Random Quote #56 topic: voltaire-dict, Philosophical Dictionary by Voltaire, 1694-1778


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
AEneid, 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

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

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.

Moliere took two whole scenes from the ridiculous comedy of the "Pedant
Joue" 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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