The short essay that T. S. Eliot wrote in 1936 called “A Note on the Verse of John Milton” may be the most crucially important literary essay written in the 20th century, and none written so far in the 21st century comes even close to matching its influence. This essay is not a declaration or manifesto of Modernism; it is a somewhat polite attack on a decidedly un-Modern poet, John Milton. Eliot begins with two sentences which assert his position:
“While it must be admitted that Milton is a very great poet indeed, it is something of a puzzle to decide in what his greatness consists. On analysis, the marks against him appear both more numerous and more significant than the marks to his credit.“
What are the exact criticisms of Eliot regarding Milton’s verse? Within the essay, Eliot compares Milton unfavorably with William Shakespeare, John Dryden, Henry James, and James Joyce.
Comparing Milton with Shakespeare, Eliot asserts that Milton’s language is ‘artificial and conventional’ He writes that, unlike Shakespeare, “Milton does not infuse new life into the word.”
John Dryden much admired “Paradise Lost”, but he had a problem. Milton was an anti-royalist while Dryden supported the throne. Thus Dryden wrote his own version of the story called “The State of Innocence” in 1674 which actually outsold “Paradise Lost” for the rest of the 17th century. Eliot writes that Dryden’s influence on poetry was healthier than Milton’s, because Dryden preserved “the tradition of conversational language in poetry”.
Then discussing Milton’s ‘tortuous style’, Eliot compares Milton with Henry James. Eliot claims that James’ style, which, like Milton’s was ‘far from lucid simplicity’, achieved a precision in describing the intricacies of the thinking mind. On the other hand the complicated syntax of Milton “is determined by the musical significance, by the auditory imagination, rather than by the actual attempt to follow actual speech or thought.”
I found this comparison of Henry James and John Milton the least convincing of Eliot’s arguments. First I’ve had my own troubles with James’ last four convoluted novels. Secondly I don’t find the musical aspects of Milton’s verse a derogatory quality. However with Eliot I do agree that sometimes Milton forsakes the simplicity and directness of conversational language for a more ‘poetic’ verse. The traits of simplicity and directness of language are probably two of the main goals of Eliot and the other modernists.
In Eliot’s comparison of John Milton and James Joyce, he first states the two men’s numerous similarities which are musical taste and ability, wide and curious knowledge, the gift for acquiring languages, remarkable powers of memory, and defective vision. Eliot focuses on the defective vision of both of these writers. Eliot claims Joyce’s later work “turns away from the visible world” whereas “Milton may be said never to have seen anything.”
Then near the end of the article Eliot states:
“I cannot feel my appreciation of Milton leads anywhere outside the maze of sound.”
I can agree with Eliot to some extent on this remark. Sometimes during my commutes listening to “Paradise Lost”, I would get totally caught up in the rhythm of the words. I was mesmerized by the sound of the words rather than the sense.
The modernists of the early 20th century including T. S. Eliot rebelled against the status quo of John Milton. Milton was the primary influence of poets for 250 years. Eliot does make the point that it is the less talented followers of a great poet who cause the problems. A lot of mediocre poets had followed Milton into the thicket of needlessly obscure verse that sounded ornately ‘poetic’. The Modernists had to attack this tendency by replacing it with writing that was more simple and direct. They largely succeeded so that the plain unadorned style is now the main style, and Miltonic verse has been relegated to history. However today we are beset with many bad poets whose writing is, yes, plain and straightforward, but which has no unique or special sound quality whatsoever.
Is it time for John Milton and Miltonic verse to make a comeback?