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LIST OF MILTON'S CHIEF WORKS.
Composed in 1634, Horton.
Published in 1667, London.
Various times and places.
L'Allegro and Il Penseroso are two companion pictures of life at Horton, where they were written. No ecstasies of joy or sorrow are there depicted, but those moods of mirth and pensiveness which chased each other across the poet's mind, like lights and shadows across a summer landscape.
Arcades, a short pastoral masque, which was originally performed at Harefield Park before the Dowager-Countess of Derby, consists of three songs and a speech by the Genius of the wood. Some consider " Arcades” to be only a fragment.
Comus is an exquisite masque, founded on an actual occurrence. Its plot is this : A beautiful lady, lost in a wood, is brought under the spells of the magician Comus. Her fate seems sealed, until a kindly spirit appearing in guise of a shepherd to her brothers, who are vainly seeking their sister, gives them a root called haemony, by means of which they set at defiance the power of the enchanter. They dash into the palace, interrupt the progress of a delicious banquet, save their sister, and put to flight Comus and
The Latin manuscript was found in a press in the State-paper Office in 1823, wrapped in an envelope with other papers of Milton. The publication of an English version gave, origin to Macaulay's brilliant Essay on Milton in the Edinburgh Review (August 1825).
THE CHOICE OF A SUBJECT.
his attendant rabble. The masque was acted at Ludlow Castle by the children of the Earl of Bridgewater, then President of Wales.
Lycidas is a sweetly mournful pastoral,-a poem “In Memoriam,”—written on the death of Milton's college friend, King, who was drowned when crossing to Ireland in a crazy vessel.
Paradise Lost.–For seven years Milton laboured at the composition of his greatest work (1658–1665); but for twice seven years or more the vast design must have been shaping itself into its wonderful symmetry within the poet's brain.
The subject was not chosen rashly or with haste, and nowhere could be found a theme richer in material for genius to work upon, or more deeply fraught with a sad human interest. Many themes, no doubt, were carefully weighed, only to be rejected. Those stories of ancient Britain, which Geoffrey of Monmouth has collected, early caught the poet's attention and held it long. We can fancy his patriotic heart thrilling proudly and gladly with the thought of rearing upon the unknown graves of Arthur and his knights a great literary monument, at which the British people gazing, should learn to love the sleeping warriors evermore.
But with growing years and wisdom this idea lost its charms, a change which inspired those lines at the beginning of the Ninth Book :
“Since first this subject for heroic song
To person, or to poem.”
MILTON'S PORTRAITURE OF SATAN.
tragedy or mystery on the “Fall of Man.” Two such draughts are among the Cambridge manuscripts. But the tragic form was luckily soon abandoned for the epic.
The burning lake—the council of the fallen spirits—the ordaining of the plan of salvation-Satan's voyage to the earth-Eden and its gentle tenants—their pure and happy life-Raphael's visit and discourse upon the war of the angels and the creation of the world—Adam's tale of his own awaking to life, and his first meeting with the lovely Eve—the temptation and the fall —Satan's triumphant return to hell, and the sudden fading of exultation under the first stroke of his doom-the intercession of the Sonthe mission of Michael to eject the guilty pair—the revelation of the future to Adam in a vision—and the sad departure of our first parents from their happy garden, now guarded by the sword of God,-such are the salient points in the magnificent plan developed in the twelve books of the “ Paradise Lost."
Interesting glimpses of Milton's life occur in the opening passages of certain books. Most pathetic of these is the sad but beautifully patient lament of the old man upon his blindness at the beginning of the Third. The poet's love of music, which amounted to an absorbing passion, inspired some of the grandest outbursts
of his song.
Hallam says, “The conception of Satan is doubtless the first effort of Milton's genius. Dante could not have ventured to spare so much lustre for a ruined archangel, in an age when nothing less than horns and a tail were the orthodox creed.” The magic power of Milton's genius conjures up before us a winged, colossal, fireeyed shape, whose size we do not know, but are left to guess dimly at by comparison with the hugest objects. His shield is like the moon seen through a telescope; compared with the spear,
which helps his painful steps over the burning marl, the mast of a mighty ship dwindles to a wand. We find no definite outline of shape, no distinct measurement of size. Vague dimness and colossal immensity deepen the awfulness of the portrait, raising it infinitely far above the absurd caricature of a terrible subject, to which Hallam's sarcasm refers.
THE POWER OF DIMNESS.
The Adam and Eve of “ Paradise Lost" are beautiful creations of poetic fancy, founding on Bible truth. They are true man and woman-not poetic ideals which are never realized in human life.
And what grand conceptions, painted as only true genius can paint, are those dreadful impersonations of Sin and Death, that bar the Arch-fiend's way at Hell's nine-fold gates! Dimness is here again a wonderful power in the poet's hand. The King of Terrors is thus described in the Second Book :
“ The other shape,-
The likeness of a kingly crown had on." There are in this fearful image only three points on which the mind can fasten,—the colour, black-a dreadful dart—the likeness of a kingly crown: all else is shapeless cloud.
The verse in which this noblest of English poems is written, flows on with a deep and solemn current, not broken, as the blankverse of a dramatist must be, into various alternations of rapid and of pool-quick, brilliant dialogue, and smooth, extended soliloquy or speech—but holding the even tenor of its way amid scenes of surpassing terror and delight, changing its music and its hue as it rolls upon its onward course. Awful though its tone is, when the glare of the fiery gulf falls red upon its stream, or the noise of battling angels shakes its shores, it breathes the sweetest pastoral melody as it glides on through the green and flowery borders of sinless Eden.
Paradise Regained, a shorter epic in four books, owed its origin to Ellwood's suggestion at Chalfont. It describes in most expressive verse the temptation and the triumph of our Saviour, and is said to have been preferred by the poet himself to his grander work. Yet it must be reckoned inferior both in style and interest to its great predecessor, although the authorship of so fine a poem would have made the fame of a meaner bard. (15)
Samson Agonistes is a dramatic poem, cast in the mould of the old Greek tragedies, for which Milton had a deep admiring love. It has, like the Greek plays, a chorus taking part in the dialogue. Samson's captivity, and the revenge he took upon his idolatrous oppressors, form the argument of the drama. It was the last great sun-burst of Milton's splendid poetic genius. Such a theme possessed an irresistible attraction for the mind of an intellectual and imaginative Samson, himself smitten with blindness, and fallen in his evil days amid a revelling and blasphemous crowd, that jibed with ceaseless scorn at the venerable Puritan, whose grey eyes rolled in vain to seek the light of heaven.
Sonnets.—Many of Milton's sonnets are very fine. One of the noblest is that burst of righteous indignation evoked by the massacre of the Waldenses. Cromwell and Milton felt alike in this momentous affair: while the Lord Protector threatened the thunder of English cannon, the Latin Secretary launched the thunders of his English verse against the cruel Piedmontese.
The Areopagitica is Milton's greatest prose work. Never has the grand theme of a free press been handled with greater eloquence or power. Here we see how true a figure is that fine image by which Macaulay characterizes Milton's prose, —“A perfect field of cloth of gold, stiff with gorgeous embroidery.”
SATAN TO BEELZEBUB.
(PARADISE LOST, BOOK I.)