General Estimate of John Milton's Poetry - Merits & Defects

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      Perhaps nowhere in the history of English poetry is there such a close relationship between the poet and his poetry. As it has been already said, poetry was not a luxury with Milton, but a compulsion, almost divine in its nature. The poetic faculty as he thought, was the only ‘talent’ with which his Maker and Taskmaster had endowed him; and by the right use of which he hoped to serve his country and do something which posterity would not willingly let die. This inward urge he felt even when he was a boy and was always possessed by the idea that he was a chosen man of God. He went through a long process of preparation and purification and anxiously looked forward to that happy time when "inward ripeness" would come and God would touch his lips with the hallowed fire of his altar. No other poet had such a high idea of the poet’s vocation. It was his firm belief that a true poem can only be written by one whose utterance and knowledge are enriched by the eternal spirit. In one of his prose pamphlets, he writes "that he who would not be frustrated of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem." He wrote not by mere impulse; but like a true scholar. He was one of the most learned of English poets. His range of reading was wonderfully vast. He read all the languages which are considered either as ‘learned or polite’. He knew Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, French and Spanish. To read and appreciate Milton is an educating experience of the highest order.

      Milton's poetic career, like his own life, may be well divided into three, distinct periods. In the first period, we find him as a belated Elizabethan, gleaning the stray ears of corn after the luxuriant harvest of Elizabethan poetry was over. He is now young, jubilant and hopeful, and is cultivating the art of poetry in the quiet seclusion of Horton. In L’Allegro and II Penseroso we find him echoing the merry notes of the Elizabethan England. But the sublimity of the Nativity Ode, the moral grandeur of Comus, the passionate and eloquent denunciation of the episcopal system in Lycidas prove beyond doubt that a new tone has already made its way into English poetry. The creative genius of the Elizabethans has made room for the religious fervor of the Puritans. But Milton was not destined to live long in this happy Arcadia. A storm was already brewing in the atmosphere and soon burst out in great fury. The great constitutional struggle upset his plan and he plunged headlong into the momentous affairs of the time. The heat of the controversy and the din of pamphleteering made him forget the great mission of his life, and his poetic talent suffered a long and lamentable eclipse. The few sonnets that he wrote during this period shine like brilliant rockets amidst the long and monotonous darkness of his vituperative pamphlets. They are the trumpets through which he blew "soul-animating strains." Milton’s sonnets open a new and inspiring chapter in the history of sonnet-writing. They are not the conventional sonnets of the Elizabethans, a vehicle of studied amorous sentiments. He was not the man

"To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair."

      Each of his sonnets is worth its weight in gold. They sometimes have the force and fire of a volcanic eruption, sometimes melt with tender pathos, sometimes glow with intense patriotism, sometimes overwhelm us with an awful spirit of courage and self-sacrifice. They constitute a noble autobiography of the poet. After the Restoration, the third and the greatest period of his poetic life begins. The storm has passed. It has ruthlessly blown down the dream-dome of his Puritan Commonwealth. His countrymen have accommodated themselves to the spirit of the time and have returned to monarchy and episcopacy. The blind poet with a hundred scars of battle all over his body and mind now took up his pen with renewed vigor. He emerged from the deep quagmire of politics and pamphleteering not only with no loss of strength, but wiser, steadier, more pious and powerful: The author of the Horton poems could never be the author of Paradise Lost. As the Israelites had to pass through long and terrible sufferings of deserts and wildernesses in order to purify their hearts and to cast behind them the tradition of Egyptian slavery, before God allowed them to enter the Promised Land, so Milton had to pass through a severe discipline and forget the soft romantic mood of the Horton poems before he could successfully write such a militant and sublime epic as the Paradise Lost. It is the last world in consummate scholarship. A sub-limer thing in literature can scarcely be conceived. In grandeur of conception, majesty of diction and magnificence of music it is unparalleled in English poetry. The severe simplicity and unadorned grandeur of Paradise Regained have a special charm and appeal of their own. Last of all comes Samson Agonistes, the swan-song of Milton. The blind, old, disappointed and solitary idealist, "fallen on evil days and evil tongues," ridiculed by the Philistines of the court of the profligate King Charles II and amidst the wrecks of his youthful dreams, could hardly have found a better and fitter subject for the farewell song of his life. It is the noblest, the truest and the most pathetic of the autobiographical poems in the English language. So we find that his poetry is his very life-blood, and to know Mil ton’s poetry is to know Mil ton himself. We note below some of the most prominent characteristics of his poetry:-


      Sublimity: Sublimity is the only word that can truly characterize Milton’s poetry. Even in his early poems, such as the Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, there is an unmistakable touch of the sublime. The description of the awful night of the Nativity, the solemn hush of the winds, the silent stars awaiting anxiously in the steadfast blue, the advent of the divine infant, the flinging open of the gates of Heaven and the singing of the angels in a chorus to welcome the awful Redeemer, are simply sublime. The constitutional sublimity of Paradise Lost is the grandest feature of the poem. Here Immensity communes with Infinity. It overwhelms us by the vastness of its conception. It transcends our imagination and experience. The subject matter of this superhuman drama is the fate of Man. The time is Eternity, the space is Infinity, and the actors are God, the Angels and the primitive parents of mankind. The poetry of Milton has the roaring of die ocean in it. Other poets have given us more beauty, more philosophy, and more romance, but none has given us such sublime things as Milton.

      Suggestivity: In Milton’s poetry "more is meant than meets the ear." Macaulay in his Essay on Milton writes: "His poetry acts like an incarnation. Its merits lies less in its obvious meaning than in its occult power. There would seem a first sight, no more in his words than in other words. But they are words of enchantment. No sooner are they pronounced than the past is present and the distant near. New forms of beauty start at once into existence, and all the burial places of the memory give up their dead. Change the structure of the sentence to substitute one synonym for another, and the whole effect is destroyed. The spell loses its power; and he who should then hope to conjure with it would find himself as much mistaken as Cassim in the Arabian tale, when he stood crying ‘Open Wheat,’ ‘Open Barley’, to the door which obeyed no sound but ‘Open Sesame.’

      Seriousness. Milton from his very boyhood was a man of a very serious bent of mind. He always thought his life to be a dedicated one. He lived with the consciousness of being ever in the awful presence of God. Every thought and every act of his life was influenced by such a consciousness. To him life was real and earnest, and not "a dream dreamt by an idiot." It is for this reason that Milton’s poetry has always a touch of seriousness in it. Channing writes: "Milton’s poetry is characterized by invariable seriousness. Great and various as are its merits, it does not discover all the variety of genius which we find in Shakespeare, whose imagination reveled equally in regions of beauty, mirth, and terror, now evoking spectures, now sporting with fairies, and now ascending the highest heaven of invention. Milton was cast on times too solemn and eventful to indulge himself in light and gay creations. Milton’s poetry, though habitually serious, is always beautiful and bright and vigorous."

      Spiritual import. The distinctive feature of Milton’s poetry is its spiritual quality. His intense godliness found its expression through his poetry. Like the needle of the mariner’s compass which always points to the north pole, Milton’s thoughts and actions always pointed to God. He always felt that he was living under the eye of his loving Taskmaster. All his writings have a deep religious undertone. To spend an hour with Milton is to feel the living presence of God. His patriotism, love of freedom, hatred of tyranny—very thing has its origin in religion. Paradise Lost was written to justify the ways of God to man.

      Choice of diction. Milton is the greatest master of verbal melody and a perfect magician in the matter of using words and phrases. He chooses every word carefully and by their arrangements and combinations creates a wonderfully poetical effect, He has invented a new poetic diction which like a rich and stiff brocade can stand alone without a thought. He observed the strictest economy in every trifle. There is scarcely an otiose epithet or a redundant word anywhere in the superb structure of his poetic edifice. Every word is in its place and contributes to the harmony, strength and majesty of life's entire fabric. Prof. Raleigh rightly remarks that "no man ever spoke more neatly more pressingly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered."

      Musical Effect Milton is one of the greatest masters of English prosody, His Paradise Lost is the pillar of Hercules in the domain of metrical excellence and the brightest example of the grandest symphony of thought, diction and rhythm. The wonderful sweep of his blank verse, its magnificent and billow-like harmony, justly entitle him to be called the "God gifted organ-voice of England." The long drawn-out linked sweetness of his mighty lines truly "untwist all the chains that tie the secret soul of harmony." His blank verse is stately without being ponderous, elaborate without being artificial. Its inexhaustible variety, everchanging cadence, its every possible modification of meter and combination of emphasis make his Paradise Lost the most artistic poem of the world.

      Blend of ancient and modern art. Like Milton, the man, Milton the poet also is a meeting point of contradictory elements. He was a Puritan, but had the polish and chivalry of a Cavalier. He was a great hater of tyranny, but had all the ornamental qualities of a Royalist His opinion was democratic, but his tastes were those of an aristocrat. Similarly, in his poetry, we find the simplicity and romantic richness of modem art. His Adam, Eve and Satan are simple are majestic epic characters, but the dress, style and illustrations have the splendor, complexity and subtlety of modem art. Sometimes his poetry has the holy charm of a Bible narrative, but sometimes Spenser, Tasso, Ariosto lend their rich and complex coloring in order to make his poetry a finished illustration of subtle modem art. His poetry, in brief, is an ancient art in modem disguise.

      Pictnresqueness. Millon has an extraordinary power of drawing wonderful and vivid pen pictures. His descriptions of scenes and events are so impressive that it is difficult to forget them. He seldom goes into details; but with a few strokes of his mighty and magic pen draws a vast impressionist picture. His blindness contributed not a little to this special feature of his poetry. He sees things Through his feelings and imagination.
What a mighty effect do his pictures of Hell and Chaos produce on our minds. In the second Book of Paradise Lost, the description of the deliberations of the fallen angels, of the horrors of Hell, and of the fierce encounter between Satan and Death, clearly show what a great artist Milton was.


      Want of human interest. The most glaring defect which strikes even a careless reader of Milton’s poetry is its want of human interest. We do not find in his poetry any sweet and homely picture of this ordinary work-a-day world where we live and move, love and hate, quarrel and struggle. The greatness of an art lies in its nearness to human life; but in this respect Milton’s poetry is hopelessly deficient. He can fill us with admiration, or overwhelm us with wonder, but can never make us smile in joy or weep in sympathy. When we read Shakespeare or Dickens, Scott or Fielding we lose ourselves in their men and women; but when we read Milton we feel oppressed by a feeling of intense solitude. This is partly due to his choice of subjects which are far removed from our world of thought and experience. His Cherubs and Seraphs, God and Messiah have nothing to do with the poor tiny human world in which we live. Even his Adam and Eve, though human beings, have seldom anything in common with us, the miserable creatures of a fallen world. His Heaven and Hell, Chaos and Paradise are places which transcend our common experience. This aloofness of Milton’s poetry from the world of humanity makes it unpopular with the world of average readers.

      Want of humor. This is another conspicuous defect of Milton’s poetry. The intense seriousness of his mind did not allow him to indulge in the humor of any kind. Moreover, in breadth of views, in sympathy for man which are essential conditions of true humor, Milton was sadly deficient His intensely moral nature never rippled over with genial laughter. Half the world of man escapes the author who has no sense of humor. Intent upon the sacred meaning of life Milton had no eye to note the forms of the grotesque hieroglyphics of human existence. He talked of God and Satan, Heaven and Hell, Pre-destination of Freedom of Will; but did not see human life widely and wisely enough to laugh heartily. He horrifies us with a grim picture of hell-fire, dazzles us with the awful picture of the sapphire throne of God, bewilders us with the vision of wild Chaos, but hardly succeeds in presenting us with an adequate image of life as it is on this earth of ours in its oceanic amplitude and variety. When we read his poetry we are tired with a monotony of seriousness and elevation. This lack of humor makes Milton sometimes heavy reading.

      Want of the element of love. Another serious defect of Milton’s poetry is the absence from it of the element of love. His Puritanism is largely at the root of it. Though there has been scarcely any son of Adam who has not been at some time or other tempted by a daughter of Eve, their parents in Milton’s poem do not indulge in love making. Though they are solitary under the leafy shades of Paradise, their lips do not touch, their tongues do not indulge in amorous pleasantries. To Eve, Adam is more the author and disposer of her life than her dear husband, and to Adam, Eve is more a devoted disciple than a loving wife. There is too much of worshipping on one side and too much of condescension on the other’ When they meet, the atmosphere is more of religion than of love.

      Involved diction and complex construction. Milton’s love of digressions, ellipses, inversions, Latinisms, involutions etc., make his sentences often gnarled in structure and their meaning often obscure. His long-drawn similies, profusion of allusions, proneness to unnecessary elaboration sometimes torture his readers and make the reading of his poetry a laborious intellectual exercise. He often smells too much of the lamp.

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