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IN Milton's life Paradise Lost may be regarded as the great central point, to which everything else is subordinate. All through his youth and his prime of manhood he was consciously or unconsciously preparing himself to write a great epic poem. Very slowly his great purpose assumed definite shape in his mind. The poems in which he first showed his poetic genius were lyric and dramatic, but early in life he had conceived the idea of rivalling the fame of Homer and Virgil, and becoming the epic representative of his native land and of modern Christendom. At first he meditated a national epic, based upon the legends of prehistoric England. In his youth his mind was attracted by the picturesque pageantry of chivalry and romance. "I betook me," he writes in the Apology for Smectymnus "among those lofty fables and romances which recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood." The poet's wanderings in the fields of old romance have left their traces distinctly in some of the most gorgeous passages of his epic poetry. At one time they seemed likely to determine his ultimate choice. Milton was inclined to follow the example of Spenser

and take the mythical King Arthur as his hero, in which case the

66 'Tilting furniture, emblazoned shields,
Impresses quaint, caparisons and steeds,
Bases and tinsel trappings, gorgeous knights

At joust and tournament,

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instead of being the occasional ornaments of his verse would have been its continual subject matter. However, this project, though seriously entertained for the time, was not of very long continuance. When once the Great Rebellion had broken out under leaders animated by determined hostility against the feudalism of the middle ages, it was not likely that a zealous partisan of Puritanism and Republicanism, such as Milton was, should have devoted his genius to the celebration of the exploits in war or love of fictitious knights. To have done so while the strife was raging, or during the period when the leaders of the republican party were maintaining with difficulty their hard won supremacy, would have appeared frivolous in the extreme, and to have reverted to such a task during the dark days of the Restoration would have been an insult to himself and his fallen party, betokening a callous indifferentism, which was far from being a characteristic of the poet. Indeed, as long as his genius could more directly serve the great cause of political and religious liberty, he seems to have regarded all poetry as a matter of very secondary importance. It was however a great sacrifice to forego the inspirations of his poetical genius, and divert all his literary powers to the uncongenial task of writing despatches and controversial pamphlets on the burning questions of the day, in the composition of which he had to lower himself to the

We know from his

level of his pedantic opponents. own writings that, if he had consulted his own taste, he would have kept out of the controversial fray. In his Reason of Church Government, published in 1642, after revealing in detail his high ambition to devote his whole heart and soul and life to the composition of such a poem as posterity should not willingly let die, he informs his readers that he would not have disclosed so much beforehand, "but that he trusted thereby to make it manifest with what small willingness he interrupted the pursuit of no less hopes than those, and left a calm and pleasing solitariness, fed with cheerful and confident thoughts, to embark in a troubled sea of noises and hoarse disputes; from beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies to come into the dim reflection of hollow antiquities sold by the seeming bulk, and there be fain to club quotations with men whose learning and belief lay in marginal stuffings." However, in spite of his aversion to the taskwork that duty dictated, he devoted himself to it with a thoroughness that necessitated a long postponement of his most cherished designs. In the whole period between his return from Italy in 1639 and the death of Cromwell in 1658, Milton gave the world no original poetry except a few sonnets, many of which were directly suggested by the stirring events of the day. Nevertheless his great purpose, though its completion was indefinitely deferred, was never entirely banished from his mind. In such leisure as his busy life afforded, he was still trying to determine the subject of his great work and the form in which it was to be composed. Out of the many possible subjects that

seemed suitable to his genius he at last chose Paradise Lost. Even after the theme of the poem had been settled, it still remained to determine the form. At first the poet was inclined to write a drama upon the subject he had chosen, and Satan's address to the Sun, in the beginning of the fourth book, was originally intended to be the commencement of a tragedy. But, as time went on, he changed his mind, and came to the conclusion that an epic poem would be the best means of delivering to his contemporaries and posterity all the higher and brighter ideas that had not ceased to revolve in his brain all the time during which he seemed wholly given up to the vituperation of his religious and political adversaries. Thus, finally, he determined to write a great epic poem on the subject of the loss of Paradise, which he commenced in 1658, at a time when the appointment of Andrew Marvell as joint-secretary made it no longer appear imperatively necessary for him to devote all his energies to his official work.

A great deal has been written to show that Milton in the construction of Paradise Lost borrowed so much as seriously to detract from his claim to the credit of originality. The best answer to each particular charge of this kind is to show how very widely the critics disagree with one another in their attempts to trace the plot to previous authors. Almost every commentator has his own candidate to bring forward for the honour of having been copied by Milton, and is therefore inclined. to disallow the similar claims put forward in favour of others by rival critics. Voltaire, writing in 1727, declares that the idea of Paradise Lost was derived from a comedy called Adamo, written by one Andreini, a player,

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