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John Milton Was Born 405 Years Ago Today.

Here's Why He Still Matters.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"John Milton And His Poetry"

October 21, 1931

Columbia University is making a landmark in American scholarship and a monument to a great poet’s fame. Under the general editorship of Frank Allen Patterson, a staff of editors consisting of Professors Abbott, Ayres, Clark, Erskine, Haller, Krapp, and Trent, are bringing together the manuscripts and the early editions of Milton's works, for the purpose not only of giving us a final text but of publishing the first complete edition of the poet ever to appear.1 Over a period of about five years the volumes will come off the press until eighteen have been issued. The format and material construction of the books are exemplary; the paper is a fine quality of rag, the binding of the library edition a durable brown cloth; and the printing has been expertly done by Mr. William Edwin Rudge. The two first volumes, each of which is divided into two parts separately bound, contain all the poetry, English, Italian, Latin and Greek. These are now before us.

From the time of Addison's praise of Milton in 1694, the stream of criticism has carried the poet to our own day, the most referred to, but, in the last half-century, the least read of all the great poets. The scholars know him but the poets do not, and on the whole it must be said that we flatter him with neglect. We must not be misled by the dubious fact that every year sees the publication of enough critical routine about Milton to bemuse the whole of any man's time. In the most important sense the poet is without influence. His style, his "philosophy," his methods of composition, above all his attitude toward his material, have had no effect on the best poets since Tennyson. There is enough exegesis left to be done on Milton to entertain the profession of letters forever: "Lycidas" alone is one of those jokers that will always beguile the historical critic who cannot understand what is meant when one says that it is a great poem meaning nothing. Textual interpretation and biography have their own value; one hopes that all the problems may some time be solved. There is one new and great problem for the historical critic, who, however, had also better be a philosopher: we now hear that the Massonized Milton was fiction, that Milton's Puritanism was the most convenient set of terms in that age into which he might throw the whole energy of an insight that exceeded all brands of nonconformity. This new Milton will probably win a large new following among those men who do not know they are living in the backwash of the Renaissance and can thus enjoy it. The new Milton is a Renaissance hero. It is to be hoped that neither Masson nor the Renaissance can keep him from being a poet, or us from seeing that no historical controversy is so important as the task of making him available to the living poets. If the complete edition of his works is to perform its full duty, it must make Milton influence poetry once more. In order to accomplish this, he must stand before us in the full significance of his supreme craftsmanship.

In a brief essay such a discussion can barely be started; yet one may suggest two ways in which the moderns might read Milton with profit. The first is a craftsman; the second, closely connected with the first, goes deeper, and raises the question that Mr. I. A. Richards has discouraged us about: This is the place of poetic fiction in the modern mind. Modern critical practice explicitly demands of poetry a great many features that were taken for granted in Milton's time, or called by different names. The early eighteenth century said perspicuity; we say psychological sincerity—that is, does the poetry come out of an actual core of experience? (The corollary to this demand, one of our most typical dogmas, that the experience must be personal, or even almost purely sensory, I pass by as irrelevant to the main issue.) Another demand that we habitually make is this: Is the poetry peculiarly the poet's own?

He must speak in his own character; his rhythms and images must bear his personal stamp, and in every case it must be said, for him to win our praise, that he has created a style. This personal or psychic kind of sincerity means that the poet must be careful to distinguish his sensations from those of other poets, for this alone will make the poetry his and suffuse over his imagery a certain emotional tone that gives to the verse its specific esthetic quality. To demand these qualities is only just; Milton had them—from the point of view of his own age. Does Milton, in these respects, survive our judgment? We believe that an elaborate mythology lies beyond the possibility of experience, and we denounce the continued use of mythological personages in poetry as unreal and insincere. No poet has ever experienced the physicist's ether, or the mathematician's quantum; nevertheless, such fictions complete gloriously amongst us against Chaos or the Spirit of the Wood.

At what moment in Milton's poetry does this relative insincerity first appear? I call it relative because it is only a matter of taste in fiction. In the early poems—for example, the "Nativity Ode," which before "Lycidas" has the most elaborate machinery—there is not, even as we see it, any pretense of "belief" in the physical existence of the Christian and pagan gods who amplify the theme. They are there as allusion, as metaphor; and a metaphor, at that stage of the mental process which the term implies, has never been a mythology. It is so with Arcades, and with the twin poems; so barefaced is the make-believe in "Comus," it is so with that poem—although the full-bodied and subtly contrived anthropomorphisms of Comus seem to promise an even more elaborate performance of that kind. In Milton's poetry from first to last there is a steady growth of the personifying power, a sheer love of sensible fictions for their own sake, beginning with the casual figures in the early work and mounting to the systematized mythology of the epic. Was Milton less sincere at the end than at the beginning?

There is no need of discussing the quality of the early, style; if we like it we can surely accept the kind of experience that it sets forth, and we nearly all do; which means that we are perfectly capable of accepting an incipient myth, a small fiction but not a large fiction. It is not that Milton was increasingly irresponsible about reality, and insincere, but rather that the character of our imaginations has changed and taken on a defect. On principle, the "Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester" requires as much willing suspension of disbelief as Raphael's story of the war in Heaven: we can make a little suspension but not a big one.

For we fail to see any great portions of our experience as wholes: I use the verb see  to mean actual vision, which as Milton employed it reduced the chief human passions to a perceptible scale, for the sake of truth, certainly, but mostly for our richest kind of delight. To represent as fiction, and as a whole, any human experience, one  must make a fable, and when the fable is typical of one kind of action it  becomes a myth, which conveys its meaning dramatically. When we read poetry we bring to it the pseudo-scientific habit of mind; we are used to joining things up in vague disconnected processes in terms that are abstract and thin, and so our sensuous enjoyment is confined to the immediate field of sensation. We are bewildered, helpless, confronted with one of those immensely remote, highly sensuous and perfectly make-believe worlds of poetry that rise above our scattered notions of process. The dramatic character of the myth offends us with its pretentiousness; it is hateful to I'homme moyen et sensuel, who is modern man; for it implies that the action is undertaken by superior beings (who are not allowed to exist), reaching beyond our personal experience. Our great myths make their appeal to those people, at last remarkably few, who have a sense of destiny, of poise above life, and who look at the vast distraction of the world, its shift and disintegration, with a controlling detachment.

Mythology as Milton understood it was no mere pictorial, exercise. We must remember that the greatest Anglo-Saxon master of the myth is the most perfectly self-conscious technician in English poetry: without the sense of myth, of fable, of ordered wholes in experience, he would have had no protection against our modern disease—miscellaneous sensation. He never wrote the same poem twice; there is no repetition. He was not overwhelmed by personal emotion; his personal emotion was caught up and purified by a succession of objective themes. Not even any two sonnets are technically the same; and what one expects is actually true—the emotion of every sonnet is distinctive. The moment he touched his medium, the feeling began to be transformed. There is, in the background of all the poems, an exalted presence, but there are no special Miltonic emotions  comparable to the Byronic melancholy or the Leopardian despair. He is capable of every effect,  but of no two effects twice. His great secret, as Saintsbury said, is his infallible sense of form: a violent, passionate man, lie did not let passion betray him into incomplete expression. He is the supreme English craftsman because he never violated the exact relation between his chosen subject and its demands upon his technique. His one unfinished poem, "The Passion," is evidence of a great artistic integrity; his instinct for form told him he had better drop it (it was "beyond his years"), although the last stanza is his high point in the minor poems before "Lycidas":

 Or should I thence hurried on viewles wing.

Take up a weeping on the Mountains wilde.

The gentle neighborhood of grove and spring

Would soon unbosom all their Echoes milde,

And I (for grief is easily beguild)

Might think th' infection of my  sorrows loud

Had got a race of mourners on som pregnant cloud.

Unless we are convinced Spenglerians, it is time for the Miltonic sense of form to reappear in Anglo-American poetry. It is high time that the modern poets, who feel strongly other seventeenth-century influences, came to a better view of Milton's significance for style. This does not mean that we must repeat "Lycidas," or try to write Miltonic blank verse; I have no specifications for modern style. In his time (as in ours) there was a good deal to be said for the Spenserian school against the technical breakdown to which the Jacobean dramatists had ridden English verse. Webster is a great moment in English style, but the drama was falling off, and blank verse had to survive in a non-dramatic form, which required a more rigid treatment than the stage could offer it. In substance, it needed stiffer and less sensitive perceptions, a more artificial grasp of sensation to offset the supersensitive awareness of the school of Shakespeare, a verification less imitative of the flow of sensation and more architectural. What poetry needed Milton was able to give. It was Arnold who, in the 1853 preface to his own poems, remarked that the sensational imagery of the Shakespearean tradition had not been without its baleful effect on poetry down to Keats:

One may imitate a passage in Shakespeare without penetrating to the mind that wrote it, but to imitate Milton one must be Milton; one must have all of Milton's resources in myth behind the impulse: it is the myth, ingrained in his very being, that makes the style. From Milton we learn only the meaning of craftsmanship—without a prescription for reproducing it; but it is a great lesson. There is no discouragement in the fact that Milton has never been successfully imitated (even Keats failed), and never will be.

It is still easy for us to oppose Spenser and Milton, and follow Donne. The school of T. S. Eliot is the modern school of Donne; it most probably would have appeared (such is the atmosphere of the age) without Donne's direct influence. In this generation we have had little use for Milton's lack of sensation, for his abstract orotundity. The enormous complexity of the sensibility in "Lycidas” contains no surprises, no shocks, and we do not like it. We like the oxymoron of feeling in the school of Donne. Milton asks us to attend not to his experience as such, but to his mythology; and this is the source of our belief in his psychological insincerity. He asks us to consider his fictions. Does he ask us to believe them? He asks us to contemplate them, and then to think what we please. We cannot see that "Paradise Lost" no more than "Lycidas” was written to enhance the idea of God; God and the death of Edward King—whom Milton had known slightly  and probably disliked—were seized upon to satisfy a deep sense for form: Milton was devout, and the glorification or God was dose to his personal impulse, but the finished work shows his motive to have been something else. The cabinetmaker takes the need of his patron for a table as the occasion to exercise his gift for form; Milton's poetry just as mysterious, and just as simple, as that.

There is still work to be done on Milton's mythology. Possibly the critic ought to assume that it was qualitatively present at the outset of his career, and then grew from the acorn. He demands that we accept it, for that is all he is. If we cannot do this, the inference is in no one favor in the matter of metaphysical knowledge. But it against us in another respect; it means that we have lost the imagination. Milton does not ask us to believe his heavenly fictions in any sense that he did not believe them; Lucifer needs the same quality of belief as "old Damcetas.” He does ask us to exercise as much philosophical insight, passively, as he actively puts into his poetry. His philosophy is neither right nor wrong; it is comprehensive. It covers and puts in its philosophical place the modern shortsightedness that we shortsightedly call the revolution of the human mind, which is said to have made Milton's poetry obsolete. There has never been a revolution of the mind: There are only styles in fiction. Milton's fiction is not in our style, and it seems inadequate to the solution of our problems. It is not diverting; it has no personality. We do not like it because it lacks these modern features; because it is creative in the purest sense. I think it was Warton who said that "Lycidas" was the absolute test of the sense of poetry; it still is. It is well to have one fixed criterion, for there is no abstract formula under the glassy cool translucent wave.