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After falling ten thousand fathoms in space, and floundering on through bog and strait, he mounts again "like a pyramid of fire," and
"Weighs his spread wings, at leisure to behold
Paradise Lost is not a perfect poem: there are weak places in the argument and glaring inconsistencies in the narrative. In one place, for instance, God is represented as both foreseeing and allowing the fall of man, while in another He is represented as endeavoring to prevent it. He is portrayed as all-wise and all-powerful, and yet we see Him apparently powerless either to hold Satan a prisoner in Hell, or to prevent his entrance into Eden. But while we must admit such inconsistencies, we must not fail to realize the almost unparalleled difficulties of Milton's gigantic undertaking, a task "unattempted" before "in prose or rhyme." For Milton's purpose in Paradise Lost was not merely to relate certain stupendous events, it was to enforce certain theological doctrines. Shakespeare contented himself, as a rule, with the faithful portrayal of human life, but Milton's daring ambition carried him beyond this; he set himself not merely to portray man's life, but to explain it. And in this determination to drag the most hidden things to light, Milton shrank from nothing. He did not hesitate to enter the "undiscovered country,"
to pass beyond the limits of space and time, and even in the awful brightness of the highest heaven he never seems to veil his eyes. There is no sense of awe in the presence of the unknown; nothing in heaven or earth undreamed of in his philosophy, nothing that he hesitates to depict and expound. We need not wonder, then, that even Milton's titanic genius proved unequal
In Milton's House, Chalfonte St. Giles
to such a superhuman task, or that his attempt to explain the mystery of human sin and suffering remains, at best, confused and unsatisfying.
But while we may not altogether pass over its shortcomings, we must remember that Paradise Lost is not to be judged as a theological treatise, but rather as a great poem. If from one aspect we feel its inadequacy, from another we are satisfied and uplifted by its inexhaustible power and beauty. Our ability to feel its greatness is a test of our power to appreciate what is great in poetry. Shakespeare had competitors and com
panions, even while he towered far above them; but Milton is as one who sits enthroned on a great height alone. His sublime epic - into which he put so much of his own lofty, audacious, and uncompromising spirit
remains apart in English poetry, unparalleled and unapproached, in an impressive and splendid isolation.
Our study of Milton has carried us beyond the date of the Restoration, but before we leave the Elizabethans and Puritans, and enter that new England which began with the return of Charles II, we must turn back to the opening of the seventeenth century, and note some salient features in the history of prose. While the deep emotions, high imagination, and poetic fancy which possessed Renaissance England found their fullest and their earliest expression through poetry and the drama, from the close of the sixteenth century they began to ennoble prose also. We have already noted the beginning of a more sustained and majestic prose-style in Hooker; we must now glance at the further development of prose in the hands of some of his greatest and most representative successors.
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) in 1614 published a History of the World, which, though tedious and discursive, is illuminated by many noble and poetic passages. Raleigh had known the world as few men know it, its ambitions, its rivalries, its heroism, its splendid successes, its cruel humiliations and defeats, and imprisoned in the Tower at the close of a life crowded with great exploits he undertook to write a survey of the course of human history. When we put aside all that seems pedantic or absurd in Raleigh's History, when we pass beyond the parade of a now antiquated
learning, and reach the heart of his book, we see that it is the verdict on human life pronounced by a man who had known life well. Shut out at last from an active share in the world's doings, Raleigh, the courtier, the statesman, the colonist, the freebooter, the explorer, the poet, the philosopher, sits down at last in quiet, and asks what does this world mean, and what is its worth. The book, useless or ridiculous as history, is memorable as the personal revelation of a restless and splendid personality. It has the deep religious feeling and the deep melancholy of the English nation: it begins with a noble apostrophe to God, "The Almighty Mover," who "has been pleased to make himself known by the work of the world," and it ends with that passage on the emptiness of earthly ambitions, that tribute to Death the Conqueror, which is one of the glories of English prose: "O eloquent, just, and mighty Death! whom none could advise, thou hast persuaded; what none hath dared, thou hast done; and whom all the world hath flattered, thou only hast cast out of the world and despised. Thou hast drawn together all the far-stretched greatness, all the pride, cruelty, and ambition of man, and covered it all over with these two narrow words, Hic jacet!"
In such passages, and others which fall but little short of this high level, we see how in the seventeenth century the passion and poetry of the Elizabethans shone out through the less transparent medium of prose.
Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), called by Coleridge the "most eloquent of English divines," was one of the greatest masters of this poetic, or impassioned prose. Read, for instance, this passage on the shortness of man's life, and see how he invests a familiar comparison with freshness and beauty, creating out of old materials
a prose-poem not unworthy to stand beside many a familiar lyric on the same theme. "But so have I seen a rose newly springing from the clefts of its hood, and, at first, it was fair as the morning, and full with the dew of heaven, as a lamb's fleece; but when a ruder breath had forced open its virgin modesty, and dismantled its too youthful and unripe retirements, it began to put on darkness, and to decline to softness and the symptoms of a sickly age; it bowed the head and broke its stalk; and, at night, having lost some of its leaves and all its beauty, it fell into the portion of weeds and outworn faces. The same is the portion of every man and every woman."
Sir Thomas Browne. There was also a quaint scholastic air in some of the seventeenth-century prosewriters, analogous to the extravagances of Donne or his followers in verse. This musty flavor of old learning permeates the fascinating style of SIR THOMAS BROWNE (1605-1682). It is the style of an old-time scholar, full of recondite allusions and fragments from the classics, but it mounts into the loftier regions of poetry and imagination. Browne was a busy and learned physician, who, after taking his degree abroad, settled down at Norwich in 1637, to the practice of his profession. He loved to investigate the odd and the mysterious, and delighted in curious speculations. He was a scientist, but he was above all a poet and a mystic. In his first book, Religio Medici (1642-1643) or Religion of a Physician, Browne considers the difficulties and doubts that confront one in accepting the teachings of the Bible, and shows that his faith is great enough to overcome them all. He loses himself in the contemplation of God, and in his "solitary and retired imaginations" he remembers that he is not alone. Like Vaughan he finds a divine spark