The Poetical Works of John Milton: With Translations of the Italian, Latin and Greek Poems from the Columbia University Edition

By David Masson; John Milton | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION TO SAMSON AGONISTES.

MILTON is remembered mainly as an epic poet. But his final choice of the epic form for his greatest poem and its companion was the result of deliberation. Apparently it was even a departure from his original inclination, when in his early manhood he had debated with himself in what form of poetry his genius would have fullest scope. Two of his early English poems had not only been dramatic, but had actually been performed. The Arcades was "part of an entertainment presented to the. Countess-Dowager of Derby at Harefield by some noble persons of her family," probably in the year 1633; and Comus, the finest and most extensive of all Milton's minor poems, was nothing else than an elaborate "masque," performed, in the year 1634, at Ludlow Castle, in Shropshire, before the Earl of Bridgewater, Lord President of Wales, by way of an entertainment to the gentry of the neighbourhood. (See Introductions to these two Poems.) Whether Milton was present at the performance of either the Arcades or the Comus is not known; but the fact of his writing two such dramatic pieces for actual performance by the members of a family with which he had relations of acquaintance shows that at that time -- i.e. when he was twenty-six years of age -- he had no objection to this kind of entertainment, then so fashionable at Court and among noble families of literary tastes. That he had seen masques performed -- masques of Ben Jonson, Carew, or Shirley -- may be taken for granted; and we have his own assurance that, when at Cambridge, he attended dramatic representations there, got up in the colleges, and that, when in London, during his vacations from Cambridge, he used to go to the theatres (Eleg. i. 29-46). To the same effect we have his lines in L'Allegro, where he includes the theatre among the natural pleasures of the mind in its cheerful mood --

"Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's learned sock be on,
Or sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy's child,
Warble his native wood-notes wild" --

words which, so far as Milton's appreciation of Shakespeare is concerned, would seem poor, if we did not recollect the splendid lines which he had

-343-

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