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INTRODUCTIONS TO THE POEMS
THE LATIN POEMS.
BOTH in the Edition of 1645 and in that of 1673 the Latin and Greek Poems come after the English in a little mass by themselves, separately paged, and with a distinct title-page and other prefatory matter. In the earlier edition they fill (the prefatory matter not counted) 77 pages, while the English Poems fill 120 pages; ie. in that edition the bulk of the Latin and Greek portion is nearly two-thirds that of the English. In the later edition the proportion of the Latin and Greek is somewhat less, there being 84 pages of Latin and Greek Verse after 165 of English; i.e. the English is nearly twice as much as the Latin and Greek. This change of proportion is rather symptomatic.
Although, long before Milton's birth, the vernacular had asserted itself in England, beyond all rivalry, as the true language for poetry and all popular literature, Latin retaining its ground chiefly for the purposes of scholarship and speculation and for writings meant for a European constituency, yet there lingered, to an extent which it is difficult now to fancy, a habit of Latin metrical composition. Nay, not of Latin metrical composition merely, but of genuine poetry in Latin. Among University men, in particular, this was the case. Not only was Latin the language of learning and of all systematic discussion; not only did men recollect in Latin, reason in Latin, fight in Latin, exerting their
minds to the utmost, and expressing the whole natural contents of their minds, whether massive or subtle, in the form of Latin prose: even for the play of phantasy, the lyrical utterance of feeling, and dramatic and humorous construction, the use of Latin was kept up. It was not that each man who had the use of Latin wrote what could be called accurate Latin or classical Latin; it was that each had a certain mastery of a Latin which was, at all events, his own Latin, and in which he could be coequal to himself in English, if not (and there were cases of this) superior to himself in English. A certain grammatical accuracy was, of course, looked for, and classical purity of Latin was a merit; but it was remembered that the ideas that had to be expressed were not ideas coeval with Cicero or Livy, and hence a writer was not always restricted to the classical vocabulary or the classical form of sentence, but had the run of medieval words and the terms of Christian Theology, and might elbow out a syntax to suit. In Bacon's Latin prose, for example, Bacon had as good a right to be Bacon as Cicero, in his prose, had had to be Cicero. The Latin writings of Bacon were not regarded, and are not now to be regarded, as artificial exercises in a dead tongue; they were simply Bacon himself thinking, reasoning, inventing, exulting, and sometimes jesting, in one of two languages that were equally obedient to him. And so with the Latin Poetry of many Englishmen of Bacon's time and the next, and of times yet earlier-a body of Poetry which, if it were all collected, would surprise us by its bulk and its variety. There were elegies in Latin, epigrams in Latin, dramas in Latin, epics in Latin. Some stricter attention to pure or classic Latinity was generally expected in these things; but it would be a mistake to suppose that they were all merely mechanical exercises in an outworn tongue. They will be found, some of them at least, as good things as the same writers did, or were capable of doing, in English. I should say that this expectation of coequality between the intrinsic worth of the Latin poetry of any educated Englishman of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the intrinsic worth of the same writer's English poetry, if he wrote any, is the proper rule in the examination of any specimens of the forgotten Anglo-Latin Poetry of that period. It may be falsified in indi
vidual cases of imperfect scholarship; but, as it is reasonable in itself—for, given only the adequate custom of Latin, why should a man leave aught of his brain behind him on passing into that ́speech?—so it will hold good in the main. It holds good, at all events, with respect to Milton's Latin poems. Some of them, if not most, are as remarkable, as Miltonic, as the minor English poems. For one thing, they entitle Milton, even apart from his Latin prose-pamphlets, to the credit of having been one of the finest, one of the most splendid, of British Latinists. Even for accuracy and pure classical elegance he would take a high rank among them all, though in these respects he may not quite come up to Buchanan and some others. But, in the higher respect of what he could make Latin do, of the amount of mind he could bring into Latin, and wheel into every possible evolution of itself in that element, he was, among the Latinists of his own time, nearly unmatched. This, in fact, is but saying that, as he was Milton and others were not, he could be Milton in Latin, while others could only be themselves. A comparison of Milton's Latin poems with the Latin poems of the best of his academic contemporaries would, I believe, bring out the exact kind and amount of difference which might thus be presumed from our knowledge of him and of them otherwise. Milton's Latin poems, I repeat, are as Miltonic, as worthy of being read, as his earlier English. There is perhaps more of autobiographical matter in them; and this ought, in itself, to give them a special interest. But, merely as poetry, they ought still to be known. Milton is in them in every line—the same grace, the same felicity, the same richness, the same moral seriousness. There are thunders in them too, things here and there that astonish, and take away the breath. The more the pity now that, by the custom of his time, he was led to lock up so much of himself in a language accessible even then but to a minority of his countrymen, and which was to be familiar to fewer and fewer of them as time went on. Still, those that read Ovid and Virgil, Horace and Lucretius, might do worse than look into Milton's Latin poems too. They are factitious Latin, it is true, the Latin of an Englishman of the seventeenth century, and written chiefly in his youth. But then he was a greater man intrinsically than ever Ovid was, much as he admired that sweet and unfortunate
Roman, and there are things in his factitious Latin nobler than anything in Ovid's flowing vernacular.
What has to be specially observed, however, is that Milton more and more desisted from Latin verse as he advanced in life. It has already been noted (Introd. to Par. Lost, pp. 40–41) that, about the year 1640, when he was thirty-one years of age and had just returned from Italy, he came to a conclusion with himself upon this subject, resolving to take leave of Latin and to write the higher poems he was then contemplating in his own English. To this resolution he remained so far true that, though Latin accompanied him to the end of his life, though for eleven years he had to use it officially in his Foreign Secretaryship to the Commonwealth, and though in his pamphlets against Salmasius concerning the King's death he made Latin his instrument in order that all Europe might attend to the controversy, yet only one or two scraps of Latin verse were added after 1640 to the stock of his Latin pieces then already written. But more than this even before 1640 Latin had been giving way to English in Milton's estimation for the purposes of poetry. His last considerable exercises in Latin verse at that date had been his Ad Salsillum, his Mansus, and his Epitaphium Damonis, all belonging to the previous year, 1639. But, with these exceptions-the two first easily accounted for, as they were written in Italy and addressed to Italians, but the last a really extraordinary exception, when we consider the deeply personal nature of the occasion -everything considerable that Milton had written in Latin verse had been written at least seven years before, and belongs properly to the Cambridge period of his life. Nay, if the reader will refer to the chronology of the Poems in the General Introduction, he will see that nearly all the Latin pieces of the Cambridge period were written in the Undergraduate portion of that period, or before Jan. 1628-9, when Milton took his B.A. degree. Till then, though he had written an occasional piece in English, academic influences had been so strong as to detain him more in Latin ; but from that date, on through the rest of his Cambridge career, and more decidedly at Horton, we find his muse favouring her native speech. Now this earliness of the majority of Milton's Latin poems, their priority in the main to their English associates, has
to be remembered in reading them. Milton himself was careful that it should be remembered. He prefixed the dates, with some punctiliousness, to most of the Latin poems individually; and on the separate title-page to them in both his editions, of 1645 and 1673, he described them as "Joannis Miltoni, Londinensis, Poemata: quorum pleraque intra annum ætatis vigesimum conscripsit" ("Poems of John Milton, of London: most of them written before he was twenty years of age"). Quite consistently with what we have said of the general merits of the pieces, we may find this caution useful. A certain juvenility may be perceived in some of them, and occasionally a conventionalism of opinion about men and things which he would have afterwards repudiated. For example, he would not, in later life, have spoken of Bishop Andrewes with the same absolute respect as in his Elegy In obitum Præsulis Wintoniensis, nor of King James in such terms of conventional loyalty as are employed in the Gunpowder Plot poem, In Quintum Novembris. In all times, however, even the strongest and freest must begin by being, somehow, an undergraduate.
The Latin Poems were distinctly divided by Milton himself, in both editions, into two Books or sets—an “ELEGIARUM LIBER," or "BOOK OF ELEGIES;" and a "SYLVARUM LIBER," or Book OF SYLVÆ." The word Sylva (literally "a Wood") was the name given by the Latin authorcraft of the Empire, as we learn from Quintilian, to any rough thing written off at a heat; and hence the Miscellanies of many poets are printed in their works under the title of Sylva. The distinction made by Milton between his ELEGIÆ or ELEGIES and his SYLVE or MISCELLANIES seems to have been one of metrical form merely, and not of matter. Among the ELEGIES he put all pieces, of whatever kind, and whether properly "elegiac" or not in the sense of "pensive" or "mournful,” that were written in the elegiac metre, of alternate Hexameters and Pentameters, so much used by Tibullus, Propertius, and his favourite Ovid. Among the SYLVÆ or MISCELLANIES, on the other hand, he put all pieces written in other kinds of verse, whether in Hexameters only, or in such more complex Horatian measures as Alcaics and varied Iambics. Later editors. indeed, have taken the liberty of cutting off a few