Here we move from sunlight into the shadow. Dryden’s lines on Milton are not well known and not perhaps very original, since they are possibly an echo of an extravagant compliment paid to Milton by an Italian admirer when Milton, then visiting Rome, was only about thirty and had done nothing to justify the comparison with Virgil and Homer. Dryden’s compliment to the author of Paradise Lost was well deserved. It was written in 1688 to go beneath an engraved portrait of Milton as frontispiece to a folio edition of Paradise Lost brought out by Jacob Tonson, Dryden’s own publisher. Milton by this time had been dead some fourteen years, and the reader may wonder why I should think his ghost would bother to return from the grave to answer a brief and mainly conventional compliment from John Dryden, and to answer it at such length.
The answer lies in another and a most extraordinary composition of Dryden’s, The State of Innocence and Fall of Man, an Opera, written in Heroic Verse, published in 1674, the year of Milton’s death. It is based on Paradise Lost, and John Aubrey, who knew Dryden well, has a credible story that he asked Milton’s permission to adapt his epic for the stage:
John Dreyden, Esq., Poet Laureate, who very much admires him, went to him to have leave to put his Paradise Lost into a Drame in rythme. Mr Milton recieved him civilly, and told him he would give him leave to tagge his verses.
Dryden’s admiration for him at a time when Milton was generally neglected is borne out by his own statements and by the echoes of Paradise Lost in his own poems. The State of Innocence and Fall of Man is clearly in part an act of piety: Dryden preserves the main line of Milton’s incidents and echoes many actual passages of the epic. Not all the lines are “tagged”—i.e., provided with rhymes—but most of them are in heroic couplets and most indeed are of Dryden’s own invention of free paraphrases of the original. It is not a bad performance in its own right. It is not Dryden at his height; but it is good Dryden, and that means that it has greatness in it, movement, energy, and imagination beyond the ordinary. But of course it cannot help challenging comparison with its great original; grandeur has gone out of the tale, the cosmic setting has shrunk to the dimensions of a theatre stage, and the epic line has dwindled to a conversational tone. Dryden called it an “opera”, but it was not an opera in the modern sense. It was rather a spoken verse drama interspersed with songs and dances and episodes in dumb-show, that is to say, rather a development of the Jacobean masque. Eve’s dream, for example, is represented by Eve sleeping in her bower with Lucifer sitting beside her and whispering in her ear, while the audience sees the tree of knowledge grow out of the stage with deformed spirits dancing around it. An angel enters leading the figure of Eve and a sung dialogue goes on while the dancing spirits eat of the fruit of the tree and change from deformed shapes into angelic figures, and so on. One unintentionally comic effect is that the real angels, spiritual beings empowered with their own faculty of motion, are forced to ascend and descend from heaven by mobile cloud transports. What Milton would have made of all this one can only imagine. His portrait in Tonson’s folio edition has a look of incredulous surprise just dawning upon an expression of settled melancholy, which suggested to me when I saw it that he had just read Dryden’s text. One can be sure that the stern old puritan would not have minced his words to Glorious John, though he would surely have recognized the genius of the younger poet and, as I have suggested, might have tried to demonstrate the difference between the true epic and the new “heroick” styles.
What Dryden’s motives can have been is still a matter for wonder. The actual drama was written in the course of a single month as a compliment from the Poet Laureate to Mary of Modena, the sixteen-year-old wife of James, Duke of York, on her arrival in England in 1673. She had been married by proxy in Italy the year before. He probably intended it for a court performance, though it was in fact never staged, possibly, as Sir Walter Scott suggested, because the costume of our first parents, especially before the fall, would have raised some difficulties in presenting them in the theatre—even the Restoration theatre. Dryden prefaced the play by a long discourse on epic poetry, and this may give us a better clue. The discourse is not very relevant to the “opera”, but it is relevant to Dryden’s burning ambition—never realized—to be an epic poet. He was already an established dramatic poet, and in translating the only great English epic into dramatic terms he may have been measuring himself against Milton for the day when he too would stand before the world with “Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime” to his credit.
I have made Milton refer to Dryden as “Glorious John”. In this he anticipates Sir Walter Scott, to whom the phrase is due, but if Milton from the tomb can be supposed to read Dryden he can be credited with reading Scott as well.
Dryden On Milton
Three Poets, in three distant Ages born,
Greece, Italy and England did adorn.
The First in loftiness of thought Surpass’d;
The Next in Majesty; in both the Last.
The force of Nature cou’d no farther goe:
To make a Third she joynd the former two.
Milton To Dryden
To whom then I: if what thou say’st be true,
Little remains for thee, the fourth to come
With high Ambition fired and genius bent
To claim the Muses’ Crown in this new Age;
Nay, more, by virtue of that gift vouchsafed
To Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old,
And now to me, like them immured in night,
I tell thee, Glorious John, thou com’st too late,
Smit with the love of Epick Song—too late
For Nature, for the Muse, indeed, too late!—
Nature hath broke the mould; Calliope
Shut fast her book. Henceforth the fallen World
Breeds no more from her uncapacious womb
Poets, the peers of Heroes whom they sung.
In mee, long meditating Time’s decay,
In me thou seest the last of all their line.
And, but for this, thy talents marked for Fame,
Haply my mantle might have fall’n on thee.
For this I gave thee leave to tag my lines.
Thus far permitted, had I hope to see
Grafts from my antique stock sprung no less fair.…
Here I, at pause a space abstracted stood
From my discourse, with various passion fraught,
Inly revolving the decline of Song,
Then as far forth as in my power it lay,
With purpose to show plain the Gulph between
The ancient liberty of Heroic Verse
And bondage to newfangle Rime, resum’d:
O vision ill-foreseen! What do I find?
Earth, Heav’n in Pandemonium combin’d;
A sov’reign Poet, the Laureat of his Age,
Debase my text and travesty my page;
My stately Poem to an opera chang’d;
My Fable botch’d and its high theme deranged;
The State of Innocence with jigs adorn’d;
Man to his Fall by Thespian tricks suborn’d;
Spirits transported only by machines;
God by stage-thunder played behind the scenes;
A dumb-show Serpent miming to deceive;
A warbling Adam and a posturing Eve;
Devils a-trip-toe dancing in disguise
And Angels pirouetting from the Skies.
Was this your skill, for sacred theme unfit?
Was this the utmost reach of modern wit?
The tares that sprout now from the Muse’s seed?
Then Paradise, twice lost, is lost indeed!