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In that which is essentially the literature of the seventeenth century-prose as well as poetry—the name of Milton is prominent, the beginning and the end of his career approaching respectively the opening and the close of the century. I speak of this, not simply as a matter of date, but on account of the relation of that career to the age in which it was cast. The first part of Milton's literary life is full of a beautiful reflection of the
gone before; his genius is then glowing with tints of glory cast upon it by the Elizabethan poetry: the meridian of it is in close correspondence with the season of the power of the Parliament and the Protector, when Milton stood side by side with Cromwell; and the latter period of it (which I propose to speak of in the next lecture) was that of sublime and solitary contrast with the times of Charles the Second. The first was the genial season of youth, studious, pure, and happy; the second was of mature manhood, strenuous in civil strife, and the dubious dynasty of the Protectorate; the third was old age, darkened, disappointed, but indomitable.
Of Milton's early poems, the most beautiful is the exquisite Masque of Comus, one of the last and loveliest radiations of the dramatic spirit, which seemed almost to love its life out in about half a century of English literature, beginning in the times of Queen Elizabeth, and ending in those of Charles the First. It has been said by more than one judicious critic of another of Milton's early poems, “Lycidas,” that the enjoyment of it is a good test of a real feeling for what is peculiarly called poetry. Of Comus, I think, it might be said, as truly as of any poem in the language, that it is admirably adapted to inspire a real feeling for poetry. It abounds with so
much of true imagination, such attractiveness of fancy, such grace of language and of metre, and withal contains so much thought and wisdom wherewith to win a mind unused to the poetic processes, that were I asked what poem might best be chosen to awaken the imagination to a healthful activity, I would point to Milton's Comus, as better fitted than almost any other for the purpose.
The poem, both in the conception and the execution, finely illustrates the power of the imagination, its moral alchemy in
“Turning the common dust
The beautiful, the brave, the holy, and the just."* For, observe on what homely and familiar incident the poet has built up this beautiful superstructure of fancy and philosophy. When he was dwelling at his father's rural home, the Earl of Bridgewater was keeping his court not far off, at Ludlow Castle, and it happened that his two sons, and his daughter, the Lady Alice Egerton, were benighted and bewildered in Haywood Forest; where the brothers, seeking a homeward path, left the sister alone awhile in a tract of country inhabited by a boorish peasantry. Such was all the story, simpler than the ballad of the Children in the Wood; and yet it is transfigured into a poem of a thousand lines—a moral drama showing the communion of natural and supernatural life, the mysterious society of human beings, and the guardian and tempting spirits hovering round their paths: it teaches, with a poet's teaching, how the spiritual and intellectual
* Wordsworth's Desultory Stanzas. Works, p. 243.
nature may be in peril from the charms of worldly pleasures, and how the philosophic faith and the heavenassisted virtue are seen at last to triumph. The guardianship of ministering angels—their encampment round the dwellings of the just—is finely announced in the opening lines, spoken by the attendant spirit alighting in the wood, where the human footsteps are astray:
“Before the starry threshold of Jove's court
With the rank vapours of this sin-worn world.” The genuine power of invention displayed in Comus is not disparaged; nay, the beauty of it is heightened, by the lights it reflects from the elder poets, of whom Milton was deeply studious, for he knew that poetry is not inspiration alone, but art no less. There are passages which seem almost like echoes of the sweet modulations of Shakspeare's sentences—combinations of words which we should say were Shakspeare's, could we forget they are Milton's, as when the bewildered lady speaks :
“A thousand phantasies Begin to throng into my memory,
Of calling shapes, and beck’ning shadows dire,
To keep my life and honour unassailed.” Again, there are passages which blend with a music of their own the melody of both Spenser and Shakespearethe music of their words and of their thoughts—as when the brother speaks :
“I do not think my sister so to seek
Or so unprincipled in Virtue's book,
May sit in the centre, and enjoy bright day.” When the lady is at last rescued from the wicked magic that encircled her, the good attendant spirit, his
guardianship achieved, speeds away like Ariel, set free to the elements, and leaves in poetry words of encouragement and promise to humanity :
“Now my task is smoothly ne,
I can fly or I can run
One cannot part with this poem, radiant as it is with what is bright and pure and lofty in poetry and philosophy, without thinking how little that high-born woman, when her heart was throbbing in the loneliness of Haywood Forest—how little could she have thought that a young poet's words were to win for her more enduring honour than wealth or heraldry could bestow.
The most distinct foreshadowing of Milton's great epio poem, and of his own independent genius, is an earlier poem—“The Hymn on the Nativity" —which gives the poet the fame of having composed almost in his youth the earliest of the great English odes, the like of which had not, I believe, been heard, since Pindar, two thousand years before, had struck the lyre for assembled Greece. It is a lyric that might have burst from that religious bard of paganism, could he have had prophetic vision of the Advent. It is a poem that revealed a new mastery of English versification, disciplined afterward to such