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HE poems which compose the present
volume were published almost thirty years before the appearance of the PARADISE LOST. During that interval, they were fo totally dirregarded, at least by the general reader, as scarcely to have conferred on their author the reputation of a writer of verses; much less the distinction and character of a true poet. After the publication of the PARADISE LOST, whose acknowledged merit and increasing celebrity might have naturally contributed to call other pieces of the same author, and of a kindred excellence, into a more conspicuous point of view, they long continued to remain in their original state of neglect and obscurity. At the infancy of their circulation, and for some years afterwards, they were overwhelmed in the commotions of faction, the conflict of religious disputation, and the professional ignorance of fanaticism. In succeeding years, when tumults and usurpations were at an end, and leisure and literature returned, the times were still unpropitious, and the public taste was unprepared for
their reception. It was late in the present century, before they attained their juft measure of esteem and popularity. Wit and rhyme, sentiment and satire, polished numbers, sparkling couplets, and pointed periods, having so long kept undisturbed poffeffion in our poetry, would not easily give way to fiction and fancy, to picturesque description, and romantic imagery.
When fir Henry Wootton, 1637, had received from Milton the compliment of a present of comus, at first separately printed by the care of Henry Lawes, he returned a panegyric on the performance, in which real approbation undoubtedly concurred with the partiality of private friendship, and a grateful sense of this kind testimony of Milton's regard. But Wootton, a scholar and a poet, did not perceive the genuine graces of this exquisite masque, which yet he professes to have viewed with fingular delight. His conceptions did not reach to the higher poetry of comus. He was rather struck with the pastoral mellifluence of its lyric measures, which he styles a certain Doric delicacy in the songs and odes, than with its graver and more majestic tones, with the solemnity and variety of its peculiar vein of original invention. This drama was not to be generally characterised by its songs and odes : nor do I know that softness and sweetness, although they want nei
ther, are particularly characteristical of those passages, which are most commonly rough with strong and crouded images, and rich in personification. However, the Song to Echo, and the initial strains of Comus's invocation, are much in the style which Wootton describes.
The first edition of these poems, comprehending comus already printed, and LYCIDAS, of which there was also a previous impression, is dated in 1645. But I do not recollect, that for seventy years afterwards, they are once mentioned in the whole succession of English literature. Perhaps almost the only instance on record, in that period of time, of their having received any, even a slight, mark of attention or notice, is to be found in archbishop Sancroft’s papers at Oxford. In these papers is contained a very considerable collection of poetry, but chiefly religious, exactly and elegantly transcribed with his own hand, while he was a fellow of Emanuel college, and about the year 1648, from Crashaw, Cowley, Herbert, Alabaster, Wootton, and other poets then in fashion. And
among these extracts is Milton's ODE ON THE NATIvity, said by Sancroft to be selected from the VITY “ first page of John Milton's poems.” Also our author's version of the fifty-third Pfalm, noted by the transcriber, I suppose as an example of uncommon exertion of genius, to have been
done in the fifteenth year of the translator's age.” Sancroft, even to his maturer years, retained his strong early predilection to polite literature, which he still continued to cultiyate ; and from these and other remains of his studies in that pursuit, now preserved in the Bodleian library, it appears, that he was a diligent reader of the poetry of his times, both in English and Latin. In an old Miscellany, quaintly called NAPS ON PARNASSUS, and printed in 1658, there is a recital of the most excellent English poets; who, according to this author's enumeration, are Chaucer, Lydgate, Hardyng, Spenser, Drayton, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Beaumont and Fletcher, Sandys, Cowley, and Clieveland, with some others then living and perhaps in fashion, but now forgotten. But there is not a syllable of the writer of L'ALLEGRO, IL PENSEROSO, and coMus. Langbaine, who wrote his dramatic biography in 1691, a scholar and a student in English poetry, having enumerated Milton's
greater English poems, coldly adds, “ he published some “ other poems in Latin and English, printed at “ London, 1645.” Nor is there the qırantity of an hemistich quoted from any of these poems, in the Collections of those who have digested the Beauties or Phrases of the English Poets from 1655 to 1738, inclusively. The first of
· * MSS. Coll. Tanx. Num. 465. See f. 34.60.
. Lond. 12mo. See Signat. B. 4.