ON THE REPROACH OF PLAGIARISM AGAINST
Some people have accused Milton of having taken his poem from the tragedy of "The Banishment of Adam" by Grotius, and from the "Sarcotis" of the Jesuit Masenius, printed at Cologne in 1654 and in 1661, long before Milton gave his "Paradise Lost."
As regards Grotius, it was well enough known in England that Milton had carried into his epic English poem a few Latin verses from the tragedy of "Adam." It is in no wise to be a plagiarist to enrich one's language with the beauties of a foreign language. No one accused Euripides of plagiarism for having imitated in one of the choruses of "Iphigenia" the second book of the Iliad; on the contrary, people were very grateful to him for this imitation, which they regarded as a homage rendered to Homer on the Athenian stage.
Virgil never suffered a reproach for having happily imitated, in the Æneid, a hundred verses by the first of Greek poets.
Against Milton the accusation was pushed a little further. A Scot, Will Lauder by name, very attached to the memory of Charles I., whom Milton had insulted with the most uncouth animosity, thought himself entitled to dishonour the memory of this monarch's accuser. It was claimed that Milton was guilty of an infamous imposture in robbing Charles I. of the sad glory of being the author of the "Eikon Basilika," a book long dear to the royalists, and which Charles I., it was said, had composed in his prison to serve as consolation for his deplorable adversity.
Lauder, therefore, about the year of 1752, wanted to begin by proving that Milton was only a plagiarist, before proving that he had acted as a forger against the memory of the most unfortunate of kings; he procured some editions of the poem of the "Sarcotis." It seemed evident that Milton had imitated some passages of it, as he had imitated Grotius and Tasso.
But Lauder did not rest content there; he unearthed a bad translation in Latin verse of the "Paradise Lost" of the English poet; and joining several verses of this translation to those by Masenius, he thought thereby to render the accusation more grave, and Milton's shame more complete. It was in that, that he was badly deceived; his fraud was discovered. He wanted to make Milton pass for a forger, and he was himself convicted of forging. No one examined Masenius' poem of which at that time there were only a few copies in Europe. All England, convinced of the Scot's poor trick, asked no more about it. The accuser, confounded, was obliged to disavow his manoeuvre, and ask pardon for it.
Since then a new edition of Masenius was printed in 1757. The literary public was surprised at the large number of very beautiful verses with which the Sarcotis was sprinkled. It is in truth nothing but a long declamation of the schools on the fall of man: but the exordium, the invocation, the description of the garden of Eden, the portrait of Eve, that of the devil, are precisely the same as in Milton. Further, it is the same subject, the same plot, the same catastrophe. If the devil wishes, in Milton, to be revenged on man for the harm which God has done him, he has precisely the same plan in the work of the Jesuit Masenius; and he manifests it in verses worthy maybe of the century of Augustus. ("Sarcotis," I., 271 et seq.)
One finds in both Masenius and Milton little episodes, trifling digressions which are absolutely alike; both speak of Xerxes who covered the sea with his ships. Both speak in the same tone of the Tower of Babel; both give the same description of luxury, of pride, of avarice, of gluttony.
What most persuaded the generality of readers of Milton's plagiarism was the perfect resemblance of the beginning of the two poems. Many foreigners, after reading the exordium, had no doubt but that the rest of Milton's poem was taken from Masenius. It is a very great error and easy to recognize.
I do not think that the English poet imitated in all more than two hundred of the Jesuit of Cologne's verses; and I dare say that he imitated only what was worthy of being imitated. These two hundred verses are very beautiful; so are Milton's; and the total of Masenius' poem, despite these two hundred beautiful verses, is not worth anything at all.
Molière took two whole scenes from the ridiculous comedy of the "Pédant Joué" by Cyrano de Bergerac. "These two scenes are good," he said as he was jesting with his friends. "They belong to me by right: I recover my property." After that anyone who treated the author of "Tartufe" and "Le Misanthrope" as a plagiarist would have been very badly received.
It is certain that generally Milton, in his "Paradise", has in imitating flown on his own wings; and it must be agreed that if he borrowed so many traits from Grotius and from the Jesuit of Cologne, they are blended in the crowd of original things which are his; in England he is always regarded as a very great poet.
It is true that he should have avowed having translated two hundred of a Jesuit's verses; but in his time, at the court of Charles II., people did not worry themselves with either the Jesuits, or Milton, or "Paradise Lost", or "Paradise Regained". All those things were either scoffed at, or unknown.
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