« ZurückWeiter »
Cromwell's death-1658. But if so, the disasters which followed must have compelled him to lay it once more aside. It was only when the personal perils which came with the Restoration were over, and, assured of safety, he was permitted to retire into obscurity and peace, that the opportunity was afforded for him to take up his task in earnest. There is a striking reference to these conditions in the well-known passage in which he describes himself as
fall'n on evil days On evil days though fall'n, and evil tongues, In darkness, and with dangers compassed round col And solitude,
Then he worked upon his poem steadily and systematically, though meanwhile he had various other large undertakings in hand-a treatise on theology, a history of England, the collection of materials for a Latin dictionary. Though here again we are in some uncertainty, it is probable that the first draft was finished about 1663, and the revised and perfected manuscript in the summer of 1665. The Plague and the Great Fire delayed publication ; but at the end of 1666 Milton sent the poem to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the official licenser of religious literature. The Archbishop, however, performed his functions by deputy, and the work actually received the imprimatur of one of his chaplains, who, indeed, baulked a i "Paradise Lost," VII. 25-28.
little at certain passages in it, but finally allowed it to pass without alteration. Very possibly he thought, as Mr. Mark Pattison suggests, that it was merely a poem “for sectaries, which
“ would never be heard of at Court, or among the wits," and that it was thus really of very little consequence what it contained. That such a poem should have to run the gauntlet of a petty, third-rate ecclesiastic, and this at the time when the filthy comedies of the Restoration playwrights were befouling the stage without interference or protest from the authorities—this is surely not the least remarkable fact in the external history of “Paradise Lost." Then, in April 1667, arrangements were made for publication, and the poem finally appeared in the early autumn of that year. According to the terms of the agreement, Milton was to receive five pounds for the manuscript and an additional five pounds with each successive edition: the edition being reckoned at 1300 copies. He lived to acknowledge two such payments-or ten pounds in all for the greatest poem in English literature. It is true that the relative value of a pound in his day was much greater than it is in ours; but even so, the grotesque inadequacy of the remuneration is sufficiently apparent. Yet I agree with Mr. Mark Pattison; there is no cause for us to lament; it is “ better to know that the noblest monument of English letters had no money value, than to
· Especially the phrase "with fear of change Perplexes monarchs, in I. 598, 599, which, of course, seemed to savour of odious republi. canismi
such an age
think of it as having been paid for at a pound a line," and to compare this with the prices received, as gossiping journals often tell us, by certain of our popular novelists for their lucubrations.
We are to regard “Paradise Lost," then, as substantially the work of the early years of the Restoration ; when Charles II. sat on the throne which his immediate predecessors had disgraced, and was industriously disgracing it even more flagrantly in his turn; when the Court was given over to shameless living ; when, even among the English people at large, there were, as we have seen, a weakening of the moral fibre, and a decline in the old heroic temper of faith and idealism. Against the background of
“ Paradise Lost” stands out, like some great mountain peak, in solitary grandeur. I think it well that in reading the poem we should always keep in mind the conditions, personal and national, under which it was written.
In order to realise the profoundly religious spirit in which Milton embarked upon his task, and by which his poem is animated throughout, it is enough to recall the magnificent opening lines. It was a regular practice with the epic poets to begin by invoking the Muse. Arising in the first instance out of a genuine belief in poetic inspiration, this practice had long since degenerated into mere pedantic formality. Milton adopts it, but in his hands it once more assumes its original life and meaning. His appeal for help and guidance is made to no stereotyped abstraction of a now dead
mythology. He turns instead to the Heavenly Muse—the Muse of sacred revelation ; ? nay, more : as one who feels himself dedicated to labours which call for something beyond human powers, he boldly lifts his voice in prayer to the Holy Spirit for instruction and support. This sublime exordium is not a mere bit of polite convention. It is an invocation in the religious as well as in the poetic sense of the term.
Of Man's first disobedience and the fruit
'1 Compare the opening lines of VII.
That to the highth of this great Argument
These opening lines, it will be seen, not only contain the invocation, but also, in epic fashion, announce the theme. It is “ of man's first disobedience " that the poet has undertaken to sing. Yet it is important to remember that this theme has larger bearings than this first statement might lead us to anticipate. The Fall of Man as the origin of evil—that is the immediate subject. But it is so treated as to become universalised ; the tragedy of Eden is conceived as the tragedy of the whole human race; the poem, in fact, sets forth the eternal conflict between God and Satan alike throughout history and in the soul of each individual man. It is thus easy to understand why Milton's attention turned particularly to the forms which this eternal conflict had assumed in his own time ; for these forms, while specially fresh and vivid to his imagination, were after all only concrete illustrations, the more significant because so near at hand, of the gigantic truths which every page of history would be found to teach. If Satan is everlastingly doing battle against the kingdom of God and His righteousness, it is always upon the same issues and with the same forces that the battle has to be waged by him. Recent events in England had once more proved this ; and Milton wrote of the early stages in the unending conflict with these