Andrew Marvell’s poem chronicles his reactions to the artistic merit of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) in seven verse paragraphs of fifty-four rhymed iambic pentameter lines. The opening sentence forms a grammatical unit of ten lines. The remaining lines, marked with a grammatical pause at the end of each couplet, follow the poetic practice of end-stopped couplets.
Initially, Marvell contrasts Milton’s “slender Book” with its “vast Design,” its Christian topic of salvation history and its cosmic scope of infinite time and space. He fears that Milton will mar or disfigure “sacred Truths” by expressing them through, or by confining them within, the devices of an epic poem, a pagan or nonbiblical art form. Also, Marvell deals bluntly with Milton’s blindness, mentioning it in the first line as well as in lines 9-10 and lines 43-44. Milton had become blind at least fourteen years prior to the first publication of Paradise Lost in 1667. Marvell assumes that Milton’s blindness may have had something to do with his choice of a biblical “Argument” or subject. Tentatively, he questions Milton’s “Intent,” comparing Milton’s motives in writing the poem to those of the biblical Samson, who sought “to revenge his sight.”
As Marvell then begins to reflect upon his experience of reading, he grows “less severe.” He favors the poet’s “Project,” but he fears that Milton will not succeed, given the inherent difficulty of the subject matter. Milton’s poem concerns truths beyond physical nature and beyond human comprehension. He might, for example, leave his readers “perplex’d” with matters of thought and faith, doctrines involving paradoxes and simplicities. In addition, Marvell associates Milton’s epic with the contemporary literary scene. He imagines that someone less skillful will imitate Milton’s poem by writing a play based upon it. He seems to refer to John Dryden, who had recently written a dramatic version of Paradise Lost in rhymed verse entitled The State of Innocence, and Fall of Man (1677).
In his next paragraph, Marvell unexpectedly addresses Milton directly, speaking with deep respect and sympathy. He now realizes that a view of the poem as a whole demonstrates its artistic perfection. Consequently, he apologizes to Milton for his “causeless” doubts or speculations. He believes that Milton’s artistic achievement is so great that other writers will have to work within the frame of reference Milton has laid down, even though Paradise Lost will demonstrate “their Ignorance or Theft.” Also, Marvell praises the “Majesty” of Milton’s poem, which “Draws the Devout, deterring the Profane.” He believes that Milton’s handling of religious truths within the medium of a pagan epic leaves those truths as well as Milton himself “inviolate.” Moreover, Milton’s sustained elevation of style and his ability to handle large and fearsome truths leave his readers awed and delighted because he sings “with so much gravity and ease.”
Marvell specifically commends Milton’s powers of mind and determination. Earlier in the poem, he had called Milton “blind, yet bold,” as well as “strong.” Blindness had not diminished Milton’s poetic ambition, daring, or capability. In the sixth paragraph, Marvell asserts that “Heav’n” must have offset Milton’s loss of physical sight with the power of prophecy. In the last paragraph, Marvell defends Milton’s decision to reject rhyme at a time when the popular taste called for it. Other poets, such as Marvell himself, have used rhyme as ornament or fashion. Rhyme, however, seems trivial next to the unrhymed grandeur of Paradise Lost. Milton’s blank verse is as sublime as his theme; it does not need the support of rhyme.
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As Marvell recounts the way Paradise Lost unfolded itself to him, his thoughts evolve dramatically from doubt to resolution. He begins by addressing readers and ends by addressing Milton himself. Although a personal friend of Milton and a professional colleague in the Cromwellian government, Marvell takes a detached, agile, skeptical, and reflective stance toward Milton’s poem. As a critic seeking to illuminate Milton’s epic for himself and for other readers, he maintains his integrity and a sense of perspective. He reads the poem carefully, assimilates the overall meaning, and describes, analyzes, and evaluates both substance and style. He candidly expresses his fears regarding the main features of Paradise Lost and Milton’s own motivation in writing it.
In addition, Marvell maintains his independence as a poet. For example, he knows that Milton virtually created a new poetic medium of narrative blank verse and acknowledges its superiority to rhyme. Nevertheless, he does not abandon rhyme in praising Milton’s unrhymed verse. Instead, with gentle irony, he asks Milton to overlook his rhyme. Once he has grasped the poem as a whole, Marvell realizes that his doubts, though well intended, are “causeless.” He does not, however, explain the exact reasons for his change of mind. He conveys his conclusions through assertion and through a change of attitude or tone. He demonstrates the assurance that grows out of wide literary knowledge and a principled, independent stance. His praise of Milton communicates itself as accurate and sincere, rendered by someone qualified to give it.
Marvell uses blind heroic figures of the past to convey his transition from doubt to certainty. For example, when Marvell compares Milton’s poetic strength to Samson’s physical strength, he suggests that Milton might have misused his abilities, perhaps to bring down and not build up the “sacred Truths” of Christianity. Marvell’s mention of Samson is of biographical, political, and literary significance. Milton had published Samson Agonistes in 1671. In this lyrical drama, Milton’s Samson becomes a heroic deliverer who brings God great glory. Marvell’s reference to Samson may not be entirely negative. In lines 44 and 45, Marvell follows Milton’s own comparison of himself to Tiresias in Paradise Lost. Tiresias, a blind man from Greek mythology, was rewarded with prophecy. Marvell suggests that Milton is similar to Samson but is perhaps more similar to Tiresias (even though Tiresias was not a biblical figure) because he exemplifies heroic achievement in the service of heaven. Paradise Lost results from divine influence working through an extraordinary individual. Marvell has no doubts about the purity of Milton’s motives or his intent.