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April 24 , 2009

Poetry by Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch


It is curious that, some thirty-odd years after Shakespeare had handled this tremendous theme, another attempt on it was being meditated, and by the man whom the most of us rank next after Shakespeare in the hierarchy of English poets. Among the treasures in the library at Trinity College, Cambridge, lies a manuscript, the hand-writing undoubtedly Milton's, containing a list compiled by him of promising subjects for the great poem for which, between his leaving the University and the outbreak of the Civil War, all his life was a deliberate preparation. The list is long; the subjects proposed run to no fewer than ninety-nine. Of these, fifty-three are derived from Old Testament history (with a recurring inclination for the theme of Paradise Lost), eight from the New Testament; thirty-three from the history of Britain (with a leaning towards the Arthurian legend); while five of them are legendary tales of Scotland or North Britain, the last being headed "Macbeth. Beginning at the arrival of Malcolm at Macduff. The matter of Duncan may be expressed by the arrival of his ghost." Now that Milton (an adorer of Shakespeare's genius, as everyone knows) should have taken so deep an impression from the play that its theme possessed him and he longed to transfer it to Epic, is credible enough. That he, with his classical bent, should choose to attempt in Drama an improvement upon the most "classical" of all Shakespeare's tragedies seems to me scarcely credible. But if the credibility of this be granted, then I can only conceive Milton's designing to improve the play by making it yet more "classical," i.e. by writing it (after the fashion he followed in Samson Agonistes) closely upon the model of Athenian Tragedy.
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