There is another justification for speaking about Milton. The champions of Milton in our time, with a few exceptions, have been scholars and teachers. The writer claims to be neither. His only claim upon the reader’s attention is by appeal to their curiosity to know what a contemporary poet thinks of one of his predecessors.
The scholar and the practitioner, in the field of literary criticism, should supplement each other’s work. But the practitioner should not be destitute of scholarship and the scholar should have some experience of the difficulties of writing Verse. The scholar is more concerned with understanding the master-piece in the environment of the author, his intellectual gifts, his learning and the influences which had moulded him. The practitioner is concerned more with the poem than the author and with the poem in relation to his own age. He asks: Of what use is the poetry of this poet to poets writing today? Is it, or can it become, a living force in the English poetry still unwritten? The scholar can teach us where we should bestow our admiration and respect; the practitioner, when he is the right poet, would make an old masterpiece actual and give it a contemporary importance. The only example of a contemporary poet writing about Milton is Charles Williams who wrote an introduction to Milton’s English Poems, in the Word’s Classics Series.
Antipathy Towards Milton the Man
When Samuel Johnson wrote about Milton and his poetry he wrote as a practitioner, because he was a poet himself, and deserves to be read with respect, but we cannot judge his criticism or its merits unless we appreciate his poetry. Even when we dissent from him we must inquire why he was wrong. Johnson too in his day was a modern and was concerned with how poetry should be written in his own time. Any change in the prevailing style and in the canons of taste which he observed cannot diminish the interest of his criticism. In his writings also, the questions are implied: How should poetry be written now? and what place does the answer to this question give to Milton? Possibly the answers may be different now from the answers that were correct twenty-five years-ago.
Everywhere in Johnson’s Life of Milton one prejudice against Milton is apparent, which is even now felt, and it is an antipathy towards Milton the man. And this prejudice is often involved with another, more obscure one Milton’s interest in the Civil War of seventeenth century. No other English poet, except Wordsworth or Shelly, lived through or took sides in such momentous events as Milton did. It has made it difficult to appreciate Milton’s poetry as poetry without being influenced consciously or unconsciously by our theological and political dispositions; especially now when emotions have taken a different turn. Royalists are not liked on political grounds and Puritans on moral grounds. An attempt has been made to show that Milton really belonged to no party, but disagreed with everyone. Mr. Wilson Knight in Chariot of Wrath has argued that Milton was more a monarchist than a republican and not in any modern sense a “democrat”. Professor Saurat has shown that Milton’s theology was highly eccentric, and as scandalous to Protestants as to Catholics. While Mr. C.S. Lewis has argued that at least in Paradise Lost, Milton can be acquitted of heresy. We must, therefore, be on guard being influenced by such considerations while examining poetry for poetry’s sake.
Milton an Unwholesome Influence
The positive objection raised against Milton in our time is the charge that he is an unwholesome influence. On this point Mr. Middleton Marry in his Heaven and Earth has stated on Keat’s authority, that Keats and Blake have both passed substantially the same judgement on Milton: “Life to him would be death to me,” and that we must admit the justice of Keats’s opinion that Milton’s magnificence led nowhere. “English must be kept up,” said Keats. “To be influenced beyond a certain point by Milton’s art, he felt, damned the creative flow of the English genius in and through itself,” Mr. Marry agrees with this opinion and says: “To pass under the spell of Milton is to be condemned to imitate him. It is quite different with Shakespeare. Shakespeare baffles and liberates; Milton is preposterous and constricts.”
The writer does not agree with this confident affirmation. Murry’s remarks seem to assert that the liberative function of Shakespeare and the constrictive menace of Milton are permanent characteristics of these two poets. This is not correct. We might better call it an uncertain point. It is not good to remain under the influence of any poet—Milton or Shakespeare. Keats attempted to write an epic and also tried his hand at writing plays, but his King Stephen (a play) was blighted by Shakespeare and Hyperion (an epic poem) by Milton, Milton made a great epic impossible for succeeding generations; Shakespeare made a great poetic drama impossible. For a long time an epic poet like Milton or a dramatic poet like Shakespeare is not likely to come. But it does not mean that efforts should not be made. No one knows when the time is ripe when a new epic or a new poetic drama will be possible. In Murry’s criticism of Milton, the whole personality of Milton is in question and not specifically his beliefs, or his language, or versification, but the beliefs as realized through that personality, and his poetry as the expression of it.
Milton’s Influence on Modern Poets
The charge against Milton that his technical influence has been bad was made by T.S. Eliot himself on a previous occasion (1936). Then he had said that “Milton’s poetry could only be an influence for the worse upon any poet whatever,” and that the “bad influence may be traced much farther than upon bad poets “and we still have to struggle against it. In this there are three assertions implied: (1) that the influence has been bad in the past and that good poets would have written better if they had not yielded to Milton’s influence. (2) That Milton is a master whom we should avoid. (3) That the influence of Milton or of any poet can always be bad. He is not prepared to make the first and the third of these assertions, because detached from the second they have no meaning. For the first assertion it will have to be admitted that the responsibility lies more upon the poet who yielded to influence than the poet whose work exerted the influence. The responsibility lies on the poet who unwisely chooses a model and imitates it. We cannot say that Keats would have written a very great epic poem if Milton had not preceded him. We can’t repine for an unwritten master piece in exchange for one we possess. And as for the remote future nothing can be said about the “good” and “bad” influence. We are concerned with the immediate future.
The writer recalls a remark which he had made in an essay on Dryden, and had said that “In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was due to the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden”. Tillyard in his Milton has disputed this remark. The writer admits that to lay the burden on the shoulders of Milton was a mistake. If such dissociation did take place it is difficult to account for the change in literary criticism. All that can be said is that it had something to do with the Civil War; not that it was caused by it, but is a consequence of the same causes which brought about the Civil War, and that the causes are to be sought in Europe, not in England alone.
Johnson’s Censure of Milton
The essence of permanent censure of Milton is to be found in Johnson’s essay regarding Comus and Samson.
Johnson says that throughout Milton’s greater works there is a peculiarity of diction and a mode and cast of expression not resembling to that of any former writer and far removed from common sense, so that an unlearned reader is surprised to had a new language. Some people impute this novelty to Milton’s laborious endeavours and the grandeur of ideas. But Addison says the language sank under him. “But the truth is, that both in prose and verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom.” This is condemned in his prose, but is obeyed without resistance in his poetry due to its force. Johnson continues, “Milton’s style was not modified by his subject; what is shown with greater extent in Paradise Lost may be found in Comus…..the disposition of his words is, I think, frequently Italian, perhaps sometimes combined with other tongues.” It can be said that he wrote no language, but has formed a Babylonish dialect, harsh and barbarous, made by exallted genius and vast learning, the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure that one finds grace in its deformity.
The writer says that Johnson’s criticism seems to be substantially true. Unless we accept it we cannot appreciate the true greatness of Milton. His style is not classic but personal, not based on common speech or common prose. Milton was the first to commit violence to language by using distorted construction, foreign idiom, use of a word in a foreign way or with meaning other than accepted in English. Mallarmi was his nearest analogy in this respect. “Milton’s poetry is poetry at the farthest possible remove from prose; his prose seems to me too near half-formed poetry to be good prose.”
Milton the Greatest of All Eccentrics
As a poet Milton seems to be the greatest of all eccentrics. His work illustrates no general principles of good writing; the only principles of writing that it illustrates are such as are valid only for Milton himself to observe. There are great poets from whom we can learn negative rules. They teach us what to avoid by showing what great poetry can do without—how bare it can be. Of these are Dante and Racine. We can’t learn anything from Milton.
The remoteness of Milton’s verse from ordinary speech, and his invention of his own poetic language seem to be one of the marks of his greatness. Other marks are his sense of structure and his syntax, and finally his incrrancy in writing so as to make the best display of his talents and the best concealment of his weaknesses.
Milton’s project of an epic on king Arthur did not succeed because he had little interest in understanding individual human beings. In Paradise Lost such an understanding was not needed; in fact its absence was a necessary condition—for the creation of his figures of Adam and Eve. They are not ordinary Man and Woman, not types, but prototypes. Else they would not be Adam and Eve. They have ordinary humanity to the right degree and yet are not ordinary mortals.
When we consider the visual imagery, we find that the material of Paradise Lost is appropriate to Milton’s genius and his limitations—such as being deprived of eye-sight. Hence Milton is at his best in imagery suggestive of vast size, limitless space, abysmal depth and light and darkness. The theme and the setting which he chose for Paradise Lost was most suitable to him. Most of the absurdities and inconsistencies to which Johnson has called attention and condemned can be properly understood if considered in relation to this general judgements Milton’s blindness and limited interest in human beings is not merely a negligible defect, but a positive value when we see Adam and Eve in Eden. A higher degree of characterisation was unsuitable and a vivid picture of Paradise would be less paradisiacal; it would make Paradise look like earth with its animals and flowers. The impression of Eden given by Milton was that which he was best qualified to give. In Paradise Lost we must not expect to see things clearly, but with a blurred vision. The emphasis is on sound, not the vision, upon the word, not the idea and the unique versification is a sign of Milton’s intellectual mastership.
Very little has been written about Milton’s versification. There is a treatise of Robert Bridges on Milton’s Prosody and an essay of Johnson in the Rambler. But these are insufficient to appreciate the peculiar rythm of a poet. Milton’s verse cannot be properly appreciated it we examine it line by line. It is the period, the sentence, and the paragraph that is the unit of his verse. It is his ability to give a perfect and unique pattern to every paragraph, and the full beauty of the line is found in its context. This is the most conclusive evidence of Milton’s supreme mastery. The peculiar feeling and sensation conveyed by his long periods is impossible to obtain from rhymed verse.
In his essay Johnson says that the music of English heroic lines (rhymed copulets) is obtained by the artifice of rhyme. “The variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to periods of a declaimer,” and there are very few skilful readers of Paradise Lost who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or begin. Notwithstanding Johnson’s remarks, it can be declared that Milton is the greatest master of free verse in English. He perfected non-dramatic blank verse and imposed strict limitations upon its use to exploit its great musical possibilities.
There have been important changes in the idiom of English verse associated with the names or Dryden and Wordsworth, which may be said to be successful attempts to escape from obsolete poetic idiom as observed by Wordsworths in his Prefaces. Another such revolution was due by the beginning of the present century. It is inevitable that young poets who take part in such a revolution exalt the merits of those poets whom they regard as models and depreciate the merits of those who do not come up to their standards. It is right and inevitable that their critical observations should attract their readers to the poets by whom they have been influenced. Such influence develops a literary taste. Now, in spite of changes of poetic idiom, no modern poet has ever denied Milton’s consummate powers. It must be said that Milton’s diction is not an obsolete poetic diction. When he violates the language he is not imitating any body nor any body can imitate him. But he deviates from two accepted rules—that verse should have the virtues of prose and diction should be assimilated to cultivated contemporary speech, and that the subject-matter of poetry should cover topics and objects related to the life of modern man or woman. In this respect study of Milton could be of no help; it was a hindrance.
Revolutions in literature do not take place every now and then; if they do it is a sign of the detereoration of language and the failure of poetry to perform its most important function viz to refine the language and to prevent it from changing too rapidily. In trying to discover new and more elaborate patterns of diction we might have much to learn from Milton’s extended verse structure, and avoid the danger of servitude to colloquial speech. We might devote some study to Milton who is the greatest master in language excluding dramatic poets. In Samson we find irregularities which are justified, in Paradise Lost the verse is continuously animated by a departure from, and return to, the regular measure.