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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 mong the natural pleasures of the mind in its cheerful mood
" Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's learned sock be on,
words which, so far as Milton's appreciation of Shakespeare is concerned, would be rather disappointing, 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,
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 private contributions to the dramatic literature of England.
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 seems to have been a change in his notions on this subject. From this period it seems likely that his sympathy with the Prynne view of the Drama, at least as far as regarded the English stage, was more considerable than it had been. There is proof, at all events, that, while he regarded all literature as recently infected with corruption, and requiring to be taught again its true relation to the spiritual needs and uses of a great nation, he felt an especial contempt for the popular literature of stage-plays, as then written and acted. With that feeling, if I mistake not, he was practically against theatre-going, as unworthy of a serious man at a time when there was such a contrast between what was to be seen within the theatres and what was in course of transaction outside of them ; nor, if his two masques and his eulogy on Shakespeare had remained to be written, am I sure that he would have judged them opportune then. Probably he would not now have written 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 was 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, and debating with himself as to its subject and its form, 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 dramatic, 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 VOL. II
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 evidence 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 poetry as practised by the ancient Greek tragedians and others. 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. 43-47), 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, strangely 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 September in that year,--the King having a few days before raised his standard at Nottingham, and so given the signal for the Civil War,—there was passed the famous ordinance of Parliament suppressing stageplays “while the public troubles last,” and shutting up the London theatres. From that date onwards to close on 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 previously contemplated. True, the mere discontinuance of stage-plays in England, as an amusement inconsistent with Puritan ideas, and intolerable in the state of the times, cannot, even though Milton approved of such discontinuance (as he doubtless did), have altered his former convictions in favour of the dramatic form of poetry, according to its noblest ancient models,-especially as he could have had no thought, when meditating his Scriptural Tragedies, of adapting them for actual performance.
Such a tragedy as he had meant to write would not have been the least in conflict with the real operative element in the contemporary Puritan antipathy to the Drama. Still the dramatic form itself had fallen into discredit; and there were weaker brethren with whom it would have been useless to reason on the distinction between the Written Drama and the Acted Drama, between the noblest tragedy on the ancient Greek plan and the worst of those English stageplays of the reign of Charles from which the nation had been compelled to desist. Milton does not seem to have been indifferent to this feeling. The tone of his well-known reference to Shakespeare in his Eikovokhaotns, published in 1649,—where Shakespeare is mentioned and quoted as the favourite poet of Charles I.,-suggests that, if he had not then really abated his allegiance to Shakespeare (and only by a gross misconstruction of the passage could there be that inference), he at least agreed so far with the ordinary Puritanism around him as not to think Shakespeare-worship the particular public doctrine then required by the English mind.
For some such reason, among others, Milton, when he set himself at length (1658) to redeem his long-given pledge of a great English poem, and chose for his subject Paradise Lost, deliberately gave up his first intention of treating that subject dramatically. When that poem was given to the world (1667) it was as an epic. Its successor, Paradise Regained, published in 1671, was also an epic.
But, though it was thus as an epic poet that Milton chose mainly and finally to appear before the world, he was so far faithful to his old affection for the Drama as to leave to the world one experiment of his mature art in that form. Samson Agonistes was an attestation that the poet who in his earlier years had written the beautiful pastoral drama of Comus had never ceased to like that form of poesy, but to the last believed it suitable, with modifications, for his severer and sterner purposes. At what time Samson was written is not definitely ascertained; but it was certainly after the Restoration, and probably after 1667. It was published in 1671, in the same volume with Paradise Regained (see title of the volume, etc. in Introd. to Paradise Regained, p. 492). For a time the connexion thus established between Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes was kept up in subsequent editions ; but since 1688 I know of no publication of these two poems together by themselves. There
have been editions of the Samson by itself; but it has generally appeared either in collective editions of all the poems, or in editions of the Minor Poems apart from Paradise Lost.
How came Milton to select such a subject as that of Samson Agonistes for one of his latest poems, if not the very
latest? To this question it is partly an answer to say that the exploits of the Hebrew Samson had long before struck him as capable of treatment in an English tragedy. Among his jottings, in 1640-41, of subjects for possible Scripture Tragedies, we find these two, occurring as the 19th and 20th in the total list,—“Samson Pursophorus or Hybristes, or Samson Marrying, or Ramath-Lechi” (Judges xv.), and “ Dagonalia” (Judges xvi.) That is to say, Milton, in 1640-41, thought there might be two sacred dramas founded on the accounts of Samson's life in the Book of Judges: one on Samson's first marriage with a Philistian woman, and his feuds with the Philistines growing out of that incident, when he was Pursophorus (i.e. The Firebrand-bringer) or Hybristes (i.e. Violent); the other on the closing scene of Samson's life, when he took his final vengeance on the Philistines at their feast to Dagon. These subjects, however, do not seem then to have had such attractions for Milton as some of the others in his list; for they are merely jotted down as above, whereas to some of the others, such as “ Dinah," “ Abram from Morea," and “Sodom," are appended sketches of the plot or hints for the treatment. Why, then, did Milton, in his later life, neglect so many other subjects of which he had kept his early notes, and select so confidently the story of Samson?
The reason is not far to seek ; nor need we seek it in the fact that he had seen Italian, Latin, and even English, poems on the story of Samson, which may have reminded him of the theme. Todd and other commentators have dug up the titles of some such old poems, Latin, Italian, English, and what not, without being able to show that they suggested anything to Milton. More workmanlike, and of more precise interest, is the attempt in Mr. Edmundson's recent little volume entitled Milton and Vondel to prove that Milton, —whom he supposes, as we have already seen, to have been so largely indebted to the contemporary Dutch poet Vondel for help in his Paradise Lost and his Paradise Regained,-availed himself also of the same assistance in his Samson Agonistes. Vondel, it seems,