1. Literary Position
Shakespeare and Milton are two poets of England who are head and shoulders above the rest of the age to which they belong to the age of Elizabeth or the age of the first Romantic movement in English literature.
Shakespeare was the dramatist and the poet of universal humanity; and Milton, was the epic poet and the poet of Puritan England. Milton however suffers a great deal from needless comparison with Shakespeare. People usually praise Shakespeare and so they hope to find in the latter’s poetry the same gaiety and variety, the same breadth of view and depth of insight that they get from Shakespeare. Though nobody can call in question the greatness of Milton, yet it is not possible for him to satisfy the very highest demand made upon him.
2. Milton’s Scholarship
Possessed of a daring and sublime imagination, he is one of the most learned poets of England. He studied all the literary masterpieces of ancient Greece and Rome. He was equally acquainted with the contemporary literatures of Italy, England, and Spain. He appropriated the thoughts of his predecessors more than any other poet. His poems are exquisitely rich in beautiful classical allusions. He illustrated and decorated his ideas by borrowing from the Bible to an extent which it is difficult to measure.
3. Milton’s Sublimity
Sublimity is the only word that can truly characterise Milton’s poetry. Even in his early poems, such as the Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, there is an unmistakable touch of the sublime. The constitutional sublimity of Paradise Lost is the greatest feature of the poem. Here Immensity communes with Infinity. It overwhelms us by the vastness of its conception. It transcends our imagination and experience. The subject-matter of this superhuman drama is the fate of Man. The time is Eternity; the space is Infinity, and the actors are God, the Angels and the primitive man. Milton’s poetry has the roaring of the ocean in it. Other poets have given us more beauty, more philosophy and more romance, but none has given us such sublime things as Milton.
4. Milton’s Imagination
The next aspect of Milton’s poetry is revealed in the quality of his imagination. It ranges freely over heaven and earth; it makes the invisible concrete and visible.
5. Milton’s Love of Beauty
Milton was possessed of a keen sense of beauty. He loved beauty in all its forms. He was deeply sensitive to the beauties of external nature; the two poems L’Allegro, II Penseroso testify to his love of nature. He was a lover of art and music. “Nowhere is Milton’s love of beauty better displayed than in the early poems, L’Allegro, II Penseroso, Comus and Lycidas. They have all the freshness and charm of youth, and exhibit the lighter and more fanciful side of Milton’s genius.”
6. Milton’s Classicism
Closely wrought in Puritanism, there is in Milton’s nature a strong bent for classicism, which is pagan and sensuous. He was a keen student of the ancient classics, and drank deep at the springs of the classical learning. He wrote Latin prose as freely as he wrote English. He chose classical forms of poetry to express himself-epic (Paradise Lost), the Greek tragedy (Samson Agonistes) the pastoral elegy (Lycidas) and the ode (Ode on the Nativity of Christ). His style was built, conscious or unconsciously on the classical models.
7. Milton’s Seriousness
Milton from his very boyhood was a man of a very serious bent of mind. He always thought his life to be a dedicated one. He lived with the consciousness of being ever in the awful presence of God. Every thought and every act of his life was influenced by such consciousness. To him life was real and earnest, and not “a dream by an idiot.” It is for this reason that Milton’s poetry has always a touch of seriousness in it.
8. Milton’s Spiritual Import
The distinctive feature of Milton’s poetry is its spiritual quality. His intense godliness found its expression through his poetry. Like the needle of the mariner’s compass which always points to the north pole, Milton’s thoughts and actions always pointed to God. He always felt that he was living under the eye of his loving Taskmaster. All his writings have a deep religious undertone. To spend an hour with Milton is to feel the living presence of God. Paradise Lost was written to justify the ways of God to man.
9. Blend of Ancient and Modern Art
Like Milton the man, Milton the poet also is a meeting point of contradictory elements. He was a Puritan, but had the polish and chivalry of a Cavalier. He was a great hater of tyranny, but had all the ornamental qualities of a Royalist. His opinions were democratic, but his tastes were those of an aristocrat. Similarly, in his poetry, we find the simplicity and romantic richness of modern art. His Adam, Eve and Satan are simple and majestic epic characters, but the dress, style and illustrations have the splendour, complexity and subtlety of modern art.
10. Milton’s Picturesqueness
Milton has an extraordinary power of drawing wonderful and vivid pen pictures. His descriptions of scenes and events are so impressive that it is difficult to forget them. He seldom goes into details; but with a few strokes of his mighty and magic pen draws a vast impressionistic picture.
11. The grand style of Milton
Milton’s style has been called the ‘grand style’ because it has always an unmistakable stamp of majesty in it. It has not ‘the voice of the sea’ as Wordsworth says, but it has an elevating effect on the reader. The subject of Milton’s poetry is always lofty; even when he speaks of common things, he elevates them to lofty heights. Coleridge defines poetic style as ‘the best words in the best order.’ Milton’s style, more than that of any other poet, fully justifies this definition. Matthew Arnold says: “In the sure and flawless perfection of his rhythm and diction, he is as admirable as Virgil or Dante, and in this respect he is unique amongst us. None else in English literature possesses the like distinction.”
1. Want of Human Interest
The most glaring defect which strikes even a careless reader of Milton’s poetry is its want of human interest. We do not find in his poetry any sweet and homely picture of this ordinary work-a-day world where we live and move, love and hate, quarrel and struggle. The greatness of an art lies in its nearness to human life; but in this respect, Milton’s poetry is hopelessly deficient.
2. Want of Humour
This is another conspicuous defect of Milton’s poetry. The intense seriousness of his mind did not allow him to indulge in humour of any kind. Moreover, in breadth of views, in sympathy for man which are essential conditions of true humour, Milton was sadly deficient.
3. Want of the Element of Love
Another serious defect of Milton’s poetry is the absence from it of the element of love. His Puritanism is largely at the root of it. Though there has been scarcely any son of Adam who has not been at some time or the other tempted by a daughter of Eve, their parents in Milton’s poem do not indulge in love-making.
4. Involved Diction and Complex Construction
Milton’s love of digressions, ellipses, inversions, Latinism, involutions, etc., make his sentences often gnarled in structure and their meaning often obscure. His long drawn similes, profusion of allusion, proneness to unnecessary elaboration sometimes torture his readers and make the reading of his poetry a laborious intellectual exercise.