Despite what seems to a modern audience the old fashioned nature of both his subject matter and his language, Milton is still arguably the greatest of English poets. My own predilection is for Tennyson but, as he himself put it, he never found a subject worthy of his immense poetic talents. Milton on the contrary had Paradise Lost.
It is on that work that his fame essentially rests, though I suspect there are few now apart from scholars of English Literature who have read it through. And even these are less common, because many universities now no longer insist on knowledge of a canon of great works. Certainly it would take a great deal of enthusiasm to read through Paradise Lost for pleasure. I suspect I would not do so myself now, so I am lucky that in my distant schoolboy days I was determined to get through it.
This turned out to be a pleasure. The sonorous lines roll on like a wave, starting from the resounding introduction
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse…..
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
And justifie the wayes of God to men.
There are splendid set pieces, such as the description of Abdiel who did not give in to the temptations of Satan
So spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found
Among the faithless, faithful only he
But in addition to the reverberating language, there is also the extraordinary characterization of Satan, its principal protagonist. Though Milton’s dogmatic Christianity is never in doubt, he obviously wanted to create a foe worthy of God, and in this he emphatically succeeded.
he stood and call’d
His Legions, Angel Forms, who lay intrans’t
Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Brooks
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High overarch’t imbowr…….
He call’d so loud, that all the hollow Deep
Of Hell resounded. Princes, Potentates,
Warriers, the Flowr of Heav’n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can sieze
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour? …..
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.
But there are others too who hold our attention, in this epic struggle between good and evil –
To whom thus Zephon, answering scorn with scorn:—
“Think not, revolted Spirit, thy shape the same,
Or undiminished brightness, to be known
As when thou stood’st in Heaven upright and pure.
That glory then, when thou no more wast good,
Departed from thee; and thou resemblest now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foul.
But come; for thou, be sure, shalt give account
To him who sent us, whose charge is to keep
This place inviolable, and these from harm.”
So spake the Cherub; and his grave rebuke,
Severe in youthful beauty, added grace
Invincible. Abashed the Devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Virtue in her shape how lovely—saw, and pined
His loss; but chiefly to find here observed
His lustre visibly impaired; yet seemed
Though Milton would not I think be thought of so highly were it not for Paradise Lost, he did also produce a number of other poems of great beauty. Lycidas is one of the most moving of elegies, and was a mark at which succeeding poets aimed, in writing on the death of loved ones
Weep no more, woful Shepherds weep no more,
For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,
Sunk though he be beneath the watry floar,
So sinks the day-star in the Ocean bed,
And yet anon repairs his drooping head,
And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled Ore,
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:
So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,
Through the dear might of him that walk’d the waves;
Where other groves, and other streams along,
With Nectar pure his oozy Lock’s he laves,
And hears the unexpressive nuptiall Song,
In the blest Kingdoms meek of joy and love.
There entertain him all the Saints above,
In solemn troops, and sweet Societies
That sing, and singing in their glory move,
And wipe the tears for ever from his eyes.
Now Lycidas the Shepherds weep no more;
Hence forth thou art the Genius of the shore,
In thy large recompense, and shalt be good
To all that wander in that perilous flood.
Then there are the two marvelous romps, one to joy and the other, Il Penseroso, which presages Keats’ celebration of melancholy –
Hence vain deluding joyes,
The brood of folly without father bred,
How little you bested,
Or fill the fixed mind with all your toyes;
Dwell in som idle brain,
And fancies fond with gaudy shapes possess,
As thick and numberless
As the gay motes that people the Sun Beams,
Or likest hovering dreams
The fickle Pensioners of Morpheus train.
But the chastising of a dark mood in L’Allegro is equally powerful
Hence loathed Melancholy
Of Cerberus, and blackest midnight born,
In Stygian Cave forlorn
‘Mongst horrid shapes, and shreiks, and sights unholy,
Find out som uncouth cell,
Wher brooding darknes spreads his jealous wings,
And the night-Raven sings;
There under Ebon shades, and low-brow’d Rocks,
As ragged as thy Locks,
In dark Cimmerian desert ever dwell.
And of course Milton was also a master of the sonnet, using a form different to that of Shakespeare. The latter wrote three quatrains, and then a couplet that either summed up or subverted what had gone before. Milton instead used an octet and a sestet, which allowed him to move in the last six lines to a different perspective from what the first eight had embodied. This is most obvious in his most celebrated sonnet, On His Blindness
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
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But it is worth citing another too, an account of his sad dream of his deceased wife
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint
Purification in the old Law did save,
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night
And finally the powerful lament of Samson, the biblical hero who lost his strength and ‘Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves’ bewailed his blindness
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon, [ 80 ]
Irrecoverably dark, total Eclipse
Without all hope of day!
O first created Beam, and thou great Word,
Let there be light, and light was over all;
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree? [ 85 ]
The Sun to me is dark
And silent as the Moon,
When she deserts the night
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Since light so necessary is to life, [ 90 ]
And almost life itself, if it be true
That light is in the Soul,
She all in every part; why was the sight
To such a tender ball as th’ eye confin’d?
So obvious and so easie to be quench’t, [ 95 ]
And not as feeling through all parts diffus’d,
That she might look at will through every pore?
Then had I not been thus exil’d from light;
As in the land of darkness yet in light,
To live a life half dead, a living death, [ 100 ]
And buried; but O yet more miserable!
My self, my Sepulcher, a moving Grave,
Buried, yet not exempt
By priviledge of death and burial
From worst of other evils, pains and wrongs, [ 105 ]
But made hereby obnoxious more
To all the miseries of life,
Life in captivity
Among inhuman foes.
Ceylon Today 18 Jan 2015 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/96-82552-news-detail-john-milton.html