Limitations.—In giving attention to Milton’s variety, we should not forget that when we judge him by Elizabethan standards his limitations are apparent. As varied as are his excellences, his range is far narrower than Shakespeare’s. He has little sense of humor and less sympathy with human life than either Shakespeare or Burns. Milton became acquainted with flowers through the medium of a book before he noticed them in the fields. Consequently, in speaking of flowers and birds, he sometimes makes those mistakes to which the bookish man is more prone than the child who first hears the story of Nature from her own lips. Unlike Shakespeare and Burns, Milton had the misfortune to spend his childhood in a large city. Again, while increasing age seemed to impose no limitations on Shakespeare’s genius, his touch being as delicate in The Tempest as in his first plays, Milton’s style, on the other hand, grew frigid and devoid of imagery toward the end of his life.
Sublimity.—The most striking characteristic of Milton’s poetry is sublimity, which consists, first, in the subject matter. In the opening lines of Paradise Lost he speaks of his “adventurous song”—
“That with no middle flight intends
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”
Milton succeeded in his intention. The English language has not another poem that approaches Paradise Lost in sustained sublimity.
In the second place, we must note the sublimity of treatment. Milton’s own mind was cast in a sublime mold. This quality of mind is evident even in his figures of rhetoric. The Milky Way appears to him as the royal highway to heaven:—
“A broad and ample road, whose dust
And pavement stars."
When Death and Satan meet, Milton wishes the horror of the scene to manifest something of the sublime. What other poet could, in fewer words, have conveyed a stronger impression of the effect of the frown of those powers?
“So frowned the mighty combatants,
Grew darker at their frown."
George Saintsbury’s verdict is approved by the majority of the greatest modern critics of Milton: “In loftiness—sublimity of thought, and majesty of expression, both sustained at almost superhuman pitch, he has no superior, and no rival except Dante.”
Mastery of Verse.—Milton’s verse, especially in Paradise Lost, is such a symphony of combined rhythm, poetic expression, and thought; it is so harmonious, so varied, and yet so apparently simple in its complexity, that it has never been surpassed in kind.
His mastery of rhythm is not so evident in a single line as in a group of lines. The first sentence in Paradise Lost contains sixteen lines, and yet the rhythm, the pauses, and the thought are so combined as to make oral reading easy and the meaning apparent. The conception of the music of the spheres in their complex orbits finds some analogy in the harmony of the combined rhythmical units of his verse.