Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Milton > Milton’s “plagiarism”
  Paradise Lost Paradise Regained  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

V. Milton.

§ 16. Milton’s “plagiarism”.

Again, fact assures us that the matter of the poem was largely the result of general reading. Fancy, which has sometimes deserved a harsher name, goes further and tries to assign particular sources. The lies of Lauder—who actually took portions of Hog’s Latin translations of Milton, garbled them into divers more or less obscure writers and put them forth as Milton’s originals, plagiarised by him—stand by themselves here; though, from another point of view, they have an ungoodly fellowship of literary mystifications and forgeries to keep them company. But the parallel-hunters and the plagiarism-hunters and the source-hunters have spent immense pains—by no means always or often with malicious intent—to show that Milton imitated, borrowed from, or, in this way and that, followed, the Adamo of the Italian dramatist Giambattista Andreini (1613), the Lucifer, also a drama, of the Dutch poet Vondel (1654), the Adamus Exul of Grotius (1601), Sylvester’s Du Bartas (1605) and even Caedmon, whose Genesis was published by Milton’s friend Junius, in 1655. Even more than most such things, these suggestions, if they insinuate what is properly called plagiarism, deserve simple contempt; and, if they only infer acquaintance, are matter of simple curiosity at most. Supposing Milton to have read all these books, Paradise Lost remains Milton’s; and it is perfectly certain, not merely that nobody else could have constructed it out of them, but that a syndicate composed of their authors, each in his happiest vein and working together as never collaborators worked, could not have come within measurable distance of it, or of him.   45
  For, after all the detraction and all the adulation (the latter, in some cases, as damaging as the former or more so) which Paradise, Lost has received, it remains unique. It is not, as it has been foolishly called, “the only great poem” in existence; but it is the only poem as great in a particular way, or, rather, it is quite alone in its kind of greatness. It will be found that all objections to it, when examined, involve a sort, or different sorts, of petitio principii. “It has no hero (for Adam is hardly such and Christ’s victory does not come till later) or a bad and unsuccessful hero in Satan.” Why should it have one? “The story is known beforehand.” This applies practically to all classical epic and drama. “It, or part of it, is dull.” That is a matter of taste. “Its religious ideas are exploded.” That is a matter of opinion. The list of thrust and parry might be largely extended; but this may suffice.   46
  On the other hand, it can show a sustained magnificence of poetic conception, and of poetic treatment in the solemn and serious way, which has practically never been denied by any competent critic. It would be difficult to find any two persons who differed from each other more than Voltaire and Johnson, or any two who, for different reasons, disliked Milton more. Yet Johnson practically admits, though without enthusiasm, the magnificence above claimed, and Voltaire is only enabled to shrug it off—he hardly denies it—by the aid of a certain incompetence to appreciate it if he would. It has been pronounced not delightful by persons not incompetent: it can never, by any such, be pronounced not great. That the whole is not quite at the height of the first two books may be granted; but, even the lower level would be a mountain top in other poetry. It matters little whether it be approached from the side of form, or from that of spirit. As regards form, it practically endowed English with a new medium for great non-dramatic poetry: what, at the very time of its completion, was being pronounced “too mean for a copy of verses,” was made great enough for the greatest poem. As regards spirit, we find the loftiest height of argument, the most gorgeous description, action not extremely varied but nobly managed, character not much individualised but sufficiently adapted to the action, above all, a suffused imaginative dignity, not merely unsurpassed, but unparalleled elsewhere.   47

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