Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
IV. The Poems of John Milton
By Dr. Ernest Bernbaum
THOUGH most of us acknowledge that Milton dwells on the heights of English poetry, we are likely, because of his very sublimity, to look up to him with awe, as unapproachable. The charm of the minor poems of his youth may be felt without difficulty; but the obstacles to loving intimacy with his most important works, those into which he poured the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, seem many and forbidding. We remember that Byron sneered at his angels and archangels joining in quibbles, and we apprehend that his theology must be dull or perplexing. We open Paradise Lost1 at almost any page, and meet with phrases and allusions that are unfamiliar. Habituated by our contemporary literature and journalism to receive an easy delight from the shocking, the bizarre, and the exceptional, we are not immediately attracted by an art whose characteristics are dignity and restraint. In Dr. Johnsons words, we desert our master and seek for companions. As if to encourage our truancy, there arise those who question whether, after all, Milton is a master. The chief of a prominent American library refuses to advise the reading of Paradise Lost, an ultra-modern critic professes to have discovered new literary valuations which at last destroy the poets long-established reputation, and respectable literary journals actually find it necessary to defend a fame that had seemed imperishable.
The serious-minded who, despite such babblings, conclude that he to whom every great man of letters from Dryden to Meredith has granted the crowning laurel must surely be one whom it is an honorable privilege to know, may be assured that the obstacles to familiarity with Milton are not at all insuperable. From three sources especially does his greatness arisethe strength of his imagination, the harmony of his verse, and the truth of his thought. Each of these will become more clearly apparent to the reader if he will accept certain practical suggestions. To grow aware of the astounding imaginative power of Milton in Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained,2 Samson Agonistes,3 and even the Nativity Ode,4 one should before turning to those works read the biblical passages, in each case brief, which gave the poet the outlines of his themes. It need hardly be said that such a story as that of Adam and Eve has in the Bible a simple and poignant beauty which is perfect in its way; but when one turns from the few chapters that contain it and follows the course of the great epic, one begins to realize how sublimely Miltons imagination enlarges our conceptions of the past, the distant, and the unseen. Nor is it only realms, forces, and spirits unvisited and unknown that he reveals. Read the short account of Samson, or of the temptation of Christ; observe how few, though graphic, are the strokes of characterization; and you will thereupon in Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained recognize with what vision Milton has penetrated into the hearts of hero and Lord and devil.
The mistake which prevents a full enjoyment of the musical beauty of Miltons blank verse is to read it silentlya sure way to make it seem like prose curiously printed. Aloud the blind poet uttered the most and the best of it; and aloud it should be read. Only thus can the artistic sense that slumbers within us be aroused to feel responsively the grandest rhythm and resonance that ever proceeded from an English tongue. Like ocean breakers, in varying lengths and with tireless energy, it beats and surges upon our emotions; and presently we are ready to receive those elevated thoughts it is marvelously designed to instill, because the sound has lifted us into a mood exalted above our ordinary state. He who thus comes to feel the artistic powers of Milton has taken a decisive step toward literary culture: he will thenceforth not easily be imposed upon by whatever is imaginatively weak or fantastic; and his ear, once attuned to the grand style of the master, will no longer delight in verse that is thin or harsh.
But Milton did not use his poetical powers for the mere pleasure of exercising them. In him, as in Isaiah, the great artist is embodied in the greater prophet. This is a commonplace, yet many approach Milton as if it were untrue. In the case of Paradise Lost, admittedly the fullest expression of his message, the first two books are mistakenly recommended as typical. In them, to be sure, are superbly displayed his artistic powers, but certainly not his dominant thought. In fact, to confine oneself to them has proved a direct way to misunderstand him. Because they deal with the fallen angels, we have arising the persistent error that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost, and that the arch-rebel preoccupied the poets interest. The result in our day, when belief in a personal devil is faint, is the impression that Milton devotes his genius to themes that, however picturesque, possess for us slight moral significance. And so we have the pitiable result that the mere artist is admired, but the prophet not hearkened to. Yet his message, grasped as a whole, comes home to our very hearts.
The theme of Milton is not primarily Satan, nor even God and angels, but humanity. Not only do the opening lines of Paradise Lost proclaim the subject mans disobedience, but throughout the epic it is the fate of man that is made the issue of every event in the universal creation. Thus Milton begins his story, not when Satan is conspiring against God, but when the defeated devil turns his revengeful thought toward the future inhabitants of the earth. Of that new world man is solemnly made the lord, God himself descending to breathe into him a spiritual life. It is to warn man against his fall that the rebellion in heaven is related; and in the central books it is the glory and the weakness of human nature that we see displayed. Finally, the future history of the world is communicated to Adam, not so much to manifest the absolute power of God or the futility of Satans hate, as to assure the children of God of his eternal love toward them. In short, the subject is not theology but religionnot the nature of God and of Satan, but the relation of the powers of good and of evil to ourselves. Could a poet deal with a problem of more compelling and everlasting interest to us? The reader who focuses his attention upon the human beings in Paradise Lost will do what the poet did, and will, though accidental details may elude him, follow Miltons essential thought. The descriptions of heaven and hell, which may not correspond precisely to the readers notions of the states of bliss and of misery, will recede into the background, where they belong; and gradually there will rise before him Miltons idea of the true meaning of human life.
To reduce that idea to a prose formula would be to impoverish and debase it; but a hint or two concerning its general character may suggest its importance to the individual conscience. On the one hand, no poet, not even Shakespeare, has thought more nobly of the glorious capacities of man. Man is to Milton no miserable puppet of chance, no slave of his environment (Adam and Eve sin despite ideal surroundings), but an unhampered master of his fate, God himself endowing him with freedom of the will, and all the spirits of the universe interested in the use he may make of that liberty. On the other hand, no poet has felt more profoundly the constant peril of mans exalted state. Unless he in his freedom throws off all worldly temptations, even the most seductive, punishment for his disloyalty to spiritual laws is visited not only upon himself but upon his innocent fellow men. The grave moral predicaments of the Lady in Comus,5 of Adam and Eve, of Christ in Paradise Regained, and of Samson, are not exceptional, but typify the real state of man in every moment of his life. Here a sublime opportunity, there a fatal danger, the decision absolutely in his own hands! Yet there is no panic, no wild cry for relief; the spirit is as serene as the utterance is restrained. Uncompromising independence in earthly concerns, patient humility before Godthese are the virtues that will redeem us at last.
Hasty as this glance at Miltons ideas must be, it reminds us of the source of his power. In his first good poem, the Nativity Ode, he yearned to hear that music of the heavenly spheres, hymning divine truth, to which most mortal ears are ever deaf; and from then until his end, amid the din of terrestrial turmoil, he was hearkening for the voice of God. Thus inspired, he has ever revived those who have learned to resort to him, sending each forth with a braver heart, a serener mind, and a reawakened conscience. Wordsworth, sadly observing the worshipers of earthly idols, exclaimed:
Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour!
and the best in succeeding generations have echoed the sentiment. Sceptics may question parts of Miltons doctrine; but they will not easily shake its center, for that is embedded in the pertinacious moral convictions of the English peoples. The noblest American tradition, which founded the New England commonwealths, and from which to depart is a kind of betrayal of our inmost selves, is precisely that ideal of freedom from mans dominion and conscientious obedience to Gods stern will, which is the very spirit of Milton. To commune with him is therefore to gain patriotic enlightenment as well as religious insight and poetical culture.6