Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Milton's Concept of Poetry

Poet: An Inspired Creator
Like Aristotle, Milton held a very high notion of the poet's calling. The poet is divinely inspired and capable of persuading people to a life of dedication and virtue. Milton has given his views on poetry in one of his early poems entitled Lycidas. He writes: "The abilities of the poet are the inspired gift of God rarely bestowed". On the other hand, he expresses his anxiety regarding the vulgar productions of poets who write amorous verses for the sake of cheap popularity. Such poets are not true to the high and noble ideals of poetry.

Alas what boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd's trade,
And strictly mediate the thankless man.
Poetry as an entertainment and a means of delight to the readers was given a very low place in Milton's concept of poetry. For him the poet like the man in the pulpit offers seeds of virtue and guides the people in noble and righteous conduct. The aim of poetry is therefore quite high and idealistic. He writes -
Teaching over the whole book of sanctity and virtue through all instances of example with such delight to those especially of soft and delivious temper who will not be so much as look upon Truth herself, unless they see her elegantly drest, that whereas the paths of honesty and good life appear now rugged and difficult though they be indeed easy and pleasant they would then appear to all men both easy and pleasant though they were rugged and difficult indeed.
Choice of Themes
In order to leave to posterity an immortal and grand work of poetry he mediated a national epic on the legends of pre-historic England. He finally rejected this topic on account of the unreality of the legends of King Arthur and his republican views - that Kings should not be glorified. Moreover being a Puritan he wanted to glorify religion and to cultivate the seed of morality and public civility, and to use his words,
"to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections; in right time to celebrate
in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what
he suffers to be wrought with high providence in His church; to sing victorious agonies.
of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of just and pious nations doing valiantly
through faith against the enemies of Christ; to deplore the general relapses of kingdoms and states from justice and God's true worship."
Moreover the lofty theme of the Fall of Man, apart from reflecting his religious zeal, is intended to cover a great field and show his love of philosophy, literature, architecture and other arts - a matter not quite palatable to staunch Puritans.
"Paradise Lost" As Embodiment of his Concept of Poetry
Milton had indicated the worthwhileness of his theme. In the first 26 lines of Paradise Lost he invokes the Divine... to help him to complete his great assignment:
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song.
That with no middle flight intents to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while in pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
His great theme is purely religious and moral:
I may assert Eternal Providence
And justify the ways of God to men.
Again in Book IX, the poet dwells on the moral theme-Crime and Punishment, sin and suffering:
That brought with this world of woe
Sin and her shadow death, and misery.
Death's harbinger.
Moreover, Milton has no doubt as to the authenticity of the Bible and the sublimity of his theme. The heavenly muse which inspires Milton is akin to the Holy spirit which helps him in fulfilling his noble task:
Who deiques
Her mighty visitations unimplor'd
And dictates to me slumbering or inspire
Easy my unpremeditated verse.
Secondly, the story of the Fall of Man is superior to the themes of other epic poets. Paradise Lost stands in a class by itself and its greatness is built on the unending struggle between good and evil. Moreover, it is not based on any fleeing event like the capture of a town or fortress. Bowra writes in this connection: "Paradise Lost sets forth the noblest virtues and the darkest sins. On one side is the Son, on the other Satan. By displaying these extremes of conduct Milton may seriously claim that his persons are, by his standards, more heroic than Achilles or Aeneas. For him the question of right and wrong was more important than any other question; he recognised almost no kind of good except the good in conduct. Other poets had valued other more wordly goods such as power and success; though they had related these to some sort of divine scheme and justified them morally, their concept of the good was wider and much less strictly ethical than Milton's. For heroism is goodness, and he sets out to show what he means by this. It is this-
Which justly gives Heroic name
To persons or to Poem (IX.40-41)
and which guides Milton in the construction of his epic."
Limitations of Milton's Concept
Milton's concept of poetry suffers from several inadequacies and Limitations. Firstly, he has no belief in the entertainment value of poetry. He is oblivious of the recreational side of poetry. He only thinks of poetry as a means to an end, the end being the improvement of the moral tone of individuals and society. His Puritanism stood in the way of appreciating the function of delight and aesthetic joy which the earlier poets had stressed—to convert poetry into a channel of religious philosophy of moral edification is to inhibit the realms of poetry.
Secondly, Milton regards poetry as a reflection of the author's personality and character. Poetry, however, cannot be limited to subjective poetry. There is something like objective and dramatic poetry where the poet enters into the mind and personality of his characters. Keats calls it "negative capability" of the poet. Any way to estimate poetry to the poet's character is a serious limitation to Milton's view of poetry. Thirdly, according to Milton, the poet himself should be a true poem, that is he should possess the experience and practice of all that is praiseworthy. He should be a model of religion and morality.
Moreover, Milton's poetry does not conform strictly to his theory. There is a gulf between his theory and practice. In spite of his highly ethical tone, Milton's sympathies are with Satan who becomes, in sense, the hero of Paradise Lost. Perhaps the epic should have gained in appeal if Milton had paid attention to aesthetics and depicting the beauty and colour of the heavenly world, instead of emphasising the moral intention of the story. The poetry of Paradise Lost would have certainly gained in appeal if Milton had been more of an artist and less of a politician and Puritan. 

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