English 324: Electronic Reserve Text: T.S. Eliot's Milton: Two Studies
("Milton I" first published 1936; "Milton II" first published 1960; Combined essays published 1968)
(Contributed to Essays and Studies of The English Association, Oxford University Press, 1936, under the title 'A note on the verse of Milton'.)
While it must be admitted that Milton is a very great poet indeed, it is something of a puzzle to decide in what his greatness consists. On analysis, the marks against him appear both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit.
a man, he is antipathetic. Either from the moralist's point of view, or
from the theologian's point of view, or from the psychologist's point
of view, or from that of the political philosopher, or judging by the
ordinary standards of likeableness in human beings, Milton is unsatisfactory.
The doubts which I have to express about him are more serious than these.
His greatness as a poet has been sufficiently celebrated, though I think
largely for the wrong reasons, and without the proper reservations. His
misdeeds as a poet have been called attention to, as by Mr. Ezra Pound,
but usually in passing. What seems to me necessary is to assert at the
same time his greatness -- in that what he could do well he did better
than any one else has ever done -- and the serious charge to be
made against him, in respect of the deterioration - the peculiar kind of deterioration -- to which he subjected the language.
Many people will agree that a man may be a great artist, and yet have a bad influence. There is more of Milton's influence in the badness of the bad verse of the eighteenth century than of anybody's else: he certainly did more harm than Dryden and Pope, and perhaps a good deal of the obloquy which has fallen on these two poets, especially the latter, because of their influence, ought to be transferred to Milton. But to put the matter simply in terms of 'bad influence' is not necessarily to bring a serious charge: because a good deal of the responsibility, when we state the problem in these terms, may devolve on the eighteenth-century poets themselves for being such bad poets that they were incapable of being influenced except for ill. There is a good deal more to the charge against Milton than this; and it appears a good deal more serious if we affirm that Milton's poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious, also, if we affirm that Milton's bad influence may be traced much farther than the eighteenth century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle.
There is a large class of persons, including some who appear in print as critics, who regard any
censure upon a
'great' poet as a breach of the peace, as an act of wanton iconoclasm,
or even hoodlumism. The kind of derogatory criticism that I have to
make upon Milton is not intended for such persons, who cannot understand
that it is more important, in some vital respects, to be a good poet
than to be a great
poet; and of what I have to say I consider that the only jury of judgment
is that of the ablest poetical practitioners of my own time.
The most important fact about Milton, for my purpose is his blindness. I do not mean that to go blind in middle life is itself enough to determine the whole nature of a man's poetry. Blindness must be considered in conjunction with Milton's personality and character, and the peculiar education which he received. It must also be considered in connexion with his devotion to, and expertness in the art of music. Had Milton been a man of very keen senses - I mean of all the five senses - his blindness would not have mattered so much. But for a man whose sensuousness, such as it was, had been withered early by book-learning, and whose gifts were naturally aural, it mattered a great deal. It would seem, indeed, to have helped him to concentrate on what he could do best.
This guest of
It may be observed that such an image, as well as another familiar quotation from a little later in the same play,
and the crow
not only offer something to the eye, but, so to speak, to the common sense. I mean that they convey the feeling of being in a particular place at a particular time. The comparison with Shakespeare offers another indication of the peculiarity of Milton. With Shakespeare, far more than with any other poet in English, the combinations of words offer perpetual novelty; they enlarge the meaning of the individual words joined: thus 'procreant cradle', 'rooky wood'. In comparison, Milton's images do not give this sense of particularity, nor are the separate words developed in significance. His Language is, if one may use the term without disparagement, ;trti~cial and conventional.
O'er the smooth enamel'd green . . .
... paths Of
this drear wood
('Shady brow' here
is a diminution of the value of
While the ploughman
near at hand,
It is not a particular ploughman, milkmaid, and shepherd that Milton sees (as Wordsworth might see them); the sensuous effect of these verses is entirely on the ear, and is joined to the concepts of Ploughman milkmaid, and shepherd. Even in his most mature work, Milton does not infuse new life into the word, as Shakespeare does.
The sun to me
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Here interlunar is certainly a stroke of genius, but is merely combined with 'vacant' anti 'cave', rather than giving and receiving life horn them. Thus it is not so unfair, as it might at first appear, to say that Milton writes English like a dead language. The criticism has been made with regard to his involved syntax. But a tortuous style, when its peculiarity is aimed at pretension (as with Henry James), is not necessarily a dead one; only when the complication is dictated by a demand of verbal music, instead of by any demand of sense.
Thrones, dominations, princedoms, virtues powers,
If these magnificent
titles yet remain
With which compare:
'However, he didn t mind thinking that if Cissy
should prove all that was likely enough their having a subject in common couldn't but practically conduce; though the moral of it all amounted rather to
a portent, the one that Haughty, by the same token, had done least to reassure him against, of the extent to which the native jungle harboured the female specimen and to which its ostensible cover, the vast level of mixed growths stirring wavingly in whatever breeze, was apt to be identifiable but as an agitation of the latest redundant thing in ladies hats.
taken almost at random from The Ivory Tower, is not intended to represent Henry James at any hypothetical 'best', any more than the noble passage from Paradise Lost is meant to be Milton's hypothetical worst. The question is the difference of intention, in the elaboration or styles both of which depart so far from lucid simplicity.
character, would make the speaker very much more real to us; but reality is no part of the intention.
We have in fact to read such a passage not analytically, to get the poetic impression. I am not suggesting that Milton has no idea to convey which he regards as important: only that the syntax is determined by the musical significance, by the auditory imagination, rather than by the attempt to follow actual speech or thought. It is at least more nearly possible to distinguish the pleasure which
arises from the noise, front the pleasure due to other elements, than with the verse of Shakespeare, in which the auditory imagination and the imagination of the other senses are more nearly fused, and fused together with the thought. The result with Milton is, in one sense of the word, rhetoric. That term is not intended to be derogatory. This kind of 'rhetoric' is not necessarily bad in its influence; but it may be considered bad in relation to the historical life of a language as a whole. I have said elsewhere that the living: English which was Shakespeare's became split up '"to two components one of which was exploited by Milton and the other by Dryden.
worth, Milton's influence on the eighteenth century was much more deplorable than Dryden's.
If several very
important reservations and exceptions are made, I think that it is not
as it is in the
Garden of Eden, where I for one can get pleasure from the verse only
by the deliberate
trated to any 'secret' of these poets, I feel that such appreciation of their work as I am capable of pointing in the right direction; whereas I cannot feel that my appreciation of Milton leads anywhere outside of the mazes of sound. That, I feel, would be the matter for a separate study, like that of Blake's prophetic books; it might be well worth the trouble, but would have little to do with my interest in the poetry. So far as I perceive anything, it is a glimpse of a theology that I find in large part repellent, expressed through a mythology which would have better been left in the Book of Genesis, upon which Milton has not improved. There seems to me to be a division, in Milton, between the philosopher or theologian and the poet; and, for the latter, I suspect also that this concentration upon the auditory imagination leads to at least an occasional levity. I can enjoy the roll of
of Cathaian Can
The Persian in Ecbatan sate, or since
or where the Russian Ksar
but rather a solemn
game. More often, admittedly, Milton uses proper names in moderation,
the stormy Hebrides,
than which for the single effect of grandeur of sound, there is nothing finer in poetry. I make no attempt to appraise the 'greatness' of Milton in relation to poets who seem to me more comprehensive and better balanced; it has seemed to me more fruitful for the present to press the parallel between Paradise Lost and Work in Progress; and both Milton and Joyce are so exalted in their own kinds, in the whole of literature, that the only writers with whom to compare them are writers who have attempted something very different. Our views about Joyce, in any case, must remain at the present time tentative. But there are two attitudes both of which are necessary and right to adopt in considering the work of any poet. One is when we isolate him, when we try to understand the rules of his own game, adopt his own point of view: the
less usual, is when we measure him by outside standards, most pertinently
by the standards of language and of something called Poetry, in our
own language and in the whole history of European literature. It is
from the second point of view that my objections to Milton are made:
(The Henrietta Hertz Lecture, delivered to the British Academy, 1947, and subsequently at Frick Museum, New York. This text revised by the author.)
addressing himself to examine Milton's versification, ill the Rambler
teachers. I have
no claim to be either: I am aware that my only claim upon your attention,
piece actual, give it contemporary importance, and persuade his audience that it is interesting, exciting, enjoyable, and active. I can give only one example of contemporary criticism of Milton, by a critic of the type to which I belong if I have any critical pretensions at all: that is the Introduction to Milton's English Poems in the 'World Classics' series, by the late Charles Williams. It is not a comprehensive essay; it is notable primarily because it provides the best prolegomenon to Comus which any modern reader could have; but what distinguishes it throughout (and the same is true of most of Williams's critical writing) is the author's warmth of feeling and his success in communicating it to the reader. In this, so far as I am aware, the essay --of Williams is a solitary example.
I think it is useful,
in such an examination as I propose to make, to keep in mind some critic
or has remembered, or has seen quoted, are mostly those few statements of Johnson's from which later critics have vehemently dissented, nut when Johnson held an opinion which seems to us wrong, we are never safe in dismissing it without inquiring why he was wrong; he had his own 'errors and prejudices', certainly, but for lack of examining them sympathetically we are always in danger of merely countering error with error and prejudice with prejudice. Now Johnson was, in his day, very much a modern: he was concerned with how poetry should be written in his own time. The fact that he came towards the end, rather than the beginning of a style, the fact that his time was rapidly passing away, and that the canons of taste which he observed were about to fall into desuetude, does not diminish the interest of his criticism. Nor does the likelihood that the development of poetry in the next fifty years will take quite different directions from those which to me seem desirable to explore, deter me from asking the questions that Johnson implied: How should poetry be written now? and what place does the answer to this question give to Milton? And I think that the answers to these questions may be different now from the answers that were correct twenty-five years ago. There is one prejudice against Milton, apparent on almost every page of Johnson's Life of Milton, which I imagine is still general: we, however, with a longer historical perspective, are in a better
position than was Johnson to recognize it and to make allowance for it. This is a prejudice which I share myself: an antipathy towards Milton the man. Of this in itself I have nothing further to say : all that is necessary is to record one's awareness of it. But this prejudice is often involved with another, more obscure: and r do not think that Johnson had disengaged the two in his own mind. The fact is simply that the Civil War of the seventeenth century, in which Milton is a symbolic figure, has never been concluded. The Civil War is not ended : I question whether any serious civil war ever does end. Throughout that period English society was so convulsed and divided that the effects are still felt.
remote. Nevertheless, the passions are unquenched, and if we are not very wide awake their smoke will obscure the glass through which we examine Milton's poetry. Something has been done, certainly, to persuade us that Milton was never really of any party, but disagreed with everyone. Mr. Wilson Knight, in Chariot of Wrath, has argued that Milton was More a monarchist than a republican, and not in any modern sense a 'democrat', and Professor Saurat has produced evidence to show that Milton's theology was highly eccentric, and as scandalous to Protestants as to Catholics -- that he was, in fact, a sort of Christadelphian, and perhaps not a very orthodox Christadelphian at that; while an the other hand Mr. C. S. Lewis has opposed Professor Saurat by skilfully arguing that Milton, at least in Paradise Lost, can be acquitted of heresy even from a point of view so orthodox as that of Mr. Lewis himself. On these questions I hold no opinion: it is probably beneficial to question the assumption that Milton was a sound Free Church-man and member of the Liberal Party; but I think
that we still have to be on guard against an unconscious partisanship if we aim to attend to the poetry for the poetry's sake.
employ a phrase
of Johnson's) and, finally, to the grounds on which I consider him a
great poet and
This is a very
confident affirmation, and I criticize it with some diffidence because
I cannot pretend to
Certainly, Hyperion remains a magnificent fragment which one re-reads; and King Stephen is a play which we may have read once, but to which we never return for enjoyment. Milton made a great epic
impossible for succeeding generations; Shakespeare made a great poetic drama impossible; such a situation is inevitable, and it persists until the language has so altered that there is no danger, because no possibility, of imitation. Anyone who tries to write poetic drama, even to-day, should know that half of his energy must be exhausted in the effort to escape front the constricting toils of Shakespeare: the moment his attention is relaxed, or his mind fatigued, he will lapse into bad Shakespearian verse. For a long time after an epic poet like Milton, or a dramatic poet like Shakespeare, nothing can be done. Yet the effort must be repeatedly made; for we can never know in advance when the moment is approaching at which a new epic, or a new drama, will be possible; and when the moment does draw near it may be that the genius of an individual poet will perform the last mutation of idiom and versification which will bring that new poetry into being.
I have referred to Mr. Murry's view of the bad influence of Milton as generalized, because it is implicitly the whole personality of Milton that is in question : not specifically his beliefs, or his language or versification, but the beliefs as realized in that particular personality, and his poetry as the expression of it. By the particular- view of Milton's influence as bad, I mean that view which attends to the language, the syntax, the versification, the imagery. I do not suggest that there is here a com-
plete difference of subject matter : it is the difference of approach, the difference of the focus of interest, between the philosophical critic and the literary critic. An incapacity for the abstruse, and an interest in poetry which is primarily a technical interest, dispose my mind towards the More limited and perhaps more superficial task. Let us proceed to look at Milton's influence from this point of view, that of the writer of poetry in our own time.
The reproach against Milton, that his technical influence has been bad, appears to have been made by no one more positively than by myself. I find myself saying, as recently as lsss, that this charge against Milton 'appears a good deal more serious if we affirm that Milton's poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious, also, if we affirm that Milton's bad influence may be traced much farther than the eighteenth century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle.'
In writing these sentences I failed to draw a threefold distinction, which now seems to me of some importance. There are three separate assertions implied. The first is, that an influence has been bad in the past: this is to assert that good poets, in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, would have written better if they had not submitted themselves to the influence of Milton. The second assertion is,
that the contemporary situation is such that Milton is a master whom we should avoid. The third is, that the influence of Milton, or of any particular poet, can be always bad; and that we can predict that wherever it is found at any time in the future, however remote, it will be a bad influence. Now, the first and third of these assertions I am no longer prepared to make, because, detached from the second, they do not appear to me to have any meaning.
For the first, when we consider one great poet of the past, and one or more other poets, upon whom we say he has exerted a bad influence, we must admit that the responsibility, if there be any, is rather with the poets who were influenced than with the poet whose work exerted the influence. We can, of course, show that certain tricks or mannerisms which the imitators display are due to conscious or unconscious imitation and emulation, but that is a reproach against their injudicious choice of a model and not against their model itself. And we can never prove that ny particular poet would have written better poetry if he had escaped that influence. Even if we assert, what can only be a matter of faith, that Keats would have written a very great epic poem if Milton had not preceded him, is it sensible to pine for an unwritten masterpiece, in exchange for one which we possess and acknowledge ? And as for the remote future, what can we affirm about the poetry that will be written then, except that we should
probably be unable to understand or to enjoy it, and that therefore we can hold no opinion as to what 'good' and 'bad' influences will mean ill that future ?
The only relation in which the question of influence, good and bad, is significant, is the relation to the immediate future. With that question I shall engage at the end. I wish first to mention another reproach against Milton, that represented by the phrase 'dissociation of sensibility'. I remarked many years ago, in an essay on Dryden, that :
'In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set ill, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was due to the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden.
The longer passage from which this sentence is taken is quoted by Dr. Tillyard in his Milton. Dr.Tillyard makes the following comment:
'Speaking only of what in this passage concerns Milton, I would say that there is here a mixture of truth and falsehood. Some sort of dissociation of sensibility in Milton, not necessarily undesirable, has to be admitted; but that he was responsible for any such dissociation in others (at least till this general dissociation had inevitably set in) is untrue.'
I believe that
the general affirmation represented by the phrase 'dissociation of sensibility'
(one of the two or three phrases of my coinage -- like 'objective correlative'
-- which have had a success in the
world astonishing to their author) retains some validity; but I now incline to agree with Dr. Tillyard that to lay the burden on the shoulders of Milton and Dryden was a mistake. If such a dissociation did take place, I suspect that the causes are too complex and too profound to justify our accounting for the change in terms of literary criticism. All we can say is, that something like this did happen; that it had something to do with the Civil War; that it would even be unwise to say it was caused by the Civil War, but that it is a consequence of the same causes which brought about the Civil War; that we must seek the causes in Europe, not in England alone; and for what these causes were, we may dig and dig until we get to a depth at which words and concepts fail us.
Before proceeding to take up the case against Milton, as it stood for poets twenty-five years ago-- the second, and only significant meaning of 'bad influence' -I think it would be best to consider what permanent strictures of reproof may be drawn : those censures which, when we make them, we must assume to be made by enduring laws of taste. The essence of the permanent censure of Milton is, I believe, to be found in Johnson's essay. This is not the place in which to examine certain particular and erroneous judgments of Johnson; to explain his condemnation of Comus and Samson as the application of dramatic canons which to us seem inapplicable; or to condone his dismissal of the versification
of Lycidas by the specialization, rather than the absence, of his sense of rhythym. Johnson's most important censure of Milton is contained in three paragraphs, which I must ask leave to quote in full.
This novelty has been, say those who can find nothing wrong with Milton, imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suited to the grandeur of his ideas. Our language, says Addison, sunk under him. But the truth is, that both in prose and in verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned; for there judgment operates freely, neither softened by the beauty, nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts; but such is the power of his poetry, that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher and nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration .
position of his
words is, I think, frequently Italian; perhaps sometimes combined with
Of him at last, may be said what Jonson said of Spenser, that he wrote no language, but has formed what Butler called a Babylonish dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive learning the vehicle of so Much instruction and so much pleasure, that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.
a particular act of violence which Milton has been the first to commit. There is no cliche, no poetic diction in the derogatory sense, but a perpetual sequence of original acts of lawlessness. Of all modern writers of verse, the nearest analogy seems to me to be Mallarme, a much smaller poet, though still a great one. The personalities, the poetic theories of the two men could not have been more different; but in respect of the violence which they could do to language, and justify, there is a remote similarity. Milton's poetry is poetry at the farthest possible remove from prose; his prose seems to me too near to half-formed poetry to be good prose.
To say that the work of a poet is at the farthest possible remove from prose would once have struck me as condemnatory: it now seems to me simply, when we have to do with a Milton, the occasion of its peculiar greatness. As a poet, Milton seems to me probably the greatest of all eccentrics. His work illustrates no general principles of good writing; the only principles of writing that it illustrates are such as are valid only for Milton himself to observe. There are two kinds of poet who can ordinarily be of use to other poets. There are those who suggest, to one or another of their successors, something which they have not done themselves, or who provoke a different way of doing the same thing: these are likely to be not the greatest, but smaller, imperfect poets with whom later poets discover an affinity. And there are the great poets
from whom we can learn negative rules: no poet call teach another to write well, but some great poets can teach others some of the things to avoid. They teach us what to avoid, by showing us what great poetry can do without -- how bare it can be. Of these are Dante and Racine. But if we are ever to make use of Milton we must do so in quite a different way. Even a small poet can learn something from the study of Dante, or from the study of Chaucer: we must perhaps wait for a great poet before we find one who can profit from the study of Milton.
I repeat that the remoteness of Milton's verge from ordinary speech, his invention of his own poetic language, seems to me one of the marks of his greatness. Other marks are his sense of structure, both in the general design of Paradise Lost and Samson, and in his syntax; and finally, and not least, his inerrancy, conscious or unconscious, in writing so as to make the best display of his talents, and the best concealment of his weaknesses.
The appropriateness of the subject of Samson is too obvious to expatiate upon: it was probably the one dramatic story out of which Milton could have made a masterpiece. But the complete suitability of Paradise Lost has not, I think, been so often remarked. It was surely an intuitive perception of what he could not do, that arrested Milton's project of an epic on King Arthur. For one thing, he had little interest in, or understanding of, individual
human beings. In Paradise Lost he was not called upon for any of that understanding which comes from an affectionate observation of men and women.
But such an interest in human beings was not required -- indeed its absence was a necessary condition -- for the creation of his figures of Adam and Eve. These are not a man and woman such as any we know: if they were, they would not be Adam and Eve. They are the original Man and Woman, not types, but prototypes- They have the general characteristics of men and women, such that we can recognize, in the temptation and the fall, the first motions of the faults and virtues, the abjection and the nobility, of all their descendants. They have ordinary humanity to the right degree, and yet are not, and should not be, ordinary mortals. Were they more particularized they would be false, and if Milton had been more interested in humanity, he could not have created them. Other critics have remarked upon the exactness, without defect or exaggeration, with which Moloch, Belial, and Mammon, in the second book, speak according to the particular sin which each represents. It would not be suitable that the infernal powers should have, in the human sense, characters, for a character is always mixed; but in the hands of an inferior manipulator, they might easily have been reduced to humours.
The appropriateness of the material of Paradise Lost to the genius and the limitations of Milton, is
still more evident when we consider the visual imagery. I have already remarked, in a paper written some years ago, on Milton's weakness of visual observation, a weakness which I think was always present -- the effect of his blindness may have been rather to strengthen the compensatory qualities than to increase a fault which was already present. Mr. Wilson Knight, who has devoted close study to recurrent imagery in poetry, has called attention to Milton's propensity towards images of engineering and mechanics; to me it seems' that Milton is at his best in imagery suggestive of vast size, limitless space, abysmal depth, and light and darkness. No theme and no settting, other than that which he chose in Paradise Lost, could have given him such scope for the kind of imagery in which he excelled, or made less demand upon those powers of visual imagination which were in him defective.
'(See Milton I.)
is to expect a kind of consistency which the world to which Milton has introduced us does not require.
'This limitation of visual power, like Milton's limited interest in human beings, turns out to be not merely a negligible defect, but a positive virtue, when we visit Adam and Eve in Eden. Just as a higher degree of characterization of Adam and Eve would have been unsuitable, so a more vivid picture of the earthly Paradise would have been less paradisiacal. For a greater definiteness, a more detailed account of flora and fauna, could only have assimilated Eden to the landscapes of earth with which we are familiar. As it is, the impression of Eden which we retain, is the most suitable, and is that which Milton was most qualified to give: the impression of light -- a daylight and a starlight, a light of dawn and dusk, the light which, remembered by a man in his blindness, has a supernatural glory un-experienced by men of normal vision.
We must, then,
in reading Paradise Lost, not expect to see clearly; our sense
of sight must be blurred, so that our hearing may become more acute.
Paradise Lost, like Finnegan's Wake (for I can think of
no work which provides a more interesting parallel : two books by great
blind musicians, each
that is the most certain sign of Milton's intellectual mastership.
It is only in the period that the wave-length of Milton's verse is to be found : it is his ability to give a perfect and unique pattern to every paragraph, such that the full beauty of the line is found in its context, and his ability to work in larger musical units than many other poets -- that is to me the most conclusive evidence of Milton's supreme mastery. The peculiar feeling, almost a physical sensation of
a greatness leap, communicated by Milton's long periods, and by his alone, is impossible to procure from rhymed verse. Indeed, this mastery is most conclusive evidence of his intellectual power, thrul is his grasp of any ideas that lie borrowed or invented.
To be able to control
so many words at once is the token of a mind of most exceptional energy.
The variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods of a declaimer; and there are only a few skilful and happy readers of Milton, who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or begin. Blank verse, said an ingenious critic, seems to be verse only to the eye.
Some of my audience may recall that this last remark, in almost the same words, was often made, a literary generation ago, about the 'free verse' of the period: and even without this encouragement from Johnson it would have occurred to my mind to
declare Milton to be the greatest master of free verse in our language. What is interesting about Johnson's paragraph, however, is that it represents the judgment of a man who had by no means a deaf ear, but simply a specialized ear, for verbal music.
Within the limits
of the poetry of his own period, Johnson is a very good judge of the
relative merits of several poets as writers of blank verse. But on the
whole, the blank verse of his age might more properly be called unrhymed
verse; and nowhere is this difference more evident than in the verse
of his own tragedy Irene: the phrasing is admirable, the style elevated
and correct, but each line cries but for a companion to rhyme with it.
Indeed, it is only with labour, or by occasional inspiration, or by
submission to the influence of the older dramatists, that the blank
verse of the nineteenth century succeeds in making the absence of rhyme
inevitable and right, with the rightness of Milton. Even Johnson admitted
that he could not wish that Milton had been a rhymer. Nor did the nineteenth
century succeed in giving to blank verse the flexibility which it needs
if the tone of common speech, talking 'of the topics of common intercourse,
is to be employed; so that when our more modern practitioners of blank
verse do not touch the sublime, they frequently sink to the ridiculous.
Milton perfected non-dramatic blank verse and at the same time imposed
limitations, very hard to break, upon the use to which it may be put
if its greatest musical
possibilities are to be exploited.
I come at last to compare my own attitude, as that of a poetical practitioner perhaps typical of a generation twenty-five years ago, with my attitude today. I have thought it well to take matters in the order in which I have taken them to discuss first the censures and detractions which I believe to have permanent validity, and which were best made by Johnson, in order to make clearer the causes, and the justification, for hostility to Milton on the part of poets at a particular juncture. And I wished to make clear those excellences of Milton which particularly impress me, before explaining why I think that the study of his verse might at last be of benefit to poets.
I have on several occasions suggested, that these important changes in the idiom of English verse which are represented by the names of Dryden and Wordsworth, may be characterized as successful attempts to escape from a poetic idiom which had ceased to have a relation to contemporary speech.
This is the sense of Wordsworth's Prefaces. By the beginning of the present century another revolution in idiom -- and such revolutions bring with them an alteration of metric, a new ~appeal to the ear -- was due. It inevitably happens that the young poets engaged in such a revolution will exalt the merits of those poets of the past who offer them example and stimulation, and cry down the merits of poets who do not stand for the qualities which they are
Another tenet was that the subject-matter and the: imagery of poetry should be extended to topics and 'objects related to the life of a modern man or woman; that we were to seek the non-poetic, to seek even material refractory to transmutation into poetry, and words and phrases which had not been used in poetry before. And the study of Milton could be of no help here : it was only a hindrance.
We cannot, in literature,
any more than in the rest of life, live in a perpetual state of revolution.
continuously animated by the departure from, and return to, the regular measure; and that, in comparison with Milton, hardly any subsequent writer of blank verse appears to exercise any freedom at all. We can also be led to the reflection that a monotony of unscannable verse fatigues the attention even more quickly than a monotony of exact feet. In short, it now seems to me that poets are sufficiently liberated from Milton's reputation, to approach the study of his work without danger, and with profit to their poetry and to the English language.