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Milton's CONTEMPORARIES.—PARADISE REGAINED' AND 'SAMSON AGONISTES.'
On 27th April, 1667, Milton sold his · Paradise Lost' to Samuel Simmons for an immediate payment of five pounds; another five pounds to be paid on the sale of thirteen hundred copies of the first edition; a third five pounds on the sale of the same number of the second edition; and the same sum after an equal sale of the third edition ;-each edition not to exceed fifteen hundred copies. In two years the poet recovered the second payment: he did not live to receive the other payments : therefore 2800 copies had not been sold in seven years.
Johnson and others contend that the sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in these times, was a proof that the poet's merit was not unfelt. I do not think so. John Dennis observes in a passage of his · Familiar Letters,' quoted by Mitford, that “never any poet left a greater reputation behind him than Mr. Cowley, while Milton remained obscure and known but to few; but the great reputation of Cowley did not continue half a century, and Milton's is now on the pinnacle of the Temple of Fame.”
Mitford enumerates the following poets as cotemporary with Milton :—66 Waller, Suckling, Crashaw, Denham, Lovelace, Brome, Sherborne, Fanshaw, Davenant, besides others of inferior note.” He might have added—Habingdon, Stanley, Carew, Herbert, Withers. But none of these were of any mark, or power of invention, unless Cowley and Davenant. It does continue to appear to me extraordinary, that so many false and petty beauties should start up successively to be the temporary fashion of poetry. Invention is not improbability: it is to embody and bring before others the spirits of the past and the absent; it is not the trick of flowery or sparkling language: but the busy-bodies of a nation,--they who give the tone in society, having no natural taste or feeling,-require artificial stimulants. The Court of Charles II. was too much adulterated to endure the spiritual grandeur of Milton : he would have dispelled all the delusions of the wicked magician of voluptuousness : his sternness, his haughty wisdom, his unbending dogmas, were to them terrible and revolting.
At the same time, though the exalted bard was little noticed by the “ fashionable world,” or by popular authors, we cannot suppose that he found no readers. That class of learned men, who were now thrown into the shade—the republican party, -must have remembered and admired Milton's zeal in their cause, and have had the curiosity to read his poem; but perhaps in silence and obscurity.
Dryden, too, though of so different a genius and taste, as well as politics, was fully sensible of the poet's merit. In the Preface to his “ State of Innocence, soon after Milton's death, he says, “I cannot, without injury to the deceased author of Paradise Lost,' but acknowledge that this poem has received its entire foundation, part of the design, and many of the ornaments from him. What I have borrowed will be so easily discerned from my mean productions, that I shall not need . to point the reader to the places; and truly I should be sorry, for my own sake, that any one should take the pains to compare them together; the original being undoubtedly one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems, which either this age or nation has produced.”
Other notices are collected by Todd, which it is not necessary to repeat.
In 1688 appeared a folio edition of the Paradise Lost,' under the patronage of Lord Somers : in 1695-appeared a third folio edition, with the learned commentary of Patrick Hume.
In 1670 appeared the poet's · History of England,' carried down to the Norman Conquest; which was mutilated by the licenser, by striking out passages which have since been recovered and replaced.
In 1671 were published the · Paradise Regained' and · Samson Agonistes. It is said that Milton was mortified at finding that the former was considered inferior to the · Paradise Lost.' It is inferior because it has less invention; but, in many of the sublime merits of the last, not at all inferior: there is more of human interest in it. Nor is the “Samson Agonistes' the production of a less vigorous and majestic genius.
The · Paradise Regained' is supposed to have been planned or begun at Chalfont. Ellwood having called on the poet after his return to London, was shown by him this poem, with the remark, “ This is owing to you; for you put it into my head by the question you put to me at Chalfont.” He is said to have written it in a state of uninterrupted fervor, according to the spirit which he names as inherent in him, in a letter to his friend Deodate, September 2nd, 1637:
“ It is my way to suffer no impediment, no love of ease, no avocation whatever, to chill the ardour, to break the continuity, or divert the completion of my literary pursuits."
In several passages of the “Samson Agonistes' the poet is supposed to allude to his own feelings and fate, especially in these lines, beginning at v. 75:
I, dark in light, exposed
Without all hope of day! &c.
paint himself. The litigation of his will produced a collection of evidence relating to the testator, which renders the discovery of those long-forgotten papers peculiarly interesting : they show very forcibly, and in new points of view, his domestic infelicity and his amiable disposition. The tender and sublime poet, whose sensibility and sufferings were so great, appears to have been almost as unfortunate in his daughters as the Lear of Shakspeare. A servant declares in evidence, that her deceased master, a little before his last marriage, had lamented to her the ingratitude and cruelty of his children: he complained that they combined to defraud him in the economy of his house, and sold several of his books in the basest manner. His feelings on such an outrage, both as a parent and a scholar, must have been singularly painful; perhaps they suggested to him these very pathetic lines.”
Dunster adds, that, “as it appears, from the latest discoveries relating to the domestic life of Milton, that his wife was particularly attentive to him, and treated his infirmities with much tenderness, this passage seems to restrict the time when this drama was written to a period previous to his last marriage, or at least nearly to that immediate time while the singular ill-treatment of his daughters was fresh in his memory.” This also coincides with what Mr. Hayley observed respecting its being written immediately after the execution of Sir Henry Vane, which took place June 14th, 1662. Milton was then in his fifty-fourth year,