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“A new edition of the above, London, 1775, small octavo, two volumes.”
But the enterprise of the critics had not exhausted itself even in these varied indignities. One G. Smith Green, who also styles himself “A Gentleman of Oxford ” (possibly the author of the prose version of 1745), put out an edition of “ Paradise Lost” in amended blank verse, with the design, as he says in his preface, of bringing “ that amazing work somewhat nearer the summit of perfection.” The title-page is so extremely curious that I cannot bring myself to exclude it :
“ A New Version of Paradise Lost &c. In which the measure and versification are corrected and harmonized : the obscurities elucidated : and the faults which the author stands accused of by Addison and other of the critics are removed. With annotations on the original text to show the reasonableness of this new version. By a Gentleman of Oxford, Octavo, 1756."
To sum up this extraordinary chapter in the history of the Miltonic epic, we find that there were four separate paraphrases in rhyme, including the drama of Dryden, one in "amended” blank verse, and no less than five in prose (including the version of the “ Paradise Regained"), two of which passed through at least two editions. Outside of England, James Buchanan rendered the first six books of the “Paradise Lost” into “grammatical construction,” Edinburgh, 1773, while in this country an edition of one of the prose translations from St. Maur was published at Trenton, in 1813. Thus, between 1674 and 1775, eleven distinct renderings had appeared, and at least thirteen editions. A fact like this has an importance beyond any merely bibliographical interest. It is a mistake to class these books with the mere curiosities of literature; they have a real significance for us in the serious study of the literary history of the time. We have already glanced at this in the case of the rhymed versions; what can we learn from those in prose ?
In our attempt to explain the existence of the prose versions of “Paradise Lost” and “ Paradise Regained,” we are met by two difficulties : first, why such versions should have been made, and, second, why so many of them should have been translated from the French. I think the solution of the first of these difficulties is to be found in a clear understanding of the class of readers for whom these versions were presumably intended. The greatness of Milton as a poet is apt to make us look at him in a somewhat different aspect from that in which he must commonly have been regarded by the great mass of his contemporaries. To thousands he must bave been Milton, the Latin Secretary of the Commonwealth, — “ One John Milton an old Commonwealth's man," Waller called him, — the friend of Cromwell, the man who had given twenty of the best years of his life to political and religious controversy. To us, the poetry of Milton is incomparably more interesting and important than his prose, but during his lifetime, and for long after, his pamphlets, such as * The Reason of Church Government," and those on divorce, must have given him a reputation among the Nonconformists quite apart from his fame as a poet. Professor Masson declares that Milton was “one of the most noted sectaries of his time," and we know that he actually founded a small sect known as Miltonists, or Divorcers. Recognized as one of the greatest scholars, the most vigorous controversialists which dissent had produced, Milton inspired the respect and interest of innumerable readers to whom his poetry must have seemed vain and idle trifling, or perhaps wholly unintelligible. It is in the large body of English readers, during Milton's lifetime, and for long after, who fed exclusively on a few religious books, and whose literary taste was absolutely undeveloped, that we find a probable explanation of the prose versions of “ Paradise Lost." These were the readers who wanted the great English epic done into sober prose, because they read it precisely as they did the “ Pilgrim's Progress ” of Milton's great contemporary. If the wits of the time found the long, intricate, and inverted sentences in Milton's greatest work so hard to understand “that a man must sweat to read him," if the poet Lee could write of their “Hard-spun thought," what a stumbling-block must they have proved to the clumsy, untrained minds of humbler readers! The poem was difficult enough by reason of its curious and extensive learning, without any added difficulties from the metre. It bristled with “ technical terms in the arts and sciences," with allusions to "the mythological fables of the heathens,” as one of its paraphrasers expresses it, most bewildering to the unlearned reader. Even the scholarly Addi. son, in his famous criticism on Milton in the “Spectator," reluctantly confesses that he finds in “ Paradise Lost” “an unnecessary ostentation of learning,” and that he considers its language - often too much labored, and sometimes obscured by old words, transpositions, and foreign idioms." He gives us a curious glimpse into the scholarship of the times by citing “ Doric pillars,” “pilasters," “ cornice,” “ frieze," "architrave," and "ecliptic," as tech
nical terms of peculiar difficulty. The improver of the versifica tion of “ Paradise Lost,” who styles himself a “Gentleman of Oxford,” intimates in his title-page, and directly informs us in his preface, that the object of his version is to elucidate obscurities. The poem, he asserts, “ comprehends almost everything within the extent of human knowledge ;” but is “wrote in the highest stile of heroick poetry and the thoughts many of them expressed by Figures of Grammar and Rhetoric, being full of digressions and sentences transposed, as well as difficult terms in inathematick, History, Astronomy, Astrology, Geography, Architecture, Navigation, Anatomy, Alchemy, Divinity, and all other human arts and sciences. . . . Besides it is necessary that readers should understand the Hebrew, Chaldee, Arabic, Syriac, Phænician, and Egyptian and all the dead languages with the living and modern ones, in all their different dialects.” The Gentleman of Oxford, doubtless knowing himself to be proficient in all these varied branches of learning, naturally felt it incumbent on him to make so difficult a work intelligible to “all English readers.” And as examination convinces us of the great difficulty which “ Paradise Lost” presented to seventeenth and eighteenth century readers, it likewise assures us of the extent of the public which wished to read in an unadorned and simplified form the work of the great Puritan. From the time of the publication of Tyndale's translation of the Bible in 1525, the body of readers of religious books, chiefly composed of people belonging to the lower and middle classes, devoid of scholarship or literary perception, had been steadily increasing in England. During the reign of Henry the Eighth thousands of copies of this translation were smuggled into England, and, in spite of the condemnation of Wolsey, were received with indescribable enthusiasm by the masses. In 1535 Coverdale's translation of the entire Bible appeared, and was set up to be read publicly in the churches. Thus introduced, the English Bible soon became the entire library, the one book, of thousands of devout and humble readers. The lifelong study of it was the greatest factor in the creation of the Puritan. Men and women, apart from the purely literary side of the intellectual movement of their time, were yet in the closest connection with one great phase of its religious advance. The dainty love songs of the Cavalier Poets, the witty and dissolute plays at which the more learned Puritans bailed invective, must have been almost wholly unknown to these obscure but numberless readers. Their thought was stimulated, their imagination delighted, their very
language and imagery supplied, from the one great storehouse, the English Bible. The meagre surroundings and limited opportunities of some of the great Dissenters illuminate for us the lives of their less noted brethren. Thus Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was the son of a weaver, and was apprenticed to a shoemaker when he could barely read and write. The tinkers, with whom Bunyan was identified by inheritance and occupation, formed a kind of hereditary class then held in general contempt. Like his fellows, Bunyan was illiterate, — illiterate, that is, in the world's sense. His two books were the Bible and Fox's “ Book of Martyrs,” and afterwards some few pious works which his wife brought to add to these. Bunyan is accordingly a perfect example – in all things but his genius — of this body of readers. The author of a great literary work, he yet stands entirely apart from literature; writing with an exclusively religious aim in the language of the Bible, he finds thousands of readers among the plainer and poorer classes. Included in the literary history of England by accident, as it were, and not by intention, he throws a flood of light upon a social stratum apart from literary circles, which could enjoy a prose Paradise indifferent to its glories in the roll of Milton's verse. The enormous sale of the “ Pilgrim's Progress," and of other religious books of a like character, establishes beyond question the extent and needs of such a reading public as I have endeavored to describe. Fox's “ Martyrs” passed through nine editions between 1569 and 1684. “Pilgrim's Progress," published about 1678, had reached its tenth edition by 1685. Its popularity was further shown by its numerous imitators, against whom Bunyan enters formal complaint in doggerel verse prefixed to the second part. But even before Bunyan, Symon Patrick had published his “Parable of the Pilgrims,” which had gone through six editions between 1665 and 1689, and the Rev. Richard Barnard “ The Isle of Man, or Legal Proceedings in Manshire against Sin," a work which, published in 1627, reached its tenth edition in eight years. An evidence of the continued demand for religious books among the lower classes is also found in the fact that for many years fifty thousand copies of Watts's “ Psalms and Hymns” were annually printed. The extreme similarity between a prose“ Paradise Lost” and such religious allegories as we have found to be so widely popular is so obvious that it needs no special mention. It only remains to emphasize the fact that the circulation of such books was substantially confined to the lower and middle classes. From the time when Charles Second expressed his surprise to Dr. Owen that a man of his learning could " sit and hear an illiterate tinker prate,” to the time when William Cowper wrote of Bunyan,
“I name thee not lest so despised a name
Should move a sneer at thy deserved fame," this was emphatically true of the “ Pilgrim's Progress.” “ It is a significant circumstance," writes the biographer of Bunyan in the “Encyclopedia Britannica," — “it is a significant circumstance that, till a recent period, all the numerous editions of the Pil. grim's Progress' were evidently meant for the cottage and for the servants' hall; the paper, the printing, the plates, were all of the meanest description.” And in the same manner we have but to enter the humble but decent cottage of some Puritan or Quaker, to realize that the good old woman who placed her prose version of Milton beside her Bible and her Fox's “ Martyrs" did not read “ Paradise Lost” as we do for its poetry, but for its picturesque religion.
Assuming, then, that these prose versions of Milton were addressed mainly to the great body of unliterary readers among the Nonconformists, whose few books were apt to be of a similar character, just as the rhymed versions were intended for the upper class of readers, whose poetic taste was formed on the fashionable models of the times, the reason of the translation from the French yet remains to be explained. The explanation suggested by Disraeli, in his “Curiosities of Literature,” is so trifling and superficial that it deserves no serious consideration. “There is,” he writes, “a prose version of his [Milton's] · Paradise Lost,' which was innocently translated from the French version of his Epic.” By innocently he presumably means in ignorance of the fact that the work was originally English. A more probable, if not more satisfactory, explanation is to be found in the fact that the French version of St. Maur, apparently the one used by all the English retranslators, was in prose, and that it might have been employed, together with the poem itself, as a help in reducing the inverted Miltonic sentence to a prose order. That a complete reorganization, an entire reversal of verbal order, would be necessary in many cases in the transmuting of Milton from poetry to prose is at once apparent. Take, for instance, the opening lines of the second book: —
“High on a throne of royal state, which far