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Your sacred plants, if here below,
No white nor red was ever seen
What wondrous life in this I lead !
Meanwhile the mind from pleasure less
Here at the fountain's sliding foot,
Casting the body's vest aside,
Such was the happy garden state,
Thoughts in a Garden. MILTON.
PRINCIPAL Works: Hymn on the Nativity, 1629, “any one verse of which was sufficient to show that a new and great light was about to rise on English poetry.'--Arcades and Comus, 1637, in the pastoral style, in imitation of the Italian · Masque,' of which the Aminta of Tasso is the most charming example. The Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher also served as a model for that most charming of all, the productions of the pastoral style—the Comus. 'It is a pure dream of Elysium. The reader is transported as in Shakespeare's Tempest, to scenes of fairy enchantment; but no grossness mingles with the poet's creations, and his muse is ever ready to "moralise the song " with strains of solemn imagery and lofty sentiment.' Both the Arcades and Comus had been previously to publication played before certain great personages—the former in the presence of the Dowager Lady Derby, the latter before the Earl of Bridgewater at Ludlow Castle. - Lycidas, belonging to the same year, commemorates the untimely end of his friend, Edward King, who perished in a shipwreck on the passage across the Irish Channel; with perhaps the exception of the Adonais of Shelley, the most exquisite In Memoriam ever composed.-L'Allegro and Il Penseroso followed, and were produced about the same period. They are unique in English poetry ; conjuring up to the mental vision a rapid and charming succession of lively images of rural and other scenes. -Paradise Lost (in twelve Books), 1658–1667, the greatest and grandest epic in any language. According to the terms of the copyright, the bookseller, Simmons, for the whole poem paid down immediately 5l. with the promise of an additional 5l. upon the sale of 1,300 copies. That the English reading public, however, was not so wholly insensible to the merits of the Paradise Lost as commonly stated, appears from the fact that in two years the supply of 1,300 copies had been exhausted ; while in eleven years from the date of publication the sale had reached 5000. It is probable that the puritan portion of the community, while turning away from the gay productions of the school of Dryden, Wycherley, and Congreve, would hail with enthusiasm the appearance of a work so much more in unison with their predilections. It is probable, however, that for some time before Addison wrote his famous eulogistic criticisms, the Paradise Lost had been falling into neglect in proportion as the puritan ideas were dying out.—Paradise Regained, (in four Books), 1671, inferior, doubtless, to the first great effort yet meritorious enough to alone make the greatest poetic reputation.-In the same year appeared the Samson Agonistes, the only considerable attempt at
imitation of the Hellenic drama in the language. Although not altogether successful, it discovers considerable genius in a species of imitation peculiarly difficult in modern times.
Upon the surpassing merits of the Paradise Lost, it seems at the present day almost impertinent to attempt any eulogium, the genius of author of which, as finely portrayed by Thomson, is :
• Universal as his theme,
· Was there ever,' exclaims Cowper, "anything so delightful as the music of the Paradise Lost? It is like that of a fine organ; has the fullest and the deepest tones of majesty, with all the softness and elegance of the Dorian flute: variety without end, and never equalled, unless perhaps by Virgil.'
• In Milton,' says Campbell, there may be traced obligations to several minor English poets ; but his genius had too great a supremacy to belong to any school. Though he acknowledged a filial reverence for Spenser as a poet, he left no Gothic irregular tracery in the design of his own great work, but gave a classical harmony of parts to its stupendous pile. It thus resembles a dome, the vastness of which is at first sight concealed by its symmetry, but which expands more and more to the eye while it is contemplated. His early poetry seems to have neither disturbed nor corrected the bad taste of the age. Comus came into the world unacknowledged by its author, and Lycidas appeared at first only with his initials.
Almost a century elapsed before his minor works obtained their proper fame. Even when Paradise Lost appeared, though it was not neglected, it attracted no crowd of imitators, and made no visible change in the poetical practice of the age. He stood alone and aloof above his times, the bard of immortal subjects; and, as far as there is perpetuity in language, of immortal fame. There is something that overawes the mind in conceiving his long deliberated selection of that theme-his attempting it when his eyes were shut upon the face of nature—his dependence, we might almost say, on supernatural inspiration; and in the calm air of strength with which he opens Paradise Lost, beginning a mighty performance without the appearance of an effort. . . . Milton has certainly triumphed over one difficulty of his subject—the paucity and loneliness of its human agents; for no one, in contemplating the Garden of Eden, would wish to exchange it for a more populous world. His earthly pair could only be represented, during their innocence, as beings of simple enjoyment and negative virtue, with no other passions than the fear of heaven and the love of each other. Yet from these materials what a picture has he drawn of their homage to the Deity, their mutual affection, and the horrors of their alienation! By concentrating all exquisite ideas of external nature in the representation of their abode — by conveying an inspired impression of their spirits and forms, whilst they first shone under the fresh light of creative heaven-by these powers of description he links our first parents, in harmonious subordination, to the angelic natures—he supports them in the balance of poetical importance with their divine coadjutors and enemies, and makes them appear at once worthy of the friendship and envy of gods. If his poetic conception is of so sublime and exalted a character, the versification of Milton bears the stamp of corresponding excellence. It has been well remarked that
there are more perfect examples in Milton of musical expression, or of an adaptation of the sound and movement of the verse to the meaning of the passage, than in all our other writers, whether of rhyme or blank verse, put together, with the exception already mentioned [that of Shakespeare]. Spenser is the most harmonious of our poets, as Dryden is the most sounding and varied of our rhymists : but in neither is there anything like the same ear for music, the same power in approximating the varieties of poetical to those of musical rhythm, as there is in our great epic poet. The sound of his lines is moulded into the expression of the sentiment, almost of the very image. They rise or fall, pause or hurry rapidly on, with exquisite art, but without the least trick of affectation, as the occasion seems to require' (Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets). One defect, and one defect only of any importance, may be thought to somewhat mar the general beauty of the poem. The theological arguments and speeches occasionally put into the mouths of the celestial and infernal actors in that sublime drama, however interesting to the age in which it was produced, are apt in these times to offend the taste, as well as the reason, of such readers as are best able to appreciate its general excellence. This unfortunate accident of the age, however, may well be forgotten amidst such variety of scenes and descriptions of mixed grandeur and beauty as is to be found in no other production in prose or poetry.
Of all the many passages of surpassing beauty of idea and language, perhaps the most exquisite is the scene of the angelic quire preparing for their celestial hymn in the third Book. By its pathos and sweetness, the lament of Eve on first hearing the irrevocable sentence of expulsion from the Garden, in the eleventh Book, must also certainly appear to all readers of taste as one of the most charming of the gems of the Paradise Lost. The prospective vision revealed to Adam by his celestial patron, Raphael, of the Lazar-bouse with its occupants, who represent ‘all the sad variety of woe' in the ordinary course of nature alone, for human interest and descriptive force, is unsurpassed by anything of the same kind erer written. Next to the Paradise Lost must be ranked the Comus and Lycidas. The Hymn on the Nativity, composed at the age of twenty-one, is also a production of marvellous grandeur and beauty.