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This article is taken from PN Review 145, Volume 28 Number 5, May - June 2002.

On Not Running Scared, Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens John Lucas

Towards the end of his commendable essay 'Milton and Modern Poetry: A Question', (PNR 143) David Gervais speculates that 'what has kept English poetry alive for the last two centuries has been its refusal to expose itself too much to its two greatest poets'. Dryden, he goes on, felt such inhibitions, 'so it is hardly surprising if more recent poets run scared of Shakespeare and Milton'. Behind this speculation lies the question 'whether later poets have done as much with Milton as they might have done', and standing beside it is, I assume, the ghost of another question: what of Shakespeare? But Gervais has already answered the question. Apart from the Romantics' misguided attempts at verse drama, poets have kept away from him, too.

This is all persuasive. Yet it doesn't persuade me that Shakespeare and Milton have been without a significant influence on later writing. And in one instance at least I consider their influence to have been both profound and entirely beneficial. There is a common assumption among literary historians that the major genres can and in fact must be studied in isolation. Poets influence poets, novelists influence novelists. But this needn't be so. George Eliot rightly saw that Wordsworth's 'Michael' provided her with a narrative method and much else beside out of which she could fashion Silas Marner. Henry James found in Browning's work, pre-eminently The Ring and the Book, proper inspiration for his own explorations of 'the bent timber' of subjective selfhood. And ...

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