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Milton's Paradise Lost And Other Poems Post by :iraturner Category :Essays Author :George Hamlin Fitch Date :November 2011 Read :1733

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Milton's Paradise Lost And Other Poems


In beginning with the great books of the modern world two works stand out in English literature as preëminent, ranking close to the Bible in popular regard for nearly four hundred years. These are Milton's Paradise Lost and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. To those of New England blood whose memory runs back over forty years these two books fill much of the youthful horizon, for, besides the Bible, these were almost the only books that were allowed to be read on Sunday. It seems strange in these days of religious toleration that Sunday reading should be prescribed, but it was a mournful fact in my early days and it forced me, with many others, to cultivate Milton and Bunyan, when my natural inclinations would have been toward lighter and easier reading. But that old Puritan rule, like its companion rule of committing to memory on Sunday a certain number of verses in the Bible, served one in good stead, for it fixed in the plastic mind of childhood some of the best literature that the world has produced.

Milton's fame rests mainly on his Paradise Lost and on his sonnets and minor poems, although he wrote much in prose which was far in advance of his age in liberality of thought. He was a typical English Puritan, with much of the Cromwellian sternness of creed, but with a fine Greek culture that made him one of the great scholars of the world. His early life was singularly full and beautiful, and this peace and delight in all lovely things in nature and art may be found reflected in such poems as L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, and in the perfect masque of Comus.

His later life, after many years of good service to the state, was clouded by blindness and loss of fortune and menaced by fear of a shameful death on the gallows. And it was in these years, when the sun of his prosperity had set and when large honors had been succeeded by contumely and final neglect, that the old poet produced the great work which assured his fame as long as the English language endures.

Milton came of a good English family and he had the supreme advantage of splendid early training in all the knowledge of his time. The great Greek classics exercised the strongest influence over his youthful mind, but he knew all that the Latin writers had produced, and he acquired such a mastery of the native tongue of Virgil and Cicero that he wrote it like his own, and produced many Latin poems which have never been surpassed for easy command of this ancient language. Then for twenty years succeeded a period in which Milton devoted his great talents to the defense of his country in controversial papers, that are still the delight of scholars because of their high thought, their keen logic and their sonorous prose.

The noblest of these papers is that plea for the liberty of a free press which is buried under the long Greek name, Areopagitica. It contains some of the finest passages in defense of freedom of thought and speech. As Foreign Secretary to the Council of State under Cromwell, Milton labored ten years, and it was his voice that defended the acts of the Puritan government, and it was his pen that sounded the warning to monarchy, which was not heard again until the roaring French mob sacked the Bastile and mocked the King and Queen at Versailles.

At the age of forty-five Milton was stricken with total blindness, but he did not give up any of his activities under this crushing affliction. In these dark days also he learned what it was to have a home without peace or comfort and to be vexed daily by ungrateful children. When the monarchy was restored Milton was forced into retirement, and narrowly escaped the gallows for his part in sending Charles I to the block.

Thus in his old age, beaten down by misfortune, galled by neglect, he turned to the development of that rich poetic faculty which had lain fallow for a score of years. And in three years of silent meditation he produced Paradise Lost, which ranks very close to the Bible in religious fervor and in splendor of genuine poetic inspiration. It is Biblical in its subject, for it includes the revolt of the rebellious angels, the splendid picture of the Garden of Eden and the noble conception of the creation of the world. It is Biblical, also, in a certain sustained sweep of the imagination, such as is seen in the great picture of the burning lake, in which Satan first awakes from the shock of his fall, and in the impressive speeches that mark his plan of campaign against the Lord who had thrown him and his cohorts into outer darkness.

Yet this poem is modeled on the great epics of antiquity, and much of the splendor of the style is due to allusions to Greek and Roman history and mythology, with which Milton's mind was saturated. In other men this constant reference to the classics would be called pedantry; in him it was simply the struggle of a great mind to find fitting expression for his thoughts, just as in a later age we see the same process repeated in the essays of Macaulay, which are equally rich in references to the writers of all ages, whose works had been made a permanent part of this scholar's mental possessions.

Some present-day critics of Milton's Paradise Lost have declared that his subject is obsolete and that his verse repels the modern reader. As well say that the average unlettered reader finds the Bible dull and commonplace. Even if you do not know the historical fact or the mythological legend to which Milton refers, you can enjoy the music of his verse; and if you take the trouble to look up these allusions you will find that each has a meaning, and that each helps out the thought which the poet tries to express. This work of looking up the references which Milton makes to history and mythology is not difficult, and it will reward the patient reader with much knowledge that would not come to him in any other way. Behind Milton's grand style, as behind the splendid garments of a great monarch, one may see at times the man who influenced his own age by his genius and whose power has gone on through the ages, stimulating the minds of poets and sages and men of action, girding up their loins for conflict, breathing into them the spirit which demands freedom of speech and conscience.

Milton's style in Paradise Lost is unrhymed heroic verse, which seems to move easily with the thought of the poet. The absence of rhyme permits the poet to carry over most of his lines and to save the verse from that monotony which marks the artificial verse of even great literary artists like Dryden and Pope. Here is a passage from the opening of the second book, which depicts Satan in power in the Court of Hades, and which may be taken as a specimen of Milton's fine style:

High on a throne of royal state, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat.

And here, in a short description of the adventures of a body of Satan's fallen angels in their quest for escape from the lower regions to which they had been condemned, may be found all the salient features of Milton's style at its best:

Through many a dark and dreary vale
They passed, and many a region dolorous,
O'er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp,
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens and shades of death--
A universe of death, which God by curse
Created evil, for evil only good;
Where all life dies, death lives, and Nature breeds,
Perverse, all monstrous, all prodigious things,
Abominable, inutterable and worse
Than fables yet have feigned or fear conceived,
Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimæras dire.

In contrast to this resounding verse, which enables the poet to soar to lofty heights of imagination, turn to some of Milton's early work, the two beautiful classical idyls, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, the fine Hymn to the Nativity, and the mournful cadences of Lycidas, the poet's lament over the death of a beloved young friend. But in parting with Milton one should not neglect his sonnets, which rank with Wordsworth's as among the finest in the language. This brief notice cannot be ended more appropriately than with Milton's memorable sonnet on his blindness:

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker and present
My true account, lest He returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

(The end)
George Hamlin Fitch's essay on: Milton's Paradise Lost And Other Poems

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