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An Inquiry into the Origin of Paradise Lost.
THE earliest observation respecting the Origin of Paradise Lost appears to have been made by Voltaire, in the year 1727. He was then studying in
"The petty circumstances, by which great minds are led to the first conception of great designs, are so various and volatile, that nothing can be more difficult to discover: Fancy in particular is of a nature so airy, that the traces of her step are hardly to be discerned; ideas are so fugitive, that if poets, in their life time, were questioned concerning the manner in which the seeds of considerable productions first arose in their mind, they might not always be able to answer the inquiry; can it then be possible to succeed in such an inquiry concerning a mighty genius, who has been consigned more than a century to the tomb, especially when, in the records of his life, we can find no positive evidence on the point in question? However trifling the chances it may afford of success, the investigation is assuredly worthy our pursuit; for, as an accomplished critick has said, in speaking of another poet, with his usual felicity of discernment and expression, the inquiry cannot be void of entertainment whilst MILTON is our constant theme: whatever may be the fortune of the chace, we are sure it will lead us through pleasant prospects and a fine country." See Hayley's Conjectures on the Origin of Paradise Lost.
England; and had become so well acquainted with our language as to publish an English essay on epick poetry; in which are the following words:
Milton, as he was travelling through Italy in his youth, saw at Florence a comedy called Adamo, written by one Andreini, a player, and dedicated to Mary de Medicis, queen of France. The subject of the play was the Fall of Man; the actors, God, the Devils, the Angels, Adam, Eve, the Serpent, Death, and the seven mortal Sins: That topick, so improper for a drama, but so suitable to the absurd genius of the Italian stage (as it was at that time,) was handled in a manner entirely conformable to the extravagance of the design. The scene opens with a Chorus of Angels; and a Cherubim thus speaks for the rest: Let the rainbow be the fiddlestick of the heavens! let the planets be the notes of our musick! let time beat carefully the measure, and the winds make the sharps, &c. Thus the play begins, and every scene rises above the last in profusion of impertinence!
b" A la lira del Ciel Iri sia l'arco,
Choro d' Angeli, &c. Adamo, ed. 1617. The better judgement of the author, Mr. Walker observes, determined him to omit this chorus in a subsequent edition of his drama accordingly it does not appear in that of Perugia, 1641. See the Historical Memoir on Italian Tragedy, 1799, p. 169.
"Milton pierced through the absurdity of that performance to the hidden majesty of the subject, which, being altogether unfit for the stage, yet might be (for the genius of Milton, and his only,) the foundation of an epick poem.
"He took from that ridiculous trifle the first hint of the noblest work, which human imagination has ever attempted, and which he executed more than twenty years after."
That Milton had certainly read the sacred drama of Andreini, is the opinion both of Dr. Joseph Warton and of Mr. Hayley. Another elegant critick has observed, that Voltaire may have related a tradition perhaps current in England at the time it was visited by him a period at which, it may be presumed, some of the contemporaries of Milton were living, for he was then only about fifty years dead. Milton, with the candour which is usually united with true genius, probably acknowledged to his friends his obligations to the Italian dramatist, and the floating tradition met the ardent inquiries of the French poet." It may be worth mentioning here, that Dante, according to the account of some Italian criticks, took the hint of his Inferno from a nocturnal representation of Hell, exhibited in 1304 on the river Arno at Florence; and that Tasso is
< Hist. Mem. on Ital. Tragedy, p. 170. Warton's Hist. of Eng. Poetry, vol. iii.