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ON THE IMPERFECTIONS OF PARADISE LOST.
The Earl of Dorset, going to make some purchase in the shop of Milton's publisher, chanced to lay his hand on “Paradise Lost;" the bookseller humbly begged his lordship to read it, and procure him purchasers. The Earl took, perused, and lent it to Dryden, who returned it with these words:“ This man will cut us all out, and the ancients too."
Nevertheless, the fame of “Paradise Lost” spread but slowly; the frivolous and corrupt manners of the day, the aversion felt for the religious sects, whose violence had engendered incredulity, opposed the success of a poem so austere in its subject, style, and ideas. Neither the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Rochester, nor Sir William Temple, make any mention of Milton. But, in 1688, a folio edition of “ Paradise Lost,” under the patronage of Lord Somers, attracted some notice. One would almost say that the glory of the enemy
of the Stuarts, suppressed by them, awaited the year of their fall to blaze forth. If Milton had lived, like his brother, till the epoch of the Revolution, 1688, would he have found favour with the new government ? I doubt it. They had but changed their king. The old regicide Ludlow, who hastened from Lausanne, found himself as much a stranger under William the Third, as he would have been under James the Second. The man of another time, he returned to die in his solitude.
By degrees, editions of “ Paradise Lost” were multiplied. Addison devoted to it eighteen papers in " The Spectator.” By this time people could not erect altars enough for their divinity. Among the objects of public worship, Milton took his place beside Shakspeare.
Some opposing voices would nevertheless be heard-no great reputation ever arose undisputed, It was asserted that Milton had imitated Mosenius, Ramsay, Vida, Sannazarius, Romæus, Fletcher, Staphorst, Taubman, Andreini, Quintianus, Malapert, Fox; they might have added to this list Saint-Avitus, Dubartas, and Tasso. SaintAvitus has some very lovely scenes in Eden. It is probable that Milton, while at Naples, in company with Manso, had read the “Sette giornale del mondo creato,' by Tasso. The poet of Jerusalem makes Eve spring from the side of Adam, while God shed a peaceful sleep upon the weary limbs of our first sire.
Tasso softens the scriptural image, and, in his fair creations, woman is only the first dream of
What has all this to do with the glory of Milton? Did these pretended originals open their work with Satan's awakening in Hell? had they traversed Chaos, with the rebel angel ? discerned the creation from the threshold of the empyreum
? apostrophised the sun ? contemplated the bliss of man in his primitive innocence, or guessed the dignified love of Eve and Adam ? Whether it be that by translating Milton the habit of intimate association has accustomed me to his faults, whether it be that, enfranchising criticism, I judge the poet by the ideas which he must have had, I am no longer displeased with things that formerly shocked me. The meeting with artillery in heaven now seems to me to spring from a very natural idea. Milton made Satan invent whatever is most mischievous among men.
He often reverted to these inventions, on occasion of the gunpowder plot. He has five Latin pieces “in proditionem bombardicam; in inventorem bombarde.” The sneers of the demons imitate those of Homer's heroes. I am pleased to see the Iliad shine through Paradise Lost.
The demons, changed into serpents, who hiss at their chief, when he has just boasted of having in the shape of a serpent ruined the human race, are caprices, but expressed with the astonishing felicity of a superabundant fancy. In the criticisms on this passage, authors either did not or would not see the explanation which the poet himself gives of that metamorphosis ; it is quite conformable with the subject of the work and the most popular traditions of Christianity. It is the last appearance of Satan. The Prince of Darkness, a superb intelligence, at the commencement of the poem, before the fall of man, becomes, in the end, after that fall, a hideous reptile ; instead of the archangel ruined, yet still shining like a sun eclipsed, you now see him only in the form of the Old Serpent, the Dragon of the Pit.
It were less unjust to tax Milton with some instances of bad taste. “ No fear lest dinner cool,” for example.
I would also have suppressed the lines in which Adam tells Eve that she was
but a rib, Crooked by nature
from me drawn, Well, if thrown out as supernumerary. Unfortunately, too, this blot has fallen on a dramatic passage of the most finished beauty.
The poet, also, makes rather an ill use of his erudition ; but, after all, it is better to have too much learning than too little. Milton drew more beauties from his knowledge than Shakspeare did from his ignorance. Is it not astonishing that, amid the false natural philosophy of his time, he announced attraction, afterwards demonstrated by Newton ? Kepler, Boullian, and Hook, it is true, had opened the road to that discovery, and Milton might have been aware of what they termed tractory power. In antiquity, Aristarchus made the sun the centre of the universe.
Both lights and shades are sometimes wanting in the poet's pictures; one might guess that their painter could not see, as one recognises the musical performance of a blind man by the indefiniteness of certain notes. The descriptions in “Paradise Lost” have about them something gentle, soft, misty, ideal, like the dreams of memory. The setting suns of Milton accord with his own time of life, his darkened lids, and his approach to the tomb; they have a tone of melancholy nowhere else to be fouud. You need ask him but to depict a night in Eden-he says,
the wakeful nightingale,