Influence of John Milton in English Poetry

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      In the seventeenth century, Milton was known as a man of learning and as an English and Latin poet. Though he was not popular in the ordinary sense, his Paradise Lost was read and admired, and commanded a ‘fit audience though few.’ It was in the eighteenth century that the fame and influence of Milton were at their height. Hanford says that ‘in no other time has he had so many readers or been the occasion of so much discussion.’ There were many factors which contributed to the vogue of Milton in the eighteenth century. (1) The eighteenth century was an age of classicism, and because Milton wrote his epic, elegy and tragedy on the classical models, the classicists admired him and tried to imitate him. (2) His didacticism was in accord with the trend of the times. (3) But the appeal of his poetry was primarily felt on account of the sublimity and fervor of his poetic imagination. (4) The under-current of romanticism in the middle of the century found a strong ally in his poetry and “Milton became more and more acclaimed as a champion of the inwardness and freedom of true poetry.” (5) Milton’s poetic style was admired and imitated by every writer of verse in the eighteenth century:- “he was a quarry of poetical phrase for everybody.” (60 Finally, his versification supplied model to the poets who broke away from the classical tradition of the eighteenth century.

Influence on Eighteenth-Century Poetry

      The poetry of the eighteenth century, both classical and romantic, was influenced by John Milton. The poets of the classical school, including Pope, drew upon his treasury of poetical phrases, and it was the blank verse of Paradise Lost that served as a model for many of the longer poems of the eighteenth century. Among the blank verse poems produced during the century may be mentioned John Philips’s Splendid Shilling, Thompson’s Seasons, Young’s Night Thoughts, Warton’s Pleasures of Melancholy, Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination and Cowper’s Task. All these poets took Milton as their model.

      English verse, says Raleigh, “went Milton-mad during the earlier half of the eighteenth century.” Not only was Milton’s blank verse imitated, but “his Latinisms, his inversion of natural word-order, his collocation of sonorous proper names and other external traits, furnished a ready means of stylistic ornamentation”; and the poets of the eighteenth century adopted these traits in order to impart dignity to the trivial and commonplace. Milton’s gorgeous manner was suited to his subject; “his shadowy grandeur, his avoidance of plain concrete terms, were necessary to him for the describing of his strange world; but this habit became a mere vicious trick of absurd periphrasis and purposeless vagueness, when they were carried by his imitators into the description of common and familiar objects.” (Raleigh). It is not high-sounding words, nor the avoidance of familiar terms that make poetry. The eighteenth-century poets attempted to give poetic grandeur to barren matter by avoiding common and familiar words. Milton avoided common words, because his subject matter demanded it. Milton, for instance, uses the expression “sounding alchymy” for a trumpet blown by the heralds in Hell, because a vague expression-not the trumpet as we may know it - would be more appropriate for Hell.

So spake the gis’y Terror,

      He uses a personification to refer to Death, because Death had an undefined form:

The other shapc-
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed
For each seemed either.

      This kind of vagueness is often employed by Milton in phrases like ‘the vast abrupt’, the ‘palpable obscure’, ‘the wasteful deep’; the poet deliberately avoids defining his conception by using an adjective in place of a noun. Milton, says Kaleigh, describes the concrete by using general and abstract terms for the sake of dignity and scope that they lend. These devices were indiscriminately employed by the poets of the eighteenth century, so that they foil into all manner, of absurdity and extravagance. They would not call a spade a spade, but ‘horticultural utensil’; they would use a periphrasis-’ the shining leather that' encases the limb’ - avoiding the common word, ‘shoes’. The use of personification was a common device, employed even by a poet like Gray; sometimes even though there is no need for personification, an abstract noun is used with an initial capital letter:

Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death.

      “Grandiose expressions, which were natural and fitting in their application to remote and lofty matters with which Milton dealt, became a grotesque affection when employed by Thompson and others as a means of elevating the common place.”

      L’ Allegro and II Penseroso also exercised a considerable influence on the poetry of the eighteen century. During the first half of the century, lyricism was almost dead; it revived after 1740 partly under the influence of these poems. Their spontaneity and freshness, their enthusiasm and melody contributed greatly to the development of romantic impose, and the lyricism of Collins and Gray was deeply influenced by them. The note of poetic melancholy which characterizes the poetry of this period may be traceable to II Penseroso.

Influence on Nineteenth-Century Poetry

      Milton was ‘a dynamic force’ to the poetry of the romantic period. Wordsworth was deeply influenced both by his character and poetry. It may be said that Milton was Wordsworth’s model. Wordsworth had the highest admiration for the greatness and purity of Milton’s character. He pays a nobel tribute to Milton in the sonnet,

Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

      There is a Miltonic quality in Wordsworth’s exalted utterances in blank verse; here and there we catch in his poetry echoes of Miltonic phrases. The sonnets of Wordsworth are also modeled on those of Milton. Wordsworth felt the influence of Milton’s character and art, while Byron and Shelley admired that aspect of his poetry which coincided with their revolutionary ideas. Shelley found Satan a superior being in comparison with God who was a tyrant. Byron makes Lucifer (Satan) a champion of man’s freedom. Shelley pays in Adonais a glowing tribute to the blind poet who stood against king and priest and calls him ‘the third among the sons of Light.’ Keats’s admiration of Milton was on aesthetic grounds; he was attracted to Milton for the richness of his poetic phrase. He started composing an epic, Hyperion, on the Miltonic plane, but he abandoned it because he thought that in imitating Milton he was doing violence to his own genius. In the Victorian Age, Milton continued to be a source of poetic inspiration. Tennyson paid a reverent tribute to Milton, and called him ‘God-gifted organ voice of England.’

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