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In preparing the present edition of Milton's poetical works, I have laboured under the somewhat difficult task of trying to give a good deal of matter in a very small space. A writer like Milton, whose whole style is fraught with allusion, and who, like Propertius, is perpetually aiming at making erudition subservient to poetry, draws largely, not only on the present feelings, but likewise on the memory of his readers. And yet, so noble are Milton's imitations—so frequently does he surpass the model-so perfect is the mould, so exquisite the chisel with which he recasts the idea of an earlier brother in the art, that it is ever a pleasing study to compare passage with passage, word with word, and to marvel at the process which has refined many a crudity, softened and Christianized many a thought, which wanted Christianity only to give it greatness.
The able annotations collected or written by Bishop Newton, have done so much towards showing what Milton imitated, and how he could imitate, that I cannot lay credit for much originality in the notes now submitted to the reader. If I have any regret, it is, that there is an unfortunate law of dimensions which prevents the possibility of compressing the contents of four rather substantial octavos into a volume of the size and price which, in these bookbuying days, is almost inseperable from popular success. But I hope that what is given will be found plain and useful, and that few readers will go away unsatisfied, as far understanding the meaning of the poet is concerned.
As to the text, I have almost invariably avoided the discussion of various readings, partly from want of space, partly because I had no wish to give a practical lesson on the uncertainty of criticism. No man who has ever written a copy of verses" (whether in canine Latin, bad English, or otherwise) can be ignorant how easy it is to substitute one word for another, or to correct for the better or the worse. A few rather obvious corrections have therefore formed the limit of my efforts, as far as criticism is concerned.
It is a vain task to try to praise Milton, after so many better critics have exhausted the theme; but I may, perhaps, be permitted to say a few words respecting the value of his writings as a lesson in English, the language probably most neglected by Englishmen, and most cared for by Milton. Milton drew on the classical and Continental languages with unsparing freedom. He culled accuracy from one language, brilliancy from another, and quaintness from the archaisms of a third. His style was thoroughly educated; he used words not according to convention, but with a strict reference to their derivation and primitive meaning; and if he sometimes sacrificed power to refinement, he never suffered himself to write vulgarly in order to be thought to write down to the popular “style of the day."
Milton's eccentricities of language are often nothing more or less than struggles after correctness. Even in the spelling of words, he has a scholastic reason for the variations he takes from popular practice. His writing are a fine and a speaking lesson to those who imagine that poetry may set grammar at defiance, and that wanton transgression of everything like sober writing is a first-rate, if not a sufficient credential to the court of the Muses.
THEODORE ALOIS BUCKLEY.