Comus is an immortal apotheosis of virtue. While in Geneva in 1639, Milton was asked for his autograph and an expression of sentiment. He chose the closing lines of Comus:—
[Illustration: MILTON’S MOTTO
FROM COMUS, WITH AUTOGRAPH. Written
in an album at Geneva.]
Lycidas, one of the world’s great elegies, was written on the death of Milton’s classmate, Edward King. Mark Pattison, one of Milton’s biographers, says: “In Lycidas we have reached the high-water mark of English poesy and of Milton’s own production.”
He is one of the four greatest English sonnet writers. Shakespeare alone surpasses him in this field. Milton numbers among his pupils Wordsworth and Keats, whose sonnets rank next in merit.
Paradise Lost; Its Inception and Dramatic Plan.—Cambridge University has a list, written by Milton before he was thirty-five, of about one hundred possible subjects for the great poem which he felt it was his life’s mission to give to the world. He once thought of selecting Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table; but his final choice was Paradise Lost, which stands first on this special list. There are in addition four separate drafts of the way in which he thought this subject should be treated. This proves that the great work of a man like; Milton was planned while he was young. It is possible that he may even have written a very small part of the poem earlier than the time commonly assigned.
All four drafts show that his early intention was to make the poem a drama, a gigantic Miracle play. The closing of the theaters and the prejudice felt against them during the days of Puritan ascendancy may have influenced Milton to forsake the dramatic for the epic form, but he seems never to have shared the common prejudice against the drama and the stage. His sonnet on Shakespeare shows in what estimation he held that dramatist.
Subject Matter and Form.—About 1658, when Milton was a widower, living alone with his three daughters, he began, in total blindness, to dictate his Paradise Lost, sometimes relying on them but more often on any kind friend who might assist him. The manuscript accordingly shows a variety of handwriting. The work was published in 1667, after some trouble with a narrow-minded censor who had doubts about granting a license.
The subject matter can be best given in Milton’s own lines at the beginning of the poem:—
“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, Heavenly Muse...”
The poem treats of Satan’s revolt in heaven, of his conflict with the Almighty, and banishment with all the rebellious angels. Their new home in the land of fire and endless pain is described with such a gigantic grasp of the imagination, that the conception has colored all succeeding theology.