English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History eBook

Henry Coppée
This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 540 pages of information about English Literature, Considered as an Interpreter of English History.

CHAPTER XIX.

THE POETRY OF MILTON.

   The Blind Poet.  Paradise Lost.  Milton and Dante.  His Faults. 
   Characteristics of the Age.  Paradise Regained.  His Scholarship.  His
   Sonnets.  His Death and Fame.

THE BLIND POET.

Milton’s blindness, his loneliness, and his loss of power, threw him upon himself.  His imagination, concentrated by these disasters and troubles, was to see higher things in a clear, celestial light:  there was nothing to distract his attention, and he began that achievement which he had long before contemplated—­a great religious epic, in which the heroes should be celestial beings and our sinless first parents, and the scenes Heaven, Hell, and the Paradise of a yet untainted Earth.  His first idea was to write an epic on King Arthur and his knights:  it is well for the world that he changed his intention, and took as a grander subject the loss of Paradise, full as it is of individual interest to mankind.

In a consideration of his poetry, we must now first recur to those pieces which he had written at an earlier day.  Before settling in London, he had, as we have seen, travelled fifteen months on the Continent, and had been particularly interested by his residence in Italy, where he visited the blind Galileo.  The poems which most clearly show the still powerful influence of Italy in all European literature, and upon him especially, are the Arcades, Comus, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Lycidas, each beautiful and finished, and although Italian in their taste, yet full of true philosophy couched in charming verse.

The Arcades, (Arcadians,) composed in 1684, is a pastoral masque, enacted before the Countess Dowager of Derby at Harefield, by some noble persons of her family.  The Allegro is the song of Mirth, the nymph who brings with her

Jest and youthful jollity,
Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles,
Nods and becks and wreathed smiles,

* * * * *

Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides.

The poem is like the nymph whom he addresses,

Buxom, blithe, and debonaire.

The Penseroso is a tribute to tender melancholy, and is designed as a pendant to the Allegro

    Pensive nun devout and pure,
    Sober, steadfast, and demure,
    All in a robe of darkest grain,
    Flowing with majestic train.

We fall in love with each goddess in turn, and find comfort for our varying moods from “grave to gay.”

Burke said he was certain Milton composed the Penseroso in the aisle of a cloister, or in an ivy-grown abbey.

Comus is a noble poem, philosophic and tender, but neither pastoral nor dramatic, except in form; it presents the power of chastity in disarming Circe, Comus, and all the libidinous sirens. L’Allegro and Il Penseroso were written at Horton, about 1633.

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