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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 following year, at Ludlow Castle, in Shropshire, before the Earl of Bridgewater, Lord President of Wales, by way of entertainment to the gentry of the neighbourhood. (See Introductions to these 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,-.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,
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 previously written (1630), and which were prefixed to the second folio edition of Shakespeare's plays in 1632,
“What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones
The labour of an age in pilèd stones,
What need’st thou such weak witness,” etc. Still, the unlawfulness of dramatic entertainments had always been a tenet of those stricter English Puritans with whom Milton even then felt a political sympathy; and Prynne's famous Histriomastix, in which he denounced stage-plays and all connected with them through a thousand quarto pages (1632), had helped to confirm Puritanism in this tenet. As Prynne's treatise had been out more than a year before the Arcades and Comus were written, it is clear that he had not converted Milton to his opinion. While the more rigid and less educated of the Puritans undoubtedly went with Prynne in condemning the stage altogether, Milton, I should say, before the time of his journey to Italy (1638-39), was one of those who retained a pride in the drama as the form of literature in which, for two generations, English genius had been most productive. Lamenting, with others, the corrupt condition into which the national drama had fallen in baser hands, and the immoral accompaniments of the degraded stage, he had seen no reason to recant his enthusiastic tribute to the memory of Shakespeare, or to be ashamed of his own contribution to the dramatic literature of England in his two model masques.
Gradually, however, with Milton's growing seriousness amid the events and duties that awaited him after his return
from his Italian journey, and especially after the meeting of the Long Parliament (Nov. 3, 1640), there came a change in his notions of the drama. From this period there is evidence that his sympathy with the Prynne view of things, at least as far as regarded the English stage, was more considerable than it had been. While he regarded all literature as recently infected with baseness and corruption, and requiring to be taught again its true relation to the spiritual needs and uses of a great nation, he felt an especial dislike to the popular literature of stage-plays, as then written and acted. From this period, if I mistake not, he was practically against theatre-going, as unworthy of a serious man, considering the contrast between what was to be seen within the theatres and what was in course of transaction without them ; nor, if his two masques and his eulogy on Shakespeare had remained to be written now, do I think he would have judged it opportune to write them. Certainly he would not now have written the masques for actual performance, public or private. And yet he had not abandoned his admiration of the drama as a form of literature. On the contrary, he was still convinced that no form of literature is nobler, more capable of conveying the highest and most salutary conceptions of the mind of a great poet. When, immediately after his return from Italy, he was preparing himself for that great English poem upon which he proposed to bestow his full strength, what do we find ? We find him, for a while (The Reason of Church Government, Introd. to Book II.), balancing the claims of the epic, the drama, and the lyric, and concluding that in any one of these a great Christian poet might have congenial scope, and the benefit of grand precedents and models. He discusses the claims of the epic first, and thinks highly of them, but proceeds immediately to inquire “whether those dramatic constitutions in which Sophocles and Euripides reign shall be found more doctrinal and exemplary to a nation,” adding, “The Scripture also affords us a divine pastoral drama in the Song of Solomon, consisting of two persons and a double chorus, as Origen rightly judges ; and the Apocalypse of St. John is the majestic image of a high and stately Tragedy, shutting up and intermingling her solemn scenes and acts with a sevenfold chorus of hallelujahs and harping symphonies; and this my opinion the grave authority of Paræus, commenting that book, is sufficient to confirm.” Here we have certainly a proof that no amount of sympathy which Milton may have felt with the Puritan dislike of stage-plays had affected his admiration of the dramatic form of poesy as practised by the ancient Greek tragedians and others. Indeed, in the same pamphlet, he recognises “the managing of our public sports and festival pastimes” as one of the duties of the Government in every well-constituted commonwealth, and distinctly recommends it as proper for the civil magistrate, in the interests of education and morality, to provide “ eloquent and graceful" appeals to the intellect and imagination of the people, not only from pulpits, but also in the form of “set and solemn paneguries in theatres." Accordingly, it was to the dramatic form, rather than to either the epic or the lyric, that Milton then inclined in his meditations of some great English poem to be written by himself. As we have already seen (Introduction to Paradise Lost, pp. 14-18), he threw aside his first notion of an epic on King Arthur, and began to collect possible subjects for dramas from Scriptural History, and from the early history of Britain. He collected and jotted down the titles of no fewer than sixty possible tragedies on subjects from the Old and New Testaments, and thirty-eight possible tragedies on subjects of English and Scottish History,— among which latter, curiously enough, was one on the subject of Macbeth. From this extraordinary collection of possible subjects Paradise Lost already stood out as that which most fascinated him ; but even that subject was to be treated dramatically.
All this was before the year 1642. On the 2d of Sep. tember in that year,—the King having a few days before raised his standard at Nottingham, and given the signal for the Civil War,—there was passed the famous ordinance of Parliament suppressing stage-plays “while the public troubles last," and shutting up the London theatres. From that date onwards to the Restoration, or for nearly eighteen years, the Drama, in the sense of the Acted Drama, was in abeyance in England. This fact may have co-operated with other reasons in determining Milton, when he did at length find leisure for returning to his scheme of a great English poem, to abandon the dramatic form he had formerly favoured. True, the mere discontinuance of stage-plays in England, as an amusement inconsistent with Puritan ideas, and intolerable