Milton I
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[ 371 Milton I1 * While it must be admitted that Milton is a very great poet indeed, it is something of a puzzle to decide in what his greatness consists. On analysis, the marks against him appear both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit. As a man, he is antipathetic. Either from the moralist’s point of view, or from the theologian’s point of view, or from the psychologist’s point of view, or from that of the political philosopher, or judging by the ordinary standards of likeableness in human beings, Milton is unsatisfactory. The doubts which I have to express about him are more serious than these. His greatness as a poet has been sufficiently celebrated, though I think largely for the wrong reasons, and without the proper reservations . His misdeeds as a poet have been called attention to, as by Mr. Ezra Pound, but usually in passing.2 What seems to me necessary is to assert at the same time his greatness – in that what he could do well he did­ better than any one else has ever done3† – and the serious charges to be made against him, in respect of the deterioration – the peculiar kind of deterioration – to which he subjected the language. Many people will agree that a man may be a great artist, and yet have a bad influence. There is more of Milton’s influence in the badness of the bad verse of the eighteenth century than of anybody’s else: he certainly did more harm than Dryden and Pope, and perhaps a good deal of the obloquy which has fallen on these two poets, especially the latter, because of their influence, ought to be transferred to Milton.4 But to put the matter simply in terms of “bad influence” is not necessarily to bring a serious charge: because a good deal of the responsibility, when we state the problem in these terms, may devolve on the eighteenth-century poets themselves for being such bad poets that they were incapable of being influenced except for ill. There is a good deal more to the charge against Milton than this; and it appears a good deal more serious if we affirm that Milton’s poetry could only be an influence for the worse, upon any poet whatever. It is more serious, also, if we affirm that Milton’s bad influence may be traced much farther than the eighteenth century, and much farther than upon bad poets: if we say that it was an influence against which we still have to struggle. Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1936 372 ] There is a large class of persons, including some who appear in print as critics, who regard any censure upon a “great” poet as a breach of the peace, as an act of wanton iconoclasm, or even hoodlumism. The kind of derogatory criticism that I have to make upon Milton is not intended for such persons, who cannot understand that it is more important, in some vital respects, to be a good poet than to be a great poet; and of what I have to say I consider that the only jury of judgment is that of the ablest poetical practitioners of my own time. The most important fact about Milton, for my purpose,5† is his blindness . I do not mean that to go blind in middle life is itself enough to determine the whole nature of a man’s poetry. Blindness must be considered in conjunction with Milton’s personality and character, and the peculiar education which he received. It must also be considered in connexion with his devotion to, and expertness in, the art of music. Had Milton been a man of very keen senses – I mean of all the five senses – his blindness would not have mattered so much. But for a man whose sensuousness, such as it was, had been withered early by book-learning, and whose gifts were naturally aural, it mattered a great deal.6 It would seem, indeed, to have helped him to concentrate on what he could do best. At no period is the visual imagination conspicuous in Milton’s poetry. It would be as well to have7† a few illustrations of what I mean by visual imagination . From Macbeth:                   This guest of summer, The temple-haunting martlet, does approve, By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze, Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this...