A French Critic on Milton (from Mixed Essays)
MR. TREVELYAN’S Life of his uncle must have induced many people to read again Lord Macaulay’s Essay on Milton. With the Essay on Milton began Macaulay’s literary career, and, brilliant as the career was, it had few points more brilliant than its beginning. Mr. Trevelyan describes with animation that decisive first success. The essay appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1825. Mr. Trevelyan says, and quite truly:
“The effect on the author’s reputation was instantaneous. Like Lord Byron, he awoke one morning and found himself famous. The beauties of the work were such as all men could recognise, and its very faults pleased. . . . The family breakfast-table in Bloomsbury was covered with cards of invitation to dinner from every quarter of London. … A warm admirer of Robert Hall, Macaulay heard with pride how the great preacher, then well-nigh worn out with that long disease, his life, was discovered lying on the floor, employed in learning by aid of grammar and dictionary enough Italian to enable him to verify the parallel between Milton and Dante. But the compliment that, of all others, came most nearly home, the only commendation of his literary talent which even in the innermost domestic circle he was ever known to repeat, was the sentence with which Jeffrey acknowledged the receipt of his manuscript: ‘The more I think, the less I can conceive where you picked up that style.'”
And already, in the Essay on Milton, the style of Macaulay is, indeed, that which we know so well. A style to dazzle, to gain admirers everywhere, to attract imitators in multitude! A style brilliant, metallic, exterior; making strong points, alternating invective with eulogy, wrapping in a robe of rhetoric the thing it represents; not, with the soft play of life, following and rendering the thing’s very form and pressure. – For, indeed, in rendering things in this fashion, Macaulay’s gift did not lie. Mr. Trevelyan reminds us that in the preface to his collected Essays, Lord Macaulay himself “unsparingly condemns the redundance of youthful enthusiasm” of the Essay on Milton. But the unsoundness of the essay does not spring from its “redundance of youthful enthusiasm.” It springs from this: that the writer has not for his aim to see and to utter the real truth about his object. Whoever comes to the Essay on Milton with the desire to get at the real truth about Milton, whether as a man or as a poet, will feel that the essay in nowise helps him. A reader who only wants rhetoric, a reader who wants a panegyric on Milton, a panegyric on the Puritans, will find what he wants. A reader who wants criticism will be disappointed.
This would be palpable to all the world, and every one would feel, not pleased, but disappointed, by the Essay on Milton, were it not that the readers who seek for criticism are extremely few; while the readers who seek for rhetoric, or who seek for praise and blame to suit their own already established likes and dislikes, are extremely many. A man who is fond of rhetoric may find pleasure in hearing that in Paradise Lost “Milton’s conception of love unites all the voluptuousness of the Oriental haram, and all the gallantry of the chivalric tournament, with all the pure and quiet affection of an English fireside.” He may glow at being told that “Milton’s thoughts resemble those celestial fruits and flowers which the Virgin Martyr of Massinger sent down from the gardens of Paradise to the earth, and which were distinguished from the productions of other souls not only by superior bloom and sweetness, but by miraculous efficacy to invigorate and to heal.” He may imagine that he has got something profound when he reads that, if we compare Milton and Dante in their management of the agency of supernatural beings, “the exact details of Dante with the dim intimations of Milton,” the right conclusion of the whole matter is this :
“Milton wrote in an age of philosophers and theologians. It was necessary, therefore, for him to abstain from giving such a shock to their understandings as might break the charm which it was his object to throw over their imaginations. It was impossible for him to adopt altogether the material or the immaterial system. He therefore took his stand on the debatable ground. He left the whole in ambiguity. He has doubtless, by so doing, laid himself open to the charge of inconsistency. But though philosophically in the wrong he was poetically in the right.”
Poor Robert Hall, “well-nigh worn out with that long disease, his life,” and, in the last precious days of it, “discovered lying on the floor, employed in learning, by aid of grammar and dictionary, enough Italian to enable him to verify ” this ingenious criticism! Alas! even had his life been prolonged like Hezekiah’s, he could not have verified it, for it is unverifiable. A poet who, writing “in an age of philosophers and theologians,” finds it “impossible for him to adopt altogether the material or the immaterial system,” who, therefore, “takes his stand on the debatable ground” who “leaves the whole in ambiguity,” and who, in doing so, ” though philosophically in the wrong, was poetically in the right!” Substantial meaning such lucubrations have none. And in like manner, a distinct and substantial meaning can never be got out of the fine phrases about “Milton’s conception of love uniting all the voluptuousness of the Oriental haram, and all the gallantry of the chivalric tournament, with all the pure and quiet affection of an English fireside;” or about “Milton’s thoughts resembling those celestial fruits and flowers which the Virgin Martyr of Massinger sent down from the gardens of Paradise to the earth;” the phrases are mere rhetoric. Macaulay’s writing passes for being admirably clear, and so externally it is; but often it is really obscure, if one takes his deliverances seriously, and seeks to find in them a definite meaning. However, there is a multitude of readers, doubtless, for whom it is sufficient to have their ears tickled with fine rhetoric; but the tickling makes a serious reader impatient.
Many readers there are, again, who come to an Essay on Milton with their minds full of zeal for the Puritan cause, and for Milton as one of the glories of Puritanism. Of such readers the great desire is to have the cause and the man, who are already established objects of enthusiasm for them, strongly praised. Certainly Macaulay will satisfy their desire. They will hear that the Civil War was “the great conflict between Oromasdes and Arimanes, liberty and despotism, reason and prejudice;” the Puritans being Oromasdes, and the Eoyalists Arimanes. They will be told that the great Puritan poet was worthy of the august cause which he served. His radiant and beneficent career resembled that of the god of light and fertility. “There are a few characters which have stood the closest scrutiny and the severest tests, which have been tried in the furnace and have proved pure, which have been declared sterling by the general consent of mankind, and which are visibly stamped with the image and superscription of the Most High. Of these was Milton.” To descend a little to particulars. Milton’s temper was especially admirable. “The gloom of Dante’s character discolours all the passions of men and all the face of nature, and tinges with its own livid hue the flowers of Paradise and the glories of the eternal throne.” But in our countryman, although “if ever despondency and asperity could be excused in any man, they might have been excused in Milton,” nothing “had power to disturb his sedate and majestic patience.” All this is just what an ardent admirer of the Puritan cause and of Milton would most wish to hear, and when he hears it he is in ecstasies.
But a disinterested reader, whose object is not to hear Puritanism and Milton glorified, but to get at the truth about them, will surely be dissatisfied. With what a heavy brush, he will say to himself, does this man lay on his colours! The Puritans Oromasdes, and the Eoyalists Arimanes! What a different strain from Chillingworth’s, in his sermon at Oxford at the beginning of the Civil War! “Publicans and sinners on the one side,” said Chillingworth, “Scribes and Pharisees on the other.” Not at all a conflict between Oromasdes and Arimanes, but a good deal of Arimanes on both sides. And as human affairs go, Chillingworth’s version of the matter is likely to be nearer the truth than Macaulay’s. Indeed, for any one who reads thoughtfully and without bias, Macaulay himself, with the inconsistency of a born rhetorician, presently confutes his own thesis. He says of the Eoyalists: ” They had far more both of profound and of polite learning than the Puritans. Their manners were more engaging, their tempers more amiable, their tastes more elegant, and their households more cheerful.” Is being more kindly affectioned such an insignificant superiority? The Royalists too, then, in spite of their being insufficiently jealous for civil and ecclesiastical liberty, had in them something of Oromasdes, the principle of light.
And Milton’s temper! His “sedate and majestic patience;” his freedom from “asperity!” If there is a defect which, above all others, is signal in Milton, which injures him even intellectually, which limits him as a poet, it is the defect common to him with the whole Puritan party to which he belonged, the fatal defect of temper. He and they may have a thousand merits, but they are unamiable. Excuse them how one will, Milton’s asperity and acerbity, his want of sweetness of temper, of the Shakspearian largeness and indulgence, are undeniable. Lord Macaulay in his Essay regrets that the prose writings of Milton should not be more read. “They abound,” he says in his rhetorical way, “with passages, compared with which the finest declamations of Burke sink into insignificance.” At any rate, they enable us to judge of Milton’s temper, of his freedom from asperity. Let us open the Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce and see how Milton treats an opponent. “How should he, a serving man both by nature and function, an idiot by breeding, and a solicitor by presumption, ever come to know or feel within himself what the meaning is of gentle?” What a gracious temper! “At last, and in good hour, we come to his farewell, which is to be a concluding taste of his jabberment in law, the flashiest and the fustiest that ever corrupted in such an unswilled hogshead.” How “sedate and majestic!”
Human progress consists in a continual increase in the number of those, who, ceasing to live by the animal life alone and to feel the pleasures of sense only, come to participate in the intellectual life also, and to find enjoyment in the things of the mind. The enjoyment is not at first very discriminating. Rhetoric, brilliant writing, gives to such persons pleasure for its own sake; but it gives them pleasure, still more, when it is employed in commendation of a view of life which is on the whole theirs, and of men and causes with which they are naturally in sympathy. The immense popularity of Macaulay is due to his being preeminently fitted to give pleasure to all who are beginning to feel enjoyment in the things of the mind. It is said that the traveller in Australia, visiting one settler’s hut after another, finds again and again that the settler’s third book, after the Bible and Shakspeare, is some work by Macaulay. Nothing can be more natural. The Bible and Shakspeare may be said to be imposed upon an Englishman as objects of his admiration; but as soon as the common Englishman, desiring culture, begins to choose for himself, he chooses Macaulay. Macaulay’s view of things is, on the whole, the view of them which he feels to be his own also; the persons and causes praised are those which he himself is disposed to admire; the persons and causes blamed are those with which he himself is out of sympathy; and the rhetoric employed to praise or to blame them is animating and excellent. Macaulay is thus a great civiliser. In hundreds of men he hits their nascent taste for the things of the mind, possesses himself of it and stimulates it, draws it powerfully forth and confirms it.
But with the increasing number of those who awake to the intellectual life, the number of those also increases, who having awoke to it, go on with it, follow where it leads them. And it leads them to see that it is their business to learn the real truth about the important men, and things, and books, which interest the human mind. For thus is gradually to be acquired a stock of sound ideas, in which the mind will habitually move, and which alone can give to our judgments security and solidity. To be satisfied with fine writing about the object of one’s study, with having it praised or blamed in accordance with one’s own likes or dislikes, with any conventional treatment of it whatever, is at this stage of growth seen to be futile. At this stage, rhetoric, even when it is so good as Macaulay’s dissatisfies. And the number of people who have reached this stage of mental growth is constantly, as things now are, increasing; increasing by the very same law of progress which plants the beginnings of mental life in more and more persons who, until now, have never known mental life at all. So that while the number of those who are delighted with rhetoric such as Macaulay’s is always increasing, the number of those who are dissatisfied with it is always increasing too.
And not only rhetoric dissatisfies people at this stage, but conventionality of any kind. This is the fault of Addison’s Miltonic criticism, once so celebrated; it rests almost entirely upon convention. Here is Paradise Lost, “a work which does an honour to the English nation,” a work claiming to be one of the great poems of the world, to be of the highest moment to us. “The Paradise Lost” says Addison, “is looked upon by the best judges as the greatest production, or at least the noblest work of genius, in our language, and therefore deserves to be set before an English reader in its full beauty.” The right thing, surely, is for such a work to prove its own virtue by powerfully and delightfully affecting us as we read it, and by remaining a constant source of elevation and happiness to us for ever. But the Paradise Lost has not this effect certainly and universally; therefore Addison proposes to “set before an English reader, in its full beauty,” the great poem. To this end he has “taken a general view of it under these four heads: the fable, the characters, the sentiments, and the language.” He has, moreover, “endeavoured not only to prove that the poem is beautiful in general, but to point out its particular beauties and to determine wherein they consist. I have endeavoured to show how some passages are beautified by being sublime, others by being soft, others by being natural; which of them are recommended by the passion, which by the moral, which by the sentiment, and which by the expression. I have likewise endeavoured to show how the genius of the poet shines by a happy invention, or distant allusion, or a judicious imitation; how he has copied or improved Homer or Virgil, and raises his own imagination by the use which he has made of several poetical passages in Scripture. I might have inserted also several passages in Tasso which our author has imitated; but as I do not look upon Tasso to be a sufficient voucher, I would not perplex my reader with such quotations as might do more honour to the Italian than the English poet.”
This is the sort of criticism which held our grandfathers and great-grandfathers spell-bound in solemn reverence. It is all based upon convention, and on the positivism of the modern reader it is thrown away. Does the work which you praise, he asks, affect me with high pleasure and do me good, when I try it as fairly as I can? The critic who helps such a questioner is one who has sincerely asked himself, also, this same question; who has answered it in a way which agrees, in the main, with what the questioner finds to be his own honest experience in the matter, and who shows the reasons for this common experience. Where is the use of telling a man, who finds himself tired rather than delighted by Paradise Lost, that the incidents in that poem “have in them all the beauties of novelty, at the same time that they have all the graces of nature:” that “though they are natural, they are not obvious, which is the true character of all fine writing”? Where is the use of telling him that “Adam and Eve are drawn with such sentiments as do not only interest the reader in their afflictions, but raise in him the most melting passions of humanity and commiseration”? His own experience, on the other hand, is that the incidents in Paradise Lost are such as awaken in him but the most languid interest; and that the afflictions, and sentiments of Adam and Eve never melt or move him passionately at all. How is he advanced by hearing that “it is not sufficient that the language of an epic poem be perspicuous, unless it be also sublime;” and that Milton’s language is both? What avails it to assure him that “the first thing to be considered in an epic poem is the fable, which is perfect or imperfect, according as the action which it relates is more or less so;” that “this action should have three qualifications, should be but one action, an entire action, and a great action;” and that if we “consider the action of the Iliad, Aeneid, and Paradise Lost, in these three several lights, we shall find that Milton’s poem does not fall short in the beauties which are essential to that kind of writing”? The patient whom Addison thus doctors will reply, that he does not care two straws whether the action of Paradise Lost satisfies the proposed test or no, if the poem does not give him pleasure. The truth is, Addison’s criticism rests on certain conventions: namely, that incidents of a certain class must awaken keen interest; that sentiments of a certain kind must raise melting passions; that language of a certain strain, and an action with certain qualifications, must render a poem attractive and effective. Disregard the convention; ask solely whether the incidents do interest, whether the sentiments do move, whether the poem is attractive and effective, and Addison’s criticism collapses.
Sometimes the convention is one which in theory ought, a man may perhaps admit, to be something more than a convention; but which yet practically is not. Milton’s poem is of surpassing interest to us, says Addison, because in it, “the principal actors are not only our progenitors but our representatives. We have an actual interest in everything they do, and no less than our utmost happiness is concerned, and lies at stake, in all their behaviour.” Of ten readers who may even admit that in theory this is so, barely one can be found whose practical experience tells him that Adam and Eve do really, as his representatives, excite his interest in this vivid manner. It is by a mere convention, then, that Addison supposes them to do so, and claims an advantage for Milton’s poem from the supposition.
The theological speeches in the third book of Paradise Lost are not, in themselves, attractive poetry. But, says Addison:
“The passions which they are designed to raise are a divine love and religious fear. The particular beauty of the speeches in the third book consists in that shortness and perspicuity of style in which the poet has couched the greatest mysteries of Christianity. … He has represented all the abstruse doctrines of predestination, free-will, and grace, as also the great points of incarnation and redemption (which naturally grow up in a poem that treats of the fall of man) with great energy of expression, and in a clearer and stronger light than I ever met with in any other writer.”
But nine readers out of ten feel that, as a matter of fact, their religious sentiments of “divine love and religious fear” are wholly ineffectual even to reconcile them to the poetical tiresomeness of the speeches in question: far less can they render them interesting. It is by a mere convention, then, that Addison pretends that they do.
The great merit of Johnson’s criticism on Milton, is that from rhetoric and convention it is free. Mr. Trevelyan says that the enthusiasm of Macaulay’s Essay on Milton is, at any rate, “a relief from the perverted ability of that elaborate libel on our great epic poet, which goes by the name of Dr. Johnson’s Life of Milton.” This is too much in Lord Macaulay’s own style. In Johnson’s Life of Milton we have the straightforward remarks on Milton and his works, of a very acute and robust mind. Often they are thoroughly sound. “What we know of Milton’s character in domestic relations is that he was severe and arbitrary. His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females as subordinate and inferior beings.” Mr. Trevelyan will forgive our saying that the truth is here much better hit than in Lord Macaulay’s sentence telling us how Milton’s “conception of love unites all the voluptuousness of the Oriental haram, and all the gallantry of the chivalric tournament, with all the pure and quiet affection of an English fireside.” But Johnson’s mind, acute and robust as it was, was at many points bounded, at many points warped. He was neither sufficiently disinterested, nor sufficiently flexible, nor sufficiently receptive, to be a satisfying critic of a poet like Milton. “Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure had he not known the author!” Terrible sentence for revealing the deficiencies of the critic who utters it.
A completely disinterested judgment about a man like Milton is easier to a foreign critic than to an Englishman. From conventional obligation to admire “our great epic poet” a foreigner is free. Nor has he any bias for or against Milton because he was a Puritan, in his political and ecclesiastical doctrines to one of our great English parties a delight, to the other a bugbear. But a critic must have the requisite knowledge of the man and the works he is to judge; and from a foreigner particularly perhaps from a Frenchman one hardly expects such knowledge. M. Edmond Scherer, however, whose essay on Milton lies before me, is an exceptional Frenchman. He is a senator of France and one of the directors of the Temps newspaper. But he was trained at Geneva, that home of large instruction and lucid intelligence. He was in youth the friend and hearer of Alexandre Vinet, one of the most salutary influences a man in our times can have experienced, whether he continue to think quite with Vinet or not. He knows thoroughly the language and literature of England, Italy, Germany, as well as of France. Well-informed, intelligent, disinterested, open-minded, sympathetic, M. Scherer has much in common with the admirable critic whom France has lost, Sainte-Beuve. What he has not, as a critic, is Sainte-Beuve’s elasticity and cheerfulness. He has not that gaiety, that radiancy, as of a man discharging with delight the very office for which he was born, which, in the Causeries, make Sainte-Beuve’s touch so felicitous, his sentences so crisp, his effect so charming. But M. Scherer has the same open-mindedness as Sainte-Beuve, the same firmness and sureness of judgment; and having a much more solid acquaintance with foreign languages than Sainte-Beuve, he can much better appreciate a work like Paradise Lost in the only form in which it can be appreciated properly, in the original.
We will commence, however, by disagreeing with M. Scherer. He sees very clearly how vain is Lord Macaulay’s sheer laudation of Milton, or Voltaire’s sheer disparagement of him. Such judgments, M. Scherer truly says, are not judgments at all. They merely express a personal sensation of like or dislike. And M. Scherer goes on to recommend, in the place of such “personal sensations,” the method of historical criticism that great and famous power in the present day. He sings the praises of “this method at once more conclusive and more equitable, which sets itself to understand things rather than to class them, to explain rather than to judge them; which seeks to account for a work from the genius of its author, and for the turn which this genius has taken from the circumstances amidst which it was developed; the old story of “the man and the milieu” in short. “For thus” M. Scherer continues, “out of these two things the analysis of the writer’s character and the study of his age, there spontaneously issues the right understanding of his work. In place of an appreciation thrown off by some chance comer, we have the work passing judgment, so to speak, upon itself, and assuming the rank which belongs to it among the productions of the human mind.”
The advice to study the character of an author and the circumstances in which he has lived, in order to account to oneself for his work, is excellent. But it is a perilous doctrine, that from such a study the right understanding of his work will “spontaneously issue.” In a mind qualified in a certain manner it will not in all minds. And it will be that mind’s personal sensation. “It cannot be said that Macaulay had not studied the character of Milton, and the history of the times in which he lived. But a right understanding of Milton did not “spontaneously issue” therefrom in the mind of Macaulay, because Macaulay’s mind was that of a rhetorician, not of a disinterested critic. Let us not confound the method with the result intended by the method right judgments. The critic who rightly appreciates a great man or a great work, and who can tell us faithfully life being short, and art long, and false information very plentiful what we may expect from their study and what they can do for us; he is the critic we want, by whatever methods, intuitive or historical, he may have managed to get his knowledge.
M. Scherer begins with Milton’s prose works, from which he translates many passages. Milton’s sentences can hardly know themselves again in clear modern French, and with all their reversions and redundancies gone. M. Scherer does full justice to the glow and mighty eloquence with which Milton’s prose, in its good moments, is instinct and alive; to the “magnificences of his style,” as he calls them:
“The expression is not too strong. There are moments when, shaking from him the dust of his arguments, the poet bursts suddenly forth, and bears us away in a torrent of incomparable eloquence. We get, not the phrase of the orator, but the glow of the poet, a flood of images poured around his arid theme, a rushing flight carrying us above his paltry controversies. The polemical writings of Milton are filled with such beauties. The prayer which concludes the treatise on Reformation in England, the praise of zeal in the Apology for Smectymims, the portrait of Cromwell in the Second Defence of the English people, and, finally, the whole tract on the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing from beginning to end, are some of the most memorable pages in English literature, and some of the most characteristic products of the genius of Milton.”
Macaulay himself could hardly praise the eloquence of Milton’s prose writings more warmly. But it is a very inadequate criticism which leaves the reader, as Macaulay’s rhetoric would leave him, with the belief that the total impression to be got from Milton’s prose writings is one of enjoyment and admiration. It is not; we are misled, and our time is wasted, if we are sent to Milton’s prose works in the expectation of finding it so. Grand thoughts and beautiful language do not form the staple of Milton’s controversial treatises, though they occur in them not unfrequently. But the total impression from those treatises is rightly given by M. Scherer:
“In all of them the manner is the same. The author brings into play the treasures of his learning, heaping together testimonies from Scripture, passages from the Fathers, quotations from the poets; laying all antiquity, sacred and profane, under contribution; entering into subtle discussions on the sense of this or that Greek or Hebrew word. But not only by his undigested erudition and by his absorption in religious controversy does Milton belong to his age; he belongs to it, too, by the personal tone of his polemics. Morus and Salmasius had attacked his morals, laughed at his low stature, made unfeeling allusions to his loss of sight: Milton replies by reproaching them with the wages they have taken and with the servant-girls they have debauched. All this mixed with coarse witticisms, with terms of the lowest abuse. Luther and Calvin, those virtuosos of insult, had not gone further.”
No doubt there is, as M. Scherer says, “something indescribably heroical and magnificent which overflows from Milton, even when he is engaged in the most miserable discussions.” Still, for the mass of his prose treatises “miserable discussions” is the final and right word. Nor, when Milton passed to his great epic, did he altogether leave the old man of these “miserable discussions ” behind him.
“In his soul he is a polemist and theologian, a Protestant Schoolman. He takes delight in the favourite dogmas of Puritanism: original sin, predestination, free-will. Not that even here he does not display somewhat of that independence which was in his nature. But his theology is, nevertheless, that of his epoch, tied and bound to the letter of Holy Writ, without grandeur, without horizons, without philosophy. He never frees himself from the bondage of the letter. He settles the most important questions by the authority of an obscure text, or a text isolated from its context. In a word, Milton is a great poet with a Salamasius or a Grotius bound up along with him; a genius nourished on the marrow of lions, of Homer, Isaiah, Virgil, Dante, but also, like the serpent of Eden, eating dust, the dust of dismal polemics. He is a doctor, a preacher, a man of didactics; and when the day shall arrive when he can at last realise the dreams of his youth and bestow on his country an epic poem, he will compose it of two elements, gold and clay, sublimity and scholasticism, and will bequeath to us a poem which is at once the most wonderful and the most insupportable poem in existence.”
From the first, two conflicting forces, two sources of inspiration, had contended with one another, says M. Scherer, for the possession of Milton, the Kenascence and Puritanism. Milton felt the power of both:
“Elegant poet and passionate disputant, accomplished humanist and narrow sectary, admirer of Petrarch, of Shakspeare, and hair-splitting interpreter of Bible -texts, smitten with Pagan antiquity and smitten with the Hebrew genius; and all this at once, without effort, naturally; an historical problem, a literary enigma!”
Milton’s early poems, such as the Allegro, the Penseroso, are poems produced while a sort of equilibrium still prevailed in the poet’s nature; hence their charm, and that of their youthful author:
“Nothing morose or repellent, purity without excess of rigour, gravity without fanaticism. Something wholesome and virginal, gracious and yet strong. A son of the North who has passed the way of Italy; a last fruit of the Renascence, but a fruit filled with a savour new and strange!”
But Milton’s days proceeded, and he arrived at the latter years of his life a life which, in its outward fortunes, darkened more and more, alia s’assom-brissant de plus en plus, towards its close. He arrived at the time when “his friends had disappeared, his dreams had vanished, his eyesight was quenched, the hand of old age was upon him.” It was then that, “isolated by the very force of his genius,” but full of faith and fervour, he “turned his eyes towards the celestial light” and produced Paradise Lost. In its form, M. Scherer observes, in its plan and distribution, the poem follows Greek and Koman models, particularly the Aeneid.” All in this respect is regular and classical; in this fidelity to the estabtalished models we recognise the literary superstitions of the Kenascence.” So far as its form is concerned, Paradise Lost is, says M. Scherer, “the copy of a copy, a tertiary formation. It is to the Latin epics what these are to Homer.”
The most important matter, however, is the contents of the poem, not the form. The contents are given by Puritanism. But let M. Scherer speak for himself:
“Paradise Lost is an epic, but a theological epic; and the theology of the poem is made up of the favourite dogmas of the Puritans, the Fall, justification, God’s sovereign decrees. Milton, for that matter, avows openly that he has a thesis to maintain; his object is, he tells us at the outset, to assert Eternal Providence and justify the ways of God to man. Paradise Lost, then, is two distinct things in one, an epic and a theodicy. Unfortunately these two elements, which correspond to the two men of whom Milton was composed, and to the two tendencies which ruled his century,” these two elements have not managed to get amalgamated. Far from doing so, they clash with one another, and from their juxtaposition there results a suppressed contradiction which extends to the whole work, impairs its solidity, and compromises its value.”
M. Scherer gives his reasons for thinking that the Christian theology is unmanageable in an epic poem, although the gods may come in very well in the Iliad and Aeneid. Few will differ from him here, so we pass on. A theological poem, is a mistake, says M. Scherer; but to call Paradise Lost a theological poem is to call it by too large a name. It is really a commentary on a biblical text, the first two or three chapters of Genesis. Its subject, therefore, is a story, taken literally, which many of even the most religious people nowadays hesitate to take literally; while yet, upon our being able to take it literally, the whole real interest of the poem for us depends. Merely as matter of poetry, the story of the Fall has no special force or effectiveness; its effectiveness for us comes, and can only come, from our taking it all as the literal narrative of what positively happened.
Milton, M. Scherer thinks, was not strong in invention. The famous allegory of Sin and Death may be taken as a specimen of what he could do in this line, and the allegory of Sin and Death is uncouth and unpleasing. But invention is dangerous when one is dealing with a subject so grave, so strictly formulated by theology, as the subject of Milton’s choice. Our poet felt this, and allowed little scope to free poetical invention. He adhered in general to data furnished by Scripture, and supplemented somewhat by Jewish legend. But this judicious self- imitation had, again, its drawbacks:
“If Milton has avoided factitious inventions, he has done so at the price of another disadvantage; the bareness of his story, the epic poverty of his poem. It is not merely that the reader is carried up into the sphere of religious abstractions, where man Ibses power to see or breathe. Independently of this, everything is here too simple, both actors and actions. Strictly speaking, there is but one personage before us, God the Father; inasmuch as God cannot appear without effacing every one else, nor speak without the accomplishment of his will. The Son is but the Father’s double. The angels and archangels are but his messengers, nay, they are less; they are but his decrees personified, the supernumeraries of a drama which would be transacted quite as well without them.
“Milton has struggled against these conditions of the subject which he had chosen. He has tried to escape from them, and has only made the drawback more visible. The long speeches with which he fills up the gaps of the action are sermons, and serve but to reveal the absence of action. Then as, after all, some action, some struggle, was necessary, the poet had recourse to the revolt of the angels. Unfortunately, such is the fundamental vice of the subject, that the poet’s instrument has, one may say, turned against him. “What his action has gained from it in movement it has lost in probability. We see a battle, indeed, but who can take either the combat or the combatants seriously? Belial shows his sense of this, when in the infernal council he rejects the idea of engaging in any conflict whatever, open or secret, with Him who is All-seeing and Almighty; and really one cannot comprehend how his mates should have failed to acquiesce in a consideration so evident. But, I repeat, the poem was not possible save at the price of this impossibility. Milton, therefore, has courageously made the best of it. He has gone with it all lengths, he has accepted in all its extreme consequences the most inadmissible of fictions. He has exhibited to us Jehovah apprehensive for his omnipotence, in fear of seeing his position turned, his residence surprised, his throne usurped. He has drawn the angels hurling mountains at one another’s heads, and firing cannon at one another. He has shown us the victory doubtful until the Son appears armed with lightnings, and standing on a car horsed by four Cherubim.”
The fault of Milton’s poem is not, says M. Scherer, that, with his Calvinism of the seventeenth century, Milton was a man holding other beliefs than ours. Homer, Dante, held other beliefs than ours:
“But Milton’s position is not the same as theirs. Milton has something he wants to prove, he supports a thesis. It was his intention, in his poem, to do duty as theologian as well as poet; at any rate, whether he meant it or not, Paradise Lost is a didactic work, and the form of it, therefore, cannot be separated from the substance. Now, it turns out that the idea of the poem will not bear examination; that its solution for the problem of evil is almost burlesque; that the character of its heroes, Jehovah and Satan, has no coherence; that what happens to Adam interests us but little; finally, that the action takes place in regions where the interests and passions of our common humanity can have no scope. I have already insisted on this contradiction in Milton’s epic; the story on which it turns can have meaning and value only so long as it preserves its dogmatic weight, and, at the same time, it cannot preserve this without falling into theology, that is to say, into a domain foreign to that of art. The subject of the poem is nothing if it is not real, and if it does not touch us as the turning-point of our destinies; and the more the poet seeks to grasp this reality, the more it escapes from him.”
In short, the whole poem of Paradise Lost is vitiated, says M. Scherer, “by a kind of antinomy, by the conjoint necessity and impossibility of taking its contents literally.”
M. Scherer then proceeds to sum up. And in ending, after having once more marked his objections and accentuated them, he at last finds again that note of praise, which the reader will imagine him to have quite lost:
“To sum up: Paradise Lost is a false poem, a grotesque poem, a tiresome poem; there is not one reader out of a hundred who can read the ninth and tenth books without smiling, or the eleventh and twelfth without yawning. The whole thing is without solidity; it is a pyramid resting on its apex, the most solemn of problems resolved by the most puerile of means. And, notwithstanding, Paradise Lost is immortal. It lives by a certain number of episodes which are for ever famous. Unlike Dante, who must be read as a whole if we want really to seize his beauties, Milton ought to be read only by passages. But these passages form part of the poetical patrimony of the human race. ”
And not only in things like the address to light, or the speeches of Satan, is Milton admirable, but in single lines and images everywhere:
“Paradise Lost is studded with incomparable lines. Milton’s poetry is, as it were, the very essence of poetry. The author seems to think always in images, and these images are grand and proud like his soul, a wonderful mixture of the sublime and the picturesque. For rendering things he has the unique word, the word which is a discovery. Every one knows his darkness visible.”
M. Scherer cites other famous expressions and lines, so familiar that we need not quote them here. Expressions of the kind, he says, not only beautiful, but always, in addition to their beauty, striking one as the absolutely right thing (toujours justes dans leur beauty), are in Paradise Lost innumerable. And he concludes:
“Moreover, we have not said all when we have cited particular lines of Milton. He has not only the image and the word, he has the period also, the large musical phrase, somewhat long, somewhat laden with ornaments and intricate with inversions, but bearing all along with it in its superb undulation. Lastly, and above all, he has a something indescribably serene and victorious, an unfailing level of style, power indomitable. He seems to wrap us in a fold of his robe, and to carry us away with him into the eternal regions where is his home.”
With this fine image M. Scherer takes leave of Milton. Yet the simple description of the man in Johnson’s life of him touches us more than any image; the description of the old poet “seen in a small house, neatly enough dressed in black clothes, sitting in a room hung with rusty green, pale but not cadaverous, with chalk stones in his hands. He said that, if it were not for the gout his blindness would be tolerable.”
But in his last sentences M. Scherer comes upon what is undoubtedly Milton’s true distinction as a poet, his “unfailing level of style.” Milton has always the sure, strong touch of the master. His power both of diction and of rhythm is unsurpassable, and it is characterised by being always present, not depending on an access of emotion, not intermittent, but, like the grace of Eaphael, working in its possessor as a constant gift of nature. Milton’s style, moreover, has the same propriety and soundness in presenting plain matters, as in the comparatively smooth task for a poet of presenting grand ones. His rhythm is as admirable where, as in the line
“And Tiresias and Plüneus, prophets old -” it is unusual, as in such lines as
“With dreadful faces throng’d and fiery arms”
where it is simplest. And what high praise this is, we may best appreciate by considering the ever-recurring failure, both in rhythm and in diction, which we find in the so-called Miltonic blank verse of Thomson, Cowper, Wordsworth. What leagues of lumbering movement! what desperate endeavours, as in Wordsworth’s
“And at the Hoop alighted, famous inn,”
to render a platitude endurable by making it pompous! Shakspeare himself, divine as are his gifts, has not, of the marks of the master, this one: perfect sureness of hand in his style. Alone of English poets, alone in English art, Milton has it; he is our great artist in style, our one first-rate master in the grand style. He is as truly a master in this style as the great Greeks are, or Virgil, or Dante. The number of such masters is so limited that a man acquires a world-rank in poetry and art, instead of a mere local rank, by being counted among them. But Milton’s importance to us Englishmen, by virtue of this distinction of his, is incalculable. The charm of a master’s unfailing touch in diction and in rhythm, no one, after all, can feel so intimately, so profoundly, as his own countrymen. Invention, plan, wit, pathos, thought, all of them are in great measure capable of being detached from the original work itself, and of being exported for admiration abroad. Diction and rhythm are not. Even when a foreigner can read the work in its own language, they are not, perhaps, easily appreciable by him. It shows M. Scherer’s thorough knowledge of English, and his critical sagacity also, that he has felt the force of them in Milton. We natives must naturally feel it yet more powerfully. Be it remembered, too, that English literature, full of vigour and genius as it is, is peculiarly impaired by gropings and inadequacies in form. And the same with English art. Therefore for the English artist in any line, if he is a true artist, the study of Milton may well have an indescribable attraction. It gives him lessons which nowhere else from an Englishman’s work can he obtain, and feeds a sense which English work, in general, seems bent on disappointing and baffling. And this sense is yet so deep-seated in human nature, this sense of style, that probably not for artists alone, but for all intelligent Englishmen who read him, its gratification by Milton’s poetry is a large though often not fully recognised part of his charm, and a very wholesome and fruitful one.
As a man, too, not less than as a poet, Milton has a side of unsurpassable grandeur. A master’s touch is the gift of nature. Moral qualities, it is commonly thought, are in our own power. Perhaps the germs of such qualities are in their greater or less strength as much a part of our natural constitution as the sense for style. The range open to our own will and power, however, in developing and establishing them, is evidently much larger. Certain high moral dispositions Milton had from nature, and he sedulously trained and developed them until they became habits of great power.
Some moral qualities seem to be connected in a man with his power of style. Milton’s power of style, for instance, has for its great character elevation; and Milton’s elevation clearly comes, in the main, from a moral quality in him, his pureness. “By pureness, by kindness!” says St. Paul. These two, pureness and kindness, are, in very truth, the two signal Christian virtues, the two mighty wings of Christianity, with which it winnowed and renewed, and still winnows and renews, the world. In kindness, and in all which that word conveys or suggests, Milton does not shine. He had the temper of his Puritan party. We often hear the boast, on behalf of the Puritans, that they produced “our great epic poet.” Alas! one might not unjustly retort that they spoiled him. However, let Milton bear his own burden; in his temper he had natural affinities with the Puritans. He has paid for it by limitations as a poet. But, on the other hand, how high, clear, and splendid is his pureness; and how intimately does its might enter into the voice of his poetry! We have quoted some ill-conditioned passages from his prose, let us quote from it a passage of another stamp:
“And long it was not after, when I was confirmed in this opinion, that he, who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things; not presuming to sing high praises of heroic men, or famous cities, unless he have in himself the experience and the practice of all that which is praiseworthy. These reasonings, together with a certain niceness of nature, an honest haughtiness and self-esteem, either of what I was or what I might be (which let envy call pride), and lastly that modesty whereof here I may be excused to make some beseeming profession; all these uniting the supply of their natural aid together kept me still above low descents of mind. Next (for hear me out now, readers), that I may tell you whither my younger feet wandered; I betook me among those lofty fables and romances which recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood founded by our victorious kings, and from hence had in renown over all Christendom. There I read it in the oath of every knight, that he should defend to the expense of his best blood, or of his life if it so befell him, the honour and chastity of virgin or matron; from whence even then I learnt what a noble virtue chastity sure must be, to the defence of which so many worthies by such a dear adventure of themselves had sworn. Only this my mind gave me, that every free and gentle spirit, without that oath, ought to be born a knight, nor needed to expect the gilt spur, or the laying of a sword upon his shoulder, to stir him up both by his counsel and his arm to secure and protect the weakness of any attempted chastity.”
Mere fine professions are in this department of morals more common and more worthless than in any other. What gives to Milton’s professions such a stamp of their own is their accent of absolute sincerity. In this elevated strain of moral pureness his life was really pitched; its strong, immortal beauty passed into the diction and rhythm of his poetry.
But I did not propose to write a criticism of my own upon Milton. I proposed to recite and compare the criticisms on him by others. Only one is tempted, after our many extracts from M. Scherer, in whose criticism of Milton the note of blame fills so much more place than the note of praise, to accentuate this note of praise, which M. Scherer touches indeed with justness, but hardly perhaps draws out fully enough or presses firmly enough. As a poet and as a man, Milton has a side of grandeur so high and rare, as to give him rank along with the half-dozen greatest poets who have ever lived, although to their masterpieces his Paradise Lost is, in the fulfilment of the complete range of conditions which a great poem ought to satisfy, indubitably inferior.
Nothing is gained by huddling on “our great epic poet” in a promiscuous heap, every sort of praise. Sooner or later the question: How does Milton’s masterpiece really stand to us moderns, what are we to think of it, what can we get from it? must inevitably be asked and answered. We have marked that side of the answer which is and will always remain favourable to Milton. The unfavourable side of the answer is supplied by M. Scherer. “Paradise Lost lives; but none the less is it true that its fundamental conceptions have become foreign to us, and that if the work subsists it is in spite of the subject treated by it.”
The verdict seems just, and it is supported by M. Scherer with considerations natural, lucid, and forcible. He, too, has his conventions when he comes to speak of Eacine and Lamartine. But his judgments on foreign poets, on Shakspeare, Byron, Goethe, as well as on Milton, seem to me to be singularly uninfluenced by the conventional estimates of these poets, and singularly rational. Leaning to the side of severity, as is natural when one has been wearied by choruses of ecstatic and exaggerated praise, he yet well and fairly reports, I think, the real impression made by these great men and their works on a modern mind disinterested, intelligent, and sincere. The English reader, I hope, may have been interested in seeing how Milton and his Paradise Lost stand such a survey. And those who are dissatisfied with what has been thus given them may always revenge themselves by falling back upon their Addison, and by observing sarcastically that “a few general rules extracted out of the French authors, with a certain cant of words, has sometimes set up an illiterate heavy writer for a most judicious and formidable critic.”