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FOR PREPARING THIS AMERICAN EDITION.
PARADISE Lost is, by common consent, pronounced to be a work of transcendent genius and taste. It takes rank with the Iliad of Homer, and with the Æneid of Virgil, as an Epic of incomparable merit. Dryden was by no means extravagant in the praise which he bestowed upon it in his well-known lines;
“Three poets in three distant ages born,
Its praise is often on the lips of every man endowed with the most moderate literary qualifications; but the work has been read by comparatively few persons. How few even of educated men can affirm that they have so read and understood it, as to appreciate all its parts ? How does this happen ? Is the poem considered unworthy of their most careful perusal? Is it not inviting to the intellect, the imagination, and the sensibilities? Is it not acknowledged to be superior to any other poetic composition, the Hebrew writings only excepted, to whose lofty strains of inspired song the blind bard of London was s greatly indebted for his own subordinate inspiration ?
If inquiry should extensively be made, it will be ascertained that Paradise Lost, is but little read, less understood, and still less appreciated; though it may be found on the shelves of almost every library, or upon the parlor table of almost every dwelling. Every school boy, and every school girl has read some beautiful extracts from it, and has heard it extolled as an unrivalled production; and this is about all that is usually learned in regard to it, or appreciated. The question returns, and it is one of some literary interest, how is this treatment of the Paradise Lost to be accounted for? To this inquiry the following observations will, it is hoped, be considered appropriate and satisfactory.
It is pre-eminently a learned work; and has been well denominated a book of universal knowledge." In its naked form, in its bare text, it can be understood and appreciated by none but highly educated persons. The perusal of it cannot fail to be attended with a vivid impression of its great author's prodigious learning, and of the immense stores which he brought into use in its preparation. As one of his editors, (Sir Egerton Brydges) remarks, " his great poems require such a stretch of mind in the reader, as to be almost painful. The most amazing copiousness of learning is sublimated into all his conceptions and descriptions. His learning never oppressed his imagination ; and his imagination never obliterated or dimmed his learning; but even these would not have done without the addition of a great heart, and a pure and lofty mind. The poem is one which could not have been produced solely by the genius of Milton, without the addition of an equal extent and depth of learning, and an equal labor of reflection. It has always a great compression. Perhaps its perpetual allusion to all past literature and history were sometimes carried a little too far for the popular reader; and the latinised style requires to be read with the attention due to an ancient classic.” To read it, therefore, intelligently and advantageously, no small acquaintance is needed with classical and various learning.
While large portions of the poem are sufficiently lucid for the comprehension of ordinary readers, there is frequently introduced an obscure paragraph, sentence, clause, or word; which serves to break up the continuity of the poem in the reader's mind, to obstruct his progress, to apprise him of his own ignorance or obtuseness, and thus to create no small degree of dissatisfaction. The obscurity arises, in some cases, from the highly learned character of the allusions to ancient history and mythology; in other cases, from great inversion of
style, from the use of Latin and Greek forms of expression; froin
LCculiar modes of spelling; from references to exploded and unphilosophical notions in astronomy, chemistry, geology, and philosophy, with which but few persons are familiar.
Besides all this, it has been truly observed by the writer before quoted, that “ Milton has a language of his own ; I may say invented by himself. It is somewhat hard but it is all sincere : it is not vernacular, but has a latinised cast, which requires a little time to reconcile a reader to it. It is best fitted to convey his own magnificent ideas; its very learnedness impresses us with respect. It moves with a gigantic step : it does not flow like Shakspeare's style, nor dance like Spenser's. Now and then there are transpositions somewhat alien to the character of the English language, which is not well calculated for transposition ; but in Milton this is perhaps a merit, because his lines are pregnant with deep thought and sublime imagery which requires us to dwell upon them, and contemplate them over and
He ought never to be read rapidly.” Such being some of the characteristics of Paradise Lost, it is not difficult to account for its general neglect, and for the scanty satisfaction experienced by most persons in the attempt to read it. Much of it, as we have remarked, cannot be understood; it abounds in tng many passages that convey to none but the learned any cleai idea: thus the common reader is repelleil, and the sublimities and beauties of this incomparable poem are known only as echoes from the pages of criticism, of course inadequately.
Not long since even a well-educated and popular preacher was asked how he managed in reading Paradise Lost? His honest and truthful answer was, that he skipped over the hard places, and read the easier; that he did not pretend fully to understand, or to appreciat', the entire poem ; but admitted that not a few passages were not far from being a dead letter to him, requiring for their just interpretation more research and study than he was willing or able to bestow. The fact undoubtedly is, that since a poem is addressed chiefly to the imagination and the sensibilities; since it is read with a view to pleasurable excitement, and not taken up as a production to be severely
studied; since a demand for mental labor and research interferes with the entertainment anticipated, in most cases the Paradise Lost is, on this account, laid aside, though possessing the highest literary merit, for poems of an inferior cast, but of easier interpretation.
It is possible also that the pious spirit which animates the entire poem, and the theological descriptions which abound in several of the Books, may, to the mass of readers, give it a repulsive aspect, and cause them, though unwisely, to prefer other productions in which these elements are not found.
To the causes now enumerated, rather than to those assigned by Dr. Johnson may be referred the result which he thus describes :
66 Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harrassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation : we desert our master, and seek for companions."
But is there no remedy for this neglectful treatment of the finest poetical composition in our language? May not something be done to prepare American readers generally to appreciate it, and, in the perusal, to gratify their intellects and regale their fancy, among its grandeurs and beauties, and also among its learned allusions, and seientific informations?
The attainment of this important end is the design of the present edition : it is therefore furnished with a large body of notes; with notes sufficiently numerous and full, it is presumed, to clear up the obscurities to which we have referred; to place the unlearned reader, so far as the possession of the information requisite to understand the poem is concerned, on the same level with the learned; and to direct aftention to the parts, most deserving of admiration, and to the grounds upon which they should be admired. The editions hitherto published in this country, it is believed, are either destitute of notes, or the no'es ara altogether too few and too brief to afford the aid which is generally required.
About half a century after the publication of the Paradise Lost, its reputation was much advanced by a series of papers which came out weekly in the celebrated Spectator,) from the graceful pen of Addison. These," as Hallam justly remarks, were perhaps superior to any criticisms that had been written in our language, and we must always acknowledge their good sense, their judiciousness, and the vast service they did to our literature, in setting the Paradise Lost on its proper level.” But modern periodicals, and modern essay's are fast crowding out the once familiar volumes of that excellent British classic; and those once famous criticisms are now seldom met with, so that modern readers, with rare exceptions, derive from them no benefit in the reading of the Paradise Lost.
The Editor has evinced his own high sense of their value, and has, moreover, rendered them far more available to the illustration of the poem, than they are, as found in the Spectator, by selecting such criticisms as appeared to him to possess the highest merit, and distributing them in the form of notes, to the several parts of the poem which they serve to illustrate and adorn. After this labor had been performeil, however, and a principal part of the other notes had been prepared, it was ascertained with some surprise, on procuring a London copy of Bp. Newton's edition of Milton, now quite scarce, that the same course had a century ago been pursued by him; though the same pains had not been taken by Newton to distribute in detail to every part of the poem the criticisms of Addison. Besides this, he introduced them entire, and thus occupied his pages with much matter quite inferior to that which has been provided, in this edition, from recent sources.
The notes of the present edition will be found to embrace, besides much other matter, all that is excellent and worth preservation in those of Newton, Todd, Brydges, and Stebbing; comprehending also some of the richest treasures of learned and ingenious criticism which the Paradise Lost has called into existence, and which have hitherto been scattered through the pages of many volumes of Reviews and miscellaneous literature : and these have been so arranged as to illustrate the several parts of the poem to which they retate.
It was not deemed important to occupy space in the discussion of certain questions, more curious than useful or generally interesting, relating to some earlier authors, to whom it has been allege: thai Mil