(1688) That John Dryden would contribute to the first illustrated version of John Milton's Paradise Lost surprised no one. He had long admired his older contemporary and that particular epic poem, which his own ANNUS Mirabilis (1667), had anticipated as a narrative poem by only a few months. Dryden wrote a simple six-line epigram, which proved elegant and meaningful, its brevity supporting its strong effect. He published it anonymously, writing,
Three poets in three distant ages born Greece, Italy, and England did adorn, The first in loftiness of thought surpass'd; The next in majesty; in both the last. The force of nature cou'd no farther go: To make a third she join'd the former two.
one of the best ways to honor a poet was in comparison to classical writers. As Milton did, Dryden favored the classics as models, learning Latin and Greek and in the 1690s engaging in accomplished translation of Persius, Juvenal, and Virgil. In his epigram, Milton is the third poet, while the first is Homer and the second Virgil. Dryden's use of repetition of the term three allows emphasis on the number of poets as well as calling attention to the fact that they spanned different eras, thus suggesting a continuum in which Milton occupied the most recent position. He elevates Milton by placing him in such lofty company and does the same for his own country by placing it in a series with Greece, home to the golden age of poetry, and Italy, home to the Continental Renaissance.
The two characteristics used as major criteria by which to measure the excellence of a poet are "loftiness of thought" and "majesty." The effect of Dryden's final three lines actually is to boost Milton above the revered classical poets. The phrase "in both the last" indicates that the better of "the first," Homer, and "The next," Virgil, existed in Milton. The final two lines make clear that at first, all of nature's forces could not find a way to exceed their own previous creations of Homer and Virgil. However, they eventually found a way to do so by simply combining those two estimable forces; the result was Milton. Dryden may have known of a previous suggestion of this sentiment by the Italian poet Sel-vaggi, written when Selvaggi met Milton in Rome. William Congreve would later translate Dryden's epigram into Latin.
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