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And thence " the nightly Visitant,” that came
Recall’d the long-lost beams of grace,
That whilom shot from Nature's face
Poet of other times ! to thee I bow
* Epistle on the English Poets.
The Task, Book III.
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
He, most sublime of bards, whose lay divine
Not Milton's holy genius could secure
Tus Book on the whole is so perfect from beginning to end, that it would be difficult to find a single superfluous passage. Milton's poetical style is more serried than any other : rhymed metre leads to empty words, involutions, and circumlocutions ; but it is in the thought, still more than in the language, that this closeness is apparent. The matter, the illustrations, and the allusions, are historically, naturally, or philosophically true. The learning is of every extent and diversity ; --recondite, classical, scientific, antiquarian. But the most surprising thing is how he vivifies every topic he touches by poetry : he gives life and picturesqueness to the driest catalogue of buried names, personal or geographical. They who bring no learning, yet feel themselves charmed by sounds and epithets which give a vague pleasure to the mind, and stir up the imagination into an indistinct emotion.
Notwithstanding all that has been said so copiously about poetical imagination by critics ancient and modern, I still think that the generality of authors and readers have a very confused idea of it. It is the power, not only of conceiving, but creating embodied illustrations of abstract truths, which are sublime, or pathetic, or beautiful.
But those ideas, which Milton has embodied, no imagination would have dared to attempt but his own : none else would have risen to the highth of this great argument.” Every one else would have fallen short of it, and degraded it.
Jolinson says, that an “ inconvenience of Milton's design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described,—the agency of Spirits. He saw that immateriality supplied no images, and that he could not show angels acting but by instruments of action ; he therefore invested them with form and matter. This being necessary, was therefore defensible, and he should have secured the consistency of his system by keeping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts.” Surely this was quite impossible for the reason Johnson himself has given. The imagination, by its natural tendeacies, always embodies Spirit. Poetry deals in pictures, though not exclusively
In this respect Milton's poetry is different from almost all other ; that it is always fouuded on our belief, and a belief, which we consider a matter of duty and religion. Milton's imagination is always conscientious : and here again is his peculiarity. Almost every imaginative poet, except Milton, falls occasionally into fantasticality :-perhaps I ought to except also Shakspeare. This is the vice of poetry, where there is not the severest judgment and the most profound control ;
and it is a vice which the bad taste of the public encourages. The flowers, as they are called,—the corrupt ornaments of poetry, please vulgar apprehensions and feelings. Glaring colours, exaggerated forms, rouse ordinary eyes and intellects.
The classical taste, the sober grace of ideal majesty or beauty, appears tame to a mind vitiated with all the extravagances and fooleries of insane romance. The Gothic ages introduced numerous ignorant superstitions and absurd opinions, which in more enlightened times revolt a strict or sober understanding. Fictions founded on such systems, or interwoven with them, except so far as they are merely illustrative, may amuse as momentary sports of wanton or forced invention; but the sound intellect rejects them in its moments of seriousness.
Among the miraculous acquirements of Milton, was his deep and familiar intimacy with all classical and all chivalrous literature,--the amalgamation in his mind of all the philosophy and all the sublime and ornamental literature of the ancients, and all the abstruse, the laborious, the immature learning of those who again drew off the mantle of Time from the ancient treasures of genius, and mingled with them their own crude conceptions and fantastic theories. He extracted from this mine all that would aid the imagination without shocking the reason. He never rejected philosophy ;—but where it was fabulous, only offered it as ornament.
It will not be too much to say, that of all uninspired writings (if these be uninspired), Milton's are the most worthy of profound study by all minds which would know the creativeness, the splendour, the learning, the eloquence, the wisdom, to which the human intellect can reach.
So far as poetry is made by mere figures of speech, it is a miserable art, which has nothing of invention or thought.
As to material pictures of spiritual existences, they always take such appearances when they visit us, though they can resolve themselves back into air. It is not inconsistent, therefore, or contrary to what we suppose to be the system of the creation so to represent them. Animation is the soul of fiction ; but it is true, that there may be animation without body.
Milton's force and sublimity of fable is especially attested by his frequent concurrence with the hints and language of the Scriptures, and his filling up those dark and mysterious intimations which escaped less illuininated minds. Here then imagination took its grandest and most oracular form.
But they who have degraded and depraved their taste by vulgar poetry, not only do not rise to the delight of this tone, but have no conception of it. They deem the bard's work to be a concentration of petty. spangles of words, like false jewels made of paste by an adroit artisan. Everything is technical, and they judge only by skill in decoration.
In Milton's language, though there is internal force and splendor, there is outward plainness. Common readers think that it sounds and looks like prose : this is one of its attractions ; while all which is stilted, and decorated, and affected, soon fatigues and satiates. To delight the ear and the eye is a mere sensual indulgence ;-true poetry strikes at the soul.
After all which has been said of Milton by so many learned and able critics these remarks may seem superfluous ; but I persuade myself that some of the topics of praise here urged have not been duly noticed before. I must here also repeat my conviction, that of all critics, Addison is the most beautiful, eloquent, and just: he enters deep into the fable, the imagery, and the sentiment : most of the other commentators merely busy themselves with the explanation or illustration of the learning.
We are bound to study in what way Milton has exercised his mighty powers of invention and imagination, and what ought to be their purposes, their qualities, and their merits. If any one thinks the imagination to be an idle and empty power, he is as hard dull as he is ignorant and blind. In the “ Paradise Lost” we have, demonstrated, what a grand and holy imagination can do.
“ THE VERSE."
(The following is from the hand of the poet himself : as it is short, I have given his own
orthography*, peculiar in some points.--Ed.]
* Tue measure is English Heroick Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin ; Rime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter ; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint, to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse, then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause, therefore, some both Italian and Spanish Poets of prime note, have rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also, long since, our best English Tragedies; as a thing of it self, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoided by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteemid an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover'd to Heroick Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of Riming.”
* From Milton's own edition, 1669.