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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Study of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’
By Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)
From ‘Milton,’ in the ‘Lives of the Poets’

MILTON’S little pieces may be dispatched without much anxiety; a greater work calls for greater care. I am now to examine ‘Paradise Lost’; a poem which considered with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind.  1
  By the general consent of critics the first praise of genius is due to the writer of an epic poem, as it requires an assemblage of all the powers which are singly sufficient for other compositions. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason. Epic poetry undertakes to teach the most important truths by the most pleasing precepts, and therefore relates some great event in the most affecting manner. History must supply the writer with the rudiments of narration, which he must improve and exalt by a nobler art, must animate by dramatic energy, and diversify by retrospection and anticipation; morality must teach him the exact bounds and different shades of vice and virtue; from policy and the practice of life he has to learn the discriminations of character and the tendency of the passions, either single or combined; and physiology must supply him with illustrations and images. To put these materials to poetical use, is required an imagination capable of painting nature and realizing fiction. Nor is he yet a poet till he has attained the whole extension of his language, distinguished all the delicacies of phrase and all the colors of words, and learned to adjust their different sounds to all the varieties of metrical modulation.  2
  Bossu is of opinion that the poet’s first work is to find a moral, which his fable is afterwards to illustrate and establish. This seems to have been the process only of Milton: the moral of other poems is incidental and consequent; in Milton’s only it is essential and intrinsic. His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous: “to vindicate the ways of God to man;” to show the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law.  3
  To convey this moral there must be a fable; a narration artfully constructed, so as to excite curiosity and surprise expectation. In this part of his work Milton must be confessed to have equaled every other poet. He has involved in his account of the Fall of Man the events which preceded and those that were to follow it; he has interwoven the whole system of theology with such propriety that every part appears to be necessary; and scarcely any recital is wished shorter for the sake of quickening the progress of the main action.  4
  The subject of an epic poem is naturally an event of great importance. That of Milton is not the destruction of a city, the conduct of a colony, or the foundation of an empire. His subject is the fate of worlds, the revolutions of heaven and of earth; rebellion against the Supreme King, raised by the highest order of created beings; the overthrow of their host, and the punishment of their crime; the creation of a new race of reasonable creatures; their original happiness and innocence, their forfeiture of immortality, and their restoration to hope and peace….  5
  Of the probable and the marvelous, two parts of a vulgar epic poem which immerge the critic in deep consideration, the ‘Paradise Lost’ requires little to be said. It contains the history of a miracle,—of creation and redemption; it displays the power and the mercy of the Supreme Being: the probable therefore is marvelous, and the marvelous is probable. The substance of the narrative is truth; and as truth allows no choice, it is, like necessity, superior to rule. To the accidental or adventitious parts, as to everything human, some slight exceptions may be made; but the main fabric is immovably supported….  6
  To the completeness or integrity of the design nothing can be objected: it has distinctly and clearly what Aristotle requires—a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is perhaps no poem of the same length from which so little can be taken without apparent mutilation. Here are no funeral games, nor is there any long description of a shield. The short digressions at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books might doubtless be spared; but superfluities so beautiful who would take away? or who does not wish that the author of the Iliad had gratified succeeding ages with a little knowledge of himself? Perhaps no passages are more attentively read than those extrinsic paragraphs; and since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.  7
  The questions whether the action of the poem be strictly one, whether the poem can be properly termed heroic, and who is the hero, are raised by such readers as draw their principles of judgment rather from books than from reason. Milton, though he entitled ‘Paradise Lost’ only a “poem,” yet calls it himself “heroic song.” Dryden petulantly and indecently denies the heroism of Adam, because he was overcome; but there is no reason why the hero should not be unfortunate, except established practice, since success and virtue do not go necessarily together. Cato is the hero of Lucan; but Lucan’s authority will not be suffered by Quintilian to decide. However, if success be necessary, Adam’s deceiver was at last crushed; Adam was restored to his Maker’s favor, and therefore may securely resume his human rank.  8
  After the scheme and fabric of the poem, must be considered its component parts, the sentiments and the diction.  9
  The sentiments, as expressive of manners or appropriated to characters, are for the greater part unexceptionably just. Splendid passages containing lessons of morality or precepts of prudence occur seldom. Such is the original formation of this poem, that as it admits no human manners till the Fall, it can give little assistance to human conduct. Its end is to raise the thoughts above sublunary cares or pleasures. Yet the praise of that fortitude with which Abdiel maintained his singularity of virtue against the scorn of multitudes may be accommodated to all times; and Raphael’s reproof of Adam’s curiosity after the planetary motions, with the answer returned by Adam, may be confidently opposed to any rule of life which any poet has delivered.  10
  The thoughts which are occasionally called forth in the progress are such as could only be produced by an imagination in the highest degree fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study and unlimited curiosity. The heat of Milton’s mind may be said to sublimate his learning, to throw off into his work the spirit of science, unmingled with its grosser parts.  11
  He had considered creation in its whole extent, and his descriptions are therefore learned. He had accustomed his imagination to unrestrained indulgence, and his conceptions therefore were extensive. The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural port is gigantic loftiness. He can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish.  12
  He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others,—the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful: he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said, on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of extravagance.  13
  The appearances of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate his appetite of greatness. To paint things as they are, requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton’s delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings; to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven.  14
  But he could not be always in other worlds; he must sometimes revisit earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder by the sublimity of his mind, he gives delight by its fertility….  15
  The ancient epic poets, wanting the light of Revelation, were very unskillful teachers of virtue; their principal characters may be great, but they are not amiable. The reader may rise from their works with a greater degree of active or passive fortitude, and sometimes of prudence; but he will be able to carry away few precepts of justice, and none of mercy. From the Italian writers it appears that the advantages of even Christian knowledge may be possessed in vain. Ariosto’s pravity is generally known; and though the ‘Deliverance of Jerusalem’ may be considered as a sacred subject, the poet has been very sparing of moral instruction. In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought and purity of manners, except when the train of the narration requires the introduction of the rebellious spirits; and even they are compelled to acknowledge their subjection to God, in such a manner as excites reverence and confirms piety.  16
  Of human beings there are but two; but those two are the parents of mankind, venerable before their fall for dignity and innocence, and amiable after it for repentance and submission. In the first state their affection is tender without weakness, and their piety sublime without presumption. When they have sinned, they show how discord begins in mutual frailty, and how it ought to cease in mutual forbearance; how confidence of the Divine favor is forfeited by sin, and how hope of pardon may be obtained by penitence and prayer. A state of innocence we can only conceive, if indeed in our present misery it be possible to conceive it; but the sentiments and worship proper to a fallen and offending being we have all to learn, as we have all to practice.  17
  The poet, whatever be done, is always great. Our progenitors in their first state conversed with angels; even when folly and sin had degraded them, they had not in their humiliation “the port of mean suitors”; and they rise again to reverential regard when we find that their prayers were heard.  18
  As human passions did not enter the world before the Fall, there is in the ‘Paradise Lost’ little opportunity for the pathetic; but what little there is, has not been lost. That passion which is peculiar to rational nature, the anguish arising from the consciousness of transgression, and the horrors attending the sense of the Divine displeasure, are very justly described and forcibly impressed. But the passions are moved only on one occasion: sublimity is the general and prevailing quality in this poem; sublimity variously modified,—sometimes descriptive, sometimes argumentative.  19
  The defects and faults of ‘Paradise Lost’—for faults and defects every work of man must have—it is the business of impartial criticism to discover. As in displaying the excellence of Milton I have not made long quotations, because of selecting beauties there had been no end, I shall in the same general manner mention that which seems to deserve censure; for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish in some degree the honor of our country?  20
  The generality of my scheme does not admit the frequent notice of verbal inaccuracies: which Bentley, perhaps better skilled in grammar than poetry, has often found,—though he sometimes made them,—and which he imputed to the obtrusions of a reviser whom the author’s blindness obliged him to employ; a supposition rash and groundless if he thought it true, and vile and pernicious if—as is said—he in private allowed it to be false.  21
  The plan of ‘Paradise Lost’ has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners. The man and woman who act and suffer are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know. The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged, beholds no condition in which he can by any effort of imagination place himself; he has therefore little natural curiosity or sympathy.  22
  We all indeed feel the effects of Adam’s disobedience; we all sin like Adam, and like him must all bewail our offenses; we have restless and insidious enemies in the fallen angels, and in the blessed spirits we have guardians and friends; in the redemption of mankind we hope to be included; in the description of heaven and hell we are surely interested, as we are all to reside hereafter either in the regions of horror or bliss.  23
  But these truths are too important to be new: they have been taught to our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversations, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life. Being therefore not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.  24
  Of the ideas suggested by these awful scenes, from some we recede with reverence, except when stated hours require their association; and from others we shrink with horror, or admit them only as salutary inflictions, as counterpoises to our interests and passions. Such images rather obstruct the career of fancy than incite it.  25
  Pleasure and terror are indeed the genuine sources of poetry; but poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can at least conceive, and poetical terrors such as human strength and fortitude may combat. The good and evil of eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit; the mind sinks under them in passive helplessness, content with calm belief and humble adoration.  26
  Known truths, however, may take a different appearance, and be conveyed to the mind by a new train of intermediate images. This Milton has undertaken and performed with pregnancy and vigor of mind peculiar to himself. Whoever considers the few radical positions which the Scriptures afforded him, will wonder by what energetic operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety, restrained as he was by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction.  27
  Here is a full display of the united force of study and genius,—of a great accumulation of materials, with judgment to digest and fancy to combine them: Milton was able to select from nature or from story, from an ancient fable or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind, fermented by study and exalted by imagination.  28
  It has been therefore said, without an indecent hyperbole, by one of his encomiasts, that in reading ‘Paradise Lost’ we read a book of universal knowledge.  29
  But original deficiency cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is always felt. ‘Paradise Lost’ is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.  30
  Another inconvenience of Milton’s design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described, the agency of spirits. He saw that immateriality supplied no images, and that he could not show angels acting but by instruments of action; he therefore invested them with form and matter. This being necessary, was therefore defensible; and he should have secured the consistency of his system by keeping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts. But he has unhappily perplexed his poetry with his philosophy. His infernal and celestial powers are sometimes pure spirit, and sometimes animated body. When Satan walks with his lance upon the “burning marl,” he has a body; when, in his passage between hell and the new world, he is in danger of sinking in the vacuity, and is supported by a gust of rising vapors, he has a body; when he animates the toad, he seems to be mere spirit, that can penetrate matter at pleasure; when he “starts up in his own shape,” he has at least a determined form; and when he is brought before Gabriel, he has “a spear and a shield,” which he had the power of hiding in the toad, though the arms of the contending angels are evidently material.  31
  The vulgar inhabitants of Pandæmonium, being “incorporeal spirits,” are “at large, though without number,” in a limited space; yet in the battle when they were overwhelmed by mountains, their armor hurt them, “crushed in upon their substance, now grown gross by sinning.” This likewise happened to the uncorrupted angels, who were overthrown “the sooner for their arms, for unarmed they might easily as spirits have evaded by contraction or remove.” Even as spirits they are hardly spiritual: for “contraction” and “remove” are images of matter; but if they could have escaped without their armor, they might have escaped from it and left only the empty cover to be battered. Uriel when he rides on a sunbeam is material; Satan is material when he is afraid of the prowess of Adam.  32
  The confusion of spirit and matter which pervades the whole narration of the war of heaven fills it with incongruity; and the book in which it is related is, I believe, the favorite of children, and gradually neglected as knowledge is increased.  33
  After the operation of immaterial agents which cannot be explained, may be considered that of allegorical persons which have no real existence. To exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity, has always been the right of poetry….  34
  Milton’s allegory of Sin and Death is undoubtedly faulty. Sin is indeed the mother of Death, and may be allowed to be the portress of hell; but when they stop the journey of Satan, a journey described as real, and when Death offers him battle, the allegory is broken. That Sin and Death should have shown the way to hell, might have been allowed; but they cannot facilitate the passage by building a bridge, because the difficulty of Satan’s passage is described as real and sensible, and the bridge ought to be only figurative. The hell assigned to the rebellious spirits is described as not less local than the residence of man. It is placed in some distant part of space, separated from the regions of harmony and order by a chaotic waste and an unoccupied vacuity; but Sin and Death worked up a “mole of aggravated soil” cemented with asphaltus, a work too bulky for ideal architects.  35
  This unskillful allegory appears to me one of the greatest faults of the poem; and to this there was no temptation but the author’s opinion of its beauty.  36
  To the conduct of the narrative some objections may be made. Satan is with great expectation brought before Gabriel in Paradise, and is suffered to go away unmolested. The creation of man is represented as the consequence of the vacuity left in heaven by the expulsion of the rebels; yet Satan mentions it as a report “rife in Heaven” before his departure. To find sentiments for the state of innocence was very difficult; and something of anticipation perhaps is now and then discovered. Adam’s discourse of dreams seems not to be the speculation of a new-created being. I know not whether his answer to the angel’s reproof for curiosity does not want something of propriety: it is the speech of a man acquainted with many other men. Some philosophical notions, especially when the philosophy is false, might have been better omitted. The angel, in a comparison, speaks of “timorous deer,” before deer were yet timorous, and before Adam could understand the comparison….  37
  Whatever be the faults of his diction, he cannot want the praise of copiousness and variety. He was master of his language in its full extent; and has selected the melodious words with such diligence, that from his book alone the Art of English Poetry might be learned….  38
  The highest praise of genius is original invention. Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epic poem; and therefore owes reverence to that vigor and amplitude of mind to which all generations must be indebted for the art of poetical narration, for the texture of the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and all the stratagems that surprise and enchain attention. But of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is in his writings nothing by which the pride of other authors might be gratified, or favor gained; no exchange of praise nor solicitation of support. His great works were performed under discountenance and in blindness; but difficulties vanished at his touch: he was born for whatever is arduous; and his work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first.  39

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