Johnson's Milton

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Johnson's Milton

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Joh nson ’s M i lton

Samuel Johnson is often represented as primarily antagonistic or antipathetic to Milton. Yet his imaginative and intellectual engagement with Milton’s life and writing extended across the entire span of his own varied writing career. As essayist, poet, lexicographer, critic, and biographer  – above all as reader  – Johnson developed a controversial, fascinating and productive literary relationship with his powerful predecessor. To understand how Johnson creatively appropriates Milton’s texts, how he critically challenges yet also confirms Milton’s status, and how he constructs him as a biographical ­subject, is to deepen the modern reader’s understanding of both writers in the context of historical continuity and change. Christine Rees’s insightful study will be of interest not only to Milton and Johnson specialists, but to all scholars of early modern literary ­history and biography. c h r i s t i n e r e e s is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London.

Joh nson ’s M i lton C h r is t i n e R e e s


Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Dubai, Tokyo Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York Information on this title: © Christine Rees 2010 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published in print format 2010 ISBN-13


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For Roger


Acknowledgements List of abbreviations

page ix xi

Introduction: Johnson and Milton


Pa r t I  Joh ns on t h e r e a de r / w r i t e r :  a ppropr i at i ng M i lt on’s t e x t s 1 Summoning Milton’s ghost: Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


2 ‘No Miltonian Fire’? Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


3 Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


4 ‘Licence they mean when they cry liberty’: the 1770s tracts


Pa r t II  Joh ns on t h e c r i t ic: a s s e s s i ng M i lt on’s ac h i e v e m e n t  5 ‘Phantoms which cannot be wounded’: the Lauder affair


6 Cutting a Colossus: Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


7 Cherry-stones: Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


Pa r t III  Joh ns on t h e bio g r a ph e r :  c ons t ruc t i ng M i lt on’s c h a r ac t e r 8 ‘An acrimonious and surly republican’: Milton as political subject vii



viii  

‘Domestick privacies’: Milton as private subject Conclusion: ‘what other author ever soared so high?’

Notes Select bibliography Index

    


I owe a lifetime’s gratitude to all those teachers, students, and ­colleagues who have shared with me the pleasures and challenges of studying seventeenth- and eighteenth-century literature, in particular the writings of Milton and Johnson. Among them are friends and former colleagues at King’s College London: I warmly thank Clare Brant, Elizabeth Eger, and Hugh Adlington, for their wit and insight, and especially Rivkah Zim for her constant support, encouragement, and scholarly example. I owe a special debt to David Nokes, whose untimely death is such a loss to eighteenthcentury scholarship, for his appreciative appraisal of my book proposal at a very early stage. I have benefited in many ways from contact with distinguished Johnsonians and Miltonists, including the late Paul J. Korshin, Isobel Grundy, Freya Johnston, Jack Lynch, Pat Rogers, Warren Chernaik, John Creaser, and Martin Dzelzainis. I am grateful to Bruce Redford for his generosity in sending me a copy of his authoritative article on the political tracts at a crucial stage. I am also very grateful for the help of the librarians of the British Library, Senate House Library, University of London, and the Maughan Library, King’s College London. Linda Bree and Maartje Scheltens of Cambridge University Press, and the two anonymous readers for the Press, gave me valuable guidance, and made constructive suggestions from which I profited immensely when revising the book (it should go without saying that the author is responsible for any remaining defects). Part of the material was originally published in The New Rambler and in The Age of Johnson, and I thank the respective editors, Michael Bundock and Jack Lynch, for permission to adapt it. Permission from the National Portrait Gallery to use images of Johnson and Milton, and from Faber and Faber Ltd to quote from Edwin Muir’s sonnet, ‘Milton’, is gratefully acknowledged. I greatly appreciate the less easily measured contribution from members of the Johnson Society of London, who are collectively, under the ix



genial chairmanship of Nicholas Cambridge, a shining example of the sociability and intellectual stimulus that Johnson himself so much valued. Finally, the dedication pays heartfelt tribute to what Johnson said marriage should be: ‘the strictest tie of perpetual friendship’.


BL British Library CEP J. D. Fleeman, ed., Samuel Johnson: The Complete English Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971). CPW D. M. Wolfe et al., eds., The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, 8 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953–82). CSP John Carey, ed., Milton:  Complete Shorter Poems (Harlow, Essex:  Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., Longman Annotated English Poets, 2nd edn., 1997). Dictionary Anne McDermott, ed., Samuel Johnson: A Dictionary of the English Language on CD-ROM. The First and Fourth Editions (Cambridge University Press in association with The University of Birmingham, 1996). Early Lives Helen Darbishire, ed., The Early Lives of Milton (London:  Constable & Co. Ltd., 1932). JM George Birkbeck Hill, ed., Johnsonian Miscellanies (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2 vols., 1897). Johnson: Critical Heritage James T. Boulton, ed., Johnson: The Critical Heritage (London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, Critical Heritage Series, 1971). Letters Bruce Redford, ed., The Letters of Samuel Johnson, Hyde Edition, 5 vols., (vols. I–III, Princeton University Press, 1992; vols. IV–V, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994). xi



Life George Birkbeck Hill, ed., rev. L. F. Powell, Boswell’s Life of Johnson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 6 vols., 1934–50). Lives Roger Lonsdale, ed., Samuel Johnson:  The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on their Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 4 vols., 2006). Milton: Critical Heritage John T. Shawcross, ed., Milton: The Critical Heritage (London:  Routledge & Kegan Paul, Critical Heritage Series, 1970). Milton 1732–1801 John T. Shawcross, ed., Milton 1732– 1801:  The Critical Heritage (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Critical Heritage Series, 1972). PL, 1998 Alastair Fowler, ed., Milton:  Paradise Lost (Harlow, Essex: Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., Longman Annotated English Poets, 2nd edn., 1998). Poems David Nichol Smith and Edward L. McAdam, eds., rev. J. D. Fleeman, The Poems of Samuel Johnson (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 2nd edn., 1974). Yale Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1958–2005):  vols. I–V, VII–X, and XIV, XVI, XVIII. Pe r iodica l s


Age of Johnson Eighteenth-Century Studies Essays in Criticism Journal of English Literary History English Studies Gentleman’s Magazine Huntington Library Quarterly Journal of English and Germanic Philology Milton Quarterly Milton Studies Modern Language Quarterly



MLR Modern Language Review MP Modern Philology N&Q Notes and Queries PQ Philological Quarterly PBSA Publications of the Bibliographical Society of America PMLA Publications of the Modern Language Association of America RES Review of English Studies SEL Studies in English Literature 1500–1900 TLS Times Literary Supplement YES Yearbook of English Studies

Introduction: Johnson and Milton

‘“Milton, Madam, was a genius that could cut a Colossus from a rock; but could not carve heads upon cherry-stones”’ (Life IV. p. 305). Johnson’s metaphor might apply to the range of his own creative engagement with Milton’s work over his career, from the cherry-stones of scattered allusion, comment, and quotation, to the Colossi: the Dictionary, the criticism, the biography. Whatever the scale, he brings the shaping tools of intellect and imagination to a body of material that continues to resist and challenge him. It is impossible for him to ignore an English poet who not only justifies himself to posterity, and before the tribunal of the ancients, but who also claims to justify the ways of God to men. It should also be impossible for readers of either Milton or Johnson (or both) to ignore the confrontation of two of the most important claimants to cultural and literary dominance in their respective centuries. The central issue is one of authority: whether it affects religious or political ideology, the requirements of literary form and genre, the control of the English language, or, possibly most basic of all, the authority over, and responsibility to, the reader. In the grand narrative of literary history in English, Milton and Johnson represent rival paradigms of the literary career, almost exactly a century apart. It was not by accident that each of them became a focus of early modern literary biography. As well as having certain striking biographical parallels in common, and sharing the same foundation of the classical and Judaeo-Christian tradition, they both pose the question of the writer’s claim on his readership – a claim that Johnson has to address in his own reading and assimilation of Milton’s texts. As the anecdotal as well as literary evidence suggests, Johnson is not only deeply familiar with Milton’s life and work  – which we might expect – but his respect for Milton grows over his lifetime, even as his reservations about certain aspects of that life and work become more entrenched. Mrs Thrale’s recollection of his Latin conversation with Abbé 1



Roffette in 1775 may owe something to English patriotism (and her own enthusiasm) but it also records a level of engagement that should not be underestimated: ‘Mr. Johnson pronounced a long eulogium upon Milton with so much ardour, eloquence, and ingenuity, that the Abbé rose from his seat and embraced him’ (JM I. p. 216). While not expecting that all modern Miltonists can be induced to embrace Johnson, I hope in this study to reassess sympathetically a very considerable volume of evidence concerning Johnson’s lengthy, and complicated, relationship with his predecessor – a relationship that involves the interaction of one particularly strong-minded and influential literary genius with another equally powerful. On the whole, though far from exclusively, critics and scholars have tended to define themselves as either Miltonists or Johnsonians: it is a privilege to have a foot in both camps (‘Both them I serve, and of their train am I’). The first part of the book concentrates on Johnson as a reader of Milton, who, like most readers who are also writers, appropriates what he reads in the form of allusion and quotation. The theory of the ways in which literary allusion functions is a complex and sophisticated area of literary criticism. My contention is simply that Miltonic allusion (sometimes mediated through another powerful predecessor, Dryden) is more prevalent in Johnson’s writing than has often been recognised: increased awareness of its presence contributes to an understanding of how Johnson reads, interprets, and recreates Milton’s poetry  – even, occasionally, his prose  – in different contexts. This practice enhances not only his style, but also his arguments on a range of subjects, many of which both writers consider vitally important. In pursuing this aim, I am conscious of, and indebted to, a number of previous critics, who have likewise discovered that remembering Paradise Lost in particular enriches their understanding of Johnson’s poetry or Rasselas. But before considering the poetry and Rasselas, I begin with the periodical essays, which have received less attention from this perspective, and which, I argue, can in some respects modify our view of Johnson’s critical reactions to Milton. Part I ends with a chapter on the 1770s tracts, which show Johnson paradoxically applying Miltonic allusion for political ends. The Dictionary, in the first edition of 1755 and especially the fourth edition of 1773, is clearly a massive resource for Johnson’s appropriation of Milton’s texts; however, I have chosen not to allocate an independent section to it, partly because the sheer quantity of material is overwhelming for a study of this kind – it deserves separate treatment in itself, as the ground-breaking research of Allen Reddick and Anne McDermott testifies  – and partly because it seemed more



a­ ppropriate to use it primarily as an aid to interpreting Johnson’s critical responses to Milton. The criticism is the focus of the second part of the book. It begins with an investigation of the notorious Lauder affair, and what it reveals about Johnson’s attitude to Paradise Lost and its creator at this stage of his career: his role is marked by an ambivalence that characterises his criticism of the epic throughout his life. Central to Part II (and to the whole project) is the following chapter on Johnson’s literary assessment of Paradise Lost, from the Rambler essays on prosody to the extended general analysis of its beauties and defects in the ‘Life of Milton’. In the Rambler essays, he exercises the method of close reading; in the ‘Life’, he addresses fundamental critical questions regarding how, and by what criteria, to judge Milton’s ‘wonderful poem’, questions that have been integral to its reception from the late seventeenth century to the present. This chapter not only enquires into possible reasons for Johnson’s responses, both positive and negative, but also contextualises his commentary in relation to the abundant evidence from other eighteenth-century readers, editors, and commentators, and considers its effect on modern Milton criticism. The next chapter, on his criticism of the shorter poems, follows a similar strategy. Both are based on the principle that Milton is essential to Johnson’s critical thinking, putting his theory and practice to the most rigorous of tests. In turn, Johnson’s assessments have profoundly influenced the subsequent critical history of Milton’s poetry, even or especially when they have provoked violent contradiction (or incredulity). As student, teacher, and indeed examiner, I have long been familiar with the academic practice of using Johnson quotations to stimulate counter-arguments; and it is noticeable that Milton critics are still citing him, if too often in easy dismissal. But Johnson’s emphasis on the importance of the reader, his concern with language and genre, his struggle with the subject of Paradise Lost, and above all his enthrallment by the Miltonic imagination, deserve to be taken seriously by serious readers, all the more so because his is a mind which is not easily subjugated. His criticism raises questions about our current interpretative strategies, and continues to challenge our assumptions. The final part of the book, on Johnson’s biographical construction of Milton as political, private, and literary subject, goes to the heart of his attempt to understand the relation between a great writer and his work. He is a brilliant theorist as well as practitioner of literary biography: his scrutiny of the evidence available to him from earlier lives of Milton is illuminating, and again the nuances of his interpretation can be more exactly defined in the context of other Milton biographies, from the first-hand



accounts, through his eighteenth-century predecessors, to the moderns. Johnson’s well-documented political divergence from his subject complicates but also intensifies his effort to comprehend both the genius and the fallible human being, and he shows himself capable of empathy towards both. At the present time, approximately four centuries after the birth of Milton and three centuries after the birth of Johnson, it seems timely to reconsider a relationship between two classic writers which still has much to say about British literary and political culture, and literary history. From one viewpoint, the relation can be described as an agon, a struggle for authority between two giants of the early modern canon. From another viewpoint, it is a collaboration, establishing the enduring value of that canon, and of their shared tradition of Christian humanism, which – whether it is accepted or rejected – continues to be essential to our historical understanding. Moreover, the subject remains relevant to past, present, and future academic research. Among the distinguished modern scholars whose work has laid the foundations of knowledge about the reception of Milton’s work in the eighteenth century, and Johnson’s view of Milton in particular, are John T. Shawcross, for his Critical Heritage volumes on Milton; Roger Lonsdale, for his edition of Lives of the Poets; Allen Reddick, for his work on Milton in the Dictionary; Bruce Redford, for his study of Milton in the Political Tracts; and Dustin Griffin and Stephen Fix for their seminal critical studies of Johnson and Milton. In conjunction with the magisterial editions of the works of both authors, they have made Johnson’s Milton possible.

Pa r t I

Johnson the reader/writer: appropriating Milton’s texts

Ch apter 1

Summoning Milton’s ghost: Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays

When Johnson was writing the Rambler essays between 1750 and 1752, he had reached that stage of middle life at which Milton, a century previously, was writing in defence of regicide. The gulf between their literary careers and commitments could scarcely seem wider than at this point. Yet for each of them the flexing of their rhetorical muscles in prose marks very powerfully a shared humanism, a sense of the writer’s responsibility in the public domain. The ‘three problems’ which Milton claimed to have addressed in his earlier pamphlets on ‘domestic liberty’  – marriage, education, and ‘the existence of freedom to express oneself ’1  – are ones that also preoccupy Johnson in the work of his maturity. Both are trained to argue, believing that argument in print is fundamental to public discourse. However greatly they diverge in their political principles, they agree on the moral seriousness of what they are doing, and on the writer’s duty to communicate truth as he perceives it. Even if Milton’s prose might be rejected as a model (though not entirely, as we shall see), for Johnson, whether he likes it or not, the fact that Milton’s poetry is so deeply embedded in his own reading experience and in that of his contemporaries turns Milton himself into an inescapable author/authority figure. In addition, his work on the Dictionary during the same period saturates his verbal memory with Milton’s poetic language. The Rambler and the other periodical essays, establishing as they do Johnson’s status as moralist and critic, are a valuable starting point for assessing how he appropriates Miltonic texts. Certainly in these essays Milton emerges as a presence to be reckoned with, visible or invisible. Johnson summons up Milton’s ghost partly as a critic through direct confrontation, as in his own wonderful analogy of Aeneas in the underworld drawing his sword against ‘phantoms which cannot be wounded’ (Yale IV. p. 134); partly through biographical reference; and partly through literary allusion, the most subtle haunting of all. Criticism and biography will be 7


Johnson’s Milton

dealt with at a later stage. The immediate purpose of this chapter is to consider how Milton’s texts infiltrate the periodical essays. It is perhaps not surprising that Johnson like so many others uses the Miltonic currency of quotation and allusion. What is more surprising is the impact and even the frequency of these allusions. In respect of Johnson’s appropriation of texts, to quantify references is not necessarily to indicate their relative importance, but it is worth noting how the Yale editors’ statistics for allusions to early modern authors in the periodicals break down individually.2 Even if we discount the sequence of essays devoted to Milton criticism, it is interesting, indeed startling, to see how prominent Milton is (in comparison, say, with Shakespeare). He and his work appear in a greater variety of contexts than most (possibly any?) of the post-classical authors to whom Johnson alludes. Although Dryden and Pope are quoted more frequently, these citations are bulked up by Johnson’s use of their translations. Of course a number of factors might explain Milton’s presence: his general cultural dominance in the eighteenth century, the precedent of Addison’s Spectator criticism, Johnson’s own immersion in seventeenth-century texts for lexicographical purposes. But added to these must be Johnson’s personal long-standing involvement with reading Milton, and appropriating what he reads. At the very least, his use of allusion registers an intimate knowledge and recall of Milton’s writing, and its transmission through other sources. Like many early modern writers, when Johnson quotes, ‘he frequently, perhaps habitually, quotes from memory’.3 And since he lays exceptional stress on memory as the fundamental intellectual faculty, the indispensable basis of thought itself, the workings of his own memory are particularly revealing. The periodical essay is not a genre that binds the writer to the academic injunction ‘always verify your references’, and, precisely because of this freedom, Johnson’s illustrative borrowings allow glimpses of how he is assimilating Miltonic material into his own writing practice, his own mental habits. Misquotation may indicate even more clearly than absolute accuracy a text lived with, unconsciously adapted, however slightly, to the contours of a different individual literary consciousness. In order to reconstruct Johnson’s Milton as a memory-text, fragmentary as such a construction must be, it is worth looking as closely as possible at these verbal traces where Johnson appropriates his writings either to point a moral or adorn a tale. Unsurprisingly, almost all the direct quotations are from Paradise Lost, although there are a scattering of allusions to the prose and shorter poems. As for so many eighteenth-century writers, it is Milton the epic

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


poet who sets the standard, occupies the generic high ground: he is the competition. Indeed, in the very first number Johnson gestures in the direction of heroic precedents. He invokes epic proems almost enviously, because for the epic poet the problem of where to begin is already settled: confronted by the terror of the blank page or the listening audience, he has the support of convention. Although Johnson does not mention Milton (or any other post-classical poet) by name, he scarcely needs to, for in such a context the author of Paradise Lost  – noted for his ‘spirit and intrepidity’ (Yale III. p. 5) – leaps to mind. In a much later number of The Rambler (158), Johnson will return to the subject of the epic proem, placing Milton in the exalted company of Homer and Virgil in order to contradict Addison’s close reading.4 The requirement of proems is not to be ‘plain, simple, and unadorned’ as Addison asserts, but, rather, to blaze in ‘grandeur of expression’ (Yale V. pp. 78–80). It is clear in retrospect that by linking the opening of The Rambler to epic poetry through allusion, Johnson is at the same time claiming and disclaiming a powerful literary precedent. M i lt on, w r i t i ng, a n d t ru t h The first group of allusions relate directly to Johnson’s consciousness of the writer’s – and the critic’s – responsibility to truth. If proof were needed that Milton’s epic is not far from Johnson’s mind in these early stages of his new literary project, it is provided by the fact that his first explicit quotation from Paradise Lost occurs in number 3, an essay that continues his preoccupation with the difficulties that the writer has to confront. Here he widens his remit to include the critic, a major creation in The Rambler, and one who is by no means always on the side of the angels.5 In his allegory of true Criticism, ‘the eldest daughter of Labour and of Truth’, who has departed from this earth, Johnson glances at the classic mythical paradigm of Astraea (Yale III. pp. 16, 18). But his sardonic description of the current state of criticism, embarrassingly for its practitioners, locates it in the company of Milton’s Satan and his fallen angels. Hell is other critics. At best, they practise Flattery like Belial, politicising and prostituting favourable judgements; at worst, they exercise Malevolence like Beelzebub, the motive force of hellish malignity. The original authority of true Criticism is divided and travestied. Instead of the impartial torch of Truth,


Johnson’s Milton The companions of Malevolence were supplied by the Furies with a torch, which had this quality peculiar to infernal lustre, that its light fell only upon faults.   No light, but rather darkness visible   Serv’d only to discover sights of woe.

Paradise Lost, I. lines 63–4 Yale III. p.18

Johnson is not prone to allude to hell frivolously. The phrase ‘darkness visible’ has haunted generations of readers and writers. Here Johnson applies it to the profession that unites reading and writing – literary criticism – to drive home the point that entirely destructive criticism is damning, and therefore damnable, in a more than colloquial sense. He develops his analysis of the function of criticism in The Rambler the following year, and again in these later issues the shade of Milton seems not far distant. In the midst of his irregular sequence of critical essays on Milton’s versification, he revisits in Rambler 93 the subject of the critic’s responsibility to both writer and reader, in what seems like a less dramatic reprise of Rambler 3. Whereas in his early allegory Johnson had deliberately demonised the critic’s power, in Rambler 93 he humanises it: ‘Criticks, like all the rest of mankind, are very frequently misled by interest’ (Yale IV. p. 132). If the critic is accountable to truth above all, with a responsibility to both writer and reader as a kind of honest broker between them, all too often in his modern incarnation he acts as a dishonest broker and betrays his trust. No-one is more conscious than Johnson of the fact that literary criticism is bedevilled – a verb he might take literally – by subjectivity, that the critic has many motives, and that the critic’s temptation is to exercise power without responsibility. He recognises that negative criticism provokes a backlash just because it ‘has so often given occasion to the envious and ill-natured of gratifying their malignity’ (Yale IV. p. 133). But the solution does not lie in the opposite extreme, undue deference to the writer’s authority or sensibility. To write is to enter a potentially adversarial relationship with readers and critics, and, in the case of dead authors, ‘the critic is, undoubtedly, at full liberty to exercise the strictest severity’ (Yale IV. p. 134). Interestingly, at this point he displaces the evocation of Milton’s biblical hell in Rambler 3 with Virgil’s classical underworld. The distinction between living and dead authors is the crux at which he introduces the Virgilian image, already alluded to, of ‘phantoms which cannot be wounded’ (contrast Milton’s hell, where the pain of the fallen angels is integral to their intellectual being). However, it is at the conclusion of this essay that Johnson most emphatically rewrites his earlier rhetoric in

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


Rambler 3, substituting ‘the light of reason’ for ‘infernal lustre’, Milton’s ‘darkness visible’: the duty of criticism is neither to depreciate, nor dignify by partial representations, but to hold out the light of reason, whatever it may discover; and to promulgate the determinations of truth, whatever she shall dictate. (Yale IV. p. 134)

Perhaps it is not coincidental that in the previous issue of The Rambler (92), where Johnson had also been reflecting on ‘the duty of criticism’, he seems to have remembered Areopagitica, since that is the text in which Milton expresses most eloquently the power of the printed word and the necessity ‘to promulgate the determinations of truth, whatever she shall dictate’. He does in any case make reference to Milton’s poetics in that issue, since this is one of the essays devoted to considering versification. But a particular allusion to Areopagitica has been identified in this passage: It is, however, the task of criticism to establish principles; to improve opinion into knowledge; and to distinguish those means of pleasing which depend upon known causes and rational deduction, from the nameless and inexplicable elegancies which appeal wholly to the fancy, from which we feel delight, but know not how they produce it, and which may well be termed the enchantresses of the soul. (Yale IV. p. 122)

The phrase singled out is ‘to improve opinion into knowledge’ (Johnson originally used ‘exalt’); arguably the whole sentence has a Miltonic flavour, especially in the Circean metaphor ‘enchantresses of the soul’. Johnson is addressing a problem in aesthetics, much canvassed in the mid-eighteenth century, which also presents itself as a problem of epistemology. How can we know what is beautiful and true, and is it possible to progress beyond purely subjective criteria? He argues that criticism as a discipline can indeed liberate us from a pleasure that is irrational, and contingent upon what is ‘merely relative and comparative’; that it can attain to a rationally based truth, ‘under the dominion of science’ (Yale IV. pp. 121, 122). Although Milton in Areopagitica does not concern himself primarily with aesthetics, he too envisages literary activity as a quest for truth, discoverable through the processes of writing and reading: ‘to be still searching what we know not, by what we know, still closing up truth to truth as we find it (for all her body is homogeneal, and proportionall) this is the golden rule …’ (CPW II. p. 551). He imaginatively projects the London of 1644 as a hive of intellectual activity, crammed with ‘pens and heads … sitting by their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and idea’s … others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement’. In short, ‘where there is much desire to learn,


Johnson’s Milton

there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making’ (CPW II. p. 554). It is this ‘striking idea of improving opinion into knowledge’6 that Johnson appears to borrow from Milton and endorse. As I have argued elsewhere,7 Rambler 96 (published a fortnight later) can also be profitably read against the template of Areopagitica. In this essay, the trope of personified Truth is familiar and traditional; Johnson handles it in allegorical mode, as Milton had done. Unlike Milton, however, he keeps the framework consistently classical, not Christian, avoiding the mingling of ‘trifling fictions’ with ‘the most awful and sacred truths’ which so disquiets him in Lycidas (Lives I. p. 279). Yet there is a distinct family likeness between the opening of Milton’s myth of Truth and Johnson’s, as if Johnson is rewriting Areopagitica at this point: Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on …

Areopagitica, CPW II. p. 549

When the world was yet in its infancy, Truth came among mortals from above, and Falsehood from below. Truth was the daughter of Jupiter and Wisdom; Falsehood was the progeny of Folly impregnated by the wind.

Yale IV. p. 149

Interestingly, the Yale editors compare Falsehood’s genealogy not only with a Spenserian analogue but also with the first lines of Milton’s Il Penseroso – ‘Hence vain deluding joyes, / The brood of folly without father bred’ (although it is actually Euphrosyne of L’Allegro whose mother Aurora is said to be impregnated by Zephyr – apparently a Miltonic invention).8 To take the Miltonic allusion in a different direction, away from the pagan fictions for which Johnson shows frequent distaste, it seems likely that Johnson models his Truth on Milton’s figure in Areopagitica, but that he deliberately creates a rational secular version, without the compelling mystical dimension of the Christian incarnation combined with the Osiris myth. Milton’s Truth suffers martyrdom in this world; her fate in human history is to be sacrificed like her divine master, and dismembered like Osiris by her enemies. Johnson’s Truth initially bestrides the world, a martial and irresistible force: Truth seemed conscious of superior power and juster claim [than Falsehood’s], and therefore came on towering and majestick, unassisted and alone; Reason indeed always attended her, but appeared her follower, rather than companion. Her march was slow and stately, but her motion

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


was perpetually progressive, and when once she had grounded her foot, neither gods nor men could force her to retire. Yale IV. p. 150

Initially Milton’s Truth appears the more vulnerable  – Johnson’s Truth ‘though she was often wounded, always recovered in a short time’ (Yale IV. p. 151) – yet when it comes to the direct confrontation between Truth and Falsehood, neither writer doubts the ultimate outcome. The closest parallel occurs in their depiction not of Truth martyred but of Truth militant. It is difficult to believe that Johnson did not recall, consciously or unconsciously, Milton’s later passage in Areopagitica when devising his own allegory of (in Milton’s phrase) ‘the wars of Truth’. Certainly Milton is here writing to a specific historical moment, but the corollary is one that Johnson can perceive as universal: And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter … For who knows not that Truth is strong next to the Almighty; she needs no policies, nor stratagems, nor licencings to make her victorious, those are the shifts and the defences that error uses against her power: give her but room, & do not bind her when she sleeps, for then she speaks not true, as the old Proteus did, who spake oracles only when he was caught & bound, but then rather she turns herself into all shapes, except her own, and perhaps tunes her voice according to the time … untill she be adjur’d into her own likenes. (CPW II. pp. 561, 562–3)

Yet this shape-changing Truth is still truth, as Milton is made to concede for his own rhetorical purposes: ‘Yet is it not impossible that she may have more shapes than one [my italics].’ Indeed she does in Milton’s own rhetorical fictions. Johnson likewise imagines an armed contest between Truth and Falsehood, in which Falsehood has recourse to evasions and stratagems: It sometimes happened that the antagonists met in full opposition. … … [Falsehood] always endeavoured to skirmish at a distance, perpetually shifted her ground, and let fly her arrows in different directions; for she certainly found that her strength failed, whenever the eye of Truth darted full upon her. Truth had the awful aspect though not the thunder of her father … (Yale IV. pp. 150–1)

Having described the vicissitudes of the conflict, Johnson makes it clear that, while Truth’s ultimate victory is not in doubt – ‘Truth, however, did not grow weaker by the struggle, for her vigour was unconquerable’ (Yale IV. p. 152)  – nevertheless she can be frustrated; in a parallel to his own


Johnson’s Milton

allegory of Criticism, he has her asking her divine father to let her abandon humanity and return to the heaven which is her home. So far, Johnson has been playing variations on Miltonic and classical motifs. But at this point the allegory takes an individual turn, apparently swerving away from Milton’s more eschatological myth-making in Areopagitica. The solution to humanity’s recalcitrance is to make Truth herself more alluring: in effect, she steals Falsehood’s clothes: The Muses wove in the loom of Pallas, a loose and changeable robe, like that in which Falsehood captivated her admirers; with this they invested Truth, and named her Fiction. She now went out again to conquer with more success; for when she demanded entrance of the Passions, they often mistook her for Falsehood, and delivered up their charge; but when she had once taken possession, she was soon disrobed by Reason, and shone out, in her original form, with native effulgence and resistless dignity. (Yale IV. p. 152)

Even this narrative development may have grown from a seed sown in Johnson’s reading of Milton’s prose. For Milton’s idea of a Protean Truth that, unlike Proteus, speaks what her auditors wish to hear, ‘tunes her voice according to the time … untill she be adjur’d into her own likenes’, suggests, mutatis mutandis, the same narrative of disguise, accommodation, and revelation as Johnson’s truth-as-fiction. Johnson may also recall Milton’s other earlier allegory of Truth and Falsehood in The Reason of Church Government (1642) which exhibits certain striking parallels with Rambler 96. For example, Johnson’s Truth invested in ‘a loose and changeable robe, like that in which Falsehood captivated her admirers’ reflects Milton’s image of Truth ‘habited and colour’d like a notorious Falshood’. (CPW I. p. 830) Yet each fiction is shaped by a different cultural ideology. If Johnson is reworking Milton’s original, he stamps it with a distinctively eighteenth­century imprint. He secularises and rationalises his discourse, so that, in place of the intense and volatile situation that Milton is attempting to influence by his polemical prose, the reader can sense a more polite and stable social context, in which fiction – in the shape of novels, fables, or romances – has come to dominate much literary activity. Johnson is writing for consumers, not controversialists, and his approach is more obviously worldly than Milton’s. Nonetheless, the seventeenth-century polemicist and the eighteenth-century essayist unite in one fundamental conviction: that truth will prevail, and that her wars are fought with the weapons of the printed word. The conclusion that might be drawn from Johnson’s use of Miltonic allusion in the Rambler essays just discussed, which have a common denominator of attending to principles that Johnson, like Milton, takes very seriously, is that he practises what he preaches. He will not allow any

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


personal critical bias to interfere with his recognition that the critic’s first responsibility is to literature and to truth. That being so, Milton’s authority (rather than being challenged) reinforces Johnson’s own arguments. ‘H u m a n i n t e r e s t ’ Not all the Milton allusions in The Rambler are on this conceptual level. They surface in contexts where Johnson’s morality is of a more down-toearth variety, or where he is as much concerned with adorning a tale as with pointing a moral. Notoriously, Johnson criticised Paradise Lost in the ‘Life of Milton’ for its ‘want of human interest’ (Lives I. p. 290). But he delivered that verdict over a quarter of a century after composing the Rambler essays: a survey of his allusions to Paradise Lost in The Rambler and the later periodical essays suggests that Johnson could and did respond to what can only be described as human interest in sections of Milton’s epic. If he wrests at least a few of these verbal echoes into contexts far removed from, or even incongruous with, their original settings, that further proves how far he has creatively assimilated the material. To begin with a minor example: writing on the theme of good humour in Rambler 72, he cherrypicks a phrase – ‘balm of life’ – from Paradise Lost XI. line 546, altering it to the alliterative ‘balm of being’. Probably the alliteration results from a common trick of memory (a classic instance is the familiar misremembering of Milton’s ‘fresh woods, and pastures new’ from Lycidas, line 193, as ‘fresh fields and pastures new’). More interesting is how Johnson applies it in a supposed letter addressed to the Rambler: You have … hitherto neglected to recommend good humour to the world, though a little reflection will shew you that it is the “balm of being,” the quality to which all that adorns or elevates mankind must owe its power of pleasing. (Yale IV. pp. 12–13)

What may have originally attracted Johnson’s attention to the source, however, is a much more melancholy association with ageing. The archangel Michael explains to Adam (in a disquisition surely remembered by Johnson when he wrote The Vanity of Human Wishes), that even the most temperate and gracious old age is subject to physical incapacity and depression: … and for the air of youth Hopeful and cheerful, in thy blood will reign A melancholy damp of cold and dry To weigh thy spirits down, and last consume The balm of life.

Paradise Lost XI. lines 542–6


Johnson’s Milton

Unusually for him, Johnson turns a negative into a positive, to ­recommend the virtue of good humour as one that sweetens everything else in life. In a way, it constitutes an ironic misappropriation. The Johnson of the ‘Life’ is more inclined to associate Milton with ‘gloomy seriousness’ than with good humour (Lives I. p. 251). In the capacity for good-humoured comedy, as in other respects, Shakespeare must have appeared to Johnson as Milton’s antithesis.9 In fact, later in this essay Johnson summons up his favourite Falstaff as the exemplar ‘of the chearful companion’ (Yale IV. p. 15). Yet, against all likelihood, it is Milton who contributes a fragment to the mosaic celebrating the most agreeably human of virtues. Much more characteristic are those occasions in the periodical essays when Johnson borrows from Milton to intensify a painful emotion or association. One such instance is his beginning a sombre meditation on dependence, in particular the dependence of old age, with an allusion not in this case to Paradise Lost but to Samson Agonistes (Rambler 162). This touches a nerve because Johnson is imagining a state he dreads, and vicariously experiencing it through empathising with a dramatic character and situation: One of the complaints uttered by Milton’s Sampson, in the anguish of blindness, is, that he shall pass his life under the direction of others; that he cannot regulate his conduct by his own knowledge, but must lie at the mercy of those who undertake to guide him. (Yale V. p. 95)

Though Johnson always has an ability to feel a text on his pulses, as his childhood reaction to Hamlet and adult reaction to King Lear testify, nevertheless it is striking that Samson Agonistes, a text that he seems scarcely to value as tragedy, can also activate a powerful sense of human solidarity in suffering. To adapt his own dictum, there is indeed always an appeal open from criticism to nature. He inserts another example of ‘human interest’, this time from Paradise Lost, in a first-person narrative in which Misella traces her fall from innocence (Rambler 170 and 171). When her parents, of good breeding but with too many children to support, give up their child to adoption by a rich relative to whom she has ‘endeared [herself] by [her] innocence,’ the parents’ tears are compared to those shed by our first parents, Adam and Eve, over the loss of paradise: My parents felt the common struggles at the thought of parting, and “some natural tears they dropp’d, but wip’d them soon”. (Yale V. p. 136)

The irony is proleptic, because the child falls from the world of innocence to experience, and, ultimately, prostitution. Indeed this rehearses an all too familiar eighteenth-century tale, a harlot’s progress; but Johnson’s

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


allusion to the famous ending of the epic reminds the reader that these ‘common struggles’ re-enact an archetypal event. Perhaps not altogether successfully: the contemporary fiction softens the force of the quotation, and runs the risk of sentimentalising it, especially since the moral of the tale is so overtly that of the lovely woman who stoops to folly. Somewhere in the wings lurks the Vicar of Wakefield, waiting for his cue to enter literary history. We need to look elsewhere in The Rambler for Johnson’s more profound engagement with the humanity of Paradise Lost. If we look at the other evidence for Johnson as a sympathetic reader of Paradise Lost at the time of writing the periodical essays, it becomes apparent that he is attracted precisely to those parts of the poem that deal directly with accessible human sentiment (or that can be adapted to human sentiment). He only quotes from books that are set before the Fall, where ‘The man and woman … are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know’ (Lives I. p. 289), if he can meaningfully connect that state with the fallen human condition; for instance, the episode of Eve’s dream. In the ‘Life of Milton’, he would later observe that Milton could hardly create a prelapsarian discourse without reference to postlapsarian psychology: To find sentiments for the state of innocence, was very difficult; and something of anticipation perhaps is now and then discovered. Adam’s discourse of dreams seems not to be the speculation of a new-created being. (Lives I. p. 291)

Much earlier, in Rambler 8, he had demonstrated the truth of this observation by adapting Adam’s lines to a psychoanalytical problem endemic in fallen humanity, the difficulty of maintaining ‘the moral discipline of the mind’ under the temptations of solitary fantasising. Johnson pushes this anxiety to an extreme, where it topples over into the malady of excessive scrupulosity (Johnson was ‘no friend to scruples’ from which he himself suffered):10 But I cannot forbear … to caution pious and tender minds, that are disturbed by the irruptions of wicked imaginations, against too great dejection, and too anxious alarms; for thoughts are only criminal, when they are first chosen, and then voluntarily continued. Evil into the mind of god or man May come and go, so unapprov’d, and leave No spot or stain behind.

Paradise Lost V. lines 117–19 Yale III. p. 45

Johnson’s memory substitutes ‘No spot or stain’ for the original text’s wording ‘No spot or blame’: again this may simply arise from the mnemonic trick of alliterative quotation. On the other hand, it may be something of


Johnson’s Milton

a Freudian slip, pleonastically reinforcing the metaphor of contamination, and replacing the more external judgement implied in ‘blame’. Johnson, no stranger to ‘the irruptions of wicked imaginations’, seems to speak for himself here. But if Mrs Thrale accurately reports his words to her on one occasion, then he did not always benefit from his own reassuring application of Adam’s lines: ‘“Make your boy tell you his dreams: the first ­corruption that entered into my heart was communicated in a dream”’(JM I. p. 159). When he once more confronts the consciousness of sin and guilt in Rambler 110, composed during the Easter season of 1751, he is solaced by another passage from Paradise Lost with its moving summons to human repentance in the hope of divine forgiveness: What better can we do, than to the place Repairing where he judged us, prostrate fall Before him reverent, and there confess Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tears Watering the ground, and with our sighs the air Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign Of sorrow unfeigned, and humiliation meek.

Paradise Lost X. lines 1086–92

Like a piece of music, the entire essay moves gravely towards this beautiful coda: Adam and Eve, fallen yet still in paradise, turning to God in penitence. The burden of Johnson’s meditation is the need for, and nature of, true repentance, and the hope of God’s mercy. For him this is a subject that collects and concentrates all his religious emotion, in expressing not only the transcendental hopes and fears which he believes to be universal – ‘since all rational agents are conscious of having neglected or violated the duties prescribed to them, the fear of being rejected, or punished by God, has always burdened the human mind’ – but also the pragmatic consequences of faith in human lives: That God will forgive, may, indeed, be established as the first and fundamental truth of religion; for though the knowledge of his existence is the origin of philosophy, yet, without the belief of his mercy, it would have little influence upon our mortal conduct. (Yale IV. p. 221)

Writing on how the prospect of death and damnation ought to affect the being ‘whose crimes have deprived him of the favour of God’ stimulates Johnson to an almost Miltonic rhetoric as he imagines the terror of the abyss: if he who considers himself as suspended over the abyss of eternal perdition only by the thread of life, which must soon part by its own weakness, and which the

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


wing of every minute may divide, can cast his eyes round him without shuddering with horror, or panting for security; what can he judge of himself but that he is not yet awaked to sufficient conviction …? (Yale IV. p. 224)

Yet Johnson refrains from the expected comparison with ‘the wasteful deep’ into which Milton’s fallen angels hurl themselves (Paradise Lost X. line 862). In fact, when he actually turns to the text of Paradise Lost, it is not Milton’s sublimity, his capacity for ‘enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful’ (Lives I. p. 286) that gives him his climax, but (again) the ‘human interest’ of the description of Adam and Eve waking to conviction of guilt – a passage that Milton himself thought so important that it is reprised as the climax of Book X.11 In this connection, it is worth observing how comparatively rare it is for Johnson to end a Rambler essay with a quotation. Out of 208 issues, he chooses to do so only seven times, and in four of these instances (numbers 11, 17, 118, and the final issue, 208) he is still, in a sense, using his own words, since he is translating from classical sources. Of the remaining three instances, two end with biblical quotations, also a rare occurrence in Johnson’s essay-writing compared to his quoting from secular sources. That leaves this Milton quotation as the sole example of Johnson’s using a nonclassical and non-scriptural closure that is not his own. Since Johnson, like Milton, crafts his endings with consummate skill to leave a powerful and lasting impact on the reader, the inference is that he does indeed accord a special status and authority to the text of Paradise Lost. To adopt these lines at the end of this profoundly felt essay is to pay serious homage to Milton’s religious inspiration. Moreover, as Stephen Fix points out when citing this essay to support his contention that Johnson makes devotional use of Paradise Lost,12 the source is unattributed. Johnson segues into the coda as if it were part of his original text, albeit in verse not prose: What better can we do, than prostrate fall Before him reverent; and there confess Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tears Wat’ring the ground, and with our sighs the air Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek?

Yale IV. pp. 225–6

Obviously he has the verses by heart; he does not need to look them up. But he also lays claim to the passage by changing it slightly, omitting the words ‘to the place/ Repairing where he judged us …’ but preserving the line-break and the sense. This may not be entirely accidental, a mere memory lapse. We retain what is important to us, and for Johnson place is not the most important thing. Possibly the reference to place drops out


Johnson’s Milton

because it seems redundant, focusing too much attention on the original and unique situation of Adam and Eve instead of facilitating the reader’s – and writer’s – identification with emotions and actions both intimate and universal. It would be like Johnson to feel penitence – like happiness – not local.13 Something similar happens with another allusion to the experience of the fallen Adam, which reinforces the argument that Johnson does read Paradise Lost for human interest as he understands it, quarrying the text for whatever insights he can adapt to his own reflections. In Rambler 78, he is considering how human beings have become desensitised to the fact of their mortality: Milton has judiciously represented the father of mankind, as seized with horror and astonishment at the sight of death, exhibited to him on the mount of vision. For surely, nothing can so much disturb the passions, or perplex the intellects of man, as the disruption of his union with visible nature; a separation from all that has hitherto delighted or engaged him; a change not only of the place, but the manner of his being; an entrance into a state not simply which he knows not, but which perhaps he has not faculties to know; an immediate and perceptible communication with the supreme Being, and, what is above all distressful and alarming, the final sentence, and unalterable allotment. (Yale IV. p. 47)

Johnson’s own well-known horror at the prospect of death and judgement breaks through his measured prose, and causes him to elaborate and reinterpret his source. In Paradise Lost Adam cries out in anguish: But have I now seen death? Is this the way I must return to native dust? Oh sight Of terror, foul and ugly to behold, Horrid to think, how horrible to feel!

Paradise Lost XI. lines 462–514

However, what Johnson leaves out is that Milton’s Adam is not just reacting to his first, vicarious experience of human mortality, but is witnessing the murder of one of his sons by another, the first death by human violence which ‘hath the primal eldest curse upon’t’ (Hamlet, III.iii.37). True, this creates the opportunity for the archangel Michael’s grim general summary of all the ills that flesh is heir to, including the disquisition on old age to which Johnson had alluded in his Rambler essay of three weeks before; but what prompts this angelic homily is an individual, and tragic, act. By universalising Adam’s ‘horror and astonishment at the sight of death’, Johnson detaches the emotion from its original context, as he had to a lesser extent with Adam’s penitence. He does this so that he can shock us out of our conspiracy of indifference to our mortal state – familiarity, he

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


argues, has dulled our consciousness. Milton’s text acts as a memento mori. He concludes this essay by advising us ‘to accustom ourselves, whenever we see a funeral, to consider how soon we may be added to the number of those whose probation is past, and whose happiness or misery shall endure for ever’ (Yale IV. p. 50). If reading the last books of Paradise Lost makes Johnson himself face up to his own mortality, it provides another reason for his finding this reading experience painful rather than pleasurable. ‘Human interest’ in Paradise Lost comes in various guises however – not all of which are strictly human. If Johnson can empathise with Adam, the interesting question is whether the same imaginative involvement occurs when Johnson encounters Milton’s Satan, the creation that more than any other has given many of Milton’s readers the addictive fix of ‘human interest’ that in Johnson’s view makes us readers in the first place.15 In The Rambler, Johnson appears to neglect the possibilities of Satanic allusion. Yet, in the periodical essays taken as a whole, there is only one quotation from Paradise Lost that is actually repeated, and that is Satan’s address to the sun, ‘O sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams …’ (Paradise Lost IV. line 37). As Johnson knew, this soliloquy is supposed to be part of the earliest stratum of the poem’s composition,16 and it is one that has always been crucial to readers and critics of Paradise Lost in the interpretation of Satan’s role and rhetoric. In the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson tends to evade the problem of Satan’s imaginative hold over the reader, rejecting John Clarke’s objections to satanic impiety simply by counter-assertion rather than demonstration. Certainly he sees the problem, but he dismisses it (Lives I. p. 284). Yet Johnson might have been more affected by satanic rhetoric than he would admit, at least in this particular instance. This suspicion is not necessarily dispelled by the apparently trivial contexts in which he uses the quotation. In both the essays from The Adventurer and The Idler, Johnson resorts to his frequent fictional techniques:  Adventurer 102 consists of a merchant’s tale in epistolary form; Idler 31 incorporates a generic literary ‘character’, Mr Sober, whom Mrs Thrale claimed to be a self-portrait of Johnson (Yale II. p. 97, note 5). The shared subject of the essays (that of idleness) might sufficiently account for the recycled quotation. To any reader unfamiliar with Johnson’s psychology and habits, it appears simply as a witticism. What prompts the Milton borrowing in each case is the thought of getting up in the morning. In Adventurer 102, the once bustling and happy London trader, stranded out of his element in country tedium, nostalgically recalls his previous earlyrising routine, and laments ‘I now seldom see the rising sun, but “to tell


Johnson’s Milton

him,” with the fallen angel, “how I hate his beams”’ (Yale II. p. 438). In Idler 31, Johnson first classifies the species, not the individual: There are some that profess idleness in its full dignity … who boast that they do nothing, and thank their stars that they have nothing to do; who sleep every night till they can sleep no longer, and rise only that exercise may enable them to sleep again; who prolong the reign of darkness by double curtains, and never see the sun but to “tell him how they hate his beams” … (Yale II. pp. 95–6)

From the sublime to the ridiculous? To ‘prolong the reign of darkness’ with double curtains scarcely equates with the self-damnation of fallen angels, or even men who love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil (John 3:19). Yet for Johnson the struggle with idleness, focused on his lifelong difficulty with early rising, is essentially a sickness of the spirit, or accidie. Throughout his recorded prayers and resolutions, the same motif recurs, as he castigates himself for sloth and constantly renews his attempts to regularise his daily life. To associate this struggle with Satan’s blasphemy against God’s radiant creation17 is on one level comically pretentious. But possibly Johnson means it more seriously when he aligns idleness with the traditionally satanic sin of pride in Idler 31: It is not my intention to degrade pride from this pre-eminence of mischief, yet I know not whether idleness may not maintain a very doubtful and obstinate competition. (Yale II. p. 95)

Idleness – which can also take the form of futile activity – may well bring Milton’s Satan to Johnson’s memory: not just because ‘Satan finds some mischief still, / For idle hands to do’, in the words of Johnson’s earlier contemporary, Isaac Watts,18 but also because it is a form of blasphemy, a destruction of God-given time and talent. The psychoanalytically-inclined reader might suspect a subliminal emotional identification with Milton’s Satan, of the kind that Johnson appears to resist so easily in his remarks in the ‘Life of Milton’. Through appropriating Satan’s words, apparently light-heartedly, Johnson can express aggression, negativity, fear, all the anti-God impulse that consciousness suppresses. Hatred of the sun may sublimate a fundamental self-hatred; in the original context Satan’s outburst also violently rejects the creation and the Creator, a rejection driven by both pride and despair. For Johnson, Milton’s text may suggest a way to articulate inadmissible feelings, to dramatise the guilt of a depressive mentality confronted with the inexorable daily inrush of renewed consciousness. Johnson wrenches the text bizarrely from its source, yoking heterogeneous ideas by violence together in a stroke of wit. In the essays he makes the application obliquely and defensively, by turning Satan’s line into a joke. But the joke is ultimately

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


against himself, and one that is too good – and perhaps too bitter – to ­forget. According to Boswell, in the last year of his life he is still cracking it:19 It was observed to Dr. Johnson, that it seemed strange that he, who has so often delighted his company by his lively and brilliant conversation, should say he was miserable. JOHNSON. “Alas! it is all outside; I may be cracking my joke, and cursing the sun. Sun, how I hate thy beams!”

The contrast between inward and outward state, even the narrowness of the dividing line between curse and black humour, is strongly reminiscent of Milton’s Satan. Interestingly, Boswell does not know quite how to take Johnson in this mood: I knew not well what to think of this declaration; whether to hold it as a genuine picture of his mind … (Life IV. p. 304)

No such ambivalence attaches to Johnson’s final allusion to the ‘human interest’ of Paradise Lost in the Rambler essays. Judging from his silence, here and in the ‘Life of Milton’, there are areas of the poem that inhibit him from quotation or direct allusion (nowhere in the periodical writings does he quote from or allude to Milton’s God). But angelic wisdom is accessible to him, and in this instance it epitomises what Johnson finds most humanly and ethically valuable in the entire epic. Again he selects an episode that has a direct bearing on how to live in the fallen world; again it involves the education of Adam, although in narrative terms it precedes the Fall itself. In fact, later in the ‘Life of Milton’ he singles out two passages precisely for their moral relevance: 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. Its end is to raise the thoughts above sublunary cares or pleasures. Yet the praise of that fortitude, with which Abdiel maintained his singularity of virtue against the scorn of multitudes, may be accommodated to all times; and Raphael’s reproof of Adam’s curiosity after the planetary motions, with the answer returned by Adam, may be confidently opposed to any rule of life which any poet has delivered. (Lives I. p. 286)

It is this second example that Johnson appropriates in Rambler 180, to drive home the point that he makes in so many contexts: that the highest priorities in living are moral and spiritual rather than intellectual. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole academic world and lose his own soul?: Raphael, in return to Adam’s enquiries into the courses of the stars and the revolutions of heaven, counsels him to withdraw his mind from idle speculations, and


Johnson’s Milton

employ his faculties upon nearer and more interesting objects, the survey of his own life, the subjection of his passions, the knowledge of duties which must daily be performed, and the detection of dangers which must daily be incurred. This angelick counsel every man of letters should always have before him. He that devotes himself to retired study, naturally sinks from omission to forgetfulness of social duties; he must be therefore sometimes awakened, and recalled to the general condition of mankind. (Yale V. p. 183)

Given Johnson’s estimate of Milton the man, there is something ironic in his turning to Paradise Lost to support an argument that the writer must not isolate himself from human contact. Nevertheless, Raphael’s ‘angelick counsel’ strongly appeals to eighteenth-century moralists besides Johnson, and the reader encounters its echo elsewhere in Johnson’s own writings, notably Rasselas.20 Not all Milton critics have found Raphael’s reproof to be quite so unproblematic as Johnson seems to imply. Yet Johnson, like Milton himself, holds a balance between the advancement of knowledge in investigating the secrets of the universe and theological constraints on the desire to know and control nature.21 Johnson has no desire to clip the wings of intellect as it soars in the rarified atmosphere of pure theory: I am far from any intention to limit curiosity … It is only from the various essays of experimental industry, and the vague excursions of minds sent out upon discovery, that any advancement of knowledge can be expected …

Yale V. p. 183

His ideal is an intellectual heroism, which he contrasts with martial heroism: arguably, this essay works out Johnson’s own variation on Milton’s ‘better fortitude’ that ensures ‘a paradise within’. And the ultimate and only means of achieving this inner paradise – as at the end of The Vanity of Human Wishes – is to gaze steadfastly ‘upon the permanent lustre of moral and religious truth’ (Yale V. p. 186). ‘T h roug h t h e spe c tac l e s of b o ok s’ If Johnson as reader locks on to a ‘human interest’ in Paradise Lost that Johnson the critic largely denies or resists, there is evidence in the essays of another kind of interest that is even more unexpected – an interest in passages of natural description. Here too, the reader and the critic in Johnson seem potentially in conflict. He certainly gives the impression in the ‘Life of Milton’ that he does not consider ‘images and descriptions of the scenes or operations of Nature’ to be altogether Milton’s forte. In fact, he implies

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


a detrimental contrast with Shakespeare in this respect, by deliberately ­reversing Dryden’s verdict on Shakespeare in order to apply it to Milton. Milton, he asserts, ‘saw Nature … through the spectacles of books’ (Lives I. p. 287).22 Once more, however, this illustrates that it is necessary to be wary before backdating Johnson’s later critical commentary to his practice as reader and writer at the time of the periodical essays. For various reasons, Johnson himself sees nature – in the sense of the natural world – through the spectacles of books. After all, the point of wearing spectacles is to improve or correct deficiencies in unaided sight. Ironically, one of the finest eighteenthcentury English naturalists, Gilbert White, quotes Milton on several occasions to enhance perception of the natural world.23 In Johnson’s case, it is even more ironic that he should calmly borrow Milton’s spectacles when it suits him. This is apparent in two overlapping kinds of writing about nature in the periodical essays: first, when Johnson writes about pastoral (nature as literary construct); second, when he writes about country life (nature as human environment), especially from the viewpoint of urban inhabitants, like Johnson himself (and, for that matter, like Milton for much of his life). The periodical essays on pastoral (Rambler 36 and 37 and Adventurer 92) will be discussed more fully in the context of Johnson’s Lycidas criticism. As regards Miltonic allusion, it is interesting that in the two Rambler essays Lycidas is, so to speak, the dog that doesn’t bark in the night:  Johnson makes a critical example of Spenser (Yale III. p. 203), but no overt negative comment on Milton’s elegy (though the essay seems to shriek ‘Lycidas’ at Johnson editors).24 When seeking to explain the origin and enduring appeal of pastoral poetry, he turns instead to Paradise Lost. Having conceded that ‘There is scarcely any species of poetry, that has allured more readers, or excited more writers, than the pastoral’ (Yale III. p. 195), he provides a kind of anthropological explanation of its allure that culminates in the image of worship in Milton’s Eden: since it is probable, that poetry is nearly of the same antiquity with rational nature, and since the life of the first men was certainly rural, we may reasonably conjecture, that, as their ideas would necessarily be borrowed from those objects with which they were acquainted, their composures, being filled chiefly with such thoughts on the visible creation as must occur to the first observers, were pastoral hymns like those which Milton introduces the original pair singing, in the day of innocence, to the praise of their Maker. (Yale III. pp. 195–6)

He assumes that each reader re-enacts this ancestral experience in his or her reading history: For the same reason that pastoral poetry was the first employment of the human imagination, it is generally the first literary amusement of our minds. (Yale III. p. 196)


Johnson’s Milton

Yet Paradise Lost is not usually the first literary amusement of our minds, even though Johnson himself obviously considered it as possible childhood entertainment (he writes to Mrs Thrale, ‘Harry will be happier now he goes to School and reads Milton’).25 The mature reader responds to Milton’s passages of pastoral lyricism as part of a highly sophisticated generic system, for Paradise Lost is a poem that contains and transforms many different genres.26 What is so striking about Johnson’s allusion to Adam and Eve singing the glories of the divine creation in Paradise is that it records Johnson’s own sensitivity to a dimension of Milton’s poetry to which, it has often been thought, he is temperamentally deaf and blind. Always when writing about Paradise Lost he gives the sublime its due; here he gives natural beauty its due as well. Admittedly, he may qualify this tribute by associating it with a childish or primitive instinct. But he does not question the reality of the pleasure itself, whether direct or mediated. If as readers we are sent back to the Miltonic hymns by Johnson’s essay, we can experience the deep primeval pleasure that he describes. His brief musical phrase, ‘birds, and brooks, and breezes’ (Yale III. p. 196), in Milton’s Eden expands into a fully scored and orchestrated pastoral harmony, a dawn chorus of singing birds and singing waters, waving leaves and beating wings (Paradise Lost V. pp. 153–208). Johnson does not imply that the pleasures of nature are superior to engagement with humanity; but traditionally this is an experience that recreates something resembling an unfallen state. Nor is it put away with childish things: we do not, as we advance into the intellectual world, throw it away among other childish amusements and pastimes, but willingly return to it in any hour of indolence and relaxation. The images of true pastoral have always the power of exciting delight, because the works of nature, from which they are drawn, have always the same order and beauty, and continue to force themselves upon our thoughts, being at once obvious to the most careless regard, and more than adequate to the strongest reason, and severest contemplation. (Yale III. p. 196)

Milton’s Adam and Eve respond to their natural environment as pastoral writers respond to it: they turn it into language.27 Johnson’s perceived failure to appreciate pastoral discourse is often (though not always) because of a debased language that falsifies nature and vandalises true pastoral idiom. His benchmark for true pastoral is the poetry of the ancient world and the ‘pastoral hymns’ of Paradise Lost. Although Milton certainly sees nature ‘through the spectacles of books’, in this context at least Johnson accepts the practice as entirely appropriate. His singling out of these hymns as archetypal pastoral poetry argues that, in contrast to Lycidas, he considers them to have a kind of imaginative authenticity that does indeed allow

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


the reader access to ‘the day of innocence’. Also, as hymns, they transcend purely aesthetic judgement. Johnson emphasises that the first humans are praising God through the creation: the natural world is neither an object nor an end in itself. But Adam and Eve are not the only beings in Paradise Lost who are aware of the beauty of Eden, and capable of articulating that awareness. It is impossible to ignore Satan’s presence or his consciousness when reading consecutively the narrative of Book IV into Book V, although not every Miltonist agrees with Frank Kermode’s brilliant aperçu regarding Milton’s strategy in the presentation of Eden – ‘we see all delight through the eyes of Satan’.28 Yet that consciousness can be edited out by selective quotation. I have already argued that Johnson’s borrowing of Satan’s famous curse of the sun reveals a highly personal appropriation of the satanic viewpoint. There is another essay, Adventurer 39, where Johnson sees through Satan’s eyes without actually mentioning the fact (assuming that this essay is Johnson’s, an attribution which the Yale editor confirms).29 Adventurer 39 offers a compendium of quotations and reflections on the favourite eighteenth-century topic of night and sleep, and Johnson chooses Milton as a celebrant of the former:30 Nor have the poets been always deficient in her praises: Milton has observed of the Night, that it is “the pleasant time, the cool, the silent.”

Yale II. p. 345

As a stock quotation describing the appeal of night to the senses, it is unexceptional. What makes Johnson’s choice worth remarking upon is the (suppressed) context. Milton composed many memorable nocturnes in his poetry, from Il Penseroso onwards, and he assigns them to different voices, whether the poet’s persona, or a created character like Eve in her paradisal love-song. In this instance, the voice is not ‘Milton’, as Johnson implies, but Satan. Having quoted Satan against the sun, he here quotes him on his own element, darkness. The description is embedded in a segment of text that clearly fascinates Johnson, the episode of Eve’s dream that opens Paradise Lost, Book V.31 In Eve’s narrative – and for her it has been an ‘irksome night’ – the tempter, like Comus before him, represents night as a time not for sleep but for pleasure: Why sleepst thou Eve? Now is the pleasant time, The cool, the silent, save where silence yields To the night-warbling bird, that now awake Tunes sweetest his love-laboured song; now reigns


Johnson’s Milton Full orbed the moon, and with more pleasing light Shadowy sets off the face of things; in vain, If none regard; heaven wakes with all his eyes, Whom to behold but thee, nature’s desire, In whose sight all things joy, with ravishment Attracted by thy beauty still to gaze.

Paradise Lost V. lines 38–47

Johnson clearly remembers exactly where the specific quotation comes from, for the suppressed context partly surfaces in the following paragraph of his essay. There he makes an explicit transition from the licit to the illicit pleasures of the night: But the greater part of her [Night’s] avowed votaries are the sons of Luxury; who appropriate to festivity the hours designed for rest; who consider the reign of pleasure as commencing, when day begins to withdraw … who begin to awake to joy, when the rest of the world sinks into insensibility; and revel in the soft effluence of flattering and artificial lights, which “more shadowy set off the face of things.”32 (Yale II. p. 346)

Among these ‘sons of Luxury’ can be counted Milton’s Comus and Satan, not to mention his sons of Belial (and indeed Johnson himself, if not a son of Luxury, is a nocturnal animal). Yet, even here, Johnson does not identify the source of the quotation. Not for the first time, Johnson if not exactly misreading, is in a sense misrepresenting his original by incorporating Milton’s language into his own associative patterns. Having presented the first Milton quotation in the essay as straight lyrical description, he then alludes to the satanic context in relation to the second quotation, but displaces Satan’s evocation of moonlight – ‘shadowy sets off the face of things’ – to apply to ‘artificial lights’ (which in Paradise Lost illuminate hell). Like many readers who are also writers, Johnson uses a memorytext selectively to conform to his own creative needs. As with Satan’s cursing of the sun, so with his praise of the moon: Johnson freely adapts the satanic rhetoric for its expressiveness, if necessary against the grain of the original. In this type of allusion, Johnson exploits the essential literariness of Milton’s natural description. But he is also interested in the practical impact of nature on human beings: how people react to mundane realities such as weather and the change of seasons. Here too Milton becomes both target, and, oddly, exemplar. Far from applauding sensitivity to weather and seasonal change, Johnson is given to expressing scorn for those persons, writers generally and Milton in particular, who allow the seasons to affect their state of mind or their creativity.33 With one notable

Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays


exception:  in Rambler 80, he appears to take the opposite view (‘Every ­season has its particular power of striking the mind’) and quotes approvingly Milton’s advice in Of Education: It is observed by Milton, that he who neglects to visit the country in spring, and rejects the pleasures that are then in their first bloom and fragrance, is guilty of “sullenness against nature.” (Yale IV. p. 57)

He makes a very similar use of an equivalent passage from Paradise Lost in another Rambler essay (135) on the subject of seasonal pleasures, with specific reference to the urban dweller’s retreat into the country: Novelty is itself a source of gratification, and Milton justly observes, that to him who has been long pent up in cities no rural object can be presented, which will not delight or refresh some of his senses. (Yale IV. p. 353)

The reference is to the epic simile beginning ‘As one who long in populous city pent’, which does indeed conjure up the freshness of a summer morning in the countryside. But, as so often, both the original context and Johnson’s deployment of the allusion are obliquely at odds with the apparent sentiment. Milton’s simile describes and enacts pleasure in the natural world of the senses; but the pleasure is Satan’s, intent on the victim whom he stalks among the flowers of her paradise garden. Nor does Johnson’s argument in Rambler 135 simply endorse the jaded metropolitan’s quest for country pleasures; his point is likewise a Satanic one, summed up in a Horatian tag but equally applicable to Satan’s famous soliloquy in Book IV of Paradise Lost – ‘Place may be chang’d; but who can change his mind?’ (Yale IV. p. 349). Johnson’s scepticism about the psychological effect of seasons and locality seems much more characteristic than his occasional acknowledgement of these effects. Of the two essays in which he quotes Milton on the delights of rustication, it is Rambler 80 which appears the more anomalous – a discrepancy which has been explained as a rhetorical ploy.34 Milton’s poetry is not just a rhetorical resource for Johnson in his writing, but a means of sharpening his own powers of discrimination. The conclusion that can be drawn from this survey of Miltonic allusion in the periodical essays must surely be, first, that Milton’s ghost is a far more influential presence in Johnson’s writing life than has usually been conceded (particularly by Miltonists fixated on the much later ‘Life of Milton’); and, second, that awareness of the original contexts shows how he appropriates specific passages in original and complex ways, often with wit and elegance. To some extent, Johnson’s citations of Milton texts in his essays reinforce his critical judgements; but they also challenge our perception of these judgements. Most importantly, his allusions demonstrate


Johnson’s Milton

an openness and subtlety in his reading of Milton for which he has not often received credit. Paradise Lost in particular is a fundamental component of Johnson’s literary memory. It is clear that when he was writing the periodicals, often under pressure, it came naturally to him to think of Milton when addressing certain topics. If he believes, as he later says, that ‘reality was a scene too narrow for [Milton’s] mind’ (Lives I. p. 287), his own genius is for reality: in The Rambler, and in a different way in the Dictionary, he brings Paradise Lost to bear on contemporary human lives, and in the process illuminates its multiple meanings.

Ch apter 2

‘No Miltonian Fire’? Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry

The eminence of Milton looms over eighteenth-century English poets far more than it does for prose writers, and they devise different strategies for thriving in, or escaping from, that shadow. In this, Johnson resembles many of his contemporaries; but his use of Miltonic allusion, especially in his mature poetry, is far from merely imitative or deferential. In particular, he challenges the reader to reconsider the original context in the light of his own appropriations. Moreover, his choices in prosody and diction set up an alternative poetic discourse for the treatment of certain subjects; he competes for territory with Milton. Comparisons and contrasts between Johnson’s poetry and Milton’s are worth making because they contribute to explaining why he reads Milton as he does. As T. S. Eliot, himself an eminent poet-critic, has asserted, ‘unless we know and appreciate Johnson’s poetry we cannot judge either the merits or the limitations of his criticism.’1 Comparisons are also worth making because of what they reveal about how Johnson the poet reacts to and against his reading of Milton’s poetry. Close observation of his practice of allusion yields valuable clues about how far he remembers or resists the poetry of his mighty predecessor. Juvenilia In the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson expresses the view that: Milton never learned the art of doing little things with grace; he overlooked the milder excellence of suavity and softness; he was a Lion that had no skill in dandling the Kid. (Lives I. p. 278)

Johnson’s sense that Milton is unsuited to a certain kind of poetic form and subject is suggestive in regard to his own practice. Although Johnson himself might appear leonine, he does a good deal of dandling the kid in English verse throughout his life.2 At the opening of Vanity Fair Thackeray 31


Johnson’s Milton

slyly lampoons his penchant for composing neat and ­elegant verses to his female friends, by associating the great Cham with the ­‘reputation and … fortune’ of Miss Pinkerton and her educational establishment for young ladies. Becky Sharp’s defenestration of the famous Dictionary simultaneously disposes of the fictitious ‘Lines addressed to a young lady on quitting Miss Pinkerton’s school, at the Mall; by the late revered Doctor Samuel Johnson’.3 The title selected for these ‘Lines’ is all too plausible: many of Johnson’s shorter poems are occasional, many extempore, brief, and epigrammatic. Only in Irene, and the two masterpieces of his maturity, London (1738) and The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), does he write on a scale that allows the reader to glimpse vestiges of ‘Miltonian Fire’. Yet to contrast Johnson’s juvenilia with Milton’s is to gain interesting insights into what they have in common as well as what separates them. One obvious difference from the very outset in their practice of English poetry is in technique. Whatever mode he writes in  – with the single important exception of tragic drama 4 – poetic composition for Johnson equates with end-rhyme. This issue of verse-form is a major one, which will be revisited in the context of Johnson’s criticism. Nevertheless, it is worth remarking here that his choice of verse form as a practising poet goes beyond purely aesthetic implications. Such a choice can signal the poet’s sense of his place in a wider intellectual community, marking out where his allegiances lie. Richard Helgerson suggests, commenting on Milton’s self-isolation: As Waller anticipated and as Pope so consummately realized, the heroic couplet itself puts the poet in the company of other men. Perhaps that is why Milton vigorously rejected “the troublesome and modern bondage of rhiming”.5

Later, in his discussion of Milton’s blank verse, Johnson appears to agree with modern criticism that what is at stake is more than a divergence of aesthetic choices; that there is a politics of prosody. However, like Milton himself, Johnson is not confined to a single language or form in writing poetry. His juvenilia follow a familiar pattern for someone of his education and ambitions: a considerable quantity of verse translations, English and Latin, and variations on themes such as friendship, nature, and religious devotion. Predictably, it is in Johnson’s translations and Latin verse that traces of Miltonic parallels are most likely to occur. Both youthful poets are writing within the early modern educational system, which requires verse composition to further the acquiring of linguistic skills. One such exercise, apparently imposed upon Johnson at Pembroke, was a Latin translation of Pope’s Messiah (itself indebted to

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


Milton).6 Not only does this have an indirect link to the Nativity Ode, but it may be one of the earliest instances where Johnson alludes to Milton in order to strengthen a point – in this instance, the dismissal of pagan fictions, which Pope’s version soft-pedals.7 Tantalisingly, two texts which could have provided direct comparison of their neo-Latin poetry are missing from the Johnson canon: a poem on the Gunpowder Plot (which ‘Johnson neglected to perform’ at Pembroke) and the substitute described by Boswell: To apologise for his neglect, he gave in a short copy of verses, entitled Somnium, containing a common thought; ‘that the Muse had come to him in his sleep, and whispered, that it did not become him to write on such subjects as politicks; he should confine himself to humbler themes:’ but the versification was truly Virgilian. (Life I. p. 60)

The versification and motif may be Virgilian,8 but the nightly visitation from a Muse also suggests Milton, although Johnson – deliberately? – gives her advice the opposite twist.9 The Miltonic association of ideas recurs in another of Johnson’s Latin exercises, Aurora Est Musis Amica (‘Aurora is friend to the Muses’), which J. D. Fleeman compares to Milton’s first Prolusion ‘“exaudiatque Aurora Musis amica, exaudiat et Phoebus …” (May Aurora, the friend of the Muses, hearken, and may Phoebus give heed …)’. He adds, ‘Johnson adopts the point made by Milton that early morning is a time of poetic inspiration.’10 As an observation, it is a commonplace familiar to generations of early modern students, but for both Milton and Johnson it would come to be invested with strongly personal meaning. The young Johnson’s poetic ambitions, however, take a different direction from Milton’s. Indeed, having uneasily attempted a poem on Christian heroics in ‘Upon the Feast of St Simon and St Jude’, he seems more comfortable with mock-heroic than heroic. Already in his juvenilia he is a child of his age, nowhere more so than in his translation of Addison’s ‘Battle of the Pigmies and the Cranes’; and precisely because he is a child of his age, he fashions his mock-heroic diction and metaphors in the idiom of the Miltonic sublime. In his analysis of Johnson’s rehabilitation of ‘dead metaphors’ in this poem, Christopher Ricks has pointed out that Johnson is going back to Milton’s own practice. Citing Paradise Lost I. lines 573–6, he observes ‘Addison’s poem has many latinised Miltonisms; that Johnson recalled the original context in Milton is suggested by his taking up the word “embodied” (78) from it.’ But it is not only this ‘revivification of dead metaphors’ that revives Milton in Johnson’s verse.11 His opening lines invoke Milton,


Johnson’s Milton

as well as his Muse, by pointedly alluding to ‘my advent’rous song’, a phrase with no direct parallel in Addison’s Latin. ‘Direct O Goddess, my advent’rous song’ (line 3) must bring to mind Milton’s ‘Invoke thy aid to my advent’rous song’ at the outset of Paradise Lost (I. line 13). A piece of adolescent cheek ­perhaps: Johnson is challenging comparison with Addison’s own English mentor. Although one heroic, or mock-­heroic, battle may seem much like another in its sound and fury, Johnson’s version of the battle of the pygmies and the cranes does appear to replay Milton’s war in heaven as well as its classical analogues. Hurling mountains about as weapons lends itself to both heroic and mock-heroic contexts: Themselves invaded next, and on their heads Main promontories flung, which in the air Came shadowing, and oppressed whole legions armed … So hills amid the air encountered hills Hurled to and fro with jaculation dire …

Paradise Lost VI. lines 653–5 and 664–5

Such was the horrour of the dreadfull fight As when great Briareus with matchless might Hurling vast mounts against the realms above Shook headlong from his throne imperial Jove. In rat’ling storms huge Promontories flie And Bolts and rocks encounter in the Skie.

‘Battle of the Pygmies and Cranes’, lines 136–41

Characteristically, Johnson relishes the violence of the image. Like Addison’s cranes, the youthful poet is preparing his wings for flight, whetting his beak and sharpening his claws on his two illustrious predecessors. Although Johnson’s juvenilia yield a few suggestive Miltonic allusions or parallels, the reader is likely to be most struck by their differences at this stage in their lives. Both are highly conscious of the Anglo-Latin tradition they inherit, and of literary ambition, but Johnson is already the more pessimistic. ‘The Young Author’, like Lycidas, represents life’s insecurity through the symbolism of unforeseen peril in ‘the faithless deep’ (line 10), but Johnson’s poem locates authorship very firmly within a social and commercial context, ironically confronting youthful idealism with the sordid reality of struggling to get into print and receiving only bad reviews for one’s pains. It threatens his alter ego with a fate worse even than being a mute inglorious Milton: he must face the brutal truth that he is more likely to join the army of hacks – ‘These dreams were Settle’s once and Ogilby’s’

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


(line 24). Far from looking forward to ‘fresh woods, and pastures new’ (Lycidas, line 193), he ends in full retreat, ‘Glad to be hid, and proud to be forgot’ (line 30). Both Lycidas and ‘The Young Author’ prophesy the outcome of intense literary ambition, self-fulfilling prophecies up to a point. In the actual future, Milton’s dream of ‘fresh woods, and pastures new’ comes true in his triumphant journey to Italy. But Johnson, forsaking ‘his rural seats and peaceful home’ for the delusive ‘smiling ocean’ of glittering literary London (‘The Young Author’, lines 2–3), would in the short term experience some of the anticipated humiliations of Grub Street. His dream in 1737 is bound up with the unfinished verse tragedy he carried with him on the road to the metropolis: Irene. ir ene:

t h e t wo fac e s of E v e

Until recently, Irene has had an almost uniformly bad press (apart from ‘a man named Pot’). Even its author, on hearing it read aloud, is said to have sadly remarked ‘I thought it had been better’.12 ‘So frigid and uninteresting a tragedy’ is Joseph Warton’s dismissal; while Robert Potter calls it ‘a child of mediocrity’.13 Many modern scholars have felt that in terms of creative composition Irene represents a dead end for Johnson, although there are exceptions, critics who see Irene as an important learning curve in his development.14 But it is rarely read for its own sake, and much of the criticism of the last half-century consists either of source-hunting or of explanations for its perceived shortcomings. Unfortunately it has also proved to be a dead end in terms of performance history (although its original run might be considered ‘a definite success by contemporary standards’).15 To adapt Potter’s ‘child’ metaphor, Irene, though certainly not premature and not stillborn, survived in the theatre for nine nights largely because of the efforts of her midwife, Garrick. Yet there is more of interest in Irene than this marginal existence suggests. Even if the tragedy is not highly valued for literary and dramatic qualities, it has caught and rewarded the attention of Johnson critics investigating his political attitudes (including the politics of gender) at this stage in his career. In addition, this (relatively) neglected offspring has another advantage for anyone tracing Johnson’s creative development and its influences, because we are privileged to be able to scan it in utero, so to speak. Like Milton’s drafts for his proposed tragedy on the subject of paradise lost, Johnson’s drafts for Irene survive in manuscript, giving access to its ‘dark materials’. Irene, like many if not most texts, is conceived in the act of reading. As Johnson himself was to remark to Boswell, ‘The greatest part of a writer’s


Johnson’s Milton

time is spent in reading, in order to write:  a man will turn over half a library to make one book’ (Life II. p. 344). Consequently, it is a highly literary product, arguably too much so (this was Garrick’s opinion).16 Reconstructing the ‘half a library’, in order to map Irene’s literary genes, provides work for scholars, headed by Bertrand H. Bronson in a pioneering essay.17 Robert DeMaria takes this further, distinguishing between more modern sources and embedded ancient ones: Macbeth, Paradise Lost, The Essay on Man, and Dryden’s Auren-Zebe may have occurred to him as he composed his play, but his draft notes glide over these to rest on deeper, classical sources.18

This is perfectly accurate as regards named sources, identified by Johnson himself, and conforms to his habitual elevation of ancient writers over modern. But ‘may have occurred to him’ seems too vague and non-committal with reference to the presumed influence of English poetry. A stronger case can and has been made, certainly for Paradise Lost. Irene has long been recognised as a drama centred on temptation and apostasy, with a political as well as a religious dimension. For that reason alone, it invites comparison with Milton’s archetypal treatment of these themes.19 But the choice of a female protagonist also involves the dramatist in the construction of powerful gender conflicts; and for this Paradise Lost again supplies an archetype. Whether or not his creation of the female roles in his one and only drama, and the discussion of sexual stereotyping in the play, owe something to his own marriage is open to debate.20 Certainly the circumstances of that marriage, unconventional as it was in some respects, might prompt him to consider more closely the nature of human sexuality and gender difference. But when it comes to human relations, Johnson always presses towards a less subjective, more universal analysis. In this context the influence of Paradise Lost appears inescapable. In the embryonic speeches of the drafts, Johnson is experimenting not only with gender concepts but with ways of poeticising them. If he starts with the essentialist view of gender, as do almost all early modern writers, he also takes pains to scrutinise what are recognised as cultural assumptions; and particularly because it features a clash of civilisations, the Christian and the Islamic, Irene offers an overt opportunity for such scrutiny. Take the speech assigned to Mahomet in the draft but later discarded from the printed text: Mah. Nature gives every being means of compassing its end, to some force to others wiles (serpents fascination of the Leveret) Your end is to please Man You

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


have therefore an higher instinct, as Nature ordains Man to love himself in his Resemblance, she gives you the power of copying in some degree his Virtues (this is the Original of yours) and act the mimickry of Man (Poems, p. 388)

Mahomet theorises gender difference as natural; but the marginal gloss invites us to assimilate it to myth: ‘sees with pleasure the faint resemblance of his Excellencies Like the fond Boy renown’d in Grecian Song’. Later in the draft Johnson returns to the Narcissus allusion, this time softening it to a more Edenic version of how the female resembles and yet differs from the male: As we often turn our dazled Eyes from the Sun in its meridian Glories to gaze uninjur’d on its Image in the untroubled lake so your softer Mind receiving the beams of masculine Returns the (fierce) Effulgence or Radiance of our Virtue softend in gentler (milder) Lustre (Splendor) what aw’d before in us allures in You. what was imperious is alluring what was awfull is charming. (or engaging) (Poems, p. 389)

What links these passages is a fundamentalist idea of woman’s secondary creation that Johnson could have found everywhere in his reading, from classical texts such as Aristotle to the Bible itself. But his metaphoric mode of expressing it is one particularly favoured by Milton in Paradise Lost. Interestingly, he seems to rework Milton’s application of the Narcissus myth in Eve’s account of her own creation in Paradise Lost Book IV. Whereas Milton’s Eve is allured by her reflection in ‘the clear/ Smooth lake … another sky’ (lines 458–9) – the equivalent of Johnson’s ‘untroubled lake’ – Johnson’s version restores the original male gaze of Narcissus, but feminises the image itself. Indeed his second draft passage (which is not attributed to a speaker) suggests a much more positive form of complementarity between the sexes, although the image of reflection links the two. Taken together, they correspond to two different emphases on male/female interdependence in Paradise Lost, and two different responses to the relationship of Adam and Eve. Mahomet’s speech grounds male superiority on a contemptuous, classically misogynistic view of woman that reduces her to the level of a merely instinctual and imitative being, higher in degree than the animal but possessed of the serpent’s subtlety and the monkey’s mimicry. The second repeats the idea of woman as man’s reflection, but radically shifts the value assigned to that reflection. Her nature is not simply a self-serving travesty of his. Instead, the female image recreates and mediates its original source in an affirmative, unthreatening order of being, softening and civilising the destructive power of the male. Just as the relation of Adam and Eve in Paradise


Johnson’s Milton

Lost can be read in terms of both hierarchy and reciprocity,21 so Johnson’s metaphoric experiments seem to accommodate both. Indeed, the revised Narcissus myth might go further. Paradoxically, man’s turning away from the excessive brightness of the godlike masculine sun to its reflection in woman’s ‘softer Mind’ – ‘he for God in her’ as it were – displaces the direction of his gaze (and potential worship?) from deity to image. In Paradise Lost, it is just such a displacement that causes Adam to fall and to incur the divine censure, ‘Was she thy God’ …? (X. line 145). On the basis of Milton’s famous invented episode ‘critics dispute whether Eve is innocently or culpably narcissistic’.22 But however the episode is read, the narrative outcome is indisputable. She accepts Adam in place of her self-image, and she accepts him not only as the being for whose love she was created, but also as the manifestation of a higher beauty: … I yielded, and from that time see How beauty is excelled by manly grace And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.

Paradise Lost IV. lines 489–91

This does not mean that Eve herself is incapable of wisdom, or that Adam always shows himself the wiser. Indeed, Adam later will – unwisely – confess to God’s angel that she seems to him to be an ‘absolute’, original not copy, ‘As one intended first, not after made’ (Paradise Lost, VIII. line 555). The mystery of sexual difference and likeness at the heart of Milton’s poem cannot be separated from the mystery of selfhood, and the human yearning for an ‘other self’. Feminist and Lacanian critics have identified the narcissist in Adam himself, divinely ratified as Eve’s (apparently) is not.23 In the next century, Johnson sketches out similar archetypal gender patterns in his rough draft and profiles a male narcissism which also might be innocent or culpable, so ambivalently is it presented. How far he himself is ambivalent about the ‘natural’ relation of man and woman is another matter. He is setting out to write a play; and it is the dramatist’s business to try out conflicting ideas through created characters. Ideological conflict is certainly prominent in Irene.24 One manifestation of this is the number of key scenes centred on the clash between different, even antithetical, ideas of woman. Although he discarded much of the draft material, Johnson clearly retains considerable interest (and assumes that audiences will be interested) in how expectations of female behaviour are formed. Act II, scene vii, is a particularly challenging and interesting scene in this respect, setting two cultural stereotypes against each other. Before and during the eighteenth century, English audiences associate

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


Islam and the Ottoman empire with an extreme form of female subordination. ‘Were I born an humble Turk’, laments Farquhar’s Mrs Sullen, ‘where women have no soul nor property, there I must sit contented. But in England, a country whose women are its glory, must women be abused?’25 Johnson’s Mahomet amply fulfils this prejudice when he tells Irene: … For your inferiour Natures Form’d to delight, and happy by delighting, Heav’n has reserv’d no future Paradise, But bids you rove the Paths of Bliss, secure Of total Death and careless of Hereafter …

II. vii. lines 15–19, Poems, p. 310

For her part, Irene claims that this is a false ideology, even by the criterion of ‘nature’: woman is created to exercise the power of both beauty and reason, like Milton’s Eve: Then let me once, in honour of our Sex, Assume the boastful Arrogance of Man. Th’attractive Softness, and th’indearing Smile, And pow’rful Glance, ’tis granted, are our own; Nor has impartial Nature’s frugal Hand Exhausted all her nobler Gifts on you; Do we not share the comprehensive Thought, Th’enlivening Wit, the penetrating Reason? Beats not the female Breast with gen’rous Passions, The Thirst of Empire, and the Love of Glory?

II. vii. lines 49–58, Poems, p. 311

At moments in this scene she sounds like a prototype Mary Wollstonecraft. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Wollstonecraft reacts violently against the same notorious passage in Paradise Lost that Johnson evokes here, also with reference to Islamic attitudes: Thus Milton describes our first frail mother; though when he tells us that women are formed for softness and sweet attractive grace, I cannot comprehend his meaning, unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation.26

The difference between this and Irene’s position is that Irene wants to retain the femininity that Wollstonecraft despises, as well as laying claim to masculine prerogatives. But she leaves herself vulnerable, by pushing her case too far: the claim to share male reason is justifiable in a Christian


Johnson’s Milton

heroine; the desire to share male ambition and aggression is not. Again like Milton’s Eve – in one interpretation at least – she is conditioned to think of power in masculinist terms (‘For inferior who is free?’). And Mahomet, like Satan, takes instant advantage of her desire, offering her imperial power and sweetening the bait by suggesting that she should exercise it constructively for human welfare. Where Johnson himself thinks that Milton’s sympathies lie is an interesting question. Much later in the ‘Life of Milton’, he, like Wollstonecraft, ranks Milton with the misogynists, memorably observing that ‘there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings’ (Lives, I. p. 276). Mahomet’s speeches in this scene demonstrate precisely what Johnson understood by ‘a Turkish contempt of females’. But this accusation levelled against Milton’s work is ironic in more ways than one. It need not matter that Johnson himself is by no means always politically correct when writing or talking about women. What matters more is that, in Irene at least, he seems to be aware of a far more nuanced and subtle treatment of Eve in Paradise Lost, to which the poet responds, if not the critic. The evidence for this response is in his assimilation of the poetry Milton uses to describe Eve, and aspects of her psychology, into Irene’s role. The phrases in which she expresses the essence of femininity echo Paradise Lost: Th’attractive Softness, and th’indearing Smile, And pow’rful Glance, ’tis granted, are our own …

II. vii. lines 51–2, Poems, p. 311

In contrast to Adam, Eve is formed ‘For softness … and sweet attractive grace’ (Paradise Lost, IV. line 298). In fact, when toying with variants in his draft notes, Johnson had echoed Milton even more closely – ‘That resistless and enchanting blush’ (Poems, p. 385). (Although unfallen, Milton’s Eve is also given to blushing.27) But Johnson may also have remembered that the next line in Paradise Lost states precisely the axiom that Irene resists in this scene – ‘He for God only, she for God in him’. Also, her use of the phrase, ‘pow’rful Glance’ seems pregnant with meaning for both participants, given its original context. Adam, archetypal man, is described in Paradise Lost Book VIII as ‘here only weak / Against the charm of beauty’s powerful glance’ (lines 532–3). Mahomet develops the seduction trope when he apparently recants his unexamined misogyny under Irene’s influence:

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


I thought, forgive my Fair, the noblest Aim, The strongest Effort of a female Soul, Was but to chuse the Graces of the Day; To tune the Tongue, to teach the Eyes to roll …

II. vii. lines 61–4, Poems, p. 311

This recalls a long history of female stereotyping, which includes the archangel Michael’s exposure to Adam of ‘that fair female troupe’ in Paradise Lost, Book XI, ‘Bred only … To dress, and troll the tongue, and roll the eye’ (lines 618, 20).28 Johnson avoids Milton’s contemptuous internal rhyme, but repeats the description; the very familiarity of the trope makes it readily adaptable to a context where he tests conflicting ideas of essential femaleness. To this end, he contrasts not just verbal arguments but roles, Irene’s with Aspasia’s. It is a normal convention of heroic drama to have contrasting or complementary heroines, such as Addison provides in Cato; Johnson, therefore, seems to be following an established pattern. But, as commentators have noted, he does not entangle Irene herself in the conventional conflict of emotional loyalties, unlike his predecessors who adapted the same source.29 Instead, the scenes between Irene and Aspasia conceptualise two different definitions of what it is to be a woman. In Act II, scene i, Irene turns to Aspasia, pleading womanly fear as an excuse for apostasy: Will not that Pow’r that form’d the Heart of Woman, And wove the feeble Texture of her Nerves, Forgive those Fears that shake the tender Frame?

II. i. lines 23–5, Poems, p. 300

Aspasia counters this traditional premise that woman is the feebler sex because God and nature ordain it so, by asserting that female fear is learned rather than innate (a position later to be theorised in the claim that gender is a cultural construct30): The Weakness we lament, our selves create, Instructed from our infant Years to court With counterfeited Fears the Aid of Man …

II. ii. lines 26–8, Poems, p. 300

Irene responds by playing another familiar card in the gender game. Aspasia, she retorts, is more masculine than feminine, unsexed by her learning and greatness of soul – ‘all ASPASIA but her Beauty’s Man’ (line 37). As in her later scene with Mahomet, she assumes that the woman who aspires to spiritual and intellectual strength aspires to the condition of masculinity. Yet Aspasia herself does not claim independence; she attributes her moral


Johnson’s Milton

education to her lover and mentor, Demetrius. In a later crucial scene, where she attempts to save Irene from herself, she redefines female heroism as essentially passive, not active, almost as though reneging on her earlier attitude: Heav’n, when its Hand pour’d Softness on our Limbs Unfit for Toil, and polish’d into Weakness, Made passive Fortitude the Praise of Woman: Our only Arms are Innocence and Meekness.

III. viii. lines 42–5, Poems, p. 323

However, rather than reneging she is in effect redefining a kind of Christian heroism accessible to both sexes. Although Johnson does not claim with Milton that this ‘passive Fortitude’ is necessarily a better fortitude, it is central to the play’s concept of female capacity. Irene, by this stage, has evidently embraced masculine ambition, as the draft indicates (‘who for a Crown &c’, Poems, p. 369). The contrast between her and Aspasia is pivotal to the dramatic and ethical structure of Irene, and can be variously interpreted. But however the contrast is defined, one thing that they have in common is not just their sex, but the fact that they are both women in a man’s world, shaped by male values, and that they are judged accordingly. The same, of course, applies to Milton’s Eve. In writing an epic on the Genesis narrative, Milton does not have the option of using paired human characters to embody different aspects of the female psyche, as a dramatist might (although the gender pairing of Eve and Sin is often commented on). Instead Eve herself has two faces, and the consequent ambiguity inherent in her role has divided opinion as strongly as Satan’s. In fact, the history and polarisation of the critical debates over Milton’s representation of Eve offer a model for the much smaller-scale debates over Johnson’s representation of Irene and Aspasia, particularly over their exercise of choice and the degree of Irene’s guilt. Irene herself is perhaps at her most sympathetic when, like a fallen and banished Eve, she lyrically recalls lost paradise on a balmy Byzantine night: See how the Moon through all th’unclouded Sky Spreads her mild Radiance, and descending Dews Revive the languid Flow’rs; thus Nature shone New from the Maker’s Hand, and fair array’d In the bright Colours of primaeval Spring; When Purity, while Fraud was yet unknown, Play’d fearless in th’unviolated Shades. This elemental Joy, this gen’ral Calm Is sure the Smile of unoffended Heav’n.

V. ii. lines 1–9, Poems, p. 346

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


If Johnson is not imitating Milton in this passage, he is certainly evoking him.31 In this speech at least, Irene grieves over an imminent loss of innocence which re-enacts the primal loss. True, she is self-deceived. But, as with Milton’s Eve, readers have responded very differently to the question of how far she is condemned by her creator – or if, as a daughter of Eve, she is damned by her Creator. Damnation is a subject that Johnson always treats with extreme seriousness. When the focus shifts to parallels between Irene’s apostasy and Satan’s – rather than Eve’s – the play darkens into a different kind of tragedy. And the parallels with Satan are inescapable,32 for example in the pointed allusion: Will not th’Apostate feel the Pangs of Guilt, And wish too late for Innocence and Peace? Curst as the Tyrant of th’infernal Realms, With gloomy State and agonizing Pomp.

III. viii. lines 132–5, Poems, p. 326

It is unlikely that the comparison would have escaped Johnson’s contemporaries. In his one foray into stage drama, Johnson  – obsessed all his adult life with the fear of hell – is writing what seems to be a tragedy of damnation. Yet is that the final verdict? Is Irene ultimately transformed from an Eve figure into a Satanic one? Certainly what is at stake is the fate of her immortal soul, and the contrast between outward beauty and inward guilt strikes even Mahomet at the play’s end. Believing her to have conspired against his life, he speaks of her in an image that would resonate with Christian audiences:33 True, she was fair; the Smile of Innocence Play’d on her Cheek – So shone the first Apostate –

V. xi. lines 10–11, Poems, p. 363

In Judaeo-Christian tradition, it is Satan who merits the title of ‘the first Apostate’ (Milton refers to him as ‘the apostate angel’ in Paradise Lost, I. line 125). Yet the preceding description of Irene accentuates her femininity – ‘the Smile of Innocence / Play’d on her Cheek’ – in a way much more evocative of Eve in Eden. Humanly speaking, it is Eve who is the first apostate; and for all his alleged lack of sympathy for Irene, it is questionable whether Johnson does consign her to the unthinkable destiny of eternal damnation. Physical death may be poetic justice enough. If, as has been proposed, she makes the ‘tentative return to grace’ anticipated by Aspasia – Aspasia who warned her most solemnly against the fate of Milton’s apostate angel – then she ends much closer to the repentant Eve than to Satan.34 This


Johnson’s Milton

contention finds support in Johnson’s draft: ‘She turn [sic] herself wholly to Heav’n own’s her Crime – the Justice of her punishment professes her Repentance Prays’ (Poems, p. 376) – a close analogy with the behaviour of Milton’s Eve.35 If Irene represents a fallen Eve, at least in Johnson’s original conception, then where does Aspasia, who resists temptation, fit into the archetypal pattern? Critics have not hesitated to read Johnson’s own views into his representation of both women’s roles. From Bronson onwards, the standard assumption has been that Aspasia is a version of his ‘ideal woman’, or idealised wife. More recently, feminist readings have criticised or reversed this traditional valuation.36 But Johnson need not be in thrall to his own subjective judgement; he attempts something more universal. In a sense, Irene and Aspasia represent the two faces of Eve, the fallen and the unfallen. Aspasia is distinguished for her intellect, ‘bred up in all the Learning of Greece’ (Poems, p. 369),37 and, more importantly, she exercises right reason. Milton’s Eve is also, as he stresses, ‘capable … Of what was high’ (Paradise Lost VIII. lines 49–50). Like Eve, who delights in learning from her male mentor, Aspasia gives intellectual precedence to Demetrius; but he gives her in return a powerful moral status: Thou kind Assistant of my better Angel, Propitious Guide of my bewilder’d Soul, Calm of my Cares, and Guardian of my Virtue.

IV. i. lines 10–12, Poems, p. 331

This is what Eve should have been to Adam, but, in Milton’s view at any rate, it is as much Adam’s failure as hers that her guidance before the Fall is so disastrously unpropitious. (After the Fall, it is a different matter.) Unlike Eve, and her successor, Irene, Aspasia keeps the faith, and has her reward. An ingenious political allegorisation of the play casts her as a possible ‘personification of the Church of England’; more psychological interpretations see the relationship between Aspasia and Demetrius as fulfilling a kind of unity of male and female qualities, a concordia discors.38 In terms of the latter reading, again the conversation of Milton’s Adam and Eve in their prelapsarian paradise offers Johnson a precedent. Certainly Aspasia is a fallen being in a fallen world, but what gives her spiritual strength is her Christian perspective on that world as not being all that there is. In writing Irene, Johnson was motivated by a view to its commercial viability. As a stage play, it has other more obvious predecessors than Milton’s epic. Nevertheless, Irene pays literary tribute to Paradise Lost of a kind that

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


may go beyond Johnson’s conscious awareness: ‘the strong dead return, in poems as in our lives’.39 london


t h e va n i t y o f h u m a n w i s h e s

When London was first published in May 1738, it caught public attention as an ‘opposition’ poem. Opposition to Walpole’s government, ‘that ferment against the court and the ministry’, as Boswell calls it (Life, I. p. 129), had gathered considerable momentum. The ferment had literary as well as political fallout; and one of its consequences was an intensified interest in Milton, and Milton imitations.40 Yet it is Juvenal whose poetry Johnson enlists in the political cause. In London, he tests his strength in a genre, satiric imitation, that puts him into direct competition with an older generation, notably Pope and Swift, that engages him directly with the political scene, and that – done well – is eminently marketable. But it would appear that his choice of Juvenal relegates Milton very much to the margins of his project. And yet: his choice of Juvenal’s Third Satire ensures that Johnson has to reinvent one traditional literary antithesis which for eighteenth-century poets and readers is as much part of their Milton experience as it is of their classical education, namely the antithesis between town and country. In London, as later in the periodical essays, Johnson has to heed the siren call of pastoral, a call he is peculiarly fitted to resist but whose seductiveness he recognises. More often than not for an eighteenth-century writer, that siren call sounds in Miltonic diction. Johnson’s views on deliberate imitation of Milton’s style could be trenchant:  when Boswell presses him to concede that Mason’s Elfrida has ‘some good passages’, he retorts that ‘“There are now and then some good imitations of Milton’s bad manner”’(Life II. p. 335). Yet in passages of natural description, the question is not so much whether to aim consciously at Milton’s manner, as whether it is possible to avoid it, however vestigial its traces. In the case of London, the pastoral alternative to the corrupt metropolis is itself an unstable construct, a wavering mirage that provokes different reactions from readers.41 This instability and indeterminacy derive partly from allusiveness. The city versus country theme enters the poem virtually at the outset, with Thales’s proposal to exchange one environment for the other: Resolv’d at length, from Vice and London far, To breathe in distant Fields a purer Air …

lines 5–6


Johnson’s Milton

By compressing a more expansive original, Johnson makes a virtue of economy; he also anglicises the Roman field of reference. And I would suggest that one way he does this is through hinting at Miltonic phrase and simile. In Paradise Lost, Satan epitomises original Vice, and carries its miasma with him wherever he goes; but on two striking occasions in the poem he breaks into an environment where he can breathe a different air, an air that revives the heart, potent against anything except despair itself: … and of pure now purer air Meets his approach, and to the heart inspires Vernal delight and joy, able to drive All sadness but despair …

Paradise Lost IV. lines 153–6

This transfiguring moment is replayed in Book IX, when Satan sees Eve alone in the garden. In one of his finest extended similes (often appropriated by the Romantics),42 Milton again focuses on the freedom to breathe, in an atmosphere that is both literally and figuratively a ‘purer air’: As one who long in populous city pent, Where houses thick and sewers annoy the air, Forth issuing on a summer’s morn to breathe Among the pleasant villages and farms Adjoined, from each thing met conceives delight, The smell of grain, or tedded grass, or kine, Or dairy, each rural sight, each rural sound …

Paradise Lost IX. lines 445–51

As Fowler notes, ‘The assumptions are pastoral or georgic: cities resemble hell, the country Paradise.’43 Johnson attributes the same assumptions to his Thales. However commonplace the sentiment, the expression ‘a purer air’ evokes the remembered landscape of Milton’s Eden, and Johnson knows the value of ‘images which find a mirrour in every mind’ and ‘sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo’ (Lives, IV. p. 184). There is no very direct precedent in Juvenal. Moreover, Milton’s ‘populous city’ with its ‘houses thick’ and ‘sewers’ which ‘annoy the air’ fits the archetypal city, which Juvenal’s Rome and Johnson’s London both typify. That Johnson, like other writers, was impressed by this epic simile is evident from the fact that he alludes to it at a later date in Rambler 135, another variation on the topic of country and city and the effects of environment. But is Johnson’s allusion to be taken at face value as an uncritical equation of the country with paradise, the city with hell? It seems unlikely. More probably, it is a subtle reminder that place is intrinsically neither vicious nor innocent, that Edenic associations are imposed by human perception.

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


In London, Johnson draws attention to this subjective construction of place by setting up different versions of pastoral. One of these is the unpolluted biblical – or political – wilderness. DeMaria notes that lines 170–5 ‘start and end with echoes of Paradise Lost’:44 Has Heaven reserv’d, in Pity to the Poor, No pathless Waste, or undiscover’d Shore? No secret Island in the boundless Main? No peaceful Desart yet unclaim’d by SPAIN? Quick let us rise, the happy Seats explore, And bear Oppression’s Insolence no more.

The deliberately vague evocation of the Miltonic sublime functions ironically – or so we might suppose – to give added edge to the political satire. In his epic, Milton repeatedly uses ‘happy seat’ or its variants to designate paradise,45 but it is, of course, a paradise lost, no longer attainable as a refuge from oppression in the fallen world. The dream of solving human problems by physical relocation is just that, a dream. The notion of finding happiness in unspoilt nature, as yet unviolated by human presence, not only runs counter to Johnson’s known preference for cultivated landscape, but also to his distrust of utopian thinking. Yet how far can he control the scope of the allusion? Thales’s final burst of enthusiasm sounds, momentarily, as much like the revolutionary fallen angel urging an attempt on ‘the happy seat’ of newly created man in defiance of the Divine Oppressor as an altruistic liberator. By combining Miltonic allusion with his classical sources (and Johnson at this point is utilising Horace’s Epode XVI as well as Juvenal)46 the poet is free to suggest both a sceptical and a sympathetic attitude to Thales’s impossible dream. Imagining a world elsewhere can take many forms, and Thales, unlike the equally sardonic but more down-to-earth Umbritius of Juvenal’s Satire III, experiments with various flights of fancy. He is consistent in occupying the moral high ground in all of them, but less consistent in the choice of life he advocates. Having started off as the austere hermit, he nevertheless permits a more hedonistic note to creep in: Some pleasing Bank where verdant Osiers play, Some peaceful Vale with Nature’s Paintings gay

lines 45–6

He then slides into the Horatian persona, and lays claim to a social conscience. Finally, he recommends the life of the gardener. In the poem’s most extended evocation of an earthly paradise, ‘Some secret Cell’ mutates into ‘some elegant Retreat’ and we are back in familiar English countryhouse territory.47 Lines 210 to 223 describe the earthly paradise in instantly


Johnson’s Milton

recognisable eighteenth-century mode, associated with those horticultural practitioners who did in all seriousness set about recreating Milton’s Eden in the British landscape: Could’st thou resign the Park and Play content, For the fair Banks of Severn or of Trent; There might’st thou find some elegant Retreat, Some hireling Senator’s deserted Seat; And stretch thy Prospects o’er the smiling Land, For less than rent the Dungeons of the Strand; There prune thy Walks, support thy drooping Flow’rs, Direct thy Rivulets, and twine thy Bow’rs; And, while thy Grounds a cheap Repast afford, Despise the Dainties of a venal Lord: There ev’ry Bush with Nature’s Music rings, There ev’ry Breeze bears Health upon its Wings; On all thy Hours Security shall smile, And bless thine Evening Walk and Morning Toil.

As before, this blends specific and general allusiveness. Johnson’s pastoral idyll is scarcely ingenuous nostalgia; placed where it is in the poem, it is deeply compromised by the versions of pastoral that have preceded it. And as before, he uses the tactic of jarring registers, political satire assaulting Miltonic pastoral, like an unwelcome intruder in a paradise garden. On the one hand, this may taint the rural ideal; on the other, since the ‘hireling Senator’ is after all an absent presence, literally an absentee landlord, his ‘deserted Seat’ may be reclaimed for a more productive way of life. Although this is an Eden already tarnished by its proprietorship, the narrator may leave it open to the reader to accept the possibility of its redemption, depending on whether the lyric register can temporarily dominate the satiric. It has to be said that a number of expert readers consider that it does not.48 And this is where the effect of Miltonic allusion becomes critical. In Johnson’s Juvenal, Niall Rudd observes of lines 216 to 223 that: This elevated, and yet tender, way of writing about rural life owes something to Milton: see, e.g., his description of Eve in Paradise Lost 9 lines 427–30: … oft stooping to support Each flower of slender stalk, whose head, though gay Carnation, purple, azure, or speck’d with gold, Hung drooping unsustained.

He emphasises, however, that it is Thales who ‘wants us to see the country in these idealized terms’ and that Johnson’s own ‘general view of country

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


life was much more complex’.49 If Thales sees rural life through a Miltonic prism, it might be because Johnson intends an irony at his expense, the kind of irony all too apparent in the passage from the Life of Savage sometimes juxtaposed with this description from London: ‘he had planned out a Scheme of Life for the Country, of which he had no Knowledge but from Pastorals and Songs …’50 (nature through the spectacles of books again). But even for Johnson there are pastorals and pastorals. The London description differs from the ‘Scheme of Life’ sketched out in the Life of Savage precisely because it balances action and contemplation, culminating in the Edenic ‘bless thine Evening Walk and Morning Toil’ (line 223, my italics). In contrast, Savage expects to exist like a lily of the field: in his fantasy he toils not, neither does he spin. A. D. Moody deduces from revisions in the manuscript draft of London that: Clearly, Johnson was indulging the idyll to the extent of entering more particularly into its details; he was also, perhaps, effecting a more conscious allusion to the duties of Adam and Eve in Milton’s “elegant retreat”.51

‘Perhaps’ may be too cautious. Again and again in Paradise Lost Milton foregrounds the importance of Adam’s and Eve’s gardening labour, its divine ordination, its physical necessity, and the spiritual responsibility that it represents. Its particular ideological underpinning, which in British culture had evolved into the Protestant work ethic, is as familiar to Johnson as to Milton. Through the thrust of verbal energy in his verse  – ‘prune’, ‘support’, ‘direct’, ‘twine’  – Johnson toughens the lyricism, and rescues it from flaccidity, from ‘easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting’ pastoral, just as the local references to the rivers of Trent and Severn rescue the description from pure fantasy.52 It may not be necessary to choose between either dismissing or upholding the authenticity of Thales’ ideal; even if his dream of the good life is, on one level, just another instance of the vanity of human wishes, on another level it has the most distinguished of precedents – not only in the classics, but in the scriptural narrative of origins. At the other extreme, the infernal city of ‘Vice and London’ also participates in a myth of origins. As the poem reverts from the peaceful country scene with its sanctified ‘Evening Walk’ to the dangerous, edgy and alcohol-fuelled nightlife of London, Johnson may be reminded again of Paradise Lost. The lineage of Milton’s fallen angels is found in the world’s cities: … and when night Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons


Johnson’s Milton Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine. Witness the streets of Sodom …

Paradise Lost I. lines 500–3

In imitating Juvenal, Johnson censors mention of the sexual vices that flourish in a metropolis, though not the violence. But in describing the marauding tribes of drunk and aggressive young men that terrorise the London streets, he associates them not only with their classical predecessors, but also with Milton’s sons of Belial wandering the streets of Sodom: … these Heroes, mischievously gay, Lords of the Street, and Terrors of the Way; Flush’d as they are with Folly, Youth and Wine …

lines 230–2

The allusion may be fugitive; yet Johnson later repeats the Miltonic association of night, the city, and ‘the sons of Luxury’ in Adventurer 39 (Yale II. p. 346). And there is good precedent for a London application, since, in another satire that closely connects personal vice and political corruption, Dryden had memorably alluded to the same Miltonic source. In his brilliant shorthand for what he saw as the heyday of vicious misrule in the City, he notes ‘The Sons of Belial had a glorious Time’ (line 598).53 Paradise Lost imaginatively reinvigorates the already traditional analogy between the city and hell, as it does the analogy between the country and paradise, influencing the representation of both environments in poetry from the eighteenth century to the modern period (Edwin Muir can still contrast ‘the steely clamour known too well/ On Saturday nights in every street in Hell’ with ‘the fields of Paradise’ in his sonnet, ‘Milton’).54 If Johnson himself does not simplify the ideological contrast of city and country in London into quite such a straightforward antithesis, he is certainly aware of the possibility of doing so. Arguably, he is sufficiently influenced by his reading of Paradise Lost to inflect his imitation of Roman satire with nuances that derive ultimately from Milton rather than Juvenal. If this is true of London, it is a fortiori true of his later imitation of Juvenal’s Tenth Satire, The Vanity of Human Wishes. Where London localises its cityscape and landscape, The Vanity of Human Wishes, as its title suggests, goes global. In the famous opening lines – lines that have been both derided and defended – the poet confidently invites the reader to view the world from a virtually extraterrestrial standpoint. Of course, the viewpoint is that of an abstraction – Observation – not a person, and the view is mental not physical. Yet it creates the temporary sensation of seeing like gods (or even God Himself) which is itself a vanity. In requiring this leap of imagination and intellect, the poet is already emulating Milton, among

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


other predecessors.55 Insofar as The Vanity of Human Wishes takes for its scope the entire human world and (unlike Juvenal) interprets it from a final vantage point of Christian philosophy, it bears a certain comparison with Milton’s epic undertaking. Naturally, however, most scholarly readers direct their attention to Johnson’s immediate source, Juvenal’s satire, rather than to identifying Miltonic affinities. Yet it is precisely in his deliberate departures from Juvenal that Johnson moves closer to Milton. Readers have also recognised a scale and enterprise that goes beyond classical imitation. Sanford Budick, who offers the most consistent interpretation of the poem from a Miltonic angle, not only believes that The Vanity of Human Wishes ‘is subtly pervaded by the Christian idea of man’s fall’, but develops this assertion to encompass Paradise Lost: We should not be surprised to find that when Johnson came to write his Christian version of Juvenal’s poem – a version not less but more heroic than any Stoic, tragic satire – his imagination should have turned automatically to a poem that contains the central demythological proclamation of fall and redemption in English literature. In fact, he chose a poem which was itself a Christian version of the most estimable Greek and Roman poetic form.56

This is a bold claim: how far is it verifiable? To return to the opening: although it has a number of literary analogues, its use of a privileged viewpoint from which to survey human error for educative purposes strongly recalls Michael’s revelation to Adam in the final two books of Paradise Lost: ‘the angel leads him up to a high hill, sets before him in vision what shall happen …’ (Book XI, The Argument). Johnson transposes Milton’s future tense, ‘what shall happen’, into a timeless present, which, as the poem progresses, modulates into an historically specific panorama. Vision becomes narrative, just as it does at the beginning of Paradise Lost, Book XII. Both Milton and Johnson move easily between generalising description and particular example, as they condense human history into an object lesson that holds good ‘from China to Peru’ (The Vanity of Human Wishes, line 2). As Budick observes, these place-names also delimit the range of vision in Paradise Lost: Milton tells us that Michael and Adam ascend the hill of Paradise to see the earth in “clearest Ken” and “amplest reach of prospect,” and that their view was not less extensive than the temptation to vanity offered Christ by Satan in the wilderness, a sight of vanity from China to Peru [i.e. “Cathaian Can” and “Cusco in Peru”].57


Johnson’s Milton

Interestingly, Isobel Grundy substitutes Milton’s heavenly Muse for the archangel Michael, remarking that ‘Johnson begins by invoking Observation almost as Milton invokes his heavenly Muse’ – a comparison which she follows up with an important distinction: ‘Whereas Milton’s heavenly Muse could tell the causes of the Fall, since Heaven and Hell were open to her sight, Johnson’s Observation soon runs into difficulties.’58 Even so, consciousness of the Fall is implicit in Johnson’s powerful metaphors for lost, deluded, straying humanity, Milton’s ‘long wandered man’ (Paradise Lost XII. line 313). Doomed ‘To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide’ (Vanity, line 8), Adam’s and Eve’s descendants are even more benighted than their first parents, who, although exiled from Paradise, still have ‘providence their guide’ (Paradise Lost XII. line 647). And they have almost lost the other guide, right reason, which Milton equates with right choice – ‘for reason is but choosing’ (CPW II. p. 527): ‘How rarely Reason guides the stubborn Choice’ (Vanity, line 11). As he remarks so frequently in his writing, Johnson is here only reminding readers of what they already know. Knowing, however, is one thing, understanding is another. The Vanity of Human Wishes will relentlessly reinforce its sombre opening vision of how the world is; it also implies the question of why it is as it is. Paradise Lost poses the same question. In the last two books, which like Johnson’s poem dramatise the vanity of human wishes, the answer keeps coming back to the Fall, that first and fatal outcome of misdirected human desire. Yet if the texts have much in common, we should also be aware of the contrasts. Each poem calibrates judgement and compassion differently. Also, where Milton condenses biblical history within a fundamentally teleological frame, Johnson, following his Juvenalian model, selects from the annals of the past ‘To point a Moral, or adorn a Tale’ (Vanity, line 222). Yet, despite the differences, there seems no doubt that Johnson engaged especially strongly with the human interest of Paradise Lost XI and XII. In his old age, he is inclined to assert that in Milton’s epic ‘human manners’ only begin with the Fall. But, as The Rambler and the ‘Life of Milton’ testify, he makes one important exception, the ‘angelick counsel’ given by Raphael to Adam.59 In the treatment of youth and, later, old age in The Vanity of Human Wishes the light of angelic counsel – both Raphael’s and Michael’s – falls across the speaker’s advice. Raphael warns Adam against the academic tendency to be distracted by ‘idle speculations’; Johnson warns the scholar that wisdom lies outside academia: Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes, And pause awhile from Letters to be wise …

lines 157–8

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


The scholar is perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the poem, the one with the most harmless of ambitions since he aspires, like another Adam in Eden, to the exercise of pure reason. But even if that were possible: Should Reason guide thee with her brightest Ray, And pour on misty Doubt resistless Day

lines 145–6

the doom of the fallen Adam will not be reversed for him. Like the poet of Lycidas, though Johnson does not draw this explicit parallel, the aspiring young scholar is brought up sharply against both the fact of his own mortality and the prospect of earthly failure. Even earthly fame may be recognised too late. Johnson seems to draw a parallel with Milton in the following couplet: See Nations slowly wise, and meanly just, To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

lines 161–2

Johnson’s editors identify an allusion to ‘the bust of Milton which was placed in Westminster Abbey in 1737 by William Benson’ (Poems, p. 123).60 However, the named historical figures paraded in The Vanity of Human Wishes harbour more destructive ambitions, wield more devastating power, and meet more catastrophic ends than the anonymous scholar.61 He is invited to contemplate the fate of Archbishop Laud, presented as a paragon of learning victimised for his ‘glitt’ring Eminence’ in the turmoil of civil conflict: Nor deem, when Learning her last Prize bestows That glitt’ring Eminence exempt from Foes; See where the Vulgar ’scape, despis’d or aw’d, Rebellion’s vengeful Talons seize on Laud.

lines 165–8

In choosing the phrase ‘the Vulgar scape’,62 did Johnson remember, even if subconsciously, that in another seventeenth-century tragedy of revenge and the fall of the great, Samson Agonistes, Milton inserts a non-scriptural detail when recounting Samson’s destruction of his political enemies – ‘The vulgar only scaped who stood without’? The general idea – that the humble may be spared when the mighty perish – is similar. But of course the political application could hardly be more at odds with Milton’s. For Milton, the grandees of church and state – Laud in the 1640s, the Restoration court in the 1660s – deserve their fate.63 For Johnson, the downfall of Laud is to


Johnson’s Milton

be deplored, not relished, the unjust outcome of anti-elitist revolution. He underscores the ‘vulgar’ reaction with a bitter pun: Around his Tomb let Art and Genius weep, But hear his Death, ye Blockheads, hear and sleep.

lines 173–4

Some modern commentary on The Vanity of Human Wishes assumes that we should read it, as Samson Agonistes and Paradise Lost have long been read, for a political subtext.64 If that is the case, their subtexts are diametrically opposed in their political messages. Yet, despite their opposite political persuasions, as poets they react in very similar ways to the spectacle of mankind, and they elicit emotional responses ranging from tragic pity and terror to satiric irony. Why does The Vanity of Human Wishes seem so closely attuned in its philosophical stance, if not in its politics, to Books XI and XII of Paradise Lost? One answer must surely lie in the common grounding of these texts in classical and Christian humanism. Although historiographical methods and the philosophy of history are changing profoundly in the eighteenth century, Johnson shares with Milton a belief that history can teach both an ethical and a religious understanding.65 In Paradise Lost, Michael educates Adam by exposing him to predominantly biblical history; in The Vanity of Human Wishes, the narrator educates the reader by reviewing examples from secular history. Where their visions most markedly converge is when they focus not on the particular but on the universal (which accords with Johnson’s literary theory). Just as Johnson appropriates Raphael’s angelic counsel in his admonition to youth, he appropriates Michael’s angelic counsel when making the natural transition in his subject-matter from disease to old age and death. Although this corresponds to material in Juvenal’s satire, Johnson’s treatment differs from Juvenal’s and approaches more closely to Milton’s.66 Characteristically, he seems to have been especially struck by the catalogue of ill-health: ‘It may be remarked … that, of the few alterations made by Milton in the second edition of his wonderful poem, one was, an enlargement of the enumeration of diseases’ (Yale VIII. p. 933). When Adam, traumatised by his vicarious experience of the physical and mental torments that flesh is heir to, asks the archangel if such suffering can be avoided, Michael replies that temperance may prolong life: So mayst thou live, till like ripe fruit thou drop Into thy mother’s lap, or be with ease Gathered, not harshly plucked, for death mature: This is old age …

Paradise Lost XI. lines 535–8

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


But if disease has many pains, old age has few pleasures, as he reminds Adam in a gloomy recital to which Johnson alludes in Rambler 78 (Yale IV. p. 47). Yet the corresponding passage from The Vanity of Human Wishes reprises the beautifully balanced modulation in Michael’s speech from mellowness to melancholy: But grant, the Virtues of a temp’rate Prime Bless with an Age exempt from Scorn or Crime; An Age that melts with unperceiv’d Decay, And glides in modest Innocence away … Such Age there is, and who shall wish its End? Yet ev’n on this her Load Misfortune flings, To press the weary Minutes flagging Wings … Year chases Year, Decay pursues Decay, Still drops some Joy from with’ring Life away …

Vanity, lines 291–4, 298–300, 305–6

Or, as Milton has it, the melancholy to which old age is subject will ‘last consume / The balm of life’ (Paradise Lost XI. lines 545–6). In Paradise Lost, the effect is to reconcile Adam to the prospect of death; in The Vanity of Human Wishes, Johnson too, unusually for him, presents death as release rather than something to be dreaded: New Forms arise, and diff’rent Views engage, Superfluous lags the Vet’ran on the Stage, Till pitying Nature signs the last Release, And bids afflicted Worth retire to Peace.

Vanity, lines 307–10

And, in the poem’s finale, Johnson returns to this thought of death as release, ‘kind Nature’s Signal of Retreat’ (line 364). More importantly, he shifts the dominant discourse from that of classical satire to that of implicitly Christian faith. In so doing, it can be claimed, he substitutes Milton for Juvenal. Although Juvenal acknowledges the human need for gods, he does so sardonically, advising us to tailor our supplications to what is actually within our grasp; ultimately it is humanity that makes its own god of Fortune (Satire 10, lines 346–66). Johnson, on the other hand, instead of satirising human helplessness, conveys its horror in a quasi-biblical metaphor: Must helpless Man, in Ignorance sedate, Roll darkling down the Torrent of his Fate?

Vanity, lines 345–6

‘Darkling’ is a word with rich Shakespearean and Miltonic connotations. In the Dictionary, Johnson describes it as ‘a word merely poetical’,


Johnson’s Milton

illustrating it from Shakespeare and Paradise Lost. Again, therefore, it is English rather than Latin tradition that Johnson invokes here. As for the flood metaphor, although it is also found in classical poetry, in this context the rhetorical question is one that might have occurred to Milton’s Adam as he witnessed the biblical Flood – the Flood which, according to Milton in Paradise Lost, uproots and despoils the earthly paradise itself, clearing a space for another kind of paradise, the paradise within.67 Several Johnson readers have recalled Paradise Lost when responding to the restrained yet intensely felt conclusion of The Vanity of Human Wishes.68 Johnson may choose to imply, rather than overtly state, the Christian nature of his faith that man is not abandoned to ‘the Torrent of his Fate’, but his language leaves little doubt that he is indebted to biblical wisdom literature for his concept of ‘celestial Wisdom’ (line 367). Wisdom also runs like a golden thread through the text of Paradise Lost, culminating in ‘the sum/ Of wisdom’ defined in Book XII (lines 575–6): personified, she is the daughter of God who plays in his presence with her sister, the heavenly Muse, Urania.69 Behind Johnson’s phrase thrusts a huge imaginative pressure of associations. Johnson has further built up an emotional pressure through the rising sequence of the final lines that is reminiscent of Michael’s reply to Adam’s acknowledgement of the spiritual wisdom he has gained: This having learned, thou hast attained the sum Of wisdom … … only add Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith, Add virtue, patience, temperance, add love, By name to come called charity, the soul Of all the rest: then wilt thou not be loath To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess A paradise within thee, happier far …

Paradise Lost XII. lines 575–6, 581–7

Johnson likewise adjures his readers to pray for gifts of the spirit that paraphrase Milton’s list and go beyond Juvenal’s (significantly he focuses on faith rather than works): Pour forth thy Fervours for a healthful Mind, Obedient Passions, and a Will resign’d; For Love, which scarce collective Man can fill; For Patience, sov’reign o’er transmuted Ill; For Faith, that panting for a happier Seat, Counts Death kind Nature’s Signal of Retreat:

Miltonic allusion in Johnson’s poetry


These Goods for Man the Laws of Heav’n ordain, These Goods he grants, who grants the Pow’r to gain; With these celestial Wisdom calms the Mind, And makes the Happiness she does not find.

Vanity, lines 359–368

In Paradise Lost, Milton uses variations on the phrase ‘happy/happier seat’ to designate Paradise and even Heaven itself. In this final passage of The Vanity of Human Wishes, Johnson merges the vision of ‘a happier Seat’, the eternal paradise visible to the eye of faith, with the paradise within, attainable even in earthly life to those who have learned with Milton’s Adam – … that to obey is best, And love with fear the only God, to walk As in his presence …

Paradise Lost XII. lines 561–3

Johnson is no less capable than Milton of responding emotionally to the Christian narrative of redemption, Christ bringing back ‘Through the world’s wilderness long wandered man / Safe to eternal paradise of rest’ (Paradise Lost XII. lines 313–14). If he recreates the world’s wilderness through satire, courtesy of Juvenal, he nevertheless concludes with a glimpse of the eternal paradise of rest, courtesy of Milton. Perhaps it is not going too far to say that in all Johnson’s English poetry it is the ending of The Vanity of Human Wishes that radiates an authentic ‘Miltonian Fire’.

Ch apter 3

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?

Readers of Rasselas have long regarded it as the quintessential Johnson text, the distillation of his philosophy of life. According to James L. Clifford, one great modern Johnsonian speaking about another, ‘David Nichol Smith used to say that Rasselas was the touchstone by which you could determine whether you could ever be a true Johnsonian or not.’1 While scholars have excavated sources for the Abyssinian and Egyptian setting of Johnson’s oriental tale,2 the common readers close to Johnson’s heart have generally brought their experience of his own writings to bear. If the fashion (originating in the eighteenth century) for regarding it ‘as a more enlarged and more deeply philosophical’ prose equivalent of The Vanity of Human Wishes has faded a little,3 the periodical essays continue to be mined for parallels, and the Dictionary is a constant resource for linguistic usage. The notes of modern Rasselas editors bulge with citations from Johnson’s other works. But this practice simply conforms to a familiar critical expectation of intertextuality, that the texts of a mature and established writer will converse with, or even interpenetrate, each other, that the best commentary on a text is often the writer’s own. It is an exogamous marriage with other texts that introduces more difficult questions of interpretation, since the degree of affinity, and how the relationship develops, does not start from a given kinship. The differences between Paradise Lost and Rasselas seem absurdly obvious: differences of scale, of medium, of genre, of outlook, of history. Yet, for earlier generations of general readers, and more recently for academic readers at least, Paradise Lost is part of the intellectual baggage that the experienced reader brings to Rasselas (what Earl R. Wasserman has termed an ‘implicit context’).4 Beginning as it does in the Happy Valley, which the protagonists leave for the outside world, Rasselas lends itself to interpretation as yet another fable of the fall into experience, of which the Judaeo-Christian archetype is the Garden of Eden narrative. However, again beginning with the Happy Valley, this is clearly a revisionist fable (‘Johnson can also be seen to be working ironically with Miltonic 58

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


materials’, as one critic puts it).5 Although Rasselas can be read from either a religious or secular perspective,6 the sense of a special relationship with Paradise Lost obstinately insists on intruding itself, in editorial notes, in critical commentary, and in the imagination of readers who are also lovers of Milton. Apparently the author of the Rambler, of the Dictionary, of The Vanity of Human Wishes also evokes a strong Miltonic presence here, in his little ‘history’. Might it even be said that, writing in 1759 a century after Milton was composing Paradise Lost, he is responding to, and selectively rewriting, the most authoritative post-biblical version of the paradise myth in his culture? T h e H a pp y Va l l e y Johnson’s Happy Valley not only shares the ancient tradition of earthly paradises with Milton’s Garden of Eden; the two loci amoeni are also linked specifically through the connection with Abyssinian legend.7 Milton deliberately distinguishes the Abyssinian location from the site of the original biblical garden, but the very act of distinguishing presupposes a mental association: Nor where Abassin kings their issue guard, Mount Amara, though this by some supposed True Paradise under the Ethiop line By Nilus’ head enclosed with shining rock, A whole day’s journey high, but wide remote From this Assyrian garden …

Paradise Lost IV. lines 280–8

Not surprisingly, readers of Rasselas also make the association, though very few suppose the Happy Valley to be ‘true Paradise’.8 Edward Tomarken credits the Victorian editor, the Reverend William West, with being ‘one of the first to attend to the exotic element of the happy valley, which he saw in relation to the Arabian Nights, Paradise Lost, Thomson’s “Castle of Indolence,” and Johnson’s own translation of the Lobo-Legrand Voyage to Abyssinia.’9 Many have followed suit, usually with qualifications in the case of Paradise Lost. Johnson’s initial description certainly evokes a natural paradise, only achievable in a fallen world by excluding existing evils: From the mountains on every side, rivulets descended that filled all the valley with verdure and fertility, and formed a lake in the middle inhabited by fish of every species, and frequented by every fowl whom nature has taught to dip the wing in water …


Johnson’s Milton

The sides of the mountains were covered with trees, the banks of the brooks were diversified with flowers; every blast shook spices from the rocks, and every month dropped fruits upon the ground. All animals that bite the grass, or brouse the shrub, whether wild or tame, wandered in this extensive circuit, secured from beasts of prey by the mountains which confined them. On one part were flocks and herds feeding in the pastures, on another all the beasts of chase frisking in the lawns; the spritely kid was bounding on the rocks, the subtle monkey frolicking in the trees, and the solemn elephant reposing in the shade. All the diversities of the world were brought together, the blessings of nature were collected, and its evils extracted and excluded. (Yale XVI. pp. 8–9)

In its physical landscape  – mountainous, well-watered (including a subterranean river), rich in woodland, lawns, and pastures – and in its fertility, this is strongly reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise, the ‘happy rural seat of various view’ as described in Paradise Lost, Book IV.10 In particular, the pleasurable absorption in the activities of innocent animals recalls Milton (who in turn is following an established visual tradition):11 … About them frisking played All beasts of the earth, since wild, and of all chase In wood or wilderness, forest or den …

Paradise Lost IV. lines 340–2

Like Milton, Johnson itemises individual species, though his list does not entirely overlap with Milton’s (logically, he cannot include lions or tigers, for instance, and he clearly has in mind the local fauna of Abyssinia).12 His elephant is ‘solemn’ rather than ‘unwieldy’, dignified, rather than the comic turn of Milton’s prelapsarian garden.13 But the dominant impression, as with Milton, is that of an animal creation enjoying itself in accordance with its own varied nature.14 Obviously Milton’s Eden predates the ‘natural’ evils which are a consequence of the Fall: the animals are all herbivorous, not divided into herbivores and carnivores. Johnson translates this into topographical instead of temporal terms, making the Happy Valley an exclusion zone – the mountains conveniently divide the ‘beasts of prey’ from the rest. Milton had already emphasised the difficulty of access into the earthly Eden, although this might seem to contradict the belief that the entire earth was created perfect, and that ‘grotesque and wild’ vegetation resulted from the curse of the Fall (Paradise Lost IV. pp. 131–7 and 172–7). Like the Happy Valley and other postlapsarian earthly paradises, his garden is guarded by natural barriers, to intensify its perfection and isolation. Whatever its natural perfection, however, so far as its human inhabitants are concerned, Johnson’s Happy Valley also incorporates features that

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


have more in common with Milton’s hell than his paradise.15 Milton’s hell is after all a civilised place in its own way, with denizens who practise the arts of architecture, music, and debate. Johnson’s Happy Valley also boasts magnificent architecture, impressive in its scale and ingenuity but sinister in design – ‘built as if suspicion herself had dictated the plan’ (Yale XVI. p. 11). The immediate source may well be Charles Jacques Poncet’s account, translated as the Voyage to Aethiopia, 1709, but the description reinforces a much more ancient association between opulent and paranoiac ­architecture and the power of evil, an association exploited in Milton’s description of Pandemonium (Paradise Lost I. lines 710–30, 792–7). All the resources of nature and art seem to cooperate to ensure human bliss in the Happy Valley, but that bliss is an illusion: unlike the original inhabitants of Eden, the human occupants of the Happy Valley are indubitably fallen beings, who need to be constantly brainwashed into sustaining ‘their opinion of their own felicity’ (Yale XVI. p. 11). J. S. Cunningham exposes the ‘institutional ideology’ that underlies ‘this ambivalent paradise’, and concludes ‘It is as if Eden were to be redesigned and maintained in the light of the worst that Satan could bring himself to say about Milton’s Eden.’16 The serpent in this version of Eden has already been internalised. Indeed, Imlac’s description of their state in chapter XII transforms it into a version of hell within, for just as Satan and the fallen angels are motivated to seduce humanity into damnation, so these unhappy human beings wish ill to others: The invitations, by which they allure others to a state which they feel to be wretched, proceed from the natural malignity of hopeless misery. They are weary of themselves, and of each other, and expect to find relief in new companions. They envy the liberty which their folly has forfeited, and would gladly see all mankind imprisoned like themselves. (Yale XVI. p. 55)

Yet this is only a partial view of the Happy Valley. Not all those who live there have the mentality of the damned, and this flawed paradise has something to teach innocent and virtuous minds, as Adam was instructed in Eden. The obvious candidate for the Adamic role is naturally the eponymous hero, Rasselas himself. T h e rol e s of R a s s e l a s a n d I m l ac Again, the correspondence between Rasselas and Adam is not a new observation. Clearly it has its limits:  Rasselas is not innocent in the archetypal sense of the Genesis narrative. Yet he is unusually insulated by circumstance from the experience of the vast majority of human


Johnson’s Milton

beings, in one respect even more so than Adam, since he never marries. He does have companions in the Happy Valley, but he increasingly sets himself apart from them, and chooses to turn initially to the idyllic natural environment – a return to Eden, which is a common fantasy – to find answers to his ontological questions. Both Milton’s Adam in Paradise Lost and Dryden’s Adam in The State of Innocence are born philosophers, asking ‘who am I? why am I here?’17 In his first speech in Johnson’s narrative, Rasselas likewise defines himself in relation to what he observes: “What,” said he, “makes the difference between man and all the rest of the animal creation? Every beast that strays beside me has the same corporal necessities with myself … I am hungry and thirsty like him, but when thirst and hunger cease I am not at rest; I am, like him, pained with want, but am not, like him, satisfied with fulness.”

He concludes: “Man has surely some latent sense for which this place affords no gratification, or he has some desires distinct from sense which must be satisfied before he can be happy.” (Yale XVI. p. 13)

Certainly Johnson did not need to go to Paradise Lost in order to formulate this particular question: it raises a philosophical issue given fresh scrutiny by eighteenth-century rationalists. Nevertheless, Rasselas goes on to confirm a fundamental theological orthodoxy in his thinking. He does not envy the animals their happiness, ‘“for it is not the felicity of man” ’(Yale XVI. p. 14). At this point he glances at a religious explanation (‘the equity of providence’), a scripture-based belief also implied at a later stage when he reminds the would-be aviator that ‘“Every animal has his element assigned him; the birds have the air, and man and beasts the earth” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 24, note 2). What he has in common with Milton’s Adam is not only this implicit theology of creation, but also his mode of reasoning from the difference between men and animals to an articulation of his own consciousness and his own needs. True, the circumstances of this process differ: in Paradise Lost, Book VIII, Adam narrates how God puts him to the test after the naming of the animals, so that he is brought simultaneously to awareness both of their natures and of their otherness from himself with such knowledge God endued My sudden apprehension: but in these I found not what methought I wanted still …

Paradise Lost VIII. lines 353–5

His Creator manoeuvres Adam into defining what he does want (in both senses), namely a consort ‘fit to participate/ All rational delight’ (VIII. lines

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


390–1). For Rasselas, knowing what he wants is less simple:  indeed, in a sense, he never knows. But in a fiction predicated on human choice, Johnson has surely taken some hints from Milton’s Adam in shaping the growing self-awareness of his hero. To what extent his situation while in the Happy Valley resembles Adam’s, and whether or not his escape from it constitutes a Fortunate Fall, may be a matter of dispute. However, the education that he undergoes before entering the wider world has at least two features in common with Adam’s: the process of self-realisation, and the role of a mentor. If the wisdom of the Happy Valley, embodied in the persons of his old instructor and the man of science, fails Rasselas, he can turn to a more reliable though not infallible source of insight: the poet. For it is as a poet and scholar that Imlac is introduced into the tale, carrying all the weight and dignity of that designation  – with his singing robes about him, as Milton might have said. Imlac’s privileged insights derive from his own wide experience of all sorts and conditions of humanity.18 Accordingly, his purpose is partly proleptic, to prepare Rasselas for his own journeyings and to reveal to an innocent idealist, through an inset narrative, something of how power operates in the world at large. In this respect Imlac is to Rasselas as the angel Raphael is to unfallen Adam in Paradise Lost, a messenger (the root meaning of angelos) who comes to warn and enlighten. Indeed the best-known legend concerning Raphael also involves journeying and instruction, the story of the angel who accompanied and advised the young man, Tobias.19 At times Imlac’s narrative of his travels is tinged with biblical precedents: in leaving home he reenacts the parabolic role of the prodigal son, and he is entrusted with a responsibility reminiscent of the parable of the talents. His early experience of the deep evokes a quasibiblical awe: Kolb, following Hill, annotates the phrase ‘the world of waters’ (Yale XVI. p. 35), with Milton’s ‘the rising world of waters dark and deep’ (Milton himself is borrowing from Spenser). As Imlac traverses a fallen and secular earth, he does so as a kind of undercover agent, a recording angel in disguise, as it were, which is one possible description of a poet. Imlac’s own celebrated description of the poet in the ‘dissertation upon poetry’ may be brought down from its exalted heights by Johnsonian irony, but it remains a compendium of ideas which can all be documented as seriously held at one time or another. To what extent Johnson himself endorses these ideas is questionable, and has provoked one of the liveliest theoretical debates focused on Rasselas. Suggestively, the opening sentence associates poetry with angelic discourse. Imlac says: “Wherever I went, I found that poetry was considered as the highest learning, and regarded with a veneration somewhat approaching to that which man would pay to the angelick nature.” (Yale XVI. pp. 38–9)


Johnson’s Milton

This is a claim that has been treated with particular scepticism, as uncharacteristic of Johnson.20 Ironically, Johnson’s friend, Sir Joshua Reynolds, at a later date exhibits suspicious signs of just such veneration towards Rasselas itself: If … we could suppose novels writ by an angel or some superior being whose comprehensive faculties could develope and lay open the inmost recesses of the human mind … such a novel would give in a few hours the experience of ages, such a novel is Rasilas … (cit. Kolb, Yale XVI. lix)

Robert Folkenflik shrewdly points out apropos of Imlac’s observation that ‘The answer to this comes from Imlac himself in chapter XVIII’21: ‘“Be not too hasty … to trust, or to admire, the teachers of morality: they ­discourse like angels, but they live like men” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 74). Yet is this quite as relevant as it seems? In this context, Johnson, through Imlac, is repeating one of his very familiar warnings, that there is a difference – often a discrepancy  – between discourse and deeds, aspiration and actuality, nowhere more so than in the life of the writer. However he does not necessarily discredit the angelic discourse on the grounds of human failure to live up to its idealism. Far from it: in Rambler 14, he recognises that, even though ‘for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives’, it is ‘necessary for the idea of perfection to be proposed’ (Yale III. pp. 75, 76). Imlac, in Rasselas chapter X, is proposing the idea of perfection. And if ‘veneration somewhat approaching to that which man would pay to the angelick nature’ is a marker for poetic greatness, then it is not hard to identify which poets fulfil the idea. Preeminent in European culture, as Imlac remarks, are the ancient poets; but, as the dissertation proceeds, British readers might discern native-born genius in his depiction of the ideal poet. Looked at from one angle, Shakespeare is an obvious sitter for the features of this portrait; there are evident parallels in language and concept between the ‘Preface to Shakespeare’ and Rasselas chapter X.22 Looked at from another angle, Milton’s profile emerges: what other English poet so notoriously writes to an angelic standard, taking down the dictation of the heavenly Muse? As for ‘veneration’, eighteenth-century readers idolise both. In fact, although modern critics have made both identifications, neither exactly matches Imlac’s description in every detail. According to Johnson, Shakespeare is the poet of nature and humanity but deficient in moral teaching, Milton excels in the ‘awfully vast’ but not the ‘elegantly little’ (Yale XVI. p. 42).23 The simplest solution seems to be to take the portrait as a composite.24 Yet the underlying problem of how seriously Johnson intends it (either in part or as a whole) remains. Particularly in

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


the peroration with its reference to the poet as ‘the legislator of mankind’, Imlac’s dissertation closely corresponds to what Milton himself had to say about the poet’s vocation,25 and the additional qualification of knowing ‘many languages and many sciences’ seems a very strong pointer to Milton rather than Shakespeare (Yale XVI. p. 45). This is precisely where Johnson as author interrupts the dissertation with a chapter ending, and the narrator, as it were, seizes the microphone from his character. The next chapter begins: Imlac now felt the enthusiastic fit, and was proceeding to aggrandize his own profession, when the prince cried out, “Enough! Thou hast convinced me, that no human being can ever be a poet. Proceed with thy narration.” “To be a poet,” said Imlac, “is indeed very difficult.” (Yale XVI. p. 46)

It is a wonderful comic deflation, and if the shade of Milton has been hovering solemnly in the reader’s memory, Johnson’s irony puts it to flight. But this does not necessarily mean that the intention is to deflate the ideal of the poet altogether by puncturing Imlac’s ‘enthusiastic fit’. Johnson manages to have it both ways, by virtue of the chapter division – a superb touch  – and his rhetorical skill.26 Because it leaves the ‘dissertation on poetry’ as an intact, self-contained rhetorical entity (unlike the parallel chapter, ‘A dissertation on the art of flying’, which includes its own ironic reversal), it preserves ‘the idea of perfection’ as something worth having. The species ‘poet’ is a concept greater than any individual. Possibly Johnson thought that Milton in the height of his epic splendour did come as close as any modern poet could to fulfilling it.27 If, contrary to Mrs Piozzi’s conviction,28 Imlac’s views on poetry are not to be identified totally with Johnson’s own, nevertheless in the following chapters he often sounds very Johnsonian. Although Rasselas asks Imlac to proceed with his narration, in chapter XI reflection quickly displaces narrative action. The hypothetical parallel between the Rasselas/ Imlac relationship and the Adam/Raphael relationship in Paradise Lost is beginning to shift, so that the model resembles more closely the dialogue between Adam and another angelic instructor, Michael. In the middle books of Milton’s epic, Raphael recounts the past history of the universe; in the last two books, Michael reveals the future history of fallen humanity. Fred Parker notes the latter as a possible parallel when discussing the evolution of the Rasselas/ Imlac relationship ‘from being one in which Imlac simply corrects Rasselas’s naïvety, rather as Michael corrects Adam in the final books of Paradise Lost, into a more mobile, dialogic rhythm.’29 Johnson’s own contrast between the two angelic narratives in Paradise


Johnson’s Milton

Lost concentrates on function:  ‘one was necessary to Adam as a warning, the other as a consolation’ (Lives I. p. 175). In Rasselas, Imlac both warns and consoles, though scarcely in equal measure; but then Johnson’s view of the final books of Paradise Lost as consolatory depends very much on a religious interpretation that stresses outcome rather than historical process. Michael’s portrayal of human existence, like Imlac’s – and Johnson’s – is certainly of ‘a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed’ (Yale XVI. p. 50). In fact, another thing that Rasselas has in common with the last two books of Paradise Lost is the revolt of a number of readers against what they feel to be almost unremitting gloom, at least in the depiction of earthly experience. Boswell’s representation of Johnson’s aim in Rasselas – ‘Johnson meant, by shewing the unsatisfactory nature of things temporal, to direct the hopes of man to things eternal’ (Life I. p. 342) – could apply with equal force to Paradise Lost XI and XII. With one major difference:  in Paradise Lost the Christian doctrine concerning ‘things eternal’ is explicit, whereas in Rasselas it is largely implicit. Imlac’s educative role is associated with a favourite Johnsonian (and Miltonic) theme, the desire for knowledge and whether knowledge brings happiness. On the whole, Imlac concludes that the answer to Rasselas’s question is in the affirmative, for ‘“Knowledge is certainly one of the means of pleasure” ’ and ‘“Ignorance is mere privation” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 49). But knowledge does not guarantee happiness: ‘“The Europeans … are less unhappy than we, but they are not happy” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 50). Indeed, Milton’s angel had reprimanded Adam for making pleasure a criterion at all: To whom thus Michael. Judge not what is best By pleasure, though to nature seeming meet …

Paradise Lost XI. lines 603–4

The concept of a Fortunate Fall is often interpreted as the transition from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge, rather than in its theological sense of making redemption possible (the sense that Adam glances at in Paradise Lost XII. lines 469–78). Because Rasselas is not given an explicitly Christian frame of reference, this theological meaning of felix culpa is ruled out; and in any case, as already observed, Rasselas and the Happy Valley cannot exactly replicate the situation of Adam in Eden, although they allude to it. However, the acquisition of knowledge as a good is relevant, and to continue that acquisition Rasselas has to escape from the Happy Valley to observe for himself. He regards the quest for knowledge

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


and the quest for happiness as equivalent – the assumption by which Satan deceived Eve in Paradise. Regarded in this light, Rasselas does enact a kind of Fortunate Fall, although critics do not all agree on exactly at what stage of the narrative it takes place.30 Just as the biblical Flood marks the climax of Paradise Lost XI and a divide between the old world and the new, destroying the earthly paradise, so an extraordinary inundation provides not only the opportunity for Imlac’s narrative but also indirectly the opportunity for escape from the Happy Valley: a crucial turning point in the minimalist plot. Like the original expulsion from Paradise, this event appears to open up a vista of choice, though even amongst the most privileged and independent human beings, ‘“Very few,” said the poet, “live by choice” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 67). Paul Fussell detects an element of parody at this juncture: We sense that we are close to a mock-Paradise Lost when we hear the naïve hero say at the end of Chapter 16: “I have here the world before me,” which forces us to recall Milton’s The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide. The joke is that in Rasselas Providence is not their guide: they err and wander, guided only by the fallible Imlac. We sense again the proximity of Paradise Lost to the proceedings in Rasselas when Nekayah, in Chapter 23, becomes suspicious of Imlac’s perpetual skepticism and imputes to him motives very like those which Eve, rationalizing her desire for the fruit, imputes to God: “Imlac favors not our search,” says Nekayah, “lest we should in time find him mistaken.”31

This is a witty and provocative passage, especially in the ironic analogy between Imlac and Milton’s God. But Imlac is a generous though not an infallible guide, and he does represent the wisdom of experience (most of the time). Arguably, even Milton’s tutelary angels are not absolutely infallible when it comes to understanding humanity. Ultimately no guide can replace the exercise of one’s own reason and observation, and, by provoking resistance, Imlac’s scepticism enables Rasselas and Nekayah to make progress in thinking for themselves. T h e pu r s u i t of h a ppi n e s s: t h e m a r r i ag e de b at e Significantly, one of the modes of experience that none of Johnson’s main characters experience at first hand is that of married life (an omission unwisely rectified in Ellis Cornelia Knight’s sequel).32 That does not prevent them from theorising about it in their pursuit of the choice of life; and this marriage


Johnson’s Milton

debate also gains from being read in a Miltonic context. Indeed in certain respects it provides a commentary on the Miltonic ideal as it is formulated both in the divorce tracts and Paradise Lost. Johnson, like Milton, expresses opinions on marriage in a variety of contexts. Perhaps the most serious of these contexts is the first of his published sermons, on the text of Genesis 2:24 (Yale XIV. pp. 3–15). In their notes, the Yale editors of both Rasselas and the Sermons invite readers to compare Johnson’s views on marriage across a spectrum of different texts. What emerges from an often sceptical, occasionally contradictory collage of opinions is one recurrent and dominant concept: that which is now termed companionate marriage. This he shares with Milton, and although to some extent it is a product of their culture and religion, it is worth noting how strong their individual commitment to the analogy between friendship and marriage is, an analogy so powerful that it overrides, and tends to diminish, the sexual and reproductive purposes of the latter. This is certainly evident in Milton’s divorce tracts (of which, however, Johnson has little to say in the ‘Life of Milton’); and the ideal of companionate marriage also struggles for domination over an older ideology of sexual subordination in Paradise Lost.33 Both Milton and Johnson are deeply attracted to the possibility of realising a genuine intellectual friendship in happy marriage, an aspiration which by its very nature requires that both partners should be capable, as Milton puts it, ‘Of what [is] high’ (Paradise Lost VIII. line 50). According to Boswell, Johnson ‘maintained to me, contrary to the common notion, that a woman would not be the worse wife for being learned’ (Life II. p. 76: Boswell does not agree) and that he further observed, that a man of sense and education should meet a suitable companion in a wife. It was a miserable thing when the conversation could only be such as, whether the mutton should be boiled or roasted, and probably a dispute about that. (Life II. p. 128)

However, one can have too much of a good thing (would Milton have agreed?): “Supposing (said he) a wife to be of a studious or argumentative turn, it would be very troublesome: for instance, – if a woman should continually dwell upon the subject of the Arian heresy.” (Life IV. p. 32)

The trajectory of Johnson’s marriage sermon follows that of the marriage of Milton’s Adam and Eve, from the original institution ‘by God himself, as necessary to happiness, even in a state of innocence’ (Yale XIV. p. 13) to the fallen reality: as folly will sometimes intrude upon an unguarded hour; and temptations, by frequent attacks, will sometimes prevail; one of the chief acts of love is readily to

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


forgive errours, and overlook defects … if anger be to be opposed with anger, and reproach retorted for reproach; either the contest must be continued for ever, or one must at last be obliged by violence to do what might have been at first done, not only more gracefully, but with more advantage. (Yale XIV. p. 14)

As Milton’s Adam and Eve discover; they progress from the nadir of their recriminations after the Fall: Thus they in mutual accusation spent The fruitless hours, but neither self-condemning, And of their vain contést appeared no end

Paradise Lost IX. lines 1187–9

to their moving reconciliation and penitence in Book X. For all his enjoyment of argument, Johnson has a keen sense of the futility of dispute, particularly marital disputes. Indeed, he sees this as one reason for the necessity of subordination in marriage, unlike friendship. Friendships can in the last resort be terminated if irreconcilable disagreements arise; marriage cannot. Therefore ‘as marriage is indissoluble, either one must be content to submit, when conviction cannot be obtained; or life must be wasted in perpetual disputes’ (Yale XIV. p. 14). When he writes Rasselas, a book of disputes if ever there was one, he ironically shows his characters attempting to apply these principles. For instance, Rasselas enthusiastically subscribes to the belief that it is important for ‘a man of sense and education’ to make the right choice of companion: “Whenever I shall seek a wife, it shall be my first question, whether she be willing to be led by reason?”

To which Nekayah makes the withering retort: “Thus it is … that philosophers are deceived … Wretched would be the pair above all names of wretchedness, who should be doomed to adjust by reason every morning all the minute detail of a domestick day.” (Yale XVI. p. 109)

The debate between the brother and sister is more dispassionate than Milton’s arguments in his divorce tracts, but the analysis of why marriages go wrong in some respects parallels his. Rasselas, like Milton, is inclined to blame not the institution – which if it is ‘best for mankind’ ought to be ‘best for individuals’ – but human fallibility and social practices (Yale XVI. pp. 106–7). In his editorial commentary, G. Birkbeck Hill juxtaposes the passage describing ‘the common process of marriage’, which concludes: “They marry, and discover what nothing but voluntary blindness had before concealed; they wear out life in altercations, and charge nature with cruelty” (Yale XVI. p. 107)


Johnson’s Milton

with two quotations from The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce: He who marries intends as little to conspire his own ruin, as he that swears allegiance … For all the wariness can be used it may yet befall a discreet man to be mistaken in his choice; and we have plenty of examples. The soberest and bestgoverned men are least practised in these affairs.34

However, divorce is never considered as an option in Rasselas: the choice is between marriage and celibacy, not marriage and divorce. As for Johnson’s silence on sexuality in Rasselas, that perhaps owes less to an enlightened attitude to women (although that may play a part)35 than to the philosophical nature of the text itself. What interests him about the subject of marriage is not sexual relations as such but the whole social, psychological, and ethical matrix in which sexuality is embedded. For Johnson, sexuality is part of life, and he rarely if ever separates it from a larger ethical context. Again Boswell – far more obsessed with sex than Johnson  – reveals how Johnson’s conversational reticence on the subject affected him, and prides himself on his own reticence when mentioning it: It would not be proper to record the particulars of such a conversation in moments of unreserved frankness, when nobody was present on whom it could have any hurtful effect. That subject, when philosophically treated, may surely employ the mind in as curious discussion, and as innocently, as anatomy; provided that those who do treat it keep clear of inflammatory incentives. (Life III. p. 342)

The subject of the relations between the sexes is nothing if not ‘philosophically treated’ in Rasselas, where the main characters are astonishingly free from sexual temptation or complications. Anna Barbauld approves this avoidance of the erotic on moral, not feminist, grounds: It should not be forgotten to be noticed in praise of Rasselas, that it is, as well as all the other works of its author, perfectly pure. In describing the happy valley, he has not, as many authors would have done, painted a luxurious bower of bliss, nor once throughout the work awakened any ideas which might be at variance with the moral truths which all his writings are meant to inculcate.36

Some readers have felt that this purity comes at a price. Another woman writer, Hester Mulso, finds ‘something … strangely unnatural’ about ‘a young man and woman without any one passion’, whom she regards ‘as merely ideal beings’;37 and William Mudford levels a criticism which, probably deliberately, echoes the criticism that Johnson himself directs at the alleged lack of human interest in Paradise Lost: … it [Rasselas] excites no tumultuous sensations, nor awakens any sympathy; hence it is soon forgotten; the reader finds in it nothing which he has been

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


accustomed to experience or believe; nothing which bears any resemblance to the real events of life; nor any situations which he can assimilate to his mind.38

Mary Lascelles also observes how ‘Rasselas and Nekayah are indeed open to the very objection that Johnson levelled against Milton’s Adam and Eve’, although she adds in defence: It would, however, be dishonest to use against a man a charge which, when he used it, was judged invalid; and, if we reject Johnson’s censure of the choice of ideal beings by Milton, we may, on like grounds, accept his own choice of such characters … they are fashioned for the proper purposes of ‘philosophical fiction’.39

But many readers have thought that a more valid objection to ­over-philosophising is voiced by Imlac within the fiction itself. When at last he interrupts the marriage debate, it is with the famous criticism ‘“It seems to me … that while you are making the choice of life, you neglect to live” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 111). T h e pu r s u i t of k now l e d g e : p y r a m i d s a n d s ta r s Logically, the reader might expect this to mark a narrative turning point. But Johnson’s strategy in Rasselas depends largely upon disappointing expectations. According to Emrys Jones’s widely accepted explanation of the tripartite structure of the text (with a single-chapter coda), the middle phase concludes with the visit to the pyramids which plunges the group into unforeseen narrative action.40 Yet that visit starts from Imlac’s recommendation of a sightseeing tour which only extends their principal occupation of passive observation. His proposal of what is in effect a form of time-travel into antiquity does not immediately appeal to Rasselas and Nekayah; the princess’s reaction has been taken as yet another allusion to Paradise Lost: ‘“The things that are now before us … require attention, and deserve it” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 111). This recalls Adam’s response to Raphael’s advice (advice that demonstrably made a deep and lasting impression on Johnson himself):41 … to know That which before us lies in daily life, Is the prime wisdom …

Paradise Lost VIII. lines 192–4

However, although the sentiment is admirable, the corollary is flawed. Nekayah continues: “What have I to do with the heroes or the monuments of ancient times? with times which never can return, and heroes, whose form of life was different from all that the present condition of mankind requires or allows.” (Yale XVI. pp. 111–2)


Johnson’s Milton

Johnson devotes most of the remaining chapter to Imlac’s elegant ­refutation of her assumption that the past is irrelevant. On the contrary, it is only by understanding the past that we can hope to understand the present, a belief consistently and powerfully upheld by Johnson. This is not to diminish the importance of Raphael’s advice, but rather to enhance it by adding the perspective that Michael vouchsafes to Adam in Paradise Lost XI and XII. As already noted, Johnson thinks that both angelic narratives are necessary to the scheme of Paradise Lost. Having by this stage assimilated Raphael’s lesson by attending to daily life, Rasselas and Nekayah are now ready to widen their intellectual horizons further by viewing one of the most potent symbols of the kingdoms of the world: the pyramids. Paradoxically, what they actually learn from the pyramids reinforces Raphael’s warning against the folly of human overreaching. As Milton’s Adam observes, … apt the mind or fancy is to rove Unchecked, and of her roving is no end;

Paradise Lost VIII. lines 188–9

Johnson’s counterpart is the famous and beautiful phrase explaining the origin of the pyramids in ‘that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life’. The next sentence might even explain the psychology of the Fall itself: ‘Those who have already all that they can enjoy, must enlarge their desires’ (Yale XVI. p. 118). Even more pertinent to Raphael’s advice is the episode of the astronomer, who in his ‘hunger of imagination’ believes that he exercises power over the cosmos itself. Yet there is a real ethical difference between pharaoh and astronomer. The former exercises an actual power irresponsibly, exploiting the lives and labour of thousands out of terminal boredom, building ‘for vanity’ in a kind of frenzied frivolity all too familiar from the behaviour of dictators in all ages. The latter attempts to exercise an imaginary power with the utmost responsibility, damaging only himself. When we are first introduced to the ‘man of learning’ in chapter XL, he appears to be that rarity, an exemplary human being as well as a sage. He is attentive to the needs of others, unlike the academic philosopher of Rambler 24, who is ‘unmoved by the loudest call of social nature, for want of considering that men are designed for the succour and comfort of each other’ and ‘who has so far abstracted himself from the species, as to partake neither of the joys nor griefs of others,’ preferring instead the pursuit of meteorology (Yale III. pp. 133–4). The astronomer on the other hand is not deaf to the ‘call of social nature’, and his priorities accord with those of the author of Rambler 24 and 180. Imlac bears witness to his altruism:

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


“His integrity and benevolence are equal to his learning. His deepest researches and most favourite studies are willingly interrupted for any opportunity of doing good by his counsel or his riches. To his closest retreat, at his most busy moments, all are admitted that want his assistance: ‘For though I exclude idleness and pleasure, I will never,’ says he, ‘bar my doors against charity. To man is permitted the contemplation of the skies, but the practice of virtue is commanded.’” (Yale XVI. pp. 142–3)

Modern editors of Rasselas have glossed that final sentence with two Milton-related passages, from Rambler 180 and the ‘Life of Milton’, the first pertaining to Raphael’s advice in Paradise Lost and the second to Of Education.42 Other critics have also incorporated the Raphael allusion into their interpretations of this episode, finding it especially appropriate because of the connection with astronomy.43 After all, the occasion of Raphael’s advice to Adam is their astronomical discourse, prompted by Adam’s questions about the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. Raphael concludes: Solicit not thy thoughts with matters hid, Leave them to God above, him serve and fear; Of other creatures, as him pleases best, Wherever placed, let him dispose: joy thou In what he gives to thee, this Paradise And thy fair Eve; heaven is for thee too high To know what passes there; be lowly wise: Think only what concerns thee and thy being; Dream not of other worlds …

Paradise Lost VIII. lines 167–75

In Rambler 180, Johnson paraphrases this speech: Raphael, in return to Adam’s enquiries into the courses of the stars and the revolutions of heaven, counsels him to withdraw his mind from idle speculations, and employ his faculties upon nearer and more interesting objects, the survey of his own life, the subjection of his passions, the knowledge of duties which must daily be performed, and the detection of dangers which must daily be incurred. (Yale V. p. 183)

He itemises these ‘objects’ in such a way as to conflate this passage in the reader’s memory with another piece of angelic homily, Michael’s words to Adam in the final book: This having learned, thou hast attained the sum Of wisdom; hope no higher, though all the stars Thou knewst by name …

Paradise Lost XII. lines 575–7

Again, the link with astronomy is prominent, knowledge of the stars serving as a metonymy for all kinds of scientia which are subsumed under ‘all


Johnson’s Milton

nature’s works, / Or works of God in heaven, air, earth, or sea’ (lines 578–9). According to Johnson, ‘This angelick counsel [Raphael’s] every man of letters should always have before him’ (Yale V. p. 183). Yet it needs to be stressed that neither Raphael nor Michael – nor the Rambler – exclude or belittle the desire for knowledge, when it is undertaken in the right spirit.44 ‘To ask or search I blame thee not’ begins Raphael (Paradise Lost VIII. line 66); ‘I am far from any intention to limit curiosity, or confine the labours of learning to arts of immediate and necessary use’ declares the Rambler (Yale V. p. 183). So how is the astronomer at fault exactly? It should be noticed that it is he, not Imlac, who actually echoes the angelic counsel, in the process distinguishing between what is permitted and what is commanded. Indeed, his privileging of ethics over science in its modern sense hints at the point that Johnson was to reiterate in the ‘Life of Milton’ (as Rasselas editors have observed): the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind … we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance. (Lives I. pp. 248–9)

But throughout Rasselas we are required to attend not only to what people say, but to how they live. Is the astronomer yet another character who discourses like an angel, but who lives like a man? Surely there is a qualitative difference in treatment between the astronomer and the other examples of those who fail in this respect, since the astronomer does not betray his essential principles. What happens to him is tragic misadventure, a kind of occupational hazard, rather than satiric reversal. Johnson’s psychological astuteness and literary skill are never more in evidence than in the sequence of chapters where Imlac and the reader are let into the astronomer’s terrible secret, the fantasy that tortures him all the more intensely because of his genuine ‘integrity and benevolence’ (Yale XVI. p. 142). Unlike the overreacher of tradition, he takes no pleasure in power for its own sake; his intentions are altruistic, his will is ‘to do good’, and one of the inherent ironies of his situation is that he cannot hit upon a better arrangement of the universe than that which already exists. The difficulty in applying Raphael’s advice too closely to this episode, and making the astronomer guilty of ‘the sin which Adam is warned against’,45 is that it becomes too strongly judgemental. Raphael’s dismissive description of those misguided seekers who attempt to probe into God’s secrets: … if they list to try Conjecture, he his fabric of the heavens Hath left to their disputes, perhaps to move

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


His laughter at their quaint opinions wide Hereafter, when they come to model heaven And calculate the stars, how they will wield The mighty frame, how build, unbuild, contrive To save appearances …

Paradise Lost VIII. lines 75–82

foreshadows the futility of the astronomer’s calculations, which he himself comes to recognise; but the dismissiveness is not Johnson’s. Milton’s God may laugh, but Johnson does not. Indeed, such a response from Nekayah and Pekuah is gravely rebuked. To align the astronomer with the builders of the Tower of Babel is to represent his aspiration in too harsh a light. If anything, Johnson readjusts the Miltonic perspective by throwing so much emphasis on compassion in this case. The astronomer is afflicted rather than guilty. Although he comes to feel that he has made the wrong choice of vocation – ‘“I have passed my time in study without experience; in the attainment of sciences which can, for the most part, be but remotely useful to mankind” ’ (Yale XVI. p.161) – this is counterbalanced by his endeavour, however misguided, to apply these sciences impartially to the benefit of humanity (in the twenty-first century he would be striving to avert the consequences of global warming). Given Johnson’s own experience of melancholy and fear of madness, it is unsurprising that generations of readers have recognised an empathy between author and astronomer,46 reinforced by the chapter on ‘The dangerous prevalence of imagination’. There but for the grace of God … is surely the intended reaction (though perhaps the reader of the library copy, who pencilled ‘Me!’ in the margin of this chapter, takes it too far). What saves the astronomer is common humanity. Again the later books of Paradise Lost come to mind, in that the agent who does most to recall him from the abyss of depression and despair is a woman, Pekuah, whose influence is not unlike the influence of Eve upon Adam in its benign aspects. It begins with a model of intellectual intimacy between man and woman which Milton had adapted for the prelapsarian relationship of Adam and Eve, and which Johnson himself had rehearsed in Irene: that of preceptor and pupil. When Eve withdraws from the conversation between Adam and Raphael, it is because she prefers to receive angelic instruction mediated through her husband: Yet went she not, as not with such discourse Delighted, or not capable her ear Of what was high: such pleasure she reserved, Adam relating, she sole auditress …

Paradise Lost VIII. lines 48–51 [my italics]


Johnson’s Milton

In a verbal echo, Imlac professes himself doubtful that Pekuah will prove herself ‘a very capable auditress’ of the astronomer’s tuition (Yale XVI. p.159).47 Yet she proves him wrong, and in so doing sets the astronomer on the road to recovery. What marks that recovery is his integration into the little group of travellers, through the tried and tested therapy of occupation and companionship. From this point onwards, he complements Imlac as, so to speak, an elder of the tribe. Notably, it is his contribution (in conjunction with the episode of the old man) that turns their thoughts in a new and solemn direction: It is significant … that it is Rasselas’ Astronomer, now restored to sanity and human affairs, who recommends the visit to the Catacombs and comments on the infinity of God’s powers.48

T h e pu r s u i t of k now l e d g e : ‘t h e c hoic e of e t e r n i t y ’ The visit to the catacombs precipitates the discourse on the nature of the soul, in which Imlac argues the orthodox case for ‘the immateriality of mind’ (Yale XVI. p. 170) and its corollary, the immortality of the soul. The intellectual contexts of the debate have been extensively investigated: Kolb concentrates on a range of ‘writers between (say) 1675 and 1750’49 (that is, post-Milton), but the doctrine, or ‘heresy’, of mortalism, the belief that the soul dies with the body, has earlier seventeenth-century proponents, notoriously Richard Overton, whose tract, Mans Mortalitie, came out in its earliest version in 1643/4. This tract has been claimed to influence Milton’s thinking on the subject.50 Mortalism per se does not contradict belief in immortality, since if the soul dies with the body it can also be ­resurrected with the body, but it has an obvious association with materialism. As Johnson’s astronomer observes, ‘“The nature of the soul is still disputed amidst all our opportunities of clearer knowledge: some yet say, that it may be material, who, nevertheless, believe it to be immortal” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 169). It is the issue of materialism that Imlac vigorously disputes, yoking together the soul’s immateriality and its immortality, as Johnson himself had done in the funeral sermon written for his wife (Yale XIV. p. 264). Whether, or how far, Milton subscribes to the mortalist argument is another question that is ‘still disputed amidst all our opportunities of clearer knowledge’. Among these opportunities is the discovery of De Doctrina Christiana, although the clarity of knowledge has been clouded for modern scholars by the problem of authorship.51 There is no reason, and

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


no evidence, for Johnson’s detecting this particular heresy in the author of Paradise Lost (he was of course unaware of the existence of De Doctrina, and its attribution to Milton). But that leaves the larger issue of whether he might still regard Milton as the kind of philosophic materialist whose views are attacked in Rasselas, chapter XLVIII. Nothing in his critical writings on Paradise Lost seems to suggest this. Quite the reverse, in fact: although the evidence for Milton’s materialism adduced by modern Miltonists accounts for what Johnson felt to be ‘The confusion of spirit and matter’ in Paradise Lost, the alleged confusion could not arise if Johnson were not assuming that Milton believed in angels as immaterial agents (Lives I. p. 290).52 If we now perceive that Imlac’s philosophy of the soul clashes with Milton’s materialism, the concept of the soul’s Creator which underwrites this discussion nevertheless resembles the rational God of Paradise Lost. When the astronomer warns ‘“ let us not … too arrogantly limit the Creator’s power” ’ in discussing what may or may not be possible, Imlac retorts that ‘“It is no limitation of omnipotence” ’ to suppose that the Creator does not deal in logical inconsistencies (Yale XVI. p. 172). Milton would surely agree. He would also agree that although the Creator has power to destroy what he has made, his unwillingness to do so is a test of faith. Nekayah’s spiritual anxiety – ‘“But the Being … whom I fear to name, the Being which made the soul, can destroy it” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 174) – is prefigured by the Son’s question to the Father, but the Son’s question expects the answer no: … Or wilt thou thyself Abolish thy creation, and unmake, For him, what for thy glory thou hast made?

Paradise Lost III. lines 162–4

The Son has faith that God’s goodness and greatness preclude such annihilation. Likewise, the angels later affirm that, although Omnipotence manifests itself both in creation and destruction, ‘to create/ Is greater than created to destroy’ (Paradise Lost VII. lines 606–7). In Rasselas, Imlac responds to Nekayah with a characteristically muted and oblique appeal to the same faith: “He, surely, can destroy it,” answered Imlac, “since, however unperishable, it receives from a superiour nature its power of duration. That it will not perish by any inherent cause of decay, or principle of corruption, may be shown by philosophy; but philosophy can tell no more. That it will not be annihilated by him that made it, we must humbly learn from higher authority.” (Yale XVI. p. 1744)

The ‘higher authority’, like the Being invoked here and elsewhere in Rasselas, remains nameless; but it is the same authority that Milton overtly


Johnson’s Milton

asserts throughout Paradise Lost. What differs is the tentativeness with which Johnson, and his characters, approach the realm of divine knowledge, accepting its mystery. Similarly, the much-discussed displacement of ‘the choice of life’ by ‘the choice of eternity’ at the close of this deeply meditative chapter remains mysterious, although its theological nuances appear inescapable. At the very least, it suggests the possibility of human free-will as contributing to the divine scheme of salvation, another profoundly Miltonic emphasis. But Johnson as narrator withdraws imaginatively from any more explicit contemplation of the Four Last Things. The phrase ‘the choice of eternity’ is left to reverberate in the stillness of the cavernous catacombs, as the company return to Cairo.53 ‘T h e c onc lus ion, i n w h ic h no t h i ng i s c onc l u de d’ If the discourse on the nature of the soul does not conclude Rasselas, what are we to make of the ultimate self-revoking chapter, ‘The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded’? Readers have disagreed over almost every aspect of Johnson’s short fiction, its meaning and purpose, its genre, its philosophy of life, and the role of religion; few have not been baffled and intrigued by its ending. A breakthrough in modern criticism came with the recognition that a return to Abyssinia does not presuppose a return to the Happy Valley, a recognition that disrupts the assumed circularity of the narrative structure.54 In both the title and content of this coda, Johnson takes to an extreme the resistance of finality – the finality which always oppressed him.55 Milton, it should be remembered, is also a master of endings that resist finality, that open up to new beginnings. Earlier in Rasselas, Johnson had alluded to the closing lines of Paradise Lost when the prince declared ‘“I have here the world before me” ’ (Yale XVI. p. 68). A number of readers have noted the allusion; the critics who have perhaps integrated it most eloquently into an interpretation of Johnson’s reworking of the archetypal pattern of Milton’s epic are Paul Fussell and Earl R. Wasserman. In Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, Fussell offers a brilliant exposition of Rasselas as situated ‘in that secular wasteland lying between Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.’ He elaborates the secularist theme: Self-expelled from the fertile but boring Happy Valley of uniform satisfactoriness, the young travelers set out on their distinctly secular quest prepared with all the wrong, rationalistic questions to ask. After a series of comical disappointments whose effects might have been salutary, these ingenus arrive finally at an uneasy ‘decision’ to return to something like their starting point. They cannot return to

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


the Happy Valley any more than Adam and Eve can return to Eden: it is forbidden by law, divine on the one hand, secular on the other. They could, however, return to Abyssinia wiser and therefore perhaps happier than they left it, but they do not, quite. The reason they do not is spoken over and over by the repeated action of ironic reversal which constitutes in little the action of Rasselas as a whole.56

Although Fussell compares their situation with that of Adam and Eve as exiles from paradise, since the Happy Valley is no true paradise in the first place, all they have to lose is an illusion – and the loss of illusions is part of Johnson’s design upon the reader. Fussell’s sceptical reading of the last chapter implies that Johnson is indeed revising the ending of Paradise Lost. By placing it in a secular perspective, he may occlude the possibility of regaining even a paradise within. Earl R. Wasserman takes this argument for a rewriting of Paradise Lost a stage further. It is not simply that Johnson secularises ‘the Miltonic pattern of the Fortunate Fall’, but, more subtly, that he deconstructs it to show the impossibility of doing so: He has invoked the Christian design not, as Fielding did, in order to secularize it and translate it into a design for the happy earthly life, but, on the contrary, to reveal that it cannot be secularized and to explode the design and assumptions of a Tom Jones.

For Wasserman, the episodes of the astronomer and the old man are the key to understanding this objective: By means of the Astronomer and the old man, Johnson has, in effect, rescued the original Christian pattern of the Fortunate Fall from the novelistic secularized version, which he has formally repudiated. Man does not leave Paradise Hall or the Happy Valley to repossess it securely through the acquisition of Wisdom; he acquires Heaven through the wisdom that the “choice of eternity,” not the “choice of life,” is essential.57

Although this thought-provoking argument is developed in terms of a very specific literary and ideological agenda, ultimately it returns us to the simplicity of Boswell’s belief, that ‘Johnson meant, by shewing the unsatisfactory nature of things temporal, to direct the hopes of man to things eternal’ (Life I. p. 342). Yet whether it is read in a secular or religious context, the doctrine of the Fortunate Fall is itself by no means unproblematic, and in purely narrative terms neither Milton nor Johnson actually ends by asserting or denying it. Interestingly, both writers present ‘the choice of eternity’ or the ‘paradise within’ as a possibility only for the future. They insert these key phrases not at the narrative climax (or anti-climax), but before it.


Johnson’s Milton

Indeed, at the close of both Milton’s epics, the triumph, although asserted, is deferred. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve departing from Paradise are as human in their limitations, hopes, and fears as anyone in Rasselas:58 Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and providence their guide: They hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.

Paradise Lost XII. lines 645–9

In Paradise Regained, the angels hymn the Son’s future glory, but he himself ‘unobserved/ Home to his mother’s house private returned’ (IV. lines 638–9). Stripped of dogma, the final lines of Paradise Lost and the closing paragraphs of Rasselas are curiously similar in their low-key plainness, their acceptance of how things are. Humanly speaking, the protagonists set out, or, in the case of Rasselas, resolve to set out, because (in the old cliché) life must go on. After the younger characters in Rasselas have voiced their ‘various schemes of happiness’, the chapter concludes: Imlac and the astronomer were contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing their course to any particular port. Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew that none could be obtained. They deliberated a while what was to be done, and resolved, when the inundation should cease, to return to Abissinia. (Yale XVI. p. 176)

Providence, for them, takes the form of the Nile, ‘the Father of waters’ (Yale XVI. p. 7), which conflates with the metaphor, ‘the stream of life’. Having recognised the futility of their imaginary choices, they nevertheless make a real choice: to do something – ‘to return to Abissinia’ – and to do it together. If for some of them a kind of innocence has been lost, like Adam and Eve they have not lost the capacity for companionship (and for the imagination that, if dangerous, makes life worth living). The quiet, wry accent of disillusion permeates this chapter; but it is not a totally disabling disillusion. Possibly it was Milton, rather than Shakespeare, from whom Johnson learned something of the art of the inconclusive conclusion.59 In writing Rasselas, Johnson gives fictional form to a philosophical enquiry into the nature of innocence and experience, the quest for happiness, the pursuit and value of knowledge, and the relation between reason and choice: all matters of profound concern to Milton. Paradise Lost is not

Rasselas: a rewriting of Paradise Lost?


the only literary paradigm available,60 but there is a sense in which Johnson does rewrite it for his own century, and in a different genre, by negotiating with its text at many key points in his narrative. Reading Johnson’s fable with Paradise Lost in your head may or may not make you a better interpreter of its meaning; it certainly enriches and complicates the reader’s involvement with Rasselas.

Ch apter 4

‘Licence they mean when they cry liberty’: the 1770s tracts

Like Milton before him, Johnson voluntarily put his writing talents at the service of contemporary politics. The familiar form of the political pamphlet is virtually a default mode for many early modern writers, but in the case of Milton and Johnson it is a conscious choice that becomes part of their literary – not just their political – identity. Johnson of course starts as a working journalist. In comparison with the body of work produced by Milton in the 1640s and 1650s following the trajectory of the English Revolution, Johnson’s political writings are much more miscellaneous, charting the highs and lows of the Hanoverian decades from the 1730s to the 1770s. While Milton, with hindsight, could fashion his prose works into a kind of magnum opus on the subject of liberty1 – his other epic, as it has been called – Johnson’s remain stubbornly occasional, even in one or two cases the product of a one-night stand as it were, unacknowledged by their progenitor. They resist easy classification, even in partypolitical or ideological terms, and shade off at the edges into his other writing.2 Milton tends to write from a single viewpoint. Johnson, on the other hand, can inhabit the skin of those whose political ideas clash with his own – a skill honed by his Parliamentary Debates – and, like the barrister manqué he sometimes felt himself to be, he can argue a case from either side. Nevertheless, however occasional these writings, as we would expect of Johnson he consistently appeals to general principle as the bedrock of his arguments. The ultimate sources of these general principles are not so different from Milton’s, though Johnson draws contrasting conclusions and applications. One such source is his reading of history.3 If the responsible political writer believes himself to play a part in history in the making, if his work attempts not only to reflect but also to intervene in historical processes by influencing the governed or shaming the government into a particular course of action, then how he interprets past history is crucial to his authority. For Johnson, Milton and his politics are part of that past, which 82

The 1770s tracts


can be rejected but never ignored. And in the 1770s the political situation looked as if it might replay some of the conflicts that were associated with the earlier turbulent period:  in particular, conflicts over constitutional authority and the challenge of radicalism under the name of liberty. In response to aspects of that situation, Johnson wrote a sequence of political tracts in the first half of the decade. Although in general his political prose does not gather itself as obviously as Milton’s into continuous and cumulative commentary centred on identifiable major themes, this group is an exception; Johnson chose to publish them collectively in 1776 under the title of Political Tracts. Coincidentally, this is a group of particular interest to any reader tracking Johnson in Milton’s snow. Or is it coincidental? Bruce Redford’s magisterial study of these tracts suggests that it is far from being so.4 I have argued in relation to Areopagitica that Johnson’s interest in Milton’s prose was of long standing, and that he alludes to Miltonic arguments and tropes in some of his earlier writings. However, in the 1770s, Johnson’s political stance in general has become more conservative and right-wing, more unequivocally supportive of the reigning monarch and more actively opposed to dissemination of Milton’s ‘democratical works’ – that is, the prose.5 It is not therefore the prose that furnishes him with a rhetorical resource. In this, the only collection of political tracts which Johnson himself saw through the press, it is allusion to Milton’s poetry that threads through the rhetoric to add glitter to the polemical argument. It is no coincidence that this should happen in a decade when Johnson is inhabiting the textual world of Milton perhaps more constantly and more intensely than ever before, as is shown by the revisions of the Dictionary in 1773, and the ‘Life of Milton’.6 What is perhaps more surprising is that Johnson’s intimacy with Paradise Lost should spill over into the Political Tracts. Certainly the effect of this should be kept in proportion. After all, we are talking about a small body of work. But out of the four pamphlets, only one – Taxation No Tyranny, 1775 – contains no direct Miltonic allusion, and even it can be regarded as revisiting the debatable ground of the great seventeenth-century conflicts over constitutional government and the rights of the governed.7 When Johnson rejects libertarian arguments supporting the American cause and dismisses ‘the delirious dream of republican fanaticism’ (Yale X. p. 428), in a sense he is using the preliminary skirmishes of the American Revolution to fight again the paper wars of the English Revolution (for example, in restating the theory of sovereignty, and scrutinising the hypothetical origins of government). Even his most notorious slur on the double standards of the American


Johnson’s Milton

colonists – ‘how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?’ (Yale X. p. 454) – anticipates his withering observation on a similar double standard in Milton’s political and domestic life – ‘they who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it’ (Lives I. p. 276). In eighteenth-century political discourse, as for the seventeenth century and Milton, ‘liberty’ is the key to a whole code of beliefs, particularly liable to abuse because it can mean all things to all men.8 Whatever their subject, all these late political writings strive to deconstruct this discourse of liberty and to clear the mind of cant. Johnson himself signals this by his provocative choice of epigraph for Political Tracts, taken from Claudianus and asserting that, contrary to republican dogma, ‘liberty is never more pleasingly conspicuous than under a virtuous king’ (numquam libertas gratior extat quam sub Rege pio).9 All the tracts question the validity of political rhetoric and are therefore self-referential. Because he is always extraordinarily conscious of linguistic register, Johnson is more than capable of turning his opponents’ verbal artillery back on themselves. In the first tract, The False Alarm (1770), he tackles the Wilkes affair. John Wilkes, convicted under the law for ‘seditious libel and obscenity’, was excluded from the House of Commons, although his Middlesex constituency went on stubbornly electing him as their MP; this had become a cause célèbre which was distinguished precisely by its inflated rhetoric of English patriotism and liberty. Indeed the rallying cry of his supporters makes ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ synonymous.10 Johnson retaliates with a deliberately reasoned defence of the constitutional rights of Parliament, upholding their authority against the rights of the electorate,11 and appealing to ‘the great and pregnant principle of political necessity’ (Yale X. p. 325) – which Milton might have described as ‘necessity, / The tyrant’s plea’ (Paradise Lost IV. lines 393–4). His defence is perfectly legal and constitutional (insofar as the constitutional status quo can be ascertained).12 It challenges the anti-authoritarian arguments not just of the Wilkites, but implicitly those of their revolutionary predecessors: ‘If the possibility of abuse be an argument against authority, no authority ever can be established; if the actual abuse destroys its legality, there is no legal government now in the world’ (Yale X. p. 322). Johnson knew what the historical outcome of such abuse could be. As he once remarked to Sir Adam Fergusson, in no government power can be abused long. Mankind will not bear it. If a s­ overeign oppresses his people to a great degree, they will rise and cut off his head. (Life II. p. 170)

And the shadow of the seventeenth-century rebellion lies across his characterisation of the supporters of Wilkes. Although it is not his only historical referent  – he also cites earlier class-based peasant revolts  – his

The 1770s tracts


language when describing their collective identity and motivation recalls ­seventeenth-century sectarianism more powerfully than in any other context:13 The quiet of the nation has been for years disturbed by a faction, against which all factions ought to conspire; for its original principle is the desire of levelling; it is only animated under the name of zeal, by the natural malignity of the mean against the great. (Yale X. p. 341 [my italics])

Later the memory of earlier conflicts surfaces in the passage in defence of George III, where he makes comparisons with previous kings, beginning with Charles II and ending with his father, Charles I: these low-born railers have attacked not only the authority, but the character of their Sovereign, and have endeavoured, surely without effect, to alienate the affections of the people from the only king, who, for almost a century, has much appeared to desire, or much endeavoured to deserve them. They have insulted him with rudeness and with menaces … with which scarcely the open hostilities of rebellion ventured to vilify the unhappy Charles, even in the remarks on the cabinet of Naseby. (Yale X. p. 342)

Nevertheless, these are cutprice rebels. The title of the pamphlet is The False Alarm. Whereas the drama of the English revolution was played out as tragedy, Johnson implies that the Wilkes affair is being played out as savage farce. His skilfully placed Miltonic allusion to the war in heaven bears this out.14 Of all the books of Paradise Lost, Book VI is the one that Johnson is least disposed to take seriously: The confusion of spirit and matter which pervades the whole narration of the war of heaven fills it with incongruity; and the book, in which it is related, is, I believe, the favourite of children, and gradually neglected as knowledge is increased. (Lives I. pp. 290–1)

Yet it is this very ‘incongruity’ that makes Milton’s narrative available to him as a satirist. There is nothing new in a political pamphleteer demonising his opponents; but for Johnson to demonise the opposition as Miltonic demons not only scores a point, but casts light on his politicised reading of Paradise Lost itself, and his readiness in the right context to accept the identification of the fallen angels with the revolutionaries. In this particular context, he is ridiculing the ineffectuality of petitions as a means of rallying popular support and bringing down Parliament (democratic processes get short shrift generally): Since this expedient … has produced so little effect, let us consider the opposition as no longer formidable. The great engine has recoiled upon them. They thought


Johnson’s Milton

that “the terms they sent were terms of weight,” which would have “amazed all and stumbled many”; but the consternation is now over, and their foes “stand upright,” as before. (Yale X. p. 340)

The passage from which Johnson is quoting is in the original richly, and doubly, ironic; Belial addresses Satan: To whom thus Belial in like gamesome mood. Leader, the terms we sent were terms of weight, Of hard contents, and full of force urged home, Such as we might perceive amused them all, And stumbled many, who receives them right, Had need from head to foot well understand; Not understood, this gift they have besides, They show us when our foes walk not upright.

Paradise Lost VI. lines 620–7

Johnson might remember Addison’s remark that Belial is ‘celebrated in the Battel of Angels for nothing but that Scoffing Speech’.15 Earlier in Paradise Lost Milton had already cast the silken-tongued Belial as the archetypal sophist, his defining role in Book II – or, as we might say, the political spin doctor avant la lettre: … his tongue dropped manna, and could make the worse appear The better reason, to perplex and dash Maturest counsels …

Paradise Lost II. lines 112–15

No warrior, he turns artillery into a play on words, ‘terms of weight’, signifying the fall of language into doubleness. Inevitably, the fallen angels’ gloating meets a terrible reprisal from the ‘eternal might’ (VI. line 630) they scorn; and of course Johnson’s point in adapting the passage is precisely to underscore the satisfying irony of that reversal, when the forces of legitimate authority stand firm – ‘upright’ – against rebellion. In his contemporary setting, it is a purely rhetorical, not a military, reversal, and that is why the choice of Belial’s speech, rather than any other lines from Book VI, is so appropriate. Beyond that, for the reader familiar with his source, it establishes a shadowy paradigm of the perennial political as well as religious myth, the forces of darkness ranged against the victorious forces of light. Not that Johnson is likely to intend the full implications of that paradigm: George III does not stand in for an offended deity hurling the might of his government against satanic Wilkites. Johnson exaggerates for limited satiric purposes, and Milton’s version of the war in heaven licenses such satire. His scorn for the ‘rabble’ in this pamphlet (and others) matches that of the older Milton, and, as Redford argues, when he compares the

The 1770s tracts


Wilkite supporters with the fallen angels, it is not to aggrandize but to belittle them.16 Indeed, his final comparison of the Wilkes affair with historical precedents, including the English Revolution, represents the present unrest as a squalid and trivial dispute: One part of the nation has never before contended with the other, but for some weighty and apparent interest. If the means were violent, the end was great. The civil war was fought for what each army called and believed the best religion, and the best government … We are now disputing, with almost equal animosity, whether Middlesex shall be represented or not by a criminal from a jail. (Yale X. p. 343)

To have Johnson looking back at the English Civil War as setting a benchmark for principled conflict is in its way extraordinary, though he expresses a similar opinion in 1775 (Life II. p. 369). It can be explained by his view of Wilkes’s supporters as ‘the sectaries, the natural fomenters of sedition, and confederates of the rabble, of whose religion little now remains but hatred of establishments’ (Yale X. p. 344) – in other words, degenerate descendants of seventeenth-century puritanism. Although The False Alarm deploys a range of historical allusions, those to the English Revolution, edged by the brilliant Paradise Lost insult, cut closest to the bone. Although it is not the next pamphlet in chronological order, The Patriot (1774) reads rather like an appendage to The False Alarm. It was written in similar circumstances, to gratify and support Johnson’s friend, Henry Thrale, MP for Southwark, who was standing for re-election. On its topical interest in relation to the earlier tract, Donald J. Greene writes ‘the most impressive [comment] is Johnson’s contrast between the noise made over the Wilkes affair and the quiet adoption of Grenville’s Elections Act’ (Yale X. pp. 387–8). But what links it more profoundly with The False Alarm is Johnson’s criticism of the misuse of political rhetoric. As the ironically simple title implies, ‘patriot’ is as tainted as ‘liberty’ in eighteenth-century usage, circulating widely as part of a debased verbal currency (Yale X. pp. 388–9). To highlight the disjunction between word and sense, Johnson prefaces his pamphlet with a quatrain from Milton’s sonnet XII, ‘On the Detraction which followed upon my Writing Certain Treatises’: They bawl for freedom in their senseless mood, [my italics] Yet still revolt when truth would set them free, License they mean, when they cry liberty, For who loves that must first be wise and good.

lines 9–12: Yale X. p. 389

The ‘Certain Treatises’ were the divorce tracts, which Johnson, like many others, regarded as Milton’s personal axe-grinding; but the choice of


Johnson’s Milton

quotation is political, not personal.17 Greene asserts that ‘This was ­anything but a novel epigraph for a political pamphlet in the eighteenth century’ (Yale X. p. 389, note 1), without, however, citing any other examples. If so, Johnson sharpens a commonplace by its shrewd application. (He even heightens the irony, deliberately or accidentally, by substituting ‘Yet’ for the original conjunction ‘And’ in line 10.) It is the lexicographer, the scourge of cant, who relishes Milton’s classical distinction between ‘license’ and ‘liberty’. Indeed, he uses three of these lines in the Dictionary to illustrate the first meaning of ‘license’ as ‘Exorbitant liberty; contempt of legal and necessary restraint’ – this in spite of the fact that Johnson the literary critic did not rate Sonnet XII highly. Not only does Johnson borrow his epigraph from Milton, but the language of the pamphlet itself is stamped by a political typecasting that recalls to the reader Johnson’s view of Milton’s politics and Milton’s creation of Satan. When redefining the possible meanings of ‘Patriot’ in popular usage in order to expose them (Yale X. pp. 390–1), Johnson attributes to false patriots precisely those motives of self-regard, hatred of authority per se, and ‘sense of injured merit’ which Milton attributes to Satan and which Johnson was later to assign to Milton himself. His profile of ‘The Patriot’ includes demagoguery, warmongering, and support for rebellion. He also attacks a hypocritical intolerance of liberty for others which he associates with Protestant Dissent (Yale X. p. 393). Naturally Johnson’s concern in an electioneering pamphlet is to aim at topical targets. But his indictment of the perceived gap between rhetoric and reality transcends the immediate circumstances and climaxes in a gesture that is itself a triumph of rhetoric. The 1770s British electorate find themselves metamorphosed into Hell’s deluded angels, as, having begun with a Milton sonnet, he concludes on a quotation from Paradise Lost: it is surely not too much to expect, that the nation will recover from its delusion, and unite in a general abhorrence of those who, by deceiving the credulous with fictitious mischiefs, overbearing the weak by audacity of falsehood, by appealing to the judgment of ignorance, and flattering the vanity of meanness, by slandering honesty and insulting dignity, have gathered round them whatever the kingdom can supply of base, and gross, and profligate; and “raised by merit to this bad eminence,” arrogate to themselves the name of Patriots. (Yale X. pp. 399–400)

The parallel with Milton’s Satan as consummate politician, occupying the foremost place in the kingdom of the damned by virtue of a deeply ironical ‘merit’ (Paradise Lost II. lines 5–6), confirms Johnson’s consistent connection between abuse of power and abuse of language. For all

The 1770s tracts


Satan’s fiction of freedom, hell is not a free state, for only the truth can set free (John 8:32). License he means when he cries liberty. However, in The Patriot Johnson does not identify an individual satanic figure among the opposition. This is collective demonisation. In fact, although the style may be reminiscent of an earlier satiric mode,18 his political writing of the 1770s is generally less ad hominem than much early modern political polemic, which contributes to its impressiveness. An exception might be made of the interim pamphlet, Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands (1771), since it does have an identifiable individual adversary  – although, paradoxically, he is finally unidentifiable, cloaked under the pseudonym of Junius.19 In this anti-war tract, Johnson is responding on behalf of the government to attacks on its accommodation with Spain over the Falklands crisis, attacks spearheaded by Junius in his letter of January 30, 1771, published in the Public Advertiser. Oddly, Junius himself does not use Miltonic allusion as a polemical weapon;20 but for Johnson’s purposes Paradise Lost is an inspired choice of source, given Milton’s treatment of the literary discourse of heroism. Undergirding the argument of Thoughts on … Falkland’s Islands is a powerful critique of the glorification of war, compressed into the blazing passages contrasting superficial heroic fantasies with the futile and unheroic wastage of human life, not even on the field of battle – ‘The life of a modern soldier is ill represented by heroic fiction’ (Yale X. p. 370). Jeremy Black places this critique in the context of ‘the Tory tradition in foreign policy’ as opposed to Whig interventionism and expansionism (he also reminds us of Johnson’s contrary position as a younger man when he was against ‘Walpole’s alleged appeasement of Spain’).21 Obviously, party considerations can be taken into account. Yet Johnson’s diatribe against ‘heroic fiction’ goes beyond these, as it goes beyond the specific crisis. As James T. Boulton puts it in an earlier study: His classical references, his allusions to Pope and Milton, his general appeal to a cultivated audience … all suggest that he speaks with the authority of learning and intelligence, that he can see beyond the immediate facts as isolated phenomena and can see them in a large context where universal moral truths  – principally that peace is the most desirable human condition – are of pre-eminent importance.22

‘Universal moral truths’ cut little ice with many modern critics. But the tenor of Johnson’s argument has literary antecedents, not merely political bias. (And, indeed, literary successors: perhaps not until the First World War is Johnson’s eloquence and precision in confronting the myth of war


Johnson’s Milton

with the actuality to be equalled or surpassed.) If poetry is responsible for inculcating the questionable ideal of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, it can also powerfully question that ideal. Johnson’s distrust of traditional heroics finds strong support in Milton’s famous challenge to the entire epic and chivalric ethos in Paradise Lost. And it is to Paradise Lost that Johnson turns at the height of his anti-war polemic in Thoughts on … Falkland’s Islands. His denunciation of war profiteers is, appropriately, far more bitter than his criticism of those misled into thinking of war ‘as little more than a splendid game’ (Yale X. p. 370). The latter are guilty of a failure to imagine the actual consequences of war; but the former deliberately exploit its consequences, fattening on what Milton, writing of an earlier conflict, had called ‘all this waste of wealth, and loss of blood’ (Sonnet XII, line 14). In Johnson’s words: If he that shared the danger enjoyed the profit, and after bleeding in the battle grew rich by the victory, he might shew his gains without envy. But at the conclusion of a ten years war, how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes and the expence of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractors and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors and whose palaces rise like exhalations. (Yale X. p. 371)

Here Johnson alludes to the building of Pandemonium in Paradise Lost: Anon out of the earth a fabric huge Rose like an exhalation, with the sound Of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet, Built like a temple …

Paradise Lost I. lines 710–13

The word ‘exhalation’ (illustrated by this same quotation in the Dictionary) is particularly apposite, because it sets up an associative image of ­ill-omen – ‘An exhalation could become a meteor or comet, ominous for man’23 – which climaxes in the comet metaphor later applied to Junius, the villain of the piece. With ‘his gift for vituperation’, Junius appears a promising candidate for a satanic role (one anonymous assailant assigns him ‘Hell-forg’d Weapons’).24 Johnson, more imaginatively, has it both ways. He simultaneously invokes the satanic comparison and denies Junius its charisma, contemptuously deflating his political importance. Among the cats-cradle of literary allusions that he weaves to snare his opponent are threads of Virgil, Shakespeare, and Pope.25 The most striking, however, derives from Paradise Lost, and indeed, as Johnson would realise, from Virgil and Tasso

The 1770s tracts


reinvented in Paradise Lost.26 In Book II, Milton describes Satan in a superb epic simile: Incensed with indignation Satan stood Unterrified, and like a comet burned, That fires the length of Ophiucus huge In the Arctic sky, and from his horrid hair Shakes pestilence and war.

Paradise Lost II. lines 707–11

Johnson slightly adapts the wording of the last half-lines, and turns epic simile into a devastating mock-heroic metaphor: Junius is an unusual phaenomenon on which some have gazed with wonder and some with terrour, but wonder and terrour are transitory passions. He will soon be more closely viewed or more attentively examined, and what folly has taken for a comet that from its flaming hair shook pestilence and war, enquiry will find to be only a meteor formed by the vapours of putrefying democracy, and kindled into flame by the effervescence of interest struggling with conviction; which having plunged its followers in a bog, will leave us enquiring why we regarded it. (Yale X. pp. 377–8)

Milton’s Satan is likewise destined for a humiliating denouement within the narrative of Paradise Lost itself, a denouement which is not only individual but collective, and which Johnson reserves for his own finale. In the original allusion to the building of Pandemonium, the pattern of implicit comparison between a warmongering, profiteering eighteenth­century Britain and Milton’s hell has another fundamental appositeness. The provider of the materials for the building of Pandemonium is Mammon, ‘the least erected spirit that fell/ From heaven’ (Paradise Lost I. lines 679–80): Johnson accuses his countrymen of serving not God but Mammon – the profiteers represent only an extreme example of a self-interest that underwrites the pursuit of the ‘national interest’ and imperialist ambitions.27 Nor does Johnson leave it at that. In the closing stages of his argument, he returns with renewed vehemence to attack those who are dissatisfied with what to all reasonable people appears an acceptable and peaceable outcome, ‘those who having fixed their hopes on publick calamities, sat like vultures waiting for a day of carnage’ (Yale X. p. 384). Again he reaches into his memory of Paradise Lost, but in this instance to point a contrast rather than make a direct analogy:28 When they found that all were happy in spite of their machinations, and the soft effulgence of peace shone out upon the nation, they felt no motion but that of sullen envy; they could not, like Milton’s prince of hell, abstract themselves a


Johnson’s Milton

moment from their evil; as they have not the wit of Satan, they have not his virtue; they tried once again what could be done by sophistry without art, and confidence without credit. (Yale X. pp. 384–5)

In this passage, he is alluding to the moment in Eden just before the Fall, when Satan, overwhelmed by pleasure in Eve’s beauty and innocence, himself regresses to a strangely unselfconscious innocence of being: That space the evil one abstracted stood From his own evil, and for the time remained Stupidly good, of enmity disarmed, Of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge …

Paradise Lost IX. lines 463–6

Like Satan in motivation (‘sullen envy’), they sink beneath him in the moral scale because their evil is unremitting. Indeed Johnson adopts, consciously or not, a tactic that Milton uses elsewhere in Paradise Lost. At the climax of Book II, when Satan undertakes the ‘hazard huge’ of his lone mission and the fallen angels unite in his acclaim, the narrator strikingly intervenes: Oh shame to men! Devil with devil damnedw Firm concord holds, men only disagree Of creatures rational, though under hope Of heavenly grace: and God proclaiming peace, Yet live in hatred, enmity, and strife Among themselves, and levy cruel wars, Wasting the earth, each other to destroy …

Paradise Lost II. lines 496–502

It is perhaps surprising that Johnson does not avail himself directly of lines so close in spirit to his own anti-war rhetoric in Thoughts on … Falkland’s Islands. But in selecting the alternative passage from Book IX, he makes the same paradoxical point – that even Milton’s Satan, prince of evil, is incapable of such consistent atrocity as human beings ‘among themselves’. And a further, interestingly nuanced, reading of Paradise Lost emerges. If, for many readers of the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson appears to resist, or at least profess unawareness of, the complicated attractiveness of Milton’s Satan, arguably this allusion suggests otherwise: ‘as they have not the wit of Satan, they have not his virtue’. For Johnson to concede wit and virtue to Satan – the qualities that make him more than stupidly evil, so to speak – betrays that he is not oblivious to the charisma of Milton’s creation. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the tract, Johnson reverts to the more simplistic equation of the opposition with the devils of Paradise Lost, this time to exult in their defeat and degradation. Seemingly he can afford to be loftily magnanimous, once their sting is drawn. ‘To be harmless though

The 1770s tracts


by impotence obtains some degree of kindness’, he writes, a remark that coincidentally applies very neatly to his description of attitudes to Milton after the Restoration (Lives I. p. 263). He continues: no man hates a worm as he hates a viper; they were once dreaded enough to be detested, as serpents that could bite; they have now shewn that they can only hiss, and may therefore quietly slink into holes, and change their slough unmolested and forgotten. (Yale X. p. 386)

Lipking, who notes the Miltonic image, implies that Johnson protests too much: Protesting that there is nothing to fear, Johnson seems haunted by enemies who lurk in the sewers or under the ground and feed on his own sickly fancies. Each patriot harbors a serpent; in this passage, as in the description of Junius and elsewhere throughout the pamphlets, the real antagonist seems to be Milton’s Satan. We have come a long way from the Falklands.29

Yet the provenance of the image is a reminder of Satan’s humiliation and defeat. What rises in Johnson’s imagination here is the scene of the great dramatic reversal in Paradise Lost Book X, when Satan returns in triumph to his followers in hell, and his would-be heroic oratory with its resounding peroration – ‘what remains, ye gods,/ But up and enter now into full bliss’ – is met not by acclaim but by ‘A dismal universal hiss, the sound/ Of public scorn’ (Paradise Lost X. lines 502–3, 508–9). In context, this defeat of expectation, with the sardonic rhyming of ‘bliss’ against ‘hiss’, is extraordinarily effective. As Johnson paraphrases it, ‘they can only hiss’ [my italics]. Another significant point is the nature of Satan’s humiliation. It strikes not only at his form, ironically transformed into ‘a monstrous serpent’, but at the very source of his strength, his rhetorical powers. Deprived first of a response from his audience, he is then deprived of language itself: he would have spoke, But hiss for hiss returned with forkèd tongue To forkèd tongue, for now were all transformed Alike, to serpents …

Paradise Lost X. lines 517–20

This is exactly what Johnson is aiming at, metaphorically speaking, in the late political writings: the silencing of perverted rhetoric. At the close of Thoughts on … Falkland’s Islands, with the support of Milton, he can imagine its achievement. One purpose of gathering together the allusions to Paradise Lost in this political context is to consider their implications for Johnson’s reading of Milton’s poem. In the later ‘Life of Milton’, when criticising the epic, he


Johnson’s Milton

does not offer a politicised reading even of Satan.30 Redford asserts that in the 1770s tracts ‘Johnson links what he keeps separate in his Life  – ­politics like Milton’s on the one hand and rebelliousness like Satan’s on the other.’31 Certainly, the pamphlets make it clear that Johnson – as might be expected – is perfectly ready to entertain a political interpretation of Satan and the fallen angels, and that he is especially alive to its relevance and uses for political rhetoric. In fact, on one occasion at least, this also surfaces in the ‘Life of Milton’, where Johnson does associate the political Milton with Satan (Lives I. p. 251). But as a critic of Paradise Lost, he has other aims, and it is to his criticism that I now turn.

Pa r t II

Johnson the critic: assessing Milton’s achievement

Ch apter 5

‘Phantoms which cannot be wounded’:  the Lauder affair

Johnson’s known critical engagement with Milton might be said to begin at Oxford, when as an undergraduate he translated the accolade of another great English poet and critic who was to influence his thinking and literary taste. In his epigram on Milton for the significantly dated 1688 edition of Paradise Lost, John Dryden had set a benchmark for his eighteenthcentury successors, combining patriotism and classicism: Three Poets, in three distant Ages born, Greece, Italy, and England did adorn. The First in loftiness of thought Surpass’d; The Next in Majesty; in both the Last. The force of Nature cou’d no farther goe: To make a Third she joyned the former two.1

The comparison between Paradise Lost and ancient epic, initiated by Milton himself, was to become a staple of Milton criticism; Dryden puts it more succinctly and elegantly than most, and perhaps it was that epigrammatic elegance that appealed to the young Johnson. His own rendering has been both praised and criticised.2 Johnson himself not only retained it in his capacious memory, but quoted it to Boswell many years later in another university city, Aberdeen (Life V. p. 86). At the very least, this implies that he does not object to Dryden’s tribute to Milton’s exalted status among English poets. Yet his first significant intervention in the scholarly industry that had grown up around Paradise Lost by the time he was middle-aged is linked to a blatant attempt to destroy that status, to topple Milton from his pedestal as ‘the BRITISH HOMER’.3 This is, of course, the notorious Lauder affair – or scandal, controversy, debacle or brouhaha, as it has been variously termed. It figures, also variously, in Johnson biographies: Johnson’s role in one of the most famous plagiarism cases of the early modern period requires explanation, and from the outset that role was linked with his general attitude to Milton. The 97


Johnson’s Milton

story has so many ramifications for the world of scholarship that even now it provides a particularly juicy case history for theorists.4 Its central instigator, William Lauder, is a bizarre figure, combining grotesquerie, malignity, and pathos. Indeed he appears almost as a real-life antecedent to the Dickensian creation, Silas Wegg, being ‘A literary man – with a wooden leg’ and, like Wegg, ‘ranged with that very numerous class of impostors, who are … determined to keep up appearances’.5 Maimed by an accident on a golf-course in his native Scotland, Lauder came south to seek his fortune as a genuinely literary man, a Latin scholar, and went on to commit a quintessential literary crime. The facts are not in dispute. Lauder embarked upon what seemed at first to be a perfectly bona fide project, seeking to identify sources for Paradise Lost among modern neo-Latin texts, just as commentators and editors had done with classical sources. The alleged results of this source-hunting were first of all published as a series of contributions to the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1747 onwards,6 and then collected and extended in book form as An Essay on Milton’s Use and Imitation of the Moderns, in his Paradise Lost (1749/50). Possibly the piecemeal nature of the original publication ­encouraged credulity:  the initial impression is of a sober, even dry, assessment of the evidence by comparing extended passages from Masenius, Grotius, et al. If read at a sitting in its book form, Lauder’s piling of Pelius on Ossa, Scots poetry on European (‘even a Batavian divine [Staphorstius] could not escape him’), becomes more suspicious. Milton, it seems, ranged the literary earth, seeking whom he would devour, until exposed by Lauder, at his triumphant climax, as ‘not inferior, perhaps, to the most unlicensed plagiary that ever wrote’.7 Indeed, Lauder lurches into an extraordinary biographical diversion, implicating Milton’s nephew and daughters in his conspiracy theory. Edward Phillips’s Theatrum poetarum (1675) is evidently a coded catalogue, ‘nothing else, but a short account of all the poetical authors in his uncle’s library’. Like many conspiracy theories, this depends on what is missing  – Lauder deduces a cover-up from the works, such as Cats’s Paradisus, that Phillips cunningly omits, in order, claims Lauder, not to encourage ‘the curiosity of scholars’. Milton’s notorious treatment of his daughters reinforces the theory: he taught them to read without understanding what they read, because he ‘well knew the loquacious and incontinent spirit of the sex, and the danger, on that account, of intrusting them with so important a secret as his unbounded plagiarism’.8 Unfortunately for Lauder, ‘the curiosity of scholars’ was aroused well before the actual publication of his book.9 The querying of his credentials,

The Lauder affair


and the progressive demolition of his case, culminated in John Douglas’s resoundingly titled Milton Vindicated From the Charge of Plagiarism, Brought against him by Mr. Lauder, and Lauder himself convicted of several Forgeries and gross Impositions on the Public (1750/51). For it was Lauder who turned out to be the guilty party: in a satisfying and symmetrical poetic justice, Lauder is exposed as tampering with texts by interpolating lines from William Hog’s 1690 Latin translation of Paradise Lost into the supposed parallel passages from other authors. The proofs were irrefutable; Lauder was brought down by his own method of textual comparison. However, the question of motive is more complicated, both as regards Lauder himself and those who were taken in by his imposture, especially Johnson. Lauder’s nationality, his politics, his disability, his impoverishment, would be more than enough to account for the chip on his shoulder, but he aggravated his disadvantages by a temperament that was both aggressive and defensive. In trying to explain his spite against Milton, he is as successful or unsuccessful as Milton’s own Satan trying to explain his spite against God. Scholars have sought reasons, from a quip by Pope in the Dunciad to the political animus of a defeated Jacobite, for his anti-Milton campaign.10 No doubt there was more than one contributory factor, but in the end Lauder seems to want to discredit Milton just because he is Milton (hence his second bite at the poisoned cherry in King Charles Vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism, 1754). According to his booksellers, Payne and Bouquet, when they confronted him with Douglas’s charge, he felt and showed no remorse: ‘He has this Day admitted the Charge, but with great Insensibility.’11 Sensibility was, however, to be supplied by Johnson, in A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Douglas, Occasioned by his Vindication of Milton (1751), which  – or the greater part of which  – Johnson dictated to Lauder ‘acknowledging his fraud in terms of suitable contrition’ (Life I. p. 229). The contrition may not have been simply vicarious.12 Surprisingly, in view of his habitual scepticism, Johnson was one of those deceived by Lauder’s allegations of Milton’s plagiarism. More, he had given support in 1747 to Lauder’s Proposals for an edition of Grotius’s Adamus Exul, and had written a Preface, later attached in emended form to the infamous Essay itself. That the idea of an edition of Adamus Exul should have attracted Johnson as an admirer of Grotius is understandable.13 Demonstrably, this work could have a perfectly legitimate connection to Paradise Lost. But Johnson’s failure to recognise the point at which Lauder’s fanaticism pushes him over the edge into fraudulence appears less excusable, and has excited much


Johnson’s Milton

speculation. What was it about Lauder that entangled Johnson in the p­ lagium, the net from which plagiarism takes its name? One explanation is that he was predisposed to accept Lauder’s case for a mixture of motives, personal, political, and literary.14 Johnson’s praiseworthy humanitarianism, his breadth of sympathy for those who are now described as marginalised, and his readiness to extend help to the most recalcitrant, must have played some part. Physical imperfection in human beings (even in an inanimate object like a chair) seemed to bring out a kind of fellow-feeling in Johnson. His own brief comment, written as an impromptu self-defence in his copy of Francis Blackburne’s attacking Remarks on Johnson’s Life of Milton (1780) is interesting: ‘In the business of Lauder I was deceived, partly by thinking the man too frantick to be fraudulent.’15 He admits to a psychological misreading of Lauder (but not of Milton). ‘Frantick’ Lauder certainly was, as anyone who reads all the material in the case can scarcely doubt. Nonetheless his plausibility should not be underestimated: the fraud is not immediately obvious. Johnson’s use of ‘partly’ is honest and intriguing. Was he also influenced by political affinities with Lauder, and a shared antagonism towards Milton’s republicanism? His biographer John Hawkins implies as much, connecting Johnson’s Milton criticism in The Rambler and the Lauder affair; at the club meeting when the proof sheets of Lauder’s Essay were inspected: I could all along observe that Johnson seemed to approve, not only of the design but of the argument, and seemed to exult in a persuasion, that the reputation of Milton was likely to suffer by this discovery. That he was not privy to the imposture I am well persuaded, but that he wished well to the argument must be inferred from the preface, which indubitably was written by Johnson.16

Joseph Towers makes the same inference more blatantly in 1786 (and Hazlitt repeats the allegation in 1819): It can hardly be doubted, but that his aversion to Milton’s politics, was the cause of that alacrity, with which he joined with Lauder, in his infamous attack on our great epic poet, and which induced him to assist him in that transaction.17

However, there is a literary as well as a political and cultural dimension, and perhaps it is on literary grounds that the case for defending Johnson is, paradoxically, both strongest and weakest. As so often, Boswell constitutes himself as Johnson’s advocate against other biographers or critics. In his narrative of the Lauder affair (which of course antedated his personal acquaintance with Johnson by some twelve years), he is avowedly partisan.

The Lauder affair


Lauder’s motive is inscrutable ‘unless it were a vain notion of his superiority, in being able, by whatever means, to deceive mankind’ (Life I. p. 229). In contrast, Johnson acted in transparently good faith. Boswell scores a point by juxtaposing the Preface to Lauder’s Essay – written ‘in full persuasion of Lauder’s honesty’ – and the ‘Postscript recommending, in the most persuasive terms, a subscription for the relief of a grand-daughter of Milton’. He quotes the Postscript, remarking: Surely this is inconsistent with “enmity towards Milton,” which Sir John Hawkins imputes to Johnson upon this occasion … Is it possible for any man of clear judgement to suppose that Johnson, who so nobly praised the poetical excellence of Milton in a Postscript to this very “discovery,” as he then supposed it, could, at the same time, exult in a persuasion that the great poet’s reputation was likely to suffer by it? This is an inconsistency of which Johnson was incapable; nor can any thing more be fairly inferred from the Preface, than that Johnson, who was alike distinguished for ardent curiosity and love of truth, was pleased with an investigation by which both were gratified. That he was actuated by these motives, and certainly by no unworthy desire to depreciate our great epick poet, is evident from his own words …

and he proceeds to cite the passage from the Preface which compares the construction of a work of literary genius to a mighty architectural achievement (Life I. pp. 230–1). This is also broadly the line taken by modern defenders of Johnson, and it is easy to see its appeal.18 Lauder’s original research proposal is precisely the kind that quickens a genuine scholarly impulse: the aim is to investigate origins and analyse the transmission and transformation of literary and linguistic material, accompanied by the desire to observe the hidden processes of creation (a desire peculiarly appropriate to Paradise Lost). As Paul Baines wittily demonstrates in The House of Forgery with his chapter headings and subheadings,19 Paradise Lost is a perfect paradigm for a narrative of plagiarism dealing in original sin and forbidden knowledge. But this perception is itself the product of knowingness, of which Johnson might be presumed initially innocent. If Johnson’s Preface is read equally innocently, especially in its original form,20 its subsequent attachment to Lauder’s Essay becomes even more puzzling. No unprejudiced reader would immediately assume that the actuating motive is an antipathy to Milton. Richard Terry has put this most strongly, asserting that the Preface is ‘a contribution so innocent of Lauder’s actual design that it seems inconceivable that Johnson had ever perused the manuscript’.21 All that can be proved is guilt by association, not intent. Certainly the


Johnson’s Milton

weakness in this defence is obvious: if Johnson were prepared to lend his credentials to Lauder, he should have examined Lauder’s text far more assiduously and tested the evidence. But Johnson was not alone. Lauder has respectable precedents for his source-hunting, and is prepared to lay claim to the support of some eminent men of letters – ‘The reverend Mr. Birch, Dr. Newton, the late Mr. Samuel Johnson, keeper of St. Martin’s library, and the present Mr. Samuel Johnson, author of the plan of a new universal English dictionary …’22 Johnson’s Preface constructs a picture not just of the ‘boundless veneration’ of an easily led general public, but of an informed inner circle of Miltonists, ‘men of genius and literature’ competing over Paradise Lost (‘who should most advance its honour, or best distinguish its beauties’). Johnson highlights their activities: ‘Some have revised editions, others have published commentaries, and all have endeavoured to make their particular studies in some degree subservient to this general emulation.’23 The final remark may hint at a possible reservation  – should disinterested scholarship be ‘subservient to … general emulation’? – but there is no suggestion that the work itself is unworthy of this attention.24 In fact, its reputation is said to have prevailed over ‘the unpopularity of its author’. The whole thrust of the Preface is to encourage the continuation and consolidation of source study. Clearly, Johnson is not only familiar with, but takes professional interest in, the conjectures of commentators (the foundations of his own criticism of Paradise Lost are already laid): Mr. Voltaire tells us, without proof, that the first hint of Paradise lost was taken from a farce called Adamo … Dr. Pearce, that it was derived from an Italian tragedy called Il paradiso perso; and Mr. Peck, that it was borrowed from a wild Romance. Any of these conjectures may possibly be true, but as they stand without sufficient proof, it must be granted likewise, that they may all possibly be false …25

It is ironic that Johnson here invokes a standard of intellectual quality control that, applied to the work he is prefacing, would, and did, sink Lauder. Similarly, his attitude to the discovery of the Trinity MS reflects the value for Milton scholars of locating ‘the embryo of this great poem’;26 Lauder in contrast gloatingly perverts it to his own ends: tho’ that fatal manuscript of his was lately brought to light to reflect honour on him, for such the reverend Mr. Birch informed me was his view in making it public; yet, from the use I have made of it, it serves for a quite contrary purpose.27

Although Johnson accepts the possibility that Milton’s manuscript draft might simply record the plays of other authors, not his original ideas,

The Lauder affair


he does not imply that the status of Paradise Lost is in any way compromised. On the contrary, he presents the prospect of recovering ‘the genuine source of Paradise lost’, ‘the prima stamina of this wonderful poem’,28 as one of pure intellectual excitement and pleasure, not opprobrium and scandal. We can compare the belief expressed in Rasselas, that ‘When the eye or the imagination is struck with any uncommon work the next transition of an active mind is to the means by which it was performed’ (Yale XVI. p. 113). So far, the argument of the Preface could be endorsed in principle by any literary scholar, Miltonists included. There remains the core passage of the piece, the one most frequently quoted (and showcased by Boswell in his speech for the defence): Among the inquiries to which this ardour of criticism has naturally given occasion, none is more obscure in itself, or more worthy of rational curiosity, than a retrospection of the progress of this mighty genius in the construction of his work, a view of the fabric gradually rising, perhaps from small beginnings, till its foundation rests in the centre, and its turrets sparkle in the skies; to trace back the structure through all its varieties to the simplicity of its first plan, to find what was first projected, whence the scheme was taken, how it was improved, by what assistance it was executed, and from what stores the materials were collected; whether its founder dug them from the quarries of nature, or demolished other buildings to embellish his own.29

Few source-hunters might have the imagination, or the temerity, to dignify the object of their efforts with such majestic metaphor. Having quoted the passage, Boswell demands ‘Is this the language of one who wished to blast the laurels of Milton?’ (Life I. p. 231). Later commentators return the expected negative answer. Fussell extends the ‘brilliant’ architectural metaphor, and links it with Johnson’s distinction between legitimate imitation and plagiary in Rambler 143: Since building materials are always the same stones, bricks, wood, and iron, they can just as well be taken from existing masterpieces as directly from the quarry. There is as little cause for imputations of “plagiarism” in literature as in architecture, as Johnson explains in Rambler 143 …30

Baines points out that Johnson’s metaphor displaces ‘Lauder’s vocabulary of theft’.31 And Fix also agrees with Boswell’s challenge: Johnson’s language consistently suggests that Milton improved upon his sources so decisively, so skillfully, that the discovery of any “assistance” by which Paradise Lost “was executed” could only redound to Milton’s credit.


Johnson’s Milton

He detects a continuity between this and the much later passage on the ‘rudiments of Paradise Lost’ in the ‘Life of Milton’ (Lives I. p. 261), where, he claims, ‘Johnson again uses the language of gestation.’32 But this obscures an interesting difference of emphasis. ‘Gestation’ accurately applies to the organic process suggested by the words ‘embryo’ (Preface) and ‘seminal’, ‘pregnant’ and ‘growth’ (‘Life of Milton’); but in the Preface human art is the dominant metaphor. In Paradise Lost itself, Milton discriminates between different kinds of creative process, divine and human. In his first invocation, he images the former as gestation – the Holy Spirit ‘Dovelike satst brooding on the vast abyss / And mad’st it pregnant’ (I. lines 21–2). Architecture, however, tends to be a much more ambivalent trope for seventeenth-century poets. For better or worse, architects exploit natural materials (‘So Architects do square and hew, / Green Trees that in the Forest grew’).33 They can build to God’s glory, or to man’s vainglory. In choosing an architectural analogy for literary genius, especially in the context of the end justifying the means, Johnson may indeed intend to honour Milton unequivocally, and he has certainly dazzled the critics. But with reference to Paradise Lost, this particular image shines with a borrowed brilliance that casts a shadow. The nearest equivalent in the poem itself to Johnson’s description of ‘the fabric gradually rising, perhaps from small beginnings, till its foundation rests in the centre, and its turrets sparkle in the skies’ is the creation of Pandemonium from the quarries of Hell: Anon out of the earth a fabric huge Rose like an exhalation … … The ascending pile Stood fixed her stately height …

Paradise Lost I. lines 710–11, 722–3

Milton deliberately enhances the role of Mulciber, the demonic architect: … the work some praise And some the architect: his hand was known In heaven by many a towered structure high, Where sceptred angels held their residence, And sat as princes …

Paradise Lost I. lines 731–5

Architecture has a place in heaven as well as in hell, but the dual role of the architect could hardly be better illustrated. In heaven, he participates in glorifying a divinely ordered hierarchy; in hell, he can only imitate, inventing in the older sense, and working with materials obtained from

The Lauder affair


violating nature (Paradise Lost I. line 687). Nevertheless, humanly speaking, his edifice is still one of sublime beauty. Like many readers, Johnson was impressed by Milton’s description, enough to use it as illustration and allusion.34 Whether such an allusion exists in the passage from the Preface – whether there is even a shadow of conscious ambivalence – it is impossible to say. But the possibility of an unconscious echo cannot be ruled out. For Paradise Lost, of all texts, to be at the centre of a plagiary case seems peculiarly apropos. Central to the epic, and to its foundation myth, is the question of origins, and hence originality; authorship, and rebellion against, denial and displacement of, authorship. Baines speaks of ‘the central transgressive action of Paradise Lost with its original Satanic forger’.35 Satan, the ‘first grand thief ’ (Paradise Lost IV. line 192) is the father of plagiarists, who not only copies the divine works, but also denies their source. In claiming his own originality, his self-authorship, he attempts to erase the authorship of God. Further, he enacts the root sense of plagiarist, a kidnapper or seducer, trapping Eve in his rhetorical net. Lauder’s accusation of plagiarism levelled against Milton might appear to realign the author with his own Satan, an identification that eighteenth-century critics work hard to avoid by separating the demonic rebel from the divinely inspired genius. Viewed in this light, the outrage of many readers over Lauder’s apparent revelation that Paradise Lost is built on a lie is even more understandable. When Johnson remakes Lauder’s weasel praise of ‘that noble poet, who certainly is intitled to the highest praise, for raising so beautiful a structure’36 in his architectural metaphor, he may unwittingly have cast Milton more in the role of Mulciber. Be that as it may, he makes full amends in the confessional letter dictated to Lauder, A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Douglas, Occasioned by his Vindication of Milton (1751). More than most writers, Johnson had the acute sensibility to put himself in the place of the sinner, and express penitence with authenticity and dignity as he does here. He acknowledges that the injuries are not merely personal: they are ‘to Milton, to Truth, and to Mankind’; but he appeals to our fallen humanity, asking that ‘those who shall continue implacable, will examine their own Hearts whether they have not committed equal Crimes without equal Proofs of Sorrow, or equal Acts of Atonement’. And no lasting wrong has been done: ‘the Shade which began to gather on the Splendour of Milton’ he declares to be ‘totally dispersed’.37 But is it? Although the case against the poet of Paradise Lost is dismissed, Lauder has another string


Johnson’s Milton

to his bow. So fixated is he on the idea of Milton as Satanic hypocrite that he returns to the charge in a different context, which uncannily replicates his own crime. For the eighteenth-century reading public at large, Milton’s Achilles’ heel is his defence of the regicide. Having failed to discredit him as a poet, Lauder must have felt on surer ground when he turned to politics. In the impenitently titled King Charles I Vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism, Brought against him by Milton, and Milton himself convicted of Forgery and a gross Imposition on the Public (1754), Lauder accuses Milton of a piece of political chicanery. The substance of the accusation, that Milton suborned the printer of Eikon Basilike to interpolate a prayer from Sidney’s Arcadia, so that Charles I might be exposed as a plagiarist by the perpetrator of the forgery, seems in the circumstances richly ironic. But Lauder is not the only begetter in this instance. The accusation had been given currency by Thomas Birch’s examination of the evidence in his 1738 edition, the Complete Collection of the prose works, although Birch was to reach a different conclusion about its probability in 1753. It was to outlast the Lauder affair, and, most damagingly for those who want to exonerate Johnson from injustice to Milton, it was repeated in Johnson’s ‘Life of Milton’ (Lives I. p. 254). But here the explanation is undeniably political. In a biographical context, Johnson alludes to the suspicion when discussing how political pressures can subvert conscience. For him, the Pamela prayer seems like a smoking gun, pointing towards Milton’s possible guilt in this particular instance; but this is entirely separate from the charge of plagiarism in the context of Paradise Lost, which Johnson does not revisit in the ‘Life’.38 However, Johnson may revive uncomfortable memories of the Lauder affair in its immediate aftermath, when he considers the responsibilities of a critic in Rambler 93, dated 5 February, 1751. This essay is embedded in a series of essays in which for the first time he makes a major critical engagement with the poetry of Paradise Lost; and it may be significant that he uses it to issue a kind of Critics’ Charter for dealing with dead authors: Upon these authors the critick is, undoubtedly, at full liberty to exercise the strictest severity, since he endangers only his own fame, and, like Aeneas when he drew his sword in the infernal regions, encounters phantoms which cannot be wounded. He may indeed pay some regard to established reputation; but he can by that shew of reverence consult only his own security, for all other motives are now at an end. (Yale IV. p. 134)

The timing of this is suggestive, following the exposure of the most notorious eighteenth-century attempt to wound the reputation of one of the

The Lauder affair


most intimidating of literary ghosts. Milton’s reputation was certainly established, but for that very reason it provoked attention from a determined iconoclast like Lauder. Did Johnson, in claiming the critic’s right to mount such attacks – at his own risk – have recent events in mind? If so, he may be indirectly reassuring himself that the Lauder affair has not debarred him from exercising to the full his licence to criticise Paradise Lost in good faith.

Ch apter 6

Cutting a Colossus: Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost

So far as posterity is concerned, what sets in stone Johnson’s critical opinions of Paradise Lost is his ‘Life of Milton’ in Lives of the Poets. But these lapidary verdicts are carved out of a lifetime’s reading of Milton’s epic: they take shape, as it were, from the continual crashing of the ocean of Johnson’s mind against the Miltonic cliffs. Yet although there is something direct and elemental, even violent, in the encounter between critic and text, this metaphor images only a half-truth. Paradise Lost is not a natural phenomenon, as Johnson’s own choice of metaphor emphasises. He describes Milton’s colossal creation as precisely that, a Colossus cut by genius from a rock. For a critic to tackle such a textual Colossus, the mass of material has to be broken down into separate components; and where better to start than with what welds a poem together, its versification? The fact that Paradise Lost ‘rhymes not’ had caused contention from the outset, prompting the printer to elicit a notably unapologetic apologia from the author.1 It is with the subject of versification that Johnson himself begins his formal criticism of Paradise Lost. Pro s ody In the modern era, cases of alleged plagiarism like the Lauder affair can still make news headlines; it is harder to imagine any modern periodical, even a literary one, devoting a series of issues to a technical investigation of metre. Yet scarcely had the furore over Lauder’s defamation of Milton died down, than Johnson chose that medium in which to make his next intervention in Milton criticism.2 Nor is it the case that in so doing he is retreating to neutral territory, for eighteenth-century arguments about metre can generate considerable heat, if not always light, and are often ideologically laden. In Johnson’s own experience, a shared taste in metre can bond unlikely allies: 108

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


He enlarged very convincingly upon the excellence of rhyme over blank verse in English poetry. I mentioned to him that Dr. Adam Smith, in his lectures upon composition, when I studied under him in the College of Glasgow, had maintained the same opinion strenuously, and I repeated some of his arguments. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, I was once in company with Smith, and we did not take to each other; but had I known that he loved rhyme as much as you tell me he does, I should have HUGGED him.’ (Life I. pp. 427–8)

But the general assumption is that the metrically like-minded will also turn out to be politically like-minded.3 This can also be linked to individual temperament: Lonsdale suggests that SJ’s objections to blank verse on linguistic and metrical grounds can seem at times to cover some deeper temperamental uneasiness about its loss of predictability and ‘distinctness’. (Lives I. p. 436)

Alternatively, his difficulties with the metre have been accounted for by early conditioning: his ear – T. S. Eliot’s ‘specialized ear’4 – was accustomed to the Augustan couplet and therefore unwilling to accommodate the sound of blank verse in non-dramatic genres. A modern analogy might be drawn with musical traditionalists who have problems with atonality. All these explanations are interesting and plausible, yet none seems quite to get to the deepest root of Johnson’s problem with blank verse in general and Milton’s in particular, perhaps because there is no single root. Why doesn’t Johnson seem to hear the music of Paradise Lost as we do (or think we do)? Or indeed as a number of other eighteenth-century readers, such as Samuel Say or William Cowper, hear it? Whatever the answer, his attitude affects his criticism of Milton’s poetry, and his capacity to experience it as poetry. And this is where the Rambler essays offer important evidence. This sequence of essays conducts a rigorous and sustained exercise in close textual reading, and for that reason alone they set up an interesting methodological contrast with the later ‘Life of Milton’. In Rambler 86, Johnson prepares the ground with an elaborate preamble, staking his claim to a critical space which, he claims, Addison has left virtually vacant in his celebrated Spectator series: Addison, though he has considered this poem under most of the general topicks of criticism, has barely touched upon the versification …

probably not because it was ‘unworthy of his notice’ but because … being the first who undertook to display the beauties, and point out the defects of Milton, he had many objects at once before him, and passed willingly over those which were most barren of ideas, and required labour, rather than genius. (Yale IV. pp. 88–9)


Johnson’s Milton

Johnson’s tactics are shrewd. Like any modern academic, he identifies what he says is a gap in the market; he also identifies the chief authority in the field, to whom he defers, but whom at the same time he challenges; and he modestly deprecates his undertaking, while asserting its necessity. None of this should be taken entirely at face value, least of all the first. Far from a gap in the market, there is a glut of studies of Miltonic prosody after Addison. If we take only one decade, from 1739 to 1749, these include William Benson’s Letters concerning Poetical Translations, and Virgil’s and Milton’s Arts of Verse (1739); Edward Manwaring’s Of Harmony and Numbers (1744); James Harris’s Three Treatises (1744); Samuel Say’s Essay on the Harmony, Variety, and Power of Numbers (1745); and John Mason’s Essay on the Power of Numbers, and the Principles of Harmony in Poetical Compositions (1749). Naturally, Milton editors and commentators also weigh in on the subject of versification, from Bentley and the elder Jonathan Richardson in the early 1730s to Thomas Newton in the first variorum edition of Paradise Lost (1749, second edition 1750). Writing in 1751, Johnson mentions none of these by name,5 but he adopts a similar method of demonstration from quoted examples, and (up to a point) similar assumptions and terminology. Eighteenth-century experts on prosody may differ sharply in their judgement of Milton’s blank verse technique, but they ‘are unanimous in interpreting Milton as writing an analogue of the classical prosody’.6 Johnson likewise takes this premise as given: Milton formed his scheme of versification by the poets of Greece and Rome, whom he proposed to himself for his models so far as the difference of his language from theirs would permit the imitation. (Yale IV. p. 110)

And there’s the rub: English verse on this model must always struggle to match its gold standard, and inevitably fall short, because of ‘inconveniencies, which it is no reproach to Milton not to have overcome, because they are in their own nature insuperable; but against which he has struggled with so much art and diligence, that he may at least be said to have deserved success’ (Yale IV. p. 110). What Johnson does reproach Milton with is that, to his ear, the struggle is too much in evidence; as he was to write of Gray, ‘His art and his struggle are too visible, and there is too little appearance of ease and nature’ (Lives IV. p. 183). Milton’s characteristic liberties with metre – inverted stresses and substitutions, the use of elision, the irregularity of the caesura – have ‘left our harsh cadences yet harsher’ (Yale IV. p. 102). Worse, by his choice of measure he courts the ‘danger of losing the very form of verse’ (Yale IV.

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


p. 111). Johnson is far from alone in singling out these features of Milton’s blank verse, but some of the writers on harmony and numbers seem able to accommodate them within a more liberal theory of prosodic effects. Even Johnson has to concede that perfectly regular metre would soon pall in a long poem: if irregularity damages the harmony of individual lines, they are sacrificed not only so that monotony may be avoided, but also to heighten awareness ‘of the harmony of the pure measure’ (Yale IV. p. 90). He illustrates the principle from the passage beginning: Thus at their shady lodge arriv’d, both stood, Both turn’d, and under open sky ador’d The God that made both sky, air, earth, and heav’n …

Paradise Lost IV. lines 720–22

Johnson describes the double strong stress on the syllables ‘both stood / Both turn’d’ as ‘licentious’7 in its departure from the basic rhythm of the iambic pentameter; although he does not find this instance as displeasing to the ear as some others, he concludes in Rambler 86 that frequent violations of regularity set a bad precedent: … a poet who, not having the invention or knowledge of Milton, has more need to allure his audience by musical cadences, should seldom suffer more than one aberration from the rule in any single verse. (Yale IV. p. 92)

Although he implies that Milton is the exception who can rise above the rules of prosody, he also gives the impression that if we were to read Milton for the musical cadences, we would hang ourselves; we must read him for the invention and knowledge. In contrast, William Benson invites the reader to share a different perception of how cadence reinforces invention by quoting the same passage. According to Benson, the repetition of heavily stressed monosyllables  – ‘both stopt [sic]/ Both turn’d’  – ‘has a wonderful Effect’: This artful Manner of writing makes the Reader see them Stop and Turn to worship God before they went into their Bower.8

The key phrase is ‘makes the Reader see …’, and it highlights a fundamental difference between Johnson’s view of the function of verse and the view held by those writers who do read Paradise Lost for the sound as well as the sense. Perhaps the most divisive principle in eighteenth-century prosodic theory is that formulated by Pope in his Essay on Criticism: ‘The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense’ (line 365).9 A number of commentators on Paradise Lost, such as the Richardsons, enthusiastically endorse it as an


Johnson’s Milton

explanation of the poem’s prosodic peculiarities, while others, such as Richard Bentley,10 are pulled in conflicting directions. Predictably, the elder Jonathan Richardson plunges joyfully into this wonderful world of creative sound effects – ‘Sound is abundantly more Expressive of the Sense than is Commonly Imagin’d’ – and he goes so far as to link it directly with the flexibility of blank verse, its indeterminate status between verse and prose (precisely the indeterminacy that troubles Johnson): Verse and Prose have Each their Peculiar Musick, and whether One, or the Other ’tis Different according to the Subject. All kinds of Verses have Sounds of their Own; Blank Verse comes nearest to Prose, and as the Prose of Some Writers Approaches Verse, Milton’s Blank Verse, That of Paradise Lost, has the Beauty of Both; it has the Sweetness of Measure, without stopping the Voice at the end of the Line, or Any where else but as the Sense requires; One Verse runs into Another, and the Period concludes in any part of a Line Indifferently, and as if ’twas his Choice ’tis very often Not at the End of One or of a Couplet, as is too Frequent with Those who write in Rime.11

Richardson’s apprehension of the ways in which syntax can play against rhythm, and the necessity of thinking in units larger than the line, seems more modern than, say, William Benson’s attempt to have it both ways. Benson strenuously tries to defend Milton’s blank verse, but he betrays an instinct that rhyme is the poetic norm. However, he has no difficulty with ‘The adapting the Sound to the Sense.’ ‘Who does not hear the Warbling of a Brook, the Rustling of Wings, the rough Sound of Trumpets and Clarions and the soft one of Flutes and Recorders in the following Lines?’ he asks rhetorically, listing various examples.12 As well as evoking sounds, Miltonic verse enacts movements: Who does not see Porpoises and Dolphins tumbling about in the Ocean when he reads this Line? [Paradise Lost VII. lines 409–12] … How does the Line labour when the Elephant is working himself through the stiff Clay, whilst the lesser Animals sprout up as it were in an Instant! (Paradise Lost VII. lines 470–2)13

Samuel Say likewise starts from the principle that ‘propriety of numbers’ ‘consists in Sounds adapted to the Sense’ but his metrical analysis is more sensitive on the whole than Benson’s. His choice of illustrations and technical explanations of their effect suggest a fine ear; and he recognises that the conditioning of ‘Modern Readers’ to expect harmony in the sense of regularity can limit their capacity actually to hear what Milton is doing. Like Johnson later in Rambler 86 (Yale IV. p. 93), he appropriates an image from Milton’s own sonnet addressed to the musician, Henry Lawes, to criticise crass scansion:

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


… to scan With Midas’ ears, committing short and long;

but he uses it to criticise those who, like Bentley, reject the perceived irregularity of Milton’s metre, not as Johnson does to criticise irregular metre itself.14 Although Johnsonians have argued persuasively that his objections to irregularity are fundamentally ethical or political – in other words, ideologically based – it is nevertheless true that in the Rambler essays he not only expresses considerable respect for Milton’s artistry, but approaches the material first and foremost as a technician. He is playing the prosodists at their own game of minute metrical dissection, though with one eye on the possible tedium to a general reader. Numbering the streaks of the prosodic tulip may result in either ‘frighting us with rugged science, or amusing us with empty sound’ (Yale IV. p. 110). Yet the technicalities clearly interest him. He wants to understand how successfully Milton, as a kind of verse engineer, copes with what seems an intractable problem of adaptation, wiring up the metrical system of one language to another. What ultimately justifies the procedure must be the creation of ‘that harmony that adds force to reason, and gives grace to sublimity; that shackles attention, and governs passion’ (Yale IV. p. 99). So to speak, the physics of metre help to explain the metaphysical laws of harmony. Both as a poet and as a lexicographer, Johnson himself had worked intensively and intimately with the grain of the English language; he has earned the right to speak as an expert. In Rambler 88, he addresses specific concerns of the prosodists – the acceptability or otherwise of the English monosyllabic line, Milton’s use of elision and hypermetrical lines – primarily on the basis of how English has developed, and how it sounds (as opposed to classical and Romance languages). He appeals to ‘the genius of the English tongue’, and it is by this criterion that he judges Milton, brushing aside more lenient critics in the process: Milton … seems to have somewhat mistaken the nature of our language, of which the chief defect is ruggedness and asperity, and has left our harsh cadences yet harsher. (Yale IV. p. 102)

In this essay, he admits neither of the standard defences of Milton’s ‘harsh cadences’, namely their contribution to aural variety and to meaning.15 At the conclusion, his objection on linguistic grounds mutates into an objection on generic grounds. Milton has mistaken not only the nature of his chosen language, but also the nature of his chosen genre:  the


Johnson’s Milton

vagaries of blank verse are acceptable in drama, which is brought ‘by that relaxation of metrical rigour nearer to prose’, but not in heroic poetry (Yale IV. p. 104). At this point, technical vocabulary does acquire resonances associated with broader discourses, yet even here Johnson does not overtly identify Milton’s poetic liberties as a possible metaphor for other kinds of liberty. Certainly he exhibits disquiet over the failure to police boundaries, but the boundaries in question remain specifically linguistic and generic. Indeed, in his next essay on the subject, Rambler 90, Johnson questions the usual assumption that blank verse liberates the poet, asserting that ‘Milton was constrained within the narrow limits of a measure not very harmonious in the utmost perfection’ (Yale IV. p. 111) – a statement that seems to contradict the supposed political subtext. The simpler theory is that Johnson genuinely finds greater pleasure in English verse with end-rhyme, because it sounds to him more like poetry. That does not mean that he cannot hear other kinds of verbal music. In the same essay, his discussion of the caesura, which probably strikes a modern reader as extraordinarily mechanical, suddenly breaks out into an expression of personal pleasure that is plainer and more striking than some of the Miltonists’ rhapsodies: Some passages which conclude at this stop [on the sixth syllable of the line], I could never read without some strong emotions of delight or admiration. (Yale IV. p. 115)

What matters is less how he rationalises these emotions, as the fact that he experiences them. Indeed the essay reaches its climax with a tribute to Milton, qualified by the customary caveats regarding the limits of language and the need to compare like with like, but astonishing nonetheless in at last putting Milton’s artistry on a level with his intellectual eminence: If the poetry of Milton be examined, with regard to the pauses and flow of his verses into each other, it will appear, that he has performed all that our language would admit; and the comparison of his numbers with those who have cultivated the same manner of writing, will show that he excelled as much in the lower as the higher parts of his art, and that his skill in harmony was not less than his invention or his learning. (Yale IV. p. 115)

But Johnson has not yet finished with the verse of Paradise Lost. Possibly the most important essays in this sequence are Ramblers 92 and 94, where he decisively confronts the fashionable critical approach to reading Milton’s blank verse, based on the principle of sound echoing sense.16 The problem of subjective judgement is an ancient one in criticism and aesthetics; and

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


for Johnson it is inextricably entwined with the larger problem that always fascinates him, the prevalence of imagination: There is nothing in the art of versifying so much exposed to the power of imagination as the accommodation of the sound to the sense, or the representation of particular images, by the flow of the verse in which they are expressed. (Yale IV. p. 122)

Having already tested the ground and found it unable to bear much if any intellectual weight, he proceeds to demolish the kind of impressionistic criticism in vogue among many eighteenth-century (and later) admirers of Paradise Lost. He does not deny that ‘The general resemblance of the sound to the sense is to be found in every language which admits of poetry’ (Yale IV. p. 135: my italics). As a poet himself, how could he? Nor does he exclude the appropriate use of onomatopoeia, of which he cites as an example, ‘the creaking of hell-gates’ in Paradise Lost II. lines 879–82 (Yale IV. p. 139). But if he trusts the writer to know what he is doing, his scepticism is fully aroused by the reader’s tendency to over-interpret sound-effects, superseding the writer’s control of his text: It is scarcely to be doubted, that on many occasions we make the musick which we imagine ourselves to hear; that we modulate the poem by our own disposition, and ascribe to the numbers the effects of the sense. (Yale IV. p. 136)

Sometimes he does accept a previously observed correspondence of sound to sense, such as the sound of flowing water evoked in Paradise Lost V. lines 195–6 (Yale IV. p. 137); sometimes he rejects a reading such as Newton’s note on Paradise Lost I. line 209, ‘So stretch’d out huge in length the archfiend lay’: ‘The length of this verse, consisting of so many monosyllables, and pronounc’d so slowly, is excellently adapted to the subject that it would describe.’17 Johnson reasons that this confuses duration and space  – a logical observation (Yale IV. p. 142). But poetry is not necessarily logical. On a metaphorical and indeed linguistic level, the temporal and spatial can appear to coalesce, as in the phrase ‘stretch’d out’. The modern critic, Wayne Shumaker, writing on ‘Auditory Perception’ in Paradise Lost, speaks of ‘the creation, in the poetry, of acoustic effects which are metaphorical equivalents of meanings’ [my italics], a concept for which Johnson has no equivalent.18 As with his response to Lycidas, a deliberately literalist logic intervenes to block off and suffocate the rhetorical power of metaphor. Arguably, Johnson’s own readings do not escape subjectivity, for instance when he criticises Milton for not matching the sound to the sense: In another place [Paradise Lost XI. lines 847–9], he describes the gentle glide of ebbing waters in a line remarkably rough and halting. (Yale IV. p. 141)


Johnson’s Milton

Arguably, too, he does not always take sufficient note of subtly discriminated contexts. He finds fault with Milton for having ‘given in two passages very minute descriptions of angelick beauty; but though the images are nearly the same, the numbers will be found upon comparison very different’ (Yale IV. p. 137). But the passages he quotes, Paradise Lost III. lines 636–42 and V. lines 277–87, describe respectively Satan, the fallen angel, in the guise of a stripling cherub, and Raphael, the unfallen angel, gloriously manifesting himself to Adam in Paradise. If the former really does have lines ‘remarkably defective in harmony’ compared to the latter ‘which equally delights the ear and imagination’ (Yale IV. p. 138), that may reflect the incongruity between Satan’s appearance and essence in contrast with the perfect harmony of Raphael’s. It is difficult to judge by ear alone the validity of eighteenth-century readings, without knowing how Paradise Lost was read aloud. If any variation at all from a metrical norm is admitted, it is almost if not entirely impossible to eliminate subjectivity in interpretation. What does need emphasising is that, while Johnson may criticise specific effects, he goes extraordinarily far in finding reasons to exonerate Milton’s verse, and to rescue it from the perceived excesses of his admirers. Indeed he credits Milton with considerable metrical sophistication and knowledge, as ‘both a musician and a critick’ (Yale IV. p. 137). He concludes this series of essays with a characteristic and dramatic peroration, shifting the argument to suggest that in the scheme of things there are far more important priorities than prosody: Milton, indeed, seems only to have regarded this species of embellishment so far as not to reject it when it came unsought; which would often happen to a mind so vigorous, employed upon a subject so various and extensive. He had, indeed, a greater and a nobler work to perform; a single sentiment of moral or religious truth, a single image of life or nature, would have been cheaply lost for a thousand echoes of the cadence to the sense; and he who had undertaken to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” [a double misquotation19] might have been accused of neglecting his cause, had he lavished much of his attention upon syllables and sounds. (Yale IV. pp. 142–3)

Though it could be a rhetorical gesture (of the kind that so maddened Milton-lovers like Anna Seward),20 I think that Johnson means what he says here. Not that he considers prosody a trivial matter – certainly it is too important to be left to critics of the Dick Minim variety – but that it has to be kept in perspective. Dick Minim, Johnson’s comic creation in the Idler, typifies the Milton critic who leaps on a bandwagon and is derailed by excessive enthusiasm. He adheres all too uncritically to the opinions he derives from others, most

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


disastrously when it comes to versification: ‘He is the great investigator of hidden beauties, and is particularly delighted when he finds “the sound an echo to the sense”’ (Yale II. p. 188). Naturally he is of the blank verse persuasion, and ‘From blank verse he makes an easy transition to Milton’ (Yale II. p. 191), his contempt for ‘the monkish barbarity of rhyme’ parroting Milton’s own. He plumes himself on being the ideal Milton reader: Milton is the only writer whose books Minim can read for ever without weariness. What cause it is that exempts this pleasure from satiety he has long and diligently enquired, and believes it to consist in the perpetual variation of the numbers, by which the ear is gratified and the attention awakened. The lines that are commonly thought rugged and unmusical, he conceives to have been written to temper the melodious luxury of the rest, or to express things by a proper cadence: for he scarcely finds a verse that has not this favourite beauty … (Yale II. p. 191)

After this exaggeration of views that Johnson had more seriously countered in the Rambler essays, all that remains is to nail down Minim’s critical pretensions with a parody of close reading. What matters most to Minim are his own excited sensations: … he declares that he could shiver in a hot-house when he reads that … the ground Burns frore, and cold performs th’ effect of fire. And that when Milton bewails his blindness, the verse So thick a drop serene has quench’d these orbs, has, he knows not how, something that strikes him with an obscure sensation like that which he fancies would be felt from the sound of darkness.

(Yale II. pp. 191–2)

Minim  – or more likely Johnson  – quotes imprecisely, yet the point is made. Johnson parodies, with cruel accuracy, an excess of sensibility that softens and rots the critical faculty. The critic flaunts his heightened perceptions – dying of a rose in aromatic pain – without achieving analytical clarity or precision (and not every modern critic escapes moments of Minimalist folly).21 Johnson’s target is the theory that sanctions such practices, and the fact that Milton is the focus is no accident. Minim ­follows trends, he does not set them, and he ‘is not so confident of his rules of judgment as not very eagerly to catch new light from the name of the author’ (Yale II. p. 192) – like those readers of Lycidas who delude themselves into thinking they enjoy it because they know that it is by Milton


Johnson’s Milton

(Lives I. p. 279). Minim may seem fatuous, but his guidance to the hopeful student which makes the latter resolve ‘to follow his genius, and to think how Milton would have thought’ (Yale II. p. 193) suggests a pernicious influence, and a warning to all Milton imitators. Long before Lives of the Poets, in this Idler essay22 Johnson is attacking not Milton but the ­eighteenth-century cult of Milton. The extent to which that cult identifies Milton’s blank verse with the sacredness of his subject is apparent in a work published in the same year as the Minim essays, Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759). Young ingeniously applies the Fall paradigm to the history of prosody: in his version, the transition from ancient metre to modern rhyme enacts a Fall, and if Pope is the Lucifer who falls from the Homeric heaven, then Milton is the saviour who restores ‘deathless, divine harmony’: … what we mean by blank verse, is verse unfallen, uncurst; verse reclaim’d, reinthron’d in the true language of the Gods; who never thunder’d, nor suffer’d their Homer to thunder, in Rhime …23

By the time that Johnson writes the ‘Life of Milton’, Minim’s brand of criticism (never exactly fresh) might be expected to seem stale. In fact, the public enthusiasm for Paradise Lost (and its metre) has, if anything, intensified. Amongst poets and critics, Thomas Gray and Lord Kames continue to sustain the defence of Milton’s versification on the grounds of its imaginative freedom.24 Since Johnson’s own views on prosody have not changed, it is his criticism that may appear increasingly conservative and old-fashioned. In the ‘Life of Milton’, he no longer feels the need for – or is prepared to devote space to – the kind of close analysis he offers in The Rambler. But his judgements on Milton’s versification summarise his original position, which, if anything, has become more hardline. The remarks on blank verse scattered throughout the Lives of the Poets with very few exceptions reinforce a negative attitude, though it should be remembered that in most cases he is dealing with practitioners who are far inferior to Milton.25 However, he makes it clear in virtually every instance that the choice of blank verse can only make inferior poetry worse: ‘the disgust which blank verse, encumbering and encumbered, superadds to an unpleasing subject, soon repels the reader, however willing to be pleased’ (Lives IV. p. 125). Even in the case of a poet of Pope’s stature, it can only be ‘adopted with great imprudence, and, I think, without due consideration of the nature of our language’

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


(Lives IV. p. 51). Milton himself would have benefited ‘if he had written after the improvements made by Dryden’ (Lives II. p. 69). As for lesser poets, Johnson can be scathing about attempts either to parody or to imitate Miltonic numbers. Yet if the cumulative effect is of his settled aversion to blank verse, an aversion which in the Lives – unlike the Rambler essays – tends to be asserted rather than argued, there are occasional exceptions. He praises Thomson because he breaks away from the Miltonic model and does something original with the form in The Seasons, ‘one of the works in which blank verse seems properly used’ (Lives IV. p. 104). Does Paradise Lost itself come into this category? Johnson’s remark in the ‘Life of J. Philips’ suggests that it does, and that Milton is not to blame for his imitators. Philips’s error is to suppose that he is imitable, to believe … that the numbers of Milton, which impress the mind with veneration, combined as they are with subjects of inconceivable grandeur, could be sustained by images which at most can rise only to elegance. Contending angels may shake the regions of heaven in blank verse … (Lives II. p. 70)

(the final sentence wonderfully combines prose rhythm and meaning). For Johnson, ‘If blank verse be not tumid and gorgeous, it is crippled prose’ (Lives III. p. 119): Milton’s blank verse is nothing if not gorgeous. In the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson locks horns with Milton himself rather than goring and tossing his eighteenth-century acolytes. Taking as his starting point Milton’s famous defence of his metre, he surveys succinctly the history of English blank verse, repeating the allegation (originally Dryden’s)26 that Milton ‘finding blank verse easier than rhyme, was desirous of persuading himself that it is better’ (Lives I. p. 294). He then rehearses his reasons for believing that, in English, it is not better, reasons already canvassed in the Rambler essays. Fundamentally, his case rests on the nature of the English language, and its difference from ‘languages melodiously constructed’: ‘The musick of the English heroick line strikes the ear so faintly that it is easily lost’ (Lives I. p. 294). To clinch his argument, he appeals to experience, the experience of listening to verse read aloud, and for the last time attacks the familiar defence of the critical opposition: The variety of pauses, so much boasted by the lovers of blank verse, changes the measures of an English poet to the periods of a declaimer; and there are only a few skilful and happy readers of Milton, who enable their audience to perceive where the lines end or begin. Blank verse, said an ingenious critick, seems to be verse only to the eye. (Lives I. p. 294)


Johnson’s Milton

In Rambler 90, Johnson had also made the ear the criterion. He was accustomed to poetry spoken in informal social settings as well as in the theatre; and, in all fairness, he has a point. To read blank verse well does require skill, and an inexperienced reader may all too easily turn it into mangled prose. What Johnson fails to credit sufficiently in non-dramatic blank verse is the potential for greater subtleties than end-rhyme in itself can provide. In reading aloud, declamation may be the default mode, but it is far from being the only option. In addition, as some fine modern criticism has proved, Milton can exploit devices such as internal rhymes and the line-ending itself with greater freedom and complexity than the couplet would allow.27 But for Johnson, this very flexibility strands blank verse in a limbo where it has the worst of both worlds, not the best: it ‘has neither the easiness of prose, nor the melody of numbers, and therefore tires by long continuance’ (Lives I. p. 294). In his century, the opportunity to experience Paradise Lost in rhyme was not far to seek: beginning with Dryden in The State of Innocence, there was no shortage of eager adaptors.28 But his last word on the prosody of Paradise Lost once more acknowledges the uniqueness of Milton: But, whatever be the advantage of rhyme, I cannot prevail on myself to wish that Milton had been a rhymer; for I cannot wish his work to be other than it is … (Lives I. p. 294)

Griffin’s comment on the language he uses is characteristically acute: ‘Johnson’s verb is significant: Milton robs him of his usually magisterial control over his subject and his own reaction.’29 Yet, if he capitulates, it is not total capitulation, more a dignified gesture that leaves his principles intact. Having crossed swords with an opponent worthy of his steel, Johnson finally salutes Milton as a hero who ‘like other heroes … is to be admired rather than imitated’ (Lives I. p. 294). The eighteenth-century obsession with the prosody of Paradise Lost has been admired and shared by relatively few modern Miltonists, with some distinguished exceptions. This reflects larger changes in literary culture: because of the major shift in how poetry is written and read in the modern period, it seems unlikely that the controversy over the relative merits of blank verse and rhyme will ever resurface. Yet both forms are alive and well. It might have astonished Johnson (though perhaps proving his point about the dramatic efficacy of blank verse) that in the early twenty-first century, an adaptation of Paradise Lost30 retaining much of its original verse form could be commercially, and successfully, staged for audiences. And critics still cite Johnson on Milton’s prosody.31

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


Dic t ion Johnson’s resistance to Miltonic blank verse is at least consistent with his own avoidance of it in his non-dramatic poetry. However, as Miltonists gleefully or indignantly note, his strictures on Milton’s language can be levelled against his own style (pots and kettles come to mind). When he accuses Milton of forming a style ‘by a perverse and pedantick principle’, of forcing English into an excessively Latinate mode (Lives I. p. 293), he makes an accusation often directed against himself by contemporaries and later critics.32 As with metre, more is at stake than a mere technicality, for the use of language is tied in with national identity. The Englishness of Milton and Johnson is crucial to their position in the canon of English literature. For his eighteenth-century readers, Milton is the most serious contender that British culture has to put forward in the epic stakes; Johnson is the single-handed rival of the French Academy in his making of the Dictionary of the English Language. In the case of Paradise Lost, it is precisely because of the constantly reiterated comparison with Homer and Virgil that the linguistic issue becomes so prominent. From the late seventeenth century onwards, Paradise Lost had been treated as if it were a classical text, with the result that its linguistic features play a very prominent part in the various commentaries and editions. For this and other reasons, it came to be taken for granted that Milton was indeed writing a kind of hybrid language heavily influenced by Latin and Greek idiom, though whether this was to be approved or deplored was a matter of taste and principle.33 By the time he writes the paragraphs on diction in the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson is summarising conclusions that are common critical currency, but which require him to take sides in a sometimes acrimonious debate. Of the available critical sources, Johnson singles out Addison by name as his target. But Addison’s Spectator essays of 1712, while influential, represent only one voice among many. It is Milton’s editors and commentators who construct the foundations on which critics build. Patrick Hume had set the standard for etymological investigation of the language of Paradise Lost in 1695; Bentley, to whom nothing is sacred, effectively remakes the diction of Paradise Lost in his own image under the rubric of ‘a Restoration of the Genuine Milton’ (Preface, 1732); Pearce and others, reacting against Bentley, review the text and endorse Milton’s coinage of words; the Richardsons revel in Milton’s verbal profusion; and so it continues. Bentley, in fact, did Milton criticism and editing a service, by forcing those who would refute his conjectures to produce close textual analysis in defence of the original readings.34 Milton’s defenders and detractors


Johnson’s Milton

form up in predictable battle lines on the subject of language: twenty years before Bentley, Addison remarks that ‘the learned World is very much divided upon Milton as to this Point,’ and the divisions persist.35 But they do not fundamentally dissent from Johnson’s later formulation, ‘Through all his greater works, there prevails an uniform peculiarity of Diction’ (Lives I. p. 293). According to Milton’s admirers, the reason for this peculiarity lies not so much in his acknowledged mastery of other languages – in which, though eminent, he is not unique – as in the sublimity of his subject. For Jonathan Richardson, Milton’s linguistic abilities are a means to an end, empowering him to create a new language, ‘Miltonick English’ – ‘Milton’s Language is English, but ’tis Milton’s English; ’tis Latin, ’tis Greek English’ – a language that needs to be created to serve ‘that Sublimity of Subject in which he perpetually Engages his Readers’.36 Clearly aware of this rationale, Johnson goes on the attack in the ‘Life of Milton’. But, oddly perhaps, he makes Addison represent the collective judgement of ‘those who can find nothing wrong in Milton’ – oddly, because although Addison does justify Milton’s deliberate stylistic elevation and departure from idiomatic English, he also thinks that ‘his Stile, tho’ admirable in general, is in some places too much stiffened and obscured by the frequent use of those Methods’.37 Indeed, Johnson’s direct quote – ‘Our language, says Addison, sunk under him’ (Lives I. p. 293) – comes from the paper in which Addison analyses stylistic defects: the sublimity of Paradise Lost strains the resources of English beyond its capacity to cope ‘without having Recourse to … Foreign Assistances’. Like God’s fallen creation, Milton’s native language cannot bear the blaze of his divine genius: Our Language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of Soul, which furnished him with such glorious Conceptions.38

When criticising Milton’s metre in The Rambler, Johnson had similarly imputed its deficiencies to the nature of the English language. However, in the case of diction, he will not accept this excuse. He demolishes the defence based on sublimity of subject or greatness of soul, by relying on the evidence of Milton’s prose as well as his verse to demonstrate that the ‘perverse and pedantick principle’ is a conscious choice: ‘He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom’ (my italics: Lives I. p. 293). Relatively few eighteenth-century readers, as Johnson knew, would care to claim that Milton’s prose polemic is furnished with glorious conceptions. Not until the advent of modern scholarship has the prose style been fully reassessed in relation to its historical and linguistic context;39 for the eighteenth century,

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


that context is at once too distant and too close. Yet, arguably, Johnson is in a better position than most to appreciate both contexts. His work on the Dictionary had developed an acute awareness of how language inevitably evolves, and the processes that shape it. Among the influences he considers in his Preface to the Dictionary is an education that privileges ‘skill in ancient or in foreign tongues’: he adds ‘He that has long cultivated another language, will find its words and combinations croud upon his memory’, with the result that he ‘will obtrude borrowed terms and exotick expressions’ (Yale XVIII. p. 108). Milton certainly fits this category.40 Long before writing the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson had linked Milton with Sir Thomas Browne to exemplify a particular phase of English linguistic history, a phase which for him was characterised by excessive individuality and instability: our language … was considered by every writer as a subject on which he might try his plastick skill, by moulding it according to his own fancy. MILTON, in consequence of this encroaching licence, began to introduce the Latin idiom: and BROWNE, though he gave less disturbance to our structures and phraseology, yet poured in a multitude of exotick words.41

It is not hard to see why Johnson should have misgivings over linguistic innovations that seem to be driven by sheer eccentricity, and that threaten to swamp native language habitats with aggressively exotic foreign immigrants. Milton offends against both patriotism and the principle of accessibility for the ‘unlearned reader’42 (Lives I. p. 293). Yet, in Johnson’s Proposals for his Shakespeare edition, where he points out that only someone well-versed in seventeenth-century literature can judge its linguistic innovations  – ‘Addison himself has been … unsuccessful in enumerating the words with which Milton has enriched our language’ (Yale VII. p. 54: my italics) – the use of ‘enriched’ implies a positive gain. In the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson gives no actual examples of Milton’s transgressive diction. But for a multitude of Miltonic examples, we have only to go to his Dictionary, recently published in its fourth edition (1773): modern technology makes the size of that multitude immediately obvious. And plethora gives rise to paradox: how is it that a writer, who is described by eighteenth-century admirers and detractors alike as using English in an unEnglish way, features so prominently in the great lexicographer’s illustration of English usage? (Incidentally, Milton is the leading exemplar in ‘A Grammar of the English Tongue’ as well as in the fourth edition of the Dictionary, though Johnson is careful to point out where his grammar is ‘rather … poetical than regular’.)43


Johnson’s Milton

The surge in Milton quotations, especially quotations from Paradise Lost, in the fourth edition of the Dictionary might be explained in various ways. Allen Reddick offers a thesis that foregrounds not only Johnson’s own engagement with the poem, but, more controversially, the intended effect on users of this edition. His general deduction seems absolutely justified: The predominance of Johnson’s borrowings and the extent of the quoting imply that he was possessed in a profound way by the poem, as if its lines suggested fresh meanings or significance, linguistic, spiritual, or otherwise, for him at this later stage of his life.44

The possible effect on dictionary users is more difficult (if not impossible) to demonstrate conclusively. Yet Johnson’s burdened sense of responsibility for his project, in particular the choice and arrangement of quotations, is fully manifested in the original Preface. He recalls his early idealism  – ‘When first I collected these authorities, I was desirous that every quotation should be useful to some other end than the illustration of a word’ – and says with wistful irony that he started with the vision of a poet, though he was ‘doomed at last to wake a lexicographer’ (Yale XVIII. pp. 93, 100). Inevitably the ideal becomes compromised, but it still determines principles of inclusion and exclusion. Milton’s name appears in the section of the Preface where Johnson advances his patriotic credentials and the Dictionary’s bid for immortality: I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle. (Yale XVIII. p. 110)

Milton is the only poet on this distinguished shortlist;45 and clearly it is his poetry, not his prose, that Johnson has in mind. Quotations from the prose in the Dictionary are few and far between. Reddick explains this as effectively a form of ideological censorship, comparing Johnson’s attitude to Hobbes – ‘“I might have quoted Hobbes as an authority in language … but I scorned, sir, to quote him at all; because I did not like his principles.”’46 This makes it all the more interesting that comparable censorship does not seem to be exercised on the much more powerful text of Paradise Lost: we might expect, for instance, that Johnson would avoid illustration from the notoriously political Nimrod passage (Paradise Lost XII. lines 24–8), but he cites it under ‘arrogate’. An additional explanation that might be offered for the overwhelming predominance of Milton’s poetry in the Dictionary

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


is that his ‘authority in language’ simply cannot be ignored. Paradise Lost alone has a massive stylistic influence on later writing. Apart from the sheer quantity of quotations (this in itself implies that Johnson regards Milton’s poetry as being in the mainstream of English usage), the treatment of these quotations reinforces the point. To return to the Preface: when Johnson states that ‘foreign idiom’ has to be included in an English dictionary as a matter of record, he appends a characteristic value-judgement on its use: The words which our authours have introduced by their knowledge of foreign languages, or ignorance of their own, by vanity or wantonness, by compliance with fashion, or lust of innovation, I have registred as they occurred, though commonly only to censure them, and warn others against the folly of naturalizing useless foreigners to the injury of the natives. (Yale XVIII. p. 85)

On the basis of the passages in the ‘Life of Browne’ and the ‘Life of Milton’, we would naturally expect Milton’s language to incur such censure. An examination of Johnson’s practice suggests otherwise. Of course he registers singular words derived from Latin for which Milton is cited as sole authority, sometimes via the commentators: for example, on ‘ardours’ taken as a synonym for ‘seraphim’, a sense given by Robert Thyer in Newton’s variorum edition of Paradise Lost, Johnson observes, ‘This is only used by Milton.’ Or he notes of the verb ‘amerce’, a word taken over from legal discourse by Spenser and Milton, that ‘Sometimes it is used, in imitation of the Greek construction, with the particle “of ”’, citing Paradise Lost I. lines 609–10. But where is the censure or warning against ‘useless foreigners’? Moreover, while Miltonic examples do figure largely, as we might assume, in illustrations of more exotic or abstruse vocabulary, they also figure largely in illustrations of the most ordinary everyday ‘native’ words: from the nuts and bolts of language (the preposition ‘at’ for instance) to frequently used basic vocabulary of Germanic origin (‘same’, ‘see’, ‘self’), Milton’s poetry proves itself to be crafted from robustly English material. Nor does Johnson’s expanded choice of quotations for the fourth edition rely upon random recollection; as Reddick has established, he makes methodical use of Alexander Cruden’s ‘Verbal Index’, printed with the Newton Paradise Lost, just as for Biblical quotations he makes use of Cruden’s more famous Concordance – but with a crucial difference: Johnson used this index to direct him to usable passages in the text (unlike the case of Cruden’s Concordance, he could not simply lift passages directly from the index, which only supplied locations of word usage), extracting from the poem long and generous illustrations of word usage, occasionally including some of Newton’s commentary on the poem.47


Johnson’s Milton

The significance of this procedure is clear and startling. The ‘Verbal Index’ is not just a mechanical tool: it sends Johnson back to critical reading of the text, and to an assessment of the nuances of its verbal choices, an assessment which is at least as rigorous as that of the many commentaries on Paradise Lost. Once the dotted lines of thousands of individual words are joined up, the fourth edition of the Dictionary supplies a kind of equivalent to these commentaries. Indeed, his contemporaries recognised this potential in the first edition. The compiler of A Familiar Explanation of the Poetical Works of Milton (1762) uses it as a resource in conjunction with Addison’s critical essays and Newton’s edition of Paradise Lost. As the Rev. Mr. Dodd observes in his Preface, ‘The Explanation of mere Words are generally taken from Mr. Johnson’s very useful Dictionary, and that in reference only to the Sense wherein Milton applies them.’48 Evidently Johnson’s linguistic appraisal of Paradise Lost is more deeply embedded in his lexicon than in the obvious source, his literary criticism. He says in the ‘Life of Milton’ that ‘in displaying the excellence of Milton, I have not made long quotations, because of selecting beauties there had been no end’ (Lives I. p. 288), an assertion paralleling his dry analogy in the ‘Preface to Shakespeare’:  ‘he that tries to recommend [Shakespeare] by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen’ (Yale VII. p. 62). But as lexicographer, not critic, he had already made his selection on the grand scale – a selection which, in Milton’s case, seriously qualifies his insistence in the ‘Life’ that the diction of the poetry is essentially unEnglish. Even in the relevant passages of the ‘Life of Milton’, we feel, as so often with Johnson, the strong deep undertow of contradiction. After appearing to judge the style of poetry and prose by the same standard, his resistance to the ‘perverse and pedantick principle’ suddenly collapses: … but such is the power of his poetry, that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher and a nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration. (Lives I. p. 293)

For those who see Johnson’s complex responses to Milton in terms of a power struggle, the connotations of ‘captivity’ tend to be negative.49 But superimposed on the agonistic image of male combat leading to enforced submission is a somewhat different metaphor, that of poetry’s power to seduce. Johnson or the reader may still be a Samson figure, but he is overcome not by Harapha but by Dalila. Johnson clings to the notion that Milton’s linguistic creation is outlandish and exotic – ‘what Butler calls

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


a Babylonish Dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous’ – but it is a creation capable of transformation, ‘made by exalted genius, and extensive learning, the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure, that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity’ (Lives I. p. 293). Again this echoes earlier judgements,50 but Johnson adds an unexpectedly erotic simile. Milton’s genius transfigures his ‘Babylonish Dialect’, making it a thing of grace, a jolie laide. Yet, as with sexual bondage, there is one way of escape from this captivity: through mockery. In the ‘Life of J. Philips’, we find Johnson turning to The Splendid Shilling for light relief: To degrade the sounding words and stately construction of Milton, by an application to the lowest and most trivial things, gratifies the mind with a momentary triumph over that grandeur which hitherto held its captives in admiration … (Lives II. p. 69)

But he recognises that a law of diminishing returns applies to this kind of parody;51 the escape is temporary – ‘a momentary triumph’ – the captivity constantly renewed. In Johnson’s final verdict on the subject of diction in the ‘Life of Milton’, grandeur eclipses deformity: Whatever be the faults of his diction, he cannot want the praise of copiousness and variety: he was master of his language in its full extent; and has selected the melodious words with such diligence, that from his book alone the Art of English Poetry might be learned. (Lives I. p. 293)

This is the rationale on which the representation of Milton’s poetry in the Dictionary rests. In praise, as in condemnation, Johnson is saying nothing new about Milton’s style (towards the end of the previous century, Charles Gildon had declared that Milton ‘discovers himself a perfect, unimitable Master of Language’),52 but he says it with the weight of his authority as a lexicographer, not only as a critic. Understandably, perhaps, critics of Johnson and admirers of Milton underline the condemnation and edit out the praise. What the majority of earlier critics fail to question is the truism itself, the belief that Milton’s style is an alien form of English modelled on the classical languages. Monboddo, indeed, goes further than Johnson in claiming that the major shaping force is Greek, rather than Latin or Italian:  ‘it is evident, that not only his English, but his Latin, is cut upon Greek, as much, or perhaps more, than that written by any Roman’.53 He sneers at Johnson’s lack of scholarship and taste, which, he alleges, accounts for the ‘Babylonish Dialect’ insult. The ­perception that Johnson represents an entirely ­hostile and dismissive response to Milton’s grand style persists into the ­modern period, providing ammunition for the skirmishes of the Milton controversy. ‘The


Johnson’s Milton

essence of the permanent censure of Milton is, I believe, to be found in Johnson’s essay’ asserts T. S. Eliot, including diction under that permanent censure.54 Ironically, although the twentieth-century rehabilitation of the grand style begins with a return to eighteenth-­century editors and commentators,55 the assumption that Johnson is a hostile witness has gone virtually unchallenged. In the last half-century, this revaluation of Milton’s language has been accelerated by linguistic studies that radically dispute the long-­standing premise that Milton’s syntax and diction are unEnglish.56 One approach suggested by Johnson has indeed been implemented, the suggestion that Milton’s prose as well as his verse needs to be examined; but, contrary to his supposition, the result has been to question, rather than confirm, the ‘Latinity’ of both.57 Conversely, from another angle, the research of John K. Hale has demonstrated the value of Milton’s multilingualism in relation to his choice of English as his creative medium: ‘his languages came to intersect where they could best intersect, within his English’.58 When it comes to Paradise Lost, Hale prefers to move away from the context of ‘eighteenth-century editors or twentieth-century critical warfare,’ and to focus instead on the pleasure of reading Paradise Lost in full awareness of its linguistic complexity59 – a pleasure of which Johnson was also fully capable, and which, however perversely, he acknowledges. Just because Johnson is such an authoritative figure, it is his name that is attached to an assessment of Milton’s style that is now considered at best obsolete, at worst actively pernicious. For one of the best modern analysts of Milton’s language, Johnson’s ‘foreign idiom’ phrase flags an untenable position; he is seen as the most influential transmitter of ‘the malign legacy of eighteenth-century scholarship’.60 More mildly, one of the best of Milton’s modern editors reminds us that ‘To the extent that we have historical dictionaries, we are in a better position than Dr Johnson to estimate the degree of Milton’s Latinity.’61 What I propose is that Johnson’s own work as an historical lexicographer should be taken more seriously in Milton scholarship, and used to qualify his contentious, if not entirely one-sided, commentary on diction in the ‘Life of Milton’. F or m a n d s u bj e c t Johnson’s brief treatment of Milton’s verse and style in the ‘Life of Milton’, however provocative, has aroused less controversy in the history of Milton studies than the heart of his critical project, when he confronts Paradise Lost as a whole, combining form and subject. Here he addresses problems that remain at the core of many readers’ experience; indeed, the very attempt to comprehend it as a totality is part of

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


the problem. The sense that in Paradise Lost we are dealing not with one poem but with two in one, text and anti-text as it were, persists in critical readings; and, in what has been called the ‘New Milton Criticism’, the pressure for a paradigm shift has led to insistence on conflict, contradiction, and indeterminacy.62 Johnson’s own habit of antithetical thinking is deeply ingrained. His chosen method of balancing excellencies against defects – the method that he had also applied to Shakespeare – appears to offer a means of explicating tensions inherent in the text itself, and in his response to it.63 But it does not quite work out like that. We might expect positive and negative to form a clearly defined structural antithesis. Yet what strikes many readers are the difficulties of perceiving how exactly they are related, and of constructing from individual components a coherent view of a single poem. We are conscious of critical praise and condemnation permeating each other, so that judgements seem to reverse themselves, destabilising rather than supporting the argument as a whole. To complicate matters further, there are Johnson’s silences to account for, the critical problems he refuses to acknowledge, or acknowledges only indirectly. He begins systematically with formal considerations which are part of the technical equipment of any ­eighteenth-century critic working within broadly neoclassical parameters. But this strategy for asserting authority and intellectual control over the material gradually disintegrates under the pressure of a more fundamental power, the power of poetry to disturb and evade critical categories. In theory, according to Johnson, pleasure and truth, imagination and reason, unite in the art of poetry (Lives I. p. 282); in practice, these abstractions may tear each other apart. It is almost as if Johnson sets out to measure this epic by the standard criteria for judging epics, only to be blown off course by the force of poetry itself. It cannot be said that he underestimates his task however: I am now to examine Paradise Lost; a poem, which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind. (Lives I. p. 282)

Like his predecessors, Johnson starts his formal analysis with genre. As they all recognise, Paradise Lost as an English epic consciously challenges comparison and contrast with classical epic. Interested as he is in creative choices and processes, Johnson had already remarked in the Lauder preface on the fact that the concept of Paradise Lost was originally attached to a different genre, that of drama; and in the ‘Life of Milton’ he reproduces the outlines from the Trinity manuscript first published by Thomas Birch in 1738 (Lives I. pp. 258–61).64 But in his main criticism he accepts the traditional generic


Johnson’s Milton

hierarchy which accords epic the highest place, and follows an organised scheme of generic topics very similar to that of Addison. In his highly influential sequence of general papers on Paradise Lost published in the Spectator, Addison had focused in turn on fable/action, characters, sentiment, and language, concluding with an examination of defects, divided under the same headings. Johnson deviates from this pattern only by placing the moral first, after the example of Le Bossu which was endorsed by Dryden.65 At this stage of his discussion, he appears deliberately to hold back any personal involvement. As he remarks of Satan, ‘his expressions are commonly general’ (Lives I. p. 284). Only when he later returns to these topics under the rubric of censure, not praise, does he probe the more problematic nature of Milton’s literary choices. It seems as if, writing formally under the dictates of a conventional neoclassical scheme, Johnson writes in fetters, not at liberty. That is not to say that there is nothing of interest in his formalist criticism of Paradise Lost. Johnson is too acutely intelligent, and writes too well, to be accused of simply going through the motions, ticking the boxes. But he makes it clear that he is very aware of the limitations of such criticism as practised by his predecessors. As Lonsdale observes, Johnson ‘distances himself with mild irony from epic theory, while continuing to adopt its topics’ (Lives I. p. 418). One reason for this distancing may simply be weariness (which anyone who has read much eighteenthcentury criticism of Paradise Lost might appreciate). But it is also prompted by his sense that this academic quibbling is largely beside the point: The questions, whether the action of the poem be strictly one, whether the poem can be properly termed heroick, and who is the hero, are raised by such readers as draw their principles of judgement rather from books than from reason. (Lives I. p. 285)

Nevertheless, Johnson does not disdain to adjudicate on the identity of the hero, crisply dismissing the ‘established practice’ that leads Dryden to rule out Adam, and thereby implying that the poem centres on humanity: there is no reason why the hero should not be unfortunate … however, if success be necessary, Adam’s deceiver was at last crushed; Adam was restored to his Maker’s favour, and therefore may securely resume his human rank. (Lives I. pp. 285–6)

So far, Johnson has taken issue only with Milton’s critics; he has said little or nothing to offend the most ardent general reader of Paradise Lost. Even where the critics are concerned, his commentary has been more often consensual and constructive than controversial. He goes out of his way to repeat and strengthen Addison’s defence of the integrity of Milton’s design.66 More strikingly still, in view of his reservation about Milton’s

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


self-representation in his inductions (Lives I. p. 268), he follows Addison and Voltaire in stressing their poetic value.67 Here Johnson appeals to a fundamental principle in his own criticism, the response of the common reader:68 … superfluities so beautiful, who would take away? or who does not wish that the author of the Iliad had gratified succeeding ages with a little knowledge of himself? Perhaps no passages are more frequently or more attentively read than those extrinsick paragraphs; and, since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased. (Lives I. p. 285)

If he feels that the induction to Book IX is one instance where poetry does not unite pleasure and (biographical) truth, even so the inductions give access to the creative mind. Indeed, it is precisely when he turns his full attention to the nature of the mind that created Paradise Lost, that we can recognise a strong involvement with the idea of imagination which always fascinated him. The key that unlocks the combination of the Miltonic imagination, the imaginary worlds it creates, and the reader’s imaginative response, is the concept of the sublime, a very familiar term in eighteenth-century aesthetics. Influenced by Longinus, whose treatise was popularised by contemporary translations, Milton critics from Dryden onwards had attached the concept to Paradise Lost in particular.69 It is Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) which gives it a new theoretic dimension rooted in psychology, using Paradise Lost to demonstrate the hypothesis.70 Johnson once described the Enquiry to Boswell as ‘an example of true criticism’ (Life II. p. 90). What Burke offered him is an intellectual explanation of his emotional response. Given the already established tradition of praising the sublimity of Paradise Lost, together with Burke’s own explicit connections of his theory with Milton’s Satan, Death, and Deity, it must have appeared to him to account for the irresistible power that Milton’s poem exerts over the mind, and for his own enforced attraction and repulsion: ‘The characteristick quality of his poem is sublimity … He can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish’ (Lives I. p. 286). Johnson amplifies the judgement in a very Burkean passage on Milton’s genius: He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others; the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful: he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said, on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of extravagance. (Lives I. p. 286)


Johnson’s Milton

Despite, or perhaps because of, his distrust of ‘the dangerous prevalence of imagination’, he pays homage to a creative faculty operating dangerously and delightedly at the full extent of its powers. Milton travels his imagined cosmos like one of his own angels, or (though Johnson would not admit the comparison) like Deity itself bringing it into being: Milton’s delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery, into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings, to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven. (Lives I. p. 287)

The description recalls earlier rhetorical flights in The Rambler and Rasselas (and possibly also owes something to Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition).71 Delight and danger are experienced by both narrator and reader; and Johnson repeats the word ‘delight’, even when he brings the soaring poet back to the reality which he has just described as ‘a scene too narrow for his mind’: But he could not be always in other worlds: he must sometimes revisit earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder by the sublimity of his mind, he gives delight by its fertility. (Lives I. p. 287)

Here Johnson seems to echo metaphoric transitions in Paradise Lost itself, in the inductions to Books III and VII where the narrator revisits the realm of light or his ‘native element’ (III. lines 13 and 21; VII. line 16). Nor does he hesitate to give Milton credit for managing the transition successfully: ‘Whatever be his subject, he never fails to fill the imagination.’ But – and the reader learns always to expect a ‘but’ in Johnson’s criticism – this is followed by a qualification, the famous ‘spectacles of books’ passage in which Johnson expands his earlier point that Milton’s genius may preclude the less glamorous talent of painting things as they are: But his images and descriptions of the scenes or operations of Nature do not seem to be always copied from original form, nor to have the freshness, raciness, and energy of immediate observation. He saw Nature, as Dryden expresses it, through the spectacles of books; and on most occasions calls learning to his assistance. (Lives I. p. 287)

A number of critics have taken the statement out of context, to explain the difference in Johnson’s attitude to Shakespeare and his attitude to Milton – with some justification, since Johnson’s phrase wittily reverses Dryden’s aphoristic description of Shakespeare.72 But in this context, Johnson defines nature rather more narrowly than in his Shakespeare criticism. When Johnson gives examples of what he means here, it becomes obvious that his

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


main target is very specific, a favourite bête noire of his, the use of mythological allusion: Eden compared to ‘the vale of Enna, where Proserpine was gathering flowers’ or Satan compared with Ulysses (Lives I. p. 287). Other eighteenth-century commentators – Addison, Voltaire, Bentley – also find fault with ‘those frequent Glances at the Heathen Mythology’ – mitigated in Addison’s case by the fact that Milton himself in places emphasises that they are ‘fabulous.’73 But Johnson, normally so vehement against this kind of allusion especially when it contaminates Christian poetry, is, as Lonsdale says, ‘here unexpectedly tolerant’ of their use (Lives I. p. 423). Indeed, his defence – that ‘they contribute variety to the narration, and produce an alternate exercise of the memory and the fancy’ (Lives I. p. 287) – receives full support from both early commentaries and many later studies. His examples are shrewdly chosen, for the links between Satan and classical heroism and between Eden and the Proserpine myth have opened up a rich vein of commentary. In his commentary on formal aspects of Paradise Lost, Johnson accepts that, on the whole, Milton has successfully resolved the problems presented by the challenge of adapting the epic genre to biblical material. This contrasts sharply with his judgement of Cowley’s Davideis. It is impossible to ignore the piquant parallel between his critiques of the two contemporary English biblical epics, one an unfinished and neglected failure, the other a resounding triumph. The reasons for these different outcomes are bound to interest Johnson as a critic, all the more so because he notes that Milton admired Cowley, and apparently borrowed from the Davideis in his description of Satan (Lives I. pp. 228–9 and p. 275). In criticising Cowley’s ill-fated epic venture in the ‘Life of Cowley’, he makes general points about the inhibiting difficulties of writing on biblical subjects which ought to be equally relevant to Milton’s more audacious undertaking: Sacred History has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination over-awed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentick narrative, and to repose on its veracity with such humble confidence, as suppresses curiosity. We go with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain; all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion, seems not only useless, but in some degree profane. (Lives I. p. 223)

Taken seriously – and there is no doubt of Johnson’s seriousness – this cuts the very ground of Milton’s epic from under the reader’s feet. Its authenticity in the face of Scripture is annihilated, its learning is vain, its sublimity profanity. Imagination should not be ‘crouded’ but ‘over-awed and controlled.’ How can this position be reconciled intellectually with what Johnson says of Paradise Lost?


Johnson’s Milton

Modern critics have offered solutions to the apparent paradox, suggesting that Paradise Lost occupies a unique category. For Hinnant, Johnson’s customary scepticism is modified ‘to the point where Milton’s epic begins to take on something of the characteristic of revealed truth’;74 for Fix, Johnson reads it primarily from a religious perspective ‘that helps the poem transcend any discussion of its literary merits or defects’.75 Both cite the later passage from the ‘Life of Milton’ which seems strikingly at variance with the dogmatic generalisations in the ‘Life of Cowley’:76 Whoever considers the few radical positions which the Scriptures afforded him, will wonder by what energetick operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety, restrained as he was by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction. (Lives I. p. 289)

Johnson wants to have it both ways. But can he? Expansion and restraint, biblical ‘fact’ and fiction, pull in opposite directions; and if one thing is certain, it is that there is a great deal of invented material in Paradise Lost that has no warranty from canonical scripture. What does stand out clearly is how crucial to Johnson’s criticism of both seventeenth-century biblical epics is his belief in the Bible as the unique sacred text. Fix makes an attempt to save Johnson from the appearance of inconsistency by glossing this passage: ‘Milton elaborates the story of Genesis by extending scripture’s truth, not by writing a substitute version of it.’77 But it might be objected that this is a distinction impossible to verify. Is Milton’s Heavenly Muse more reliable as a mediator of scriptural truth because Milton’s poetry is so much better than Cowley’s? We may prefer to accept that Johnson as critic and believer cannot be consistent on this point. Among early Milton critics, Johnson is far from singular in thinking that the moral sentiments of biblical epic ought to be superior to ancient epic, because their basis is scriptural revelation (Lives I. pp. 287 and 423). Yet he recognises that this does not per se ensure literary quality, and also that the literature of a Christian culture is not guaranteed to reflect Christian moral values (he calls Italian epic in evidence). However, Milton’s epic does pass this ultimate test. Johnson’s closing recapitulation of his positive verdicts generously and fully confirms his sense that Paradise Lost succeeds as a great mimesis of biblical truth. It is all the more ironic that almost all the serious difficulties that Johnson experiences in reading Paradise Lost spring not from its form but its subject. Unquestionably, as critics both sympathetic and unsympathetic to the ‘Life of Milton’ have recognised, part of his difficulty is personal, not theoretical. For a man troubled by unusually intense religious anxieties, such ‘known truths’ expose him to emotions that he would

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


rather repress, or express only in direct intercourse with his Creator and Saviour.78 Any literary treatment of a sacred subject is difficult for him to deal with dispassionately, the more so if it threatens his control of imagination. Yet these anxieties, when translated into critical terms, are not unprecedented. One of the earliest critical responses to Paradise Lost, by a reader far closer to Milton in every way than Johnson could possibly be, articulates similar misgivings. Andrew Marvell’s prefatory poem to the 1674 edition succinctly describes both the ‘vast Design’ and the doubt it provokes: Messiah Crown’d, Gods Reconcil’d Decree, Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree, Heav’n, Hell, Earth, Chaos, All; the Argument Held me a while misdoubting his Intent, That he would ruine (for I saw him strong) The sacred Truths to Fable and old Song …

lines 3–879

Marvell overcame his doubts. Johnson’s can be read into his treatment of ‘the defects and faults’ of Paradise Lost. He declares at the outset that ‘it is the business of impartial criticism to discover’ these flaws, but this is precisely the area of his analysis to which so many Miltonists have attributed partiality or outright hostility. Yet the procedure, as already remarked, is a very curious one, because of its intimate relationship to the praise that precedes it; Johnson appears at times virtually to rewrite praise as condemnation, or to insert passages (like that previously quoted on Milton’s expansion of Scripture) which appear as unequivocal commendation. If Johnson’s analysis of defects is set beside Addison’s paper on defects (Spectator 297), we see that although he is still in dialogue with Addison at certain points, he has moved beyond neoclassical niceties. Addison retains his original headings; Johnson’s priorities have changed. The problems that Paradise Lost poses for Johnson are inherent in its subject; but, as he has pointed out earlier, the subject ought to be the poem’s greatest asset: It is justly remarked by Addison, that this poem has, by the nature of its subject, the advantage above all others, that it is universally and perpetually interesting. All mankind will, through all ages, bear the same relation to Adam and to Eve, and must partake of that good and evil which extend to themselves. (Lives I. p. 285)

Yet Johnson seems unable to apply this to his own experience as reader: in the context of the ‘Life of Milton’ at least, where he heads the catalogue of defects with the reiterated, and damning, charge that the plan of Paradise


Johnson’s Milton

Lost lacks human interest. It is clear from his description that it is the unique situation of Adam and Eve which, in his view, creates an insuperable barrier to the reader’s involvement: The plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners. The man and woman who act and suffer, are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know. The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged; beholds no condition in which he can by any effort of imagination place himself; he has, therefore, little natural curiosity or sympathy. (Lives I. p. 289)

By including all readers in this response, and by insisting that no effort of imagination is adequate, he challenges contradiction, even violent contradiction. Yet, setting aside the difference that belief or unbelief might make to the reader’s response, it should be acknowledged that Johnson identifies a genuine literary problem with the material that Milton has chosen to work upon. He is not the first, nor the last, to do so.80 He had already incorporated Addison’s point about restricted human personae, and hinted at a further difficulty: ‘A state of innocence we can only conceive, if indeed, in our present misery, it be possible to conceive it’ (Lives I. p. 288: my italics). In the ‘Life of Cowley’, he not only anticipates the problem, but extends it to ‘the whole system of life, while the Theocracy was yet visible’: biblical history presents such a remote and alien mode of existence … that it is difficult even for imagination to place us in the state of them whose story is related, and by consequence their joys and griefs are not easily adopted, nor can the attention be often interested in any thing that befals them. (Lives I. p. 224)

If, on this basis, Cowley’s task is difficult, Milton’s is impossible. Moreover, with this extension, Johnson’s observation would cover virtually the entire narrative of Paradise Lost. What Johnson does not consider in any detail in the ‘Life of Milton’ are the subtle strategies that Milton uses to counteract the ‘inconvenience’ that he identifies. As he must have realised, critics before him do identify certain of these strategies. For example, a number of them recognise that one way of investing the Fall narrative with dramatic interest and conflict is to humanise the fallen angels. According to Dennis, if these angels do not quite exhibit ‘downright human Inclinations and Affections’ like the Greek deities, nevertheless ‘The Passions of Milton’s Devils have enough of Humanity in them to make them delightful …’81 Satan of course presents the most challenging case. Although eighteenth-century readers are less likely to be carried away by the magnificence of Satan than the Romantics, they respond to his

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


impressiveness, his ‘human interest’, as do poets, satirists, and artists. That Johnson himself is not immune to satanic wit and charm is evident from other contexts. He is also haunted by demonic poetry. When he broods on imagined annihilation, he adapts Belial’s lines ‘for who would lose,/ Though full of pain, this intellectual being’ (Paradise Lost II. lines 146–7).82 In old age and distress of mind and body, he rejects Satan’s self-deceiving bravado: ‘That the mind is its own place is the boast of a fallen angel, that had learned to lie’ (Letters IV. p. 191). His appropriation of Satan’s invective against the sun has already been noted. Not surprisingly, he questions John Clarke’s censure of Milton’s demonic discourse as ‘defiling his own Invention, and the Minds of his Readers with such abominable Stuff, as ought to have no Admission into the Thoughts of Men, upon any Pretence whatever’.83 As is often remarked, in writing of Satan’s characterisation and language he avoids (surely deliberately) any implication that the republican poet might either glamorise or identify with the chief rebel angel. While acknowledging that Milton faces a challenge – ‘To make Satan speak as a rebel, without any such expressions as might taint the reader’s imagination, was indeed one of the great difficulties in Milton’s undertaking’ – he asserts that ‘he has extricated himself with great happiness’ (Lives I. p. 284). Unfortunately, in contrast to the many modern critics who have written exhaustively on Milton’s Satan and his effect on the reader, Johnson does not explain exactly how Milton achieves this Houdini feat of extrication. Clearly it has to do with the management of language. It is as though Milton quarantines the satanic rhetoric, preventing it from infecting the imagination. In Johnson’s view, this is possible because ‘The language of rebellion cannot be the same with that of obedience’, but he ignores the possibility that the political language of rebellion can appear identical with the language of liberty, that, as David Norbrook has contended, ‘In a certain sense … Milton is indeed, not necessarily of the devil’s party, but certainly of its language.’ Norbrook also cites the response of a seventeenth-century reader that anticipates Clarke’s accusation: he mistakes the maine of Poesy, to put such long & horrible Blasphemyes in the Mouth of Satan, as no man that feares God can endure to Read it, or without a poysonous Impression.84

Johnson’s position in this instance is closer to that of Milton himself in Areopagitica, that books will not corrupt the virtuous reader. But while he finds Satan’s ‘humanity’ unproblematic, the reverse is true of Adam and Eve. If Milton’s difficulty with Satan was not to ‘taint the reader’s imagination’ – a difficulty successfully surmounted, in Johnson’s opinion – then


Johnson’s Milton

his difficulty with the unfallen Adam and Eve is how to engage the imagination at all. It is here that Johnson locates the greatest failure of Paradise Lost. In so doing, he is controverting a great mass of evidence accumulated in the history of the text’s reception that readers – though admittedly not all readers – have indeed found it possible to make the effort of imagination that allows them to engage passionately with human transactions in Milton’s Paradise. If the prelapsarian relationship of Adam and Eve is, by definition, beyond any reader’s experience, it is self-evidently not beyond imagination, as the very existence of Paradise Lost testifies. It does not even depend on the commitment to Christian doctrine that Johnson subsequently puts forward as the only possible basis for our empathy. Perhaps the most curious feature of the argument that is bracketed between Johnson’s two notorious dismissals of human interest is that it is scarcely a critical argument at all. He makes no effort at this point to analyse Milton’s literary representation of unfallen human psychology and relationships. This contrasts sharply with other eighteenth-century criticism and commentaries, and cannot be explained simply by his preferred method of general, rather than specifically textual, commentary. Apart from anything else, we might expect Johnson to comment on that relationship as a paradigm of marriage. For a variety of reasons, many eighteenth-century readers find the marriage of Adam and Eve a ‘transaction in which [they] can be engaged’: as an ideal to aspire to, as an exploration of gender difference, and, last but not least, as a vicarious experience of innocent eroticism (a topic on which Johnson maintains dignified silence). Logically, if Johnson is right about the unavoidable tedium of unfallen human experience, then it is only with the Fall itself that Milton’s Adam and Eve can interest us as readers. Addison had put it in a different light: after the Fall, Adam and Eve become part of ordinary humanity; it is the representation of innocence that gives Milton his opportunity for literary originality: We see Man and Woman in the highest Innocence and Perfection, and in the most abject State of Guilt and Infirmity. The two last Characters are, indeed, very common and obvious, but the two first are not only more magnificent, but more new than any Characters either in Virgil or Homer, or indeed in the whole Circle of Nature.85

Later in this essay, he makes the point, picked up by Johnson, that our ground of identification with Adam and Eve is ultimately doctrinal rather than literary (‘We have an actual Interest in every thing they do, and no less than our utmost Happiness is concerned’); but the literary interest is greater for Addison before the Fall. It is therefore not surprising that he

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


discovers much to admire and comment upon in his papers on the relevant books of Paradise Lost. Nor is it surprising that it is Addison and Steele who set the eighteenth-century trend for regarding Adam’s and Eve’s relationship as the ideal pattern of love and marriage even for a fallen world.86 However, this sympathetic projection of a cultural ideal upon the text of Paradise Lost may distort perceptions. When eighteenth-century readers find human manners in Milton’s prelapsarian paradise, they tend to sentimentalise Adam and Eve, turning them into a genteel example of how eighteenth-century courtship and marriage should be conducted. Addison himself is guilty of this when he sums up the erotic speeches of the couple in Book IV: ‘In a word, they are the Gallantries of Paradise.’87 ‘Gallantries’ is precisely the wrong social register, reminiscent of Dryden’s State of Innocence. But Addison is far from being the only reader to feel that ‘human manners’ in a social sense appear to exist prior to the Fall. A small but significant example is the manuscript annotation in a copy of Bentley’s edition (BL. C.134.h.1.), which remarks upon Paradise Lost VIII. 40, ‘Eve’s withdrawing here, a great Instance of ye Suitableness of manners’ – for all the world as if she is leaving the gentlemen to their port. In contrast, if we turn to Johnson’s description of their discourse, it may seem blandly generalised, but it avoids Addison’s coyness: Their love is pure benevolence and mutual veneration; their repasts are without luxury, and their diligence without toil. Their addresses to their Maker have little more than the voice of admiration and gratitude. Fruition left them nothing to ask, and Innocence left them nothing to fear. (Lives I. p.284)

What will strike many modern readers is that Johnson defines innocence largely as a lack – which is consistent with lack of human interest – and that he omits any indication whatever of the emotional undercurrents, the adjustments, the tensions, that Adam and Eve have to negotiate in their relationship even before the Fall. We miss the complexity that is analysed by other critics. This is a fortiori true of the major source of these tensions, namely gender difference. In modern criticism, Milton’s construction of gender has become a central and often divisive issue. Eighteenth-century critics, while in the main starting from different premises, were certainly aware of this issue, as commentary on key passages, such as the Narcissus episode of Eve’s creation, or the separation scene, indicates.88 Although there are surprises, such as Bentley’s celebrated emendation of the line ‘He for God only, she for God in him’ to ‘… She for God AND Him’ and the responses of women readers to Paradise Lost demonstrated by Joseph Wittreich,89 predictably most commentators do not question the traditional gender


Johnson’s Milton

hierarchy that they assume Milton upholds. Johnson in particular has been held responsible for promulgating the image of Milton as misogynist, largely because he connects Milton’s attitude in his books with his behaviour in his life.90 Admittedly, little in his criticism of Paradise Lost seems to counteract that assumption: indeed, his one direct comment on gender claims that ‘Both before and after the Fall, the superiority of Adam is diligently sustained’ (Lives I. p. 284). However, he does not share the eighteenth-century reader’s fascination with Adam as perfect man. On one occasion (Life IV. pp. 72–3) Boswell reports asking Johnson to decide a dispute between him and Mrs Thrale on ‘whether Shakspeare [in Hamlet] or Milton had drawn the most admirable picture of a man’; Johnson supported Boswell’s candidate, Shakespeare. Eve has stronger appeal:  Irene proves that Johnson is far from impervious to the fascination of female otherness. But when he writes of Adam and Eve in the ‘Life’, it is not their difference that comes across most strongly, but what unites them. Perhaps the strangest and most revealing slip – if that is what it is – is a single proleptic phrase in the paragraph where he is declaring their profound separation from us as readers: ‘The man and woman who act and suffer, are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know’ (Lives I. p. 289: my italics). Act and suffer: no other verbs could identify them more closely with human experience, or demolish more dramatically the distance that Johnson asserts. What, then, are the reasons for Johnson’s vehement denial of a human interest that seems irrepressible? One possibility is that he is rejecting an inappropriate response which characterises much of the earlier close reading of Paradise Lost. It is not so much that it is impossible to empathise with Milton’s creation of unfallen humanity, as that he believes that it should be impossible. To put it another way, Johnson’s difficulty is not with Milton’s literary representation of a man and a woman living in the state of innocence, but with the concept of sinlessness itself. Not only is it presumptuous to imagine being in such a state, but the very attempt exacerbates consciousness of its opposite, the burden of sin and guilt. His chosen strategy of largely general criticism exempts him from the kind of minute interrogation of textual detail (for example, Adam’s lack of facial hair) which obsesses many of those who discover too much, rather than too little, human interest in a prelapsarian Adam and Eve. He reserves close reading of the verbal texture for the Dictionary. In the ‘Life of Milton’ his assertions that Paradise Lost lacks human interest frame an argument which relocates the interest in the reader’s psychology, rather than that of the characters (an approach which in certain respects anticipates the

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


strongly influential Milton criticism of Stanley Fish).91 Johnson leads into the subject of the human condition as it is, the contemplation of our own mortality and our ultimate destiny, ‘truths’ which ‘are too important to be new’: the acting and suffering of Adam and Eve affect us all (and Johnson throughout these paragraphs uses the first person plural advisedly). It is not surprising that he should experience such a train of thought as too traumatic to be pleasurable: ‘in the description of heaven and hell we are surely interested, as we are all to reside hereafter either in the regions of horror or of bliss’ (Lives I. p. 289). His way of dealing with it is to assign it to a different category of experience from the literary.92 Paradoxically, the doctrinal truths fundamental to Paradise Lost are at once too familiar and too mysterious for poetry to communicate:  ‘The ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestick for ornament’ (Lives II. p. 53). They have a place in our lives which is more serious than literary recreation: Of the ideas suggested by these awful scenes, from some we recede with reverence, except when stated hours require their association; and from others we shrink with horrour, or admit them only as salutary inflictions, as counterpoises to our interests and passions. (Lives I. p. 289)

In fact, Paradise Lost did have a privileged status in the devotional routine of Sunday observance, which would include Johnson’s ‘stated hours’; this has been associated with Addison’s practice of publishing his Paradise Lost essays on Saturdays. 93 Fix suggests that ‘Johnson was the first major critic of Paradise Lost … who allowed religious ideas profoundly to shape his critical response to the poem.’94 But instead of being uplifted by these religious ideas (as Jonathan Richardson so patently is)95 Johnson is cast down. He ­experiences ­sublimity as a direct psychological effect; yet, translated into religious experience, the effect is the opposite of the heightened emotional excitement associated with the aesthetic ‘sublime’. If ‘poetical pleasure’ and ‘poetical terrour’ are human constructions to be humanly conceived, The good and evil of Eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit; the mind sinks under them in passive helplessness, content with calm belief and humble adoration. (Lives I. p. 289)

But then, it seems, he recalls himself to the fact that he is confronting a literary artefact which, as he has already acknowledged, is utterly exceptional in its capacity to rise to the demands of its religious subject. Praise breaks in once more. It is the very violence of these intellectual reversals at this stage of his argument that measures Johnson’s depth of disturbance.


Johnson’s Milton

It is also measured by his refusal to raise any questions about Milton’s theology. Indeed, it is because he accepts that theology implicitly that he is so disturbed by the poem. If, like a number of modern critics, he had been able to treat Milton’s God as a purely literary construct, his criticism might have taken a very different direction. As it is, though not totally silent on the subject of God, his rare allusions are extremely circumspect and reverential. Certainly this avoids major pitfalls: as Fowler notes dryly, ‘Some critics call the portrayal of God in PL a failure, without considering how ludicrous it would be to call it a success, or a good likeness.’96 Yet not all eighteenth-century critics share Johnson’s restraint. Dennis finds the divine discourse ‘flat’: God, he remarks, is incapable of the sublime, because he is incapable of admiration or terror (though he notes that Milton’s God does lapse into sublimity on occasion).97 For Addison, Milton is naturally inhibited by his subject: One may, I think, observe that the Author proceeds with a kind of Fear and Trembling, whilst he describes the Sentiments of the Almighty. He dares not give his Imagination its full play …98

Others, such as John Clarke, feel that Milton ought not to have proceeded at all – ‘shall a Man, a poor short-sighted Creature, dare to bring down the most High into a Scene of Diversion, and assign him his Part of Acting and Speaking, as if he were a proper Judge of what is fit for him to do, and to say …’99 Voltaire, in complete contrast, demands rhetorically … who would not be pleased … above all with that sublime Wisdom which Milton exerts, whenever he dares to describe God, and to make him speak? He seems indeed to draw the Picture of the Almighty, as like as human Nature can reach to, through the mortal Dust in which we are clouded.100

Naturally, none of these commentators were in a position to deduce Milton’s theology from De Doctrina Christiana. But eighteenth-century commentators were certainly aware that Milton’s theology is central to his justification of God, especially in Paradise Lost, Book III. If Addison and Thyer serenely endorse his orthodoxy,101 controversies over Milton’s theological affinities, and their effect on Paradise Lost – for instance, the accusation of heresy with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity – erupt very early in the history of Milton criticism and are not even now finally resolved.102 It was the charge that Paradise Lost is contaminated by Arianism, and therefore theologically corrupt, which sparked off acrimonious exchanges in the Gentleman’s Magazine correspondence of 1738–39. Earlier and later critics could afford to treat putative heresy more casually, if they notice it at all. Dennis had already remarked, without any obvious

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


shock, ‘that Milton was a little tainted with Socinianism … ’tis evident, that he look’d upon the Son of God as a created Being’.103 Robert Potter verges on flippancy: ‘Milton is any thing or nothing; Trinitarian, Arian, Socinian, or neither, as suited his poetry; and I know not but he would have been Mahometan, or Diabolian, had Cromwell … commanded it: therefore the instruction we look for in Paradise Lost, can hardly be eminent respecting the faith of this great master.’104 Not everyone can take it so lightly, and this is yet another example of eighteenth-century Milton readers starting a critical controversy that would run and run. In view of his close connections with Edward Cave and the Gentleman’s Magazine in the late 1730s, Johnson must have been aware of the flurry of contributions on the hot topic of Milton’s Arianism. Yet when, long afterwards, he composes his criticism of Paradise Lost for the ‘Life of Milton’, there is not a whisper of the slightest theological unorthodoxy, let alone heresy. Why not? The straightforward answer is that Johnson believes that Paradise Lost does conform, scrupulously and rigorously, to the truths of revealed Christianity, including the doctrine of the Trinity. On the evidence of his own writings and Boswell, he would never court intellectual glory through endangering Christian belief: If I could have allowed myself to gratify my vanity at the expence of truth, what fame might I have acquired. Every thing which Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote. (Life I. p. 444)

In particular, Boswell records his rejection of any suggestion that anti­Trinitarianism should be tolerated, though he did soften towards the ­sermons of the offender, Samuel Clarke, in later life (Life III. p. 248 and V. p. 288). In the ‘Life of Milton’, he asserts that Milton ‘appears … to have been untainted by any heretical peculiarity of opinion’ (Lives I. p. 275). But perhaps the most convincing evidence that Johnson has no qualms about the theology of Paradise Lost again comes from the multitude of citations in the fourth edition of the Dictionary. If he remains silent on the agency and discourse of God and the Son in the ‘Life of Milton’ – ‘the chief [agents] are such as it is irreverence to name on slight occasions’ (Lives I. p. 283) – he is nevertheless prepared to quote copiously from Book III of Paradise Lost in the Dictionary:  even, astonishingly, a line that might conceivably bear an Arian interpretation, ‘Thee next they sang, of all creation first’ (III. line 383). Had Johnson thought, with ‘Theophilus’, that Paradise Lost is ‘a Poem, which, tho’ universally admir’d, tends greatly to corrupt our Notions of the


Johnson’s Milton

most sacred Things,’105 he would not have admitted such citations into a reference work in general use. Even when examining defects, Johnson, as we have seen, gives Milton full credit for amplifying ‘the few radical positions which the Scripture afforded’ (Lives I. p. 289) without ruining the sacred truths to licentious fiction. But if the defects are not in the handling of the subject, they must be located in the subject itself; and since Johnson, unlike latter-day critics such as Empson in Milton’s God, is not at liberty to challenge the validity of the doctrines Milton expounds, he has to find an alternative way of explaining a felt deficiency. So, having lavished praise on the range of Milton’s knowledge, his judgement and imagination, he falls back on the ‘original deficience’ for which not even ‘universal knowledge’ can compensate (Lives I. p. 290). Nothing fully prepares the reader for his moment of revulsion against the book itself: Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harrassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions. (Lives I. p. 290)

After this shock to the system, any admirer of both Milton and Johnson is forced to account for a reaction so violent, and, it must be said, which has the ring of truth.106 It can be argued that it is consistent with Johnson’s own reading habits and his low boredom threshold (the number of books that he felt might be wished longer is tiny). Even so, it seems to put in a different light his previous statements suggesting that Paradise Lost is exactly the right length, meeting the Aristotelian criterion for ‘good works of art’ that ‘it is not possible either to take away or to add anything’.107 Yet the honest reader, although perhaps disagreeing with Johnson over Paradise Lost, surely recognises how accurately this describes a certain mood triggered by the effort of reading a difficult and demanding work, intensified in Johnson’s case by the hugely disquieting religious subject that Milton’s archetypal narrative forces on his attention. It is the truth – but not the whole truth. I do not think it necessary to suppose that this is invariably Johnson’s experience of reading the poem. The evidence suggests otherwise. The many occasions on which he recalls fragments of the text, or makes practical use of it, seem to prove that as with most readers of Paradise Lost it affects him in different ways at different times. He can treat it as a text which does indeed possess human interest, and as a resource which at the

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


very least adds to the common stock of memorable and beautiful quotations. But at this point in the ‘Life of Milton’ there is a sense that he is driven to kick against the pricks, to rebel against the sheer dominance and authoritativeness of the Miltonic monopoly of the universal subject. This crucial paragraph is a safety valve inserted in the argument to relieve pressure, rather than an explosive device to blow it apart. And the proof is that the argument does in fact continue. Johnson may at times lay down Paradise Lost in weariness or frustration, but he does not forget to take it up again. The subsequent discussion of the defects of Paradise Lost shifts to a more overtly literary analysis of how Milton represents spiritual and abstract agency. Here Johnson enters upon critical topics which would have been familiar from his reading: his debts to John Dennis and John Clarke have been well documented.108 As usual, Johnson does not just appropriate these precedents, but probes the arguments of his predecessors. If he takes up a topic for detailed examination, it is because he considers it important (in contrast to his earlier dismissal of some favourite neoclassical debating points). Milton’s angelology and allegory present philosophical as well as literary questions, as Dennis had indicated when raising his original objection: Most of the Machines … in Paradise Lost, have the appearance of something that is inconsistent and contradictory, for in them the Poet seems to confound Body and Mind, Spirit and Matter.

He comments specifically on the description of the fallen angels: Now Form and Shape suppose Extension, and Extension implies Matter. Besides, he has given them solid Arms and Armour, which can be employ’d by Body only …109

Dennis worries at the problem, without arriving at any satisfactory answer. John Clarke foams intemperately at the absurdity of the war in heaven, which he takes as further evidence of Milton’s misguided attempt to superimpose a Homeric model on a Christian subject. Johnson had previously answered Clarke’s objections by separating discourses, but he would agree that, if Milton succeeds in maintaining an appropriate barrier between discourses, he fails to maintain the philosophical distinction between the material and immaterial. Most modern Milton scholars would argue that Johnson begins from a mistaken premise in assuming that Milton believed that angels are immaterial, and that he ‘invested them with form and matter’ only out of literary necessity (Lives I. p. 290). He can scarcely be blamed for this assumption: again what it underlines is his acceptance of the orthodoxy of


Johnson’s Milton

Paradise Lost. With this premise, his criticism of passages where ‘the confusion of spirit and matter’ appears most awkwardly obtrusive is perfectly consistent. Even for materialists, Milton’s feeding, defecating, lovemaking, and fighting angels sustain their sublimity against the hazard of a sudden descent into grotesquerie. Other eighteenth-century critics, such as Bentley or John Clarke, can be far cruder than Johnson in their ridicule. Johnson, in comparison, has a sense of the dignity of divine agents, even fallen ones, and the risk of absurdity when they are represented as ‘animated body’. Like Bentley, he is perturbed by the episode where Satan disguises himself as a toad (Paradise Lost IV. lines 799–819). Bentley adds a line to make it clear that this is only the simulacrum of a toad ‘… NO REAL TOAD DURST THERE INTRUDE’;110 Johnson observes with ironic solemnity that ‘when [Satan] is brought before Gabriel, he has a spear and a shield, which he had the power of hiding in the toad, though the arms of the contending angels are evidently material’ (Lives I. p. 290). Those material arms cause particular difficulties in Book VI. Johnson’s belief that Book VI is ‘the favourite of children’ (Lives I. p. 291) may now raise a wry smile, but it follows his practice of considering what appeals to readers. Indeed, his criticism of Milton’s handling of the spirit/matter relation is not that he creates a fiction of material angels, but that he fails to sustain the fiction in the reader’s mind ‘by keeping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts’. He does not mention the principle of accommodation invoked by Raphael at Paradise Lost V. lines 570–6, but evidently he thinks that it is inadequate in practice – Milton ‘has unhappily perplexed his poetry with his philosophy’ (Lives I. p. 290). The criticism of Milton’s allegory of Sin and Death reintroduces formal and generic considerations. Essentially it is an extension of his case that Milton misjudges the representation of immaterial agency by material entities: After the operation of immaterial agents, which cannot be explained, may be considered that of allegorical persons, which have no real existence. To exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity, has always been the right of poetry. (Lives I. p. 291)

Johnson as poet had himself exercised this right, but Johnson as critic strictly circumscribes the function of allegorical beings: To give them any real employment, or ascribe to them any material agency, is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by ascribing effects to nonentity. (Lives I. p. 291)

In Milton’s allegory of Sin and Death, he finds that the ‘real’ and the ‘figurative’ collide. Here he is taking sides in the critical debate initiated

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


by Addison, which is superficially a debate about form and genre, but which, as so often, has wider ramifications. Addison himself wants to have it both ways:  he objects theoretically to Milton’s violation of the probability principle, but in practice considers this ‘a very beautiful and well invented Allegory’.111 After Addison, critical opinion is polarised: the Richardsons are as admiring as ever, citing scriptural precedent,112 but Voltaire takes strong exception to the incest motif, and to the gendering of Sin as female: Let such a Picture be never so beautifully drawn, let the Allegory be never so obvious, and so clear, still it will be intolerable, on the Account of its Foulness.113

The picture would indeed be ‘beautifully drawn’ by eighteenth-century artists (notably Hogarth in the 1730s), and the range of graphic depictions, with a gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous, unquestionably enriches the variety of interpretations of Milton’s allegory.114 Since the infernal trinity of Satan, Sin, and Death clearly fascinates and repels the eighteenth-century public, the critics attempt to account for both effects. One of the most powerful explanations is that offered by Burke, when he links terror with obscurity as a means of evoking ‘the passions caused by the SUBLIME’: No person seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things in their strongest light by the force of a judicious obscurity, than Milton … In this description [of Death] all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree.115

Yet Johnson, so evidently influenced by Burke in earlier passages of the ‘Life of Milton’, appears untouched by this aspect of Milton’s allegory. In fact, especially in comparison with previous critics, his assessment of these allegorical episodes seems surprisingly cool-headed. As is often the case with Johnson’s adverse criticism, he resorts to reductive literalism, culminating in his ironic put-down of the famous bridge-building activity – ‘a work too bulky for ideal architects’. To conclude, he sums up with a direct slur on Milton’s literary judgement, unusual in his criticism of Paradise Lost: This unskilful allegory appears to me one of the greatest faults of the poem; and to this there was no temptation, but the author’s opinion of its beauty. (Lives I. p. 291)

Perhaps it is precisely because he is judging in predominantly generic terms, that he can keep the subject at a distance. For Johnson, whose own apprehension of sin and death was often all too appallingly real and immediate, Milton’s personifications cannot compel belief, and, contrary to his claim, do not actually ‘shock the mind’ because the mechanism is too clumsily


Johnson’s Milton

apparent. It may even have been an obscurely felt relief to be able to write of Sin and Death, with a critic’s immunity, as managed personifications under authorial control – and not very skilfully managed at that. (Contrast Burke’s splendidly Augustan phrase, ‘a well managed darkness’).116 Significantly, though Johnson does not acknowledge the sublimity of Milton’s allegory, he is conscious of its parodic possibilities.117 Modern critics may not agree with him that the allegory is unskilful, but they continue to theorise on the topic, making it a focus of lively debate; and, as one modern Milton critic remarks, ‘One can take Johnson’s point without sharing his judgement.’118 Most of Johnson’s remaining criticisms address technique rather than subject, and are relatively low-key. Perhaps the most interesting of this sequence of paragraphs is that in which he takes a fresh look at the problem of representing an unfallen state – this time with textual particulars: To find sentiments for the state of innocence, was very difficult; and something of anticipation perhaps is now and then discovered. Adam’s discourse of dreams seems not to be the speculation of a new-created being. I know not whether his answer to the angel’s reproof for curiosity does not want something of propriety: it is the speech of a man acquainted with many other men. (Lives I. p. 291)

It seems a little hard that Johnson, who has so forthrightly condemned the prelapsarian narrative for its lack of human manners should now condemn anticipation of such manners. What this demonstrates is that Johnson does find human interest in the state of innocence, but that this interest, somewhat perversely, is presented as a defect not a strength. Surprisingly, his catalogue of defects actually concludes by taking an axe to his whole critical procedure: the exercise of balancing praise and blame is brought crashing down by the text itself. The definitive epithet that sweeps away all cavilling criticism is ‘wonderful’ – Paradise Lost is a ‘wonderful performance’:119 Such are the faults of that wonderful performance Paradise Lost; which he who can put in balance with its beauties must be considered not as nice but as dull, as less to be censured for want of candour, than pitied for want of sensibility. (Lives I. p. 292)

Those who charge Johnson himself with ‘want of sensibility’ should note the irony. In his conclusion to the ‘Life of Milton’ as a whole, he places creator and creation in precisely the context by which Milton himself asked to be judged. Milton’s hope was That what the greatest and choycest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I in my proportion with this over and above of being a Christian, might doe for mine. (CPW I. p. 812)

Johnson’s criticism of Paradise Lost


In the opinion of eighteenth-century readers, he succeeded in his aim. Johnson has already conceded the point that Milton has the advantage of ancient poets in being a Christian. But by appropriating a more recent eighteenth-century association between genius and originality  – ‘The highest praise of genius is original invention’ – he relegates Paradise Lost as a formal achievement to a place behind Homeric epic: ‘Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epick poem …’ (Lives I. p. 294). Not all those critics who equate genius with originality (Edward Young, for example)120 are willing to downgrade Paradise Lost on this account. Johnson, however, is characteristically discriminating. Milton’s literary originality is not, cannot be, absolute; yet he has none of the faults of the imitator, maintaining an intellectual independence and integrity that Johnson can only salute: He was naturally a thinker for himself … he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. (Lives I. pp. 294–5)

With these words, he makes handsome amends for his role in the longago Lauder affair. In the ‘Life of Milton’, the ‘beautiful-to-watch battle of titans’121 reaches its climax. Given his genuine difficulties with Milton’s subject, and the uneven history of his critical engagement with the text, Johnson’s final verdict on Paradise Lost, that it ‘is not the greatest of heroick poems, only because it is not the first’, records the poem’s ultimate triumph over one of its most recalcitrant, and intelligent, readers.

Ch apter 7

Cherry-stones: Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems

If Johnson’s problems with Paradise Lost have their source in Milton’s choice of subject rather than his choice of form, almost the reverse is true of his response to the shorter poems. Milton’s reinvention of genres throughout his literary career is a critical commonplace; most writers on Johnson’s criticism agree that his attitude to genre is unaccommodating, and that he sees little scope for revitalising a number of the traditional kinds.1 What is more, in Lives of the Poets, he delivers judgements with the authority of long experience, an old critic writing about poetry that is often the poetry of young men. The biographical format means that he has to survey the entire trajectory of each writer’s career, measuring minor poems against major, juvenilia against mature achievement. To read through all the Lives is to grow increasingly aware of these evaluative categories. Although Johnson can be generous to youthful ambition – ‘incitements to early excellence are never superfluous’ (Lives IV. p. 94) – he takes it for granted that most writers improve with maturity, that as with any other craft an apprenticeship has to be served. Dovetailing with this ­assumption is another, that short poems are often little in more senses than one, intellectually lightweight however attractive aesthetically: ‘what is little can be but pretty, and by claiming dignity becomes ridiculous’ (Lives I. p. 220). Running throughout the Lives are variations on the theme – ‘little pieces’, ‘little stanzas’, ‘petty poems’, ‘little performances’ – which often, though not always, coincide with the ‘performances of youth’.2 And the description has generic connotations, though genre does not necessarily correlate with length: lyric, ode, and pastoral are rarely accorded the kind of respect given to serious poetry, even if they have their place. Johnson is sufficiently in touch with Renaissance tradition derived from antiquity, to find it ‘natural for a young poet to initiate himself by Pastorals’ (Lives IV. p. 66), although, unless you happen to be Pope, he finds this to be almost invariably a false start. 150

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


In the case of Milton, when he applies his usual categorisation by c­ hronology and scale – ‘juvenile productions’, ‘early pieces’ (Lives I. p. 277) and ‘little pieces’ (Lives I. p. 282) – the fit is perhaps more awkward than in most of the other Lives. Indeed the awkwardness may be said to persist for modern Miltonists. It would be useful to have a single obvious term to cover all of Milton’s poetic output other than the unique and dominant masterpiece, Paradise Lost. Neither chronology nor genre is an adequately inclusive classification, though the poetry can certainly be subdivided in this way (the 1645 poems are a case in point). ‘Minor poems’, while frequently adopted, seems to sell them short; and the most practical alternative, ‘shorter poems’, depends like ‘minor poems’ on Paradise Lost itself as the standard of comparison (even Paradise Regained is a brief epic). As the cherry-stones analogy shows, Johnson rates the majority of these shorter poems not simply as inferior to the epic, but as less adapted to Milton’s genius: the poet cannot scale down that genius to perform ‘little things with grace’ (Lives I. p. 278). This view need not be derogatory: Jonathan Richardson, foremost of Milton’s eighteenth-century admirers, writes of ‘a Certain Severity of Mind, a Mind not Condescending to Little things’. But Richardson draws the opposite conclusion from Johnson: he goes on, ‘his Juvenile Poems are So no Otherwise than as they were Wrote in his Younger Years, for their Dignity and Excellence they are sufficient to have set him among the most Celebrated of the Poets, even of the Ancients themselves’.3 This exemplifies precisely that ‘false approbation of his little pieces’ that Johnson deplores (Lives I. p. 278). The final assumption that complicates Johnson’s own assessment of juvenilia is a kind of evolution theory, the belief that they are of value not intrinsically but because they foreshadow future fulfilment (Lives II. p. 47 and IV. p. 116). What he is looking for in Milton’s 1645 poems is the promise of Paradise Lost, and in this he is largely disappointed, notwithstanding the fact that elsewhere he ranks Milton with Cowley and Pope as giving early evidence of extraordinary giftedness (Lives I. p. 192). In fact, he fine-tunes that judgement in the ‘Life of Milton’ when he remarks that there is no necessary correlation between precocious brilliance and ultimate achievement – ‘many have excelled Milton in their first essays, who never rose to works like Paradise Lost’ (Lives I. p. 243). Even the Latin poetry, which Johnson (himself an accomplished Latin poet) admires for its elegance of style and ‘exquisite imitation’, appears to him too derivative to rank above Cowley’s or May’s (Lives I. p. 278 and pp. 196–7). Possibly in his search for intimations of Paradise Lost Johnson does not always look in the right place. Here his limitations regarding genre


Johnson’s Milton

may play a part. In spite of having reviewed Joseph Warton’s Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, Johnson totally neglects the ‘Nativity Ode’, ‘in which’, declares Joseph Warton, ‘a penetrating critic might have discovered the seeds of that boundless imagination, which afterwards was to produce the Paradise Lost’.4 Warton also lavishes praise on the other early poems, and draws attention to previous neglect: … this volume of Milton’s miscellaneous poems has not till very lately met with suitable regard.5

The other Warton, Thomas, in his 1785 edition, reinforces the assertion that Milton’s early and occasional poetry did not for a lengthy period receive its critical due.6 Both Wartons imply that this neglect is connected with genre and style.7 The ‘Life of Milton’, coming as it does between the two Warton publications, might seem to confirm their suspicion. And yet, there exists evidence that Johnson was not indifferent to the ‘volume of Milton’s miscellaneous poems’ at an earlier date. On the occasion of his visit to Cambridge in March, 1765, Dr John Sharp records in a letter, He was much pleased with a small Milton of mine, published in the author’s lifetime … There are many manuscript stanzas, for aught I know, in Milton’s own hand-writing, and several interlined hints and fragments.

Even more intriguing is the letter’s witness to Johnson’s familiarity with Milton’s sonnets, as he settles a query about the authenticity of one of them (unfortunately not identified): Johnson … repeated the whole sonnet instantly, memoriter, and shewed it us in Newton’s book. After which, he learnedly harangued on sonnet-writing, and its different numbers.8

This interest could scarcely be deduced from the treatment of the sonnets in the ‘Life of Milton’; but (assuming that Sharp is a reliable witness) it proves that nothing should be taken for granted about Johnson’s assimilation of Milton’s poetry. S on n e t s:  ‘t h e be s t … a r e no t b a d’ The least likely place for Johnson to discover intimations of greatness would be in the genuinely short form of the sonnet, which he relegates to the tail-end of his discussion of the ‘little pieces’. He does not share either Wordsworth’s exalted view of the Miltonic sonnet as ‘a trumpet; whence he blew/ Soul-animating strains’, or that of the modern critic who says that ‘They are – almost – like fragments of epics.’9 For Johnson, they are

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


cherry-stones. As he notes, ‘The Sonnets were written in different parts of Milton’s life, upon different occasions’ (Lives I. p. 282), so they cannot be classified as juvenilia: youth is no excuse. So far as occasions go, he mentions three in biographical contexts, the two counterattacks on the revilers of the divorce tracts (‘I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs’ and ‘A book was writ of late called Tetrachordon’) and the sonnet on his wife’s death (‘Methought I saw my late espousèd saint’). The two polemical sonnets are described respectively as ‘contemptible’ and ‘not excellent’ (Lives I. p. 252). To the sonnet on his wife’s death, Johnson applies the same epithet as Hannah More had to the sonnets in general (Life IV. p. 305): ‘her husband has honoured her memory with a poor sonnet’ (Lives I. p. 256). In the later paragraph devoted to critical assessment, he modifies his negative impressions, but only slightly: The Sonnets. … deserve not any particular criticism; for of the best it can only be said, that they are not bad; and perhaps only the eighth and the twenty-first are truly entitled to this slender commendation. The fabrick of a sonnet, however adapted to the Italian language, has never succeeded in ours, which, having greater variety of termination, requires the rhymes to be often changed. (Lives I. p. 282)

Never can sonnets have been damned with fainter praise. Yet, although Johnson makes the formal basis of his critical position absolutely clear, there are some puzzling aspects that require further investigation, if not explanation. In other contexts, he cites Milton’s sonnets with the ease of long and close familiarity. The sonnets also make a respectable showing in the Dictionary, most unexpectedly in the entry for ‘sonnet’ itself. Johnson’s definition repeats his opinion that the form ‘is not very suitable to the English language’, and emphasises that it ‘has not been used by any man of eminence since Milton’; he proceeds to quote in its entirety ‘A book was writ of late called Tetrachordon’, the sonnet dismissed as ‘contemptible’ in the ‘Life of Milton’. But it can scarcely be regarded as representative of its genre. Milton himself deliberately wrenches the form into grotesquerie to satirise a barbarous age. If Johnson’s bizarre choice is intended to sink the English sonnet beneath contempt, it makes some sense, and this is how Anna Seward explains it. She regards this Milton sonnet as ‘evidently a burlesque, written in sport’, and adds: Doctor Johnson has the disingenuousness, in his Folio Dictionary, under the word SONNET, to cite that Sonnet at full length, as a specimen of Milton’s style in this kind of Poetry. Johnson disliked Sonnets, and he equally disliked Blank Verse, and Odes. It is in vain to combat the prejudice of splenetic aversion. The Sonnet is an highly valuable species of Verse …10


Johnson’s Milton

However, DeMaria gives Johnson credit for a more scholarly motive:  ‘it seems clear that the poem’s defense of classical learning qualifies it for this special inclusion every bit as much as its exemplification of the form’.11 Unfortunately, this claim is hardly self-evident. Indeed, had Johnson wanted to cite a Milton sonnet that gracefully as well as wittily demonstrates the civilising effect of classical learning, he might rather have selected one of the two sonnets to which he awards his ‘slender commendation’, ‘When the assault was intended to the City’, with its evocative ending: … and the repeated air Of sad Electra’s poet had the power To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare.

lines 12–14

Curiously, although he does quote these beautiful lines in the Dictionary under ‘air’, in both editions they are wrongly attributed to Paradise Regained. At the opposite extreme from the political sonnets is Milton’s grave and moving sonnet on the most private of emotional experiences, his dream vision of his dead wife. It is this sonnet which Thomas Birch chooses to quote in full in his life of Milton, introducing it with the words ‘Upon the Death of this Wife [Milton] wrote the following beautiful Sonnet’.12 On personal if not poetic grounds, this sonnet might have been predicted to touch Johnson closely: ‘“I have known what it was to lose a wife. – It had almost broke my heart”’ (Life III. p. 305). He had honoured his own dead wife, Tetty, not with a sonnet but with a funeral sermon, and a touching sequence of prayers, in one of which he asks that, if it is permissible for ‘the souls of the dead to minister to the living’, he might ‘enjoy the good effects of her attention and ministration, whether exercised by appearance, impulses, dreams …’ (Yale I. p. 46). Sir John Hawkins makes a comparison and contrast between Milton’s state of mind and Johnson’s, which sets the latter in a much darker perspective: The melancholy, which seized Johnson, on the death of his wife, was not, in degree, such as usually follows the deprivation of near relations and friends: it was of the blackest and deepest kind. That affection, which could excite in the mind of Milton the pleasing images described in his sonnet on his deceased wife, Methought I saw my late espousèd saint, wrought no such effect on that of Johnson: the apparition of his departed wife was altogether of the terrific kind, and hardly afforded him a hope that she was in a state of happiness.13

Though it might provide a psychological explanation for Johnson’s refusal to engage with Milton’s sonnet, this dismal conjecture coarsens and ­distorts the complex feeling expressed in Johnson’s prayers (as his own phrase ‘poor sonnet’ diminishes Milton’s).

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


But there may be other reasons, connected with literary criticism rather than psychology, for Johnson’s lack of engagement. Not only does he have reservations about the sonnet form as such, but in this sonnet (as with Lycidas) an uncongenial literary form becomes the vehicle for an even less acceptable merging of discourses, the pagan and the Christian. Milton’s choice of Alcestis as the classical counterpart to his ‘late espousèd saint’ is a poignant reminder of the original context, and is also appropriate to a Christian scheme of spiritual values. For the story of Alcestis, the subject of a play by Milton’s favourite Euripides, and also an example in Plato’s Symposium, centres on the highest form of love, that which sacrifices itself for the beloved.14 Milton changes the story of the wife’s restoration to her grieving husband to Christianise it further, and to fit his own circumstances. He recognises the veiled figure, as Admetus did not, because of the inner beauty all the more perceptible, he implies, to a physically blind husband. The sonnet pivots on the speaker’s Christian faith, that he will ‘have/ Full sight of her in heaven without restraint’ (lines 7–8); but, since the outcome cannot be the earthly reunion which is the climax of Euripides’ play, it ends on the bleak resigned reawakening to literal and metaphoric darkness – ‘I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night’ (line 14). What Johnson might have made of this, had he allowed himself to enter imaginatively into the emotional situation, it is impertinent to speculate. His own prayers hint at an equally unassuageable yearning. We may, however, speculate that the literary means employed by Milton might create alienation rather than empathy in Johnson the critic, for, as in Milton’s pastoral elegy, mythological fiction mingles with ‘the most awful and sacred truths’ in a poem that memorialises one recently dead. In dealing with Milton’s sonnets as a group, and in restricting himself to a dismissal of English sonnet form on technical grounds, Johnson evades confrontation with material that might have resonated painfully in his own experience: the subject of personal loss; the consciousness of accountability to God; and the awareness of time and mortality. Yet with Lycidas, another poem addressing these themes in a different genre, he confronts the conflict between form and subject directly and aggressively. ly c i d a s : ‘a

pa s t or a l , e a s y, v u l g a r , a n d t h e r e f or e di s gus t i ng’

As it happens, the famous opening verse paragraph of Lycidas can itself be regarded as a ‘broken sonnet’,15 a violation of natural rhythm which enacts deeper disruption – Lycidas dead in his springtime, the poet forced into


Johnson’s Milton

premature harvesting of unripe fruits and torn foliage. Johnson reacts to this roughness with a violence of his own, which suggests a critical sensibility caught on the raw (rather than the insensibility of which his critics accuse him). Johnson’s anger meets the poet’s own anger. For in choosing to write his elegy in pastoral form, Milton opens up the radical potential of that conventional genre, and tests to the limit its capacity to accommodate difficult and bitter questioning – an effect that Johnson may well have grasped, and which has been developed in modern criticism of the poem.16 A succession of Johnson critics have examined his theory of pastoral in order to demonstrate that the attack on Lycidas in the ‘Life of Milton’ is consistent with his critical principles, and justified by those principles, and they make a persuasive case for at least the first of those propositions. But if the evidence is used to assert the reasonableness and validity of Johnson’s critical position – ‘Johnson was true to his norms, and therefore not false to Lycidas’ – the argument becomes circular.17 Even more damagingly, some of the force of his antagonism evaporates; and we lose something vital in the reading of Milton’s poem if we do not accept that antagonism. It is not sufficient to draw academic distinctions between ‘the form of pastoral’ and its substance, or between ‘true’ and ‘false’ pastoral. What Johnson reacts against in Lycidas  – its style, its fiction, its politics, its syncretism  – is of the essence of post-classical pastoral, as both Milton and Johnson understand its evolution, only heightened to a unique and original intensity. It is the perfect, not the imperfect, pastoral that Johnson finally and decisively rejects. His rejection is certainly the culmination of a long process of historical and literary assessment. Among the ancient ‘kinds’ of literature, pastoral, like epic and tragedy, acquired with the passage of centuries a heavy ­accretion of theory. In his general essays on pastoral in The Rambler (36 and 37), and his essay on Virgil’s eclogues in The Adventurer (92), Johnson makes his own critical contribution. In formulating his critical theory, Johnson is notably more constructive than in his later scattered commentary on the genre in the Lives. Being Johnson, his priority in the mid-century Rambler essays is reader-response – ‘The reasons why pastorals delight’ – before he proceeds to ‘The true principles of pastoral poetry’. And the reasons are not in any way abstruse: what makes the pleasure of pastoral so durable, from childhood to old age, is its source in the natural world (Yale III. p. 196). It follows that if pastoral is not true to its source, this justification for its existence breaks down. Yet even the best pastoral represents nature selectively, since it

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


gives pleasure because of what it excludes, as much as because of what it includes: It exhibits a life, to which we have been always accustomed to associate peace, and leisure, and innocence: and therefore we readily set open the heart, for the admission of its images … (Yale III. p. 195)

Pastoral is limited in its range of images and occasions, and, because of this limitation, modern pastoral presents a multitude of practitioners – ‘“numbers without number”’ says Johnson, with a wry recollection of Paradise Lost III. line 346 – chasing far too few variations (Yale III. p. 197). The definition of pastoral, derived from Virgil, is very general: ‘“a poem in which any action or passion is represented by its effects upon a country life”’ (Yale III. p. 201). By formulating his critical principles with a view to accounting for the universal pleasure received from pastoral poetry, Johnson clearly does not give high priority to its subgenre, pastoral elegy. Indeed, the conventions of pastoral elegy are authorised by only a handful of celebrated ancient poems: the first idyll of Theocritus, Bion’s Lament for Adonis, the Lament for Bion, and Virgil’s fifth and tenth eclogues. It would be possible to bring pastoral elegy under the broad rubric that Johnson constructs in the Rambler essays, if only on the grounds that its ‘passion is represented by its effects upon a country life’, and that it creates a world of natural ‘order and beauty’ which is both heightened and disrupted by the grief of loss. Johnson, however, goes out of his way in Rambler 37 to question the appropriateness of pastoral for post-classical elegy. Although these essays may be regarded as evincing Johnson’s understanding of the genre and the fact that he does not have a closed mind on the subject, already there are warning signals marking the limits of his toleration. He opposes the Renaissance practice of giving a light fictional dressing to poetry which is designed primarily to ‘insinuate and glaunce at greater matters’ (Puttenham’s famous phrase)18 in furtherance of an ecclesiastical or political agenda. Moreover, he brings pastoral elegy, written to lament the death of a public figure, under the same exclusion order: It is … improper to give the title of a pastoral to verses, in which the speakers, after the slight mention of their flocks, fall to complaints of errors in the church, and corruptions in the government, or to lamentations of the death of some illustrious person, whom when once the poet has called a shepherd, he has no longer any labour upon his hands, but can make the clouds weep, and lilies wither, and the sheep hang their heads, without art or learning, genius or study. (Yale III. pp. 204–5)

The seeds of ‘easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting’ are already there in this passage.


Johnson’s Milton

Even Virgil is not exempt from criticism, although his fifth eclogue ‘has stood to all succeeding ages as the model of pastoral elegies’ (Yale II. p. 419). In Adventurer 92, Johnson has to concede that generations of writers and readers have concurred in this judgement, yet he demurs: To deny praise to a performance which so many thousands have laboured to imitate, would be to judge with too little deference for the opinion of mankind: yet whoever shall read it with impartiality, will find that most of the images are of the mythological kind, and therefore easily invented; and that there are few sentiments of rational praise, or natural lamentation. (Yale II. p. 419)

When it comes to writing about Lycidas, which does not have the defence of sheer antiquity, Johnson has even less reason to defer to ‘the opinion of mankind’. But this passage is further proof that it is the generic combination of pastoral and elegy that specifically triggers his acute allergy to Milton’s poem.19 The more closely that later pastoral elegy conforms to the ancient models, the further it recedes from rational praise and natural lamentation. Lycidas provokes an intense reaction, precisely because it realises the ideal in a fuller and more complex way than all the other post-classical examples.20 The reason that Milton’s poem is even more at fault than its ancient predecessors is not because it degrades the form, but because by exalting the form it degrades the higher truth to which Theocritus and Virgil are not accountable. The most powerful danger signal in the periodical essays flashes out at the close of Rambler 37: The facility of treating actions or events in the pastoral stile, has incited many writers, from whom more judgment might have been expected, to put the sorrow or the joy which the occasion required into the mouth of Daphne or of Thyrsis, and as one absurdity must naturally be expected to make way for another, they have written with an utter disregard both of life and nature, and filled their productions with mythological allusions, with incredible fictions, and with sentiments which neither passion nor reason could have dictated, since the change which religion has made in the whole system of the world. (Yale III. p. 205)

For Johnson, Christian pastoral elegy is a contradiction in terms: the genre cannot be true both to its origins and to its beliefs. If Lycidas sets critic and poet on a collision course, it is a collision that has been waiting to happen at least since the 1750s. The fact that the poet is Milton heightens the devastating impact, but the poet’s identity and status are only brought into the argument at the end. Johnson begins his analysis by considering the poem’s reputation: ‘One of the poems on which much praise has been bestowed is Lycidas’ (Lives I. p. 278). Yet, as we might expect, prior to the ‘Life of Milton’, far less is written about Lycidas than about Paradise Lost; and the praise generally

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


lacks detail or critical rigour. Starting with the early biographers, Edward Phillips says more about the occasion than the poem, describing the latter simply as ‘that most excellent Monody’; Jonathan Richardson predictably rates it very highly, and draws attention to genre – ‘his Mask and Lycidas are perhaps Superior to all in their Several Kinds’.21 Having cited Toland on the masque, he adds ‘As great an Encomium have I heard of Lycidas as a Pastoral, and That when Theocritus was not forgot’. Fenton groups together the Masque, L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, and Lycidas, asserting that they are ‘all of such an exquisite strain! that though He had left no other ­monuments of his Genius behind him, his name had been immortal’.22 The same epithet is used by Joseph Warton: ‘Some of Milton’s most early, as well as most exquisite pieces, are his Lycidas, L’Allegro, and Il Penseroso …’23 Warton examines the ‘Nativity Ode’ with special attention because he feels it has been neglected; he seems to take it for granted that Lycidas does not require recommendation. In support of this assumption is the fact that it was attracting imitators, a sign of established reputation.24 Although Johnson might have been irritated by the glibness of such homage, it seems too insubstantial to draw his fire. The exception to this lack of rigour is Newton’s variorum edition, where the demands of scholarly commentary require closer scrutiny of genre and text. Newton’s headnote does not question the propriety of pastoral, and indeed endorses it with the observation ‘both Mr. King and Milton had been design’d for holy orders and the pastoral care’ as well as noting antecedents in Virgil and Spenser. The notes incorporate value judgements, but these are embedded in learned textual commentary.25 The passage that might have roused Johnson most could have been Thyer’s ‘just observation’, which Newton quotes as a fitting climax: The particular beauties of this charming pastoral are too striking to need much descanting upon; but what gives the greatest grace to the whole is that natural and agreeable wildness and irregularity which runs quite through it, than which nothing could be better suited to express the warm affection which Milton had for his friend, and the extreme grief he was in for the loss of him. Grief is eloquent, but not formal.26

This effusion must have set Johnson’s teeth on edge, but hardly because Thyer refuses to engage critically with the poem (the commentary proves that he has read it carefully): it is the praise for irregularity and the assumption that it is a proof of ‘extreme grief’ that go against the grain. It is because Johnson is divided from these critics on fundamental principles that he attacks their praise of Lycidas so vehemently, not because their praise is unthinking. Fix has suggested that in the ‘Life of Milton’ he is training his


Johnson’s Milton

battery on those who make Lycidas a touchstone of ‘a true taste for poetry’;27 it seems rather that this is incidental to the main target, Lycidas itself. As is his habit, he starts from the nuts-and-bolts: ‘the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing’ (Lives I. p. 278). Up to a point this judgement had been anticipated by William Shenstone, author of ‘A Prefatory Essay on Elegy’ (c. 1754), though Shenstone believed the irregularity of versification could be outweighed by ‘peculiar ease and variety’.28 Johnson, however, stays true to his own critical values when it comes to diction and prosody. When he applies ‘harsh’ to diction, one applicable meaning of the word is ‘Rough to the ear’ – the second definition in the Dictionary. Indeed, he illustrates ‘harshness’ with a quotation from Dryden which takes Milton as a point of reference: ‘Cannot I admire the height of Milton’s invention, and the strength of his expression, without defending his antiquated words, and the perpetual harshness of their sound?’29 Dryden is referring to Paradise Lost, but both antiquated words and harsh sounds are strongly implicated in Johnson’s verdict on Lycidas. The antiquated words alone would qualify Lycidas for entry to the Dictionary. As with the diction of Paradise Lost, though a shade more critically, Johnson notes obsolete senses (‘guerdon’, ‘use’) and departures from normal English usage: ‘Scrannel’: ‘[Of this word I know not the etymology, nor any other example.]’ Unusually, he misses a trick with ‘freakt’, which he supposes to be ‘Scotch, brought into England by Thomson.’ But if Johnson’s selection of examples from Lycidas in the Dictionary can be used to support his criticism of its diction as harsh,30 it should also be emphasised how willing he is to quote from the poem, and not just to exhibit harshness. Not only do some of its most famous lines figure (including the reviled ‘We drove afield/ … Battening our flocks’ under ‘afield’ and ‘batten’, and ‘Sport with Amaryllis in the shade,/ Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair’), but Johnson also includes fuller quotations than seem strictly necessary to establish meaning. Should we attach significance to the fact that the illustration of the obsolete ‘guerdon’ consists of the entire passage from ‘Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise’ to the ‘blind Fury’ that ‘slits the thin-spun life’? Surely in this instance Johnson’s attention was caught as much by sentiment as diction? And, despite his objection to the combination of Christian and pagan in pastoral elegy, he does not scruple to insert the wonderful consolatory peripateia, ‘Woful shepherds, weep no more’, dominated by the image of the day-star that ‘tricks his beams’ in the morning sky. Ironically, if the text of Lycidas were ever to be lost to us, it would be possible to reconstruct its skeleton almost from beginning (‘Shatter’) to end (‘Twitch’) from the Dictionary.

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


Although Johnson’s opening salvo against diction and prosody has roused indignation among lovers of the poem, it can be conceded that he has some justification from the text itself. From the outset, Milton deliberately shatters and remakes language and rhythm; when his diction grates, it is because the occasion demands it. What Johnson chooses to ignore is the power of contrast between this roughness and the ‘mellowed sorrow’, in John Scott’s felicitous phrase,31 that dissolves discords into harmony. As is often noted, the prosody enacts the resolution, restoring the broken rhythms to regularity with a coda in ottava rima. Johnson disclaims any skill in judging Italian verse (Lives I. p. 278), so he is perhaps unlikely to appreciate the finer points of Milton’s adaptation of the Italian canzone form. If he is conscious of the additional influence of Pindaric ode, that would only stiffen his resistance to the poem’s experimentation.32 Uncertainty of rhyme he finds unsettling, for the same reasons that he finds blank verse unsettling. John Crowe Ransom’s controversial assertion that no competent contemporary English poem is ‘so wilful and illegal in form as this one’ would go far towards explaining Johnson’s instinctive recoil.33 But Johnson does not attempt to analyse that revulsion further in technical terms. Instead he turns to the deeper source of his unease with the form:  what Milton actually does with ‘the sentiments and images’ associated with pastoral elegy. That an elegy should express grief seems a not unreasonable expectation. Yet few critical judgements by Johnson have been more belittled or patronised by a profession – academic criticism – that fears the charge of lacking intellectual sophistication. Even scholars sympathetic to Johnson seem embarrassed by the passage in the ‘Life of Milton’ where, as Fussell puts it, ‘Sophistication suddenly yields to what must strike us as an almost unbelievable naïveté’:34 It [Lycidas] is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions. Passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of rough satyrs and fauns with cloven heel. Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief. (Lives I. p. 278)

Few, if any, passages in Johnson’s criticism of Milton can be guaranteed to be more divisive. It has lined up Miltonists against Johnsonians, the former defending Lycidas and ridiculing Johnson’s premise, the latter defending Johnson on the grounds that his critical principles are based on ‘nature’ and ‘truth’. More fundamentally, it divides readers, not so much on the quality of Lycidas as a poem (which Johnson’s own test of time has validated), but on the issue of the connection between literature and


Johnson’s Milton

actual experience. It is an issue of the utmost importance to Johnson himself. He is not so naïve as to think that poetry has to run on the fuel of raw sincerity, but he knows that certain kinds of rhetorical display can bring emotional momentum to a shuddering halt. In “Pamphilus” on Condolence (1738), he had already made the point that it is necessary to create an ‘opinion of our sincerity’ when condoling with the bereaved, even when the elegy is a public ritualised act: ‘grief is an enemy to metaphor and allusion, and pity does not naturally play the rhetorician’ (Yale X. p. 12). And, as his readers have recognised, Johnson practises what he preaches: the elegy on Robert Levet contrasts starkly with Lycidas in the simplicity and directness – though not artlessness – with which it honours its obscure subject and realises the sense of loss.35 The key sentence in the passage on Lycidas is the last: ‘Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.’ ‘Leisure’ is a peculiarly apt word in this context, for leisure – otium – is a defining feature of the golden-age pastoral tradition. But the uses of ‘fiction’ in Johnson’s writing are much more complex. In defining the word in his Dictionary, he brings out three possible associations: that between fiction and poetry (he quotes Dryden, ‘Fiction is of the essence of poetry’); that between fiction and mythology (he quotes Raleigh, ‘a fiction of those golden apples’); and finally, baldly, that between fiction and ‘A falsehood; a lye’ (with no quotation). In the Lives of the Poets, he returns more than once to the writer’s responsibility to the relationship between fiction and truth that had exercised him in The Rambler: ‘Poets, indeed, profess fiction; but the legitimate end of fiction is the conveyance of truth’, he declares in the ‘Life of Waller’ (Lives II. p. 40). Noticeably, however, in the Lives the term ‘fiction’ recurs when he feels that this end is not being served; and this is especially evident when it refers to ‘the old Mythology’.36 The most pointed condemnation is reserved for the inappropriate deployment of fiction on the subject of death: ‘Let fiction, at least, cease with life, and let us be serious over the grave’ (Lives IV. p. 86). Here the principle is a simple one, finally articulated in the ‘Life of Gray’: ‘Where truth is sufficient to fill the mind, fiction is worse than useless’ (Lives IV. p. 182). Given this attitude, it is scarcely surprising that Johnson should attack Lycidas on the ground that it fails (in his view) to fulfil, or even to aim at, ‘the legitimate end of fiction’. But to show that his position is compatible with the principles that he uses to crush mostly forgotten poems is not to justify that position to most modern readers. Do we still require some kind of emotional authenticity from elegy? The interest in confessional poetry suggests that we do, as readers if not as critics. Significantly, Johnson is

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


much less abrasive about the Epitaphium Damonis, although it too is a pastoral elegy. In the case of this elegy, written for the death of Milton’s closest friend, Charles Diodati, which occurred when Milton himself was absent on his Continental travels, there is no doubt of the genuineness of the grief. But, partly because it is in Latin, the fiction of the Epitaphium Damonis has never had the impact of Lycidas, for all its reflective and desolate beauty (so finely brought out in Helen Waddell’s English translation). In her prefatory note to her translation, Waddell cites Johnson’s ‘damnation of Lycidas,’ and counters it with the assertion, ‘The truth is, rather, that “fiction”, convention, makes room for grief.’37 Whatever the reason, the worst that Johnson can find to say about it is the comparatively mild denigration of its genre, that it is ‘written with the common but childish imitation of pastoral life’ (Lives I. p. 247). However, his corresponding denigration of the form of Lycidas has lodged in the consciousness of every subsequent critic of the poem, providing the irritant round which a number of pearls have formed (not all, it has to be said, of equal value): Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting:  whatever images it can supply, are long ago exhausted; and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind. (Lives I. pp. 278–9)

It is not hard to imagine how Johnson’s memorable phrase – ‘easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting’ – would have stung the author in question, an author who ‘was born for whatever is arduous’ (Lives I. p. 295), and who distances himself from the vulgar, priding himself on an innate fastidiousness. In a way, it is just this gap between implied author and literary form that makes Johnson’s point. He is speaking of a genre which, from one point of view, has duplicity at its core, for pastoral is the literary product of a privileged, sophisticated, and above all educated urban élite, who assume the guise of shepherds ‘simply chatting in a rustic row’ (although, in the ‘Nativity Ode’, Milton had compared his offering to those of the magi, rather than associating himself with the shepherds). To support his judgement, Johnson proceeds to a comparison that measures how far the fiction damages the poem in his estimation. He had criticised Cowley’s elegy on Hervey for the same literary failure to convey grief, and ‘to move the affections’ (Lives I. p. 215), yet he considers that even this elegy is better than Lycidas at communicating something of emotional loss. Cowley introduces a pathetic fallacy, but does not like Milton develop a fiction of pastoral life: Ye fields of Cambridge, our dear Cambridge, say, Have ye not seen us walking every day?


Johnson’s Milton Was there a Tree about which did not know The Love betwixt us two? Henceforth, ye gentle Trees, for ever fade …38

Johnson contrasts Lycidas:  ‘what image of tenderness can be excited by these lines! We drove a field, and both together heard What time the grey fly winds her sultry horn, Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night.

Lives I. p. 279

The tradition of lament for a fellow-student, combined with nostalgia for university life, has a long and honourable history in English poetry, with or without pastoral connotations. Et in Arcadia ego is its dominant motif.39 But although Johnson is no stranger to the kind of experience in which the tradition is rooted, his response to Milton’s ‘celebration of fellowship and community’, his ‘image of pastoral felicity’,40 is to rip the delicate fabric to shreds with a brutal literalism: We know that they never drove a field, and that they had no flocks to batten; and though it be allowed that the representation may be allegorical, the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought because it cannot be known when it is found. (Lives I. p. 279)

From a critic of Johnson’s stature, this seems a grotesque and disingenuous over-reaction. Of course the description is allegorical;41 of course (we believe) we know the true meaning. Yet John Creaser, who has most eloquently defended the ‘power of art’ (itself a Johnsonian phrase) in Lycidas, recognises that Johnson’s objections cannot simply be ignored, and indeed that ‘The lines on the days when Lycidas and the poet were “together both” continue to bring out the Johnson in some critics.’42 Why does this apparently innocuous allegory make Johnson so angry? We may suspect that it is because of the duplicity already defined, which goes to the root of his quarrel with pastoral. The genre can be represented as a form of fantasising that elides the distinction between feigning and falsehood; it devalues and trivialises reality, whether it is the reality of country life or emotional reality.43 Reality is a term which tends not to find favour with literary theorists, but it matters to Johnson. Just because he is so aware of the powerful association between landscape and human feeling, he resents the kind of play-acting which, certainly by the eighteenth century, has become damagingly identified with ‘the common practice in which speakers take upon them the character of shepherds’ (one of the Dictionary definitions of ‘pastoral’). It is the apparatus of pastoral, the

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


rococo rustic role-playing, that he rejects in the ‘Life of Shenstone’:  ‘an intelligent reader, acquainted with the scenes of real life, sickens at the mention of the crook, the pipe, the sheep, and the kids’ (Lives IV. p. 129). His atypical praise of Pope’s Pastorals is precisely on the basis that the genre is appropriate to a young poet, because ‘not professing to imitate real life’ it ‘require[s] no experience’ (Lives IV. p. 66). Even when Johnson reads Virgil, it is Eclogues I and X, the eclogues that in his view most convincingly recreate emotional situations through pastoral imagery, that please him most. He attributes this effect to their origin: … these two poems were produced by events that really happened; and may, therefore, be of use to prove, that we can always feel more than we can imagine, and that the most artful fiction must give way to truth. (Yale II. p. 424)

Lycidas, although produced by an event that really happened, obfuscates ‘true meaning’ by ‘artful fiction’. Johnson might have been dismayed by the fact that in modern criticism the very concept of true meaning has broken down, but not perhaps surprised that in the particular case of Lycidas ‘there is … radical and many-sided disagreement about the real but non­literal and esoteric meaning of the poem’.44 In an era of deconstructive critical theory, this might represent a critical opportunity:  as Belsey puts it, summarising Derrida, ‘The signifier cannot make present, even in imagination, a single, full, masterable meaning-which-is-truth.’45 For Johnson, it is a measure of the poem’s failure. Simply by refusing to respect the validity of its artistic conventions, he can easily strip away the nymphs-and-shepherds façade with the object of exposing vacuity. Nor is he alone in finding the artificiality of pastoral a tempting target for mockery. In the early eighteenth century, Thomas Tickell had ridiculed French pastoral drama, with its embroidered shepherds, rivers in red stockings, and a periwigged Alpheus.46 And when it comes to the use of artifice to express grief, as one of Burney’s characters remarks of operatic aria – ‘it’s out of all nature for a man to be piping when he’s in distress’.47 Johnson likewise parodies pastoral elegiac convention: Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone, without any judge of his skill in piping; and how one god asks another god what is become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He who thus grieves will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises will confer no honour. (Lives I. p. 279)

Although he can occasionally afford to be tolerant where artificial pastoral makes no pretensions to represent reality, or to engage with profoundly


Johnson’s Milton

serious subjects (Lives IV. pp. 112–13), what disturbs him about Lycidas is that Milton does make such claims. As for truth to nature, Milton undeniably sees nature through the spectacles of books in this poem, but that is not the main reason for Johnson’s criticism of the ‘long train of mythological imagery, such as a College easily supplies’ (Lives I. p. 279). It is because, among the books in question, the Bible and pagan texts appear to occupy the same imaginative space. The climax therefore of his vehement attack on Lycidas is the accusation that Milton defiles a higher discourse by promiscuously mingling it with a lower. He does not apply the same standards to Lycidas that he applies to the pastorals of Theocritus and Virgil. As a Christian poet, Milton is held to a more austere imperative to convey truth through fiction: This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths, such as ought never to be polluted with such irreverend combinations. (Lives I. p. 279)

Although Johnson can be held responsible for initiating the debate over the integration of the Christian and pagan material in Lycidas, the broader question of how far pagan myth could, or should, be integrated into poetry of the Christian era has a long pedigree. After the more relaxed Renaissance syncretism of Spenser, English poets of the seventeenth century express greater angst over the conflict between the ‘exploded’ fictions of ancient myth and the Christian beliefs they profess. In his preface to his works, Cowley argues that scriptural material ought to displace classical myth entirely from the ‘Divine Science’ of poetry on both aesthetic and theological grounds.48 Milton himself powerfully experiences and expresses both the beauty of the pagan world and the iconoclastic urge to deface and dismantle it, replacing it with Christian truth. What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? From the ‘Nativity Ode’ to Paradise Regained, he puts this question, implicitly and explicitly. But although ‘the mighty Pan’ may oust his fabled counterpart, the fable never completely loses its hold on the poet’s imagination. Most unforgettably in Paradise Lost itself, the exiled deities return:  the narrator attempts to demythologise (or remythologise) the legend of the beautiful disastrous fall of Mulciber from dawn to dusk – ‘Thus they relate,/ Erring ’ (Paradise Lost I. lines 746–7) – but for lovers of poetry the image cannot be deleted. And, as Lonsdale observes, Johnson ‘does not object’ to the use of mythology in Paradise Lost (Lives I. p. 411). Paradoxically, Milton would have understood the seriousness of Johnson’s criticism of Lycidas better than many of its later defenders.

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


These defenders of Lycidas include Thomas Warton in 1785, who like many others appeals to Renaissance literary precedent: ‘he had the authority of Mantuan and Spenser, now considered as models in this way of writing’.49 For Johnson, however, as Rambler 37 attests, this particular Renaissance practice is indefensible. Not all later commentators disagree with him where Lycidas is concerned. The 1801 editor of Milton, Henry J. Todd, acknowledges literary precedent, but nevertheless adds: I wish indeed that the fictions of heathenism had not here been mingled with what is sacred; particularly that, after the sublime intimation from Scripture of Angels wiping the tears for ever from the eyes of Lycidas, Lycidas, thus beatified, had not been converted into the classical Genius of the shore.50

Even the biblical metaphor of ‘pastor’ is unacceptable to Johnson when it shares the same frame of reference as pagan pastoral. He does not return in his criticism to the political ideology of the poem, to which he alludes in the biographical context (Lives I. pp. 245–6). Instead of ‘malignity to the Church’, the charge he verges upon is that of blasphemy, though he draws back from it at the last moment by acquitting Milton of conscious intention (Lives I. p. 279). The poet of Paradise Lost cannot finally be suspected of impiety, although as a literary artefact Lycidas approaches it. So we return to the writer after all. Johnson does what his final paragraph on Lycidas claims that other readers do, that is, he allows the known identity of the author to influence a critical assessment: Such is the power of reputation justly acquired, that its blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author. (Lives I. p. 279)

It is a shrewd point, especially in view of the cultural authority that so many in Johnson’s century confer on Milton. Those who would agree with Fix that Johnson’s target in the ‘Life of Milton’ is primarily ‘the blind, uncritical enthusiasm of Milton’s other admirers’51 find support from this passage. Johnson admits that Milton’s reputation as the author of Paradise Lost is ‘ justly acquired’ (my italics), but at the same time he implies a lack of discrimination in his admirers. A similar innuendo glancing at how easily public taste can be manipulated occurs when he comments on Addison’s success in making ‘Milton an universal favourite, with whom readers of every class think it necessary to be pleased’ (Lives III. p. 37). As Damrosch comments, ‘Readers can be deluded into thinking they like what they really don’t, or at least wouldn’t if they responded honestly to their own instincts.’52 Johnson really does not like Lycidas, and he knows why he does not like it. But in his case, it is not because Milton is the


Johnson’s Milton

author, nor, I would say, because it has been excessively praised. He has given the text what he terms ‘nice examination’, and found it wanting, all the more so because it so perfectly recreates the features of its chosen genre. His major contribution to the subsequent reception of Lycidas is to make readers think about the poem, and the nature of the pleasure they derive from it. From the publication of the ‘Life of Milton’ onwards, virtually no major critic who writes on Lycidas can leave Johnson’s controversial ‘nice examination’ entirely out of the reckoning. By stimulating opposition, Johnson also stimulates the production of further, closer, readings of the text, and alternative conclusions. Early in this process, certain lines of defence are set up, which are developed and strengthened in modern Milton criticism. For example, Thomas Warton urges that although ‘In this piece there is perhaps more poetry than sorrow’, nevertheless, ‘let us read it for its poetry’, and he adds that ‘the poetry is not always unconnected with passion’.53 In the same year, 1785, John Scott’s essay on Lycidas constructs a detailed reading upon the scaffolding of Johnson’s original criticism, with observations that show how his varying degrees of dissent or qualified assent have sharpened his own sense of how the poem works. He remarks that ‘The irregularity of the rhyme is obviously the effect of design, not of carelessness, and may not please some ears, but the numbers, or component parts of the lines, are in general so musical, that one should think they must please all’; he sees that Johnson’s objection to the form of Lycidas ‘seems to affect pastoral in general, and to condemn Milton’s plan, as well as his execution’; and, like many later critics, he believes that when Johnson ‘thinks that “Lycidas” cannot be considered as an effusion of real grief, he seems to have mistaken the nature of the poem’.54 Although his eighteenth-century conditioning is apparent in his uneasiness with certain aspects of style, he concludes by rejecting Johnson’s last point: ‘Lycidas’ is a noble poem: the author’s name is not wanted to recommend it: its own enthusiasm and beauty will always make it please, and abundantly atone for its incorrectness.55

Modern critics have followed the example of Warton and Scott in reading Lycidas for the poetry, and have discovered ever more subtle variegations in its texture.56 They have also discovered fresh ways of reconnecting it to Milton’s poetic development and to his politics, and have continued to raise such issues as genre, voice, impersonality and anonymity, and self-representation.57 It is worth noting that the distinguished and muchused collection of twentieth-century essays, C. A. Patrides’ edition of

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


Milton’s ‘Lycidas’: The Tradition and the Poem, prefaces the criticism with the ­relevant extract from the ‘Life of Milton’, to which so many of the contributors allude. The debt owed by Miltonists to Johnson on Lycidas is nowhere more apparent. l’ a l l e g r o

a n d i l p e n s e r o s o : ‘t wo nobl e e f f or t s of i m ag i n at ion’

With L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, Johnson comes closest to surrendering to uncomplicated enjoyment of Milton’s poetry. That does not mean that his critical faculty is entirely in abeyance, only that these are companion poems in whose company he can relax. For once he does not quarrel with the form, either generic or metrical. Lonsdale is surely right in saying that Johnson’s ‘own “pleasure” in “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” (compared to “Lycidas”) must derive partly from the fact that they are mostly written in octosyllabic couplets’ (Lives I. p. 412). Indeed the contrast with his appraisal of Lycidas could scarcely be more emphatic: he executes the tightest of turns from rejecting the validity of public opinion – ‘no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author’ – to endorsing it – ‘every man that reads [L’Allegro and Il Penseroso], reads them with pleasure’ (Lives I. p. 279). In accounting for that pleasure, he fastens immediately on the psychological interest of the subject, ‘how, among the successive variety of appearances, every disposition of mind takes hold on those by which it may be gratified’ (Lives I. p. 279). Although Johnson does not explicitly mention a link between these two poems and Robert Burton’s prefatory poem to The Anatomy of Melancholy, it had been already noted by Francis Peck in 1740 (and would be reinforced by Thomas Warton’s commentary and that of later Milton scholars).58 In the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of this piece of editorial source-hunting, it is impossible to establish how much critical importance Johnson might have attached to it. What is on record is his deep fascination with Burton’s book and its subject (Life II. pp. 121, 440). It is worth suggesting that his pleasure in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso is coloured by this fascination with temperamental melancholy, and his personal experience of its darker aspects. His pleasure may derive partly from the way in which Milton succeeds in exorcising the demons of such a ‘disposition of mind’ and evoking the innocent delights of ‘the successive variety of appearances’ that gratify it. Johnson evidently enjoys capturing the enchantment of this variety, translating Milton’s poetry into a prose paraphrase studded with the


Johnson’s Milton

gleams of interwoven quotation. The object is to bring out the counterpointing of detail in the companion poems, an objective that modern editors and critics have continued to pursue. With Johnson, the focus is clearly on the experiencing consciousness that differentiates the pleasures of Mirth and Melancholy; his diction sets these pleasures in an ­eighteenth-century ambience, for example ‘scenes of smiling plenty’ (Lives I. p. 280). We might even detect a personal touch in his description of melancholy weather, though in general he is noted for resisting the influence of weather upon mood. When he says of ‘the pensive man’ that ‘When the morning comes, a morning gloomy with rain and wind, he walks into the dark trackless woods …’, Johnsonians might be reminded of Mrs Thrale’s remark that ‘Walking in a wood when it rained, was, I think, the only rural image he pleased his fancy with’.59 (In fact, Johnson’s paraphrase of the poem is slightly inaccurate at this point, since it is evident from lines 129–32 that the showery weather has cleared and that the sun begins to break through as Il Penseroso sets out on his woodland walk.) Characteristically, Johnson is sensitive to the quality of isolation in both poems.60 One of his key perceptions insists on this impression: Both Mirth and Melancholy are solitary, silent inhabitants of the breast that neither receive nor transmit communication; no mention is therefore made of a philosophical friend, or a pleasant companion. The seriousness does not arise from any participation of calamity, nor the gaiety from the pleasures of the bottle. (Lives I. p. 280)

He goes on to observe that, although L’Allegro turns from rural to urban pleasures and ‘mingles with scenes of splendor, gay assemblies, and nuptial festivities’, nevertheless ‘he mingles a mere spectator’ (Lives I. p. 280:  my italics). Some Milton critics disdain Johnson’s reading of the two poems as crude or misguided: either because, like Robert Potter, they think Johnson incapable of appreciating certain kinds of imagery,61 or because, like Cedric C. Brown, they think that he seems ‘to miss the tone’. Brown answers Johnson’s point about the absence of a companion for the speaker: ‘Milton’s twin poems do not need such companions within the text, because the knowing companionship is implicit in the reader.’62 But what Johnson makes us aware of is a solitariness in the reader that answers a similar solitariness in both ‘the chearful man’ and ‘the pensive man’. In Johnson’s view, Milton’s versions of Mirth and Melancholy are intensely introverted, independent of such outward circumstances as shared calamity or conviviality. This is where Johnson’s reading of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (that ‘valuable work’) may have shaped his response to the psychology of the

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


poems. Famously, in a letter to the similarly afflicted Boswell in 1779, he rewrites Burton’s remedy for depression: The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you, is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify; – If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle. (Life III. p. 415)

Johnson’s own fear of solitude and self-reproach for idleness are well­documented. From his viewpoint, Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso are not only solitary but (in one sense) idle; what protects them from the darker and more destructive aspects of melancholy is the pleasure of contemplation, not action. Also, each has access to another ancient remedy against melancholy, the power of music. Johnson notes how Milton differentiates the Orpheus allusions: Both his characters delight in musick; but he seems to think that chearful notes would have obtained from Pluto a compleat dismission of Eurydice, of whom solemn sounds only procured a conditional release. (Lives I. p. 280)

The distinction, as Johnson hints, is a subtle one, balancing wistful fantasising against the loss and melancholy of the original myth. This is yet another instance of the parallelism between the two poems; but one potential source of melancholy is peculiar to Il Penseroso, the contemplation of old age. For Johnson, however, its presence is alleviated by its treatment: ‘Melancholy he conducts with great dignity to the close of life’ (Lives I. p. 280). In spite of his even-handedness in his comparison of the two poems, it is difficult to escape the conclusion (supported by the number of references in the Dictionary) that Johnson’s ultimate preference, like that of many eighteenth-century readers, lies with Il Penseroso. His summing up suggests that the poet himself has tilted the balance towards Melancholy rather than Mirth. He approves what might be termed the moral rectitude of each mental state as presented by Milton. But his most frequently cited reservation concerns the relationship between the companion poems, which was to continue as a key critical issue into the modern era: I know not whether the characters are kept sufficiently apart. No mirth can, indeed, be found in his melancholy; but I am afraid that I always meet some melancholy in his mirth. (Lives I. p. 280)

Thomas Warton reluctantly concedes that there may be something in this, adding ‘But this circumstance has been productive of greater excellencies’ (‘Milton’s is the dignity of mirth’).63 In contrast, Johnson’s ‘I am afraid’ implies a shortcoming. He may approve L’Allegro’s lack of levity, without


Johnson’s Milton

approving his apparently total self-sufficiency. For Johnson, the solitary state precludes the fullest experience of human felicity. He also takes it for granted that the poems are intended to represent polarised opposites, even if it is the same consciousness experiencing mirth and melancholy. It is a matter of praise for one critic, who dissents from Johnson’s opinion, that Milton’s original poems succeed in keeping the ‘solemn’ and the ‘sprightly’ entirely separate.64 That this was a common eighteenth-century view seems borne out not just by the anecdote of Johnson’s old acquaintance who had tried to be a philosopher but found that cheerfulness was always breaking in (Life III. p. 305), but also by the provision of a mean between extremes –Il Moderato – for Handel’s musical setting of Milton’s companion texts.65 Johnson’s critical approach is sufficiently mainstream to be still identifiable in modern criticism. What he does not touch upon is the ideological context of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. This is in marked contrast to Thomas Warton in the 1780s, as well as to one strand of modern commentary.66 Warton is no less vehemently opposed to Milton’s politics than Johnson, but unlike Johnson he seizes the opportunity to heighten the discrepancy, as he sees it, between the young poet of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso and the mature republican polemicist: No man was ever so disqualified to turn puritan as Milton. In this and the preceding poem, he professes himself to be highly pleased with the choral churchmusic, with Gothic cloysters, the painted windows and vaulted iles of a venerable cathedral … and with masques and pageantries. What very repugnant and unpoetical principles did he afterwards adopt! He helped to subvert monarchy, to destroy subordination, and to level all distinctions of rank.67

Johnson is content with the sole observation that ‘Milton probably had not yet forsaken the Church’ (Lives I. p. 280). As with Paradise Lost, Johnson refuses to read for political subtexts to score partisan points. His final verdict values the poems as a creative achievement, for the pleasure they continue to give: ‘They are two noble efforts of imagination’ (Lives I. p. 280).

C om us : ‘t h e daw n or t w i l ig h t of Pa r a dise L os t ’ In Comus Johnson at last seems to have found what he was searching for in Milton’s early poems: The greatest of his juvenile performances is the Mask of Comus; in which may very plainly be discovered the dawn or twilight of Paradise Lost. (Lives I. p. 280)

‘Greatest’ may not signal unequivocal praise;68 and ‘dawn or twilight’ also equivocates in the choice of metaphor. Johnson is referring primarily

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


to ‘that system of diction, and mode of verse, which [Milton’s] maturer judgement approved, and from which he never endeavoured nor desired to deviate’ (Lives I. p. 281). Only by recalling his views on Paradise Lost itself will the reader realise that this is the same diction and verse that Johnson’s own mature judgement does not approve – or, at least, not without considerable reservations. He does not enlarge on these reservations here, although he will return to the stylistic continuity between Comus and Paradise Lost later in the ‘Life of Milton’ (Lives I. p. 293). ‘Dawn or twilight’ places Comus metaphorically in a shadowy zone of glimmering and hazy beauty, which is highly appropriate to the masque’s own setting and effects. Before considering its genre, Johnson begins, as every reader of Comus must, with the impact of its poetry; and here his commendation is unusually glowing: A work more truly poetical is rarely found; allusions, images, and descriptive epithets, embellish almost every period with lavish decoration. As a series of lines, therefore, it may be considered as worthy of all the admiration with which the votaries have received it. (Lives I. p. 281)

Johnson’s aesthetic vocabulary may disappoint modern votaries who would prefer a closer scrutiny of verbal texture, yet it adequately defines the nervous energy and richness of the verse (and its resemblance to Paradise Lost). As with L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, he confirms an enthusiastic response to the masque’s lyricism which goes back as far as Sir Henry Wotton’s 1638 letter to Milton, claiming to be ravished ‘with a certain Dorique delicacy … whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our Language: Ipsa mollities’.69 Toland’s encomium echoes Wotton’s and adds a reminder of its educative function: … his Comus or Mask presented at Ludlow Castle, like which Piece in the peculiar disposition of the Story, the sweetness of the Numbers, the justness of the Expression, and the Moral it teaches, there is nothing extant in any Language.70

Jonathan Richardson the elder cites both of them, and joins in the chorus of approbation – ‘he Excell’d in Lyrick, Pastoral, Dramatick, Epic, and a Kind Purely Original, Such is his Masque’.71 In stressing the originality of the masque, Toland and Richardson hint at an approach which will be fully developed in later genre studies. In modern Milton criticism, ideological readings of A Masque presented at Ludlow Castle, 1634, have become the norm, thanks largely to intensive historical and literary research on the masque genre, its cultural importance, and the unique place of Milton’s text within that genre.72 In the eighteenth century, however, the alternative title Comus – apparently


Johnson’s Milton

originated by Toland – displaces the title which identifies it solely by genre and occasion. One effect of this renaming is to assimilate it to dramatic rather than masque form (masques more characteristically have symbolic or occasional titles). Although purists might agree with Stephen Orgel that ‘The modern title, Comus, is grossly unjust to the work: we would not think of referring to Paradise Lost as Satan’,73 it caught on, partly for convenience, but also and especially in the eighteenth century because of the continuing success of John Dalton’s stage adaptation, first performed in 1738. Dalton shifts the masque closer to dramatic structure by imposing act divisions and expanding the cast. Like a number of Restoration and eighteenth-century adaptors, he subscribes to the belief that more is better, not that less is more, and doubles existing roles: so Sabrina is provided with a counterpart, Euphrosyne (lifted from L’Allegro), and First Spirit has a twin Second Spirit, responsible for guarding the Lady. Comus’s crew have plenty of performance opportunities, more than the anti-masque structure would permit. As Dugas has argued, ‘Dalton transformed Milton into an eighteenth-century playwright and Comus into a contemporary entertainment of the first quality.’74 Nor was it only audiences that approved. The Milton scholar, Francis Peck, seizes on this demonstration of Milton’s dramatic talents, and not only converts both Comus and Samson Agonistes to act structure, but also deduces from the evidence relating to Paradise Lost ‘that, besides the bare plans, he also wrote a good deal of the Drama itself (perhaps all) & then took it to pieces, & threw the main of it into this work’.75 Johnson, then, has some excuse for judging Comus as a drama, given this eighteenth-century context. Dalton’s frequently revived adaptation seemed to prove that it could work in the theatre, certainly to the satisfaction of an eighteenth-century public. And Johnson himself was involved with one such revival, the benefit performance in 1750 on behalf of Mrs. Elizabeth Foster, Milton’s granddaughter, for which he not only wrote a prologue but made an eloquent and compassionate plea, contrasting the status of the famous poet as a patriotic icon with the humble ordinariness of his descendant and her ‘little chandler’s or grocer’s shop’.76 Johnson’s prologue makes an interesting contrast to Dalton’s earlier one, since he says virtually nothing about Comus itself; the connection is with the poet of Paradise Lost. When Johnson does criticise Comus in the ‘Life of Milton’, it appears that Dalton’s adaptation had in fact failed to convince its publicist of its dramatic merits. ‘As a drama it is deficient’ he states baldly, before giving his reasons for his judgement (Lives I. p. 281). It should be emphasised that Johnson knows perfectly well that there is a difference between

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


masque and theatrical drama in general: his dictionary definition, ‘A dramatick performance, written in a tragick stile without attention to rules or probability’, may be inadequate by later scholarly standards, but it does imply that to blame any example of masque because ‘The action is not probable’ – Johnson’s initial objection to Comus – is illogical, like blaming a species for displaying its defining characteristic. Johnson deliberately chooses to expect more of Comus than its genre appears to allow. Lonsdale considers that Johnson may be remembering Thomas Warton’s assertion that Milton modifies the traditional court masque ‘to give it the form and substance of legitimate drama’ (Lives I. p. 413). It is certainly true that the basis of much later study has been the demonstration of how Milton ‘reforms’ the genre. Yet Warton himself at a later date warns against reading Comus ‘with an eye to the stage, or with the expectation of dramatic propriety’ and resists generic pigeonholing: ‘whether it is considered as an Epic drama, a series of lines, a Mask, or a poem, I am of opinion, that our author is here only inferiour to his own PARADISE LOST’.77 To read Comus in the light of Paradise Lost, as its ‘dawn or twilight’, does however give us one clue about Johnson’s critical approach. In his criticism of Milton’s epic, he also uses the concept of deficiency – ‘original deficience cannot be supplied’ – and although in Comus it is attributed to genre and in Paradise Lost to subject, at root it is the same deficiency. Johnson’s case against Milton’s masque could be summed up in the phrase he uses for the greater work: ‘want of human interest’. As regards Comus, his point is that once human action and motivation are introduced, whether the medium is labelled as masque or drama, ‘it ought to be reasonable’ (Lives I. p. 281). He does not find the conduct of the brothers reasonable, although he admits that allowances may be made for convenient plot-devices. In judging Comus primarily as drama, the obvious touchstone – though Johnson does not say so explicitly – is Shakespeare,78 who can be just as improbable in his comic plotting, but who can never be accused of lacking human interest. What Johnson misses is the kind of imaginative involvement he experiences in Shakespearean drama; yet it is hard to know whether he omits direct comparison with Shakespeare because he tries to avoid judging Comus invidiously. Certainly other commentators like Thyer and Warburton do not avoid such comparisons, although their focus is on manner rather than dramatic skills, and Newton’s variorum commentary is thickly sown with Shakespearian allusions.79 However, if Milton cannot offer Johnson the same dramatic interest as Shakespeare, he scores highly in one respect in which Johnson finds Shakespeare sometimes lacking. Johnson has no fault to find with ‘Milton’s


Johnson’s Milton

morals’, and no problem with the seductiveness of ‘the invitations to pleasure’ (Lives I. p. 281). Again, comparison with his criticism of Paradise Lost leaps to mind: he is as immune to Comus’s rhetoric as to Satan’s (Lives I. p. 413). Yet there is a price to pay for this immunity, if it means that the power of temptation is not felt. Something has to be at stake; otherwise ‘The auditor … listens as to a lecture, without passion, without anxiety’ (Lives I. p. 281). This is masque neither as drama nor as entertainment, but as lecture (and Johnson was unimpressed by lectures as a mode of communication).80 Some later Milton critics, notably Stanley Fish,81 have addressed the educative purpose of Milton’s masque as a key to its interpretation, but Johnson is in a minority in suggesting that it is too overtly educative to succeed. Not many modern Miltonists would trouble to defend Comus on Johnson’s chosen territory.82 The focus of critical interest has shifted decisively, and his concern with dramatic representation may appear less relevant. Yet, in Johnson’s own terms, it is a legitimate concern. Stripped of symbolism and the supernatural – which he acknowledges as the province of masque, with its ‘freaks of imagination’ – and transprosed, so to speak, into naturalistic mode, the action of Comus can be made absurd. In retelling it as narrative, Johnson resorts to his frequent critical device of ironic reductiveness: At last the Brothers enter, with too much tranquillity; and when they have feared lest their sister should be in danger, and hoped that she is not in danger, the Elder makes a speech in praise of chastity, and the Younger finds how fine it is to be a philosopher. (Lives I. p. 281)

Commentators from the eighteenth century to the present have taken the philosophy seriously. In Newton’s variorum edition, Warburton’s note on line 462 reads ‘This is agreeable to the system of the materialists, of which Milton was one’; Thyer compares ‘body’s working up to spirit’ in Paradise Lost V. line 469, adding ‘however repugnant it may be to our philosophic ideas, it cannot miss striking and delighting every virtuous and intelligent reader’. The consensus is that ‘Our author has here improved his poetry by philosophy.’ On the line alluded to by Johnson, ‘How charming is divine philosophy!’ (475), Newton’s gloss identifies the philosophy as that ‘of Plato, who was distinguish’d among the Ancients by the name of the divine’.83 This kind of exposition is highly germane to the masque’s serious theme of chastity. Yet, given the ages of the brothers (eleven and nine), perhaps Johnson’s irony is not altogether misplaced.84 And it is entirely typical of him to dismiss the Spirit’s subsequent ‘long narration’ as being ‘of no use because it is false, and therefore unsuitable to a good Being’ (Lives I. p. 282).

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


Most readers would agree with him that the heart of the masque is the debate between Comus and the Lady. Even here, however, he insists on judging it primarily as dramatic dialogue: The dispute between the Lady and Comus is the most animated and affecting scene of the drama, and wants nothing but a brisker reciprocation of objections and replies, to invite attention, and detain it. (Lives I. p. 282)

Johnson himself, long ago in Irene, had experimented with ways of dramatising the conflict of ideas in dialogue, not altogether successfully. It is disappointing that he says nothing further about the actual arguments of the Lady and Comus, since, although his moral support for the former cannot be in any doubt, it would be interesting to have his assessment of the logical and rhetorical strategies involved. But his main point is the one he reiterates: that, for all the lyricism of the poetry and the unexceptionable moral sentiments, ‘there is something wanting to allure attention’. Here Johnson’s misapprehension of masque comes into play in other ways, for although he invokes dramatic criteria he treats Comus primarily as text and not performance. He takes little account of either spectacle or music in his assessment. His well-known indifference to music blocks one source of pleasure that seventeenth-century masque and eighteenth-century opera have in ­common, so it is scarcely to be expected that he would find the songs ­a lluring. Indeed, not all musicologists admire the surviving settings for the Comus songs, including Johnson’s friend, Charles Burney, who criticises Henry Lawes for failing to accent them properly (the ‘artful strains’ of Thyrsis might enchant ‘huddling brooks’, but not Burney).85 As for the verbal music, although Johnson’s first reference to ‘lavish decoration’ seems favourable, he later describes it as ‘too luxuriant for dialogue’ (Lives I. p. 282). Newton’s editorial note on lines 557–60 anticipates Johnson, while taking a more tolerant – perhaps patronising – attitude: We see in these three lines the luxuriancy of a juvenile poet’s fancy … But in a young genius there should always be something to lop and prune away.86

Yet the fine line between acceptable and excessive luxuriance should be regarded as one of the discriminations that Milton’s masque requires us to make, not an accidental effect. Johnson’s final summarising sentence on Comus nails down his generic definition, linking the style with Paradise Lost, and drives home his earlier charge that it does not sufficiently involve the reader: ‘It is a drama in the epic style, inelegantly splendid, and tediously instructive’ (Lives I. p. 282). As with many of Johnson’s provocative mixed judgements, this


Johnson’s Milton

prompted a critical defence. Henry J. Todd, Milton’s 1801 editor, simply rewrites it, with all due deference to Johnson’s authority, in order to eliminate the negative and replace epic with pastoral: ‘I am of opinion, that this enchanting Poem, or Pastoral Drama, is both gracefully splendid, and delightfully instructive.’87 But the most obvious, and possibly the most balanced, rejoinder had already been made by Thomas Warton, who reasonably points out that Johnson’s assignment of the work to the ‘wrong’ genre distorts his discussion: we must not too scrupulously attend to the exigencies of situation, nor suffer ourselves to suppose that we are reading a play, which Milton did not mean to write.88

Many of the later commentators would agree with him that Johnson’s reading is misdirected in terms of genre. As for the poetical language, even here, in one of Johnson’s fields of greatest expertise, he adds relatively little that is new or remarkable to Comus criticism. The quotations in the Dictionary do represent a cross-section of examples, but without highlighting the fact that ‘the percentage of neologisms in Comus is the highest in any of Milton’s poems’.89 It may be inevitable that Johnson’s criticism of Comus, as he says of Comus itself, lies very much in a twilight zone compared with that of Paradise Lost. The same is true of his criticism of Paradise Regained, which he treats as dialogue rather than epic, applying the same terms ‘elegant’ and ‘instructive’. His single reservation reflects the limitation he finds both in its predecessor, Comus, and its successor, Samson Agonistes: The basis of Paradise Regained is narrow; a dialogue without action can never please like an union of the narrative and dramatic powers. (Lives I. p. 292)

But, presumably because of its New Testament subject and its close relation with Paradise Lost, Johnson refrains from challenging the status of the lesser epic and does not develop further his evident sense of its limitations. The questioning of Milton’s ‘dramatic powers’ he reserves for criticism of its counterpart in the late Miltonic canon, Samson Agonistes. s a m s o n a g o n i s t e s : ‘t h e

t r ag e dy w h ic h ig nor a nc e h a s a dm i r e d, a n d big o t r y a ppl au de d’

As with Paradise Lost, Johnson’s first critical skirmish with Samson Agonistes occurs in The Rambler, predating by many years the ‘Life of Milton’. The timing has been linked with the appearance of Newton’s great variorum edition of Paradise Lost, in 1749 and 1750.90 Although the companion variorum

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


edition of Paradise Regain’ d … To which is added Samson Agonistes:  and Poems upon Several Occasions did not come out until 1752, in his ‘Life of Milton’ appended to Paradise Lost (1749), Newton had spoken of Samson Agonistes in the highest possible terms: ‘it is written in the very spirit of the Ancients, and equals, if not exceeds, any of the most perfect tragedies, which were ever exhibited on the Athenian stage, when Greece was in its glory’ – a view that he was to reinforce in 1752, in his note comparing the scene to Oedipus at Colonus: ‘I am sure the Greek tragedy can have no pretence to be esteem’d better, but only because it is two thousand years older.’ Newton is hardly original in his comparison, which goes back to Fenton’s ‘Life’ of 1725, and beyond that to Toland; his praise parallels Gilbert West’s ‘noble and exact Imitation of the Greek Tragedy’.91 Of course, in ranking the tragedy on this exalted level, these biographers and critics are simply following Milton’s own lead in his prefatory discourse, ‘Of That Sort of Dramatic Poem Which is Called Tragedy’ (CSP, pp. 355–7). As does Johnson in Rambler 139 (1751): if Milton invokes the authority of Aristotle, Johnson will likewise invoke that authority and judge his drama accordingly. In both his Rambler essays on Samson Agonistes, 139 and 140, as in the Rambler essays on Miltonic prosody, his method differs from that in the ‘Life of Milton’ in its rigorous examination of textual evidence and the use of quotation (perhaps a sign of overlap with work on the Dictionary). If he has been accused of using inappropriate generic criteria and critical methods for other shorter poems, the same cannot be said of this earlier appraisal of Samson Agonistes. He begins from Aristotelian principle: It is required by Aristotle to the perfection of a tragedy, and is equally necessary to every other species of regular composition, that it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Yale IV. p. 370)

In assimilating this principle to a favourite architectural metaphor, he borrows a Miltonic phrase ‘to build the lofty rhyme’ (from, of all sources, Lycidas), and makes it signify an essential structural interconnectedness. Although lesser writers can and do violate the requirement, it is the very eminence of Milton’s example that makes his work a ‘proper object’ for the critic: it is pointless ‘To expunge faults where there are no excellencies’ (Yale IV. p. 371). As so often in his dealings with Milton, Johnson targets not just the text but its reputation. Samson Agonistes was not only regarded as the gold standard for tragedy, but a gold standard the maintenance of which is a patriotic duty, to prevent devaluation of the genre. So his reasons for attacking its current status as a perfect paradigm of tragic form are


Johnson’s Milton

represented as a critical obligation. If standards are to be maintained, it must be clear what the standard is. Here Johnson does appear to be much closer to familiar neoclassical prescriptiveness than he is in the later Lives of the Poets.92 He concedes that in certain respects Samson Agonistes measures up to ancient models, saluting the splendour of Milton’s neoclassical flagship before sinking it with his opponent’s own Aristotelian artillery: It contains indeed just sentiments, maxims of wisdom, and oracles of piety, and many passages written with the antient spirit of choral poetry, in which there is a just and pleasing mixture of Seneca’s moral declamation with the wild enthusiasm of the Greek writers. (Yale IV. p. 371)

Thereafter it suits Johnson to continue playing the neoclassical purist role, but for the prosecution. The Aristotelian law under which he prosecutes is not, however, the primary one cited by Milton himself in his preface. Milton had stressed the affective before the structural aspect of Aristotle’s theory, specifically the concept of catharsis, the purging of the passions. As Lewalski observes, He also changes the object of imitation: for Aristotle it is “an action,” the plot or mythos; for Milton, it is the tragic passions, pity or fear and terror, that are to be “well imitated” …93

Johnson makes action central, producing a crisp clear analysis of the tragedy’s structure. He has no fault to find with the beginning (‘beautiful and proper, opening with a graceful abruptness’), possibly because he is influenced by the belief that it may owe something to Shakespeare (Yale VIII. p. 571). Nor does he criticise the ending (‘undoubtedly a just and regular catastrophe’), although the latter has caused considerable controversy among later Milton critics. But when it comes to the middle, a series of encounters patterned on Greek tragedy, notably Oedipus at Colonus, he argues that the momentum which ought to build up through cause and effect breaks down almost entirely. As Johnson represents the action, although the individual encounters with Manoa and Dalila have their ‘own beauties’, they lack impetus and outcome. The drama is therefore essentially static. The obvious retort to this criticism, that the action is internalised, and that it is the effect on Samson’s mind that constitutes dramatic development, was made by the later generation of eighteenth-century critics and is still current. In 1788, the poet, William Mickle, resurrects the notion of ‘models of perfection’ in relation to the Greek Oedipal tragedies, and draws a parallel with Samson Agonistes in order to attack Johnson: … the middle of every one of them consists of new light and information breaking in by degrees, which by degrees also produces an alteration of mind in

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


Oedipus; and that alteration of mind, in the most natural and regular ­manner, produces the catastrophe. Exactly in the same manner is the conduct of the Samson Agonistes.94

The dramatist, Richard Cumberland, had anticipated this defence in 1785, at the same time drawing attention to an interesting ambiguity in the possible interpretation of the movement of Samson’s will and spirit:  ‘To determine that will depends upon the impulse of his own spirit, or it may be upon the inspiration of Heaven …’95 This ambiguity continues to generate conflicting readings of the text, giving us constructions of radically different Samsons, from the archetypal Christlike hero to (most recently) the prototype suicide terrorist.96 Perhaps the most subtle modern readings emphasise that the text itself withholds certainty.97 But if the way to refute Johnson’s case is so obvious, if the point is so clear to other critics, why does Johnson himself fail to see it? As a psychological drama, centred on a hero stricken by guilt and confronted with conflicting versions of his own motivation and choices, Samson Agonistes might be expected to have a powerful effect on Johnson because of the internalised action. In fact, some of his neglected remarks in the Rambler essays referring to ‘sentiments of passion, representations of life, precepts of conduct, or sallies of imagination’ touch upon this psychological appeal (Yale IV. p. 381). The narrowness of his attack is therefore puzzling. Even more striking is the virulence that erupts in the best-remembered indictment that concludes the first essay: The whole drama, if its superfluities were cut off, would scarcely fill a single act; yet this is the tragedy which ignorance has admired, and bigotry applauded. (Yale IV. p. 376)

This personification of bigotry and ignorance seems disproportionate to an argument which has been conducted primarily on formal grounds. Even if Johnson believes that Samson Agonistes has ‘been too much admired’ (Lives I. p. 292), the rollcall of these admirers in 1751 hardly seems to merit the collective and damning description of ‘ignorance’ and ‘bigotry’, both very powerful terms in Johnson’s lexicon of insults. Using them to categorise the judgement of scholars such as Newton seems like overkill (though admittedly, in Johnson’s eyes, Toland might qualify as a bigot on political and religious grounds). In the Dictionary, he defines ‘bigotry’ as (1) ‘Blind zeal; prejudice; unreasonable warmth in favour of party or opinions’, which allows for both a general and a specific application. In the ‘Life of Milton’ passage on Samson Agonistes, he switches the term to Milton


Johnson’s Milton

himself, while making it clear that it is used in a very ­specific context, ‘the bigotry of learning’ (Lives I. p. 292). But in Rambler 139, especially when coupled with ignorance, the available context is left more open. This raises the interesting possibility that Johnson is conscious of another kind of bigotry associated with Samson Agonistes and those who applaud it. One answer offered by his contemporaries to the question just raised about the reason for Johnson’s apparent tunnel vision is the conclusion so often reached in discussions of his attitude to Milton, namely that it originates in political antagonism. This is certainly the view of his biographer, Hawkins, who says of the Rambler essays on Samson Agonistes that ‘he seems to have been prompted by no better a motive, than that hatred of the author for his political principles which he is known to have entertained, and was ever ready to avow’. Hawkins does not consider this an extenuation: whatever Johnson’s estimate of Milton the man, nothing ‘could justify the severity of Johnson’s criticism … nor apologize for that harsh and groundless censure which closes the first of his discourses on it’.98 Mickle likewise accepts this rationalisation, inviting us to join him in ‘lamenting that the force of prejudice (conceived, most probably, from a dislike of Milton’s political creed) should have betrayed so respectable an authority as that of Dr. Johnson’.99 So the charge of bigotry is neatly turned back on its perpetrator. Neither Hawkins nor Mickle pause to consider the real oddity:  that Johnson’s no-middle argument expresses in entirely formal terms a criticism assumed to have a political motive. This is not an unknown phenomenon in the history of Milton criticism (Wilding believes that it is detectable in the ‘formalist attack’ on Milton by twentieth-century conservatives, Eliot, Pound, and Leavis).100 What makes it more remarkable in the case of Johnson and Samson Agonistes is that he suppresses – not only in The Rambler but in the later ‘Life’ – the political and biographical indicators noted by a number of eighteenth-century commentators. Although modern scholars may have pursued the ideological implications of the text more intensively than their predecessors, eighteenth-century editors certainly recognised it as a radical work, and glossed various passages accordingly. So, in Newton’s 1752 edition, Jortin comments on line 241 that ‘Milton certainly intended to reproach his countrymen indirectly, and as plainly as he dared, with the Restoration of Charles II’; he adds pointedly, ‘I wonder how the Licensers of those days let it pass.’ Newton also discloses ‘a secret satir upon the English nation, which according to his republican politics had by restoring the King chosen bondage with ease rather than strenuous liberty’ (a reading still accepted, if not universally).101

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


But Johnson remains silent on the relevance of Samson Agonistes to Restoration politics. His similar refusal to make connections between the revolutionary sentiments in Paradise Lost and the republicanism of its author is more often noticed, but perhaps more easily explained. Yet in Rambler 139, although he shows no explicit awareness of political ideology in the drama, we may speculate that a hint of such awareness breaks through in that egregious final sentence. Sharon Achinstein asks pertinently, ‘Is it a coincidence that this notorious missing middle is blotted out by the conservative Tory Samuel Johnson?’102 Conceivably his strictures on form, the departure from authority that he sees in Samson Agonistes, reflect a displaced ideological anxiety. There is also the second essay to take into account. He reopens the discussion in overtly combative mood, accurately foreseeing that his criticism of Milton ‘shall surely irritate his admirers, and incur the imputation of envy, captiousness, and malignity’ (Yale IV. p. 376). If the first essay is neoclassical in its structural emphasis, the second is neoclassical in its emphasis on decorum – or, rather, ‘verisimilitude and decorum’, criteria also acknowledged by Milton in his preface. Again Johnson adopts his familiar critical procedure of balancing faults and excellencies under the headings of sentiments, language, and versification; the result is a piecemeal argument, closer to an editorial commentary than an overview. In some details it parallels the variorum commentary which was to appear the following year, although Johnson is more acerbic in tone than most of the contributors to that commentary. Where they only hint a fault, or seek to extenuate it, he is forthright, even when he admits that breaches of decorum are common practice in tragedy. His exacting standard might even be regarded as a compliment to Milton, although his contemporaries do not see it in this light. Nevertheless, some of his points seem to smack of pedantry. The lexicographer in Johnson takes exception to the use of ‘alp’ in the line, ‘Nor breath of vernal air from snowy alp’ (628), on the grounds that Milton ‘has made Alp the general name of a mountain, in a region where the Alps could scarcely be known’ (Yale IV. p. 377). (Incidentally, ‘alp’ does not appear in the Dictionary.) The note in the variorum provides a painstaking rejoinder, attempting to exonerate the usage by comparison with Paradise Lost: Alp in the strict etymology of the word signifies a mountain white with snow. We have indeed appropriated the name to the high mountains which separate Italy from France and Germany; but any high mountain may be so called, and so Sidonius Apollinaris calls Mount Athos …103


Johnson’s Milton

Johnson does admit that the erudite Milton does not often violate ‘local or chronological propriety’, but like most critics he enjoys catching his author out occasionally. Yet if his objections can seem like pedantic hairsplitting, particularly to a modern reader, in this second Rambler essay he ends, as so often, by appealing from criticism to nature and registering the moments of humanity in Milton’s tragedy. These are moments that imitate passions, not actions: Samson’s despair, his experience of blindness, his reactions to Dalila and to the Chorus. That Johnson is not just reluctantly performing a critical duty but responding with feeling is borne out by his allusion to Samson’s complaint in a later Rambler essay, number 162. But here he is concerned as critic with the representation of emotion: The complaint of blindness which Samson pours out at the beginning of the tragedy is equally addressed to the passions and the fancy. The enumeration of his miseries is succeeded by a very pleasing train of poetical images, and concluded by such expostulations and wishes, as reason too often submits to learn from despair: O first-created beam, and thou great word, Let there be light, and light was over all; Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree? The sun to me is dark And silent as the moon, When she deserts the night, Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.

(Yale IV. p. 382)

It should not surprise us that such powerfully unorthodox and groundbreaking poetry should breach Johnson’s defences; it is a reminder of his imaginative capacity. In fact he does not deny that Milton can represent internal states convincingly in Samson Agonistes; but he wants more proof of internal action, what causes the transition from one state to the next.104 However, he avoids the obvious parallel made by a number of eighteenthcentury Miltonists between Milton’s own blindness and Samson’s.105 As elsewhere, he refuses to read the historical Milton into his poetry in any straightforward way. Samson is not Milton, but a dramatic creation, and his articulation of despair should be judged accordingly. Johnson’s self-restraint as critic is even more conspicuous in his brief comments on the encounter between Samson and Dalila. Other ­eighteenth-century commentators do not hesitate to connect Milton’s handling of the Samson narrative with his own marital tribulations. Peck considers that ‘the severe satyr on women … looks, I think, as if he still resented his own ill usage by his first wife’; and Warburton agrees, going so far as to

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


say that the subject itself is ‘but a very indifferent one for a dramatic fable’ and that ‘He seems to have chosen it for the sake of the satire on bad wives.’ The most blatant example of misogyny, the Chorus’s tirade, is attributed in the variorum note to Milton’s ‘uneasiness through the temper and behaviour of two of his wives’.106 It is true that, in the ‘Life’, Johnson the biographer would assert that Milton’s misogyny ‘appears in his books’ as well as in reality (Lives I. p. 276). But in the Rambler essays – possibly with his own Irene in mind? – he treats the Dalila episode as a fully dramatised enactment of an attempted seduction. Milton’s Dalila may be regarded as stereotypical, or as a victim of stereotyping,107 but she is undoubtedly more than an outlet for her creator’s personal spleen. In the first Rambler essay, Johnson registers the impact of her presence: The next event of the drama is the arrival of Dalilah, with all her graces, artifices, and allurements. This produces a dialogue, in a very high degree elegant and instructive … (Yale IV. p. 374)

As a Shakespeare editor, he notes a parallel technique of introducing a character with ‘an interrogatory exclamation’ (Yale VII. p. 408), which suggests a positive response. In the second essay, enumerating the excellencies of Samson Agonistes, he once more singles out this scene, this time focusing on Samson’s role: The reply of Samson to the flattering Dalilah affords a just and striking description of the stratagems and allurements of feminine hypocrisy. (Yale IV. p. 381)

It might be asking too much to expect Johnson to analyse the kind of complexities in her gender role that modern critics (particularly her defenders) have addressed. Yet he clearly recognises her fascination, and by not making the facile connection with authorial experience – at least not in this context – he allows her an independent imaginative appeal to which Samson reacts (‘allurements’ is another strong word in the Miltonic and Johnsonian lexicon). Johnson concludes his paired essays with the claim that his sole object is ‘to promote the knowledge of true criticism’: he borrows a horticultural metaphor to suggest that far from blighting ‘Milton’s laurels’, his efforts can only ‘strengthen their shoots by lopping their luxuriance’ (Yale IV. p. 383). Returning to the play over quarter of a century later, he shows little inclination to modify his approach. The ‘Life of Milton’ gives him the opportunity to place Samson Agonistes in a larger context than the Rambler essays, particularly in relation to its biographical and political significance:  he does not take it. Unlike modern scholars, Johnson, although interested in publishing history, does not choose to speculate on its inclusion in the


Johnson’s Milton

same volume as Paradise Regained, or on the circumstances of publication, remarking dismissively ‘Why a writer changed his bookseller a hundred years ago, I am far from hoping to discover’ (Lives I. p. 272). Nor has anything made him fundamentally change his critical assessment of the text. As already noted, he transfers the accusation of bigotry to Milton himself, and, in keeping with his general literary-historical agenda in Lives of the Poets, censures Milton’s preference of ancient to modern tragedy.108 The faults and excellencies identified in the Rambler essays are compressed into a couple of sentences in the ‘Life’, and he repeats his view that ‘it is only by a blind confidence in the reputation of Milton, that a drama can be praised in which the intermediate parts have neither cause nor consequence, neither hasten nor retard the catastrophe’ (Lives I. p. 292). However, he does reinforce the point by taking into account the effect on readers in general. Despite its ‘many particular beauties, many just sentiments and striking lines’, Samson Agonistes ‘wants that power of attracting the attention which a well-connected plan produces’ (Lives I. p. 293). Hagstrum argues that this is a development from the Rambler essays that indicates ‘an increasing preoccupation with psychological criticism’.109 Certainly it brings Johnson’s criticism of Samson Agonistes more closely into line with his reader-response based criticism of Comus and Paradise Lost. The major difference is that with the latter texts Johnson almost wilfully disregards contrary evidence of genuine widespread popularity; with Samson Agonistes he has better grounds for supposing that its appeal is mainly to a self-selected élite of Milton’s admirers. Even those admirers sometimes sound more dutiful than enthralled. Of the two Richardsons, father and son, it is the son who is the classicist, and this may partly account for the elder Richardson sounding less effusive than usual, saying simply of Milton’s tragedy that it is ‘Worthy of Him’.110 In 1749, Richard Hurd admires Milton’s artificial style, but considers that the tragedy may be ‘for that reason, perhaps, the least popular and most neglected, of all the great poet’s works’.111 Four years later, one of the most devoted of eighteenth-­century Milton imitators, William Mason, comes to a similar conclusion: it is a closet drama, not an example to be followed however much respected.112 In expressing this opinion, Mason quotes Hamlet’s phrase, ‘Caviar to the general’. And although Johnson does not make it explicit, most if not all modern critics assume that a contrast with Shakespeare is implied in his final judgement on Milton as dramatist: Milton would not have excelled in dramatick writing; he knew human nature only in the gross, and had never studied the shades of character, nor the combinations

Johnson on Milton’s shorter poems


of concurring, or the perplexity of contending passions. He had read much, and knew what books could teach; but had mingled little in the world, and was deficient in the knowledge which experience must confer. (Lives I. p. 293)

Perhaps this is his clearest statement of what he believes is lacking in Milton as a writer, although it does not do justice to his full reading experience of the poetry. After all the studied avoidance of biographical explanations and ad hominem arguments in his Milton criticism, it finally comes back to the author himself. In spite of his distrust of reading the life into the work and vice versa, the construction of Milton’s character is at the heart of the ‘Life’.

Pa r t III

Johnson the biographer: constructing Milton’s character

Ch apter 8

‘An acrimonious and surly republican’: Milton as political subject

It has long been recognised that the seventeenth century was immensely important to Johnson throughout his life, from his childhood in Lichfield, a cathedral city scarred by the visible legacy of civil war, to his old age in riot-prone London, when fears of renewed civil disorder seemed all too justifiable.1 This hardly makes him exceptional. The recent traumatic and destabilising phase of British history, later conceptualised as the English Revolution, and the recurrent seismic shocks of the previous century from civil war itself to regicide and interregnum, restoration and further revolution, had tested the unwritten British constitution virtually to destruction, and brought to birth the written political theories that attempted to explain England/Britain to itself and identify its destiny. No wonder ‘the Spirits of the shady Night’, evoked by Marvell in his Horatian Ode, continued to haunt the dreams or nightmares of eighteenth-century political thinkers. To Johnson they usually manifest themselves as nightmare; nevertheless, the phantoms  – especially, it might be said, that of Cromwell – fascinate him, and his sense of this complex period permeates his reading of Milton. In the ‘Life of Milton’, he constructs Milton as a political subject within his own understanding of seventeenth-century history, and from the sources of Milton’s polemical prose and the earlier biographies. Public interest in Milton’s political prose can be plotted against a graph of public events, peaking at times when his arguments seem most urgently relevant to contemporary issues. In the century after his death, it is no coincidence that publication of, and allusion to, these works is associated with periods of ‘present discontents’ (to borrow Burke’s phrase): the changes in political culture focused on and following the socalled ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688; the perceived threats to liberty in the late 1730s under the regime of George II and Walpole; and the challenges to government authority, at home and abroad, in the 1770s. Through his own political writings, Johnson is actively involved in the latter volatile 191


Johnson’s Milton

periods of political history. His reading of seventeenth-century historical materials, including Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion and Gilbert Burnet’s History of his Own Times, gave him a basis for comparison and judgement, and his work on the Harleian Catalogue in the 1740s further advanced his knowledge of ‘That memorable Period of English History which begins with the Reign of King Charles the First, and ends with the Restoration’.2 Modern scholars have stressed that Johnson forms independent judgements of this ‘memorable Period’.3 From contexts apart from his ‘Life of Milton’, the evidence shows that he was capable of dispassionate evaluation of the intellectual positions of both sides in the conflict; for instance, in his rewriting of the 1660 pamphlet, Monarchy Asserted, as Vance observes, Cromwell is represented ‘not as the incarnation of evil but rather as a dignified, rational, and intelligent head of state’.4 Even so, for Johnson the moral gap between a war of ideas and the bloodshed of actual warfare is huge. Viewed in a religious and ethical perspective, the civil conflicts of the previous century appear to him fundamentally unjustifiable, a point of view that he eloquently expresses, both implicitly and explicitly, in his Sermons.5 Not only his innate conservatism, but also his scepticism, reinforce his support of the maintenance of social order and the necessity of subordination. Like many of his contemporaries, he is constantly alert to the danger of history repeating itself in eighteenth-century Britain (and to the horrific consequences of resorting to violence as a solution to political differences within a nation, even if violence is sometimes ‘useful’).6 It is not therefore surprising that, although he can on occasion write moderately and with a degree of intellectual distancing on the subject of seventeenth-century British history, and although he is by no means uncritical of the Stuart monarchs, his condemnation of the cause to which Milton devoted much of his life and writings is indisputable. Johnson could warm to the spirituality of individual seventeenthcentury Puritans and eighteenth-century Dissenters (such as Richard Baxter or Isaac Watts), just as he could enter into friendship with men of different political persuasions from himself.7 But he felt that certain religious and political principles were far more conducive to extremism than others, and that the condition of revolutionary Britain proved this in practice: It is scarcely possible, in the regularity and composure of the present time, to image the tumult of absurdity, and clamour of contradiction, which perplexed doctrine, disordered practice, and disturbed both publick and private quiet, in that age, when subordination was broken, and awe was hissed away … (Lives II. p. 8)

Milton as political subject


This is from the ‘Life of Butler’:  his intermittent political commentary throughout the Lives has been interpreted as a response to current events of the 1770s.8 It is undoubtedly a partisan assertion (and for the purposes of comparison, here he exaggerates ‘the regularity and composure of the present time’). With the benefit of historical hindsight, Johnson compares past and present usually by way of warning; but comparison does not invariably favour the latter, as it does in the ‘Life of Butler’. Boswell records a conversation in 1775 when ‘Johnson arraigned the modern politicks of this country, as entirely devoid of all principle of whatever kind … “How different in that respect is the state of the nation now from what it was in the time of Charles the First, during the Usurpation, and after the Restoration”’ (Life II. p. 369). Johnson is being intentionally provocative in his comparison, but it is interesting that he represents the troubled politics of the previous century as essentially driven by conflicts of principle. On the same occasion, he sharply separates factual history, which can be verified, from historical interpretation: ‘“all the colouring, all the philosophy, of history is conjecture”’ (Life II. pp. 365–6). The ‘Life of Milton’ has so much of this colouring that it is generally regarded as the most egregious example of Johnson’s political and historical bias among the Lives of the Poets. Naturally enough, from the viewpoint of both eighteenth-century and later Miltonists, this bias is often held to damage Johnson’s capacity to assess his subject fairly in other respects. Although it should be noted that the first reviewers were for the most part ‘relieved that he had done critical justice to the poetry’,9 many who object to his treatment of Milton in general, like Francis Blackburne, assume that he is politically motivated. The image that persists is of Johnson and Milton as archetypal political opposites, in the tradition of the English Civil War which according to T. S. Eliot has never ceased to be contested, ideologically and ­culturally.10 Whatever else about Johnson’s political identity and attitudes may still provoke contention, that perception is normally undisputed. Milton’s politics are anathema to him, and he never gives him the benefit of any doubt because he has no doubt. From Johnson’s own lifetime onwards, the ideological divide between radical/republican Milton and conservative/ monarchist Johnson has been used as a way of explaining Johnson’s problem with Milton’s status and influence. However, more recently the work of revisionists in both literary and historical scholarship has prompted reappraisal of the original paradigm:  both Milton’s republicanism and Johnson’s Toryism have come under fresh scrutiny. And to an extent the political explanation itself has been superseded; for example, Dustin


Johnson’s Milton

Griffin and Stephen Fix have proposed more subtle and finely-tuned explanations for Johnson’s sometimes vexed relation with his ­biographical subject.11 Perhaps it is time to shift focus from what obviously divides them politically to what they might have in common. This may appear to be an absurd proposal. Definitions of Milton’s and Johnson’s political identities have been evolving in recent years, but in directions that appear to thrust them even further apart ideologically. In Milton’s case, scholars from different disciplines have investigated his republicanism not only for the purpose of Milton studies but within the larger project that Kevin Sharpe has defined as ‘remapping early modern England’.12 This suggests that we have moved a long way from ‘envious hatred of greatness’ and ‘sullen desire of independence’ as explanatory factors. Yet republicanism for Milton is more than just an available political discourse; a modern critic can still locate it – as indeed Johnson does  – in the very grain of his belief and being. Thomas Corns has argued that ‘Republicanism, in Milton’s writing, is more an attitude of mind than any particular governmental configuration.’13 But it remains true that revisionist historiography, which has changed perceptions of ­seventeenth-century Britain, inevitably also revises and complicates versions of the political Milton. Much the same process has occurred with the eighteenth century and Johnson. As Milton scholars redefine Milton the republican, so some Johnson scholars attempt to reclaim Johnson the Jacobite. Effectively this returns us to the eighteenth-century polarisation of their respective political beliefs, although in a changed context from the traditional Whig interpretation. But two points seem partly to subvert this polarity. First, what they both have in common is a matter of roots: for both of them, Protestantism, the European classical tradition, and a sense of Englishness define their emotional and intellectual allegiances possibly more profoundly than any difference of political theory or party. And, perhaps because of this richly complicated background, each asserts a genuine independence in his political thinking which resists stereotyping. The ‘radical’ Milton defends the rights of the people but has the instincts of an oligarch rather than a democrat; the ‘reactionary’ Johnson attacks the cant of liberty but is fiercely anti-colonial and anti-slavery. Second, their actual experience of politics – as opposed to their ideology – must appear oddly similar at different phases of their lives. Not least of the ironies involved in the construction of Johnson as not merely Tory but as ‘a Tory, a Nonjuror and a Jacobite sympathiser’14 is that it thrusts him further into an oppositional stance of resistance to de facto authority. But this does not depend entirely on the Jacobite hypothesis. The point is that, like Milton, at a

Milton as political subject


particular stage of his life he certainly knew how it felt to desire independence and to scorn the greatness of those in office. As a young man in the 1730s, Johnson entertained rebellious sentiments which found a vent in the ‘controversial merriment’ of political pamphlets and verse satire. In the mid-1740s, the only civil war of his adult life which was fought on native British soil ended in tragic defeat for its cause. This fact might seem more romantic than relevant, but it might well have enhanced Johnson’s capacity to respond to the human cost of such conflicts experienced as part of the present and not just at an historical distance. For all his reiteration, particularly as he grew older, of the need for authority and stability, Johnson’s temperament, no less than Milton’s, led him into support for minorities and lost causes. It would be a crude over-simplification to say that what the English republic was to Milton, the Stuart dynasty was to Johnson; yet in historical terms, these are linked by their failure to secure the nation’s future, and by ‘the experience of defeat’, not success. Certainly, Johnson had too much clarity of judgement not to see the reasons for the Stuart failure. It is difficult to gauge just how deeply he regretted it. Conversely, there is no doubt of Milton’s regret for the failure of the republican experiment (and he too believes that he knows the reasons for that failure). Both Johnson and Milton analyse and justify their respective political creeds from an historical and philosophical perspective. Yet although (according to Boswell’s account of 1773) Johnson’s respect for Milton’s intellect had grown over the years – ‘“There is more thinking in him and in Butler, than in any of our poets”’(Life II. p. 239) – the respect is for the poetry, not for the political prose, as the ‘Life of Milton’ demonstrates. The prose is, of course, a major source for any biographer of Milton; the other major sources are the early lives, especially the lives written by those who knew Milton or had access to first-hand information. Thomas Newton notes in his preface to his own ‘Life’ of 1749 that the material is unusually substantial, for ‘it has happened that more accounts have been written of his life, than of almost any author’s’.15 Lonsdale’s edition of Lives of the Poets documents Johnson’s debts to the biographical sources with exemplary thoroughness, giving the primary place to that of Thomas Birch (1738) on which Newton himself draws extensively: Detailed comparison of SJ’s biography with all his predecessors, who in turn recycled very much the same information, suggests that he in fact relied primarily on Birch’s original biography … (Lives I. p. 365)

Johnson’s actual handling of the material, however, contrasts visibly with that of Birch, whose ‘Life’ introducing the Complete Collection is


Johnson’s Milton

constructed from massive slabs of quotation mortared together with commentary. While making full use of Birch, he may possibly have preferred the format of what he calls the ‘elegant Abridgement’ of Elijah Fenton (1725) which he suggests might have saved him the trouble of writing ‘a new narrative’ (Lives I. p. 242). Its terseness and directness might well have appealed more than the laborious leave-no-stone-unturned compilation of Birch, or the heavily derivative prolixity of Newton. Newton blandly accounts for the importance of the political Milton in his preface, ignoring his controversial status: when we admire the writer, we are curious also to know something of the man: and the life of Milton is not barely a history of his works, but is so much the more interesting, as he was more engaged in public affairs than poets usually are.16

But Johnson does not need Birch or Newton to alert him to the interest of the political dimension. His familiarity with Milton’s polemical prose dates at least from his undergraduate days:  among his books left at Oxford, he lists copies of ‘Salmasii Def. Regis’ (1649), ‘Miltonii Def. Populi’ (1650/1), and ‘Milt. Defensio pro se’ (1655).17 He works this knowledge into his biography, less as part of his critical project than to advance understanding of Milton the human being. What is significant in the ‘Life of Milton’ is not any new research or information, but a reinterpretation of existing information by a writer who, notwithstanding his detractors, aims to ‘nothing extenuate / Nor set down aught in malice’. However, it is understandable that the charge of malice has often been levelled against his interpretation of the political prose. Apart from Of Education, the only prose work from the 1640s to receive serious consideration on the basis of its arguments is Areopagitica. Even here, Johnson does not engage fully with Milton’s case, but with the subject in general.18 He recognises the complexity of the problem of press censorship (a problem that persists in ‘free’ societies); and although his own argument may tilt towards the conservative and cautionary rather than the libertarian position, it is arguably more balanced, and closer to Milton’s own exclusions, than the simple idealistic reading embraced by Newton and many others who consider Areopagitica to be ‘perhaps the best vindication, that has been published at any time or in any language, of that liberty which is the basis and support of all other liberties, the liberty of the press’.19 After a long life in which his primary activity is writing, Johnson has had ample opportunity to address this issue: if his brief commentary on Areopagitica should be contextualised in the political conflicts of the 1770s, as Lonsdale suggests, nevertheless like the work itself it transcends that context, condensing a

Milton as political subject


process of thought on what he accurately describes as ‘a problem in the science of Government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve’ (Lives I. pp. 172, 252). In the case of the anti-prelatical tracts, his approach is quite different. As a staunch supporter of the established Church of England, not only on religious but also political grounds,20 Johnson predictably gives short shrift to these tracts. He does not attempt to engage intellectually with Milton’s case; instead he attacks his rhetoric, particularly the ‘savageness’ to which he alludes elsewhere in the ‘Life of Addison’ (Lives III. p. 15). For instance, he reproduces in full the title of the pamphlet, Of Prelatical Episcopacy, explaining: I have transcribed this title, to shew, by his contemptuous mention of Usher [James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh], that he had now adopted the puritanical savageness of manners. (Lives I. p. 250)

(The printer had, in fact, drawn attention to the name typographically by printing it in large upper-case.) Johnson objects to the ad hominem element, which is a feature of much early modern polemic. More than with the poetry, he makes use of illustrative quotation from these texts (‘at times loosely’ notes Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 383) in order to demonstrate the ‘roughness’ of Milton’s style, a roughness which is by no means singular  – as Johnson grudgingly admits – in adversarial tracts. But if the style is not inappropriate to the genre, Johnson makes a crushing comment on its efficacy. ‘Sometimes he tries to be humorous’ (Lives I. p. 251: my italics): no rhetorical device is as ineffective as a damp squib. Even Milton’s admirers, such as his modern biographer, W. R. Parker, can on occasion find his humour ‘heavy-handed’.21 It is suggestive that here, and only here, Johnson links Milton by a direct quotation with his great creation, Satan (also a would-be humorist, as is Milton’s God, although the point of Johnson’s comparison is the accusation of demonic malignity): Such is the controversial merriment of Milton; his gloomy seriousness is yet more offensive. Such is his malignity, that hell grows darker at his frown. (Lives I. p. 251)

Johnson adopts comparable tactics in his own political tracts of the 1770s, and there is something disingenuous in his criticism of rhetorical means so similar to his own and those of others. Offensiveness is inseparable from this kind of writing. Milton himself introduces Animadversions with a hedging reference to ‘something in this booke, which to some men perhaps may seeme offensive’ (CPW I. p. 662). But, by his comments, Johnson controls the reader’s perceptions, constructing an image of the political


Johnson’s Milton

Milton which deliberately caricatures him as the popular idea of a puritan whose normal mode is gloomy seriousness and whose efforts at humour are an embarrassing failure. Naturally, as classical rhetoric dictates, Milton constructs an image of himself in these pamphlets conforming to the ancient requirement of ethos, the speaker’s ethical credentials. As his biographer, Johnson cannot ignore this self-representation.22 Griffin has argued that, in contrast to ‘the earlier biographers of Milton, who let the poet speak for himself, Johnson always intervenes between Milton and the reader – to paraphrase, to summarise, and only rarely to provide extended quotations without appending his own observations’.23 There is a great deal of truth in this: one reason for Johnson’s strategy is his consciousness of just how powerful is Milton’s rhetorical control over the reader in his self-construction.24 With regard to the earlier pamphlets, Johnson discriminates between different versions of the self; with regard to the later, he tends to omit the autobiographical passages. So, from The Reason of Church Government, he quotes Milton’s famous self-dedication as the future great writer, accepting it without a trace of his usual scepticism – because we know that the expectation is ultimately fulfilled. But with the second example, from An Apology against a Pamphlet, relating to Milton’s university career, although he does not question its veracity, he identifies a trait which will become central to his interpretation of Milton’s political personality: ‘This is surely the language of a man who thinks that he has been injured’ (Lives I. p. 250). A ‘sense of injured merit’ (Paradise Lost I. line 98) – the satanic motive for malignity – is, Johnson believes, at the root of Milton’s political identity. In his subsequent discussion of the pamphlets defending the right to regicide, Johnson again does not address Milton’s political thesis but concentrates on motivation. Here he can scarcely be acquitted of character assassination, although no doubt he would retort that his tactics are no worse than Milton’s own, and employed in a better cause. His analysis slides from the barely concessive – ‘While he contented himself to write, he perhaps did only what his conscience dictated’ (my italics) – to a classic description of political self-indoctrination: and if he did not very vigilantly watch the influence of his own passions, and the gradual prevalence of opinions, first willingly admitted and then habitually indulged, if objections, by being overlooked, were forgotten, and desire superinduced conviction; he yet shared only the common weakness of mankind, and might be no less sincere than his opponents. (Lives I. pp. 253–4)

This is an intelligent hatchet job, all the more so because Johnson is effectively denigrating Milton’s intellectual superiority. Milton is here accused

Milton as political subject


of the kind of irrational, emotionally-driven conviction politics which he himself attributed to the mob bewitched by the mystique of monarchy, the gullible public who snapped up edition after edition of Eikon Basilike. Johnson’s irony also undermines the basis on which most of the earlier biographers attempted to defend what the majority of Britons living under a restored monarchy felt to be unacceptable extremism in Milton’s defence of regicide. Johnson inserts ‘perhaps’ in front of the argument from conscience, and mentions the mere possibility of sincerity (prior to challenging it). But an unqualified recognition of Milton’s conscience and sincerity, the belief that he acts and writes from principle, however misguidedly, is the standard interpretation in many of the earlier lives. Although Aubrey’s notes were not directly available to eighteenth-century biographers, his comment on the political prose is representative of the most positive approach to Milton’s motivation: Whatever he wrote against Monarchie was out of no animosity to the King’s person, or out of any faction, or Interest but out of a pure zeall to the Liberty of Mankind …25

However, hardly any of the biographers actually have the nerve to defend the arguments as such. An exception is the anonymous biographer (now believed to be Cyriack Skinner) whose ‘life of Milton’ was, like Aubrey’s notes, unpublished in the eighteenth century. Writing of The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he suggests that it can be valued for its political theory; but even he detaches it from any practical application: This general Thesis [Non resistance & Passive Obedience] which incourag’d all manner of Tyranny, hee opposed by good Arguments, and the Authorities of several eminently learned Protestants … but without any particular application to the dispute then on foot in this Nation.26

His emphasis on Milton’s disinterestedness goes beyond most of the early biographies, and is in stark contrast to Johnson. The eighteenth-century biographers handle the issue gingerly; Fenton writes, for instance: ’Tis in vain to dissemble, and far be it from me to defend, his engaging with a Party combin’d in the destruction of our Church and Monarchy. Yet, leaving the justification of a mis-guided sincerity to be debated in the Schools, may I presume to observe in his favor, that his Zeal, distemper’d and furious as it was, does not appear to have been inspirited by self-interested Views?27

Newton, like Fenton, emphasises several times that Milton is consistently high-minded – ‘whatever others of different parties may think, he thought himself an advocate for true liberty’, ‘the darling passion of his soul was the love of liberty; this was his constant aim and end, however he might


Johnson’s Milton

be mistaken in the means’, and so on.28 Richardson compares his hero’s republican creed with that of the ‘Greatest Names of Roman and Greek Antiquity’, and naïvely urges the reader to ‘Consider Milton as a Briton, and a Brave One too’, ‘who sacrific’d More than Most of us will Care to do … in the Cause of Civil and Religious Liberty, as He thought, though upon Principles, and in a Manner, as You and I are Far from Approving’. Just to make sure that we take the point, he later adds, ‘I am not Justifying his Principles, but his Sincerity.’29 It is not hard to imagine Johnson’s reaction to this well-meaning form of exoneration. Unlike Fenton, he is not prepared to leave the ethical problem of ‘a misguided sincerity’ to the Schools. Indeed, he is something of an expert on the topic, which he considers in Sermon number 7 and elsewhere. Sincerity is important to Johnson, but ultimately he regards it as a dangerous defence.30 And in any case, he does not accept Milton’s good faith when it comes to political propaganda. Probably the most notorious instance of his willingness to put the worst construction upon Milton’s motives and actions  – more so even than the Lauder affair – is his acceptance of the canard that Milton in his official capacity tampered with textual evidence in connection with Eikon Basilike, ‘by inserting a prayer taken from Sidney’s Arcadia, and imputing it to the King; whom he charges, in his Iconoclastes, with the use of this prayer as with a heavy crime’ (Lives I. p. 254). The route by which he reaches this accusation of bad faith is a political one. Johnson believes that a certain kind of politics tends to corrupt personal integrity, and that Milton is no exception:  ‘faction seldom leaves a man honest, however it might find him’. But Johnson has the choice of whether or not to give Milton the benefit of the doubt, and he chooses not to do so (in spite of inconclusive evidence). The apparent deliberateness of this choice is underscored by the fact that, as Lonsdale emphasises, his reference to Birch’s Appendix – ‘Dr. Birch, who had examined the question with great care’ – is to the 1738 version, not that of 1753 where Birch changes his view. Lonsdale believes that Johnson ‘may well have disagreed with, and not merely overlooked, Birch’s reconsideration of the evidence in 1753’ (Lives I. p. 386). In his masterly summary of the history of the allegation, W. R. Parker remarks caustically that he himself ‘never thought the story deserving of either repetition or rebuttal, and he is appalled by the amount of dirt deemed necessary to bury it’.31 It is perhaps too hasty, however, to conclude that Johnson repeats the story out of sheer malice and political animus. Presumably he believed that the allegation might well be true. Moreover, Milton’s sneer at Charles I does not in this instance impugn his political judgement (which Johnson would agree

Milton as political subject


could be unsound), but the genuineness of his religious faith and observance, a sneer that would rouse strong feelings in Johnson as a committed Anglican. Coincidentally, the ‘evidence’ produced by Milton touches a point on which Johnson is particularly sensitive, namely the misappropriation of pagan material to contaminate true religion – the use of ‘“a prayer stolen word for word from the mouth of a heathen woman praying to a heathen god”’ (Lives I. p. 254). The charge of plagiarism pales in comparison. Although Johnson’s reaction is undeniably partisan, it is not necessarily to be taken as a sign of bad faith on his own part. In his treatment of Milton’s sequence of Latin defences published in the 1650s, Johnson systematically examines motivation and tactics. He has reservations about Salmasius as a match for Milton, and he deploys a reductive irony at the expense of both antagonists. He enjoys diminishing their controversy to the quibbling of wordsmiths – ‘the rights of nations, and of kings, sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them’ (Lives I. p. 255). He also draws attention to the force of personal animosity: As Salmasius reproached Milton with losing his eyes in the quarrel, Milton delighted himself with the belief that he had shortened Salmasius’s life, and both perhaps with more malignity than reason. (Lives I. p. 255)

(This is not his first, or last, use of ‘malignity’ with reference to the political Milton.) Yet Johnson does not hesitate to acknowledge Milton as the superior Latin stylist. He describes both the Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (Defensio Prima) and the Defensio Secunda as elegant, and ‘paradox, recommended by spirit and elegance, easily gains attention … he who told every man that he was equal to his King, could hardly want an audience’. Salmasius, he notes sarcastically, is left with ‘only the stale doctrine of authority, and the unpleasing duty of submission’. But if Milton flatters his general readership in the first Defensio, in the second he flatters Cromwell specifically: ‘Caesar, when he assumed the perpetual dictatorship, had not more servile or more elegant flattery’ (Lives I. p. 257). This invites us to see the political Milton from a different angle. Johnson is normally critical of poets who flatter, even when, as with Dryden, they are poets of unquestioned stature, and of a much more sympathetic political persuasion (Lives II. p. 113). In Milton’s case, the charge of ‘the grossness of his flattery’ is particularly damaging. In his reading of the Cromwell encomium (which he quotes, though not exactly or in full), Johnson not only defaces the champion-of-liberty icon promoted by the Whigs, and a number of the early biographers; he also undercuts to some extent his own


Johnson’s Milton

representation of his biographical subject, fissuring its consistency. This is the same subject of whom he stated earlier, in a literary context, … scarcely any man ever wrote so much and praised so few. Of his praise he was very frugal; as he set its value high, and considered his mention of a name as a security against the waste of time, and a certain preservative from oblivion. (Lives I. p. 246)

Rarely do the literary and the political Milton seem further apart in Johnson’s estimation. Yet, in reading the 1650s prose, he highlights its literary qualities in order to present Milton as a highly skilled and unreliable rhetorician32 who, like his own Belial, can make ‘the worse appear / The better reason’ (Paradise Lost II. lines 113–4). Noticeably, although when discussing the earlier prose he cites autobiographical passages, he does not do the same with the autobiographical passages in the 1650s defences. This is a marked departure from the way in which Birch and Newton use the written evidence, suggesting that at least where politics are concerned Johnson prefers to interpret Milton’s life as the true record, not his selfrepresentation as the defender of liberty. The narrative of that life contains a series of significant cruces in Milton’s political development. Johnson repeats the factual information from earlier lives, but with a different interpretative colouring. In virtually every instance, his biographical strategy is to probe and question the political idealism that most of the earlier biographers read into the narrative, even those who consider it to be a perverted idealism. Writing about Milton’s life proves to be a litmus paper for revealing political ideology from the outset (a few, such as Anthony á Wood, display virulent hostility)33 and Johnson is no exception. But it is too easy to attribute his interpretation simply to personal dislike of the ‘Milton’ he discovers in the biographies as well as the prose writings. Johnson’s sceptical habit of mind, his distrust of self-belief and political utopianism, are the product of wide experience and thought. Consequently, he does not take it for granted that the high-minded motives ascribed to Milton by the majority of his biographers should be accepted without scrutiny. One of the early examples in Milton’s life of a decision taken for political reasons is his return to England from the Continent in 1639, abandoning (he says) the planned extension of his travels to Greece. Greece, like Italy, had long been a country inhabited by his imagination, a beloved civilisation which he would recreate, only to reject again, in his late work, Paradise Regained.34 The early lives give Milton’s own version of this sacrifice from Defensio Secunda, that he was responding to his country’s need, ‘esteeming it an unworthy thing for him securely to be diverting himself abroad, when his Countrymen were contending at

Milton as political subject


home for their Liberty’.35 Johnson repeats this account (Lives I. p. 247); but unlike those who present this action as demonstrating Milton’s idealistic patriotism and devotion to the cause of liberty, he deflates the noble gesture: Let not our veneration for Milton forbid us to look with some degree of merriment on great promises and small performance, on the man who hastens home, because his countrymen are contending for their liberty, and, when he reaches the scene of action, vapours away his patriotism in a private boarding-school. This is the period of his life from which all his biographers seem inclined to shrink. (Lives I. p. 248)

Johnson is not strictly accurate in this last assertion. Edward Phillips, who has a vested interest in this stage of his uncle’s life, certainly does not shrink from it; nor does Toland, who regards ‘teaching others the Principles of Knowledge and Virtue’ as the most exalted of callings.36 But it is true that others can be somewhat defensive about what appears a less than heroic occupation in the circumstances, and feel that it requires explanation.37 Newton in particular might have irritated Johnson by his insistence not only on Milton’s superiority to ‘common schools’ but also to ‘a common schoolmaster’.38 Johnson’s own experience as a schoolmaster naturally springs to mind, and indeed he seizes the opportunity for a digression on educational theory and practice. But the importance of this passage so far as the political Milton is concerned is that it already raises a doubt over the evidence for his commitment. It is a doubt expressed and answered in a slightly different context by the biographers who ask why Milton did not take up arms. The predictable answer is along the lines that the pen is mightier than the sword;39 but Johnson has some entertainment with Phillips’s vague speculation about an alternative, more glamorous, destiny – ‘to raise his character again, [he] has a mind to invest him with military splendour .… Milton shall be a pedagogue no longer; for, if Phillips be not much mistaken, somebody at some time designed him for a soldier’ (Lives I. p. 253). Another question that has potential for compromising Milton’s idealism is whether or not self-interest enters into his political affiliations. Although the idea that he is motivated by material concerns is generally dismissed by biographers, Anthony á Wood, bitterly opposed to Milton’s anti-monarchical stance, represents his employment under the Cromwellian regime as furthering personal ambition:  ‘he became the Latin Secretary … and did great matters to obtain a name and wealth’.40 Other biographers, even if they do not approve of his involvement with the Interregnum government, nevertheless argue that not only is he above suspicion of corruption but that he does not even make the most of


Johnson’s Milton

legitimate opportunities to enrich himself.41 Characteristically, Johnson inclines towards the minority view, insinuating that Milton effectively sold out to Cromwell: That his [Cromwell’s] authority was lawful, never was pretended; he himself founded his right only in necessity; but Milton, having now tasted the honey of publick employment, would not return to hunger and philosophy, but, continuing to exercise his office under a manifest usurpation, betrayed to his power that liberty which he had defended. (Lives I. p. 256)

‘Hunger’ should be taken metaphorically rather than literally. As Johnson (whose early life was much less privileged than Milton’s) is aware, Milton’s circumstances were never such as to reduce him and his family to actual want, and his biographers agree that he was in any case a man of austere tastes. Later, in his character study of Milton, Johnson too acknowledges that ‘Fortune appears not to have had much of his care’ (Lives I. p. 274). Yet the tenor of the above passage imputes a less than worthy motivation for supporting Cromwell, the anxiety for status which might include material considerations. In the post-Restoration section of the ‘Life’, he recounts an anecdote of Milton rejecting an offer of continued public employment under monarchical government, with the words to his wife, ‘“You, like other women, want to ride in your coach; my wish is to live and die an honest man”’ (Lives I. p. 264). In the same paragraph, Johnson harks back to the Latin secretaryship; the anecdote is included purely to be discredited  – ‘large offers and sturdy rejections are among the most common topicks of falsehood’.42 Johnson’s apparent chipping away at the Colossus of political integrity may be partly owing to long experience of how mixed human motives commonly are in the public arena. It is tempting to speculate that he may also recall attacks made on his own integrity when he accepted a pension from George III. Most of Johnson’s biographers have exonerated their subject on this count (among his opponents, Francis Blackburne was to use it in attacking the ‘Life of Milton’).43 But Johnson is certainly worldly enough to question how well any man knows himself, and his reasons for political allegiance and action. Even those early biographers sympathetic to Milton are disturbed by what they see as inconsistencies in his role as champion of liberty, in particular his association with a perceived dictatorship. Birch confronts the dilemma directly: However his Attachment to Cromwell has been thought by many a great inconsistency with the Zeal, which he profess’d for Liberty; since it is certain, that Cromwell’s assuming the Protectorship was a shocking Usurpation over the

Milton as political subject


Rights and Liberties of the Nation, and render’d him detestable to almost all the Republican Party.44

In partial extenuation, Birch translates ‘some Passages of his Defensio Secunda, in which he gives Cromwell excellent Advice, not to abuse his Power in the Office of Protector’. This is textual evidence that Johnson omits in his selective quotation (Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 388–9). Newton, on the other hand, follows Birch’s lead, and interprets the evidence to fit Milton’s zeal for liberty; Cromwell is the lesser evil: I know no other way of accounting for his conduct, but by presuming (as I think we may reasonably presume) that he was far from entirely approving of Cromwell’s proceedings, but considered him as the only person who could rescue the nation from the tyranny of the Presbyterians … of all things he dreaded spiritual slavery, and therefore closed with Cromwell and the Independents, as he expected under them greater liberty of conscience.45

Birch and Newton are closer to modern assessments of Milton’s political position in the 1650s than is Johnson, but then Johnson is not looking for consistency of principle. Newton’s reference to ‘the tyranny of the Presbyterians’ relates to another, earlier, shift in Milton’s political alignment, which Johnson had dealt with harshly. Writing of the 1640s, he says: From this time it is observed that he became an enemy to the Presbyterians, whom he had favoured before. He that changes his party by his humour, is not more virtuous than he that changes it by his interest; he loves himself rather than truth. (Lives I. p. 252)

Commenting on this passage, Griffin contrasts Johnson’s tolerance of Dryden’s change of party (Lives II. p. 80) with his attribution to Milton of ‘mere “humour.”’ 46 However, the circumstances, as Johnson perceives them, are not the same. He assumes that Milton’s disaffection where Presbyterianism is concerned has a personal motive, chagrin at the reception of his divorce tracts. Again, it is implied, not so much mere humour but a satanic sense of injured merit is at work. He makes no attempt at this point to attribute the change to a wider historical context (which he brings into play in the ‘Life of Dryden’). Instead he focuses on the psychological element, and it is this which is the basis of his ultimate description of Milton as the ‘acrimonious and surly republican’ (Lives I. p. 276). All of the political commentary in the ‘Life of Milton’, with its persistent undercutting of the idealistic interpretations of Milton’s own idealism, leads up to this climactic definition. When Johnson comes to fix Milton’s political character for all time, out of all the possible reasons for adhering


Johnson’s Milton

to the ‘political notions’ of republicanism, he first selects the one that can most easily be belittled: … it is not known that he gave any better reason than that a popular government was the most frugal; for the trappings of a monarchy would set up an ordinary commonwealth. (Lives I. p. 276)

In his prose, Milton does include economic arguments against monarchical government on the grounds of its conspicuous consumption; but, as Johnson was aware, economic considerations never ranked very highly among his priorities. In the second edition of The Readie and Easie Way he urges the English not to risk the loss of ‘free government which we have so dearly purchasd, a free Commonwealth … held by wisest men in all ages the noblest, the manliest, the equallest, the justest government, the most agreeable to all due libertie and proportiond equalitie, both human, civil, and Christian, most cherishing to vertue and true religion’, and with the divine sanction of ‘our Saviour himself’ (CPW VII. p. 424). Only then does he contrast the economic costs of a republic with those of a monarchy. But Johnson does not choose to illustrate Milton’s ‘political notions’ from his own writing; instead he cites an anecdotal source, originating with Toland,47 in order yet again to imply that Milton’s shining political idealism is a veneer for much baser metal – ‘It is surely very shallow policy, that supposes money to be the chief good’ (Lives I. p. 276). He ignores the fact that in classical republican theory the economic argument is actually an ethical one.48 In effect, he is adopting the same sneer that Dryden had employed in Absalom and Achitophel: Others thought Kings an useless heavy Load, Who Cost too much, and did too little Good. These were for laying Honest David by, On Principles of pure good Husbandry.

lines 505–8

Johnson even resorts to a defence of ‘the support and expence of a Court’, which (as both Hill and Lonsdale note) ‘verges on the Mandevillian’.49 This is Johnson the pragmatist, rather than the Johnson who had satirised governmental – and royal – expenditure in the London of 1738. In the next paragraph of the ‘Life of Milton’, Milton is shadowed not by Mammon but by his more magnificent creation, Satan.50 Though Johnson never draws the parallel explicitly, the malignity which he associates with Milton’s political polemic, the malignity that darkens hell itself, is here traced to its psychological source: Milton’s republicanism was, I am afraid, founded in an envious hatred of greatness, and a sullen desire of independence; in petulance impatient of controul, and

Milton as political subject


pride disdainful of superiority. He hated monarchs in the state, and prelates in the church; for he hated all whom he was required to obey. It is to be suspected, that his predominant desire was to destroy rather than establish, and that he felt not so much the love of liberty as repugnance to authority. (Lives I. p. 276)

This brilliant and sombre portrait of a certain kind of mentality owes as much perhaps to understanding as to enmity, as indeed does Milton’s portrayal of the original Satan; and like Milton’s Satan, it seems to have an affinity with tragedy as well as satire. Johnson’s ‘I am afraid’ need not be read as hypocritical. In comparison with the kind of invective hurled against Milton during his lifetime – for example, by Pierre du Moulin in the Regii Sanguinis Clamor (1652) – the indictment is as dignified as it is devastating. Whether it is a just judgement is another matter. But if the evidence is selected as Johnson selects it, it is possible to see that for him it can bear this interpretation. Milton’s polemical persona can indeed be described as ‘acrimonious and surly’: that is a characteristic tone of both aggressors and defenders in the bitterly contended paper war of the midseventeenth century. And the temperamental affinities between Milton and Johnson have been clearly expressed by Griffin:  ‘Each was fiercely proud and independent, a strong and dominating personality, demanding of himself and others.’51 The difference is that Johnson’s temperament leads him to a political philosophy that emphasises the need for external order, a system that stabilises and controls the self-determination of the individual, whereas Milton challenges external order in the interests of promoting that self-determination, making individual responsibility the cornerstone of freedom. This of course oversimplifies complex issues, and underestimates what they have in common: Milton subscribes to the principle of hierarchy, Johnson to that of free-will. But it helps to explain Johnson’s own explanation of Milton’s political attitudes. Although his conclusion, particularly the belief that Milton’s desire is to destroy rather than establish, distorts or ignores much of the evidence, it may be seen as the product of Johnson’s own experience, particularly his distrust of all those who use ‘liberty’ as a political slogan,52 and his recognition that violence is all too often the outcome of political idealism. Even so, it should be stressed yet again that Johnson does not conclusively identify Milton with Satan, either here or in his criticism of Paradise Lost. Although this passage ‘reads like a description of Milton’s Satan,’53 there is at least one crucial distinction: Milton’s ‘desire … to destroy’, his ‘repugnance to authority’, relate only to human authority (Johnson does not appear to subscribe to the doctrine of the divine right of kings).54 He may on occasion link reverence towards human authority with belief in divine authority (Life I. pp. 430–1),


Johnson’s Milton

but he does not identify them. He never questions Milton’s submission to the authority of God. Instead, he diverts his discussion and tests Milton’s commitment to liberty in another context, the private sphere (the subject of the following chapter).55 A further distinction between the political Milton and Milton’s Satan is the opportunity for forgiveness and toleration. Although Johnson fixes Milton’s character as that of the eternal rebel, there is a plot twist in the narrative of Milton’s life which averts a tragic outcome and makes possible the creation of Paradise Lost. One of the puzzles that confronted early biographers was the question of why at the Restoration ‘the reviler of his King’, the justifier of regicide, was not excluded from the Act of Oblivion. The standard explanation is that an influential lobby of friends interceded on his behalf. In addition, Toland observes ‘nor was Charles the Second such an Enemy to the Muses as to require his Destruction, tho som are of opinion that he was more oblig’d to that Prince’s Forgetfulness than to his Clemency’.56 The ‘forgetfulness’ theory is rejected by Richardson, citing Bishop Burnet, to whose history Johnson also alludes dismissively (Lives I. p. 263). Richardson instead recounts the ‘secret’ story, picked up by Johnson, that ‘Sir William Davenant obtain’d his Remission in Return for his Own Life procur’d by Milton’s Interest when Himself was under Condemnation, Anno 1650.’57 A benign conspiracy theory, so to speak, this is exactly the kind of moral transaction (with Christian overtones) calculated to appeal to Johnson: Here is a reciprocation of generosity and gratitude so pleasing, that the tale makes its own way to credit. (Lives I. p. 263)

Unfortunately it seems too good to be true. Johnson’s regard for historical verification makes him sceptical of its provenance, and he concludes by falling back on a more general deduction: Something may be reasonably ascribed to veneration and compassion; to veneration of his abilities, and compassion for his distresses, which made it fit to forgive his malice for his learning. (Lives I. p. 263)

He will return to this assumption when describing Milton’s tranquil postRestoration existence (Lives I. p. 269). Whereas Richardson plays down the King’s involvement so far as Milton is concerned,58 Johnson opens his discussion by referring to the royal ‘lenity of which the world has had perhaps no other example’ (Lives I. p. 262). This emphasis on ‘lenity’ may partly account for Johnson’s making light of Milton’s actual danger when the monarchy was restored.59 An even more

Milton as political subject


likely reason is that he wants to guard against the slightest possibility that Milton could be seen as a hero, a martyr of the regime. Rather, the implication is that coals of fire have been heaped upon him: the alleged tyranny of kingship turned out to be merciful. Once more Johnson challenges Milton’s self-representation, this time in the invocations to Paradise Lost Book III and Book VII. He accuses Milton of another satanic failing, ingratitude, taking particular exception to the complaint about ‘evil tongues’ (Lives I. p. 268), a complaint which, despite Johnson, was certainly valid, especially in the early Restoration.60 As modern Johnsonians may note with some discomfort, he does not scruple at this point to politicise Milton’s blindness, as Milton’s enemies were in the habit of doing: ‘This darkness, had his eyes been better employed, had undoubtedly deserved compassion’ (my italics: Lives I. p. 268).61 Yet his own earlier rhetorical question ultimately prevails over his harsher judgement: ‘who would pursue with violence an illustrious enemy, depressed by fortune, and disarmed by nature?’ (Lives I. p. 263). Johnson cannot easily make the transition from Milton the pre-Restoration polemicist to Milton the post-Restoration epic poet; he cannot ‘forget the reviler of his King’. It is all the more to his credit that he does make the transition. When he is writing of the older Milton in his political wilderness, the Milton whose fangs are drawn, he can afford the magnanimity which can be extended to a fellow human being capable of redemption. Even the charge of ingratitude is qualified: He had so much either of prudence or gratitude, that he forbore to disturb the new settlement with any of his political or ecclesiastical opinions, and from this time devoted himself to poetry and literature. (Lives I. p. 264)

The one exception, a Treatise of True Religion, is acceptable in Johnson’s view because it is ‘respectful’ to the Church of England, and promotes toleration on the basis of Scripture (Lives I. pp. 272–3). Although Johnson saw no reason to modify his political character of Milton, the final stage of Milton’s life appears to move beyond politics into a calmer, more settled, and above all a gloriously creative phase. To sum up, there is ample justification for the traditional assumption, beginning with Johnson’s contemporaries such as Francis Blackburne,62 that his biographical creation of the political Milton is distorted by opposition to republican ideology. The reasons, especially in the 1770s, are not far to seek: Milton’s writings could be, and were, appropriated for what Johnson regards as dangerous, even revolutionary, political ends, and he cannot afford to present them with any show of neutrality. (Defiantly, he himself appropriates Paradise Lost for polemical purposes during this


Johnson’s Milton

decade.) He rejects the extenuations of other biographers. Yet the ‘Life of Milton’ goes far beyond a narrow political perspective, especially when he is writing of the post-Restoration period and of the poetry. Johnson’s interest in politics is balanced by a sense that politics are not the most important aspect of human existence, nor the ultimate defining category for human character. And can any Milton biographer be completely neutral in political assessment of his subject? It is difficult, if not impossible, to write about Milton’s conviction politics without some tincture of the writer’s own political convictions colouring the discourse, if only in the choice of vocabulary. This is as true of modern scholars with their own diverse backgrounds (for instance, those carrying the baggage of the divergent constitutional histories of Britain, the Commonwealth, and America) as it is of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century biographers. If Johnson’s treatment of evidence is tendentious, sometimes flagrantly so, he at least treats his subject as a complex individual, immensely gifted but fallible and self-deceived. He neither hero-worships nor literally demonises him: the Devil may have been the first Whig (Life III. p. 326), but Johnson does not accept that the Milton of Paradise Lost is therefore of the Devil’s party. Although his political profile of the ‘acrimonious and surly republican’ combines something of the Colossus with something of the caricature, it is still recognisably and powerfully human.

Ch apter 9

‘Domestick privacies’: Milton as private subject

If Johnson is usually pilloried for misrepresenting Milton as a political subject, he has also been held responsible for caricaturing the private man, and, through the ‘Life of Milton’, transmitting that caricature down the centuries. Eighteenth-century caricatures of Johnson himself, such as James Gillray’s portrayal of him wearing a dunce’s cap, the apex of which bears Milton’s name, turn the tables with the most graphic of insults. At a later date, Byron was to add his quota of tongue-in-cheek satire in Don Juan:1 Milton’s the prince of poets – so we say; A little heavy, but no less divine: An independent being in his day – Learn’d, pious, temperate in love and wine; But, his life, falling into Johnson’s way, We’re told this great high priest of all the Nine Was whipt at college – a harsh sire – odd spouse, For the first Mrs. Milton left his house.

III. 91. lines 817–24

Byron’s stanza divides neatly in half, swinging round the venerated Milton icon to display its humiliating obverse portrait. By including such ‘entertaining facts’ in this and other lives of the great and good, biographers claim to serve truth; but, though ‘most essential to their hero’s story/ They do not much contribute to his glory’ (III. 92. lines 831–2). Johnson’s own impression of the earlier lives of Milton is that they err in the opposite direction of excessive veneration, and that the balance needs to be redressed. The irony is that these lives are not only his major sources for material, but also (up to a point) for his method. Although he expressed the disparaging opinion that ‘we have had too many honey-suckle lives of Milton’,2 in fact it was the existence of lives such as these that contributed to a major development in literary biography3 which he, and his own biographers, were to consolidate. In their ­veneration 211


Johnson’s Milton

for Milton, the early biographers think no detail beneath their attention, including, as Johnson notes, recording his different addresses when he moves from one domicile to another ‘as if it were an injury to neglect naming any place that he honoured by his presence’ (Lives I. p. 262). It is an instance of what was later to become the blue-plaque mentality:  Milton, like Queen Elizabeth, slept here. But, unlike Queen Elizabeth, it is the eminence of a private citizen that honours Milton’s place of residence, and it is the ordinariness of domestic life on the premises, not its splendour, that the biographers seek to record. Johnson’s own theory and practice, although opposed to the ‘honeysuckle’ tendency, share the emphasis on apparent trivia, ‘those minute peculiarities which discriminate every man from all others’ (‘Life of Sir Thomas Browne’, p. xl). A famous essay, Rambler 60, formulates his biographer’s credo. Celebrity plays a part in attracting attention, but the business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents, which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestick privacies, and display the minute details of daily life … (Yale III. p. 321)

He does not suggest that all details are of equal value: they need to be interpreted for their significance. Such interpretation serves to make the inclusion of domestic detail intellectually respectable. Yet there is an unacknowledged tension in its aim: the intrusion upon domestic privacy may either discriminate the ‘great man’ from all others or expose his oneness with them. As Johnson also recognises in The Rambler, the shimmering distant prospect preserves an allure that vanishes at too close quarters (Yale III. pp. 79–80). The biographer’s obsession with every detail of a subject’s private life is now so familiar as to seem unremarkable. More contentious is the question of whether or not it is an advantage for a biographer to empathise with his or her subject. In Rambler 60, Johnson starts by asserting that empathy is produced ‘by an act of the imagination’, which it is the biographer’s responsibility to encourage in the reader. His fundamental approach is psychological: the events of a life matter less than the revelation of character brought about by events. As he makes clear in Rambler 60, that character revelation is to be found even more in the private than the public sphere. What differentiates individuals is largely external; what unites us, according to Johnson, are primarily our emotional needs and objectives: We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure. (Yale III. p. 320)

Milton as private subject


It follows that in creating Milton as a private rather than as a political subject (although these identities are of course coterminous), Johnson is less restricted in his capacity to enter into subjective experience. Where the political difference could be an obstruction, differences or similarities in private life might provide the kind of common ground that Johnson feels essential to the practice of biography. Even in their external lives, as Griffin summarises them, there is a curious symmetry between Johnson and Milton: Born almost exactly one hundred years apart, their careers surprisingly coincide. Each was long and late beginning, and did not win fame until past the age of forty. Each was at one time an obscure schoolmaster, a lexicographer, a political controversialist, and a champion of free speech.4

If we compare their ‘domestick privacies’, other parallels – as well as some significant divergences – emerge. How far Johnson may judge Milton’s private behaviour from a personal standpoint, shaped by his own experience, is worth bearing in mind. Sometimes in the ‘Life of Milton’ he overtly speaks from experience, as when commenting on the teacher’s role (a role which certainly in Milton’s case is very much an extension of ‘domestick privacies’). Sometimes only a reader versed in the life histories of both men might read between the lines to note instances where Johnson’s commentary is less than disinterested. Family relationships that are basic in most lives but also strongly individualised can include, for a male subject, the roles of son, brother, husband, and father (all but the last of these Milton and Johnson have in common, and Johnson was a stepfather, if not a biological parent). These ‘domestick relations’ are crucial to Johnson’s creation of Milton as a private subject. The necessary information is passed down from biographer to biographer, derived from Milton’s own writings; from his nephew, Edward Phillips, one of those who ‘writes from personal knowledge’ (Yale III. p. 323); and from other family sources. Second to ‘domestick relations’ come ‘domestick habits’, Milton’s routines, his idiosyncrasies, all revealing character and all grist to the mill of a biographer such as Johnson. As in his other ‘Lives’, Johnson’s set-piece on Milton’s character and appearance becomes the connective tissue between life and work, and permanently fixes its subject. But since any human subject is also in flux, the narrative develops from youth to age. The inevitable coda with which Johnson concludes his ‘Life of Milton’ presents a topic that was always interesting to him, but particularly cogent at the stage of life he himself had reached when composing it: the topic of old age and death.


Johnson’s Milton M i lt on’s ‘d om e s t ic k r e l at ions’

Most biographies include family history, and the early lives of Milton are no exception. Naturally, Edward Phillips is particularly expansive on the Milton genealogy. Johnson repeats what are supposed to be the salient facts of Milton’s ancestry, with little gloss apart from one dry political aside (Lives I. p. 242). For a writer with strong views on parent-child relationships (as a number of the periodical essays testify) he indulges in surprisingly little speculation about Milton’s relationship with his parents. Although he mentions Ad Patrem, for instance, it is simply to signify the father’s cultural attainment, not as evidence for any possible tensions between father and son over the latter’s vocation. Modern biographers and critics, particularly those with an interest in psychoanalysis, have shown no such reticence; Shawcross encapsulates a recurrent theme: The psychological picture of the poet that keeps emerging is of a son much dedicated to his father, emulating him and growing up to discharge, psychologically at least, those concerns that were seen as the father’s: artistic achievement, middle-class “political” advantage, and the true religious belief in a protestant god [sic].5

None doubt the importance of paternal influence on the poet, supported by Milton’s own autobiographical evidence.6 Johnson, however, confines himself to noting two factors that assured the young John Milton of a good start in life: the scrivener’s professional success, which provided economic security, and his supportive attitude to his son’s education – ‘His father appears to have been very solicitous about his education’ (Lives I. p. 242). Possibly, though this is speculation, Johnson did not care to elaborate further because the contrast with his own family circumstances touches a sore point. Not for him the luxury of either sufficient affluence to secure his future or a father whom he could whole heartedly respect and wish to emulate. His own account of his parents’ relationship suggests a household environment characterised not by cultivated harmony but by conflict and money worries: My father and mother had not much happiness from each other. They seldom conversed; for my father could not bear to talk of his affairs; and my mother, being unacquainted with books, cared not to talk of any thing else. (Yale I. p. 7)

Nevertheless, in certain respects his family position was not dissimilar to Milton’s. As the elder sons of older than average parents, precociously gifted and surrounded by books (in that circumstance at least, Johnson was not underprivileged), they would experience the burden of expectation

Milton as private subject


very early, and the obvious route to adult achievement – education – would assume huge importance in both their lives. Both Milton’s autobiographical writings and Johnson’s annals attest to this awareness. In Johnson’s case, the guilt of not being the dutiful son that he felt he ought to be is a guilt that persists into maturity and indeed old age.7 Milton, on the other hand, appears to survive whatever early conflict (Oedipal or otherwise) may have existed in his life to create the perfect image of a father-son relationship which shadows the divine. His biographers (for example, Fenton)8 variously comment on this; Johnson does not. His example of a model son in Lives of the Poets is not Milton, but Pope; and here we may indeed detect a hint of personal guilt over his own shortcomings: Whatever was his pride, to them he was obedient; and whatever was his irritability, to them he was gentle. Life has, among its soothing and quiet comforts, few things better to give than such a son. (Lives IV. p. 36)

As for Milton’s mother, history is almost silent on the life of this virtuous woman. Although modern scholars, intent on the discovery of Milton’s feminine side, have attempted to compensate for this neglect,9 Johnson mentions her only in passing. However, another member of the Milton family does catch his attention:  Milton’s younger brother, Christopher. As Robert Folkenflik has commented, this is unusual in Lives of the Poets: The brothers and sisters of the subject are rarely mentioned, and even more rarely named by Johnson, despite the sharp awareness he exhibits in his essays and conversation of the effects of siblings on one another … One notable exception is his short discussion of the brother and sister of Milton.10

Folkenflik assumes that Johnson names Christopher Milton because he was a Royalist ‘and might have shielded his brother from the wrath of the restored royalists’ (Anne Milton is included as mother of the Phillips boys). No doubt Christopher’s politics are key: there are two quite different versions of his character in Milton biographies, one of which, given by Edward Phillips, owes perhaps more regard to family loyalty than, in Johnson’s terms, ‘respect … to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth’ (Yale III. p. 323). Be that as it may, Phillips describes his younger uncle as ‘a person of a modest quiet temper, preferring Justice and Vertue before all Worldly Pleasure or Grandeur’, with ‘known Integrity and Ability in the Law’. Conversely, Toland blackens Christopher’s character, not only personally but also professionally: ‘of a very superstitious nature [he became a Catholic], and a man of no Parts or Ability’.11 His description is ideologically driven, but modern archival research appears to vindicate Toland to


Johnson’s Milton

a large extent. Shawcross sums up Christopher in a nutshell as ‘Royalist, Roman Catholic, not very reliable member of the Inner Temple, not very competent lawyer and justice of the peace, and not a person of integrity.’12 Needless to say, Johnson prefers Phillips’s version to Toland’s: he emphasises that Milton’s brother ‘adhered, as the law taught him, to the King’s party’ and ‘supported himself so honourably by chamber-practice, that soon after the accession of King James, he was knighted and made a Judge’ (Lives I. p. 242)13. Johnson airbrushes any doubts over Christopher out of the picture, not simply from political bias but to sharpen the contrast between elder and younger brothers. This conforms to an ancient stereotype of sibling division. Modern biographers have speculated on the kind of emotional rift that Christopher’s reversion to ancestral belief may have caused between him and his father and brother, but for Johnson it suffices to underline the fact of their discrepancy.14 Again, however, we may wonder if he is suppressing the memory of a painful and unresolved sibling relationship in his own life: Johnson too had a younger brother, Nathaniel, whose character is shadowy if not shady, and who haunted his brother’s dreams long after his untimely death (Yale I. p. 67). Like fathers, younger brothers are a sensitive subject for this biographer. In his account of Milton’s childhood and youth, Milton’s formal education naturally predominates. But whereas the early lives tend to represent Milton as a child prodigy combining genius and industry (Skinner, Wood, Phillips, and Toland all reproduce Milton’s own evocative image of the twelve-year-old sitting up half the night in order to study), Johnson refuses to perpetuate this particular tradition. The omission has implications for his attitude to Milton’s blindness. Toland had gone out of his way to draw attention to the fact that Milton’s ocular weakness began in childhood, long before any crude imputation of a divine judgement might apply: I had not therfore related Milton’s Headachs in his Youth, were it not for the influence which this Indisposition had afterwards on his Eys, and that his Blindness was rashly imputed by his Enemies to the avenging Judgment of God.15

But the omission in Johnson’s ‘Life’ seems also to be prompted by his general distrust of Milton’s self-representation, and his preference for judging from actual results. If he does not contest that Milton by the end of his schooldays is ‘eminently skilled in the Latin tongue’, he does not consider him preeminent in either Latin verse or English translation; of the verse Psalms, he remarks that ‘they would in any numerous school have obtained praise, but not excited wonder’ (Lives I. p. 243). Unlike Toland, he does not find Milton’s intellectual prowess ‘incredible’.16 His image is that of a boy

Milton as private subject


over-impressed by ‘the earliness of his own proficiency’, as evinced by the habit of dating (sometimes misdating) his poems. If not exactly empathy, there is at least a sense of first-hand experience in his assessment. Johnson himself had known the heady excitement of being an extremely bright schoolboy, and remembers it vividly – ‘I was indulged and caressed by my master, and, I think, really excelled the rest’ (Yale I. p. 17). But mixed with the recognition there is awareness that the self-conscious prodigy can be an unattractive specimen. Academic success came easily to Milton, at school and university. But was it at the price of alienation from his peers? Milton takes pains to correct that idea, and his nephew loyally avers that ‘for the extraordinary Wit and Reading he had shown in his Performances to attain his Degree … he was lov’d and admir’d by the whole University, particularly by the Fellows and most Ingenious Persons of his House’.17 Cynics might demur; with perhaps more psychological plausibility, Johnson remarks: They [the set exercises] had been undoubtedly applauded; for they were such as few can perform: yet there is reason to suspect that he was regarded in his college with no great fondness. (Lives I. p. 243)

Modern biographers are still divided in their interpretation of Milton’s Cambridge years, for the evidence is inconclusive. John K. Hale has observed that Milton, unlike many undergraduates, does not seem to have made close or lasting friendships within the university community, in contrast to his close friendship with Diodati which began at school.18 In his first Elegy, which Johnson cites in detail, Milton expresses some dissatisfaction with his university experience. But if Johnson does not accept the most hostile version of events, he nevertheless goes further than other biographers in believing that Milton was actually whipped (a tale that originates in a jotting of Aubrey’s).19 A college is a kind of family; but that the physical discipline exercised in early modern families should have been applied to Milton at this stage appears unlikely for various reasons.20 The fact that Johnson gave it credence roused predictable indignation (Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 374–5). Yet Johnson professes himself ‘ashamed to relate what I fear is true’ (my italics: Lives I. p. 243), and he is once more well placed to imagine the effect of such humiliation, even if he is factually in error. Neither the undergraduate Milton nor the undergraduate Johnson found it easy to submit to university authority. Like Milton at Cambridge, Johnson at Oxford came into conflict with his tutor, disregarding ‘all power and all authority’ (Life I. p. 74). For different reasons from Milton, Johnson felt something of an outsider at Pembroke (DeMaria suggests he


Johnson’s Milton

experienced ‘partly a form of class anger’),21 though he did have close and lasting friendships and developed a strong attachment to his college. Both Milton and Johnson, then, have some cause for connecting their university experience with the remembrance of humiliation. But Johnson gets over it, and it is clear that he thinks Milton did not: he left the university with no kindness for its institution, alienated either by the injudicious severity of his governors, or his own captious perverseness. (Lives I. p. 244)

Johnson attempts to balance blame on both sides, but as so often in his reading of Milton’s personality he suspects that Milton’s own nature may be partly responsible for his antagonism to any form of institution. At this point in the biography, he anticipates his later discussion of Milton’s treatise Of Education with the suggestion that its ‘scheme of education’ may be traced back to Milton’s disillusion with Cambridge (Lives I. p. 244). Given Johnson’s own interest in, and experience of, formal education on both sides of the student/teacher divide, it is predictable that Of Education is the prose work with which he engages most assiduously in the ‘Life of Milton’ and the single prose work that he is prepared to admit into the Dictionary. It also has a bearing on Milton’s ‘domestick relations’, because Johnson sees educational theory as inseparable from the human relationship which exists between pedagogue and pupil. Since one (indeed probably two) of his biographers had actually been Milton’s pupils,22 here if anywhere we might expect the evidence to carry weight. But it is not altogether easy to assess the value of that evidence. The early biographers naturally accept the reliability of Edward Phillips, and repeat (as Johnson does) the statement that Milton ‘set his pupils an example of hard study and spare diet’, varied by an occasional day of recreation.23 It is perhaps as well that Johnson had no direct access to Aubrey’s notes recording the hearsay evidence of Milton’s first wife that she ‘often-times heard his Nephews cry, and beaten’. On the other hand, Aubrey also has a note, presumably deriving from Phillips, which substantially modifies this impression: … he was most familiar and free in his conversation to those to whome most severe in his way of education –NB. He made his Nephews Songsters, and sing from the time they were with him.24

Whether Milton’s caged birds sing or cry is more a matter of how we perceive them, than of how they perceived themselves. Johnson’s doubts about Milton as an educationist are based on his own experience and on his reading of Milton’s educational treatise. The

Milton as private subject


starting-point of his criticism is to question the early biographers’ unqualified praise of Milton as the great teacher: It is told, that in the art of education he performed wonders … Those who tell or receive these stories should consider that nobody can be taught faster than he can learn. The speed of the horseman must be limited by the power of his horse. Every man, that has ever undertaken to instruct others, can tell what slow advances he has been able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension. (Lives I. p. 248)

Here if anywhere in the ‘Life of Milton’ is the authentic voice of painful experience, to which every teacher’s bosom returns an echo. In this sphere too, Milton must have appeared privileged in comparison to Johnson himself: teaching for him may have been a useful addition to his income, but not a matter of economic survival, and it was conducted on a private domestic scale in his quiet ‘pretty Garden-House’ in Aldersgate. Yet though Johnson’s early failure as a provincial schoolmaster may have rankled, it did not shake his faith in the value of education and the innate thirst for knowledge. He maintains that where he takes issue with Milton is on the question of what education is for, and in what disciplines it should consist. Johnson does not treat Of Education as a political text, although it can be read fruitfully in the context of Milton’s politics.25 Instead he keeps it within the nominal domestic sphere, as Milton himself had when classifying the different categories of ‘liberty’. He uses it to confirm his conception of Milton as a man who has unrealistic expectations and imperfect understanding of other human beings, including normal schoolboys. From the outset, he implies that Milton’s agenda is utopian, both in its displacement of the traditional structural divide between school and university, and in its curriculum. Specifically, he contextualises it in a seventeenth-century reformist movement which cuts across political boundaries. As Johnson notes, it is ‘inscribed to Hartlib’ (Lives I. p. 244); and later he cites Cowley’s Proposition for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy (1661), with the damaging rider that Cowley ‘had more means than Milton of knowing what was wanting to the embellishments of life’ (Lives I. p. 248). The implied parallelism is misleading. Both educational projects are ‘imaginary’ but, as his title makes clear, Cowley’s primary aim is Baconian:  to advance knowledge of the natural universe. Like Bacon, he acknowledges the existence of God in the scheme of things, but his main interest lies elsewhere, and his approach is very much that of the ­proto-scientist and statistician. Milton, in contrast, famously defines ‘the end … of learning’


Johnson’s Milton

as ‘to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him’ (CPW II. pp. 366–7). By juxtaposing Milton’s text with Cowley’s, Johnson seriously skews his reading of the former to make it fit a historical preconception of seventeenth-century ‘innovators’. His objections to the Miltonic curriculum are far more applicable to Cowley’s. Milton gives natural philosophy and applied knowledge – scientia – an honourable place, but the highest and most essential wisdom – sapientia – is to be obtained from precisely those sources which, according to Johnson, are sidelined in Of Education: ‘poets, orators, and historians’ (Lives I. p. 249). Johnson focuses on one simple and highly traditional precept, central to Christian humanism – ‘we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance’. But nothing in Of Education contradicts this; indeed Milton’s hierarchical ordering of material reinforces it. When Johnson combatively declares ‘if I have Milton against me, I have Socrates on my side’ in giving priority to the study of humanity above the study of plants and stars, he is setting up a false opposition of authorities. He refuses to admit that Milton’s scheme is based on the principle of ‘both/and’ not ‘either/or’. The interesting question is why he so distorts the message of a brief and lucid summary of educational aims with which he might be expected to be in fundamental accord. Two thought-provoking explanations have been put forward. Fix sees it as part of the ideological ‘combat’ between two eminent writers: ‘It shows Johnson consciously cultivating the image of himself confronting a figure so powerful that only the assistance of the father of philosophy will suffice.’26 But, as Clingham emphasises, the conflict is largely Johnson’s own invention: ‘Johnson’s misreading of Milton’s ideas essentially enables him – in a very Miltonic gesture – to usurp Milton’s position, and thus perhaps to repress an identification he feels with the object of his criticism.’27 Both link it to Johnson’s psychological construction of Milton’s mind and attitudes, especially his intellectual independence. But if Johnson’s criticism cannot withstand the plain evidence of the text itself, he does react to something in Of Education that a number of readers continue to balk at. Although in many ways it is enormously appealing in its holistic concern for mind, soul, and body (for instance, the provision for the pleasures of music and nature rambles in the spring), modern students tend, like Johnson, to think that Milton seriously overestimates the capacities of lesser mortals when it comes to the reading required. And it is very much an educational ideal based on reading, despite the inclusion of practical demonstration. Johnson’s objection to what is read obscures the fact that

Milton as private subject


his so-called alternative is even more exclusively literary in its basis than Milton’s proposals. Arguably, he makes a stronger case when he emphasises the flesh-and-blood reality of those who are the material of educational experiments. Boswell records his basic verdict on Of Education: ‘Milton’s plan is impracticable, and I suppose has never been tried’ (Life III. p. 358). He also judges by results. In an original addition to earlier lives, he looks at how Milton’s pupils turned out: Of institutions we may judge by their effects. From this wonder-working academy, I do not know that there ever proceeded any man very eminent for knowledge: its only genuine product, I believe, is a small History of Poetry, written in Latin by his nephew Philips, of which perhaps none of my readers has ever heard. (Lives I. p. 249)

Unfair, especially in view of the tiny sample available, and possibly inconsistent if morality rather than renown is the educator’s aim (if the same criterion is applied to Johnson’s school, its most distinguished alumnus, David Garrick, is famous for theatrical talent not academic knowledge). Yet Johnson is not simply indulging himself with a cheap gibe, but giving an ironic reminder that what ultimately matters is not the theory but the human lives that are the product of education. The element in Milton’s teaching that he praises unreservedly as worthy of ‘general imitation’ is the conscientious religious instruction, which is interesting in view of his later comments on the absence of religious observance in the elderly Milton’s household (Lives I. pp. 275–6). At a later stage, he also modifies quite markedly the idea that Milton fails to accommodate himself as a teacher to the needs of the young, implying that the older Milton has mellowed in his readiness to provide humble textbooks for beginners. Although the ‘distant genius’ represents one aspect of the private Milton, there is another side that Johnson honours: Of his zeal for learning, in all its parts, he gave a proof by publishing … Accidence commenced Grammar; a little book which has nothing remarkable, but that its author, who had been lately defending the supreme powers of his country, and was then writing Paradise Lost, could descend from his elevation to rescue children from the perplexity of grammatical confusion, and the trouble of lessons unnecessarily repeated. (Lives I. p. 264)

That this is no single aberration appears in his even warmer commendation of the later Artis Logicae: To that multiplicity of attainments, and extent of comprehension, that entitle this great author to our veneration, may be added a kind of humble dignity, which did not disdain the meanest services to literature. (Lives I. p. 272)


Johnson’s Milton

Admittedly, he cannot resist suggesting that this Ramist work may be a further skirmish in Milton’s anti-university campaign; but the effect of both passages is of a genuine and generous tribute to an aspect of Milton that is often overlooked. It parallels a similar tribute to Isaac Watts, another writer from whom Johnson differed ideologically, but for whom he had great respect (Lives IV. p. 108). Watts, he says, showed ‘tenderness’ to children. Johnson does not go so far as to assume that Milton is motivated by tenderness, but at least he allows him the Christian virtue of humility. However, the severest test of the private individual is how he conducts himself in the closest family relationships, and towards his own children. Milton as family man fascinates early biographers (as well as later artists and novelists). Since one of the most intimate forms of domestic privacy is the relation between husband and wife, it is not surprising that they scrutinise the evidence for Milton’s attitude to marriage, both in his life history and in his writings. Newton, in his editorial note on Paradise Lost IV. line 761, concludes ‘And Milton must have had a good opinion of marriage, or he would never have had three wives.’28 Johnson, who notoriously described a second marriage as ‘the triumph of hope over experience’ (Life II. p. 128), would be more likely to consider it as another sign of an unduly sanguine temperament, though on another occasion Boswell reports him as taking a view not dissimilar to Newton’s, that remarriage is ‘the highest compliment’ to a former spouse (Life II. p. 76). In any case, Milton is far from singular in this regard: serial marriage is commonplace in the early modern period, for obvious reasons connected with the mortality rate (especially the mortality rate for wives in childbirth). Nor was it unusual for a man of Milton’s social background to marry relatively late. The age discrepancy between Milton and his first wife, Mary Powell, is made much of by some biographers, but it is not especially remarkable.29 What makes Milton’s marital experience so intriguing to the earlier biographers is the opportunity to match his nephew’s account to his own extensive writing on the subject of matrimony. The story of that first marriage, as told by Phillips, is the stuff of which novels are made. When Annabel Patterson locates in the divorce tracts ‘a disguised autobiographical account of Milton’s own courtship and the early days of his marriage, told prophetically in the style of the domestic fiction that would shortly replace the fashionable, pseudo-historical romances imported from the continent’,30 she accurately pinpoints the generic potential of the material. This potential would be directly realised in later centuries, in historical fiction such as Anne Manning’s The Maiden and Married Life of Mary Powell, afterwards Mistress Milton (1849) and Robert Graves’s Wife to Mr Milton (1942).

Milton as private subject


Already in the eighteenth century, readers are seeing the material through the prism of the domestic novel as well as Paradise Lost. Phillips’s account, published over half a century after the event, encourages the idea of marriage undertaken in haste and repented at leisure; but, insofar as it relies on boyhood memories and incomplete access to the facts, it leaves room for speculation. The ‘disguised autobiographical account’ of the divorce tracts, with its sense of grievance over relationships entered into without sexual experience and under social pressure, also supports the notion of an apparently precipitate and regretted entry into wedlock. Yet biographers, early and modern, differ in their estimate of whether it should be regarded as a love match at the outset. ‘Milton in love’ is an image that even the most ardent of his admirers is inclined to treat with a degree of circumspection. Richardson, for example, says only that the evidence is lacking: Nor is it Observ’d he was in Love (as the Phrase is) with any of These [wives]; on the Other Hand nothing is said to his Disadvantage with regard to Tenderness as a Husband.31

None of the early biographers question Phillips’s timescale, that ‘after a Month’s stay’ with the Powells in Oxfordshire, ‘home he returns a Marriedman, that went out a Batchelor’.32 More recent biographers shift the wedding from Whitsuntide to a later date in July, and Shawcross dismisses any notion of a ‘whirlwind romance’, arguing instead for an arranged marriage.33 One chronological mistake repeated by Johnson from earlier lives is that of dating the year as 1643, not 1642, an error which has the effect of exaggerating still further Milton’s age.34 The biographical significance of Milton’s age is heightened not only by the contrast with his wife’s youthfulness but also, more unusually, by his self-proclaimed virginity. As he observes bitterly in The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, ‘it is not strange though many who have spent their youth chastly, are in some things not so quick-sighted, while they hast too eagerly to light the nuptiall torch’ (CPW II. p. 249). It is not hard to connect these factors with subsequent marital difficulties (especially for modern biographers, accustomed to psychosexual analysis). But the early biographers do not all do so. Edward Phillips does not so much as mention the age differential; the anonymous biographer and Wood describe Mary simply as ‘very young’.35 What the early lives chiefly focus on is her Royalist family background, and the contrast, both political and social, with the household she entered as a bride. All of them follow Phillips in emphasising the shock of transition ‘after having been used to a great House, and


Johnson’s Milton

much Company and Joviality’ to what Phillips calls ‘a Philosophical Life’ and Toland, even more pointedly, ‘a Philosophical Retirement’.36 Shawcross asks ‘Does no one but Robert Graves look at the situation from Mary’s point of view?’37 In fact, at least some of the early biographers attempt to do so, in order to reconstruct her motives for prolonging her extended visit to her family and remaining absent from her husband despite his repeated requests for her return. Where they differ from modern commentators is in their overt disapproval of her behaviour. Newton has the fullest version of the episode, largely borrowed from Toland. Where Phillips’s original account leaves some room for indeterminacy, for example in the treatment of Milton’s messenger (‘to the best of my remembrance’, he says), the later accounts represent Mary’s reaction as positive refusal and outright contempt. Newton elaborates on her possible reasons: Whether it was, that she had conceived any dislike to her husband’s person or humor; or whether she could not conform to his retired and philosophical manner of life, having been accustomed to a house of much gaiety and company; or whether being of a family strongly attached to the royal cause, she could not bear her husband’s republican principles; or whether she was overpersuaded by her relations … whether any or all of these were the reasons of this extraordinary behaviour; however it was, it so highly incensed her husband, that he thought it would be dishonorable ever to receive her again …38

The mentality of the age of the novel is clearly in evidence. Just as clearly, Newton is setting up the situation to magnify Milton’s generosity in the reconciliation scene, and his subsequent magnanimity in his hospitality to his in-laws. The biographers (all male) relish the scene of the husband forgiving the erring wife on her knees, or, better still, prostrated before him, and do not miss the opportunity to see life reflected in literature. Fenton writes: perhaps the impressions it made on his imagination contributed much to the painting of that pathetic Scene in PARADISE LOST, in which Eve addresseth herself to Adam for pardon, and peace. At the intercession of his friends who were present, after a short reluctance He generously sacrific’d all his resentment to her tears.39

Richardson draws the same parallel with Paradise Lost:  ‘He Melted, Receiv’d her, and was Reconcil’d’.40 (Modern critics are more inclined to give Milton’s Eve credit as the principal mover towards reconciliation and repentance.) Understandably, the early biographers also link the divorce tracts to Milton’s marital problems. In modern Milton studies, these tracts continue

Milton as private subject


to furnish material for literary analysis of Paradise Lost, as well as for ­biographical purposes. However, equal if not greater weight is given to his own claim that he is writing within an established intellectual tradition, and that they form part of a larger defence of Christian liberty.41 Among the early biographers, Toland is exceptional in his willingness to reproduce and take seriously Milton’s arguments in support of ‘this particular case of domestic Liberty’. Indeed, he makes a point of saying that their subjective cause does not invalidate the objective case: their ‘Arguments ought not to be esteem’d the less cogent, because occasion’d by his domestic Uneasiness’.42 It almost goes without saying that Johnson takes the opposite line from Toland, simply listing the divorce tracts with no indication of their content. He prefaces the list with the suggestion that Milton, in his private as well as his political capacity, is rationalising a sense of injured merit: In a man whose opinion of his own merit was like Milton’s, less provocation than this might have raised violent resentment … being one of those who could easily find arguments to justify inclination, [he] published (in 1644) The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce … (Lives I. p. 251)

More interesting is how he chooses to narrate the familiar tale of the first marriage, without departing from Phillips’s original outline (which he quotes), but with a subtle change of tone. If other lives of Milton encroach on the territory of the novel, Johnson appears to follow a literary model that is closer to The Rambler. In his Rambler essay on marriage, he begins with the generalisation ‘that marriage, though the dictate of nature, and the institution of providence, is yet very often the cause of misery’ (Yale III. p. 98): a commonplace which coincides with Milton’s premise in the divorce tracts. However, the persona that Johnson creates in this essay contrasts sharply with the persona of the divorce tracts, not least in his claim to transcend gender bias: … as the faculty of writing has been chiefly a masculine endowment, the reproach of making the world miserable has been always thrown upon the women … (Yale III. p. 98)

This writer therefore asserts that he has ‘endeavoured to divest [his] heart of all partiality, and place [himself] as a kind of neutral being between the sexes’. Although Milton’s title-page for The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce claims that it is Restor’ d to the good of both Sexes, most readers do not discover a genuinely neutral stance in either this or the later tracts. On one level, Milton’s ideal of marriage equates with what Johnson calls ‘the strictest tye of perpetual friendship’ (Yale III. p. 103); nevertheless, on a different level, he perpetuates the cultural and literary bias identified in Rambler 18. Another reason for


Johnson’s Milton

considering this essay relevant to the ‘Life of Milton’ is Johnson’s use of exemplary vignettes of unhappy marriage. If, as Tolstoy has it in Anna Karenina, ‘All happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’, then it is not to be expected that any of these vignettes would exactly parallel Milton’s situation; but the experience of Johnson’s Melissus comes closest to doing so. Described as a ‘man of parts’ who ‘had passed through the various scenes of gayety with that indifference and possession of himself, natural to men who have something higher and nobler in their prospect’, he retires into the country, meets Ianthe, ‘and being sufficiently convinced of the force of her understanding, and finding, as he imagined, such a conformity of temper as declared them formed for each other, addressed her as a lover, after no very long courtship obtained her for his wife, and brought her … to town in triumph’ (Yale III. pp. 101–2). As with Milton and Mary Powell, it is all too easy to foresee disaster: ‘Now began their infelicity.’ Ianthe bears no real resemblance to Mary (she is more of a Margery Pinchwife), and I do not suggest that the parallel with Melissus’s situation is anything but coincidental. But the outcome in both cases is stamped with the familiar Johnsonian trademark of the vanity of human wishes: This was the wife which Melissus the philosopher found in his retirement, and from whom he expected an associate in his studies, and an assistant to his virtues. (Yale III. p. 102)

Comparison with The Rambler throws some light on why Johnson’s account of the Milton marriage differs in tone from the majority of the other lives. It is unromantic, concise, above all, ironic: He brought her to town with him, and expected all the advantages of a conjugal life. The lady, however, seems not much to have delighted in the pleasures of spare diet and hard study … (Lives I. p. 251)

These are the accents of The Rambler, highlighting the gap between expectation and reality, and mischievously appropriating the phrase Phillips had used approvingly for Milton’s example to his pupils. When Johnson recounts the young wife’s refusal to return to her husband, he does not speculate on her motives:  the ‘sullen gloom of her husband’s habitation’ is reason enough. He records the political divide briefly and factually: ‘The family of the Lady were Cavaliers’ (Lives I. p. 251). And although he attributes resentment to Milton, he ignores the pain and loneliness so evident to modern readers from passages in the divorce tracts, and dryly infers from Phillips’s account that ‘Milton was too busy to much miss his wife’. His account of the reconciliation scene derives from Phillips, with no mention of Paradise Lost. Yet he resists any temptation

Milton as private subject


to omit evidence that reflects well on Milton, while hinting that he might have done so: It were injurious to omit, that Milton afterwards received her father and her brothers in his own house, when they were distressed, with other Royalists. (Lives I. p. 252)

As a son-in-law, Milton gives his ‘domestick relations’ priority over politics. Johnson’s later comments on Milton as a husband cover all three of his marriages. It has been suggested that he may have reacted adversely to Milton’s assertion, while still a bachelor, that he would choose ‘a virgin of mean fortunes honestly bred, before the wealthiest widow’ (CPW I. p. 929). For example, Fix supposes that ‘Johnson, who himself had married a widow, finds in this opinion another peevish instance of Milton’s unwillingness to be associated in any way with other men – even with those who are safely dead.’43 In the seventeenth century, the objection to marrying a widow was believed to have biological roots. Aubrey attributes a crude expression of this belief to William Harvey: ‘He that marries a widdowe makes himself Cuckold.’44 Yet Fix’s interpretation is not the only possible one, and Johnson does not actually spell it out: All his wives were virgins; for he has declared that he thought it gross and indelicate to be a second husband: upon what other principles his choice was made, cannot now be known; but marriage afforded not much of his happiness. (Lives I. p. 264)

The phrase ‘gross and indelicate’ points to Milton’s obsession with sexual purity in both sexes. But the wording of the original declaration carries another slur. If Johnson did take it personally, as seems possible, what may have stung him more is the insinuation that widows are only married for their money. Also, Johnson’s own marriage to Mrs Elizabeth Porter (Tetty), like Milton’s marriages, was an example of a discrepancy in ages, although in the opposite, less socially acceptable, direction. He was in no position to be unduly judgemental about others’ reasons for matrimonial choices; and in practice he can be as compassionate as he is ironic when contemplating the wreckage of married lives. His summing up of Milton’s experience bears out his conclusion, closely following Newton, that ‘marriage afforded not much of his happiness’. Newton had also cited Milton’s insistence on virgin wives, and pointed out that it was no guarantee of bliss. He then encapsulates the sorry tale of Milton’s three marriages to virgin brides: … his first wife had justly offended him by her long absence and separation from him; the second, whose love, sweetness, and goodness he commends, lived not a


Johnson’s Milton

twelvemonth with him; and his third wife is said to have been a woman of a most violent spirit, and a hard mother in law to his children.45

Although Johnson borrows Newton’s formula, he slants his summary towards a less emotive interpretation. Where Newton is sympathetic to the husband as a victim of bad behaviour or misfortune, Johnson’s version reads more bleakly than sympathetically, possibly because Johnson believes that Milton makes too little allowance for human frailty, in himself or others: The first wife left him in disgust, and was brought back only by terror; the second, indeed, seems to have been more a favourite, but her life was short. The third, as Philips relates, oppressed his children in his life-time, and cheated them at his death. (Lives I. p. 264)

Yet, if he certainly does not sentimentalise this aspect of his subject’s life, he cannot be said to gloat over his marital unhappiness. He leaves the reader to judge. Where he does take exception to Milton’s conduct as a husband is at the point where political and private principles collide. As a political being, Milton regards freedom and equality as his birthright; as a private individual, he denies it to those closest to him: It has been observed, that they who most loudly clamour for liberty do not most liberally grant it. What we know of Milton’s character, in domestick relations, is, that he was severe and arbitrary. His family consisted of women; and there appears in his books something like a Turkish contempt of females, as subordinate and inferior beings … He thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion. (Lives I. p. 276)

It is not a new charge. In Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), Mary Astell had voiced it, all the more eloquently because hers is a female voice: … how much soever Arbitrary Power may be dislik’d on a Throne, Not Milton himself wou’d cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves, or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny.46

But Johnson’s accusation of a double standard has been far more influential, and more widely disseminated, and he supports it from the life and the works. Undeniably there are passages in Milton’s poetry which burn with vitriolic misogyny – such as some of the fallen Adam’s speeches in Paradise Lost or the Chorus’s in Samson Agonistes – just as there are sentiments attributed to Johnson that are offensive to women. Both writers have come under attack for upholding the assumption of male supremacy. But both writers can also be defended, on biographical and literary

Milton as private subject


grounds. Demonstrably, neither Milton nor Johnson hated women, or avoided their company:  on the contrary, relationships with individual women are of intellectual and emotional importance to each of them. If, to an outside judgement, neither appears an ideal husband, that is scarcely surprising; their respective personalities are too difficult, too complex, to make for easy adjustment to others. Yet if genius can make unreasonable demands, it also facilitates the imagination of otherness. Milton’s creation of Eve is more powerfully inward than any ‘contempt of females’ would allow; and (on the evidence of Irene) Johnson also has the imaginative capacity to respond to that creation, and in some degree to reconstruct it. As is frequently observed, Milton dramatises misogyny, in contexts where it is appropriate to situation and character: it is not admissible evidence for his own attitude. What has been regarded as admissible evidence – the Achilles heel of the defence – relates to the last, and arguably the most important of his ‘domestick relations’: that between father and daughters.47 This is the evidence that Johnson inserts to strengthen his allegation: That his own daughters might not break the ranks, he suffered them to be depressed by a mean and penurious education. (Lives I. p. 276)

Johnson believes in educating women; Milton’s Eve is capable of education (though some argue that she is excluded from its direct transmission). But are the daughters of Eve – Milton’s daughters – deprived of its benefits by their father’s choice, to keep them submissive? From his reading of earlier biography, Johnson had some reason for thinking so. Though modern biographers will not rush to condemn Milton on this charge, and attempt to redress the balance, it remains true that almost all the surviving information points to an unhappy and strained relationship between father and children. The image of Lear has been invoked (and not just by moderns), reinforced by the allusion to ‘unkind children’ in the nuncupative will.48 It is tempting for feminists to keep harping on daughters when discussing the biographical Milton. But the evidence regarding education is contradictory. Johnson reiterates the belief ‘that his daughters were never taught to write’ and therefore could not have acted as amanuenses, a ‘fact’ based on Birch’s record of details obtained from Milton’s granddaughter (Deborah’s daughter), Elizabeth Foster: That he kept his Daughters at a great distance; and would not allow them to learn to write, which he thought unnecessary for a Woman.49

This may have been true of the eldest, Anne, who had a degree of disability, but Mary’s signature survives, and Deborah must have acquired the skills of


Johnson’s Milton

literacy at some stage, given what we know of her later life (although Aubrey’s statement that ‘Deborah was his Amanuensis’ is implausible as regards Paradise Lost, on the grounds of age alone).50 Yet the family tradition – which is largely a female, word-of-mouth tradition – reinforces the impression that Milton, who believed passionately in education, was not prepared to extend its most basic privileges to his daughters. What is most damaging in Birch’s relation, as in Johnson’s, is the emphasis on Milton’s agency. If Johnson does not challenge this tradition (and it does require a willingness to challenge the accuracy of some of the evidence) other biographers do. In the modern era, they use analytical methods derived from social history, economics, gender theory, family psychology, and (dare one say it) common sense, to reconstruct and reassess the household situation from both Milton’s viewpoint and that of his daughters.51 In fact, the most contentious element of the ‘mean and penurious education’ concerns not writing, but reading. It is not Milton’s alleged indifference to his daughters’ education that provokes the strongest reaction, but the demands that he makes on the two abler girls, Mary and Deborah. The main source is Phillips’s paragraph which, in Darbishire’s forceful comment, ‘has done more perhaps than any other single statement in any of the biographies to damage Milton’s character, and to cut him off from the affection of posterity’.52 Phillips makes it worse by stressing that the blind Milton was daily supplied with willing, educated, male readers, both adults and boys, before continuing: … yet excusing only the Eldest Daughter by reason of her bodily Infirmity, and difficult utterance of Speech, (which to say truth I doubt was the Principal cause of excusing her), the other two were Condemn’d to the performance of Reading, and exactly pronouncing of all the Languages of whatever Book he should at one time or other think fit to peruse; Viz. The Hebrew (and I think the Syriac), the Greek, the Latin, the Italian, Spanish and French. All which sorts of Books to be confined to Read, without understanding one word, must needs be a Tryal of Patience, almost beyond endurance; yet it was endured by both for a long time; yet the irksomeness of this imployment could not always be concealed, but broke out more and more into expressions of uneasiness; so that at length they were all (even the Eldest also) sent out to learn some Curious and Ingenious sorts of Manufacture, that are proper for Women to learn, particularly Imbroideries in Gold or Silver.53

By any standard, then or now, it is an extraordinary account, and one that strains credulity. Johnson calls it ‘a very odd expedient’ and is sufficiently struck to quote the passage at length. Unlike Phillips, he sees the situation from both sides, without actually taking sides: In the scene of misery which this mode of intellectual labour sets before our eyes, it is hard to determine whether the daughters or the father are most to be lamented. (Lives I. p. 271)

Milton as private subject


Johnson is no stranger to intellectual labour, or ‘drudgery’. He does not (as others have done) question the feasibility of this expedient in view of the range of languages and the different alphabets involved, but he does object to its impracticality, as well as to the torment and frustration caused: A language not understood can never be so read as to give pleasure, and very seldom so as to convey meaning.

In other words, it violates his sense of what reading is for. He goes on, with a touch of exasperation, to an assessment of Milton that simultaneously acknowledges his perseverance and indicts his lack of ordinary sense: If few men would have had resolution to write books with such embarrassments, few likewise would have wanted ability to find some better expedient. (Lives I. p. 271)

Were it not for Phillips’s first-hand knowledge of the family, and the apparent corroboration of his evidence regarding his cousins by Deborah herself, it is likely that Milton’s biographers would have made a strenuous attempt to deny his accuracy. The corroboration is from Mr Ward’s interview with Deborah, recorded in Birch’s biography, where he reports: Isaiah, Homer, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses were Books, which they were often call’d to read to their Father; and at my desire she repeated a considerable number of Verses from the beginning of both those Poets with great Readiness.54

Newton supports the story with reference to ‘another Gentleman’ who ‘has informed me, that he has heard her repeat several verses likewise out of Euripides’.55 ‘Yet here’ declares Johnson, ‘incredulity is ready to make a stand’; and he presents careful reasoning, with reference to both father and daughter, to demonstrate why it is unlikely that Deborah would or could have learned these particular passages by rote (Lives I. p. 277). Again it is the sense of the ‘drudgery’ involved that makes the deepest impression on him. It is not therefore altogether unreasonable that Johnson should state that ‘What we know of Milton’s character, in domestick relations, is, that he was severe and arbitrary’ (Lives I. p. 276). In spite of this definitive judgement, he does not present an entirely one-sided picture in the ‘Life of Milton’. But he does not go to the lengths of other biographers, more sympathetic to Milton, who emphasise either that Milton does what he can for his daughters in his restricted circumstances, or that he has every right to act as he does in the paternal role. Toland, for instance, assumes that Milton is responding to his daughters’ ‘Murmurs’ when ‘he dispens’d with their Duty in this case, and sent them out to learn other things more becoming their Sex and Condition’.56 Shawcross goes so far as to say that ‘the daughters had a trade by which they could support themselves and


Johnson’s Milton

two were well educated by early middle-class standards’.57 Johnson (who had a number of genuinely well-educated women friends) is less impressed. We might presume that he was also unimpressed by Richardson’s wellintentioned but confused efforts to picture Milton as the exemplary venerable patriarch. Irony is not Richardson’s strong point. Stoutly averring that ‘Milton’s Family was a Well Order’d Government’, he sees nothing incongruous in that government being modelled on absolute monarchy: … he could be a Rigid Monarch Here with a good Grace; he could require Vertue, Frugality, and Strict Discipline (which Women and Children fail not to call Severity) as he Bravely Led the Way, by being an Example … and Happy would it be if in these little Patriarchal Monarchies the Subjects would Obey Such Laws, Rigid though they may Seem to be to Green Years, or Green Minds …58

Yet even Richardson recognises that this patriarchal paragon may ‘Expect Too much from his Dependants’. He also realises that the available evidence may not give the whole story, and in his anxiety to defend Milton from what he sees as bias in favour of youth he exclaims ‘Would to God I could produce Milton, his Own Advocate …!’59 His is a very different biographical approach from Johnson’s, carrying empathy to sometimes absurd lengths. But both have one point in common, a realisation that there is always more than one side to a family situation, and that the biographer’s access to the truth of private life is necessarily limited. As if to confirm that awareness, when it comes to the most serious of domestic responsibilities in which Johnson might have judged Milton to have failed, he is more forbearing than we might expect: To be of no church, is dangerous … Milton, who appears to have had full conviction of the truth of Christianity, and to have regarded the Holy Scriptures with the profoundest veneration … yet grew old without any visible worship. In the distribution of his hours, there was no hour of prayer, either solitary, or with his household; omitting publick prayers, he omitted all. (Lives I. p. 275)60

Johnson bases this assertion on the repeated evidence of the early lives. Toland refuses to give any single explanation (‘Conjectures on such occasions are very uncertain’); Richardson thinks that Milton is perhaps resisting the political contamination of institutionalised religion.61 But Johnson, as he very rarely does in the ‘Life of Milton’, rejects any explanation that might convict Milton of spiritual pride and self-sufficiency, or that might imply a political gesture. Instead he looks to Paradise Lost for proof – another example of a rare biographical tactic: Prayer certainly was not thought superfluous by him, who represents our first parents as praying acceptably in the state of innocence, and efficaciously after

Milton as private subject


their fall. That he lived without prayer can hardly be affirmed; his studies and meditations were an habitual prayer. (Lives I. p. 276)

Following this beautiful tribute,62 he goes further than any of the other early biographers in assuming that Milton might have reproached himself for the absence of family devotions: The neglect of it in his family was probably a fault for which he condemned himself, and which he intended to correct …

Here, as Birkbeck Hill observes, Johnson is surely imputing to Milton a remorse that he recognises in himself, the guilt for sins of omission which is exacerbated when it involves a spiritual responsibility towards others.63 Asking for forgiveness in his Easter prayer of 1753, Johnson makes a confession ‘of all duties neglected in my union with the Wife whom thou hast taken from me, for the neglect of joint devotion, patient exhortation, and mild instruction’ (Yale I. p. 51). This alludes to domestic practice, but throughout his prayers and meditations he also expresses the guilt of neglecting public worship. On a point, then, where Johnson’s own conscience is especially tender, he refrains from throwing any stone at Milton, concluding with the generous (and unfounded) speculation that Milton, had he lived, might have reformed his ways. In this instance, where ‘domestick relations’ and ‘domestick habits’ intersect, we are given one of the finest examples of empathy as an act of imagination in the entire ‘Life of Milton’. M i lt on’s ‘d om e s t ic k h a bi t s’ Curiosity about a writer’s domestic habits goes beyond the general interest in human behaviour to which biography appeals. It is an attempt by readers to pluck out the heart of the writer’s mystery, the mystery of the creative process itself. If the reader is also a writer, the motive has an added edge of comparison and possibly emulation. For Johnson there is more information available on Milton’s daily routines than exists for many of his subjects in Lives of the Poets, and he scrutinises it closely. The self-image that emerges from Milton’s autobiographical writing, and from the early lives, is of an obsessively ordered and disciplined existence; the image that emerges from Johnson’s diaries, prayers, and annals is of a man continually resolving to impose order and discipline on his life, but believing that he constantly fails to do so. As Griffin has argued, Johnson might well have been disturbed by the apparent contrast: ‘The regularity of Milton’s life may have provided occasion for Johnson to reproach himself.’64 Yet


Johnson’s Milton

the contrast is perhaps more one of attitude than actuality. Certainly, throughout his life Johnson made his difficulty with early rising a focus for guilt, and he found abstinence easier than temperance when it came to food or wine;65 one of his New Year resolutions for 1774 is ‘To be temperate in Food’ (Yale I. p. 162). Yet, by any objective standard, his intellectual and creative life was extraordinarily productive. Johnson is always on the defensive against the enemy within, an enemy who seems to trouble Milton less, although he is quick to defend himself against the imputation of tardiness in his youth.66 Milton is provoked into declaring the uprightness of his way of life by the often scurrilous attacks of the enemy without. He makes a particular point of his capacity for both temperate living and early rising – he is ‘up, and stirring, in winter often ere the sound of any bell awake men to labour, or to devotion; in Summer as oft with the Bird that first rouses, or not much tardier’ (CPW I. p. 885). Perhaps this boast is one reason for Johnson to make as much as he can of a susceptibility he claims not to share, the writer’s susceptibility to the variation of seasons. Phillips quotes Milton’s own comment ‘That his Vein never happily flow’d, but from the Autumnal Equinoctial to the Vernal’.67 Later biographers were intrigued by this revelation, and some query it. Johnson accepts it for reasons of his own.68 His normal, though not invariable, reaction to those who find themselves adversely affected by weather or seasons is robustly dismissive: he repeats here the view that while such effects are all in the mind, nevertheless the outcome is the same: The author that thinks himself weather-bound will find, with a little help from hellebore, that he is only idle or exhausted. But while this notion has possession of the head, it produces the inability which it supposes. (Lives I. p. 266)

Milton therefore is not being singled out from other authors. Yet we may suspect that Johnson has a particular satisfaction in locating a weakness in Milton’s superb control over his mental functions – ‘From such prepossessions Milton seems not to have been free’ (Lives I. p. 267). On the one hand, he is counteracting the tendency he ascribes to Richardson, who ‘discovers always a wish to find Milton discriminated from other men’ (Lives I. p. 267); but on the other hand, he is tacitly discriminating himself from Milton’s ‘fancies’. As usual in the ‘Life of Milton’, Johnson relies heavily on information accumulated by earlier biographers, including Richardson, that diligent enquirer. His evaluation of that information is his own. And when it comes to the ‘domestick habits’ which have a direct bearing on literary composition, Johnson has the advantage over his competitors of being himself

Milton as private subject


a poet of considerable achievement. It is noteworthy that his method of poetic composition parallels Milton’s for Paradise Lost (although obviously not for the same reason: although Johnson had trouble with his eyesight, he was not totally blind). His own description of composing The Vanity of Human Wishes demonstrates mental powers comparable to Milton’s, powers that do not depend on immediate recourse to pen and paper. Boswell is suitably awestruck: The fervid rapidity with which it was produced, is scarcely credible. I have heard him say, that he composed seventy lines of it in one day, without putting one of them upon paper till they were finished. (Life I. p. 192)

This is later corroborated when Johnson, speaking of verse composition, says “The great difficulty is to know when you have made good [verses]. When composing, I have generally had them in my mind, perhaps fifty at a time, walking up and down in my room; and then I have written them down, and often, from laziness, have written only half lines. I have written a hundred lines in a day.” (Life II. p. 15)

It follows that Johnson is exceptionally well placed to assess Richardson’s breathless account of the blind Milton alternating between barren nights, when ‘not One Verse could he make’, and the onrush of creative fecundity – the ‘Unpremeditated Verse’ of Paradise Lost IX. line 24. ‘I have been also told’, says Richardson, ‘he would Dictate many, perhaps 40 Lines as it were in a Breath, and then reduce them to half the Number.’69 Johnson treats Richardson’s evidence not so much as unreliable as unremarkable: ‘something of this inequality happens to every man in every mode of exertion, manual or mental’. Moreover, ‘The story of reducing his exuberance has been told of other authors’; ‘though doubtless true of every fertile and copious mind,’ it is also part of an authorial legend, ‘gratuitously transferred to Milton’ (Lives I. p. 268). Fix sees this as part of the general levelling procedure, making Milton more like other men.70 I would add that it is also personal, a manoeuvre in the Johnson-Milton agon. Because Johnson knows himself capable of similar intellectual feats, he does not, at this stage at least, allow any miraculous or supernatural explanation. It may be that he is quietly reducing the role of the Heavenly Muse, who dictates to Milton by night, and ‘inspires/ Easy [his] unpremeditated verse’ [my italics]. At the end of the ‘Life of Milton’ he does not diminish the arduousness of Milton’s task, and the exceptional human qualities required to surmount the difficulties; but here, in relating a specific domestic habit, he prefers a common-sense explanation of the circumstances: ‘he composed


Johnson’s Milton

much of his poem in the night and morning, I suppose before his mind was disturbed with common business’ (Lives I. p. 268). He also implies that blank verse is an easier form of composition than the rhyming couplets which came so easily to himself: Versification, free, like his, from the distresses of rhyme, must, by a work so long, be made prompt and habitual; and, when his thoughts were once adjusted, the words would come at his command. (Lives I. p. 268)

The final part of that sentence could equally apply to Johnson as a writer. Johnson was as familiar with the writer’s life as anyone can be. Even more than Milton, he was subject to its daily pressures, such as the tyranny of deadlines. When he speaks of writing at night or in the morning to avoid distraction, he reminds readers of the mundane demands on time, from which few writers are exempt. So when he recounts Milton’s daily round, the tone is deliberately banal: ‘His domestick habits, so far as they are known, were those of a severe student’ (Lives I. p. 274). He notes the abstinence, and the fixed routine, giving us a typical day in the life of the blind poet which ends in a quasi-Pepysian ‘went to bed’. The details of his description can be traced back through Birch, Newton, and Richardson to the earliest sources, including Milton himself. But Johnson questions whether there is a gap between report and reality. Like his own resolutions, this may represent a regime aimed at, rather than achievable, in a busy household: So is his life described; but this even tenour appears attainable only in Colleges. He that lives in the world will sometimes have the succession of his practice broken and confused. Visiters, of whom Milton is represented to have had great numbers, will come and stay unseasonably … (Lives I. p. 274)

So visitors, if not necessarily cheerfulness, will keep breaking in. But cheerfulness is not absent. If he delineates the puritanical side of Milton the man, Johnson does not exclude from his biography the sociable Milton depicted by Richardson and others. In both youth and age, Milton set aside time for recreation, and these details soften the more austere image of ‘distant genius’. In a sense, Johnson tries to have it both ways: while stressing the ‘severe student’ who prefers the life of the recluse, he also emphasises that Milton is like other men in his pleasures and tribulations, a man who enjoys a pipe of tobacco, whose chief solace is music, and who suffers from gout. The other-worldly Milton may account for both strengths and deficiencies in the poetry, but seen from another angle a more humanly accessible image takes shape. This applies literally when he considers the available descriptions of Milton’s physical appearance, often taken to be an index of character in

Milton as private subject


eighteenth-century writing. Johnson introduces details derived from the sources, not once but twice in the ‘Life of Milton’, indicating how important he finds them. He records both outdoor and indoor sketches of the elderly Milton, in a domestic setting later to be familiarised in genre painting: dignified, neatly though plainly clad, with signs of physical ageing but in full command of himself (Lives I. pp. 265–6). Later, in the character section of the ‘Life’, he draws upon idealistic representations of the young Milton, as having a beauty that is almost feminine (hence ‘the Lady of Christ’s’) but also masculine, since his hair is compared ‘to the picture which he has given of Adam’ (Lives I. p. 273). Adam’s shoulder-length ‘hyacinthine locks’ (Paradise Lost IV. lines 301–3) fascinated many eighteenthcentury readers, but it is odd to find Johnson alluding to this motif, given his general reluctance to make biographical connections with Paradise Lost. Possibly it is connected to the story, to which Lonsdale refers, that ‘SJ himself had a lock of M’s hair, once owned by Addison’ (Lives I. p. 402). Shawcross has made a convincing case for regarding the famous lock of hair and its provenance as sheer fabrication;71 yet it is possible that Johnson himself may have believed in the authenticity of any such relic in his possession, and therefore have felt a proprietary interest in the subject of Milton’s hair. He reverts to type, however, in highlighting the flaw in this ideal portrait. Milton was not, it seems, a Colossus in stature, not ‘heroick’, ‘but rather below the middle size, according to Mr. Richardson, who mentions him as having narrowly escaped from being short and thick’ (Lives I. pp. 273–4). Anyone who remembers how Richardson expresses himself on this delicate point will relish the straight-faced humour in Johnson’s choice of the phrase ‘narrowly escaped’. On the very brink of desecrating his idol, Richardson enacts this narrow escape by pulling up his sentence and throwing it into reverse with a grinding of syntactic gears: Latterly he was – No; Not Short and Thick, but he would have been So, had he been Somthing Shorter and Thicker than he Was.72

Johnson’s (mis)representation of this gloriously absurd statement to illustrate ‘latterly’ (‘a low word lately hatched’) in the Dictionary may be intended as another ironic deflation, for he edits it to make Richardson say exactly what he so strenuously avoids saying – ‘Latterly Milton was short and thick.’ The second definition of ‘latterly’ in the Dictionary is ‘in the last part of life’. Johnson’s description of Milton’s domestic relations and habits spans the whole life from youth to age; but, as a biographer, it is the older Milton whom he treats with greater insight and even, on occasion, sympathy.


Johnson’s Milton

Partly this may be for political reasons; partly because Milton as a poet reaches his epic zenith in later life. But it may also have a connection with the fact that Johnson himself is growing old when he writes Lives of the Poets. His interest in old age, and his anxiety at the prospect of death, is longstanding, and appears in very many contexts. The ‘Life of Milton’ is one of these. C oda : M i lt on’s ol d ag e a n d de at h In attempting to displace the popular image of the isolated, morose, ‘puritanical’ Milton, some modern biographers have perhaps overemphasised the sociability and domesticity of his final years.73 A more subtle suggestion, linking life and literature, is made by Frank Kermode in his study of ‘Milton in Old Age’: Milton’s old age was a little too like the one Manoa planned for Samson – domestic comfort under the license, dearly bought, of the Philistine lords.74

As I argued in the previous chapter, Johnson refuses to countenance the idea that Milton is any kind of political martyr after the Restoration. But there is more than one kind of martyrdom. The early testimony to Milton’s serenity and stoicism in his later years is strongest in Aubrey’s note that ‘he would be chearfull even in his Gowte-fitts; & sing’, and in the anonymous biographer’s record that ‘hee in great Serenity spent his time & expir’d no less calmly in the Yeare 1674’.75 Johnson could not draw directly upon either of these witnesses, but he is aware of the quality of courageous acceptance they confirm. At the very end of his life, Milton sustains the serenity attributed to his old age. The accounts of his death are without drama or moralising: what is most remarked on is its unobtrusiveness. The tradition begins with a single simple sentence from the anonymous biography: Hee dy’d in a fitt of the Gout, but with so little pain or Emotion, that the time of his expiring was not perceiv’d by those in the room.76

By the time it reaches Johnson, even the detail that no-one registered the exact moment of Milton’s passing has vanished. But it is implied in Johnson’s account of the death as an entirely natural and peaceful ending: When he had attained his sixty-sixth year, the gout, with which he had been long tormented, prevailed over the enfeebled powers of nature. He died by a quiet and silent expiration, about the tenth of November 1674, at his house in Bunhill-fields … (Lives I. p. 273)

Milton as private subject


Not only the actual time of death is uncertain, but even the date.77 The event itself was private and domestic, but, as Johnson notes without pointing the contrast, ‘His funeral was very splendidly and numerously attended.’ Isobel Grundy has warned against reading the wrong kind of significance into Johnson’s literary treatment of individual death, particularly in relation to moral judgements of the life. Nevertheless, her allusion to ‘the withdrawn and heroic dignity of Johnson’s Milton’ beautifully catches the tone of this passage.78 If Johnson refrains from further comment, so perhaps should we. Yet in view of all that we know of him, perhaps it might be inferred that the manner of Milton’s death seems to Johnson not only the final reminder of his common humanity but also the last moment in which Milton exhibits the ‘better fortitude’ of the Christian spirit. The biographer might well have hoped to emulate the poet of Paradise Lost in this respect at least. Yet what survives of Milton in this world is, above anything else, his ‘wonderful poem’; and Johnson’s conclusion to the ‘Life of Milton’ brings Milton as writer to the fore  – a position he had long occupied in Johnson’s thinking about ‘the life of writing’.

C h a p t e r 10

Conclusion: ‘what other author ever soared so high?’

If we should not expect that the death of an individual will necessarily appear congruous with his life, nor, Johnson warns us, should we expect the life of a writer to be necessarily congruous with his work. In this respect also, Lives of the Poets follows a cultural shift away from exemplary biography; but Johnson had been reflecting on the problematic relation between a writer’s life and work long before embarking on his last great project, notably in several of his periodical essays. It troubled his moral sense, both from a personal and philosophical viewpoint, to be compelled to acknowledge ‘that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives’ (Yale III. p. 75). For literary biographers, as well as writers themselves, the admonition to ‘mind the gap’ is apposite. How much of a gap has to be negotiated in Milton’s case is still a matter of disagreement, complicated by the various controversial issues raised by his political and private life. For a number of his eighteenth-century admirers, the easy option is to keep the immortal poem and the mortal man as separate as possible (a strategy which has resurfaced under the guise of literary theory).1 Some commentators argue that Johnson adopts a form of this strategy in the ‘Life of Milton’: others argue for an ‘unacknowledged commerce’, in Lipking’s phrase, between biography and criticism, or, going still further, suggest ‘that Johnson actively sought to connect Milton’s life and art’.2 What few would contest is that Johnson rejects the classical and Renaissance principle3 which Milton himself so eloquently asserted in the Apology for Smectymnuus, and by which he was prepared to be judged: he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought him selfe to bee a true Poem, that is, a composition, and patterne of the best and honourablest things … (CPW I. p. 890)

Johnson does not quote these words; he does quote two other statements by Milton on the subject of his vocation, the hope that ‘he might “leave 240



something so written to after-times, as they should not willingly let it die” ’ (Lives I. p. 246), and, as already noted, the ‘promise … at once fervid, pious, and rational’ which will ultimately come to fruition in Paradise Lost (Lives I. p. 250). In the context of the ‘Life’, this signals a form of discrimination which is arguably more important than a straightforward division between ‘life’ and ‘writings’ would be. Johnson exercises discrimination in his approach to the evidence. In his representation of Milton as political or private subject he constantly tests and reinterprets the self-image that Milton constructs, and which is passed down through the early lives.4 But in focusing on Milton as a literary subject, his attitude undergoes a major change:  because Milton is capable of creating one incontestably great poem, Johnson is prepared to accept his self-representation in relation to that without any of his usual scepticism. As a modern Miltonist puts it, ‘Milton’s extraordinary genius and achievements underwrite many of the claims he makes about himself.’5 It seems that in this case the criticism and the biography are in accord; Johnson accepts that as the author of Paradise Lost Milton’s claim to spiritual integrity cannot finally be in dispute. If Milton can deceive himself about the purity of his motives in his political or domestic behaviour, he is true to his highest self in his greatest creation. Most of what Johnson has to say about the Miltonic imagination can be found in his criticism of Paradise Lost, and has been already discussed; his comments on Milton’s methods of composition are included in his biographical assessment of his domestic routine. But in this final chapter, by way of conclusion, I want to concentrate on the remaining evidence for Johnson’s construction of Milton the writer, as a poet who transcends common boundaries – ‘what other author ever soared so high, or sustained his flight so long?’ – yet who still ‘may be allowed sometimes to revisit earth’ (Lives I. p. 292). Does Johnson ever fully dispel or repress an element of doubt about Milton as writer-hero? The question arises in the same essay, Rambler 14, in which he foregrounds the subject of ‘a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings’. He singles out Milton as the exceptional instance: Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved in a private and familiar interview that reputation which his works had procured him. (Yale III. p. 74)

The ‘learned stranger’ was a young French intellectual called Emeric Bigot: the letter in question is dated 24 March 1656/7, and it belongs to a


Johnson’s Milton

group of fifteen letters from the 1650s, all addressed to foreigners, of which Milton must have kept copies (the sole original source for the Latin text is Johannis Miltoni Angli Epistolarum Familiarum Liber Unus, 1674).6 John Aubrey’s account of Milton at this period as a kind of tourist attraction supplies a context: … [foraigners came much to see him] and much admired him, & offered to him great pferments. to come over to them, & the only inducement of severall foreigners that came over into England, was chiefly to see O. Protector & Mr. J. Milton, & would see the house & chamber wher he was borne: he was much more admired abrode then at home.

This is Milton as celebrity, a defender of Cromwell’s government and an eminent scholar of international status whom other nations are anxious to headhunt. According to Aubrey, Milton was visited ‘more then he did desire’.7 What seems to have struck Johnson, however, is how well Milton handles the sometimes unwelcome pressure to live up to his reputation. Yet this particular letter also puts the integrity of the letter-writer on the line. Is Milton merely conveying polite platitudes, with overtones of self-complacency, deploying the rhetorician’s modesty topos? Or is he articulating a genuine belief in the essential unity of text and writer, asking that they should be judged in terms of each other (he does after all use the phrase ‘purum atque sincerum’)? Griffin notes as a general point that ‘Virtually every biographer in the eighteenth century is struck with Milton’s extraordinary self-esteem and satisfied conscience’,8 but Johnson of all biographers is likely to be sceptical about such satisfaction. His view of the reliability of letters as ‘the mirrour of [the] breast’9 varies according to context, but he expresses his most equivocal view in the ‘Life of Pope’, where he notes the letter-writer’s propensity to selfdeception – ‘There is, indeed, no transaction which offers stronger temptations to fallacy and sophistication than epistolary intercourse’ (Lives IV. p. 58). In the case of the Bigot letter, two related questions arise:  what is Johnson’s actual source, and how does it affect his reading of the text? Although it is possible that Johnson knew the original Latin text, his phrasing suggests that a more likely source is Jonathan Richardson. Unlike Johnson, Richardson makes extensive use of quotation from Milton’s ­correspondence, and he seems to be the only eighteenth-century biographer who takes much notice of this passage.10 His version runs ‘I find that I have great reason to congratulate my Self ’ which is close to Johnson’s ‘Milton … with great reason congratulates himself’ (‘with great reason’ translates the Latin iure, which could equally be rendered by ‘rightly’,



‘justly’, or ‘surely’). In the original, Milton is responding courteously and thoughtfully to an unsolicited expression of esteem from a much younger foreign scholar. When the passage is read in its entirety, the self-congratulation is modified by the polite conditional syntax retained from the original Latin. If anything, Richardson’s fairly free rendering heightens the modesty of the original: for Me, if I can obtain, that having Written Somthing perhaps Tolerable, I may not appear to be Unequal in my Mind and Manners, I shall add a Weight to my Writings, and shall gain still more Honour and Praise from Them, (if indeed they do Deserve Any,) when it shall be seen that it has been drawn, not more from the Most Celebrated Authors, than, Pure, and Sincere from the Intimate Sense of my Own Mind, and very Soul.11

It is not hard to see why this claim to sincerity might strike Johnson; but his allusion focuses only on the self-congratulation. The conditional syntax, the reference to inwardness, vanish altogether, to be replaced by a – somewhat offputting – smugness. In the ‘private and familiar interview’, Milton hath quit himself like Milton, but Johnson implies that we have only his word for it. Does Johnson himself accept Milton at his own valuation? The modern Johnson scholars who comment on this passage seem to take it for granted that he does. Griffin remarks ‘Even Johnson concedes that Milton lived up to his reputation’, quoting Rambler 14.12 Clingham goes even further: it is, he says, ‘remarkable, given Johnson’s skepticism of grand pronouncements’ that Johnson is willing ‘to accept Milton’s life – at least, his character  – as commensurate with his writing, noting that “Milton … with great reason congratulates himself …” ’. Clingham adds his own italics to ‘with great reason’, and continues: In Johnson’s critical lexicon these are signs of Milton’s having obtained an extraordinary level of articulation that intrigued him, even though the “Life” registers other issues to which he is less attracted.13

But the very phrase that Clingham italicises as indicative of Johnson’s opinion appears not to originate with Johnson: in the first place it derives from the Bigot letter itself, and in the second place if it is part of anyone’s critical lexicon it is part of Richardson’s. This does not necessarily mean that these critics are wrong to see genuine admiration in this allusion, but it leaves open the possibility of underlying irony, especially in view of Johnson’s attitude to Richardson’s Miltonolatry. Indeed, in the argument of the essay as a whole, he is warning against precisely the kind of aspiration to ‘nearer knowledge of the writer’ that


Johnson’s Milton

seems to have motivated the young Bigot to seek out Milton. For too many of these literary celebrity-seekers, disillusion lies in store: the bubble that sparkled before them has become common water at the touch; the phantom of perfection has vanished when they wished to press it to their bosom. (Yale III. p. 74)

Nevertheless, Johnson later concedes that ‘It is, however, necessary for the idea of perfection to be proposed, that we may have some object to which our endeavours are to be directed’ (Yale III. p. 76); and he may well think that Milton is indeed one of the very few great writers who ‘can boast of hearts which they dare lay open to themselves’ in their letters (Lives IV. p. 58). Even so, it may be significant that the one Milton letter which so impressed him that he included it in The Rambler is missing altogether from the official ‘Life of Milton’ in Lives of the Poets. We can make of that what we will. The relation between a writer’s life and his work is not the only aspect of the ‘life of writing’ that engages Johnson in the Rambler essays. Broadly speaking, he identifies two species of the genus, writer: those who might be defined as ‘common writers’ (by analogy with ‘common readers’), who are writing for money within a commercial print culture, dreaming perhaps of literary greatness but needing to be constantly reminded of real constraints; and ‘the heroes in literature’, as he himself calls them, writers who extend the intellectual range of civilisation itself.14 The two categories are not always distinct: even the writer-hero can be subject to the labour and pressures which Johnson knew at first hand. In The Rambler and in the ‘Life of Milton’, he presents Milton under both auspices. As an illustration to ‘Labour necessary to excellence’ in Rambler 169, he cites Milton, along with Pope, as two great poets who devote ‘much time, and many rasures’ to perfecting their work: and that no other method of attaining lasting praise has been yet discovered, may be conjectured from the blotted manuscripts of Milton now remaining, and from the tardy emission of Pope’s compositions … (Yale V. pp. 133–4)

Johnson’s interest in Milton’s Cambridge manuscripts has already been mentioned. His attitude is in piquant contrast to that of Charles Lamb, who would prefer to retain the mystique of genius, and wished the blotted manuscripts at the bottom of the river Cam: How it staggered me to see the fine things in their ore! interlined, corrected! as if their words were mortal, alterable, displaceable, at pleasure! as if they might have been otherwise and just as good! as if inspiration were made up of parts, and these fluctuating, successive, indifferent!15



For Johnson the evidence of alteration and mortality, far from diminishing Milton’s stature as a writer, only confirms it. Much later in the ‘Life of Milton’, as Folkenflik has argued,16 Johnson assimilates his description of the creator of Paradise Lost to heroic discourse in his metaphor of discovering new worlds (Lives I. p. 287). It is a metaphor that he had already used in Rambler 137. But Milton’s heroism does not only manifest itself in this powerful heaven-daring creative energy, but also in his stoicism in adversity. In contrast to other early biographers, Johnson is disinclined to exaggerate that adversity; as usual, he prefers to demystify the legends that cling to heroes, in this instance the legend of unrecognised genius: The slow sale and tardy reputation of this poem [Paradise Lost] have been always mentioned as evidences of neglected merit, and of the uncertainty of literary fame; and enquiries have been made, and conjectures offered, about the causes of its long obscurity and late reception. But has the case been truly stated? Have not lamentation and wonder been lavished on an evil that was never felt? (Lives I. pp. 269–70)

As a bookseller’s son, as well as a veteran of the London book trade in his authorial capacity, Johnson is both interested and knowledgeable when it comes to assessing commercial propositions relating to publication. Like Fenton, Birch, and Newton, he gives the details of the Simmons contract (Richardson supposed it to be lost), and the early publishing history of Paradise Lost, though he does not repeat the anecdotes of individual reception.17 All these biographers mention a problem with the licenser, and also express varying degrees of astonishment and indignation at the remuneration on offer: Newton exclaims ‘what a poor consideration was this for such an inestimable performance! and how much more do others get by the works of great authors, than the authors themselves!’18 Modern scholars, like Johnson, are less inclined to vilify Samuel Simmons, and indeed his reputation as a printer has been recently rehabilitated.19 Johnson does accept that Paradise Lost was not an instant success, but he explains this in partly political, and largely cultural, terms concerning the potential contemporary readership.20 In fact, he argues the opposite way, stating that the sales figure demonstrates the impact of a poem that has had to make its way against the odds: The sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in opposition to so much recent enmity, and to a style of versification new to all and disgusting to many, was an uncommon example of the prevalence of genius. (Lives I. p. 270)

Yet it is precisely the relative absence of acclamation that, in Johnson’s view, puts Milton’s ‘better fortitude’ to the test. It is clear from Rambler 127 that Johnson admires the capacity to rise above public opinion. In Lycidas, Milton had called the desire for fame


Johnson’s Milton

‘That last infirmity of noble mind’, a desire which is displaced from earthly to heavenly fame. Johnson might have approved the sentiment, though he was far from approving the pagan context of the passage, which disqualifies it from his serious consideration. His expression of similar values is very close in spirit to the poet of Lycidas, the sonnets, and the epics: He that never extends his view beyond the praises or rewards of men, will be dejected by neglect and envy, or infatuated by honours and applause. But the consideration that life is only deposited in his hands to be employed in obedience to a Master who will regard his endeavours, not his success, would have preserved him from trivial elations and discouragements, and enabled him to proceed with constancy and chearfulness, neither enervated by commendation, nor intimidated by censure. (Yale IV. p. 315)

Johnson attributes such equilibrium to the elderly poet of the ‘Life of Milton’, in a rare and moving tribute that shows his full power of imaginative empathy: Fancy can hardly forbear to conjecture with what temper Milton surveyed the silent progress of his work … I cannot but conceive him calm and confident, little disappointed, not at all dejected, relying on his own merit with steady consciousness, and waiting, without impatience, the vicissitudes of opinion, and the impartiality of a future generation. (Lives I. pp. 270–1)

In most biographical contexts apart from his poetry, Johnson presents Milton’s self-confidence, his consciousness of his own merit, as a motive for behaviour that is less than admirable. But he does make an exception for Milton as poet, because the very existence of Paradise Lost both occasions and vindicates the ‘better fortitude’ displayed by its creator. If he entertained a covert ironic awareness of how Milton’s self-congratulation might appear when he made an example of him in Rambler 14, this paragraph in the ‘Life’ banishes irony. (It may be relevant that it is the older man who has completed his masterpiece, not the Milton of the 1650s, who is the subject.) His seriousness in accepting Milton at his own valuation as a writer is based finally on his belief that genius is God-given. The famous definition of genius at the outset of Lives of the Poets in the ‘Life of Cowley’ might suggest a combination of nature and chance – ‘The true Genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction’ (Lives I. p. 191) – but for Johnson, as for Milton, divine agency is paramount. Milton’s God proclaims ‘necessity and chance/ Approach not me …’ (Paradise Lost VII. lines 172–3); Johnson writes in Rambler 184 ‘nothing in reality is governed by chance … the universe is under the perpetual superintendence of him who created it’ (Yale V.



p. 205). He says of Milton at an early stage in the ‘Life’ ‘that he had the usual concomitant of great abilities, a lofty and steady confidence in himself ’ (Lives I. p. 246), but when he repeats the same judgement, he also quotes the words that mark the religious faith in which Milton’s confidence is grounded: In this book [The Reason of Church-Government] he discovers, not with ostentatious exultation, but with calm confidence, his high opinion of his own powers; and promises to undertake something, he yet knows not what, that may be of use and honour to his country. “This,” says he, “is not to be obtained but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit that can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. (Lives I. p. 250)

To this Milton adds in second place the necessity of preparation for his great task. Johnson’s comment is that ‘From a promise like this, at once fervid, pious, and rational, might be expected the Paradise Lost.’ He himself made it his practice to engage in ‘devout prayer’ at the outset of any new project, though with less confidence than Milton. He knows that divine denial may be the answer, instead of divine acceptance. In his heart of hearts, perhaps Johnson could never quite understand God’s favouritism in electing Milton to write Paradise Lost, but he undoubtedly accepts the proof of that election. In so doing he ranks Milton among the very greatest of poets. He had noted Milton’s preparation in the reading of the best authors – ‘His literature was unquestionably great’ – including Homer, ‘which he could almost repeat’ (Lives I. p. 275), and he places him in their exalted company. His one reservation is characteristic of the critical thinking of his age: ‘The highest praise of genius is original invention.’ Even so, ‘of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted’ (Lives I. p. 294). At the end of the ‘Life of Milton’, writer and poem are fused in a single passage which is as finely crafted as anything that Johnson ever wrote. Like Milton, he is a master of closure, and this ending is epic in every sense:21 His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness, but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for whatever is arduous; and his work is not the greatest of heroick poems, only because it is not the first. (Lives I. p. 295)

With this superb valediction and validation, Johnson completes the cutting of his Colossus.


1  s u m mon i ng m i lt on ’s g ho s t :  m i lt on ic a l l u s ion i n t h e pe r iodic a l e s s a y s   1 See CPW IV. line 624.   2 See Yale III. pp. xxxi–xxxiv, Yale II. pp. xxvi–xxviii; also entries for ­seventeenth-century writers, Index, Yale V. pp. 323–51, and Index, Yale II. pp. 499–516; cf. Sherbo’s observation on the frequency of Milton allusions and quotations in Johnson’s notes on Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Editor of Shakespeare, p. 24.   3 Yale II. p. xxvi; cf. Yale III. pp. xxxi–xxxii; DeMaria, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading, p. 59. For Johnson and memory, see Life V. p. 368:  cf. Clingham, Johnson, Writing, and Memory, pp. 14–35.   4 cf. Lawrence Lipking, ‘Johnson’s Beginnings’ in Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, pp. 13–25 (pp. 20–2).   5 For Johnson’s ‘critic’, see Smallwood, Johnson’s Critical Presence, pp. 15–24.   6 See Ogden, ‘A Johnson Borrowing from Milton’.   7 ‘Johnson Reads Areopagitica’, pp. 10–14.   8 Yale IV. p. 149, note 2; cf. L’Allegro, lines 17–24, and Carey’s note, CSP p. 137.   9 See Yale VII. pp. 69–70. 10 Life V. p. 62: see Bate, Samuel Johnson, 1984, pp. 381–2. 11 PL, 1998, note on X. 1098–1104. 12 ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, pp. 656–9, 670, endnote 11. 13 ‘Happiness not local’ is the title given to Rambler 6 in the 4th edn. (Yale III. p. xi). 14 Johnson cites PL XI. lines 463–5 to illustrate ‘Terrour’ in the Dictionary. 15 For a historical reading of responses to Milton’s Satan, see Nicholas von Maltzahn, ‘Milton’s Readers’ in Danielson, ed., Cambridge Companion to Milton, pp. 236–52 (pp. 245–6). 16 Lives I. p. 258. See Early Lives, pp. 72–3. 17 The traditional wordplay on sun/Son heightens the blasphemy: see Leonard, Naming in Paradise, pp. 102–3; cf. Tanner, Anxiety in Eden, p. 131; Hale, Milton’s Languages, pp. 62–4. 18 Divine Songs for the Use of Children (1812 edn.), p. 31. 248

Notes to pages 22–33


19 See Bogel’s complex parallelism between Johnson and Milton’s Satan, including this example (Dream of My Brother, pp. 8–11). 20 See Fussell, Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism, pp. 15–19; Hardy, ‘Johnson and Raphael’s Counsel to Adam’ in Johnson, Boswell and their Circle, pp. 122–36. 21 See Hardy, ‘Johnson and Raphael’s Counsel to Adam’, pp. 122–36; cf. Evans, Samuel Johnson’s “General Nature”, pp. 104–5. 22 See Dryden, Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. Watson, I. p. 67. 23 See White, The Natural History of Selborne, ed. Mabey, pp. 112, 132, 178, 218, 227, 265–6: White twice corrects Milton on a point of observation (pp. 132, 178). 24 See Yale III. p. 205, note 3; cf. Samuel Johnson: The Latin Poems, ed. Rudd, p. 131. 25 Thursday, 25 March, 1773: Letters II. p. 24. 26 See Knott, Milton’s Pastoral Vision; Lewalski, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (for pastoral, see pp. 173–95). For eighteenth-century attitudes to, and appropriations of, the pastoral of Paradise Lost, see Newlyn, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, pp. 20–1. 27 Cf. Kolbrener, Milton’s Warring Angels, pp. 140–3. 28 Kermode, ‘Adam Unparadised’ in Kermode, ed., The Living Milton, pp. 85–123 (p. 106). 29 See Introduction, Yale II. pp. 323–35. 30 See Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 72–82:  cf. his ‘Milton’s Evening’, and ‘Milton’s Moon’. 31 See Pruitt, Gender and the Power of Relationship, pp. 91–107. 32 Johnson uses PL V. p. 43 to illustrate ‘Shadowy’ in the Dictionary: cf. Hume’s note in Milton, Poetical Works (1695), p. 170. 33 See Lives I. pp. 266–7: cf. Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 395. 34 See Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, p. 175. 2  ‘no m i lt on i a n f i r e’? m i lt on ic a l l u s ion i n joh ns on ’s p oe t r y 1 Eliot, Milton: Two Studies, p. 24. 2 See Venturo, Johnson the Poet, pp. 186–204, esp. pp. 187 and 203–4. 3 See Thackeray, Vanity Fair, ed. K. and G. Tillotson, pp. 13, 16. 4 I.e. Irene:  see Eliot, Milton:  Two Studies, p. 44; cf. Bate, Samuel Johnson, p. 158; M. H. Abrams, ‘Dr Johnson’s Spectacles’ in Hilles, ed., New Light on Dr. Johnson, pp. 177–87 (pp. 184–5). 5 Helgerson, Self-Crowned Laureates, p. 235. 6 Life I. p. 61: see Latin & Greek Poems of Samuel Johnson, ed. Baldwin., p. 29. 7 See O’Sullivan, ‘“Ex Alieno Ingenio Poeta”:  Johnson’s Translation of Pope’s Messiah’, pp. 585–6. 8 Cf. Campbell and Corns, John Milton, p. 346.


Notes to pages 33–41

  9 See Latin & Greek Poems of Samuel Johnson, ed. Baldwin, pp. 34–5: Baldwin also links it with Johnson’s ‘Prologue’ to Comus, lines. 27–8. 10 CEP, Appendix 1, p. 230. 11 ‘Samuel Johnson:  Dead Metaphors and “Impending Death”’, The Force of Poetry, pp. 82 and 88. 12 Life IV. p. 5: cit. Bate, Samuel Johnson, p. 159. 13 Works of Alexander Pope, ed. J. Warton, I. p. 173; Potter, Art of Criticism (1789), p. 194. For early criticism of Irene, see R. F. Metzdorf, ‘Johnson at Drury Lane’ in Hilles, ed., New Light on Dr. Johnson, pp. 57–64. 14 E.g. DeMaria, Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 38; cf. Katherine H. Adams, ‘A Critic Formed: Samuel Johnson’s Apprenticeship with Irene, 1736–49’ in Nath, ed., Fresh Reflections, pp. 183–200. 15 Clifford, Dictionary Johnson, p. 7. 16 See Poems, p. 274. 17 ‘Johnson’s Irene:  Variations on a Tragic Theme’ in Johnson Agonistes, pp. 100–55. 18 The Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 37. 19 See Jain, ‘Echoes of Milton in Johnson’s Irene’, pp. 134–6; Venturo, Johnson the Poet, pp. 90–6. 20 See Bronson, ‘Johnson’s Irene, pp. 128–40. 21 The criticism on Milton and gender is very extensive: see inter al., McColley, Milton’s Eve; Turner, One Flesh; Walker, ed., Milton and the Idea of Woman; Gallagher, Milton, the Bible, and Misogyny; Wittreich, Feminist Milton; and essays in Benet and Lieb, eds., Literary Milton, pp. 10–60, McColgan and Durham, eds., Arenas of Conflict, pp. 21–40, and Dobranski and Rumrich, eds., Milton and Heresy, pp. 244–66; Michael Wilding, ‘“Thir Sex Not Equal Seem’d”: Equality in Paradise Lost’ in Stanwood, ed., Of Poetry and Politics, pp. 171–85; Pruitt, Gender and the Power of Relationship; Martin, ed., Milton and Gender. 22 PL, 1998, note on PL IV. lines 460–71. 23 See Mary Nyquist, ‘The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost’ in Nyquist and Ferguson, eds., Re-membering Milton, pp. 99–127 (pp. 120–1); Champagne, ‘Adam and His “Other Self” in Paradise Lost: A Lacanian Study in Psychic Development’; Walker, ‘The Poetics of Antitext and the Politics of Milton’s Allusions’, pp. 162–4: cf. Poole, Milton and the Idea of the Fall, pp. 169–70. 24 See Joel J. Gold, ‘The Failure of Johnson’s Irene: Death by Antithesis’ in Nath, ed., Fresh Reflections, pp. 201–14. 25 Farquhar, Beaux’ Stratagem, ed. Cordner, p. 71, IV.i.1–3. 26 Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), p. 33: contrast Johnson’s Camilla, Yale IV. p. 249. Cf. Hudson on Irene and cultural attitudes (also citing the ‘Life of Milton’), Samuel Johnson and the Making of Modern England, pp. 57–8. 27 See Turner, One Flesh, pp. 263–5; Newlyn, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, pp. 76–8. 28 Jain notes the parallel:  see ‘Echoes of Milton in Johnson’s Irene’, p. 135. Milton’s usage of ‘troll’ is original: see Corns, Milton’s Language, p. 91.

Notes to pages 41–50


29 See Bronson, ‘Johnson’s Irene’, pp. 100–18. 30 Cf. Steven Lynn, ‘Sexual Difference and Johnson’s Brain’ in Nath, ed., Fresh Reflections, pp. 123–49. 31 See Jean Hagstrum, ‘Johnson and the Concordia Discors of Human Relationships’ in Burke and Kay, eds., The Unknown Samuel Johnson, pp. 39–53 (49). 32 For different emphases, see Jain, ‘Echoes of Milton in Johnson’s Irene’, pp. 134–5; Livingston, ‘Johnson and the Independent Woman:  A Reading of Irene’, pp. 225–6; Venturo, Johnson the Poet, pp. 95–6. 33 Jain compares Irene IV vii. 11 with PL VI. lines 100–1 (‘Echoes of Milton’, p. 135). 34 The phrase is Clayton’s: see ‘Samuel Johnson’s Irene: “An Elaborate Curiosity”’, p. 128. 35 See Clayton, p. 134, note 17: cf. PL X. lines 930–6 and 1097–1104. 36 See Bronson, ‘Johnson’s Irene’, pp. 136–40; for conflicting interpretations, see Livingston, ‘Johnson and the Independent Woman’, p. 223; Kemmerer, “A neutral being between the sexes”, pp. 38–58. 37 See Irma S. Lustwig, ‘The Myth of Johnson’s Misogyny in the Life of Johnson: Another View’ in Crawford, ed., Boswell in Scotland and Beyond, pp. 71–88 (pp. 84–5). 38 For the political reading, see Paul Monod, ‘A Voyage out of Staffordshire; or, Samuel Johnson’s Jacobite Journey’ in J. Clark and Erskine-Hill, eds., Samuel Johnson in Historical Context, pp. 11–43 (p. 26); for a gendered reading, see Hagstrum, ‘Johnson and the Concordia Discors of Human Relationships’, p. 50; Kemmerer, “A neutral being between the sexes”, pp. 55–6. 39 Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, p. 139. 40 See Rees, ‘Johnson Reads Areopagitica’, p. 5. 41 See Michael McKeon, ‘The Pastoral Revolution’ in Sharpe and Zwicker, eds., Refiguring Revolutions, pp. 267–89 (pp. 275 and 284). 42 See Newlyn, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, p. 20. 43 PL, 1998, note on IX. lines 445–54. 44 Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 50. 45 E.g. PL II. line 347; III. line 632; IV. line 247; XII. line 642. 46 See Johnson’s Juvenal, ed. Rudd, pp. 34–5. 47 See Weinbrot, Formal Strain, pp. 171–2; Rudd finds no contradiction between the ‘secret Cell’ and ‘elegant Retreat’: Johnson’s Juvenal, p. 36. 48 E.g. DeMaria, Life of Samuel Johnson, pp. 50–1; Lynch, Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson, pp. 74–5. 49 Johnson’s Juvenal, p. 36. 50 Life of Savage (London, 1744), p. 145: cit. Nichol Smith and McAdam, note on Vanity, lines 216–23 (Poems, pp. 78–9). 51 ‘Johnson’s Poems: Textual Problems and Critical Readings’, pp. 34–5. 52 See Mary Lascelles, ‘Johnson and Juvenal’ in Hilles, ed., New Light on Dr. Johnson, pp. 35–55 (pp. 43–4). My interpretation is closer to Venturo’s ( Johnson the Poet, p. 76) than Lynch’s (Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson, p. 75).


Notes to pages 50–58

53 Fleeman, CEP, p. 200, and Rudd, Johnson’s Juvenal, p. 37, refer to PL I. lines 500–2; for Dryden’s allusion, see Poems of John Dryden, ed. Hammond, I. p. 501. 54 Muir, Collected Poems, p. 207. For the tradition see Newlyn, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, p. 20. 55 Cf. Grundy, Samuel Johnson and the Scale of Greatness, pp. 154–6; William H. Halewood, ‘The Majesty of The Vanity of Human Wishes’ in Nath, ed., Fresh Reflections, pp. 256–68 (p. 257). Tomarken notes ‘th’ afflictive Dart’ as a Miltonic allusion: see Johnson, ‘Rasselas’ and the Choice of Criticism, p. 132. 56 Poetry of Civilization, p. 166. 57 Poetry of Civilization, p. 167. 58 Samuel Johnson and the Scale of Greatness, pp. 158–9. 59 See Hardy, ‘Johnson and Raphael’s Counsel to Adam’, pp. 122–36; Fussell, Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism, pp. 15–19. 60 In 1773, Johnson thought that Milton should be given precedence in a similar scheme for monuments in St Paul’s (Life II. p. 239). 61 For further Milton allusions, v. Jain, ‘Echoes of Milton in Johnson’s Irene’, pp. 135–6; Venturo, Johnson the Poet, p. 117 and p. 283, note 58. 62 See Moody, ‘Johnson’s Poems: Textual Problems and Critical Readings’, p. 25. 63 See Hill, The Experience of Defeat, pp. 314–15; cf. Campbell and Corns, John Milton, p. 362 and p. 443, note 66. 64 See Howard Erskine-Hill, ‘The Political Character of Samuel Johnson’ in Grundy, ed., Samuel Johnson: New Critical Essays, pp. 107–36 (pp. 127–32). 65 For Milton and history, see Loewenstein, Milton and the Drama of History; for Johnson and history, see Vance, Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History. 66 See Johnson’s Juvenal, ed. Rudd, text and translation of Satire 10, pp. 64–71; cf. Johnston, Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking 1709–1791, p. 60: Budick, Poetry of Civilization, pp. 168–9. 67 See PL, 1998, note on XI. lines 829–38. 68 See Budick, Poetry of Civilization, pp. 170–2; Weinbrot, ‘a paradise within’ (Formal Strain, p. 216); Daiches, God and the Poets, pp. 61–4; Venturo, Johnson the Poet, p. 133 and p. 285, note 107. Contrast Griffin, ‘These lines owe nothing to Milton’ (Regaining Paradise, p. 97). 69 PL VII. lines 5–12:  see Steadman, Milton’s Biblical and Classical Imagery, pp. 102–3; Reichert, Milton’s Wisdom, pp. 205–57. 3 

r a s s e l a s : a

r e w r i t i ng of

pa r a dise lost ?

1 Clifford, Dictionary Johnson, p. 213. 2 See Lockhart, ‘“The Fourth Son of the Mighty Emperor”:  The Ethiopian Background of Johnson’s Rasselas’; Weitzman, ‘More Light on Rasselas:  The Background of the Egyptian Episodes’; Yale XVI. pp. xxvi–xxxiii. 3 Life I. p. 342:  cf. Tomarken, Johnson, ‘Rasselas’, and the Choice of Criticism, pp. 21–2, 34, and 70; Nicholas Hudson, ‘“ Open” and “Enclosed” Readings of Rasselas’, pp. 62–4; F. Parker, ‘The Skepticism of Johnson’s Rasselas’ in

Notes to pages 59–68


 lingham, ed., Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, pp. 127–42 (pp. C 135–8) and Scepticism and Literature, pp. 240–66.   4 See Wasserman, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas: Implicit Contexts’; cf. Hansen, ‘Rasselas, Milton, and Humanism’, p. 14.   5 Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, p. 516.   6 Boswell accepts a religious application (Life I. p. 342), Hawkins rejects it (Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Davis, pp. 156–7); cf. Hilles, ‘Rasselas, An “Uninstructive Tale”’ in Johnson, Boswell and their Circle, pp. 111–21 (p. 121).   7 See Yale XVI. p. xxxi; E. Clark, ‘Milton’s Abyssinian Paradise’.   8 See Einbond, Samuel Johnson’s Allegory, pp. 85–7.   9 Tomarken, Johnson, ‘Rasselas’, and the Choice of Criticism, p. 13. 10 See Johnson, History of Rasselas Prince of Abyssinia, ed. G. B. Hill, p. 161, p. 38, line 18. note; The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia, ed. Hardy, p. 127, p. 2, line 18. note. Cf. Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, p. 515. 11 See PL, 1998, note on IV. lines 340–52. 12 See Yale XVI. p. 9, notes 4, 6, and 7. 13 See PL IV. lines 345–7: cf. Rasselas, ed. G. B. Hill, p. 162, p. 38, line 27. note. 14 Cf. Lascelles, ‘Rasselas Reconsidered’, p. 42. 15 See Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, p. 516; cf. Hansen, ‘Rasselas, Milton, and Humanism’, pp. 16–17. 16 Cunningham, Samuel Johnson: ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ and ‘Rasselas’, pp. 39–40. 17 See PL VIII. lines 250–82; The State of Innocence II. i. lines 1–12 (Works of John Dryden, ed. Dearing, XII. p. 105). 18 See Tomarken, ‘The History of Imlac’ in Johnson, ‘Rasselas’, and the Choice of Criticism, pp. 53–72. 19 See PL, 1998, notes on IV. lines 166–71 and V. lines 221–3:  in the former, Fowler connects Tobias with Adam (both are instructed by Raphael). 20 See Tracy, ‘Democritus, Arise!’, p. 307; Weinbrot, ‘The Reader, the General, and the Particular: Johnson and Imlac in Chapter Ten of Rasselas’, pp. 82–3. 21 Folkenflik, ‘The Tulip and Its Streaks: Contexts of Rasselas X’, p. 60. 22 See Agostino Lombardo, ‘The Importance of Imlac’ in Bicentenary Essays, coll. Wahba, pp. 31–49 (pp. 33–4); Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, p. 514. 23 See Yale VII. pp. 62, 64–5, 71; Lives I. p. 163. 24 See Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, pp. 514–15; cf. Hinnant, “Steel for the Mind”, p. 145. 25 See CPW. I. pp. 808–12; 888–93. 26 See Whitley, ‘The Comedy of Rasselas’, p. 57; Scouten, ‘Dr. Johnson and Imlac’. 27 Cf. Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 216. 28 See JM I. pp. 284–5. 29 F. Parker, ‘The Skepticism of Rasselas’, p. 133. 30 See Tomarken, Johnson, ‘Rasselas’, and the Choice of Criticism, p. 46; Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, pp. 515–16; Hansen, ‘Rasselas, Milton, and Humanism’, pp. 15–17. 31 Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, p. 227.


Notes to pages 70–81

32 See Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia; Ellis Cornelia Knight, Dinarbas; A Tale, ed. Meloccaro, pp. 207–9. 33 See Turner, One Flesh, pp. 96–123; Wilding in Stanwood, ed., Of Poetry and Politics, pp. 171–85; Pruitt, Gender and the Power of Relationship, pp. 45–59. 34 Rasselas, ed. G. B. Hill, pp. 187–8, p. 105, line 9. note. 35 See Hansen, ‘Sex and Love, Marriage and Friendship: A Feminist Reading of the Quest for Happiness in Rasselas’; cf. Jaclyn Geller, ‘The Unnarrated Life: Samuel Johnson, Female Friendship, and the Rise of the Novel Revisited’ in Smallwood, ed., Johnson Re-Visioned, pp. 80–98 (pp. 88–92). 36 Barbauld (1810) in Johnson: Critical Heritage, p. 154. 37 Mulso, Posthumous Works of Mrs. Chapone (1807), I. p. 110. 38 Mudford (1802) in Johnson: Critical Heritage, p. 149; cf. Introduction, p. 26. 39 Lascelles, ‘Rasselas Reconsidered’, p. 52. 40 See Jones, ‘The Artistic Form of Rasselas’, p. 397. 41 See Hardy, ‘Johnson and Raphael’s Counsel to Adam’ in Johnson, Boswell and their Circle, pp. 122–36; cf. Rasselas, ed. Hardy, pp. 163–4, p. 73, line 20. note. 42 See Rasselas, ed. Hardy, p. 170, p. 99, line 17. note; Yale XVI. p. 143, note 5. 43 See Fussell, Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism, pp. 15–19 (p. 17); Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, p. 515; Wasserman, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas: Implicit Contexts’, pp. 23–4; Hansen, ‘Rasselas, Milton, and Humanism’, pp. 19–20. 44 See Hardy, ‘Johnson and Raphael’s Counsel to Adam’, pp. 122–36. 45 Hansen, ‘Rasselas, Milton, and Humanism’, p. 19. 46 Lady Knight thought that ‘Imlac’s description of the astronomer “summed up” SJ’s own character’ (Yale XVI. p. 143, note 4); cf. Lascelles ‘Rasselas: A Rejoinder’, p. 53. 47 See Rasselas, ed. Hardy, p. 176, p. 111, line 15. note, ‘auditress’. 48 Wasserman, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas: Implicit Contexts’, p. 24. 49 Kolb, ‘The Intellectual Background of the Discourse of the Soul in Rasselas’, p. 360. 50 See Overton, Mans Mortalitie, ed. Fisch, pp. xxii–xxv. 51 The controversy over attribution to Milton of the De Doctrina Christiana was most actively pursued in the 1990s: Dobranski and Rumrich summarise the debate in Milton and Heresy, pp. 6–12; cf. Campbell, Corns, Hale, and Tweedie, Milton and the Manuscript of ‘De Doctrina Christiana’. 52 See Lewis, ‘The Mistake about Milton’s Angels’, Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, p. 108. 53 See Parker, ‘The Skepticism of Rasselas’, pp. 137–8. 54 See Sherburn, ‘Rasselas Returns  – To What?’; cf. Tomarken, Johnson, ‘Rasselas’, and the Choice of Criticism, p. 22. 55 See F. Parker, ‘The Skepticism of Rasselas’, pp. 136–7. 56 Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, p. 227. 57 Wasserman, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas: Implicit Contexts’, pp. 20 and 25. 58 Contrast Kearney, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, p. 516. 59 See Jones, ‘The Artistic Form of Rasselas’, pp. 400–1. 60 Cf. Curley on Rasselas and Pilgrim’s Progress (‘The Spiritual Journey Moralized in Rasselas’).

Notes to pages 82–93


4  ‘l ic e nc e t h e y m e a n w h e n t h e y c r y l i be r t y ’: t h e 1 7 70 s t r ac t s   1 See CPW IV. 1. p. 624; see Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 7.   2 See Yale X. Introduction, pp. xxvi–xxviii.   3 See Vance, Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History, pp. 5–30.   4 ‘Defying Our Master:  The Appropriation of Milton in Johnson’s Political Tracts’.   5 See DeMaria, Life of Samuel Johnson, pp. 243–4; Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 206 and 285, note 10.   6 See Reddick, Making of Johnson’s Dictionary, 1746–1773, p. 123.   7 See Redford, ‘Defying Our Master’, pp. 88–90.   8 Cf. Meehan, Liberty and Poetics in Eighteenth-Century England, p. 13.   9 See Cannon, Samuel Johnson and the Politics of Hanoverian England, p. 71, note 15. 10 For the Wilkes affair, see Yale X. pp. 314–16; Boulton, Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke, pp. 34–44. 11 For the counter-argument, see E. Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770); cf. Junius in the Public Advertiser, 19 December, 1769 (Letters of Junius, ed. Cannon, pp. 159–73). 12 See Greene, Politics of Samuel Johnson, 2nd edn., p. 205. 13 See Redford, ‘Defying Our Master’, pp. 83–4. 14 Redford comments on the mock-heroic effect: ibid., p. 84. 15 Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 309, III. p. 115: cf. PL, 1998, note on VI. lines 620–7. 16 See ‘Defying Our Master’, p. 84. 17 Redford argues that it ‘extends beyond allusion into appropriation’: ‘Defying Our Master’, p. 87. 18 See Bate, Samuel Johnson, p. 444; Greene, Politics of Samuel Johnson, 2nd edn., p. 204. 19 See Letters of Junius, ed. Cannon, Appendix Eight, ‘A Note on Authorship’, pp. 539–72. 20 See Cordasco, ‘Junius and Milton’; Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 19 and 244, note 48. 21 Jeremy Black, ‘Samuel Johnson, Thoughts on the Late Transactions respecting Falkland’s Islands, and the Tory Tradition in Foreign Policy’, in J. Clark and Erskine-Hill, eds., Samuel Johnson in Historical Context, pp. 169–83 (p. 169). 22 Language of Politics in the Age of Wilkes and Burke, pp. 50–1. 23 See PL, 1998, note on I. line 711. 24 Letters of Junius, ed. Cannon, p. xxiv; Public Advertiser (4 August, 1769), cit. p. xvi. 25 Yale X: p. 376, notes 5 and 6; p. 378, note 2. 26 See PL, 1998, note on II. lines 707–11; Redford,  ‘Defying Our Master’, pp. 85–6. 27 See Black, ‘Samuel Johnson, Thoughts on the Late Transactions respecting Falkland’s Islands, and the Tory Tradition in Foreign Policy’, p. 175. 28 See Redford, ‘Defying Our Master’, p. 85. 29 Lipking, Samuel Johnson: The Life of an Author, pp. 244–5.


Notes to pages 94–100

30 See Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 207. 31 ‘Defying Our Master’, p. 82. 5  ‘p h a n t om s w h ic h c a n no t be w ou n de d’:  t h e l au de r a f fa i r   1 Poems of John Dryden, ed. Kinsley, II. p. 540: cf. John Milton, eds. Orgel and Goldberg, pp. xx–xxiii. For comparisons of Milton with Homer and Virgil, see Havens, Influence of Milton on English Poetry, pp. 20–2; cf. Lynch’s discussion of the importance of Paradise Lost to awareness of epochal difference (Age of Elizabeth in the Age of Johnson, pp. 143–64: he cites Dryden on p. 155).   2 See Latin & Greek Poems of Samuel Johnson, ed. Baldwin, pp. 23–5; Samuel Johnson: The Latin Poems, ed. Rudd, pp. 18–19: both compare Johnson’s Latin version with Cowper’s.   3 Lauder, Essay on Milton’s Use and Imitation of the Moderns, in his Paradise Lost (1749/50), p. 163.   4 See Baines, House of Forgery, pp. 81–102; also see Baines, ‘Theft and Poetry and Pope’, Nick Groom, ‘Forgery, Plagiarism, Imitation, Pegleggery’, and Richard Terry, ‘“In Pleasing Memory of All He Stole”:  Plagiarism and Literary Detraction, 1747–1785’, in Kewes, ed., Plagiarism in Early Modern England, pp. 166–80, 74–89, and 181–200.   5 Dickens, Our Mutual Friend, ed. Davies, pp. 49 and 53.   6 See GM 17 (1747), January:  24–6; February:  82–5; April:  189; June:  285–6; August: 363–66.   7 Essay, p. 106; p. 163.   8 Essay, pp. 155–9; p. 161.   9 See Marcuse, ‘The Pre-publication History of William Lauder’s Essay on Milton’s Use and Imitation of the Moderns in His Paradise Lost’; ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine and the Lauder/Milton Controversy’; ‘“The Scourge of Impostors, the Terror of Quacks”: John Douglas and the Exposé of William Lauder’. 10 See Terry in Kewes, ed., Plagiarism, p. 184; Bogel, Dream of My Brother, pp. 64–5; J. Clark, Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics, pp. 59–66. 11 Advertisement, 28 November, 1750:  see Samuel Johnson’s Prefaces & Dedications, ed. Hazen, p. 79. 12 Cf. Bogel, Dream of My Brother, pp. 26–8 (p. 28); p. 87, note 45. Also see Greene, ‘Some Notes on Johnson and the Gentleman’s Magazine’, pp. 83–4. 13 For Johnson and Grotius, see Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 377–8. 14 See Mild, ‘Johnson and Lauder:  A Reexamination’; Marcuse, ‘Miltonoklastes: The Lauder Affair Reconsidered’, p. 87; Clifford, Dictionary Johnson, pp. 57–70. 15 Cf. DeMaria’s comment on this piece of marginalia, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Reading, pp. 53–4. 16 Hawkins, Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Davis, p. 119.

Notes to pages 100–109


17 In Johnson: The Critical Heritage, p. 377; cf. p. 89. 18 E.g. Wain, Johnson as Critic, Introduction, pp. 17–18; Stephen Fix, ‘The Contexts and Motives of Johnson’s Life of Milton’ in Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, pp. 107–32 (pp. 120–3). 19 The subdivisions of chapter 4 are headed with quotations from Paradise Lost. 20 See Johnson as Critic, ed. Wain, pp. 61–2. 21 In Kewes, ed., Plagiarism, p. 185. 22 Essay, p. 93. 23 Prefaces, ed. Hazen, p. 81. 24 Cf. Fix in Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, p. 123. 25 Prefaces, ed. Hazen, p. 81. 26 Prefaces, ed. Hazen, p. 82. Cf. Yale V. pp. 133–4 (‘blotted manuscripts’); Lives I. pp. 258–61. 27 Essay, p. 127. 28 Prefaces, ed. Hazen, p. 82. 29 Prefaces, p. 81. 30 Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism, p. 198. 31 House of Forgery, p. 98, note 30. 32 In Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, pp. 123 and 122. 33 Marvell, ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’, lines 43–4. 34 See Dictionary, ‘exhalation’; Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands, Yale X. p. 371. 35 House of Forgery, p. 88; cf. Forsyth, ‘Rebellion in Paradise Lost: Impossible Original’; Poole on ‘unoriginal’, Milton and the Idea of the Fall, p. 154. 36 GM 17 (January 1747): 24. 37 A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Douglas, Occasioned by his Vindication of Milton (1751), pp. 3–4. 38 But see Bogel, Dream of My Brother, p. 87, note 45. 6   c u t t i ng a c ol o s s u s:  joh ns on ’s c r i t ic i s m of p a r a d i s e l o s t 1 See PL, 1998, p. 51 and pp. 54–5. 2 See Montagu Pennington, ed., A Series of Letters between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot (1809), II. pp. 3–6, cit. Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 367; cf. Spector, Samuel Johnson and the Essay, pp. 161–2. 3 See Havens, Influence of Milton on English Poetry, pp. 44–53; Fussell, Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 24–6 and pp. 41–4. For modern connections between Milton’s politics and prosody, see Goldstein, ‘The Good Old Cause and Milton’s Blank Verse’; Creaser, ‘Prosody and Liberty in Milton and Marvell’ in Parry and Raymond, eds., Milton and the Terms of Liberty, pp. 37–55. 4 Eliot, Milton: Two Studies, p. 44; also see Abrams in Hilles, pp. 181–5. This tradition is challenged by Hinnant (“Steel for the Mind”, pp. 41–4), Smallwood (Johnson’s Critical Presence, pp. 8–9), and Tom Mason and Adam Rounce, ‘“Looking Before and After”? Reflections on the Early Reception of Johnson’s


Notes to pages 109–120

Critical Judgments’ in Smallwood, ed., Johnson Re-Visioned, pp. 134–66 (140–5). For contemporary comments, v. Johnson: Critical Heritage, pp. 274 and 304–5.   5 Bell identifies Newton (‘Johnson’s Milton Criticism in Context’, pp. 130–2), but conceivably Johnson reacts to a broader spectrum of criticism.   6 Robert Beum, ‘So Much Gravity and Ease’, in Emma and Shawcross, eds., Language and Style in Milton, pp. 333–68 (p. 334).   7 Cf. Fussell on ‘ethical implications’: Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 41–4; Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 108.   8 Letters concerning … Virgil’s and Milton’s Arts of Verse, &. (1739), p. 48.   9 See Terry, ‘“The Sound Must Seem an Eccho to the Sense”: An EighteenthCentury Controversy Revisited’. 10 See Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (1966 edn.), pp. 131–2. 11 Early Lives, p. 311. 12 Letters, p. 42. 13 Letters, p. 43. 14 Say, Essay on the Harmony, Variety, and Power of Numbers (1745), pp. 97 and 130. 15 See Addison, Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 285, III. 15; John Mason, ‘An Examination of Milton’s Numbers’ in Essay on the Power of Numbers (1749), pp. 53–8. Newton combines both defences: v. Paradise Lost (1749), ed. Newton, I. pp. 3–5. 16 Cf. Johnson’s discussion of Pope’s Essay on Criticism (Lives IV. pp. 69–70). 17 Paradise Lost (1749), I. pp. 25–6. 18 Shumaker, Unpremeditated Verse, p. 134; cf. Wain’s criticism of Johnson’s observation, Johnson as Critic, p. 26. 19 ‘Vindicate’ for ‘justify’ and ‘man’ for ‘men’: v. Yale IV. p. 142, note 4; cf. Fix, ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, p. 660. 20 Seward writes, ‘whatever praise he gives Milton, was for the purpose of giving an air of impartiality to his injustice, and keener edge to his sarcasms’: see Johnson: Critical Heritage, p. 312. 21 See Smallwood, Johnson’s Critical Presence, p. 23. 22 Cf. Johnson’s satire on Miltonic hyperbole in ‘Marvel’s journey’, Idler 49 (Yale II. p. 155). 23 Young, Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), pp. 58–60 (p. 60); cf. Newlyn, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, p. 23. 24 See Milton 1732–1801, pp. 250–1 and p. 252. 25 Lonsdale lists these ‘mostly hostile comments’ and the exceptions: Lives I. p. 436. 26 See Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. Watson, II. pp. 84–5. 27 See Attridge, Rhythms of English Poetry, pp. 247–8, 252–3, 298–9; Ricks, ‘John Milton: Sound and Sense in Paradise Lost’, The Force of Poetry, pp. 60–79; Burnett, ‘“Sense Variously Drawn Out”:  The Line in Paradise Lost’; Creaser, ‘“Service is perfect freedom”: Paradox and Prosodic Style in Paradise Lost’. 28 See Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 62–6; cf. Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 437. 29 Regaining Paradise, p. 215.

Notes to pages 120–128


30 Ben Power, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. 31 See Eliot, Milton: Two Studies, pp. 22–5; Ricks, Milton’s Grand Style, p. 25; Beum in Emma and Shawcross, eds., Language and Style in Milton, p. 335; Attridge, Rhythms of English Poetry, pp. 133, 139–40, 287–9, 291–2, and 295; Agari, Inversion in Milton’s Poetry, p. 18. 32 E.g. Robert Burrowes, ‘Essay on the Stile of Doctor Samuel Johnson’ (1787) in Johnson: Critical Heritage, pp. 326–42; cf. R. D. Emma, ‘Grammar and Milton’s English Style’ in Emma and Shawcross, eds., Language and Style in Milton, pp. 233–51 (p. 246); Hinnant, “Steel for the Mind”, pp. 195–6; Horgan, Johnson on Language, p. 105. Cf. Deutsch, Loving Dr. Johnson, pp. 26 and 80–1. 33 See Milton: Critical Heritage, p. 3; Milton 1732–1801, p. 1. cf. Corns’s explanation of the eighteenth-century approach, ‘Milton’s English’ in Corns, ed., A Companion to Milton, pp. 90–106 (pp. 101–2). 34 See Milton:  Critical Heritage, p. 29; Walsh, Shakespeare, Milton, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Editing, pp. 77–8. 35 Spectator, no. 285, III. 9. 36 Early Lives, pp. 313–14. 37 Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 285, III. 14. 38 Spectator, no. 297, III. 62–3. 39 See Corns, Development of Milton’s Prose Style. 40 Cf. Spence, citing Pope on Milton’s ‘exotic style’, in Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, ed. Osborn, I. p. 197 (no. 459). 41 Browne, Christian Morals (2nd edn., 1756), pp. liii–liv. 42 Cf. Corns, ‘Milton’s English’ in Corns, ed., A Companion to Milton, pp. 90–106 (p. 97). 43 Yale XVIII. p. 313: cf. Introduction, p. 267. 44 Reddick, Making of Johnson’s Dictionary 1746–1773, p. 123. 45 Spenser, Sidney, and Shakespeare figure in another context: see Yale XVIII. p. 96. 46 Making of Johnson’s Dictionary 1746–1773, p. 34; cf. Reddick, ‘Johnson beyond Jacobitism: Signs of Polemic in the Dictionary and the Life of Milton’. 47 Making of Johnson’s Dictionary 1746–1773, p. 106. 48 Dodd, Familiar Explanation of the Poetical Works of Milton (1762), p. iv. 49 Cf. Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 216; Hinnant, “Steel for the Mind”, p. 95. Contrast Lonsdale, Lives, I. pp. 110–11 and 129. 50 See Welsted (1724) in Milton: Critical Heritage, p. 244; cf. Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 433. 51 Contrast Hinnant’s interpretation, “Steel for the Mind”, p. 193. 52 ‘To Mr. T. S. in Vindication of Mr Milton’s Paradise lost’ in Milton: Critical Heritage, p. 107. 53 James Burnet, Lord Monboddo (1773–92) in Milton 1732–1801, p. 270. 54 Milton: Two Studies, p. 34. 55 Cf. Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, pp. 121–55; Ricks considers that ‘the eighteenth-century editors are still in many ways the best guide to Milton’ (Milton’s Grand Style, p. 13).


Notes to pages 128–132

56 See Fowler, ‘Language and style’, Paradise Lost (1st edn., 1968/71), pp. 11–21; this was rewritten and updated (but not altogether supplanted) in PL, 1998, pp. 13–23. Burnett (Milton’s Style) and Leonard (Naming in Paradise) also reassess Milton’s linguistic subtlety. 57 See Corns, Development of Milton’s Prose Style, p. 6. 58 Milton’s Languages, p. 57. 59 Milton’s Languages, pp. 105–30 (p. 107). 60 Corns, ‘Milton’s English’ in Corns, ed., A Companion to Milton, pp. 90–106 (p. 90). 61 Fowler, Paradise Lost (1998), p. 17. 62 Cf. Hartman, ‘Milton’s Counterplot’ (Beyond Formalism, pp. 113–23); Daiches uses the term ‘counter-poem’ (God and the Poets, pp. 32 and 47); cf. Belsey, ‘two texts in one’ ( John Milton: Language, Gender, Power, p. 60). On allusion and indeterminacy, see Newlyn, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, pp. 65–9; Walker, ‘The Poetics of Antitext and the Politics of Milton’s Allusions’, especially pp. 152, 154, and 170. Also see Herman, ‘Paradigms Lost, Paradigms Found: The New Milton Criticism’. 63 See D. M. Hill, ‘Johnson as Moderator’; Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 424. 64 Complete Collection (1738), ed. Birch, I. pp. xxxix–xlv. 65 v. Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 267, II. 537–44; no. 273, II. 561–66; no. 279, II. 585–90; no. 285, III. 9–15; no. 291, III. 35–8; no. 297, III. 58–64. For Johnson’s opinion of Addison’s critical influence, see Works (1825), VII. p. 471; Lives III. p. 37. For Johnson and Addison, v. Bell, ‘Johnson’s Milton Criticism in Context’, pp. 128–9; Damrosch, Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, pp. 94–5 and p. 101; Fix, ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, pp. 653–6. For neoclassical contexts, see Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 415–16. 66 See Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 267, II. 537–44; no. 297, III. 60–1; Bell, ‘Johnson’s Milton Criticism in Context’, p. 128. 67 Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 297, III. 61; Voltaire, Essay … Upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations (1727), pp. 110–12. 68 See Damrosch, Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, pp. 38–57 and his ‘Samuel Johnson and Reader-Response Criticism’; cf. Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson, pp. 226–40. 69 For sublimity, v. Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 421–2; Hagstrum, Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism, pp. 129–52; Morris, Religious Sublime, pp. 93–8; Moore, Beautiful Sublime: The Making of ‘Paradise Lost’, 1701–1734; Newlyn, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, pp. 49–56. 70 See Boulton, ed., Philosophical Enquiry, pp. xv–xx, ‘The Sublime’; for Burke’s influence on Johnson et al., v. pp. xxvii–xlviii. 71 See Young, ‘[Genius] may range unconfined, make what discoveries it can, and sport with its infinite objects uncontrouled’ (Conjectures, p. 38; cf. p. 70): cf. Fix, ‘almost god-like power’ (‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, p. 661). 72 See Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. Watson, I. p. 67.

Notes to pages 133–142


  73 Voltaire, Essay … Upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations, p. 113; cf. Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 297, III. 62; Paradise Lost (1732), ed. Bentley, notes on PL IV. 705 (p. 132) and PL IX. 386–96 (pp. 280–1).   74 “Steel for the Mind”, p. 179.   75 ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, p. 653.   76 Cf. Morris, Religious Sublime, pp. 209–21.   77 ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, p. 658.   78 For varying views of Johnson’s problem, see Hagstrum, Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism, p. 149; Anderson, ‘Johnson and the Problem of Religious Verse’; Clingham, Johnson, Writing, and Memory, pp. 33–4.   79 Poems and Letters of Andrew Marvell, ed. Margoliouth (rev. edn.), pp. 137–9; see commentary in Poems of Andrew Marvell, ed. Smith (rev. edn.), pp. 180–4.   80 Cf. Teskey, Delirious Milton, p. 92.   81 ‘The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry’ (1704) in Milton: Critical Heritage, p. 135.   82 See JM I. p. 439; cf. Deutsch, Loving Dr. Johnson, pp. 121–3, 278, note 48.   83 Clarke, Essay upon Study (1731), p. 198.   84 Norbrook, Writing the English Republic, p. 446; for the quotation, from the royalist John Beale, see p. 467.   85 Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 273, II. 563 and 565.   86 See Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 124–33; cf. William Smith’s observation, Longinus on the Sublime (1739), p. 136.   87 Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 321, III. 175.   88 E.g. note on PL IV. 458 in Paradise Lost (1749), ed. Newton, I. pp. 264–5, replying to Budgell (Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 325, III. 191–3).   89 See Paradise Lost (1732), note on PL IV. 299: Newton concurs with Pearce in approving, though not adopting, the emendation (Paradise Lost, 1749, I. 251): cf. Walsh, Shakespeare, Milton, and Eighteenth-Century Editing, p. 61 and pp. 98–9, note 89; see Wittreich, Feminist Milton, pp. 44–82.   90 E.g. by Stocker, Paradise Lost, p. 50; cf. Martin, ed., Milton and Gender, p. 1.   91 See Surprised by Sin: The Reader in ‘Paradise Lost’.   92 See Fix’s important revisionist argument, ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, pp. 649–53.   93 See Sharratt, ‘The Appropriation of Milton’, p. 42.   94 ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, p. 653.   95 Early Lives, pp. 328–9.   96 PL, 1998, p. 39.   97 ‘The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry’ (1704) in Milton: Critical Heritage, pp. 132–3.   98 Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 315, III. 141.   99 Essay upon Study (1731), p. 200. 100 Voltaire, Essay … Upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations, p. 106. 101 Bond, ed., Spectator, no. 315, III. 141; Thyer in Paradise Lost (1749), ed. Newton, II. 380, note on PL XII. 11.


Notes to pages 142–150

102 See Dobranski and Rumrich, eds., Milton and Heresy; Rumrich, ‘Radical Heterodoxy and Heresy’ in Corns, ed., Companion to Milton, pp. 141–56; Lieb, Theological Milton, pp. 213–78. 103 ‘The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry’ (1704) in Milton: Critical Heritage, p. 130. 104 Art of Criticism (1789), pp. 18–19. 105 GM 8 (March, 1738), 124. 106 Damrosch stresses Johnson’s honesty: v. Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, pp. 3 and 159–60. He also remarks, citing Robert Potter, that ‘it is not obvious that Johnson means to condemn’ (p. 98). 107 Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. McKeon, p. 958. 108 For Johnson and Dennis, see Bell, ‘Johnson’s Milton Criticism in Context’, p. 129; for Johnson and Clarke, see Weinbrot, ‘John Clarke’s Essay on Study and Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost’. 109 Observations on the Paradise Lost of Milton, Letter III, January 24, 1721/2, pp. 17–18. 110 Paradise Lost (1732), p. 137. 111 Spectator, ed. Bond, no. 273, II. 563; cf. no. 309, III. 119–20, no. 315, III. 145–6, and no. 357, III. 336–9. 112 Explanatory Notes, pp. 71–2. 113 Essay … Upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations, p. 116. 114 See Paulson, ‘Satan, Sin, and Death’ in Book and Painting:  Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible, pp. 104–15. 115 Philosophical Enquiry, ed. Phillips, p. 55: cf. Newlyn’s discussion of allusions to Milton’s Death, ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Romantic Reader, pp. 197–204. 116 Philosophical Enquiry, ed. Phillips, p. 73. For varying interpretations of Johnson’s response to Milton’s allegory and ‘the sublime’, see Knapp, Personification and the Sublime, pp. 63–5; Bogel, Dream of My Brother, pp. 49–55; Fulford, Landscape, Liberty and Authority, p. 96. 117 See Yale X. pp. 377–8; Lives I. p. 251. 118 Poole, Milton and the Idea of the Fall, p. 154: cf. Tanner, Anxiety in Eden, p. 43; Sarah R. Morrison, ‘When Worlds Collide: The Central Naturalistic Narrative and the Allegorical Dimension to Paradise Lost’, in Pruitt and Durham, eds., Living Texts, pp. 178–97 (p. 190); Teskey, Delirious Milton, pp. 29–31. 119 Cf. Yale VIII. p. 933; Prefaces, ed. Hazen, p. 82: cf. Paradise Lost (1732), ed. Bentley, Preface, a3r, ‘wonderful Performance’. 120 See Conjectures, p. 76. 121 Flannagan, ‘Bate’s Samuel Johnson and Johnson’s Life of Milton: Puckish or Perverse?’, p. 147. 7  c h e r r y- s t on e s: joh ns on on m i lt on ’s s hor t e r p oe m s 1 For Johnson and genre, see Hagstrum, Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism, pp. 33–7; Damrosch, Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, pp. 33 and 78–103; Hinnant, “Steel for the Mind”, pp. 152–82.

Notes to pages 150–160


  2 Lives III. pp. 71, 108, 46, 74, 92, 101; IV. p. 190; II. p. 65. Cf. Johnston’s subtle analysis of ‘The Category of the Diminutive’, Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking, pp. 141–50.   3 Early Lives, p. 212.   4 Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, p. 29. For Johnson’s omission of the ‘Nativity Ode’, see Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 409.   5 Essay, pp. 31–2.   6 Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), ed. T. Warton, Preface, pp. iii–viii.   7 See J. Warton, Essay, p. 32; Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), ed. T. Warton, p. iii.   8 GM 55 (March, 1785), p. 173.   9 Wordsworth, ‘Scorn not the Sonnet’, lines 13–14; Cruttwell, The English Sonnet, p. 31: cf. Havens, Influence of Milton on English Poetry, pp. 508–9 and p. 526; Shawcross, John Milton and Influence, pp. 82–6. 10 Original Sonnets on Various Subjects (1799), Preface, p. vi. 11 Johnson’s ‘Dictionary’ and the Language of Learning, p. 119. 12 ‘Account’, Complete Collection (1738), I. xxxi. 13 Hawkins, Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Davis, p. 131. 14 See Cheney, ‘Alcestis and the “Passion for Immortality”:  Milton’s Sonnet XXIII and Plato’s Symposium’; cf. Shawcross, Milton and Influence, pp. 33–4. 15 See Rinehart, ‘A Note on the First Fourteen Lines of Milton’s “Lycidas”’. 16 E.g. Fish, ‘Lycidas:  A Poem Finally Anonymous’ in Patrides, ed., Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, pp. 319–40. 17 Warren Fleischauer, ‘Johnson, Lycidas, and the Norms of Criticism’ in Wahba, ed., Johnsonian Studies, pp. 235–56 (p. 256): cf. Sigworth, ‘Johnson’s Lycidas:  The End of Renaissance Criticism’; Milne, ‘Johnson’s Continuity with the Renaissance Critical Tradition’; Kelly, ‘Johnson Among the Sheep’; Battersby, Rational Praise and Natural Lamentation, chs. 5 and 6.. 18 Puttenham, Art of English Poesie (1589), p. 31. 19 Cf. Milne, ‘Johnson’s Continuity with the Renaissance Critical Tradition’, p. 301; Edinger, Samuel Johnson and Poetic Style, pp. 167–9; Battersby, Rational Praise and Natural Lamentation, pp. 185–216. 20 See J. H. Hanford, ‘The Pastoral Elegy and Milton’s Lycidas’ in Patrides, ed., Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, pp. 31–59; Leishman on ‘“Lycidas” and pastoral elegy’, Milton’s Minor Poems, pp. 256–73. 21 Early Lives: Phillips, p. 54, and Richardson, p. 212. 22 Fenton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), pp. xix–xx. 23 Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, p. 29. 24 See Milton 1732–1801, pp. 11 and 18. 25 Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), ed. Newton, headnote to Lycidas, p. 480. See notes on lines. 3, 152–3, and 165 (pp. 481, 496, and 498). 26 Paradise Regain’ d, etc., p. 501. 27 In Wheeler, ed. Domestick Privacies, p. 131: cf. Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), ed. T. Warton, p. 34. 28 Milton 1732–1801, p. 231; cf. Peck, New Memoirs (1740), pp. 32–4.


Notes to pages 160–168

29 See Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. Watson, II. p. 32. For an extended note on ‘harshness’, see. Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 409. 30 See Fleischauer in Wahba, ed., Johnsonian Studies, pp. 243–7; Battersby, Rational Praise and Natural Lamentation, pp. 196–203. 31 Critical Essays (1785), Essay II, ‘On Milton’s Lycidas’, p. 40. 32 See Hunt, ‘Lycidas’ and the Italian Critics, pp. 53–125 and 146–52; Stella P. Revard, ‘Alpheus, Arethusa, and the Pindaric Pursuit in Lycidas’, in Stanwood, ed., Of Poetry and Politics, pp. 35–45. Johnson’s reservations about English Pindarics are evident in the Lives, e.g. Lives I. pp. 222–3. 33 Ransom, ‘A Poem Nearly Anonymous’ in Patrides, ed., Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, pp. 68–85 (p. 75); cf. Leishman, Milton’s Minor Poems, p. 249. 34 Fussell, Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing, p. 53. 35 See Johnston, Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking, pp. 78–9 (on ‘sincerity’) and pp. 231–42 (on the Levet elegy). Other contributions to the ‘sincerity’ debate include Tillyard, Milton, pp. 80–5; Folkenflik, Samuel Johnson, Biographer, pp. 157–63; cf. Evans on Lycidas, and on Johnson’s criticism: The Road from Horton, and ‘Lycidas’ in Danielson, ed., Cambridge Companion to Milton, pp. 39–53 (p. 41). 36 Lives II. p. 55; cf. III. pp. 101, 115, 117. 37 Waddell, More Latin Lyrics From Virgil to Milton, pp. 338–55 (p. 338). 38 ‘On the Death of Mr. William Hervey’, stanza VI, Works (1668), p. 17. 39 In both interpretations of the famous phrase: see Panofsky, Meaning in the Visual Arts, pp. 295–314. 40 Creaser, ‘“Lycidas”: The Power of Art’, pp. 123, 126. 41 Cf. Kendrick, ‘Anachronism in Lycidas’, pp. 2–6. Scott, however, denies the existence of any allegorical sense: see Critical Essays (1785), p. 47. 42 Creaser, ‘“Lycidas”: The Power of Art’, p. 126. 43 Cf. Damrosch, Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, pp. 79–92; Hinnant, “Steel for the Mind”, pp. 33–4; Fallon, Milton’s Peculiar Grace, p. 66. 44 M. H. Abrams, ‘Five Types of Lycidas’ in Patrides, ed., Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, pp. 216–35 (p. 225). 45 Belsey, John Milton: Language, Gender, Power, p. 24. 46 The Guardian 28 (April 13, 1713). 47 Frances Burney, Evelina (vol. I, Letter XXI), ed. Cooke, p. 78. 48 Works (1668), Preface, C3v. 49 Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), p. 35: on Warton’s attitude to allegory, v. Lipking, Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 357–8. 50 Poetical Works (1801), V. 55. 51 In Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, p. 130. 52 Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, p. 40. 53 Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), pp. 34 and 35. 54 Critical Essays (1785), pp. 41, 39, and 40. 55 Critical Essays, p. 64. 56 E.g. Creaser, ‘“Lycidas”: The Power of Art’; Burnett, Milton’s Style, pp. 76–98; Womack, ‘On the Value of Lycidas’.

Notes to pages 168–176


57 In addition to critics previously cited, see Alpers, ‘Lycidas and Modern Criticism’; Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance, pp. 265–85. 58 Peck, New Memoirs (1740), p. 27; Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), ed. T. Warton, pp. 93–4: cf. Leishman’s correction of Warton, and proposal of other sources, Milton’s Minor Poems, pp. 133–5: see also CSP, p. 135. 59 JM I. 323. 60 Contrast Burnett, Milton’s Style, pp. 3–9. 61 Art of Criticism (1789), p. 9. 62 John Milton: A Literary Life, p. 33. 63 Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), p. 95. 64 Richard Richardson (1779) in Milton 1732–1801, pp. 286–7. 65 See libretto of Il Moderato (1740), written in Miltonic style by Charles Jennens. 66 See Wilding, Dragons Teeth, pp. 7–27; Patterson, Pastoral and Ideology, pp. 159–60, and ‘“Forc’d fingers”:  Milton’s Early Poems and Ideological Constraint’ in Summers and Pebworth, eds., “The Muses Common-Weale”, pp. 9–22; cf. Brown’s comment, John Milton: A Literary Life, pp. 33–4. 67 Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), p. 95; cf. Campbell and Corns on Milton’s ideological shift, John Milton, p. 43. 68 See Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 412–13. 69 Milton: Critical Heritage, p. 43. 70 Early Lives, p. 114. 71 Early Lives, p. 211. 72 See Orgel, Jonsonian Masque; Demaray, Milton and the Masque Tradition; R. Flannagan, ed., ‘Comus’:  Contexts, special number, MQ 21 (1977); Christopher, Milton and the Science of the Saints, pp. 31–58; McGuire, Milton’s Puritan Masque; Lindley, ed., The Court Masque; Brown, John Milton’s Aristocratic Entertainments; Marcus, Politics of Mirth, pp. 169–212; Lewalski, ‘Milton’s Comus and the Politics of Masquing’, in Bevington and Holbrook, eds., Politics of the Stuart Court Masque, pp. 296–320. 73 Jonsonian Masque, p. 152. 74 Dugas, ‘“Such Heav’n-taught Numbers should be more than read”: Comus and Milton’s Reputation in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England’, p. 154. 75 New Memoirs (1740), p. 37: cf. pp. 13–15 and p. 86; cf. Oras, Milton’s Editors and Commentators, pp. 149–52. 76 Poems, pp. 134–8 (p. 134):  cf. Pask, Emergence of the English Author, pp. 159–60. 77 Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), pp. 264 and 265. 78 See Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 126–7; Burbery, Milton the Dramatist, p. 56. 79 See Warburton in Complete Collection (1738), ed. Birch, I. xiv and note; Thyer and Warburton in Paradise Regain’ d etc. (1752), ed. Newton, p. 395. 80 See Life II. pp. 7–8. 81 See Fish, ‘Problem Solving in Comus’, reprinted in How Milton Works, pp. 140–60. 82 Except Burbery, Milton the Dramatist, pp. 39–65 (pp. 45–6 and 56–7).


Notes to pages 176–183

  83 Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), ed. Newton, pp. 433–4.   84 But Johnson may not have taken the players’ ages into consideration. Peck describes Lord Egerton’s children as being ‘then well grown up’:  New Memoirs (1740), p. 11; cf. Martz, Poet of Exile, p. 27; Campbell and Corns, John Milton, pp. 79 and 82.   85 See Charles Burney, General History of Music (1789), ed. Mercer, II. pp. 302–4.   86 Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), ed. Newton, pp. 440–1.   87 Poetical Works (1801), ed. Todd, V. p. 417.   88 Poems upon Several Occasions (1785), p. 265.   89 D. M. Friedman, ‘Comus and the Truth of the Ear’ in Summers and Pebworth, eds., “The Muses Common-Weale”, pp. 119–34 (p. 119).   90 See Hanley, Samuel Johnson as Book Reviewer, pp. 230–1.   91 Newton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. xliv; Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), p. 197; cf. Fenton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), pp. xxiii–xxiv; Toland, Early Lives, p. 185; West, Odes of Pindar (1749), p. 134.   92 But see Hinnant, “Steel for the Mind”, pp. 160–1.   93 Life of John Milton, p. 524.   94 ‘A Critique on the Samson Agonistes of Milton, in Refutation of the Censure of Dr. Johnson’ (1788) in Milton 1732–1801, p. 344.   95 Milton 1732–1801, p. 335.   96 For diverse views, see Krouse, Milton’s Samson and the Christian Tradition; Radzinowicz, Towards ‘Samson Agonistes; Wittreich, Interpreting ‘Samson Agonistes’ and Shifting Contexts:  Reinterpreting ‘Samson Agonistes’; Loewenstein, Milton and the Drama of History, pp. 126–51; Skulsky, Justice in the Dock; Labriola and Lieb, eds., The Miltonic Samson, extra issue of MS, 33 (1996). Carey ignited a topical controversy in ‘A work in praise of terrorism? September 11 and Samson Agonistes’: cf. Mohamed, ‘Confronting Religious Violence: Milton’s Samson Agonistes’, and contributions to PMLA Forum 120 (October, 2005): 1641–4; Lieb and Labriola, eds., Milton in the Age of Fish, Part III, pp. 203–64; Burbery, Milton the Dramatist, pp. 95–149; Campbell and Corns, John Milton, pp. 359–64.   97 See Achinstein, ‘Samson Agonistes and the Drama of Dissent’, and ‘Samson Agonistes’ in Corns, ed., Companion to Milton, pp. 411–28; M. R. G. Spiller, ‘Directing the Audience in Samson Agonistes’ in Stanwood, ed., Of Poetry and Politics, pp. 121–9; Lewalski, Life of John Milton, pp. 522–36.   98 Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Davis, p. 118.   99 Milton 1732–1801, p. 349. 100 Dragons Teeth, p. 233. 101 Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), ed. Newton: Jortin, p. 213, Newton, pp. 214–15. Despite modern attempts to re-date Samson Agonistes, the text continues to be analysed in a Restoration context: v. Knoppers, Historicizing Milton, pp. 42–66 and 142–63; Blair Worden, ‘Milton, Samson Agonistes, and the Restoration’ in MacLean, ed., Culture and Society in the Stuart Restoration, pp. 111–36. 102 ‘Samson Agonistes and the Drama of Dissent’, p. 135. 103 Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), ed. Newton, p. 237.

Notes to pages 183–194


104 Cf. Hinnant,“Steel for the Mind”, p. 160. 105 See Peck, New Memoirs (1740), p. 85; Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), ed. Newton, p. 203 (cf. p. 235, note on line 594); cf. Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 7. 106 See Peck, New Memoirs (1740), p. 85; Warburton in Paradise Regain’ d, etc. (1752), ed. Newton, pp. 197 and 261. 107 See Susanne Woods, ‘How Free are Milton’s Women?’; John C. Ulreich, Jr.,‘“Incident to all Our Sex”:  The Tragedy of Dalila’; and Jackie DiSalvo, ‘Intestine Thorn: Samson’s Struggle with the Woman Within’, in Walker, ed., Milton and the Idea of Woman, pp. 15–31 (pp. 28–30); pp. 185–210; and 211–29. 108 For Johnson’s concept of literary history in Lives of the Poets, see Lonsdale’s introduction, Lives I. pp. 103–65. 109 Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism, pp. 127–8 (p. 128). 110 Early Lives, p. 275. 111 Notes on the Art of Poetry in Milton 1732–1801, p. 148. 112 Prefatory Letter to Elfrida in Milton 1732–1801, pp. 225–6. 8   ‘a n ac r i mon iou s a n d s u r ly r e p u bl ic a n ’:  m i lt on a s p ol i t ic a l s u bj e c t   1 See Greene, Politics of Samuel Johnson, pp. 22–34; Vance, Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History, pp. 24–5; Cannon, Samuel Johnson and the Politics of Hanoverian England, pp. 17–18 and 113–14.   2 Catalogus Bibliotheca Harleianae, ‘An Account of the Harleian Library’, I. 6. See Vance, Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History, pp. 6–8, 13 and 20.   3 E.g., Cannon, Samuel Johnson and the Politics of Hanoverian England, pp. 114 and 117: Cannon also stresses Johnson’s moderation.   4 Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History, p. 16.   5 See Sermons, no. 23, commemorating the anniversary of the execution of Charles I (Yale XIV. pp. 237–47); also cf. no. 24 (Yale XIV. pp. 249–59), no. 26 (Yale XIV. pp. 273–85), and no. 7 (Yale XIV. pp. 75–84).   6 Yale IX. p. 27.   7 For his attitude to Baxter and Watts, see Hawkins, Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. Davis, pp. 242–3.   8 See Lonsdale, ‘A Note on Politics’ (Lives I. pp. 166–75):  contrast J. Clark, Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics, pp. 233–7.   9 Lonsdale, ‘A Note on Politics’, Lives I. pp. 173–4 (p. 174). 10 See Eliot, Milton: Two Studies, p. 26. 11 See Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 203–16; Fix in Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, pp. 107–32. 12 Sharpe, Remapping Early Modern England, pp. 3–37. Other relevant studies include C. Hill, Milton and the English Revolution; Achinstein, Milton and the Revolutionary Reader; Armitage, Himy, and Skinner, eds., Milton and Republicanism; Norbrook, Writing the English Republic. 13 ‘Milton and the Characteristics of a Free Commonwealth’, in Armitage, Himy, and Skinner, eds., Milton and Republicanism, pp. 25–42 (41).


Notes to pages 194–204

14 J. Clark, ‘Conclusion: Literature, History and Interpretation’, in Clark and Erskine-Hill, eds., Samuel Johnson in Historical Context, pp. 295–305 (p. 298). 15 Paradise Lost (1749), I, Preface. 16 Paradise Lost (1749), I, Preface. 17 Reade, Johnsonian Gleanings, V. p. 215. 18 See Rees, ‘Johnson Reads Areopagitica’, pp. 16–17. 19 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. xviii: cf. Early Lives: Toland, p. 133. 20 See Sermons, no. 24 (Yale XIV. pp. 256–7). 21 Milton, rev. edn., I. p. 207; but see the defence by Campbell and Corns (following Hale), John Milton, pp. 233–4. 22 Despite ‘the death of the author’, most modern readers cannot ignore it either: cf. Fallon, Milton’s Peculiar Grace, pp. 1–13. For a useful compilation of autobiographical passages, v. Milton on Himself, ed. Diekhoff. 23 Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 211. 24 Cf. Fallon, Milton’s Peculiar Grace, p. 11. 25 Early Lives, pp. 13–14. 26 Early Lives, pp. 25–6 (Darbishire’s attribution of this life to John Phillips is no longer generally accepted): Wood (p. 42) refers briefly to the ‘Arguments and Authorities’ of Tenure, without evaluating them. 27 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), p. xiv. 28 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. pp. xxi and li; cf. I. pp. xv and xxxi. 29 Early Lives, pp. 214–15 and p. 217. 30 See Yale XIV. pp. 79–80, and note 9 (p. 79). 31 Milton, rev. edn., II. pp. 964–5 (p. 965); cf. Campbell and Corns, John Milton, p. 226. 32 Cf. Cable’s observation that ‘Milton’s rhetorical effectiveness depends largely on a readership that is predisposed to agree with him’ (Carnal Rhetoric, p. 54). 33 See Early Lives, Introduction, p. x and pp. 38–9. 34 See Paradise Regained IV. lines 236–364. 35 Early Lives: Toland, p. 94: cf. CPW IV. pp. 618–19; Campbell and Corns, John Milton, pp. 121–2. 36 Early Lives, p. 98. 37 See Fenton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), p. xi; Newton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. pp. xiii–xiv. 38 Newton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. xiii; the phrase, ‘common Schools’, is from Birch, ‘Account’, Complete Collection (1738), I. p. xix. 39 See Newton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. li; but Fenton ascribes it ‘wholly to the great deference He paid to paternal authority’, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), p. xi. 40 Early Lives, p. 39. 41 See Fenton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), pp. xiv–xv. 42 Cf. Early Lives:  Richardson, p. 280. W. R. Parker says that ‘there is no ­reason to doubt the story in its essentials’: Milton, rev. edn., I. p. 596 and II. p. 1105, note 15; cf. Lewalski, Life of John Milton, pp. 412–13 and p. 672, note 64.

Notes to pages 204–211


43 E.g. Hawkins, Boswell, Bate, Lipking, and DeMaria; cf. Greene, Politics of Samuel Johnson, pp. 189–90; Cannon, Samuel Johnson and the Politics of Hanoverian England, pp. 70–1. Contrast Blackburne’s point-scoring, Remarks (1780), pp. 90–1. 44 ‘Account’, Complete Collection (1738), I. p. lx. 45 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. lii. 46 Regaining Paradise, pp. 204–5. 47 Early Lives, p. 186. 48 Cf. Martin Dzelzainis, ‘Milton’s Classical Republicanism’, in Armitage, Himy, and Skinner, eds., Milton and Republicanism, pp. 3–24 (p. 24). 49 See Lives of the English Poets, ed. Hill, I. p. 157, note 1; Lives I. p. 404. 50 See Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 405; Damrosch, Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, p. 138; Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 207. 51 Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 211. 52 Lonsdale documents this distrust (Lives I. p. 405). 53 Damrosch, Uses of Johnson’s Criticism, p. 138:  but he states that Johnson ‘assume(s) a complete separation between Milton’s religion and his politics’. 54 See Folkenflik, Samuel Johnson, Biographer, p. 127; Downie, ‘Johnson’s Politics’, p. 100. 55 Definition and separation of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres has been heavily theorised: cf. Pask, Emergence of the English Author, pp. 1–8 and 141–70. 56 Early Lives, p. 177; cf. Campbell and Corns, John Milton, pp. 308–17. 57 Early Lives, pp. 271–3 (p. 272). 58 Early Lives: Richardson, pp. 271 and 273–4. 59 See Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 393 and 396. 60 See W. R. Parker, Milton’s Contemporary Reputation, List of Allusions. 61 See Fix in Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, pp. 108–9; Lonsdale notes that ‘Most of SJ’s references to Milton’s blindness in fact occur in a political context’ (Lives I. p. 388). 62 See Blackburne, Remarks, pp. 2–4 and 85–100; cf. Beilby, Remarks on Dr. Johnson’s Lives (1782), Preface and pp. 3–4; Robert Potter, Inquiry into Some Passages in Dr. Johnson’s Lives (1783), p. 3. For a range of responses to Johnson’s Lives, see Lonsdale, Appendix B, ‘Some Early Periodical Reactions 1779–1783’, Lives IV. pp. 520–38; also see Mason and Rounce in Smallwood, ed., Johnson Re-Visioned, pp. 134–66. 9   ‘d om e s t ic k pr i vac i e s’: m i lt on a s pr i vat e s u bj e c t 1 The Gillray caricature is ‘Apollo and the Muses, Inflicting Penance on Dr Pomposo, Round Parnassus’ (1783); cf. ‘Old Wisdom Blinking at the Stars’ (1782), which includes a bust of Milton; for Byron, see Complete Poetical Works, ed. McGann, V. pp. 193–4. 2 JM I. p. 483. 3 See Pritchard, English Biography in the Seventeenth Century, pp. 136–44; cf. Michael McKeon, ‘Biography, Fiction, and the Emergence of “Identity” in


Notes to pages 211–223

Eighteenth-Century Britain’ in Sharpe and Zwicker, eds., Writing Lives, pp. 339–55 (pp. 339–45).   4 Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 211.   5 Shawcross, John Milton: The Self and the World, p. 248.   6 In addition to Ad Patrem, v. The Reason of Church-Government, CPW I. pp. 808–9.   7 Cf. his penance at Uttoxeter, Life IV. pp. 372–3.   8 Fenton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), p. xi.   9 See Shawcross, John Milton:  The Self and the World, pp. 83–6; Rumrich, Milton unbound, pp. 71–4. 10 Folkenflik, Samuel Johnson, Biographer, p. 93. 11 Early Lives: Phillips, p. 52, and Toland, p. 86. 12 Shawcross, Arms of the Family, p. 23. 13 See Lonsdale, Lives I. pp. 372–3. 14 See Shawcross, Arms of the Family, p. 15 and pp. 42–3. 15 Early Lives, p. 84. For reactions to Milton’s blindness, see Thomas N. Corns, ‘The Early Lives of John Milton’, in Sharpe and Zwicker, eds., Writing Lives, pp. 75–89 (pp. 79 and 83). 16 Early Lives, p. 86. 17 Early Lives, p. 54. 18 Hale, Milton’s Cambridge Latin, pp. 224–5. 19 Early Lives, p. 10. 20 See W. R. Parker, Milton, rev. edn., II. pp. 729–30, note 20; Miller, ‘Milton’s Clash with Chappell: A Suggested Reconstruction’, pp. 77–8. 21 DeMaria, Life of Samuel Johnson, p. 20. 22 I.e. if the attribution of the anonymous biography to Cyriack Skinner is correct (he and Phillips were both Milton’s pupils): see W. R. Parker, Milton, rev. edn., I. p. 248, and II. pp. 880–82, note 59. 23 Lives I. 249; see Early Lives, p. 62. 24 Early Lives, pp. 14, 12. 25 See Dzelzainis in Armitage, Himy, and Skinner, eds., Milton and Republicanism, pp. 10–15. 26 Fix, ‘Distant Genius: Johnson and the Art of Milton’s Life’, p. 246. 27 Clingham, Johnson, Writing, and Memory, p. 106. 28 Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. 288. 29 See Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England, pp. 215–17 and pp. 231–3. 30 ‘No Meer Amatorious Novel’ in Loewenstein and Turner, eds., Politics, Poetics, and Hermeneutics in Milton’s Prose, pp. 85–101 (p. 86). 31 Early Lives, p. 205. 32 Early Lives, p. 63. 33 See Campbell, A Milton Chronology, p. 230. For Shawcross’s argument, see Arms of the Family, pp. 40–1. 34 See Early Lives: Toland, p. 119, and Richardson, p. 258 (‘in the Year 1643, the 35th of his Age, he Marry’d …’). 35 Early Lives: anon., p. 22; Wood, p. 40.

Notes to pages 223–234


36 Early Lives: Phillips, p. 64, and Toland, p. 119. 37 John Milton: The Self and the World, p. 333, note 23. 38 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. xvi. 39 Fenton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), p. xiii. 40 Early Lives, p. 258. Richardson (p. 259) quotes the relevant passage, PL X. lines 937–46, at greater length than Fenton. 41 See Hunter, ed., Milton Encyclopedia, II. p. 161. 42 Early Lives, pp. 120 and 126. 43 ‘Distant Genius: Johnson and the Art of Milton’s Life’, p. 250. 44 Lawson Dick, ed., Aubrey’s Brief Lives, p. 289. 45 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. lvi. Lonsdale’s note that Milton’s statement regarding wives is ‘apparently mentioned only by BB’ overlooks Newton; he does not mention the parallel between Johnson’s paragraph and Newton’s (Lives I. p. 393). 46 Some Reflections upon Marriage (1700), p. 29. 47 See Pask, ‘Milton’s daughters’ in Emergence of the English Author, pp. 141–70 (for Johnson and the eighteenth century, see pp. 156–66). 48 William Hayley alludes to Lear in his ‘Life of Milton’, Poetical Works of John Milton (1794–7), I. p. lxxxix, (cit. Pask, p. 167); cf. Lewalski, Life of John Milton, p. 409. 49 ‘Account’, Complete Collection (1738), I. p. lxii. 50 See Early Lives, p. 2; Shawcross, Arms of the Family, p. 2. 51 E.g. Lewalski, Life of John Milton, pp. 407–9; Shawcross, John Milton: The Self and the World, pp. 225–6 and Arms of the Family, pp. 198–200. 52 Early Lives, Introduction, p. xlviii. 53 Early Lives, pp. 77–8. 54 ‘Account’, Complete Collection (1738), I. p. lxii. 55 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. lviii. 56 Early Lives, p. 177. 57 John Milton: The Self and the World, p. 225. 58 Early Lives, p. 224: cf. Pask’s discussion of Richardson’s ‘defense of Milton’s patriarchy’, Emergence of the English Author, pp. 156–8. 59 Early Lives, pp. 225 and 226. 60 Contrast ‘Life of West’, Lives IV. p. 117. 61 Early Lives: Toland, p. 195, and Richardson, p. 238. 62 See Fix, ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, p. 658. 63 Lives of the English Poets, I. p. 156, note 3. 64 Regaining Paradise, p. 212. 65 See Bate, Samuel Johnson, p. 409. 66 E.g. Sonnet VII, and the draft ‘Letter to a Friend’ (CPW I. pp. 319–21). 67 Early Lives, p. 73. 68 Pask suggests one reason: Johnson ‘delightedly transform[s] it into a sign of the dissenter’s superstitious nature:’ Emergence of the English Author, p. 152. 69 Early Lives, p. 291. 70 In Wheeler, ed., Domestick Privacies, p. 125–6.


Notes to pages 234–244

71 See Arms of the Family, pp. 25–6. 72 Early Lives, p. 201. 73 E.g. W. R. Parker, Milton, rev. edn., I. pp. 638–9; Parker does however quote the testimony of various witnesses. 74 Repr. in An Appetite for Poetry, pp. 59–78 (p. 78). 75 Early Lives: Aubrey, p. 5, and anon., p. 29. 76 Early Lives, p. 33. 77 See W. R. Parker, Milton, rev. edn., II. pp. 1152–3, note 80. 78 ‘Samuel Johnson: a writer of lives looks at death’, p. 259. 10  c onc l u s ion: ‘ w h at o t h e r au t hor e v e r s o a r e d s o h ig h ?’   1 For early modern attitudes, see Milton:  Critical Heritage, Introduction; Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 11–21; for a modern example, see Belsey, John Milton: Language, Gender, Power, pp. 5–10.   2 Lipking, Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England, p. 438; Fix, ‘Distant Genius: Johnson and the Art of Milton’s Life’, p. 245: cf. Folkenflik, Samuel Johnson, Biographer, pp. 125–7; Spector, Samuel Johnson and the Essay, pp. 86–93.   3 For Johnson and the bonus orator principle, see Folkenflik, Samuel Johnson, Biographer, pp. 118–27.   4 See Corns, ‘In the early lives, we have versions of a Milton the author himself had produced to serve his needs’ in Sharpe and Zwicker, eds. Writing Lives, p. 89; cf. pp. 86–7.   5 Fallon, Milton’s Peculiar Grace, p. 173.   6 See Milton: Private Correspondence, ed. E. M. W. Tillyard, tr. P. B. Tillyard, pp. xiv and 39–40; Life Records of John Milton, ed. French, IV. pp. 134–7.   7 Early Lives, pp. 6–7.   8 Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 27.   9 Letters III. p. 89; cf. Lonsdale, Lives I. p. 94. 10 Birch includes part of the letter to Bigot, but not the relevant sentence: see ‘Account’, Complete Collections (1738), I. p. xxxiv. Johnson’s allusion suggests direct borrowing from Richardson. 11 Early Lives, p. 206; Richardson cites this letter twice: cf. p. 299. 12 Griffin, Regaining Paradise, p. 30: cf. p. 213. 13 Clingham, Johnson, Writing and Memory, p. 103. 14 For Johnson’s “heroes in literature”, v. Folkenflik, Samuel Johnson, Biographer, pp. 63–4; cf. Griffin, Regaining Paradise, pp. 33–42; Rees, ‘Johnson’s Milton: the Writer-Hero in The Rambler’. 15 Collected Essays, London, 1929, II. p. 358: cit. Dobranski, Milton, Authorship, and the Book Trade, p. 4. 16 Folkenflik, Samuel Johnson, Biographer, p. 63. 17 Fenton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1725), p. xxiii; Birch, ‘Account’, Complete Collection (1738), I. p. xlvi; Newton, ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. xxxvii. For reception anecdotes, v. Birch, I. p. xlvii, and Newton, I. p. xxxix.

Notes to pages 244–247


18 ‘Life’, Paradise Lost (1749), I. p. xxxvii. 19 See Lindenbaum, ‘The Poet in the Marketplace:  Milton and Samuel Simmons’, in Stanwood, ed., Of Poetry and Politics, pp. 249–62 (cf. ‘Milton’s Small Advance’); Campbell and Corns, John Milton, pp. 332–4. 20 See Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson, pp. 69–70. 21 As Folkenflik finely puts it, in Johnsonian rhetoric: ‘If Johnson’s final presentation of Milton is not heroic, where, we may ask, is heroism to be found?’ (Samuel Johnson, Biographer, p. 70).

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  Milton No Plagiary; or, A Detection of the Forgeries Contained in Lauder’s Essay on the Imitation of the Moderns in the Paradise Lost (London, 1751) Downie, J. A., ‘Johnson’s Politics’, AJ 11 (2000): 81–104 Dryden, John, The Poems of John Dryden, ed., James Kinsley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958, 4 vols.)   The Works of John Dryden, ed. Vinton A. Dearing (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1994, vol. XII)   John Dryden: Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Essays, ed. George Watson (London and New York: Dent & Dutton, Everyman Library, 1962, 2 vols.)   The Poems of John Dryden, ed. Paul Hammond (London and New York: Longman, Longman Annotated English Poets, 1995, vol. I) Dugas, Don-John, ‘“Such Heav’n-taught Numbers should be more than read”: Comus and Milton’s Reputation in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England’, MS 34 (1996): 137–57 Edinger, William, Samuel Johnson and Poetic Style (University of Chicago Press, 1977) Einbond, Bernard L., Samuel Johnson’s Allegory (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1971) Eliot, T.S., Milton: Two Studies (London: Faber and Faber, 1968) Emma, R. D., and John T. Shawcross, eds., Language and Style in Milton:  A Symposium in Honor of the Tercentenary of ‘Paradise Lost’ (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1967) Empson, William, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1935)   Milton’s God (Cambridge University Press, rev. edn., 1981) Evans, J. Martin, The Road from Horton:  Looking Backwards in ‘Lycidas’ (University of Victoria Press, ELS Monograph Series, 1983) Evans, Scott D., Samuel Johnson’s “General Nature”: Tradition and Transition in Eighteenth-Century Discourse (Newark and London: University of Delaware Press and AUP, 1999) Fallon, Stephen M., Milton’s Peculiar Grace:  Self-Representation and Authority (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007) Farquhar, George, The Beaux’ Stratagem, ed. Michael Cordner (London and New York: Ernest Benn and W. W. Norton, 1976) Fenton, Elijah [see Milton, John] Fish, Stanley, Surprised by Sin:  The Reader in ‘Paradise Lost’ (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 2nd edn., 1997)   How Milton Works (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2001) Fix, Stephen, ‘Distant Genius:  Johnson and the Art of Milton’s Life’, MP 81 (1984): 244–64   ‘Johnson and the “Duty” of Reading Paradise Lost’, ELH 52 (1985): 659–71 Flannagan, Roy, ‘Bate’s Samuel Johnson and Johnson’s Life of Milton: Puckish or Perverse?’, MQ 12 (1978): 147–8 Folkenflik, Robert, Samuel Johnson, Biographer (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1978)   ‘The Tulip and Its Streaks: Contexts of Rasselas X’, Ariel 9 (1978): 57–71



  ‘The Artist as Hero in the Eighteenth Century’, YES 12 (1982): 91–108 Forsyth, Neil, ‘Rebellion in Paradise Lost: Impossible Original’, MQ 30 (1996): 151–62 French, J. Milton, ed., The Life Records of John Milton (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1949–58, 5 vols.) Fulford, Tim, Landscape, Liberty and Authority: Poetry, Criticism and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth (Cambridge University Press, 1996) Fussell, Paul, Theory of Prosody in Eighteenth-Century England (New London, Conn.: Connecticut College Monograph, No. 5, 1954)   The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1965)   Samuel Johnson and the Life of Writing (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971) Gallagher, Philip J., eds. Eugene R. Cunnar and Gail L. Mortimer, Milton, the Bible, and Misogyny (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990) Goldstein, Leonard, ‘The Good Old Cause and Milton’s Blank Verse’, Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik 23 (1975): 133–42 Greene, Donald J., ‘Some Notes on Johnson and the Gentleman’s Magazine’, PMLA 74 (1959): 75–84   The Politics of Samuel Johnson (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2nd edn., 1990) Griffin, Dustin, Regaining Paradise:  Milton and the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1986) Grundy, Isobel, ‘Samuel Johnson: A Writer of Lives Looks at Death’, MLR 79 (1984): 257–65   Samuel Johnson and the Scale of Greatness (Leicester University Press, 1986)   ed., Samuel Johnson: New Critical Essays (London and Towota, NJ: Vision Press and Barnes & Noble, 1984) Guillory, John, Poetic Authority:  Spenser, Milton, and Literary History (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) Hagstrum, Jean H., Samuel Johnson’s Literary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1952) Hale, John K., Milton’s Languages:  The Impact of Multilingualism on Style (Cambridge University Press, 1997)   Milton’s Cambridge Latin: Performing in the Genres 1625–1632 (Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2005) Hanley, Brian, Samuel Johnson as Book Reviewer: A Duty to Examine the Labors of the Learned (Newark and London: University of Delaware Press and AUP, 2001) Hansen, Marlene R., ‘Rasselas, Milton, and Humanism’, ES 60 (1979): 14–22   ‘Sex and Love, Marriage and Friendship: A Feminist Reading of the Quest for Happiness in Rasselas’, ES 66 (1985): 513–25 Harris, James, Three Treatises: The First Concerning Art, The Second Concerning Music, Painting and Poetry, The Third Concerning Happiness (London, 1744) Hartman, Geoffrey, Beyond Formalism:  Literary Essays 1958–1970 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1970)



Havens, R. D., The Influence of Milton on English Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1922; reissue, New York:  Russell & Russell, 1961) Hawkins, Sir John, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., ed. and abridged by Bertram H. Davis (London: Jonathan Cape, 1962) Helgerson, R., Self-Crowned Laureates:  Spenser, Jonson, Milton and the Literary System (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1983) Herman, Peter, ‘Paradigms Lost, Paradigms Found: The New Milton Criticism’, Literature Compass 2 (2005): 1–26 Hill, Christopher, Milton and the English Revolution (London: Faber and Faber, 1977)   The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (London: Faber and Faber, 1984) Hill, D. M., ‘Johnson as Moderator’, N&Q 201 (1956): 517–22 Hill, George Birkbeck, ed., Johnsonian Miscellanies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897, 2 vols.) Hilles, Frederick W., ed., New Light on Dr. Johnson: Essays on the Occasion of his 250th Birthday (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959) Hinnant, Charles H., “Steel for the Mind”: Samuel Johnson and Critical Discourse (Newark, London and Toronto: University of Delaware Press and AUP, 1994) Horgan, A. D., Johnson on Language: An Introduction (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994) Hudson, Nicholas, ‘“Open” and “Enclosed” Readings of Rasselas’, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 31 (1990): 47–67   Samuel Johnson and the Making of Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2003) Hume, Patrick [see Milton, John] Hunt, Clay, ‘Lycidas’ and the Italian Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979) Hunter, William B., Jr., gen. ed., A Milton Encyclopedia (Lewisburg and London: Bucknell University Press and AUP, 1978–83, 9 vols.) Jain, Nalini, ‘Echoes of Milton in Johnson’s Irene’, American N&Q 24 (1986): 134–6 Johnston, Freya, Samuel Johnson and the Art of Sinking 1709–1791 (Oxford University Press, 2005) Jones, Emrys, ‘The Artistic Form of Rasselas’, RES N. S. 18 (1967): 387–401 Junius, The Letters of Junius, ed. John Cannon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978) Kearney, Anthony, ‘Johnson’s Rasselas and the Poets’, ES 53 (1972): 514–18 Kelly, Richard, ‘Johnson Among the Sheep’, SEL 8 (1968): 475–85 Kemmerer, Kathleen, “A Neutral Being Between the Sexes”: Samuel Johnson’s Sexual Politics (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1998) Kendrick, Christopher, ‘Anachronism in Lycidas’, ELH 64 (1997): 1–40 Kermode, Frank, ed., The Living Milton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1960)



  An Appetite for Poetry: Essays in Literary Interpretation (London: Collins, 1989) Kernan, Alvin, Printing Technology, Letters & Samuel Johnson (Princeton University Press, 1987) Kerrigan, William, The Sacred Complex:  On the Psychogenesis of ‘Paradise Lost’ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983) Kewes, Paulina, ed., Plagiarism in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) Knapp, Steven, Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1985) Knight, Ellis Cornelia, Dinarbas:  A Tale, ed. Lynne Meloccaro (London and Vermont:  J. M. Dent, Everyman, and Charles E. Tuttle, 1994) [also see Johnson, Samuel] Knoppers, Laura L., Historicizing Milton:  Spectacle, Power, and Poetry in Restoration England (Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 1994) Knott, John R., Jr., Milton’s Pastoral Vision:  An Approach to ‘Paradise Lost’ (Chicago University Press, 1971) Kolb, Gwin J., ‘The Intellectual Background of the Discourse of the Soul in Rasselas’, PQ 54 (1975): 357–69 Kolbrener, W., Milton’s Warring Angels:  a Study of Critical Engagements (Cambridge University Press, 1997) Krouse, F. M., Milton’s Samson and the Christian Tradition (Princeton University Press, 1949) Lascelles, Mary, ‘Rasselas Reconsidered’ Essays and Studies, n. s. 4 (1951): 37–52   ‘Rasselas: A Rejoinder’, RES N. S. 21 (1970): 49–56 Lauder, William, An Essay on Milton’s Use and Imitation of the Moderns in his Paradise Lost (London, 1749/50)   A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Douglas, Occasioned by the Vindication of Milton (London, 1751) [see Johnson, Samuel]   King Charles I Vindicated from the charge of Plagiarism, Brought against him by Milton, and Milton himself convicted of Forgery, and a gross Imposition on the Public (London, 1754) Leishman, J. B., Milton’s Minor Poems, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1969) Leonard, John, Naming in Paradise: Milton and the Language of Adam and Eve (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990) Lewalski, Barbara K., ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton University Press, 1985)   The Life of John Milton:  A Critical Biography (Oxford:  Blackwell, Blackwell Critical Biographies, rev. edn., 2003) Lewis, C. S., A Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’ (Oxford University Press, 1942, reissue, 1960) Lieb, Michael, Theological Milton:  Deity, Discourse and Heresy in the Miltonic Canon (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, Medieval & Renaissance Literature Studies, 2006)



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Toland, John [see Milton, John] Tomarken, Edward, Johnson, ‘Rasselas’, and the Choice of Criticism (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989) Towers, Joseph, An Essay on the Life, Character, and Writings of Dr. Samuel Johnson (London, 1786) Tracy, C. R., ‘Democritus, Arise! A Study of Dr. Johnson’s Humor’, Yale Review 39 (1949–50): 294–310 Turner, James Grantham, One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford University Press, 1987; Clarendon Paperback, 1993) Vance, John A., Samuel Johnson and the Sense of History (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1984) Venturo, David F., Johnson the Poet: The Poetic Career of Samuel Johnson (Newark and London: University of Delaware Press and AUP, 1999) Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France … And also Upon the Epick Poetry of the European Nations From Homer down to Milton (London, 1727) Waddell, Helen, More Latin Lyrics from Virgil to Milton, ed. Dame Felicitas Corrigan (London: Victor Gollancz, 1976) Wahba, Magdi, coll., Bicentenary Essays on ‘Rasselas’, supplement to Cairo Studies in English (1959)   ed., Johnsonian Studies (Cairo: Oxford University Press, 1962) Walker, Julia M., ‘The Poetics of Antitext and the Politics of Milton’s Allusions’, SEL 37 (1997): 151–71   ed., Milton and the Idea of Woman (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988) Walsh, Marcus, Shakespeare, Milton, and Eighteenth-Century Literary Editing: the Beginnings of Interpretative Scholarship (Cambridge University Press, 1997) Warton, Joseph, An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (London, 1756, 3rd edn., Dublin, 1764) Warton, Thomas [see Milton, John] Wasserman, Earl R., ‘Johnson’s Rasselas: Implicit Contexts’, JEGP 74 (1975): 1–25 Watts, Isaac, Divine Songs for the Use of Children (London: 1812 edn.) Weinbrot, Howard D., The Formal Strain:  Studies in Augustan Imitation and Satire (University of Chicago Press, 1969)   ‘The Reader, the General, and the Particular: Johnson and Imlac in Chapter Ten of Rasselas’, ECS 5 (1971–2): 80–96   ‘John Clarke’s Essay on Study and Samuel Johnson on Paradise Lost’, MP 72 (1974–5): 404–7 Weitzman, Arthur J., ‘More Light on Rasselas: The Background of the Egyptian Episodes’, PQ 48 (1969): 42–58 West, Gilbert, Odes of Pindar (London, 1749) Wheeler, David, ed., Domestick Privacies: Samuel Johnson and the Art of Biography (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987) White, Gilbert, Gilbert White:  The Natural History of Selborne, ed. Richard Mabey (London:  Penguin Books, Penguin English Library, 1977, repr. Penguin Classics, 1987)



Whitley, Alvin, ‘The Comedy of Rasselas’, ELH 23 (1956): 48–70 Wilding, Michael, Dragons Teeth:  Literature in the English Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987) Wittreich, Joseph A., Interpreting ‘Samson Agonistes’ (Princeton University Press, 1986)   Feminist Milton (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987)   Shifting Contexts: Reinterpreting ‘Samson Agonistes’ (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 2002) Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (London, 1792) Womack, Mark, ‘On the Value of Lycidas’, SEL 1500–1900 37 (1997): 119–36 Young, Edward, Conjectures on Original Composition, 1759 (Leeds:  The Scolar Press Ltd., A Scolar Press Facsimile, 1966) Work s by Joh ns on Johnson, Samuel, A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Douglas, Occasioned by his Vindication of Milton (London, 1751) [see Lauder, William]   ‘Life of Browne’ (London, 1756) [see Browne, Sir Thomas]   The Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. F.P. Walesby (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 11 vols., 1825)   The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1958–2005)   Vol. I, Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, ed. E. L. McAdam, Jr., with Donald and Mary Hyde (1958)   Vol. II, The Idler and the Adventurer, eds. W. J. Bate, J. Bullitt, L. F. Powell (1963)   Vols. III, IV, and V, The Rambler, eds. W. J. Bate and A. B. Strauss (1969)   Vols. VII and VIII, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. A. Sherbo (1968)   Vol. IX, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, ed. Mary Lascelles (1971)   Vol. X, Political Writings, ed. Donald J. Greene (1977)   Vol. XIV, Sermons, eds., J. H. Hagstrum and J. Gray (1978)   Vol. XVI, Rasselas and Other Tales, ed. Gwin J. Kolb (1990)   Vol. XVIII, Johnson on the English Language, eds. Gwin J. Kolb and Robert DeMaria, Jr. (2005)   Samuel Johnson’s Prefaces and Dedications, ed. Allen T. Hazen (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1937)   Samuel Johnson: A Dictionary of the English Language on CD-ROM. The First and Fourth Editions, ed. Anne McDermott (Cambridge University Press in association with the University of Birmingham, 1996)   The Poems of Samuel Johnson, eds. David Nichol Smith Edward L. McAdam, rev. J. D. Fleeman (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2nd edn., 1974)   Samuel Johnson:  The Complete English Poems, ed. J. D. Fleeman (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1971)   Johnson’s Juvenal: ‘London’ and ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’, ed. Niall Rudd (Bristol Classical Press, 1981)



  The Latin & Greek Poems of Samuel Johnson: Text, Translation and Commentary, ed. and tr. Barry Baldwin (London: Duckworth, 1995)   Samuel Johnson: The Latin Poems, tr. and ed. Niall Rudd (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2005)   Johnson:  History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1887, reissue, 1960)   Samuel Johnson:  The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia ed. J. P. Hardy (Oxford University Press, The World’s Classics, 1968, rev. edn., 1988)   Samuel Johnson:  The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia; Ellis Cornelia Knight:  Dinarbas:  A Tale, ed. Lynne Meloccaro (London and Vermont:  J. M. Dent, Everyman, and Charles E. Tuttle, 1994) [also see Knight, Ellis Cornelia]   Johnson as Critic, ed. John Wain (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Routledge Critics Series, 1973)   Samuel Johnson, Life of Savage, ed. Clarence Tracy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971)   Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. George Birkbeck Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 3 vols., 1905)   Samuel Johnson:  The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets; with Critical Observations on their Works, ed. Roger Lonsdale (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 4 vols., 2006)   The Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. Bruce Redford, Hyde Edition, 5 vols., (vols. I–III, Princeton University Press, 1992; vols. IV–V, Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1994) Work s by M i lton Milton, John, The Poetical Works of Mr. John Milton … with Explanatory Notes [by Patrick Hume] (London: Jacob Tonson, 1695)   A Complete Collection of the Historical, Political, and Miscellaneous Works of John Milton, Both English and Latin, ed. John Toland (Amsterdam [London], 1698)   Paradise Lost, with ‘Life’ by Elijah Fenton (London, 1725)   Milton’s Paradise Lost: A New Edition, ed. Richard Bentley (London, 1732)   A Complete Collection of the Historical, Political, and Miscellaneous Works of John Milton, ed. Thomas Birch (London, 1738, 2 vols.)   Paradise Lost. A Poem in Twelve Books, ed. Thomas Newton (London, 1749, 2 vols.)   Paradise Regain’ d. A Poem in Four Books. To which is added Samson Agonistes: and Poems upon Several Occasions, ed. Thomas Newton (London, 1752)   Poems upon Several Occasions, English, Italian, and Latin, with Translations, by John Milton, ed. Thomas Warton (London, 1785)   The Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. Henry John Todd (London, 1801)   The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, eds. D. M. Wolfe et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 8 vols., 1953–82)



  Milton: Private Correspondence and Academic Exercises, ed. E. M. W. Tillyard, tr. Phyllis B. Tillyard (Cambridge University Press, 1932)   Milton on Himself, ed. John S. Diekhoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 1939)   John Milton, eds. Jonathan Goldberg and Stephen Orgel (Oxford University Press, Oxford Authors, 1990)   Milton:  Complete Shorter Poems, ed. John Carey (Harlow, Essex:  Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., Longman Annotated English Poets, 2nd edn., 1997)   Milton:  Paradise Lost, ed. Alastair Fowler (Harlow, Essex:  Addison Wesley Longman Ltd., Longman Annotated English Poets, 2nd edn., 1998)


Note: The following abbreviations are used: JM is John Milton; PL is Paradise Lost; SJ is Samuel Johnson. Abyssinia (Rasselas), 59 Achinstein, Sharon, 183 acoustic effects (blank verse), 114, 115 action (tragedy genre), 180 Adam (Paradise Lost), 38, 130, 136, 138–41 animal naming, 62 human mortality, 20 suffering, 54 Addison, Joseph, 33, 109, 121, 122, 130, 135, 138, 139, 142, 147 Alcestis (Milton, Sonnet XIX), 155 ‘alp’ usage, 183 ambition, 34 American Revolution, 83 angels, 145 animals, 60, 62 Anne (JM’s daughter), 229 anti-prelatical tracts (Milton), 197 An Apology against a Pamphlet (Milton), 198 architecture, 61, 104–5 Areopagitica (Milton), 11, 12–14, 196–7 Arianism, 142, 143 Aristotle, 179 Aspasia (Irene), 41–2, 44 Astell, Mary, 228 astronomer (Rasselas), 72–6 Aubrey, John, 199, 218, 227, 238 Aurora Est Musis Amica (Johnson), 33 ‘Babylonish Dialect’, 127 Baines, Paul, 101 Barbauld, Anna, 70 Battle of the Pygmies and Cranes (Johnson), 34 Belial (Paradise Lost), 86 Benson, William, 111, 112 Bentley, Richard, 121, 139 biblical epics, SJ’s views on, 133–5

biblical quotations, 19 Bigot letter, 241, 242 ‘bigotry’ (Dictionary), 181 biography, SJ’s views on, 212–13 Birch, Thomas, 106, 154, 195, 200 blank verse, 32, 109–20 blindness, 184, 209, 216, 235 blue-plaque mentality, 212 Boswell, James, 70, 140, 193, 221 Lauder affair, 100–1 on SJ’s depression, 23 Boulton, James T., 89 Brown, Cedric C., 170 Browne, Sir Thomas, 123 Budick, Sanford, 51 Burke, Edmund, 131, 147 Burnet, James, 127 Burney, Charles, 177 Burney, Frances, 165 Burton, Robert, 169, 170 Byron, George Gordon, 211 cadences, 111, 113 caesurae, 114 celebrity-seeking, 244 censorship, 196 Charles I, 106, 200 Charles II, 182, 208 Christianity, 56–7, 141, 142–4, 155, 247 Christopher (JM’s brother), 215–16 city versus country, 45–50 Clarke, John, 137, 142, 145 classical mythology, 166–7 Clifford, James L., 58 Clingham, Greg, 220, 243 companionate marriage, 68 Comus (Milton), 172–8




Conjectures on Original Composition (Young), 118 constitutional authority, 83, 84 country pleasures, 29 Cowley, Abraham, 133, 134, 163, 219 Creaser, John, 164 criticism, function of, 9–12, 15, 106, 135 Cromwell, Oliver, 192, 201, 204–5 Cruden, Alexander, 125 cult of Milton, 118 Cumberland, Richard, 181 Cunningham, J. S., 61 daily routines of Milton, 233–8 Dalila (Samson Agonistes), 184–5 Dalton, John, 174 damnation, 18, 43 Damrosch, Leopold, 167 ‘darkling’ (Dictionary), 55 daughters of Milton, 229–32 Davideis (Cowley), 133 death, 18, 20–21, 55 of Milton, 238–9 Deborah (JM’s daughter), 229, 230, 231 Defensio Secunda (Milton), 201, 205 DeMaria, Robert, 36 Dennis, John, 136, 145 dependence, 16 depression, 22, 171 diction in Lycidas, 160–1 in PL, 121–8 Dictionary (Johnson), 2, 123 Lycidas quotations, 160 PL quotations, 123–6 divorce, 70, 223, 224, 225 The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (Milton), 223, 225 domestic life of Milton, 214–38 Douglas, John, 99 drama, 175, 177 Dryden, John, 97, 206 early rising, 234 Eden (Bible), 58 Eden (Paradise Lost), 60 education, 218–22 Eikon Basilike, 200 elegy genre, 155–69 Eliot, T. S., 31, 128 empathy, 212 end-rhyme, 120 English Revolution, 87 epic poetry, 9

Epitaphium Damonis (Milton), 163 Eve (Paradise Lost), 27, 48, 136, 138–41, 229 Milton’s treatment of, 40, 42 Narcissus myth, 37–8 ‘exhalation’ (Dictionary), 90 faith, 56–7, 247 the Fall, 17, 52, 138 fallen angels (Paradise Lost), 136, 145 The False Alarm (Johnson), 85–7 Falsehood allegory, 13, 14 fame, 53, 245 female stereotyping, 41 femininity, poeticisation of, 36–45 Fenton, Elijah, 199 ‘fiction’ (Dictionary), 162–3 Fleeman, J. D., 33 floods, 67 Folkenflik, Robert, 64, 215 foreign idioms, 125, 127, 128 form and subject in PL, 128–49 Fortunate Fall doctrine, 66, 79 Foster, Elizabeth, 174 friendship, 69 Fussell, Paul, 78–9, 103 Garden of Eden. see Eden gender, 36–45, 139–40 genius of Milton, 131, 132, 149, 244, 246 George III, 85, 86 God (Paradise Lost), 142 good humour, 15–16 grammar, 221 Greece, 202 Greek tragedies, 180 Greene, Donald J., 87 grief, 161, 162, 163 Grundy, Isobel, 52, 239 Hale, John K., 128 Happy Valley (Rasselas), 58, 59–61, 78–9 Hawkins, Sir John, 100, 154, 182 Helgerson, Richard, 32 hell, 43, 61 heresy, 142 heroic drama, 35–45 ‘heroic fiction’, 89 heroines, 41 history, 54, 82 Homer, 247 human interest

Index in Comus, 175 in PL, 15–24, 136, 138–41 Hurd, Richard, 186 iambic pentameters, 111 idleness, 21–2 Il Penseroso (Milton), 169–72 imagination, 131–2, 133, 136 Imlac (Rasselas), 63–7, 71, 72, 76, 77 immateriality in PL, 146 inductions in PL, 131 innocence, 138, 139, 148 inspiration, 33 intellect, 24 Interregnum, JM’s employment during, 203–5 intertextuality, 58 inundations, 67 Irene (Johnson), 35–45 irregular metre, 113 Islam, 39 Johnson, Samuel on biblical epics, 133–5 biographical similarities with JM, 213 on biography, 212–13 biography of JM, 191–210, 211–39, 240–7 on cheerfulness, 15–16 Comus criticism, 172–8 depression, 171 education, 217 fear of death, 18, 147 Il Penseroso criticism, 169–72 Jacobitism, 194 on JM as dramatist, 186 on JM as writer-hero, 241–7 and JM’s blank verse, 109–20 on JM’s politics, 191–210 and JM’s self-representation, 241 on JM’s shorter poems, 150–87 L’Allegro criticism, 169–72 Lauder affair, 97–107 literary memory, 8, 28, 30 Lycidas criticism, 155–69 on marriage, 68–71, 225 marriage to Elizabeth Porter, 227 moralism, 23 and mortality, 20–1 and natural world, 24–30, 47–9 Paradise Lost criticism, 108–49 Paradise Regained criticism, 178 parents’ relationship, 214 on pastoral elegies, 155–69 periodical essays, 7–30 poetry, 31–57


political beliefs, 207 Political Tracts, 82–94, 197 productivity, 234–5 public worship, 233 reading, 35–6, 144, 192 and reality, 164 religious belief, 134 and repentance, 18 resistance to finality, 78–81 Samson Agonistes criticism, 178–87 Satanic allusion, 21–3, 27, 28, 207 on sex, 70 Sonnets criticism, 152–5 and Truth allegory, 12 university education, 217 use of quotations, 19, 28, 124–6 wife’s death, 154 Junius (Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands), 89, 90, 91 Juvenal, 45, 46, 50, 51, 54–5 juvenilia (Johnson), 31–5 Kermode, Frank, 27, 238 King Charles I Vindicated from the Charge of Plagiarism, Brought against him by Milton, and Milton himself convicted of Forgery and a gross Imposition on the Public (Lauder), 106 knowledge, pursuit of in Rasselas, 66–7, 71–8 L’Allegro (Milton), 169–72 Lady (Comus), 177 Lascelles, Mary, 71 Latin defences (Milton), 201 Latin poetry, 32, 151 ‘latterly’ (Dictionary), 237 Laud, Archbishop, 53 Lauder affair, 97–107 Levet, Robert, 162 liberty, 88 ‘licence’ (Dictionary), 88 ‘Life of Butler’ (Lives of the Poets), 193 ‘Life of J. Philips’ (Lives of the Poets), 127 ‘Life of Milton’ (Lives of the Poets), 119, 126, 127, 210, 240 conclusion, 148, 247 see also Lives of the Poets linguistic complexity in PL, 121–8 literary ambition, 34 literary criticism see criticism, function of Lives of the Poets (Johnson), 118, 150, 240 see also ‘Life of Milton’

294 London (Johnson), 45–51 Lycidas (Milton), 25, 155–69 Mahomet (Irene), 36, 37, 39, 40 marriage, 67–71, 138, 139, 222–8 Marvell, Andrew, 135 Mary (JM’s daughter), 229, 230 A Mask presented at Ludlow Castle (Comus) (Milton), 172–8 Mason, William, 186 masque genre, 172–8 materialism, 76–7 melancholy, 170, 171 Melissus (Rambler), 226 Messiah (Pope), 32 metre in Lycidas, 161 in PL, 108–20 Michael (Paradise Lost), 51, 65, 73 Mickle, William, 180 Milton, Christopher (JM’s brother), 215–16 Milton, John Arianism, 142, 143 blindness, 209, 216, 235 brother, 215–16 Cambridge University studies, 217–18 composition method, 235 daily routines, 233–8 daughters, 229–32 death, 238–9 ‘domestic liberty’ pamphlets, 7 domestic life, 214–33 education, 216–8 as husband, 222–8 marriages, 222–8 misogyny, 185 old age, 238–9 parents, 214, 215 physical appearance, 236–7 political beliefs/writings, 191–210 private life, 211–39 public worship, 232 recreations, 236 republicanism, 194, 200, 206 and sexual purity, 227 teaching, 218–19, 221 theology, 142–4 and Truth allegory, 9–15 university education, 217–18 and women, 228–9 as writer-hero, 241–7 Miltonic allusion SJ’s periodical essays, 7–30 SJ’s poetry, 31–57

Index Minim, Dick (Idler), 116–18 mirth, 172 misogyny, 185, 228, 229 misquotation, 8 mock-heroic style, 33–4, 91 monarchy, 85 Monboddo, Lord (James Burnet), 127 Moody, A. D., 49 morality, 15, 16, 23 mortalism, 76 mortality, 20–1 Mudford, William, 70 Muir, Edwin, 50 Mulciber (Paradise Lost), 104 Mulso, Hester, 70 music, 171, 177 musical cadences, 111 mythological allusion, 133 Nativity Ode (Milton), 152, 163 natural world, 24–30, 132 Nekayah (Rasselas), 67, 69, 71 Newton, Thomas, 179, 195, 196, 203, 224, 227 night, 27–8 Nile, River, 80 nocturnes, 27 Norbrook, David, 137 Observation (The Vanity of Human Wishes), 52 Oedipal tragedies, 180 Of Education (Milton), 218–21 old age, 16, 55, 171, 238 onomatopoeia, 115 originality, 149 Ottoman empire, 39 Overton, Richard, 76 pagan mythology, 166–7 Pandemonium (Paradise Lost), 91, 104 paradise in Rasselas, 59–61 Paradise Lost (Milton), 108–49 angelic narratives, 66, 72, 73–4 conclusion, 80 difficulty of, 144 human interest in, 15–24 plagiarism accusation, 98–107 sales figures, 245 SJ’s first quotation from, 9 SJ’s politicised reading of, 85–7, 88, 93–4 Paradise Regained (Milton), 178 Parliament, 84 pastoral elegy genre, 155–69 pastoral poetry, 25, 26, 47–9, 150 The Patriot (Johnson), 87–9

Index Patterson, Annabel, 222 Pekuah (Rasselas), 75 perfection, 64, 65 periodical essays (Johnson), 7–30 Philips, J., 127 Phillips, Edward, 98, 203, 218, 230 physical appearance of JM, 236–7 plagiarism accusation against JM (Lauder affair), 97–107 poet’s role, 63–5 poetry (Johnson), 31–57 polemical sonnets (Milton), 153 political rhetoric, 87 Political Tracts (Johnson), 82–94 politics of Milton, 191–210 Pope, Alexander, 32, 111, 165 Powell, Mary, 222, 223, 224 Presbyterianism, 205 press censorship, 196 private life of Milton, 211–39 Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (Defensio Prima) (Milton), 201 prolepsis, 16 prosody in Lycidas, 161 in PL, 108–20 Protean Truth, 14 Protestantism, 49, 194 public worship, 232, 233 pyramids (Rasselas), 72

Say, Samuel, 112 Scott, John, 168 seasons, 28, 234 sectarianism, 85 Sermons (Johnson), 192 Seward, Anna, 153 sexual purity, 227 sexuality, 70 Shakespeare, William, 16, 64, 132, 175 Sharp, Dr John, 152 Shenstone, William, 160 shorter poems (Milton), 150–87 Shumaker, Wayne, 115 Simmons, Samuel, 245 Sin and Death allegory in PL, 146–8 sincerity, 162, 200 Smith, Adam, 109 songs, 177 ‘sonnet’ (Dictionary), 153 Sonnets (Milton), 152–5 soul, nature of, 76–7 sound and sense (blank verse), 114–17 spirit/matter relationship in PL, 146 stereotyping, 41 stress (metre), 111 Stuarts, 195 subject and form in PL, 128–49 sublimity, 131, 141, 142, 147 syllabic stress, 111

Rambler, The (Johnson), 7–30 Raphael (Paradise Lost), 23, 52, 54, 63, 73 Rasselas (Johnson), 58–81, 78 The Readie and Easie Way (Milton), 206 reading aloud, 120 reality, 164 reason, 53 The Reason of Church Government (Milton), 14, 198 Reddick, Allen, 124, 125 regicide, JM’s defence of, 198, 199 repentance, 18 republicanism, 194, 200, 206 Restoration, 182, 208 Reynolds, Sir Joshua, 64 rhetoric, 87 rhyme, 32, 114, 119, 120 Richardson, Jonathan, 112, 122, 151, 159, 173, 242 River Nile, 80 Roffett, Abbé, 1 Rudd, Niall, 48

Taxation No Tyranny (Johnson), 83–4 temperance, 234 Terry, Richard, 101 Thackeray, William Makepeace, 31 Thales (London), 47, 48, 49 theology, 141, 142–44 Thomson, James, 119 Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands (Johnson), 89–93 Thrale, Henry, 87 Thrale, Mrs, 1, 170 Towers, Joseph, 100 town versus country, 45–50 tragedy genre, 178–87 translations, 32 Treatise of True Religion (Milton), 209 Truth allegories, 9–15

Samson Agonistes (Milton), 16, 53, 54, 178–87 Satan (Paradise Lost), 21, 22, 27–8, 29, 43, 46, 91, 92, 93–4, 105, 116, 136–8, 146, 207


Umbritius (Satire III) (Juvenal), 47 Vanity Fair (Thackeray), 31 Vanity of Human Wishes, The (Johnson), 50–7 verse translations, 32 verse-plays, 35–45

296 versification, see metre Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Wollstonecraft), 39 Virgil, 158, 165 virgin brides, 227 Voltaire, 142, 147 Waddell, Helen, 163 war, SJ’s tract against, 89–93 Warton, Joseph, 152, 159 Warton, Thomas, 152, 167, 168, 171, 175, 178 Wasserman, Earl R., 79

Index Watts, Isaac, 222 weather, 28, 170, 234 widows, 227 wilderness, 47 Wilkes affair, 84, 85, 87 wisdom, 56 Wollstonecraft, Mary, 39–40 women, 36–45, 228–32 Wotton, Sir Henry, 173 writers, types of, 244 Young, Edward, 118