Samuel Johnson On Milton

It’s the birthday of poet John Milton (1608-1674).  The finest tribute to him was written by Samuel Johnson in the eighteenth century, a piece of criticism on Paradise Lost that deserves to be read in its entirety.  Johnson does not shy away from pointing out the faults of that poem, but he does not hesitate to praise it, either.  His last words on it–and on Milton himself–are a kind of gentle, respectful epitaph, composed by a man quite familiar with the personal and poetic difficulties to which he refers, and aware of everything Milton had to do to overcome them:

“The highest praise of genius is original invention. Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epic poem; and therefore owes reverence to that vigor and amplitude of mind to which all generations must be indebted for the art of poetical narration, for the texture of the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and all the stratagems that surprise and enchain attention. But of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is in his writings nothing by which the pride of other authors might be gratified, or favor gained; no exchange of praise nor solicitation of support. 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 heroic poems, only because it is not the first.”

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