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In his "Life of Milton," (1780) Dr. Samuel Johnson begins his criticism of Milton's poetry with his criticism of his "juvenile productions." Milton's early poems were in Italian, Latin, and English. Johnson expresses his inability to remark on the Italian poems because he does not know Italian:
"Of the Italian I cannot pretend to speak as a critick, but I have heard them commended by a man well qualified to decide their merit." Johnson tells us that "the Latin pieces are lusciously elegant; but the delight which they afford is rather by the exquisite imitation of the ancient writers, by the purity of the diction, and the harmony of the numbers, than by any power of invention or vigour of sentiment." They are not all of equal value; the elegies excell the odes."
Dr.Johnson tells us that
"the English poems, though they make no promises of Paradise Lost, have this evidence of genius, that they have a cast original and unborrowed. But their peculiarity is not excellence: if they differ from verses of others, they differ for the worse; for they are too often distinguished by repulsive harshness; the combinations of words are new, but they are not pleasing; the rhymes and epithets seem to be laboriously sought and violently applied."
Johnson sums up his remarks on Milton's early poems saying that
"that in the early parts of his life he wrote with much care appears from his manuscripts, happily preserved at Cambridge, in which many of his smaller works are found as they were first written, with the subsequent corrections. Such reliques shew how excellence is acquired: what we hope ever to do with ease we may learn first to do with diligence."
Johnson concludes by remarking that
"all that [the] short compositions can commonly attain is neatness and elegance. Milton never learned the art of doing little things with grace; he overlooked the milder excellence of suavity and softness: he was a "lion" that had no skill "in dandling the kid."
Dr. Samuel Johnson was a neo-classicist and John Milton was of the Renaissance, consequently Johnson's criticism of Milton's earlier poems is prejudiced and he praises Milton very reluctantly and grudgingly. Johnson's main criticism of Milton's early poetry is that there is nothing original about it and when Milton tries to be original the results are not pleasing. Whatever merits his early poetry has, it is because of his carefully imitating the classical originals.
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