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, Dante describes three phases of existence, as present and real as the life in Florence streets, and the revelation of them is made in the most matter-of-fact tone, by one who had himself performed the awful journey.
It is certainly no disparagement of Milton's genius to admit that both in the scheme and in the details of his great work he attempted the impossible. Only his marvellous. power could have given the appearance of success. We may admire, with Coleridge, the judgment with which the Fall of Angels is supplied as a background to the Fall of Man, and the origin of Evil thus removed into the dim vista of preAdamite ages; but we cannot help seeing that the mystery, thus seemingly explained, is as mysterious as ever, nor that Adam and Eve have evidently the knowledge of evil before the Fall. Again, in the Divine dialogues, according to Coleridge, the author takes advantage of the dramatic representation of God's address to the Son the Filial Alterity,' to introduce the personal interest required by poetry, and 'to slip in, as it were by stealth, language of affection, thought, or sentiment, in a variety which he does not attempt to employ elsewhere.' But in the endeavour to preserve the duality of the Divine Interlocutors, such limitation is inevitable as is ruinous to the effect of a work of art which (as this does) claims not our mere assent to the conditions, but our belief in the truth of its representations. A striking example of the difficulties which abounded in Milton's theme is the great contest with the rebel angels. Strictly speaking, the devils (since they remain such), are not conquered by the goodness of God; they are only punished by His power. To give the appearance of victory, the contest is made no longer spiritual-of Good with Evil, but material-of Force with Force; and so we have the battle in the Sixth Book.
Ellwood's question. What hast thou to say of Paradise Regained'? led Milton to complete the treatment of his subject. We have in the later poem the triumph of obedience. This obedience is no longer a mere passive submission, or observance of a prohibitive command, but an active seeking after the indications of a Higher Will and an energetic concurrence in His purposes. And in selecting the Temptation rather than the Crucifixion as the climax of the self-surrender of Him who became obedient unto death, Milton was partly influenced by the antithesis between the scene, the circumstances and the event of this and of the former, primeval assault of the Enemy of man. But the personal reference is never absent in Milton's works. The down-trodden Puritans brooded over the disappointment of their darling hopes, and as the days increased, increased their doubt.' It was surely natural that their poet should turn to contemplate the circumstances in which the Kingdom of Heaven did come with power, and seek to realise rather the victory of the Son of Man over the perplexities of life and the suggestions of evil, than the final triumph of His death.
Galling as was the Stuart yoke to the Puritan, it was not heavier than that of the Roman on the Jew. The Jew's deliverance was indeed at hand, but not by the obvious expedient of revolt and independence. Such commonplace suggestions are urged upon the Deliverer by the Tempter with all the plausible rhetoric of worldly wisdom. But the perplexity of the Messiah as to His own person and office cannot drive Him into self-assertion. In the refusal to test
His divinity he proves it, and in His utter self-abnegation the disobedient spirit is compelled to recognise the Son of God. The contemplation of the “irresistible might of weakness,' in 'humiliation and strong sufferance' thus overcoming the Power of Evil, must again have fed with calm and confident thoughts the mind of Milton quietly expecting, without distrust or doubt.
In Paradise Regained the poet claims the highest sanction for the Puritan opinion (transmitted from the early Lollard days) of the sole sufficiency of Scripture for all purposes of life. In its assertion he exalts Holy Writ as the triumphant rival of all Gentile wisdom and secular knowledge, and limits the inspiration of God to the words and actions therein recorded.
In the last Book of Paradise Lost, Milton had traced tyranny to its cause in those who are subjected to its sway, and makes their submission of themselves to inward baseness the precursor of outward slavery, 'though to the tyrant thereby no excuse.' So much he might permit himself to say of those who had welcomed the return of the Stuart; but what of those who had fought so nobly in the good old cause'? They had surely not deserved their fate. Their bitter disappointment is set forth in Samson Agonistes. A great deliverance had been wrought, a glorious future seemed opening to the nation'mewing her mighty youth;' and now her champions lay at the mercy of their foes. In this last poem of Milton, there is a change from the exclusive if lofty egotism of those passages in the Paradise Lost and Regained which refer directly to the author. He now expresses not merely his own sense of his own calamity as man and bardnot merely feeling, but fellow feeling. It is as the hero and representative of his race that Samson appeals to us. His brethren are not left wholly without hope, and still wistfully look to him as their deliverer.
The final victory of Samson is not without its parallel. The executions of the regicides, and the horrors attendant thereon, did more to check the ultra-royalist reaction than any less public, if equally base acts of the Restoration govern