Part One of a look by Lady Yseult des Mainz Blanches at Milton's projected Arthuriad
For the literary critic, posterity is a safe though static viewpoint; the paths through the author's oeuvre have all been traced and, in the case of most, have been well trodden. Far less forbidding is the author's "common-place book" in which he or she wrote down possible ideas for work. As we all know, the material that the author toyed with - researched, elaborated, but ultimately discarded - can prove useful as an indication of development and influences. Occasionally these lost subjects serve to underline the major themes of a distinctive oeuvre. The operatic subjects discarded by Puccini towards the end of his life are various, but all betray his fascination with the figure of the 'little woman', victim of male cruelty - would any other composer have contemplated an opera on Oliver Twist with the title Nancy? But the most fruitful entries are those routes which were never taken, and which suggest a completely different life's work if they had been followed. One of the most intriguing question-marks in all literature is whether John Milton could ever have written his epic not on "man's first disobedience" but on tales from Arthurian legend.
There is certainly enough material to indicate a serious movement in this direction. From the first he was determined to write in English; in a college "Vacation Exercise" written when he was twenty, he expresses regret that he cannot use his native language for "some graver subject" than a mere exercise, and
sing of secret things that came to pass
When beldam Nature in her cradle was;
And last of kings and queens and heroes old...
His admiration for Shakespeare's "native wood-notes wild" is evident in L'Allegro. A list of possible subjects for poetry written when he was thirty-two contains sources from English history, particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, as well as Biblical stories. Arthur was not mentioned in this list, but a year earlier, in a Latin verse-letter to the Italian nobleman Manso (Mansus), Milton had written:
O may it be good luck to find such a friend (as you)... if ever I bring back to life in my songs the kings of my native land and Arthur, who set wars raging even under the earth, or tell of the great-hearted heroes of the round table, which their fellowship made invincible, and - if only the inspiration would come - smash the Saxon phalanxes beneath the impact of the British charge. (Transl. John Carey)
The last is a reference to the many accounts of Arthur's battles against invading Saxons in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia. Months later, in his pastoral elegy on his friend Charles Diodati, Epitaphium Damonis, he seems not only confident that this will be his chosen subject, but to have already made some attempt to set it down:
...my pipe was sounding some lofty strain, I know not what, eleven nights and a day ago, and I had by chance set my lips to a new pair of pipes, when their fastening broke and they fell apart: they could bear the grave notes no longer - I am afraid that I am being swollen-headed, but still, I will tell of that strain... I shall tell of Trojan keels ploughing the sea off the Kentish coast, and of the ancient kingdom of Inogene, daughter of Pandrasus, of the chieftains Brenus and Arviragus and of old Belinus... Then I shall tell of Igraine, pregnant with Arthur as a result of fatal deception: I shall tell of the lying features that misled her, and of the borrowing of Gorlois' armour, Merlin's trick. (Transl. John Carey)
Again, the chronicle of British history stems from Geoffrey of Monmouth, but apart from his later list of scenes from British history and a brief mention in the polemic The Reason of Church-Government (1642) of possible themes for a planned epic ("what king or knight before the conquest might be chosen in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian hero") there is no record of further work on this subject. Only the most tenuous of connections remains between the "fatal deception" of Igraine and of Eve. But what made Milton give up the idea of an "Arthuriad"? The events of 1642 changed Milton's view of the duties of kingship, that much is evident; but one must look for the other elements in Milton's view of Arthur which made the subject lose its appeal as the basis for an epic.
The first problem with the subject was probably caused by a kind of self- deception in the author. Although it was laudable for Milton to profess fidelity to his native tongue, the very fact that he wished to champion her and set her "wood-notes wild" to a higher theme than before seems to betray a feeling of inadequacy with respect to his native literature. The literary epic had only recently come of age: the first poetic epic in modern English, Spenser's The Faerie Queene, had been published only twenty years before Milton's birth. This work was probably Milton's first introduction to King Arthur - here he was a Prince, accompanied by Merlin, in which Spenser presented, in his words, "magnificence in particular, which vertue... is the perfection of all the rest, and conteineth in it them all". Spenser's epic is a rich tapestry which draws upon Italianate verse-forms and the events of classical legend, yet its prettiness and courtly Renaissance feel place it more in the style of his modern models Ariosto and Tasso than Homer and Virgil. Milton's early poems drew upon Spenser's sensuousness and classical imagery; his masque Comus (1634) is his most Spenserian work, combining a courtly genre, a pastoral setting, demigods and -goddesses and the praise of chastity. (The figure of "Sabrina fair" comes from Book II of The Faerie Queene, and is ultimately derived from Geoffrey of Monmouth.)
The poetry written by Milton after the Civil War bears little resemblance to his refined earlier work. As we shall see later, this is in some part due to Milton's Puritan ethos and his compulsion to subordinate his other desires to it. C.S. Lewis justifiably says that Milton's younger self - "the Spenserian Milton" - had to be discarded before the more recognizably "Miltonic" voice could emerge. His formal training in Latin and Greek had provided another guide for epic writing and it was this which formed the basis of the austere, impressive blank verse of Paradise Lost. Milton's education placed him firmly in the European classical tradition, and his Latin verse has been described by Professor Ralegh as the best ever written by a modern; he enjoyed great acclaim in Italy when he went abroad in 1638-9, and his early shorter poetry shows the extent to which he experimented with Italian metres and forms. If he proclaimed his Englishness too strongly it was not because he wished to deny his dependence on foreign literature, but because he believed that he could improve his native literature through the introduction of other cultural influences.
The specific references to Arthur in the Latin poems show how Milton intended to draw out the parallels between Greek myth and Arthurian legend in his rewriting. The impregnation of Igraine already suggests the wanton sports of classical gods, while the adventure of Arthur "beneath the earth", a probable reference to the episode in the Book of Taliesin in which Arthur and his men carry off the magic cauldron of the Otherworld, carries echoes of Hades and Orpheus's quest. Yet Spenser's own reworking of the legend's magic and martial glory was probably too recent and vivid for Milton to write another version, and an important reason why the 'Arthuriad' remained no more than a project was that for Milton the interest in the Arthurian court lay in the concepts which the knights embodied rather than in the narratives themselves. In the prose work An Apology for Smectymnus (1642) Milton underlines the didactic moral function of literature by a reference to the books - here probably Spenser's epic - which proved his earliest guide:
I betook me among those lofty fables and romances which recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood founded by our victorious kings, and from hence had in renown over all Christendom. There I read it in the oath of every knight that he should defend to the expense of his best blood, or of his life, if it so befell him, the honour and chastity of virgin and matron, from whence I heard even then what a noble virtue chastity must be... And if I found in the story afterward any by word or deed breaking that oath, I judged it the same fault of the poet as that which is attributed to Homer, to have written indecent things of the gods.
In The Republic Plato attacks Homer's accounts of atrocities committed by the gods because of their power to mislead young people and to confuse the powers of good and evil. Such a problem was also evident in the Arthurian tales. "Merlin's trick" upon Igraine is an example of the end justifying the means that makes the reader doubt the goodness of the quest. Why such a cruel attempt upon a widow's chastity would have appealed to Milton at all is difficult to explain, unless we see in Merlin's ambiguity a foretaste of the ambivalent fascination of the magician Comus or of Satan. Yet in this early period we see Milton's didactic tendency dominate conspicuously over his love of ornate language; Comus has sensuous moments, but it is essentially a morality play and a defence of chastity, while Lycidas suddenly changes from pastoral idyll to polemic when the figure of St Peter appears to attack the episcopate. It is easy to see that Milton believed in the public defence of good, and it was with this aim that he became a master polemicist during the Revolution.
In 1641, with his first tract, Of Reformation, Milton took up his pen in defence of those issues he considered morally important: the abolition of the episcopate, man's right to free speech, the importance of a proper education. In these he wrote as the voice of liberty, the ulitmate "free spirit", and in such abstract argument he commands the highest moral ground. Its practical culmination, however, was a defence of regicide. The attack on Charles I in Eikonoklastes (1649) was a reaction against a piece of monarchist propaganda from Holland, Eikon Basilike, or 'Portrait of the King'. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, however, was written in the same year and stated firmly that a king had no inherent majesty, but was elected at the behest of the people and could easily be deposed. The same year also saw the publication of his History of Britain, the fulfilment of the ambition to chronicle British history expressed in Epitaphium Damonis. But the work also showed Milton's disillusionment with the veracity of the historical sources. The historians who mentioned Arthur - Nennius, Geoffrey, and William of Malmesbury - were all attacked as "trivial" or dependent upon hearsay, and the conclusions Milton drew from their work were expressed with characteristic savagery:
But who Arthur was, and whether ever any such reigned in Britain, hath been doubted heretofore, and may again with good reason... Others of later time have sought to assert him by old legends and cathedral regests. But he who can accept of legends for good story, may quickly swell a volume with trash, and had need be furnished with two only necessaries, leisure and belief...
After pointing out certain discrepancies in the histories (such as the land which the Saxons gained in Britain during the time attributed to Arthur's reign) Milton concluded that there remained "neither place nor circumstance in story, which may administer any likelihood of those great acts that are ascribed to him". The bitterness of his tone in this passage is puzzling, as most people of the time accepted that Arthur was a legend rather than historical fact, but there are several reasons why the Arthurian tales had lost their appeal for Milton by this point. For one thing, Arthur was associated with the Roman Church which Milton distrusted. In addition, Roberta Brinkley, in her book Arthurian Legend in the Seventeenth Century, points out that Milton may have had a vested interest in disproving Arthur's existence, as James I - the father of Charles I - had supported his assumption of the English throne by a claim that he was descended from Arthur's line. She also notes that in Milton's History the Britons are portrayed as barbaric and the enemy Saxons as civilized, and projects the theory that since parliament had its origins in Saxon law, Milton intended the combat of Briton and Saxon to symbolize the contemporary struggle. (To read Part Two, press "forward" below.)