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further discourse about it, I pleasantly said to him, “Thou hast said much here of Paradise lost, but what hast thou to say of Paradise found?' He made me no answer, but sat for some time in a muse; then brake off that discourse and fell upon another subject. After the sickness was over, and the city well cleansed, and become safely habitable again, he returned thither. And when, afterwards, I went to wait on him there, which I seldom failed of doing whenever my occasions drew me to London, he showed me his second poem, called “Paradise Regained,' and in a pleasant tone said to me, “This is owing to you, for you put it into my head by the question you put to me at Chalfont [where Milton was staying while the plague raged at London), which before I had not thought of.'”
Milton's alleged preference of " Paradise Lost” to “ Paradise Regained” is very often given as an example of the incorrect judgments which authors are apt to form of their own works. As a matter of fact, however, there is no evidence that he did so prefer it; the sole foundation for that statement being a remark of Philips's that “Paradise Regained” was generally thought to be much inferior to “Paradise Lost,” though Milton could " not hear with patience any such thing when related to him.” That it is greatly inferior is indisputable, though some passages, such as the description of Greece, are eminently beautiful. In majesty and sublimity it cannot be compared to “Paradise Lost.”
“Samson Agonistes ” is one of Milton's most characteristic poems. The subject was one upon which his thoughts had long dwelt, but in his old age it came back to him with renewed intensity when his own lot seemed to have so many points in common with that of the ancient hero. Like Samson, he was blind; like Samson, he had fallen into the hands of the Philistines; like Samson, he was a Nazarite, shunning wine and strong drink; like Samson, he had incurred much misery by his marriage to a Philistine woman. The drama is formed upon Greek models, and imitates them in the strong simplicity of its style. It would be difficult to mention any equally great
The “ Metaphysical" Poets.
123 poem so bare of ornament, so ruthlessly stripped of conventional poetic phrases and imagery.
One of the strangest and most undiscerning criticisms of Johnson on Milton is that on the Sonnets. “Of the best,” he writes, “it can only be said that they are not bad ; and perhaps only the eighth and twenty-first are truly entitled to this slender commendation.” The fact is that they are among the finest sonnets in the language, unsurpassed in strength and dignity save by some of Wordsworth’s. In Milton's hand, as Wordsworth says in his Sonnet on the Sonnet
“The thing became a trumpet, whence he blew
Soul-animating strains, alas ! too few.”
The rage for playing upon words and ideas which is found in many writers of the Elizabethan era, and most prominently in Lyly, culminated in the poets called the metaphysical school, a name which was given to them by Johnson, and which, though not very appropriate, has adhered to them. Of this school, of which Lyly was the true progenitor, the characteristics are pointed out by Johnson in a very masterly way. “The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavour ; but unluckily resolving to show it in rhyme, instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses, and very often such verses as stood the trial of the finger better than of the ear; for the modulation was so imperfect that they were only found to be verses by counting the syllables.
“ If the father of criticism has rightly denominated poetry sexet Molensinn, an imitative art, those writers will, without great wrong, lose their right to the name of poets, for they cannot be said to have imitated anything; they neither copied nature for life; neither painted the forms of matter, nor represented the operations of intellect.”
Of the “metaphysical” school, John Donne (1573-1631] may be said to have been the founder. He was the first to make fanciful similitudes, remote analogies, and verbal subtleties not only a competent part, but actually the main feature of his verse. A very learned man, of much original power, and endowed with a real though not a powerful vein of poetical genius, he was totally unable, or at any rate unwilling, to curb that fantastic spirit which appears equally in his sermons, which were very famous in their day, and in his poetry. His works are stiff reading, the windings of his perverted ingenuity being often difficult to trace. Many other writers followed the affected strain adopted by Donne, but they are now nearly all forgotten with the exception of Abraham Cowley (1618-1667). He was born in London, and educated at Westminster and at Cambridge. While very young he read and admired Spenser's “Faerie Queen,” a poem which has exercised a vast influence over many juvenile bards, and was so fascinated with it that its perusal made him, as he says, irrecoverably a poet. When only fifteen years of age he published a volume of poems, which, if its abstract merits are not great, at any rate bears witness to the wonderfully precocious nature of his genius. At Cambridge, where he pursued his studies with great zeal, he wrote the greater part of his “ Davideis," an unreadable epic, and two or three forgotten comedies. Ejected from Cambridge in 1643, on account of his Royalist opinions, by the Puritan visitors, he went to Oxford, where he gained great favour among prominent members of the King's party, “by the warmth of his loyalty and the elegance of his conversation.” When Oxford surrendered to the Parliament, “he followed the Queen to Paris, where he became secretary to Lord Jermyn, afterwards Earl of St. Albans, and was employed in such correspondence as the royal cause required, and particularly in ciphering and deciphering the letters that passed between the King and Queen, an employment of the highest confidence and honour." In 1647 appeared his “Mistress," a collection of amorous verses, making no pretence to genuine passion, and full of conceits, often highly ingenious, but very unsuitable to anything aspiring to the name of poetry. In 1656 he returned to England, where he was arrested as being in communication with the exiled party, but was soon
liberated on bail. In the same year he published his poems, with a preface expressing his earnest desire "to forsake the world for ever, by retiring to some of the American plantations.” He then applied himself to the study of medicine : and received the degree of Doctor of Physic in 1657, but never practised. He had, however, a considerable interest in natural science, particularly in botany, and was one of the first members of the Royal Society. After the Restoration his loyalty was rewarded by the grant of certain lands of the annual value of about £300. He then retired to Chertsea, where he passed the evening of his life in the solitude he had so often longed for, without, however, finding that retirement had all the advantages which his imagination had pictured it to possess.
Some of Cowley's shorter poems show that if he had not been under "metaphysical” influence he might have acquired great and permanent fame, if not in the higher walks of poetry, at any rate as a writer of gay songs and occasional verses. He had a highly inventive and ingenious intellect; his works convey a strong impression of great intellectual powers misused and wasted. His prose writings, which go into a very small volume, are excellent, and have none of the faults of his poems. “No author,” says Johnson, “ever kept his verse and his prose at a greater distance from each other. His thoughts are natural, and his style has a smooth and placid equability, which has never yet obtained its due commendation. Nothing is far sought or hard laboured, but all is easy without feebleness, and familiar without grossness."
Among the “metaphysical” poets Denham and Waller are included by Johnson. But they can scarcely be said to belong to that school; occasional passages in their works may show its influence, but they are not pervaded by it. Denham (16151668) is remembered chiefly as the author of " Cooper's Hill,” one of the earliest and one of the best of our descriptive poems. Waller [1605–1687] was one of the many men who shamefully changed sides at the Restoration, employing his pen first in commemorating the virtues of Cromwell, and then in pane
gyrising Charles II. Elegant” is the term by which his verses, dealing largely with trifling subjects, may be best characterised. In the technical accuracy of his style, the smoothness of his numbers, and the conventional tone of his sentiments he preluded the school of Dryden and Pope, which long reigned paramount in English poetry.