(“Milton I” first published 1936; “Milton II” first published 1960; Combined essays published 1968)
(Contributed to Essays and Studies of The English Association, Oxford University Press, 1936, under the title ‘A note on the verse of Milton’.)
While it must be admitted that Milton is a very great poet indeed, it is something of a puzzle to decide in what his greatness consists. On analysis, the marks against him appear both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit.
As a man, he is antipathetic. Either from the moralist’s point of view, or from the theologian’s point of view, or from the psychologist’s point of view, or from that of the political philosopher, or judging by the ordinary standards of likeableness in human beings, Milton is unsatisfactory. The doubts which I have to express about him are more serious than these. His greatness as a poet has been sufficiently celebrated, though I think largely for the wrong reasons, and without the proper reservations. His misdeeds as a poet have been called attention to, as by Mr. Ezra Pound, but usually in passing. What seems to me necessary is to assert at the same time his greatness — in that what he could do well he did better than any one else has ever done — and the serious charge to be 
made against him, in respect of the deterioration – the peculiar kind of deterioration — to which he subjected the language.
Many people will agree that a man may be a great artist, and yet have a bad influence. There is more of Milton’s influence in the badness of the bad verse of the eighteenth century than of anybody’s else: he certainly did more harm than Dryden and Pope, and perhaps a good deal of the obloquy which has fallen on these two poets, especially the latter, because of their influence, ought to be transferred to Milton. But to put the matter simply in terms of ‘bad influence’ is not necessarily to bring a serious charge: because a good deal of the responsibility, when we state the problem in these terms, may devolve on the eighteenth-century poets themselves for being such bad poets that they were incapable of being influenced except for ill. There is a good deal more to the charge against Milton than this; and it appears a good deal more serious if we affirm that Milton’s poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious, also, if we affirm that Milton’s bad influence may be traced much farther than the eighteenth century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle.
There is a large class of persons, including some who appear in print as critics, who regard any
censure upon a ‘great’ poet as a breach of the peace, as an act of wanton iconoclasm, or even hoodlumism. The kind of derogatory criticism that I have to make upon Milton is not intended for such persons, who cannot understand that it is more important, in some vital respects, to be a good poet than to be a great poet; and of what I have to say I consider that the only jury of judgment is that of the ablest poetical practitioners of my own time.
The most important fact about Milton, for my purpose is his blindness. I do not mean that to go blind in middle life is itself enough to determine the whole nature of a man’s poetry. Blindness must be considered in conjunction with Milton’s personality and character, and the peculiar education which he received. It must also be considered in connexion with his devotion to, and expertness in the art of music. Had Milton been a man of very keen senses – I mean of all the five senses – his blindness would not have mattered so much. But for a man whose sensuousness, such as it was, had been withered early by book-learning, and whose gifts were naturally aural, it mattered a great deal. It would seem, indeed, to have helped him to concentrate on what he could do best.
At no period is the visual imagination conspicuous in Milton’s poetry. It would be as well to have a few illustrations of what I mean by visual imagination. From Macbeth :
This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his loved mansionary that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty,frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle:
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed
The air is delicate.
It may be observed that such an image, as well as another familiar quotation from a little later in the same play,
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood.
not only offer something to the eye, but, so to speak, to the common sense. I mean that they convey the feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time. The comparison with Shakespeare offers another indication of the peculiarity of Milton. With Shakespeare, far more than with any other poet in English, the combinations of words offer perpetual novelty; they enlarge the meaning of the individual words joined: thus ‘procreant cradle’, ‘rooky wood’. In comparison, Milton’s images do not give this sense of particularity, nor are the separate words developed in significance. His Language is, if one may use the term without disparagement, artificial and conventional.
O’er the smooth enamel’d green . . .
… paths Of this drear wood
The nodding horror of whose shady brews
Threats the forlorn and wandering passenger.
(‘Shady brow’ here is a diminution of the value of
the two words from their use in the line from Dr. Faustus
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brews.)
The imagery in L’Allegro and II Penseroso is all general:
While the ploughman near at hand,
Whistles o’er the furrowed land,
And the milkmaid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his scythe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale.
It is not a particular ploughman, milkmaid, and shepherd that Milton sees (as Wordsworth might see them); the sensuous effect of these verses is entirely on the ear, and is joined to the concepts of Ploughman milkmaid, and shepherd. Even in his most mature work, Milton does not infuse new life into the word, as Shakespeare does.
The sun to me is dark
And silent as the moon,
When she deserts the night
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Here interlunar is certainly a stroke of genius, but is merely combined with ‘vacant’ anti ‘cave’, rather than giving and receiving life horn them. Thus it is not so unfair, as it might at first appear, to say that Milton writes English like a dead language. The criticism has been made with regard to his involved syntax. But a tortuous style, when its peculiarity is aimed at pretension (as with Henry James), is not necessarily a dead one; only when the complication is dictated by a demand of verbal music, instead of by any demand of sense.
Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues powers,
If these magnificent titles yet remain
Not merely titular,
Another now hath to himself engrossed
All power, and us eclipsed under the name
Of King anointed, for whom all this haste
Of midnight march, and hurried meeting here,
This only to consult how we may best
With what may be devised of honours new
Receive him coming to receive from us
Knee-tribute yet unpaid, prostration low
Too much to one, but double how endured
To one and to his image now proclaimed
With which compare:
‘However, he didn t mind thinking that if Cissy
should prove all that was likely enough their having a subject in common couldn’t but practically conduce; though the moral of it all amounted rather to
a portent, the one that Haughty, by the same token, had done least to reassure him against, of the extent to which the native jungle harboured the female specimen and to which its ostensible cover, the vast level of mixed growths stirring wavingly in whatever breeze, was apt to be identifiable but as an agitation of the latest redundant thing in ladies hats.
taken almost at random from The Ivory Tower, is not intended to represent Henry James at any hypothetical ‘best’, any more than the noble passage from Paradise Lost is meant to be Milton’s hypothetical worst. The question is the difference of intention, in the elaboration or styles both of which depart so far from lucid simplicity.
The sound, of course, is never irrelevant, and the style of James certainly depends for its effect a good deal on the sound of a voice, James’s own, painfully explaining. But the complication, with James, is due to a determination not to simplify and in that simplification lose any of the real intricacies and by-paths of mental movement; whereas the complication of Miltonic sentence is an active complication, a complication deliberately introduced into what was a previously simplified and abstract thought. The dark angel here is not thinking or conversing, but making a speech carefully prepared for him; and the arrangement is for the sake musical value not for significance. A straight-forward utturance, as of a Homeric or Dantesque
character, would make the speaker very much more real to us; but reality is no part of the intention.
We have in fact to read such a passage not analytically, to get the poetic impression. I am not suggesting that Milton has no idea to convey which he regards as important: only that the syntax is determined by the musical significance, by the auditory imagination, rather than by the attempt to follow actual speech or thought. It is at least more nearly possible to distinguish the pleasure which
arises from the noise, front the pleasure due to other elements, than with the verse of Shakespeare, in which the auditory imagination and the imagination of the other senses are more nearly fused, and fused together with the thought. The result with Milton is, in one sense of the word, rhetoric. That term is not intended to be derogatory. This kind of ‘rhetoric’ is not necessarily bad in its influence; but it may be considered bad in relation to the historical life of a language as a whole. I have said elsewhere that the living: English which was Shakespeare’s became split up ‘”to two components one of which was exploited by Milton and the other by Dryden.
Of the two, I still think Dryden’s development the healthier, because it was Dryden who preserved, so far as it was preserved at all, the tradition of conversational language in poetry: and I might add that it seems to me easier to get back to healthy language from Dryden than it is to get back to it horn Milton. For what such a generalization is
worth, Milton’s influence on the eighteenth century was much more deplorable than Dryden’s.
If several very important reservations and exceptions are made, I think that it is not unprofitable to compare Milton’s development with that of James Joyce. The initial similarities are musical taste and abilities, followed by musical training and curious knowledge, gift for acquiring languages, and remarkable powers of memory perhaps fortified by defective vision. The important difference is that Joyce’s imagination is not naturally of so purely auditory a type as Milton’s. In his early work, and at least in part of Ulysses, there is visual and other imagination of the highest kind; and I may be mistaken in thinking that the later part of Ulysses shows a turning from the visible world to draw rather on the resources of phantasmagoria. In any case, one may suppose that the replenishment of visual imagery during later years has been insufficient; so that what I find in Work in Progress is an auditory imagination abnormally sharpened at the expense of the visual. There is still a little to be seen, and what there is to see is worth looking at. And I would repeat that with Joyce this development seems to me largely due to circumstances: whereas Milton may be said never to have seen anything. For Milton, therefore, the concentration on sound was wholly a benefit. Indeed, I find, in reading Paradise Lost, that I am happiest where there is least to visualize. The eye is not shocked in his twilit Hell
as it is in the Garden of Eden, where I for one can get pleasure from the verse only by the deliberate effect not to visualize Adam and Eve and their surroundings.
I am not suggesting any close parallel between the ‘rhetoric’ of Milton and the later style of Joyce.
It is a different music; and Joyce always maintains some contact with the conversational tone. But it
may prove to be equally a blind alley for the future development of the language. A disadvantage of the rhetorical style appears to be that a dislocation takes place, through the hypertrophy of the auditory imagination at the expense of the visual and tactile, so that the inner meaning is separated from the surface, and tends to become something occult, or at least without effect upon the reader until fully understood. To extract everything possible from Paradise Lost, it would seem necessary to read it in two different ways, first solely for the sound, and second for the sense. The full beauty of his long periods can hardly be enjoyed while we are wrestling with the meaning as well; and for the pleasure of the ear the meaning is hardly necessary, except in so far as certain key-words indicate the emotional tone of the passage. Now Shakespeare, or Dante, will bear innumerable readings, but at each reading all the elements of appreciation can be present. There is no interruption between the surface that these poets present to you and the core.
While therefore, I cannot pretend to have pene-
trated to any ‘secret’ of these poets, I feel that such appreciation of their work as I am capable of pointing in the right direction; whereas I cannot feel that my appreciation of Milton leads anywhere outside of the mazes of sound. That, I feel, would be the matter for a separate study, like that of Blake’s prophetic books; it might be well worth the trouble, but would have little to do with my interest in the poetry. So far as I perceive anything, it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology which would have better been left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved. There seems to me to be a division, in Milton, between the philosopher or theologian and the poet; and, for the latter, I suspect also that this concentration upon the auditory imagination leads to at least an occasional levity. I can enjoy the roll of
Cambula, seat of Cathaian Can
.And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,
To Paquin of Sinaean kings, and thence
To Agra and Lahor of great Mogul
Down to the golden Chersonese, orwhac
The Persian in Ecbatan sate, or since
In Hispakan, or where the Russian Ksar
On Mosco, or the Sultan in Bizance,
and the rest of it, but I feel that this is not serious poetry, not poetry fully occupied about its business,
but rather a solemn game. More often, admittedly, Milton uses proper names in moderation, to obtain
the same effect of magnificence with them as does Marlowe–nowhere perhaps better than in the passage from Lycidas:
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit’st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou to our moist vows deny’d
Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great vision of the guarded Mount
Looks toward Nalnancos and Bayona’s hold .. ?
than which for the single effect of grandeur of sound, there is nothing finer in poetry. I make no attempt to appraise the ‘greatness’ of Milton in relation to poets who seem to me more comprehensive and better balanced; it has seemed to me more fruitful for the present to press the parallel between Paradise Lost and Work in Progress; and both Milton and Joyce are so exalted in their own kinds, in the whole of literature, that the only writers with whom to compare them are writers who have attempted something very different. Our views about Joyce, in any case, must remain at the present time tentative. But there are two attitudes both of which are necessary and right to adopt in considering the work of any poet. One is when we isolate him, when we try to understand the rules of his own game, adopt his own point of view: the
other, perhaps less usual, is when we measure him by outside standards, most pertinently by the standards of language and of something called Poetry, in our own language and in the whole history of European literature. It is from the second point of view that my objections to Milton are made: it is from tills point of view that we can go so far as to say that, although his work realizes superbly one important element in poetry, Ire may still be considered as having done damage to the English language from which it has not wholly recovered.
(The Henrietta Hertz Lecture, delivered to the British Academy, 1947, and subsequently at Frick Museum, New York. This text revised by the author.)
Samuel Johnson, addressing himself to examine Milton’s versification, ill the Rambler of Saturday,
January 12, 1751, thought it necessary to excuse his temerity in writing upon a subject already so
fully discussed. In justification of his essay this great critic and poet remarked : ‘There are, in every
age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed.’ I am obliged to phrase my own apology rather differently. The errors of our own times have been rectified by vigorous hands, and the prejudices opposed by commanding voices. Some of the errors and prejudices have been associated with my own name, and of these in particular I shall find myself impelled to speak; it
will, I hope, be attributed to me for modesty rather than for conceit if I maintain that no one can correct an error with better authority than the person who has been held responsible for it. And there is, I think, another justification for my speaking about Milton, besides the singular one which I have just given. The champions of Milton in our time, with one notable exception, have been scholars and
teachers. I have no claim to be either: I am aware that my only claim upon your attention, in speaking of Milton or of any other great poet, is by appeal to your curiosity, in the hope that you may care to know what a contemporary writer of verse thinks of one of his predecessors.
I believe that the scholar and the practitioner in the field of literary criticism should supplement each
other’s work. The criticism of the practitioner will be all the better, certainly, if he is not wholly desti-
tute of scholarship; and the criticism of the scholar will be all the better if he has some experience of the difficulties of writing verse. But the orientation of the two critics is different. The scholar is more
concerned with the understanding of the master-piece in the environment of its author: with the world in which that author lived, the temper of his age, his intellectual formation, the books which he had read, and the influences which had moulded him. The practitioner is concerned less with the author than with the poem; 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 English poetry still unwritten So we may say that the scholar’s interest is in the permanent, the practitioner’s in the
immediate. The scholar can teach us where we should bestow our admiration and respect : the practi-
tioner should be able, when he is the right poet talking about the right poet, to make an old master-
piece actual, give it contemporary importance, and persuade his audience that it is interesting, exciting, enjoyable, and active. I can give only one example of contemporary criticism of Milton, by a critic of the type to which I belong if I have any critical pretensions at all: that is the Introduction to Milton’s English Poems in the ‘World Classics’ series, by the late Charles Williams. It is not a comprehensive essay; it is notable primarily because it provides the best prolegomenon to Comus which any modern reader could have; but what distinguishes it throughout (and the same is true of most of Williams’s critical writing) is the author’s warmth of feeling and his success in communicating it to the reader. In this, so far as I am aware, the essay –of Williams is a solitary example.
I think it is useful, in such an examination as I propose to make, to keep in mind some critic of the
past, of one’s own type, by whom to measure one’s opinions : a critic sufficiently remote in time, for his local errors and prejudices to be not identical with one’s own. That is why I began by quoting Samuel Johnson. It will hardly be contested that as a critic of poetry Johnson wrote as a practitioner and not as a scholar. Because he was a poet himself, and a good poet, what he wrote about poetry must be read with respect. And unless we know and appreciate Johnson’s poetry we cannot judge either the merits or the limitations of his criticism. It is a pity that what the common reader to-day has read,
or has remembered, or has seen quoted, are mostly those few statements of Johnson’s from which later critics have vehemently dissented, nut when Johnson held an opinion which seems to us wrong, we are never safe in dismissing it without inquiring why he was wrong; he had his own ‘errors and prejudices’, certainly, but for lack of examining them sympathetically we are always in danger of merely countering error with error and prejudice with prejudice. Now Johnson was, in his day, very much a modern: he was concerned with how poetry should be written in his own time. The fact that he came towards the end, rather than the beginning of a style, the fact that his time was rapidly passing away, and that the canons of taste which he observed were about to fall into desuetude, does not diminish the interest of his criticism. Nor does the likelihood that the development of poetry in the next fifty years will take quite different directions from those which to me seem desirable to explore, deter me from asking the questions that Johnson implied: How should poetry be written now? and what place does the answer to this question give to Milton? And I think that the answers to these questions may be different now from the answers that were correct twenty-five years ago. There is one prejudice against Milton, apparent on almost every page of Johnson’s Life of Milton, which I imagine is still general: we, however, with a longer historical perspective, are in a better
position than was Johnson to recognize it and to make allowance for it. This is a prejudice which I share myself: an antipathy towards Milton the man. Of this in itself I have nothing further to say : all that is necessary is to record one’s awareness of it. But this prejudice is often involved with another, more obscure: and r do not think that Johnson had disengaged the two in his own mind. The fact is simply that the Civil War of the seventeenth century, in which Milton is a symbolic figure, has never been concluded. The Civil War is not ended : I question whether any serious civil war ever does end. Throughout that period English society was so convulsed and divided that the effects are still felt.
Reading Johnson’s essay one is always aware that Johnson was obstinately and passionately of another party. No other English poet, not Wordsworth, or Shelley, lived through or took sides in such momentous events as did Milton; of no other poet is it so difficult to consider the poetry simply as poetry, without our theological and political dispositions, conscious and unconscious, inherited or acquired, making an unlawful entry. And the danger is all the greater because these emotions now take different vestures. It is now considered grotesque, on political grounds, to be of the party of King Charles; it is now, I believe, considered equally grotesque, on moral grounds, to be of the party of the Puritans; and to most persons today the religious views of both parties may seem equally
remote. Nevertheless, the passions are unquenched, and if we are not very wide awake their smoke will obscure the glass through which we examine Milton’s poetry. Something has been done, certainly, to persuade us that Milton was never really of any 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’, and Professor Saurat has produced evidence to show that Milton’s theology was highly eccentric, and as scandalous to Protestants as to Catholics — that he was, in fact, a sort of Christadelphian, and perhaps not a very orthodox Christadelphian at that; while an the other hand Mr. C. S. Lewis has opposed Professor Saurat by skilfully arguing that Milton, at least in Paradise Lost, can be acquitted of heresy even from a point of view so orthodox as that of Mr. Lewis himself. On these questions I hold no opinion: it is probably beneficial to question the assumption that Milton was a sound Free Church-man and member of the Liberal Party; but I think that we still have to be on guard against an unconscious partisanship if we aim to attend to the poetry for the poetry’s sake.
So much for our prejudices. I come next to the positive objection to Milton which has been raised in our own time, that is to say, the charge that he is an unwholesome influence. And from this I shallproceed to the permanent strictures of reproof (to
employ a phrase of Johnson’s) and, finally, to the grounds on which I consider him a great poet and
one whom poets to-day might study with profit. For a statement of the generalized belief in the
unwholesomeness of Milton’s influence I turn to Mr. Middleton Murry’s critique of Milton in his
Heaven and Earth — a book which contains chapters of profound insight, interrupted by passages
which seem to me intemperate. Mr. Murry approaches Milton after his long and patient study of Keats; and it is through the eyes of Keats that he sees Milton.
‘Keats, Mr. Murry writes, as a poetic artist, second to none since Shakespeare, and Blake, as a
prophet of spiritual values unique in our history, both passed substantially the same judgement on
Milton: “Life to him would be death to me.” And whatever may be our verdict on the development of
English poetry since Milton, 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, dammed the creative flow of the English genius in and through itself. In saying this, I think, Keats voiced the very inmost of the English genius. 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 perspicuous and constricts.’
This is a very confident affirmation, and I criticize it with some diffidence because I cannot pretend to have devoted as much study to Keats, or to have as intimate an understanding of his difficulties, as Mr. Murry. But Mr. Murry seems to me here to be trying to transform the predicament of a particular poet with a particular aim at a particular moment in time into a censure of timeless validity. He appeals to assert that the liberative function of Shakespeare: and the constrictive menace of Milton are permanent characteristics of these two poets. ‘To be influenced beyond a certain point’ by any one master is bad for any poet; and it does not matter whether that influence is Milton’s or another’s; and as we cannot anticipate where that point will come, we might be better advised to call it an uncertain point. If it is not good to remain under the spell of Milton, is it good to remain under the spell of Shakespeare. It depends partly upon what genre of poetry you are trying to develop. Keats wanted to write an epic, and he found, as might be expected, that the time had not arrived at which another English epic, comparable in grandeur to Paradise Lost, could be written. He also tried his hand at writing plays: and one might argue that King Stephen was more blighted by Shakespeare than Hyperion by Milton.
Certainly, Hyperion remains a magnificent fragment which one re-reads; and King Stephen is a play which we may have read once, but to which we never return for enjoyment. Milton made a great epic
impossible for succeeding generations; Shakespeare made a great poetic drama impossible; such a situation is inevitable, and it persists until the language has so altered that there is no danger, because no possibility, of imitation. Anyone who tries to write poetic drama, even to-day, should know that half of his energy must be exhausted in the effort to escape front the constricting toils of Shakespeare: the moment his attention is relaxed, or his mind fatigued, he will lapse into bad Shakespearian verse. For a long time after an epic poet like Milton, or a dramatic poet like Shakespeare, nothing can be done. Yet the effort must be repeatedly made; for we can never know in advance when the moment is approaching at which a new epic, or a new drama, will be possible; and when the moment does draw near it may be that the genius of an individual poet will perform the last mutation of idiom and versification which will bring that new poetry into being.
I have referred to Mr. Murry’s view of the bad influence of Milton as generalized, because it is implicitly the whole personality of Milton that is in question : not specifically his beliefs, or his language or versification, but the beliefs as realized in that particular personality, and his poetry as the expression of it. By the particular- view of Milton’s influence as bad, I mean that view which attends to the language, the syntax, the versification, the imagery. I do not suggest that there is here a com-
plete difference of subject matter : it is the difference of approach, the difference of the focus of interest, between the philosophical critic and the literary critic. An incapacity for the abstruse, and an interest in poetry which is primarily a technical interest, dispose my mind towards the More limited and perhaps more superficial task. Let us proceed to look at Milton’s influence from this point of view, that of the writer of poetry in our own time.
The reproach against Milton, that his technical influence has been bad, appears to have been made by no one more positively than by myself. I find myself saying, as recently as lsss, that this charge against Milton ‘appears a good deal more serious if we affirm that Milton’s poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious, also, if we affirm that Milton’s bad influence may be traced much farther than the eighteenth century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle.’
In writing these sentences I failed to draw a threefold distinction, which now seems to me of some importance. There are three separate assertions implied. The first is, that an influence has been bad in the past: this is to assert that good poets, in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, would have written better if they had not submitted themselves to the influence of Milton. The second assertion is,
that the contemporary situation is such that Milton is a master whom we should avoid. The third is, that the influence of Milton, or of any particular poet, can be always bad; and that we can predict that wherever it is found at any time in the future, however remote, it will be a bad influence. Now, the first and third of these assertions I am no longer prepared to make, because, detached from the second, they do not appear to me to have any meaning.
For the first, when we consider one great poet of the past, and one or more other poets, upon whom we say he has exerted a bad influence, we must admit that the responsibility, if there be any, is rather with the poets who were influenced than with the poet whose work exerted the influence. We can, of course, show that certain tricks or mannerisms which the imitators display are due to conscious or unconscious imitation and emulation, but that is a reproach against their injudicious choice of a model and not against their model itself. And we can never prove that ny particular poet would have written better poetry if he had escaped that influence. Even if we assert, what can only be a matter of faith, that Keats would have written a very great epic poem if Milton had not preceded him, is it sensible to pine for an unwritten masterpiece, in exchange for one which we possess and acknowledge ? And as for the remote future, what can we affirm about the poetry that will be written then, except that we should
probably be unable to understand or to enjoy it, and that therefore we can hold no opinion as to what ‘good’ and ‘bad’ influences will mean ill that future ?
The only relation in which the question of influence, good and bad, is significant, is the relation to the immediate future. With that question I shall engage at the end. I wish first to mention another reproach against Milton, that represented by the phrase ‘dissociation of sensibility’. I remarked many years ago, in an essay on Dryden, that :
‘In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set ill, 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.
The longer passage from which this sentence is taken is quoted by Dr. Tillyard in his Milton. Dr.Tillyard makes the following comment:
‘Speaking only of what in this passage concerns Milton, I would say that there is here a mixture of truth and falsehood. Some sort of dissociation of sensibility in Milton, not necessarily undesirable, has to be admitted; but that he was responsible for any such dissociation in others (at least till this general dissociation had inevitably set in) is untrue.’
I believe that the general affirmation represented by the phrase ‘dissociation of sensibility’ (one of the two or three phrases of my coinage — like ‘objective correlative’ — which have had a success in the
world astonishing to their author) retains some validity; but I now incline to agree with Dr. Tillyard that to lay the burden on the shoulders of Milton and Dryden was a mistake. If such a dissociation did take place, I suspect that the causes are too complex and too profound to justify our accounting for the change in terms of literary criticism. All we can say is, that something like this did happen; that it had something to do with the Civil War; that it would even be unwise to say it was caused by the Civil War, but that it is a consequence of the same causes which brought about the Civil War; that we must seek the causes in Europe, not in England alone; and for what these causes were, we may dig and dig until we get to a depth at which words and concepts fail us.
Before proceeding to take up the case against Milton, as it stood for poets twenty-five years ago– the second, and only significant meaning of ‘bad influence’ -I think it would be best to consider what permanent strictures of reproof may be drawn : those censures which, when we make them, we must assume to be made by enduring laws of taste. The essence of the permanent censure of Milton is, I believe, to be found in Johnson’s essay. This is not the place in which to examine certain particular and erroneous judgments of Johnson; to explain his condemnation of Comus and Samson as the application of dramatic canons which to us seem inapplicable; or to condone his dismissal of the versification
of Lycidas by the specialization, rather than the absence, of his sense of rhythym. Johnson’s most important censure of Milton is contained in three paragraphs, which I must ask leave to quote in full.
‘Throughout all his greater works says Johnson) there prevails an uniform peculiarity of diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer; and which
is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens the book, finds himself surprised by a new language.
This novelty has been, say those who can find nothing wrong with Milton, imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suited to the grandeur of his ideas. Our language, says Addison, sunk under him. But the truth is, that both in prose and in verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned; for there judgment operates freely, neither softened by the beauty, nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts; but such is the power of his poetry, that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher and nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration .
‘Milton’s style was not modified by his subject; what is shown with greater extent in Paradise Lost may be found in Comus. One source of his peculiarity was his familiarity with the Tuscan poets; the dis-
position of his words is, I think, frequently Italian; perhaps sometimes combined with other tongues.
Of him at last, may be said what Jonson said of Spenser, that he wrote no language, but has formed what Butler called a Babylonish dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive learning the vehicle of so Much instruction and so much pleasure, that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.
This criticism seems to me substantially true: indeed, unless we accept it, I do not think we are in the way to appreciate the peculiar greatness of Milton. His style is not a classic style, in that it is not the elevation of a common style, by the final touch of genius, to greatness. It is, from the foundation, and in every particular, a personal style, not based upon common speech, or common prose, or direct communication of meaning. Of some great poetry one has difficulty in pronouncing just what it is, what infinitesimal touch, that has made all the difference from a plain statement which anyone could make; the slight transformation which, while it leaves a plain statement a plain statement, has made it at the same time great poetry. In Milton there is always the maximal, never the minimal, alteration of ordinary language. Every distortion of construction, the foreign idiom, the use of a word in a foreign way or with the meaning of the foreign word from which it is derived rather than the accepted meaning in English, every idiosyncrasy is
a particular act of violence which Milton has been the first to commit. There is no cliche, no poetic diction in the derogatory sense, but a perpetual sequence of original acts of lawlessness. Of all modern writers of verse, the nearest analogy seems to me to be Mallarme, a much smaller poet, though still a great one. The personalities, the poetic theories of the two men could not have been more different; but in respect of the violence which they could do to language, and justify, there is a remote similarity. Milton’s poetry is poetry at the farthest possible remove from prose; his prose seems to me too near to half-formed poetry to be good prose.
To say that the work of a poet is at the farthest possible remove from prose would once have struck me as condemnatory: it now seems to me simply, when we have to do with a Milton, the occasion of its peculiar greatness. As a poet, Milton seems to me probably 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 two kinds of poet who can ordinarily be of use to other poets. There are those who suggest, to one or another of their successors, something which they have not done themselves, or who provoke a different way of doing the same thing: these are likely to be not the greatest, but smaller, imperfect poets with whom later poets discover an affinity. And there are the great poets
from whom we can learn negative rules: no poet call teach another to write well, but some great poets can teach others some of the things to avoid. They teach us what to avoid, by showing us what great poetry can do without — how bare it can be. Of these are Dante and Racine. But if we are ever to make use of Milton we must do so in quite a different way. Even a small poet can learn something from the study of Dante, or from the study of Chaucer: we must perhaps wait for a great poet before we find one who can profit from the study of Milton.
I repeat that the remoteness of Milton’s verge from ordinary speech, his invention of his own poetic language, seems to me one of the marks of his greatness. Other marks are his sense of structure, both in the general design of Paradise Lost and Samson, and in his syntax; and finally, and not least, his inerrancy, conscious or unconscious, in writing so as to make the best display of his talents, and the best concealment of his weaknesses.
The appropriateness of the subject of Samson is too obvious to expatiate upon: it was probably the one dramatic story out of which Milton could have made a masterpiece. But the complete suitability of Paradise Lost has not, I think, been so often remarked. It was surely an intuitive perception of what he could not do, that arrested Milton’s project of an epic on King Arthur. For one thing, he had little interest in, or understanding of, individual
human beings. In Paradise Lost he was not called upon for any of that understanding which comes from an affectionate observation of men and women.
But such an interest in human beings was not required — indeed its absence was a necessary condition — for the creation of his figures of Adam and Eve. These are not a man and woman such as any we know: if they were, they would not be Adam and Eve. They are the original Man and Woman, not types, but prototypes- They have the general characteristics of men and women, such that we can recognize, in the temptation and the fall, the first motions of the faults and virtues, the abjection and the nobility, of all their descendants. They have ordinary humanity to the right degree, and yet are not, and should not be, ordinary mortals. Were they more particularized they would be false, and if Milton had been more interested in humanity, he could not have created them. Other critics have remarked upon the exactness, without defect or exaggeration, with which Moloch, Belial, and Mammon, in the second book, speak according to the particular sin which each represents. It would not be suitable that the infernal powers should have, in the human sense, characters, for a character is always mixed; but in the hands of an inferior manipulator, they might easily have been reduced to humours.
The appropriateness of the material of Paradise Lost to the genius and the limitations of Milton, is
still more evident when we consider the visual imagery. I have already remarked, in a paper written some years ago, on Milton’s weakness of visual observation, a weakness which I think was always present — the effect of his blindness may have been rather to strengthen the compensatory qualities than to increase a fault which was already present. Mr. Wilson Knight, who has devoted close study to recurrent imagery in poetry, has called attention to Milton’s propensity towards images of engineering and mechanics; to me it seems’ that Milton is at his best in imagery suggestive of vast size, limitless space, abysmal depth, and light and darkness. No theme and no settting, other than that which he chose in Paradise Lost, could have given him such scope for the kind of imagery in which he excelled, or made less demand upon those powers of visual imagination which were in him defective.
Most of the absurdities and inconsistencies to which Johnson calls attention, and which, so far as they can justly be isolated in this way, he properly condemns, will I think appear in a more correct proportion if we consider them in relation to this general judgment. I do not think that we should attempt to see very clearly ally scene that Milton depicts: it should be accepted as a shifting phantasmagory. To complain, because we first find the arch-fiend ‘chain’d on the burning lake’, and in a minute or two see him making his way to the shore,
‘(See Milton I.)
is to expect a kind of consistency which the world to which Milton has introduced us does not require.
‘This limitation of visual power, like Milton’s limited interest in human beings, turns out to be not merely a negligible defect, but a positive virtue, when we visit Adam and Eve in Eden. Just as a higher degree of characterization of Adam and Eve would have been unsuitable, so a more vivid picture of the earthly Paradise would have been less paradisiacal. For a greater definiteness, a more detailed account of flora and fauna, could only have assimilated Eden to the landscapes of earth with which we are familiar. As it is, the impression of Eden which we retain, is the most suitable, and is that which Milton was most qualified to give: the impression of light — a daylight and a starlight, a light of dawn and dusk, the light which, remembered by a man in his blindness, has a supernatural glory un-experienced by men of normal vision.
We must, then, in reading Paradise Lost, not expect to see clearly; our sense of sight must be blurred, so that our hearing may become more acute. Paradise Lost, like Finnegan’s Wake (for I can think of no work which provides a more interesting parallel : two books by great blind musicians, each writing a language of his own based upon English) makes this peculiar demand for a readjustment of the reader’s mode of apprehension. The emphasis is on the sound, not the vision, upon the word, not the idea; and in the end it is the unique versification
that is the most certain sign of Milton’s intellectual mastership.
On the subject of Miiton’s versification, so far as I am aware, little enough has beell written. We have Johnson’s essay in the Rambler, which deserves more study than it has received, and we have a short treatise by Robert Bridges on Milton’s Prosody. I speak of Bridges with respect, for no poet of our time has given such close attention to prosody as he. Bridges catalogues the systematic irregularities which give perpetual variety to Milton’s verse, and I can find no fault with his analysis. But however interesting these analyses are, I do not think that it is by such means that we gain an appreciation of the peculiar rhythm of a poet. It seems to me also that Milton’s verse is especially refractory to yielding up its secrets to examination of the single line. For his verse is not formed in this way. It is the period, the sentence and still more the paragraph, that is the unit of Milton’s verse; and emphasis on the line structure is the minimum necessary to provide a counter-pattern to the period structure.
It is only in the period that the wave-length of Milton’s verse is to be found : it is his ability to give a perfect and unique pattern to every paragraph, such that the full beauty of the line is found in its context, and his ability to work in larger musical units than many other poets — that is to me the most conclusive evidence of Milton’s supreme mastery. The peculiar feeling, almost a physical sensation of
a greatness leap, communicated by Milton’s long periods, and by his alone, is impossible to procure from rhymed verse. Indeed, this mastery is most conclusive evidence of his intellectual power, thrul is his grasp of any ideas that lie borrowed or invented.
To be able to control so many words at once is the token of a mind of most exceptional energy.
It is interesting at this point to recall the general observations upon blank verse, which a consideration of Paradise Lost prompted Johnson to make towards the end of his essay.
‘The music of the English heroic lines strikes the ear so faintly, that it is easily lost, unless all the syllables of every line co-operate together; this co-operation can only be obtained by the preservation of every verse unmingled with another as a distinct system of sounds; and this distinctness is obtained and preserved 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 the periods of a declaimer; and there are only a few skilful and happy readers of Milton, who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or begin. Blank verse, said an ingenious critic, seems to be verse only to the eye.
Some of my audience may recall that this last remark, in almost the same words, was often made, a literary generation ago, about the ‘free verse’ of the period: and even without this encouragement from Johnson it would have occurred to my mind to
declare Milton to be the greatest master of free verse in our language. What is interesting about Johnson’s paragraph, however, is that it represents the judgment of a man who had by no means a deaf ear, but simply a specialized ear, for verbal music.
Within the limits of the poetry of his own period, Johnson is a very good judge of the relative merits of several poets as writers of blank verse. But on the whole, the blank verse of his age might more properly be called unrhymed verse; and nowhere is this difference more evident than in the verse of his own tragedy Irene: the phrasing is admirable, the style elevated and correct, but each line cries but for a companion to rhyme with it. Indeed, it is only with labour, or by occasional inspiration, or by submission to the influence of the older dramatists, that the blank verse of the nineteenth century succeeds in making the absence of rhyme inevitable and right, with the rightness of Milton. Even Johnson admitted that he could not wish that Milton had been a rhymer. Nor did the nineteenth century succeed in giving to blank verse the flexibility which it needs if the tone of common speech, talking ‘of the topics of common intercourse, is to be employed; so that when our more modern practitioners of blank verse do not touch the sublime, they frequently sink to the ridiculous. Milton perfected non-dramatic blank verse and at the same time imposed limitations, very hard to break, upon the use to which it may be put if its greatest musical
possibilities are to be exploited.
I come at last to compare my own attitude, as that of a poetical practitioner perhaps typical of a generation twenty-five years ago, with my attitude today. I have thought it well to take matters in the order in which I have taken them to discuss first the censures and detractions which I believe to have permanent validity, and which were best made by Johnson, in order to make clearer the causes, and the justification, for hostility to Milton on the part of poets at a particular juncture. And I wished to make clear those excellences of Milton which particularly impress me, before explaining why I think that the study of his verse might at last be of benefit to poets.
I have on several occasions suggested, that these important changes in the idiom of English verse which are represented by the names of Dryden and Wordsworth, may be characterized as successful attempts to escape from a poetic idiom which had ceased to have a relation to contemporary speech.
This is the sense of Wordsworth’s Prefaces. By the beginning of the present century another revolution in idiom — and such revolutions bring with them an alteration of metric, a new ~appeal to the ear — was due. It inevitably happens that the young poets engaged in such a revolution will exalt the merits of those poets of the past who offer them example and stimulation, and cry down the merits of poets who do not stand for the qualities which they are
zealous to realize. This is not only inevitable, it is right. It is even right, and certainly inevitable, that their practice, still more influential than their critical pronouncements, should attract their own readers to the poets by whose work they have been influenced. Such influence has certainly contributed to the taste (if we can distinguish the taste from the fashion) for Donne. I do not think that any modern poet, unless in a fit of irresponsible peevishness, has ever denied Milton’s consummate powers. And it must be said that Milton’s diction is not a poetic diction in the sense of being a debased currency: when he violates the English language he is imitating nobody, and he is inimitable. But Milton does, as I have said, represent poetry at the extreme limit from prose; and it was one of our tenets that verse should have the virtues of prose, that diction should become assimilated to cultivated contemporary speech, before aspiring to the elevation of poetry.
Another tenet was that the subject-matter and the: imagery of poetry should be extended to topics and ‘objects related to the life of a modern man or woman; that we were to seek the non-poetic, to seek even material refractory to transmutation into poetry, and words and phrases which had not been used in poetry before. And the study of Milton could be of no help here : it was only a hindrance.
We cannot, in literature, any more than in the rest of life, live in a perpetual state of revolution. If every generation of poets made it their task to
bring poetic diction up to date with the spoken language, poetry would fail in one of its most important obligations. For poetry should help, not only to refine the language of the time, but to prevent it from changing too rapidly : a development of language at too great a speed would be a development in the sense of a progressive deterioration, and that is our danger to-day. If the poetry of the rest of this century takes the line of development which seems to me, reviewing the progress of poetry through the last three centuries, the right course, it will discover new and more elaborate patterns of a diction now established. In this search it might have much to learn from Milton’s extended verse structure; it might also avoid the danger of a snvitude to colloquial speech and to current jargon. it might also learn that the music of verse is strongest in poetry which has a definite meaning expressed in the properest words. Poets might be led to admit that a knowledge of the literature of their own language, with a knowledge of the literature and the grammatical construction of dither languages, is a very valuable part of the poet’s equipment. And they might, as I have already hinted, devote some study to Milton as, outside the theatre, the greatest master in our language of freedom within form. A study of Samson should sharpen anyone’s appreciation of the justified irregularity, and put him on guard against the pointless irregularity. In studying Paradise Lost we come to perceive that the verse is
continuously animated by the departure from, and return to, the regular measure; and that, in comparison with Milton, hardly any subsequent writer of blank verse appears to exercise any freedom at all. We can also be led to the reflection that a monotony of unscannable verse fatigues the attention even more quickly than a monotony of exact feet. In short, it now seems to me that poets are sufficiently liberated from Milton’s reputation, to approach the study of his work without danger, and with profit to their poetry and to the English language.
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