A Contemporary Literary Response to Paradise Lost

Andrew Marvell, On Mr. Milton's "Paradise Lost" >> note 1

Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) was a close friend of Milton's and his associate (after Milton lost his vision) in the office of Latin Secretary in Cromwell's Protectorate (see Marvell's Horatian Ode on Cromwell, NAEL 8, 1.1712). Marvell's poem was the first important criticism of Paradise Lost, published along with a Latin tribute by Samuel Barrow in the second edition of the epic (1674). It is interesting to note how Marvell characterizes his early doubts about Milton's project and just what he later comes to value in Milton's achievement.

 


When I beheld the poet blind, yet bold,
In slender book his vast design unfold,
Messiah crowned, God's reconciled decree,
Rebelling Angels, the Forbidden Tree,
Heaven, Hell, Earth, Chaos, all; the argument
Held me a while, misdoubting his intent
That he would ruin (for I saw him strong)
The sacred truth to fable and old song,
(So Sampson >> note 2 groped the temple's posts in spite)
The world o'erwhelming to revenge his sight.

Yet as I read, soon growing less severe,
I liked his project, the success did fear;
Through that wide field how he his way should find
O'er which lame faith leads understanding blind;
Lest he perplexed the things he would explain,
And what was easy he should render vain.

Or if a work so infinite he spanned,
Jealous I was that some less skilful hand >> note 3
(Such as disquiet always what is well,
And by ill imitating would excel)
Might hence presume the whole creation's day
To change in scenes, and show it in a play.
Pardon me, Mighty Poet, nor despise
My causeless, yet not impious, surmise.
But I am now convinced that none will dare
Within thy labors to pretend a share.
Thou hast not missed one thought that could be fit,
And all that was improper dost omit:
So that no room is here for writers left,
But to detect their ignorance or theft.
That majesty which through thy work doth reign
Draws the devout, deterring the profane.
And things divine thou treat'st of in such state
As them preserves, and thee, inviolate.
At once delight and horror on us seize,
Thou sing'st with so much gravity and ease;
And above human flight dost soar aloft,
With plume so strong, so equal, and so soft.
The bird named from that paradise you sing
So never flags, but always keeps on wing.

Where couldst thou words of such a compass find?
Whence furnish such a vast expanse of mind?
Just heaven thee, like Tiresias, >> note 4 to requite,
Rewards with prophecy the loss of sight.

Well mightst thou scorn thy readers to allure
With tinkling rhyme, of thine own sense secure;
While the Town-Bayes >> note 5 writes all the while and spells,
And like a pack-horse tires without his bells.
Their fancies like our bushy points appear,
The poets tag them; we for fashion wear.
I too, transported by the mode, offend,
And while I meant to praise thee must commend.
The verse created like thy theme sublime,
In number, weight, and measure, needs not rhyme.

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