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Brennumque Arviragumque duces, priscumque Belinum,
Merlini dolus. At the conclusion of his piece Of Reformation in England, published in 1641, occur the following words :-“Then amidst the hymns and hallelujahs of saints, some one may perhaps be heard offering at high strains in new and lofty measures, to sing and celebrate thy divine mercies and marvellous judgements in this land throughout all ages.” Here again there is an evident allusion to a poem on a British theme. He returns to the subject in his Reason of Church Government, published in the same year, where he still keeps to the idea of selecting his subjects from British history, but is doubtful if he shall treat them in the regular or the irregular epic form, or in the tragic or the lyric manner.* After this we hear nothing more of his poetic designs till the appearance of the Paradise Lost.
Had Milton remained in the peaceful seclusion of Horton, and had the folly of the King and Laud not raised the flames of civil and religious dissension in the realm, we may perhaps assume-judging from the cheerful and romantic tone of the poetry which proceeded from the shades of that rural retreat —that the lyre of the poet would have been tuned to British themes, and Arthur have renewed his wars in strains infinitely beyond any that have ever been, or probably ever will be, devoted to them; and a poem might have appeared vying with the Faery Queen in romantic beauty, and far exceeding it in dignity and sublimity. Mr. Mitford has indulged his imagination in the following conception of what such a poem might have contained.
We should have had tales of chivalrous emprise “of gentle knights that pricked along the plain,” the cruelty of inexorable beauty, and the achievements of unconquerable love. Its scenes would not have been laid in the bowers of Paradise, or by “the thunderous throne" of heaven, nor where the wings of the
fan the mercy-seat; but * See above, page 352.
amid royal halls, in the palaces of magicians and islands of enchantment. Instead of the serpent, with hairy mane and eye of carbuncle, gliding among the myrtle-thickets of Eden, we should have jousts and tournaments, the streaming of gonfalons, the glitter of dancing plumes, the wailing of barbaric trumpets and the sound of silver clarions ; battles fiercer than those of Fontarabia and fields more gorgeous than that of the Cloth of Gold. What crowds of pilgrims and palmers should we not have beheld journeying to and fro with shell and staff of ivory, filling the port of Joppa with their galleys ? What youthful warriors, the flower of British chivalry, should we not have seen caparisoned and in quest of the holy Sangreal? The world of reality and the world of vision would have been equally exhausted to supply the materials;
the odours would have been wafted from the “weeping woods” of Araby ; the dazzling mirrours would have been of solid diamond ; and the flowers would have been amaranths from the Land of Faëry. Every warrior would have been clothed in pyropus and in adamant. We should have watched in battle, not the celestial sword of Michael, but the enchanted Caliburn; we should bave have had, not the sorrows of Eve and the fall of Adam, but the loves of Angelica and the exploits of Arthur.“
Whether such would or would not have been the aspect which the poem would have presented, we cannot pretend to say. But it would, in all probability, have been something widely different from anything we of these later days can imagine. At all events such a creation was not to come into existence. From the moment when Milton descended into the arena of theologic conflict, there was for him an end of romance, and he would have turned with abhorrence from any theme unconnected with the solemn doctrines and deep questions of the prevailing system of theology. The gay and cheerful tone of the poetry of Horton no more reappears till it becomes necessary for aiding in the creation of the garden of Eden; even his lightest effusions now breathe a solemn tone; religion pervades every region of his mind.
As we have observed above, it is impossible now to ascertain when he first conceived the idea of making the Fall of Man the subject of a poem. Aubrey tells us that he commenced Paradise Lost in 1658; but he must have had the subject in contemplation long before that time. It is also uncertain whether he at first intended it to be an epic poem or a
tragedy. Phillips tells us it was to have been the latter; and he mentions some verses of the commencement of Satan's address to the sun in the fourth book of Paradise Lost, “which,” he says, "several years before the poem was begun, were shown to him, and some others, as designed for the very beginning of this tragedy.” This account, we think, may be correct in the main ; for in the Cambridge MS. there are two plans of a tragedy, or mystery, on the Fall of Man, in the second and more perfect of which "Lucifer appears after his overthrow, bemoans himself, seeks revenge upon Man," and this, though not the “very beginning of this tragedy,” is Lucifer's first appearance, and nothing could be more appropriate than that address to the sun. It is probable however that the poet changed his mind before he had made any progress in the drama, for if he had written any portion of the dialogue, it is likely that he would, in his usual manner, have preserved it.
Milton, in the commencement of his poem, says that his song will pursue
Things unattempted yet in prose or rime, and when we consider his upright, honourable character, we may
be certain that he would not have used such language if he were conscious of being under obligation to Grotius, and to numerous inferior poets of Italy and other countries, for much of his materials. No doubt he had read the Adamus Exsul of Grotius, and he may have read some of the other poems which the toiling industry of his critics has brought to light; but on looking to the passages which they adduce as those which he imitated, no one skilled in the philosophy of mind will discern anything beyond mere coincidence of thought or expression; very different from the appearance presented when he employs an image or expression which had remained in his mind from the perusal of Homer, Virgil, Spenser, or any other poet with whose works we know him to have been familiar. Like every great poet, he employed the language and imagery which his mind presented, without anxiously inquiring how they came there. Poets of the higher order are not very solicitous about the appearance of originality ; Shakespeare, for example, often
merely versifies the chronicle or tale from which he derived his subject.
Voltaire was the first to bring a charge of plagiarism against the author of Paradise Lost. He
saw at Florence a comedy called Adamo, written by one Andreini, a player, and dedicated to Mary de Medicis, Queen of France.” He adds, that “Milton pierced through the absurdity of that performance to the hidden majesty of the subject, which being altogether unfit for the stage, yet might be—for the genius of Milton, and his only—the foundation of an epic poem.” Joseph Warton and Hayley were both of opinion that Milton had read this drama, of which the latter gives an analysis at the end of his Life of Milton. We are of a totally different opinion, from the circumstance that there is not the slightest resemblance between its structure and economy and those of the dramas which Milton projected on the same subject; and surely if he did not follow it in a drama, he would not have done so in his heroic poem. In fact, we need only refer the reader to the extracts from the Adamo given by Hayley, and leave it to his own judgement to decide whether Milton was under obligation to that drama, or merely has some very slight coincidences with it.
At length, in the middle of the last century, appeared the notorious William Lauder, a Scot, with learning to some extent, but utterly devoid of principle. He published an Essay on Milton's Use and Imitation of the Moderns, the object of which was to show that Milton had borrowed largely from divers Scotch, Dutch, and German writers of Latin poems on subjects akin to the Paradise Lost; and to make good his charge, in the extracts which he gave, he did not scruple to interpolate verses of his own manufacture, or taken from Hogg's Latin translation of Milton's poem. Dr. Johnson, whose critical acumen was blunted by hostility to Milton, espoused the cause of Lauder warmly; but he afterwards renounced him, when Dr. (afterwards Bishop) Douglas, Lauder's own countryman, had exposed the fraud. The industry of various critics and scholars has produced a
goodly list of poems, chiefly Italian, to which Milton might have been under obligation; for it seems to have been deemed necessary to deduct as much as possible from his originality. The most remarkable is the discovery of Mr. Sharon Turner, the historian of the Anglo-Saxons, that Milton may have derived much of his matter from the “venerable Cedmon's” Paraphrase of Genesis. Of all hypotheses this is the most absurd. We have no certain evidence of Milton's knowledge of AngloSaxon, and Cedmon’s Paraphrase was published by Junius for the first time in 1655, after Milton had been for some time totally blind, and consequently could only become acquainted with such books as his family and friends could read to him, and such was not likely to have been an Anglo-Saxon poem, which the editor himself did not perfectly understand.
Paradise Lost was first published in ten books, the same number as those of the epic of Portugal, Os Lusiadas. But he afterwards extended the number to twelve, corresponding with that of those of the Æneis, by dividing the seventh and tenth books, and adding a few lines, to form the commencement of the new books.
The first edition of Paradise Lost is very correctly printed, and most carefully punctuated. As this last, as the editions of his Poems prove, was a matter to which Milton himself did not much attend, the praise of correctness must be due to the person who read the proofs. This, we presume, was his nephew, Edward Phillips, who, as we have seen, had a good deal of experience in these matters. A tolerably fixed system of orthography seems also to have been adopted; for in the errata we meet with “ for hundreds r. hunderds, for we r. wee.” We invariably find battel, cattel ; taste, etc. have always the final e, except in the second line of the poem. Harald and sovran (Italian forms) seem to be the poet's own orthography. Their is always spelt thir; star, war, and far, starr, warr, farr. In he, she, we, me, when emphatic, the vowel is doubled.