John Dryden, from his preface to Annus Mirabilis (1667); see below
Also read the introductory statements for the authors in Demaria.
Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, The Spectator nos. 267 and 279
Samuel Johnson, from The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781) - from Milton
Greene, The Age of Exuberance, chaps. 3 and 4
DUE: Weekly Post #5 England and Wales groups
Following up on the excellent posts and discussion of
Paradise Lost, we will continue our investigation
of the nature of virtue and power in PL.
This week's readings will emphasize how the eighteenth-century
viewed Milton and his creation. Look for answers to the
question: how did these authors define virtue and authority in Paradise Lost?
Notes and Discussion Questions:
We have already read Dryden's MacFlecknoe. Recall that poem
and the comparison between the political and literary realms of
authority. Dryden's poem Annus Mirabilis was published
in 1667, the same year as Paradise Lost. It is a historical
poem -- in contrast to a epic poem -- that celebrates the naval
battles fought in 1666 against the Dutch; it ends with a tribute
to the King as the caring patriarch who comforts London after the
great fire of the same year. The success of this poem practically
earns him the post of Poet Laureate for King Charles II.
I have selected a passage of the prefatory epistle to this poem,
where Dryden lays out some of the principles of heroic poetry
in his era -- and hence the era of Paradise Lost. What
do these ideas tell you about poetic taste in this time? How do
they reflect on Paradise Lost, a poem that Dryden recognized
as a truly monumental achievement?
"For I have chosen the most heroic subject which any poet could desire:
I have taken upon me to describe the motives, the beginning,
progress and successes of a most just and necessary war; in it,
the care, management and prudence of our king; the conduct and valour
of a royal admiral, and of two incomparable generals: the invicible
courage of our captains and seamen, and three glorious victories,
the result of all....
What is the proper subject of heroic poetry, according to Dryden? How does
this differ from Milton's perspective in Paradise Lost? (Think
in particular of the second invocation he makes at the beginning of book nine.)
I have called my poem historical, not epic, though both the
actions and actors are as much heroic, as any poem can contain.
But since the action is not properly one, nor that accomplished
in the last successes, I have judged it too bold a title for a few
stanzas, which are little more in number than a single Iliad,
or the longest of the Aeneids....
I must crave leave to tell you, that as I have endeavoured to adorn
it with noble thoughts, so much more to express those thoughts with
elocution. The composition of all poems is, or ought to be, of wit,
and wit in the poet, or wit writing, (if you will give me leave to
use a school disinction) is no other than the faculty of imagination
in the writer, which, like a nimble spaniel, beats over and ranges
through the field of memory, till it springs the quarry it hunted after;
or, without metaphor, which searches over all the memory for the species
or ideas which is well defined, the happy result of thought, or product
of that imagination. But to proceed from wit in the general notion of
it, to the proper wit of a heroic or historical poem, I judge it chiefly
to consist in the delightful imaging of persons, actions, passions or
things. 'Tis not the jerk or sting of an epigram, nor the seeming
contradiction of a poor antithesis, (the delight of an ill-judging
audience in a play of rhyme) nor the jingle of a more poor paranomasia:
neither is it so much the morality of a grave sentence, affected by
Lucan, but more sparingly used by Virgil; but it is some lively and apt
description, dressed in such colours of speech, that it sets before
your eyes the absent object, as perfectly and more delightfully than
nature. So then, the first happiness of the poet's imagination is
properly invention, or finding of the thought; the second is fancy,
or the variation, driving or moulding of that thought, as the judgement
represents it proper to the subject; the third is elocution, or the art
of clothing and adorning that thought so found and varied, in apt,
significant and sounding words: the quickness of the imagination is seen
in the invention, the fertility in the fancy, and accuracy in the expression."
What is the proper wit of heroic poetry, according to Dryden? What imaginative skills
must the heroic poet have to achieve this? To what extent,
in your opinion, is Milton successful in such attempts?
Joseph Addison and Richard Steele
Note that these papers are authored by Joseph Addison,
although The Spectator was a joint effort between
Addison and Steele. Addison went on to write 18 papers on
Paradise Lost. What does this suggest?
Spectator no. 267 (1712) participates in an ongoing debate over
whether or not PL is an epic (heroic) poem. Like Pope, in An
Essay on Criticism, Addison has recourse to the rules,
especially those set out by Aristotle. What are the principle
elements of the epic that Addison discusses?
Throughout, Addison compares Milton's work to The Iliad,
The Odyssey and The Aeneid. What does this
reveal about these three poems? Conversely, what does this
say about Addison's view of PL?
"Milton's Subject was still greater than either of the former;
it does not determine the Fate of single Persons or Nations,
but of a whole Species. The united Powers of Hell are joined
together for the Destruction of Mankind,which they effected in
Part, and would have completed, had not Omnipotence it self
interposed. The principal Actors are Man in his greatest Perfection,
and Woman in her highest Beauty" (505).
What does Addison identify as "greatness" in PL? How does this
"greatness" compare with that identified by Dryden, above?
Addison claims that there is a magnificence in every part of PL
that far excels an action taken from "any pagan system." What
does this suggest about the Christian worldview of Milton's
(and succeeding generations') society?
"But as for Milton, he had not only a very few Circumstances
upon which to raise his Poem, but was also obliged to proceed
with the greatest Caution in every Thing that he added out of
his own Invention. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the Restraints
he was under, he has filled his Story with so many surprising
incidents, which bear so close analogy with what is delivered
in Holy Writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate
Reader, without giving Offence to the most scrupulous" (505)
What risks does Addison allude to?
In Spectator no. 279, Addison claims that
Milton excels most epic poets in his ability to
invent proper sentiments to each character and circumstance.
He especially admires the treatment of those characters
"out of nature." What does Addison mean by sentiments?
Why are characters "out of nature" more challenging? What
does Milton achieve, according to Addison?
Note Addison's discussion of the "natural" and the
"sublime" sentiments -- proper for epic poetry -- and
the "affected and unnatural" or the "mean and vulgar"
sentiments. Where is Milton most successful? Where
does he fail?
This is part of Johnson's great critical achievement,
The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1781),
where one of the best critics of the age combined biography
with a judicious (with notable exceptions) literary evaluation.
This selection opens with a brief biographical passage
describing Milton's early work as a tutor. What does this
suggest about Milton's character that is important to PL?
What does Johnson say about other biographers of Milton,
and how does he differ? What does his digression on education
reveal about Johnson's values? What does it reveal about the
nature of virtue?
When Johnson does examine PL, he follows the pattern of Addison
and evaluates the poem according to Aristotelian elements of
epic. How does his evaluation of the parts differ? Where do
they agree? From his description of the epic poet, what
characteristics are necessary for his/her success?
"It contains the history of a miracle, of Creation and Redemption;
it displays the power and the mercy of the Supreme Being; the
probable therefore is marvellous, and the marvellous is probable
. The substance of the narrative is truth; and as truth allows
no choice, it is like necessity, superior to rule" (719)
What are the implications of Johnson's statement above?
On page 719, Johnson discusses the problem of the epic hero in
PL. What objections does Johnson answer in order to retain
the heroic quality of PL? To what extent do you agree with
"Splendid passages, containing lessons of morality, or precepts
of prudence, occur seldom. Such is the original formation of
this poem, that as it admits no human manners till the Fall,
it can give little assistance to human conduct" (719-20).
Johnson later suggests that human passions do not enter paradise.
These, ultimately, constitute the greatest faults of this
otherwise peerless poem (721-724). To what extent do you agree or
disagree with these criticisms?
"The characteristic quality of this poem is sublimity" (720).
What does Johnson mean by this term? Compare this with Addison's
use of the term. According to Johnson, how does Milton achieve
this sublimity in PL?
"Of his moral sentiments it is hardly praise to affirm that they
excel those of all other poets; for this superiority he was
indebted to his acquaintance with the sacred writings. The
ancient epic poets, wanting the light of Revelation, were very
unskilful teachers of virtue; their principal characters may
be great, but they are not amiable. The reader may rise from
their works with a greater degree of active or passive fortitude,
and sometimes of prudence; but he will be able to carry away few
precepts of justice, and none of mercy" (720).
How does Milton's epic differ from the Ancient epics? What
virtues does Johnson imply the reader will acquire from PL? How?
Note Johnson's hesitation in criticizing Milton: "for what
Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages, which,
if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish in some degree
the honour of our country?" (721). What does this tell us about
literary national reputation? What does this tell us about Milton?
Note Johnson's focus on Adam (719, 721). What does he value?
What does he miss? How do you respond to Johnson's claim that
readers have no character to identify with?
On page 724, Johnson offers a justification of rhyme in English verse
, while not denying the greatness (operative adjective) of Milton's verse.
Compare Johnson's claims with Milton's regarding rhyme. What does
Johnson see as the limitations of Milton's verse?
"His work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is
not the first" (725). Comment.
Consider the act of criticism as it is exemplified in the essays
of Addison and the excerpt from Johnson's book. Compare and
contrast the style of Dryden, Addison and Johnson. Compare and
contrast the objectives of each selection. What do these works
tell us about eighteenth-century literature? What did the era value
Based on these writing, how would you characterize heroic literature?
How would you describe its importance to the eighteenth century?
Recall Pope's Essay on Criticism. To what extent do these
selections exemplify the ideals he articulated?
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