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M ILTON is remembered mainly as an epic poet. But his final
choice of the epic form for his greatest poem and its companion was the result of deliberation. Apparently it was even a departure from his original inclination, when in his early manhood he had debated with himself in what form of poetry his genius would have fullest scope. Two of his early English poems had not only been dramatic, but had actually been performed. The Arcades was “part of an entertainment presented to the Countess-Dowager of Derby at Harefield by some noble persons of her family," probably in the year 1634; and Comus, the finest and most extensive of all Milton's minor poems, was nothing else than an elaborate “masque,” performed; in the same year, at Ludlow Castle, in Shropshire, before the Earl of Bridgewater, Lord President of Wales, by way of an entertainment to the gentry of the neighbourhood. (See Introductions to these two Poems.) Whether Milton was present at the performance of either the Arcades or the Comus is not known; but the fact of his writing two such dramatic pieces for actual performance by the members of a family with which he had relations of acquaintance shows that at that time-i.e. when he was twenty-six years of age-he had no objection to this kind of entertainment, then so fashionable at Court and among noble families of literary tastes. That he had seen masques performed -masques of Ben Jonson, Carew, or Shirley-may be taken for granted; and we have his own assurance that, when at Cambridge,
he attended dramatic representations there, got up in the colleges, and that, when in London, during his vacations from Cambridge, he used to go to the theatres (Eleg. i. 29-46). To the same effect we have his lines in L'Allegro, where he includes the theatre among the natural pleasures of the mind in its cheerful mood
w Then to the well-trod stage anon,
If Jonson's learned sock be on,
words which, so far as Milton's appreciation of Shakespeare is concerned, would seem poor, if we did not recollect the splendid lines which he had previously written (1630), and which were prefixed to the second folio edition of Shakespeare's plays in 1632
" What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones
The labour of an age in pilèd stones,
Still the unlawfulness of dramatic entertainments had always been a tenet of those stricter English Puritans with whom Milton even then felt a political sympathy; and Prynne's famous Histriomastix, in which he denounced stage-plays and all connected with them through a thousand quarto pages (1632), had helped to confirm Puritanism in this tenet. As Prynne's treatise had been out more than a year before the Arcades and Comus were written, it is clear that he had not converted Milton to his opinion. While the more rigid and less educated of the Puritans undoubtedly went with Prynne in condemning the stage altogether, Milton, I should say, before the time of his journey to Italy (1638–39), was one of those who retained a pride in the drama as the form of literature in which, for two generations, English genius had been most productive. Lamenting, with others, the corrupt condition into which the national drama had fallen in baser hands, and the immoral accompaniments of the degraded stage, he had seen no reason to recant his enthusiastic tribute to the memory of Shakespeare, or to be ashamed of his own contribution to the dramatic literature of England in his two model masques.
Gradually, however, with Milton's growing seriousness amid the events and duties that awaited him after his return from his Italian journey, and especially after the meeting of the Long Parliament (Nov. 3, 1640), there came a change in his notions of the drama. From this period there is evidence that his sympathy with the Prynne view of things, at least as far as regarded the English stage, was more considerable than it had been-that, while he regarded all literature as recently infected with baseness and corruption, and requiring to be taught again its true relation to the spiritual needs and uses of a great nation, he felt an especial dislike to the popular literature of stage-plays, as then written and acted. From this period, if I mistake not, he was practically against theatregoing, as unworthy of a serious man, considering the contrast between what was to be seen within the theatres and what was in course of transaction without them ; nor, if his two masques and his eulogy on Shakespeare had remained to be written now, do I think he would have judged it opportune to write them. Certainly he would not now have written the masques for actual performance, public or private. And yet he had not abandoned his admiration of the drama as a form of literature.
On the contrary, he was still convinced that no form of literature was nobler, more capable of conveying the highest and most salutary conceptions of the mind of a great poet. When, immediately after his return from Italy, he was preparing himself for that great English poem upon which he proposed to bestow his full strength, and debating with himself what should be its subject and what its form, what do we find? We find him, for a while (The Reason of Church Government, Introd. to Book II.), balancing the claims of the epic, the dramatic, and the lyric, and concluding that in any one of these a great Christian poet might have congenial scope, and the benefit of grand precedents and models. He discusses the claims of the Epic first, and thinks highly of them, but proceeds immediately to inquire "whether those dramatic constitutions in " which Sophocles and Euripides reign shall be found more "doctrinal and exemplary to a nation," adding, "The Scripture “ also affords us a divine Pastoral Drama in the Song of Solomon,
consisting of two persons and a double chorus, as Origen rightly