The modern Criticks have collected from several Hints in the Iliad and AEneid the Space of Time, which is taken up by the Action of each of those Poems; but as a great Part of Milton’s Story was transacted in Regions that lie out of the Reach of the Sun and the Sphere of Day, it is impossible to gratify the Reader with such a Calculation, which indeed would be more curious than instructive; none of the Criticks, either Ancient or Modern, having laid down Rules to circumscribe the Action of an Epic Poem with any determin’d Number of Years, Days or Hours.
This Piece of Criticism on Milton’s Paradise Lost shall be carried on in [the] following [Saturdays] Papers.
[Footnote 1: Give place to him, Writers of Rome and Greece. This application to Milton of a line from the last elegy (25th) in the second book of Propertius is not only an example of Addison’s felicity in choice of motto for a paper, but was so bold and well-timed that it must have given a wholesome shock to the minds of many of the Spectators readers. Addison was not before Steele in appreciation of Milton and diffusion of a true sense of his genius. Milton was the subject of the first piece of poetical criticism in the Tatler; where, in his sixth number, Steele, having said that all Milton’s thoughts are wonderfully just and natural, dwelt on the passage in which Adam tells his thoughts upon first falling asleep, soon after his creation. This passage he contrasts with the same apprehension of Annihilation ascribed to Eve in a much lower sense by Dryden in his operatic version of Paradise Lost. In Tatlers and Spectators Steele and Addison had been equal contributors to the diffusion of a sense of Milton’s genius. In Addison it had been strong, even when, at Oxford, in April, 1694, a young man trained in the taste of the day, he omitted Shakespeare from a rhymed Account of the chief English Poets, but of Milton said:
Whate’er his pen describes I more than see, Whilst evry verse, array’d in majesty, Bold and sublime, my whole attention draws, And seems above the critics nicer laws.
Eighteen years older than he was when he wrote that, Addison now prepares by a series of Saturday Essays,—the Saturday Paper which reached many subscribers only in time for Sunday reading, being always set apart in the Spectator for moral or religious topics, to show that, judged also by Aristotle and the “critics nicer laws,” Milton was even technically a greater epic poet than either Homer or Virgil. This nobody had conceded. Dryden, the best critic of the outgoing generation, had said in the Dedication of the Translations of Juvenal and Persius, published in 1692,