- The Sublime John Milton [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
John Milton
by Long, William J.

  Yet some there be that by due steps aspire
  To lay their just hands on that golden key
  That opes the palace of eternity:
  To such my errand is.

In these words of the Attendant Spirit in Comus we seem to hear Milton speaking to his readers. To such as regard poetry as the means of an hour's pleasant recreation he brings no message; his "errand" is to those who, like Sidney, regard poetry as the handmaiden of virtue, or, like Aristotle, as the highest form of human history.


Milton was born in London (1608) at a time when Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were in their glory. He grew up in a home where the delights of poetry and music were added to the moral discipline of the Puritan. Before he was twelve years old he had formed the habit of studying far into the night; and his field included not only Greek, Latin, Hebrew and modern European literatures, but mathematics also, and science and theology and music. His parents had devoted him in infancy to noble ends, and he joyously accepted their dedication, saying, "He who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well ... ought himself to be a true poem, that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things."

Milton at Horton

From St. Paul's school Milton went to Christ's College, Cambridge, took his master's degree, wrote a few poems in Latin, Italian and English, and formed a plan for a great epic, "a poem that England would not willingly let die." Then he retired to his father's country-place at Horton, and for six years gave himself up to music, to untutored study, and to that formal pleasure in nature which is reflected in his work. Five short poems were the only literary result of this retirement, but these were the most perfect of their kind that England had thus far produced.

Milton's next step, intended like all others to cultivate his talent, took him to the Continent. For fifteen months he traveled through France and Italy, and was about to visit Greece when, hearing of the struggle between king and Parliament, he set his face towards England again. "For I thought it base," he said, "to be traveling at my ease for culture when my countrymen at home were fighting for liberty."

Home Life

To find himself, or to find the service to which he could devote his great learning, seems to have been Milton's object after his return to London (1639). While he waited he began to educate his nephews, and enlarged this work until he had a small private school, in which he tested some of the theories that appeared later in his Tractate on Education. Also he married, in haste it seems, and with deplorable consequences. His wife, Mary Powell, the daughter of a Cavalier, was a pleasure-loving young woman, and after a brief experience of Puritan discipline she wearied of it and went home. She has been amply criticized for her desertion, but Milton's house must have been rather chilly for any ordinary human being to find comfort in. To him woman seemed to have been made for obedience, and man for rebellion; his toplofty doctrine of masculine superiority found expression in a line regarding Adam and Eve, "He for God only, she for God in him,"--an old delusion, which had been seriously disturbed by the first woman.

Period of Controversy

For a period of near twenty years Milton wrote but little poetry, his time being occupied with controversies that were then waged even more fiercely in the press than in the field. It was after the execution of King Charles (1649), when England was stunned and all Europe aghast at the Puritans' daring, that he published his Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, the argument of which was, that magistrates and people are equally subject to the law, and that the divine right of kings to rule is as nothing beside the divine right of the people to defend their liberties. That argument established Milton's position as the literary champion of democracy. He was chosen Secretary of the Commonwealth, his duties being to prepare the Latin correspondence with foreign countries, and to confound all arguments of the Royalists. During the next decade Milton's pen and Cromwell's sword were the two outward bulwarks of Puritanism, and one was quite as ready and almost as potent as the other.

His Blindness

It was while Milton was thus occupied that he lost his eyesight, "his last sacrifice on the altar of English liberty." His famous "Sonnet on his Blindness" is a lament not for his lost sight but for his lost talent; for while serving the Commonwealth he must abandon the dream of a great poem that he had cherished all his life:

      When I consider how my light is spent
      Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
      And that one talent, which is death to hide,
      Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
      To serve therewith my Maker, and present
      My true account, lest he returning chide;
      "Doth God exact day labour, light denied?"
      I fondly ask; but Patience, to prevent
      That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
      Either man's work or his own gifts. Who best
      Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
      Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
      And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
      They also serve who only stand and wait."

With the Restoration (1660) came disaster to the blind Puritan poet, who had written too harshly against Charles I to be forgiven by Charles II. He was forced to hide; his property was confiscated; his works were burned in public by the hangman; had not his fame as a writer raised up powerful friends, he would have gone to the scaffold when Cromwell's bones were taken from the grave and hanged in impotent revenge. He was finally allowed to settle in a modest house, and to be in peace so long as he remained in obscurity. So the pen was silenced that had long been a scourge to the enemies of England.

His Loneliness

His home life for the remainder of his years impresses us by its loneliness and grandeur. He who had delighted as a poet in the English country, and more delighted as a Puritan in the fierce struggle for liberty, was now confined to a small house, going from study to porch, and finding both in equal darkness. He who had roamed as a master through the wide fields of literature was now dependent on a chance reader. His soul also was afflicted by the apparent loss of all that Puritanism had so hardly won, by the degradation of his country, by family troubles; for his daughters often rebelled at the task of taking his dictation, and left him helpless. Saddest of all, there was no love in the house, for with all his genius Milton could not inspire affection in his own people; nor does he ever reach the heart of his readers.

His Masterpiece

In the midst of such scenes, denied the pleasure of hope, Milton seems to have lived largely in his memories. He took up his early dream of an immortal epic, lived with it seven years in seclusion, and the result was Paradise Lost. This epic is generally considered the finest fruit of Milton's genius, but there are two other poems that have a more personal and human significance. In the morning of his life he had written Comus, and the poem is a reflection of a noble youth whose way lies open and smiling before him. Almost forty years later, or just before his death in 1674, he wrote Samson Agonistes, and in this tragedy of a blind giant, bound, captive, but unconquerable, we have a picture of the agony and moral grandeur of the poet who takes leave of life:

      I feel my genial spirits droop, ...
      My race of glory run, and race of shame;
      And I shall shortly be with them that rest. [1]
[Footnote [1]: From Milton's Samson. For the comparison we are indebted to Henry Reed, Lectures on English Literature (1863), p. 223.]

The Early Poems

Milton's first notable poem, written in college days, was the "Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity," a chant of victory and praise such as Pindar might have written had he known the meaning of Christmas. In this boyish work one may find the dominant characteristic of all Milton's poetry; namely, a blending of learning with piety, a devotion of all the treasures of classic culture to the service of religion.

Among the earliest of the Horton poems (so-called because they were written in the country-place of that name) are "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," two of the most widely quoted works in our literature. They should be read in order to understand what people have admired for nearly three hundred years, if not for their own beauty. "L'Allegro" (from the Italian, meaning "the cheerful man") is the poetic expression of a happy state of mind, and "Il Penseroso" [Footnote: The name is generally translated into "melancholy," but the latter term is now commonly associated with sorrow or disease. To Milton "melancholy" meant "pensiveness." In writing "Il Penseroso" he was probably influenced by a famous book, Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, which appeared in 1621 and was very widely read.] of a quiet, thoughtful mood that verges upon sadness, like the mood that follows good music. Both poems are largely inspired by nature, and seem to have been composed out of doors, one in the morning and the other in the evening twilight.

The Masque of Comus

Comus (1634), another of the Horton poems, is to many readers the most interesting of Milton's works. In form it is a masque, that is, a dramatic poem intended to be staged to the accompaniment of music; in execution it is the most perfect of all such poems inspired by the Elizabethan love of pageants. We may regard it, therefore, as a late echo of the Elizabethan drama, which, like many another echo, is sweeter though fainter than the original. It was performed at Ludlow Castle, before the Earl of Bridgewater, and was suggested by an accident to the Earl's children, a simple accident, in which Milton saw the possibility of "turning the common dust of opportunity to gold."

    The story is that of a girl who becomes separated from her brothers
    in a wood, and is soon lost. The magician Comus [Footnote: In
    mythology Comus, the god of revelry, was represented as the son of
    Dionysus (Bacchus, god of wine), and the witch Circe. In Greek
    poetry Comus is the leader of any gay band of satyrs or dancers.
    Milton's masque of Comus was influenced by a similar story
    in Peele's Old Wives' Tale, by Spenser's "Palace of
    Pleasure" in The Faery Queen (see above "Sir Guyon" in
    Chapter IV), and by Homer's story of the witch Circe in the
    Odyssey.] appears with his band of revelers, and tries to
    bewitch the girl, to make her like one of his own brutish
    followers. She is protected by her own purity, is watched over by
    the Attendant Spirit, and finally rescued by her brothers. The
    story is somewhat like that of the old ballad of "The Children in
    the Wood," but it is here transformed into a kind of morality play.

Comus and the Tempest

In this masque may everywhere be seen the influence of Milton's predecessors and the stamp of his own independence; his Puritan spirit also, which must add a moral to the old pagan tales. Thus, Miranda wandering about the enchanted isle (in Shakespeare's The Tempest) hears strange, harmonious echoes, to which Caliban gives expression:

                             The isle is full of noises,
  Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
  Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
  Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices,
  That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
  Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
  The clouds methought would open and show riches
  Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
  I cried to dream again.

The bewildered girl in Comus also hears mysterious voices, and has glimpses of a world not her own; but, like Sir Guyon of The Faery Queen, she is on moral guard against all such deceptions:

            A thousand phantasies
  Begin to throng into my memory,
  Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire,
  And airy tongues that syllable men's names
  On sands and shores and desert wildernesses.
  These thoughts may startle well but not astound
  The virtuous mind, that ever walks attended
  By a strong-siding champion, Conscience.

Again, in The Tempest we meet "the frisky spirit" Ariel, who sings of his coming freedom from Prospero's service:

  Where the bee sucks, there suck I;
  In a cowslip's bell I lie;
  There I couch when owls do cry.
  On a bat's back I do fly
  After summer merrily:
  Merrily, merrily shall I live now
  Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

The Attendant Spirit in Comus has something of Ariel's gayety, but his joy is deeper-seated; he serves not the magician Prospero but the Almighty, and comes gladly to earth in fulfilment of the divine promise, "He shall give His angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways." When his work is done he vanishes, like Ariel, but with a song which shows the difference between the Elizabethan, or Renaissance, conception of sensuous beauty (that is, beauty which appeals to the physical senses) and the Puritan's idea of moral beauty, which appeals to the soul:

  Now my task is smoothly done,
  I can fly or I can run
  Quickly to the green earth's end,
  Where the bowed welkin slow doth bend,
  And from thence can soar as soon
  To the corners of the moon.
  Mortals, that would follow me,
  Love Virtue; she alone is free:
  She can teach ye how to climb
  Higher than the sphery chime;
  Or if Virtue feeble were,
  Heaven itself would stoop to her.


Lycidas (1637), last of the Horton poems, is an elegy occasioned by the death of one who had been Milton's fellow student at Cambridge. It was an old college custom to celebrate important events by publishing a collection of Latin or English poems, and Lycidas may be regarded as Milton's wreath, which he offered to the memory of his classmate and to his university. The poem is beautifully fashioned, and is greatly admired for its classic form; but it is cold as any monument, without a touch of human grief or sympathy. Probably few modern readers will care for it as they care for Tennyson's In Memoriam, a less perfect elegy, but one into which love enters as well as art. Other notable English elegies are the Thyrsis of Matthew Arnold and the Adonais of Shelley.

Milton's Left Hand

This expression was used by Milton to designate certain prose works written in the middle period of his life, at a time of turmoil and danger. These works have magnificent passages which show the power and the harmony of our English speech, but they are marred by other passages of bitter raillery and invective. The most famous of all these works is the noble plea called Areopagitica: [Footnote: From the Areopagus or forum of Athens, the place of public appeal. This was the "Mars Hill" from which St. Paul addressed the Athenians, as recorded in the Book of Acts.] a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing (1644).

There was a law in Milton's day forbidding the printing of any work until it had been approved by the official Licenser of Books. Such a law may have been beneficial at times, but during the seventeenth century it was another instrument of tyranny, since no Licenser would allow anything to be printed against his particular church or government. When Areopagitica was written the Puritans of the Long Parliament were virtually rulers of England, and Milton pleaded with his own party for the free expression of every honest opinion, for liberty in all wholesome pleasures, and for tolerance in religious matters. His stern confidence in truth, that she will not be weakened but strengthened by attack, is summarized in the famous sentence, "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue."

Two interesting matters concerning Areopagitica are: first, that this eloquent plea for the freedom of printing had to be issued in defiance of law, without a license; and second, that Milton was himself, a few years later, under Cromwell's iron government, a censor of the press.

The Sonnets

Milton's rare sonnets seem to belong to this middle period of strife, though some of them were written earlier. Since Wyatt and Surrey had brought the Italian sonnet to England this form of verse had been employed to sing of love; but with Milton it became a heroic utterance, a trumpet Wordsworth calls it, summoning men to virtue, to patriotism, to stern action. The most personal of these sonnets are "On Having Arrived at the Age of Twenty-three," "On his Blindness" and "To Cyriack Skinner"; the most romantic is "To the Nightingale"; others that are especially noteworthy are "On the Late Massacre," "On his Deceased Wife" [Footnote: This beautiful sonnet was written to his second wife, not to Mary Powell.] and "To Cromwell." The spirit of these sonnets, in contrast with those of Elizabethan times, is finely expressed by Landor in the lines:

  Few his words, but strong,
  And sounding through all ages and all climes;
  He caught the sonnet from the dainty hand
  Of Love, who cried to lose it, and he gave the notes
  To Glory.

Milton's Later Poetry

[Footnote: The three poems of Milton's later life are Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes. The last-named has been referred to above under "His Masterpiece". Paradise Regained contains some noble passages, but is inferior to Paradise Lost, on which the poet's fame chiefly rests.] It was in 1658, the year of Cromwell's death, when the political power of Puritanism was tottering, that Milton in his blindness began to write Paradise Lost. After stating his theme he begins his epic, as Virgil began the Æneid, in the midst of the action; so that in reading his first book it is well to have in mind an outline of the whole story, which is as follows:

Plan of Paradise Lost

The scene opens in Heaven, and the time is before the creation of the world. The archangel Lucifer rebels against the Almighty, and gathers to his banner an immense company of the heavenly hosts, of angels and flaming cherubim. A stupendous three days' battle follows between rebel and loyal legions, the issue being in doubt until the Son goes forth in his chariot of victory. Lucifer and his rebels are defeated, and are hurled over the ramparts of Heaven. Down, down through Chaos they fall "nine times the space that measures day and night," until they reach the hollow vaults of Hell.

In the second act (for Paradise Lost has some dramatic as well as epic construction) we follow the creation of the earth in the midst of the universe; and herein we have an echo of the old belief that the earth was the center of the solar system. Adam and Eve are formed to take in the Almighty's affection the place of the fallen angels. They live happily in Paradise, watched over by celestial guardians. Meanwhile Lucifer and his followers are plotting revenge in Hell. They first boast valiantly, and talk of mighty war; but the revenge finally degenerates into a base plan to tempt Adam and Eve and win them over to the fallen hosts.

The third act shows Lucifer, now called Satan or the Adversary, with his infernal peers in Pandemonium, plotting the ruin of the world. He makes an astounding journey through Chaos, disguises himself in various forms of bird or beast in order to watch Adam and Eve, is detected by Ithuriel and the guardian angels, and is driven away. Thereupon he haunts vast space, hiding in the shadow of the earth until his chance comes, when he creeps back into Eden by means of an underground river. Disguising himself as a serpent, he meets Eve and tempts her with the fruit of a certain "tree of knowledge," which she has been forbidden to touch. She eats the fruit and shares it with Adam; then the pair are discovered in their disobedience, and are banished from Paradise. [Footnote: In the above outline we have arranged the events in the order in which they are supposed to have occurred. Milton tells the story in a somewhat confused way. The order of the twelve books of Paradise Lost is not the natural or dramatic order of the story.]

Milton's Materials

It is evident from this outline that Milton uses material from two different sources, one an ancient legend which Cædmon employed in his Paraphrase, the other the Bible narrative of Creation. Though the latter is but a small part of the epic, it is as a fixed center about which all other interests are supposed to revolve. In reading Paradise Lost, therefore, with its vast scenes and colossal figures, one should keep in mind that every detail was planned by Milton to be closely related to his central theme, which is the fall of man.

In using such diverse materials Milton met with difficulties, some of which (the character of Lucifer, for example) were too great for his limited dramatic powers. In Books I and II Lucifer is a magnificent figure, the proudest in all literature, a rebel with something of celestial grandeur about him:

  "Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,"
  Said then the lost Archangel, "this the seat
  That we must change for Heaven? this mournful gloom
  For that celestial light? Be it so, since he
  Who now is sovran can dispose and bid
  What shall be right: farthest from him is best,
  Whom reason hath equalled, force hath made supreme
  Above his equals. Farewell, happy fields,
  Where joy forever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
  Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
  Receive thy new possessor, one who brings
  A mind not to be changed by place or time.
  The mind is its own place, and in itself
  Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
  What matter where, if I be still the same,
  And what I should be, all but less than he
  Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
  We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
  Here for his envy, will not drive us hence;
  Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
  To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
  Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."

In other books of Paradise Lost the same character appears not as the heroic rebel but as the sneaking "father of lies," all his grandeur gone, creeping as a snake into Paradise or sitting in the form of an ugly toad "squat at Eve's ear," whispering petty deceits to a woman while she sleeps. It is probable that Milton meant to show here the moral results of rebellion, but there is little in his poem to explain the sudden degeneracy from Lucifer to Satan.

Matter and Manner

The reader will note, also, the strong contrast between Milton's matter and his manner. His matter is largely mythical, and the myth is not beautiful or even interesting, but childish for the most part and frequently grotesque, as when cannon are used in the battle of the angels, or when the Almighty makes plans,

                         Lest unawares we lose
  This our high place, our sanctuary, our hill.

Indeed, all Milton's celestial figures, with the exception of the original Lucifer, are as banal as those of the old miracle plays; and his Adam and Eve are dull, wooden figures that serve merely to voice the poet's theology or moral sentiments.

In contrast with this unattractive matter, Milton's manner is always and unmistakably "the grand manner." His imagination is lofty, his diction noble, and the epic of Paradise Lost is so filled with memorable lines, with gorgeous descriptions, with passages of unexampled majesty or harmony or eloquence, that the crude material which he injects into the Bible narrative is lost sight of in our wonder at his superb style.

The Quality of Milton

If it be asked, What is Milton's adjective? the word "sublime" rises to the lips as the best expression of his style. This word (from the Latin sublimis, meaning "exalted above the ordinary") is hard to define, but may be illustrated from one's familiar experience.

    You stand on a hilltop overlooking a mighty landscape on which the
    new snow has just fallen: the forest bending beneath its soft
    burden, the fields all white and still, the air scintillating with
    light and color, the whole world so clean and pure that it seems as
    if God had blotted out its imperfections and adorned it for his own
    pleasure. That is a sublime spectacle, and the soul of man is
    exalted as he looks upon it. Or here in your own village you see a
    woman who enters a room where a child is stricken with a deadly and
    contagious disease. She immolates herself for the suffering one,
    cares for him and saves him, then lays down her own life. That is a
    sublime act. Or you hear of a young patriot captured and hanged by
    the enemy, and as they lead him forth to death he says, "I regret
    that I have but one life to give to my country." That is a sublime
    expression, and the feeling in your heart as you hear it is one of
    moral sublimity.


The writer who lifts our thought and feeling above their ordinary level, who gives us an impression of outward grandeur or of moral exaltation, is a sublime writer, has a sublime style; and Milton more than any other poet deserves the adjective. His scenes are immeasurable; mountain, sea and forest are but his playthings; his imagination hesitates not to paint Chaos, Heaven, Hell, the widespread Universe in which our world hangs like a pendant star and across which stretches the Milky Way:

  A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold,
  And pavement stars.

No other poet could find suitable words for such vast themes, but Milton never falters. Read the assembly of the fallen hosts before Lucifer in Book I of Paradise Lost, or the opening of Hellgates in Book II, or the invocation to light in Book III, or Satan's invocation to the sun in Book IV, or the morning hymn of Adam and Eve in Book V; or open Paradise Lost anywhere, and you shall soon find some passage which, by the grandeur of its scene or by the exalted feeling of the poet as he describes it, awakens in you the feeling of sublimity.


The harmony of Milton's verse is its second notable quality. Many of our poets use blank verse, as many other people walk, as if they had no sense of rhythm within them; but Milton, by reason of his long study and practice of music, seems to be always writing to melody. In consequence it is easy to read his most prolix passages, as it is easy to walk over almost any kind of ground if one but keeps step to outward or inward music. Not only is Milton's verse stately and melodious, but he is a perfect master of words, choosing them for their sound as well as for their sense, as a musician chooses different instruments to express different emotions. Note these contrasting descriptions of so simple a matter as the opening of gates:

                       Heaven opened wide
  Her ever-during gates, harmonious sound,
  On golden hinges moving. On a sudden open fly
  With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
  Th' infernal doors, and on their hinges grate
  Harsh thunder.

In dealing with a poet of such magnificent qualities one should be wary of criticism. That Milton's poetry has little human interest, no humor, and plenty of faults, may be granted. His Paradise Lost especially is overcrowded with mere learning or pedantry in one place and with pompous commonplaces in another. But such faults appear trivial, unworthy of mention in the presence of a poem that is as a storehouse from which the authors and statesmen of three hundred years have drawn their choicest images and expressions. It stands forever as our supreme example of sublimity and harmony,--that sublimity which reflects the human spirit standing awed and reverent before the grandeur of the universe; that harmony of expression at which every great poet aims and which Milton attained in such measure that he is called the organ-voice of England.


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