Where does Milton stand in English literature? According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1810, on one of the two “Golden Thrones of the English Parnassus,” with Shakespeare occupying the other one. Parnassus is a mountain in Greece where the Muses themselves are thought to reside. It became known as the home of poetry, music and learning, all of which are in abundant evidence in the works of both men.
Coleridge believed Shakespeare “becomes all things,” while Milton imposes “his own grand Ideal.” Two centuries later, few would dispute the proper placement of Milton and Shakespeare on those golden thrones, but it was not always so.
To broaden the scope, the noted critic William Hazlitt had this to say in the early 19th century. “The character of Chaucer is intensity; of Spenser, remoteness; of Milton, elevation; of Shakespeare, every thing.” Thus he echoes Coleridge in saying Shakespeare becomes “becomes all things.”
In this monumental 2-volume work, Dr. John Leonard (Univ. of Western Ontario, in Canada) looks at the critics of Milton’s Paradise Lost through three centuries beginning in 1667. On Hazlitt, for example, he writes that “His thesis is that Shakespeare’s genius is universal, Milton’s merely exalted.” This criticism of Milton went further, and as time went by Milton’s star fell until it reached its nadir in the 1930s and 40s.
Reading and understanding Milton’s Paradise Lost is a minefield that very few navigate without losing at least one limb. Many critics (known as anti-Miltonists) cry that he renounced the English language in his work. In the first of several and varied references to “Milton’s ear,” Leonard issues a trenchant warning. “Milton is neither deaf nor indifferent to the English senses he excludes. He evokes them in order to fend them off. The danger for modern readers, unfamiliar with Latin, is that we will hear only the English sense and so admit what Milton excludes.”
Thomas Macaulay got it just right when he wrote in 1825 that Milton combines foreign and vernacular to create a “style which no rival has been able to equal, and no parodist to degrade, which displays in their highest perfection the idiomatic powers of the English tongue.”
But the anti-Miltonists held the day in the mid-twentieth century. The famous writer T. S. Eliot used Hazlitt’s own words (quoted above) to denigrate Milton. “It is bad enough to lump Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton together…but the last absurdity is the contrast of Milton, our greatest master of the artificlal style, with Dryden, whose style is in a high degree natural.” Leonard notes that “this will not be the last time that Eliot will use ‘greatest’ as a slight.”
“More than any other reader of Milton,” writes Leonard, “Wordsworth is alive to Milton’s ability to achieve maximum effect by minimum means. “
The 19th century poet was moved to rhapsodic exclamation. Wordsworth acclaimed one famous Miltonic inversion, “Him the Almighty Power hurled headlong etc.” as “one of the most wonderful sentences ever formed by the mind of man.”
Leonard regrets that Wordsworth made so few critical comments about Milton’s “appropriate grandeur,” but he does give us the reason why he wrote only private notes on Paradise Lost. In a conversation he had with Henry Robinson in 1836, Wordsworth said “I would not print this and similar observations, for it would enable ordinary verse-makers to imitate the practice, and what genius discovered mere mechanics would copy.” Here we see Wordsworth regarding Milton’s word-craft as something akin to a secret patent formula.
Of course not all critics who examined Paradise Lost were English. Voltaire has had a great influence on the perception of the “War in Heaven” in Book six. “Voltaire thinks that Milton aims at the sublime, but achieves the ridiculous…. Voltaire faults Milton’s war for its futility as well as its absurdity…. Voltaire’s. criticism had an impact. Book six would never again enjoy the prominence that Joseph Addison and John Dennis had given it (in the early 18th century). His argument still has bite.”
Even Dr. Samuel Johnson, who heaped criticism on Milton, admitted that “with respect to design,” Paradise Lost “may claim the first place” in all of epic poetry. The subject of what epic poetry is, and whether Paradise Lost qualifies, is the subject of the final section of Volume 1.
“Hostile critics,” Leonard informs us, “have sometimes blamed Milton for killing the epic, and it must be admitted that it is hard to point to any first-rate epic (unless we see The Prelude by Wordsworth as an epic) written after Paradise Lost. The question of whether epic is dead (and, if, so, who killed it) is still an issue in Milton criticism.”
So how do scholars view Milton now? His reputation remains strong, but the reasons for this have changed over the past few decades. “History and politics have come to the fore,” says Leonard, “with the result that Milton is now valued as much for his prose as for his poetry, and the poetry is valued for its perceived ideological content as much as, if not more than, the poet’s imaginative precision with words.”
Of all the hundreds of book that have been written about Paradise Lost, how important is this book by Dr. Leonard? If you want just one book about Milton’s grand creation in your library, this is it.
I have already written about Vol. 2 of this work in an article you can find in this Milton feature box. It is the one entitled Revolution in Milton.
Faithful Labourers: A Reception History of Paradise Lost is published by Oxford University Press. Volume 1 is 390 pages; its index is contained in Volume 2. Visit the website to purchase this book: www.oup.com