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An essay by Thomas De Quincey

Milton

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Title:     Milton
Author: Thomas De Quincey [More Titles by De Quincey]

[1839.]


We have two ideas, which we are anxious to bring under public notice, with regard to Milton. The reader whom Providence shall send us will not measure the value of these ideas (we trust and hope) by their bulk. The reader indeed--that great idea!--is very often a more important person towards the fortune of an essay than the writer. Even 'the prosperity of a jest,' as Shakespeare tells us, lies less in its own merit than 'in the ear of him that hears it.' If _he_ should happen to be unusually obtuse, the wittiest jest perishes--the most pointed is found blunt. So, with regard to books, should the reader on whom we build prove a sandy and treacherous foundation, the whole edifice, 'temple and tower,' must come to the ground. Should it happen, for instance, that the reader, inflicted upon ourselves for our sins, belongs to that class of people who listen to books in the ratio of their much speaking--find no eloquence in 32mo., and little force of argument except in such a folio as might knock him down upon occasion of his proving restive against its logic--in that case he will despise our present essay. _Will_ despise it? He _does_ despise it already: for already he sees that it is short. His contempt is a high _a priori_ contempt: for he measures us by anticipation, and needs to wait for no experience in order to vindicate his sentence against us.

Yet, in one view, this brevity of an essayist does seem to warrant his reader in some little indignation. We, the writer, expect to bring over the reader to our opinion--else wherefore do we write? But, within so small a compass of ground, is it reasonable to look for such a result? 'Bear witness to the presumption of this essay,' we hear the reader complaining: 'It measures about fourteen inches by two--twenty-eight square inches at the most--and is it within human belief that I, simply as I stand here, shall be converted in so narrow an area? Here am I in a state of nature, as you may say. An acre of sound argument might do something: but here is a man who flatters himself--that, before I am advanced seven inches further in my studies, he is to work a notable change in my creed. By Castor and Pollux! he must think very superbly of himself, or very meanly of me.'

Too true, we reply, too true; but, perhaps, there are faults on both sides. The writer is too peremptory and exacting; the reader is too restive. The writer is too full of his office, which he fancies is that of a teacher or a professor speaking _ex cathedra_: the rebellious reader is oftentimes too determined that he will not learn. The one conceits himself booted and spurred, and mounted on his reader's back, with an express commission for riding him: the other is vicious, apt to bolt out of the course at every opening, and resolute in this point--that he will not be ridden.

There are some, meantime, who take a very different view of the relations existing between those well-known parties to a book--writer and reader. So far from regarding the writer as entitled to the homage of his reader, as if he were some feudal superior, they hold him little better than an actor bowing before the reader as his audience. The feudal relation of fealty [_fidelitas_] may subsist between them, but the places are inverted; the writer is the liegeman--the reader it is who claims to be the sovereign. Our own opinion inclines this way. It is clear that the writer exists for the sake of the reader, not the reader for the sake of the writer. Besides, the writer bears all sorts of characters, whilst the reader universally has credit for the best possible. We have all heard of 'the courteous reader,' 'the candid reader,' 'the enlightened reader.' But which of us ever heard of 'the discourteous reader,' 'the mulish reader,' 'the barbarous reader?' Doubtless there is no such person. The Goths and Vandals are all confined to the writers. 'The reader'--that great character--is ever wise, ever learned, ever courteous. Even in the worst of times, this great man preserved his purity. Even in the tenth and eleventh centuries, which we usually account the very noontide of darkness, he shone like a mould candle amongst basest dips. And perhaps it is our duty to presume all other virtues and graces as no less essential to him than his glorious 'candor,' his 'courtesy,' (surpassing that of Sir Gawain,) and his truly 'enlightened' understanding. Indeed, we very much question whether a writer, who carries with him a just feeling of his allegiance--a truly loyal writer--can lawfully suppose his sovereign, the reader, peccable or capable of error; and whether there is not even a shade of impiety in conceiving him liable to the affections of sleep, or of yawning.

Having thus, upon our knees as it were, done feudal homage to our great _suzerain_, the reader--having propitiated him with Persian adorations and with Phrygian genuflexions, let us now crave leave to convert him a little. Convert him!--that sounds '_un pen fort_,' does it not? No, not at all. A cat may look at a king; and upon this or that out-of-the-way point a writer may presume to be more knowing than his reader--the serf may undertake to convert his lord. The reader is a great being--a great noun-substantive; but still, like a mere adjective, he is liable to the three degrees of comparison. He may rise above himself--he may transcend the ordinary level of readers, however exalted that level be. Being great, he may become greater. Full of light, he may yet labor with a spot or two of darkness. And such a spot we hold the prevalent opinion upon Milton in two particular questions of taste--questions that are not insulated, but diffusive; spreading themselves over the entire surface of the _Paradise Lost_, and also of the _Paradise Regained_; insomuch that, if Milton is wrong once, then he is wrong by many scores of times. Nay, which transcends all counting of cases or numerical estimates of error, if, in the separate instances, (be they few or be they many,) he is truly and indeed wrong--then he has erred, not by the case but by the principle; and that is a thousand times worse; for a separate case or instance of error may escape any man--may have been overlooked amongst the press of objects crowding on his eye; or, if _not_ overlooked, if passed deliberately, may plead the ordinary privilege of human frailty. The man erred; and his error terminates in itself. But an error of principle does _not_ terminate in itself; it is a fountain; it is self-diffusive; and it has a life of its own. The faults of a great man are in any case contagious; they are dazzling and delusive by means of the great man's general example. But his false principles have a worse contagion. They operate not only through the general haze and halo which invests a shining example; but even if transplanted where that example is unknown, they propagate themselves by the vitality inherent in all self-consistent principles, whether true or false.

Before we notice these two cases of Milton, first of all let us ask--Who and what _is_ Milton? Dr. Johnson was furiously incensed with a certain man, by trade an author and manufacturer of books wholesale and retail, for introducing Milton's name into a certain index thus--'Milton, Mr. John.' That _Mister_, undoubtedly, was hard to digest. Yet very often it happens to the best of us--to men who are far enough from 'thinking small beer of themselves,'--that about ten o'clock, A. M., an official big-wig, sitting at Bow Street, calls upon the man to account for his _sprees_ of the last night, for his feats in knocking down lamp-posts and extinguishing watchmen, by this ugly demand of--'Who and what are you, sir?' And perhaps the poor man, sick and penitential for want of soda water, really finds a considerable difficulty in replying satisfactorily to the worthy _beek's_ apostrophe. Although, at five o'clock in the evening, should the culprit be returning into the country in the same coach as his awful interrogator, he might be very apt to look fierce, and retort this amiable inquiry, and with equal thirst for knowledge to demand, 'D--your eyes, if you come to _that_, who and what are _you_?' And the _beek_ in _his_ turn, though so apt to indulge his own curiosity at the expense of the public, might find it very difficult to satisfy that of others.

The same thing happens to authors; and to great authors beyond all others. So accustomed are we to survey a great man through the cloud of years that has gathered round him--so impossible is it to detach him from the pomp and equipage of all who have quoted him, copied him, echoed him, lectured about him, disputed about him, quarrelled about him, that in the case of any Anacharsis the Scythian coming amongst us--any savage, that is to say, uninstructed in our literature, but speaking our language, and feeling an interest in our great men--a man could hardly believe at first how perplexed he would feel--how utterly at a loss for any _adequate_ answer to this question, suddenly proposed-_'Who and what was Milton?'_ That is to say, what is the place which he fills in his own vernacular literature? what station does he hold in universal literature?

We, if abruptly called upon in that summary fashion to convey a _commensurate_ idea of Milton, one which might at once correspond to his pretensions, and yet be readily intelligible to the savage, should answer perhaps thus:--Milton is not an author amongst authors, not a poet amongst poets, but a power amongst powers; and the _Paradise Lost_ is not a book amongst books, not a poem amongst poems, but a central force amongst forces. Let us explain. There is this great distinction amongst books; some, though possibly the best in their class, are still no more than books--not indispensable, not incapable of supplementary representation by other books. If they had never been--if their place had continued for ages unfilled--not the less, upon a sufficient excitement arising, there would always have been found the ability, either directly to fill up the vacancy, or at least to meet the same passion virtually, though by a work differing in form. Thus, supposing Butler to have died in youth, and the _Hudibras_ to have been intercepted by his premature death, still the ludicrous aspects of the Parliamentary war, and its fighting saints, were too striking to have perished. If not in a narrative form, the case would have come forward in the drama. Puritanical sanctity, in collision with the ordinary interests of life, and with its militant propensities, offered too striking a field for the Satiric Muse, in any case, to have passed in total neglect. The impulse was too strong for repression--it was a volcanic agency, that, by some opening or, other, must have worked a way for itself to the upper air. Yet Butler was a most original poet, and a creator within his own province. But, like many another original mind, there is little doubt that he quelled and repressed, by his own excellence, other minds of the same cast. Mere despair of excelling him, so far as not, after all, to seem imitators, drove back others who would have pressed into that arena, if not already brilliantly filled. Butler failing, there would have been another Butler, either in the same or in some analogous form.

But, with regard to Milton and the Miltonic power, the case is far otherwise. If the man had failed, the power would have failed. In that mode of power which he wielded, the function was exhausted in the man--species was identified with the individual--the poetry was incarnated in the poet.

Let it be remembered, that, of all powers which act upon man through his intellectual nature, the very rarest is that which we moderns call the _Sublime_. The Grecians had apparently no word for it, unless it were that which they meant by [Greek Text: to ogchodes]: for [Greek Text: upsos] was a comprehensive expression for all qualities which gave a character of grace or animation to the composition, such even as were philosophically opposed to the sublime. In the Roman poetry, and especially in Lucan, at times also Juvenal, there is an exhibition of a moral sublime, perfectly distinct from anything known to the Greek poetry. The delineations of republican grandeur, as expressing itself through the principal leaders in the Roman camps, or the trampling under foot of ordinary superstitions, as given in the reasons assigned to Labienus for passing the oracle of the Lybian Jupiter unconsulted, are in a style to which there is nothing corresponding in the whole Grecian literature, nor would they have been comprehensible to an Athenian. The famous line--'Jupiter est quodcunque vides, quodcunque moveris,' and the brief review of such questions as might be worthy of an oracular god, with the summary declaration, that every one of those points we know already by the light of nature, and could not know them better though Jupiter Ammon himself were to impress them on our attention--

'Scimus, et haec nobis non altius inseret Ammon:' all this is truly Roman in its sublimity; and so exclusively Roman, that there, and not in poets like the Augustan, expressly modelling their poems on Grecian types, ought the Roman mind to be studied.

On the other hand, for that species of the sublime which does not rest purely and merely on moral energies, but on a synthesis between man and nature--for what may properly be called the Ethico-physical Sublime--there is but one great model surviving in the Greek poetry, viz. the gigantic drama of the Prometheus crucified on Mount Elborus. And this drama differs so much from everything else, even in the poetry of Aeschylus, as the mythus itself differs so much from all the rest of the Grecian mythology, (belonging apparently to an age and a people more gloomy, austere, and nearer to the _incunabula mundi_, than those which bred the gay and sunny superstitions of Greece,) that much curiosity and speculation have naturally gathered round the subject of late years. Laying this one insulated case apart, and considering that the Hebrew poetry of Isaiah and Ezekiel, as having the benefit of inspiration, does not lie within the just limits of competition, we may affirm that there is no human composition which can be challenged as constitutionally sublime--sublime equally by its conception and by its execution, or as uniformly sublime from first to last, excepting the _Paradise Lost_. In Milton only, first and last, is the power of the sublime revealed. In Milton only does this great agency blaze and glow as a furnace kept up to a white heat--without intermission and without collapse.

If, therefore, Milton occupies this unique position--and let the reader question himself closely whether he can cite any other book than the _Paradise Lost_, as continuously sublime, or sublime even by its prevailing character--in that case there is a peculiarity of importance investing that one book which belongs to no other; and it must be important to dissipate any erroneous notions which affect the integrity of that book's estimation. Now, there are two notions countenanced by Addison and by Dr. Johnson, which tend greatly to disparage the character of its composition. If the two critics, one friendly, the other very malignant, but both meaning to be just, have in reality built upon sound principles, or at least upon a sound appreciation of Milton's principles--in that case there is a mortal taint diffused over the whole of the _Paradise Lost_: for not a single book is clear of one or other of the two errors which they charge upon him. We will briefly state the objections, and then as briefly reply to them, by exposing the true philosophy of Milton's practice. For we are very sure that, in doing as he did, this mighty poet was governed by no carelessness or oversight, (as is imagined,) but by a most refined theory of poetic effects.

I. The first of these two charges respects a supposed pedantry, or too ambitious a display of erudition. It is surprising to us that such an objection should have occurred to any man; both because, after all, the quantity of learning cannot be great for which any poem can find an opening; and because, in any poem burning with concentrated fire, like the Miltonic, the passion becomes a law to itself, and will not receive into connection with itself any parts so deficient in harmony, as a cold ostentation of learned illustrations must always have been found. Still, it is alleged that such words as _frieze, architrave, cornice, zenith,_ &c.;, are words of art, out of place amongst the primitive simplicities of Paradise, and at war with Milton's purpose of exhibiting the Paradisaical state.

Now, here is displayed broadly the very perfection of ignorance, as measured against the very perfection of what may be called poetic science. We will lay open the true purpose of Milton, by a single illustration. In describing impressive scenery, as occurring in a hilly or a woody country, everybody must have noticed the habit which young ladies have of using the word _amphitheatre_: 'amphitheatre of woods'--'amphitheatre of hills,'--these are their constant expressions. Why? Is it because the word _amphitheatre_ is a Grecian word? We question if one young lady in twenty knows that it is; and very certain we are that no word would recommend itself to her use by that origin, if she happened to be aware of it. The reason lurks here:--In the word _theatre_, is contained an evanescent image of a great audience--of a populous multitude. Now, this image--half withdrawn, half-flashed upon the eye--and combined with the word _hills_ or _forests_, is thrown into powerful collision with the silence of hills--with the solitude of forests; each image, from reciprocal contradiction, brightens and vivifies the other. The two images act, and react, by strong repulsion and antagonism.

This principle we might exemplify, and explain at great length; but we impose a law of severe brevity upon ourselves. And we have said enough. Out of this one principle of subtle and lurking antagonism, may be explained everything which has been denounced under the idea of pedantry in Milton. It is the key to all that lavish pomp of art and knowledge which is sometimes put forward by Milton in situations of intense solitude, and in the bosom of primitive nature--as, for example, in the Eden of his great poem, and in the Wilderness of his _Paradise Regained_. The shadowy exhibition of a regal banquet in the desert, draws out and stimulates the sense of its utter solitude and remotion from men or cities. The images of architectural splendor, suddenly raised in the very centre of Paradise, as vanishing shows by the wand of a magician, bring into powerful relief the depth of silence, and the unpopulous solitude which possess this sanctuary of man whilst yet happy and innocent. Paradise could not, in any other way, or by any artifice less profound, have been made to give up its essential and differential characteristics in a form palpable to the imagination. As a place of rest, it was necessary that it should be placed in close collision with the unresting strife of cities; as a place of solitude, with the image of tumultuous crowds; as the centre of mere natural beauty in its gorgeous prime, with the images of elaborate architecture and of human workmanship; as a place of perfect innocence in seclusion, that it should be exhibited as the antagonist pole to the sin and misery of social man.

Such is the covert philosophy which governs Milton's practice, and which might be illustrated by many scores of passages from both the _Paradise Lost_ and the _Paradise Regained_. [Footnote: For instance, this is the key to that image in the _Paradise Regained_, where Satan, on first emerging into sight, is compared to an old man gathering sticks 'to warm him on a winter's day.' This image, at first sight, seems little in harmony with the wild and awful character of the supreme fiend. No: it is _not in_ harmony; nor is it meant to be in harmony. On the contrary, it is meant to be in antagonism and intense repulsion. The household image of old age, of human infirmity, and of domestic hearths, are all meant as a machinery for provoking and soliciting the fearful idea to which they are placed in collision, and as so many repelling poles.] In fact, a volume might be composed on this one chapter. And yet, from the blindness or inconsiderate examination of his critics, this latent wisdom--this cryptical science of poetic effects--in the mighty poet, has been misinterpreted, and set down to the account of defective skill, or even of puerile ostentation.

II. The second great charge against Milton is, _prima facie_, even more difficult to meet. It is the charge of having blended the Pagan and Christian forms. The great realities of angels and archangels are continually combined into the same groups with the fabulous impersonations of the Greek mythology. Eve is interlinked in comparisons with Pandora; sometimes again with Eurynome. Those impersonations, however, may be thought to have something of allegoric meaning in their conceptions, which in a measure corrects this Paganism of the idea. But Eve is also compared with Ceres, with Hebe, and other fixed forms of Pagan superstition. Other allusions to the Greek mythologic forms, or direct combination of them with the real existences of the Christian heavens, might be produced by scores, were it not that we decline to swell our paper beyond the necessity of the case. Now, surely this at least is an error. Can there be any answer to this?

At one time we were ourselves inclined to fear that Milton had been here caught tripping. In this instance, at least, he seems to be in error. But there is no trusting to appearances. In meditating upon the question, we happened to remember that the most colossal and Miltonic of painters had fallen into the very same fault, if fault it were. In his _Last Judgment_, Michael Angelo has introduced the Pagan deities in connection with the hierarchy of the Christian heavens. Now, it is very true that one great man cannot palliate the error of another great man, by committing the same error himself. But, though it cannot avail as an excuse, such a conformity of ideas serves as a summons to a much more vigilant examination of the case than might else be instituted. One man might err from inadvertency; but that two, and both men trained to habits of constant meditation, should fall into the same error--makes the marvel tenfold greater.

Now we confess that, as to Michael Angelo, we do not pretend to assign the precise key to the practice which he adopted. And to our feelings, after all that might be said in apology, there still remains an impression of incongruity in the visual exhibition and direct juxtaposition of the two orders of supernatural existence so potently repelling each other. But, as regards Milton, the justification is complete; it rests upon the following principle: In all other parts of Christianity, the two orders of superior beings, the Christian heaven and the Pagan pantheon, are felt to be incongruous--not as the pure opposed to the impure, (for, if that were the reason, then the Christian fiends should be incongruous with the angels, which they are not,)--but as the unreal opposed to the real. In all the hands of other poets, we feel that Jupiter, Mercury, Apollo, Diana, are not merely impure conceptions, but that they are baseless conceptions, phantoms of air, nonentities; and there is much the same objection, in point of just taste, to the combination of such fabulous beings in the same groups with glorified saints and angels, as there is to the combination, by a painter or a sculptor, of real flesh-and-blood creatures with allegoric abstractions.

This is the objection to such combination in all other poets. But this objection does not apply to Milton: it glances past him; and for the following reason: Milton has himself laid an early foundation for his introduction of the Pagan pantheon into Christian groups:--_the false gods of the heathen world were, according to Milton, the fallen angels_. They are not false, therefore, in the sense of being unreal, baseless, and having a merely fantastical existence, like our European fairies, but as having drawn aside mankind from a pure worship. As ruined angels under other names, they are no less real than the faithful and loyal angels of the Christian heavens. And in that one difference of the Miltonic creed, which the poet has brought pointedly and elaborately under his reader's notice by his matchless catalogue of the rebellious angels, and of _their Pagan transformations_ in the very first book of the _Paradise Lost_, is laid beforehand the amplest foundation for his subsequent practice; and at the same time, therefore, the amplest answer to the charge preferred against him by Dr. Johnson, and by so many other critics, who had not sufficiently penetrated the latent theory on which he acted.


[The end]
Thomas De Quincey's essay: Milton

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