Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination to the help of reason.
Since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.
The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity… Its end is to raise the thoughts above sublunary cares or pleasures… his natural port is gigantic loftiness… he can please when pleasure is required, but it is his peculiar power to astonish… his great excellence is amplitude.
Johnson’s Lives of the Poets are not pleasurable to read because they are not underpinned by a strong central thesis. Instead he relates separate facts about each poet and comments on them in discrete paragraphs. They feel bitty.
Given Johnson’s complete lack of sympathy with Milton’s politics – and his critique of Milton’s appalling selfishness and beastly behaviour to his two daughters – it is notable how generous he is to Milton the poet.
It is striking how profoundly he misunderstands Milton the man e.g:
- He deplores Milton’s lack of regular church attendance; Johnson thinks the discipline of church attendance is vital; this is what makes him a Tory; he can’t conceive of people whose spirituality is more free, independent, no less sincere.
- Similarly, he attributes Milton’s republicanism to jealousy of power, and surly resentment, ‘an envious hatred of greatness… a petulance impatient of control’ – utterly failing to grasp Milton’s ideas about freedom – that everyone should be free to express themselves & rule themselves; that hirelings shouldn’t be appointed in the church just as men shouldn’t be subjected to arbitrary power in civil life.
With respect to design, the first product of the human mind.
Bossu says an epic requires 1st a moral – Johnson concurs that to justify the ways of God to men is the highest conceivable moral.
2nd the moral has to be enacted in a fable, i.e. a plot: ‘a narration artfully constructed so as to excite curiosity and surprise expectation.’ In this Milton equals every other poet in his design i.e. the creation of the world, its end, and everything in between, are carefully placed.
Johnson then considers the various characters, the angels, Satan, Adam & Eve.
Of episodes i.e. extraneous to the main action, Johnson correctly points out Raphael’s long account of the war in heaven, the creation, the universe – and Michael’s second book vision into the future as far as the crucifixion and resurrection and second coming. I.e. between them they prepare the background, and then explain the sequel, to the main Event.
The hero Dryden says Adam can’t be the hero; but why not? His posterity will triumph and the feeling of the end of the poem is upbeat.
Style Milton chose a subject appropriate to the vast luxuriance of his imagination and powers. ‘Sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of the poem.’
Moral sentiments ‘In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought and purity of manners.’
Johnson’s criticism is that the subject matter allows for very little human interest. Milton’s achievement is vast in bringing to bear a lifetime’s reading and knowledge to adorn and vary a well-known story – but in the end it feels heavy. ‘None ever wished it longer than it is.’
The poem is undermined by the confusion of spirit and matter: the angels are sometimes pure spirit, other times hit and wounded in battle. Incongruity.
Johnson dislikes the incorporation of Sin and Death – abstract ideas – as real actors in the narration: ‘one of the greatest faults of the poem’. It is mixing allegory with story. I like it because it makes the story a) vivid b) highly visual c) Spenser made a career out of bringing allegorical figures to life e.g. Rumour. But I agree that it feels different in kind and style from, say, Michael.
Faults in the narrative
- Why did Gabriel let Satan simply go away after he was arrested by the angels?
- If Man is created to fill the void left by the fall of the rebel angels, how come Satan had heard a rumour about man before his fall? Presumably because God foresees all.
Fault of tone Johnson particularly deprecates the Limbo of Fools in Book II, as inappropriate satire, as lowering the tone.
Diction ‘Both in prose and verse he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom.’ Nonetheless, Johnson judges that this large fault is overwhelmed by the sheer imaginative power of the poem.
Rhyme Johnson thinks rhyme is superior to blank verse because it distinguishes poetry more easily (rather as he thinks a Christian ought to go to church because it distinguishes holy thoughts from mundane). Nonetheless can’t wish Paradise Lost rhymed (and, alas, makes no comment on Dryden’s rhyming version of the same subject, State of Innocence.)
- Paradise Lost online
- Johnson’s Life of Milton online
- Milton’s God by William Empson
- Paradise Lost Book IX
- Paradise Lost Book X
- Paradise Lost Book XI
- Aspects of Paradise Lost