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Dr. Johnson's censure of the “ Lycidas” is so extraordinary, and so tastelessly malignant, that it is impossible to pass it over without some discussion. Whatever principle of poetry we adopt, it is absolutely indefensible. We know that the critic had little feeling for the higher orders of poetry ; but his captious objections to this composition could only proceed from blind prejudice and hatred. He had probably talked in this way from an early stage of his literary career, and was now ashamed to retract.
Whatever stern grandeur Milton's two epics and his drama, written in his latter days, exhibit ; by whatever divine invention they are created ; “ Lycidas” and "Comus” have a fluency, a sweetness, a melody, a youthful freshness, a dewy brightness of description, which those gigantic poems have not. It is true that " Lycidas” has no deep grief; its clouds of sorrow are every where pierced by the golden rays of a splendid and joyous imagination : the ingredients are all poetical, even to single words ; the epithets are all picturesque and fresh ; and the whole are combined into a splendid tissue, as new in their position as they are radiant in their union. The unexpected transitions from one to the other at once surprise and delight : they are like the heavens of an autumnal evening, when they are lighted up by electric flames. The contrasts of sorrow, and hope, and glory, keep us in a state of mingled excitement to the end : the imagery never flags : though it blazes with the most beautiful forms of inanimate nature, and all sorts of pastoral pictures ; yet the whole are by some spell or other made intellectual and spiritual : they do not play merely upon the mirror of the fancy.
When Johnson said that of this poem “ the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing," where was his apprehension of beautiful language, and where his ear! Take any line as a specimen :
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.
But, О the heavy change, now thou art gone,
Fanning their joyous leaves to thy soft lays Compare any of Pope's descriptions, so lauded by Johnson, with these lines. Johnson says that the rhymes of “ Lycidas” are ill-arranged, and too distant from each other : I know not that they are ever so; but if this is the case in one or two instances, they are in general most musically and happily placed.
The occasional allusions to the heathen mythology, by way of illustration or allegory, were never before prohibited or blamed by any critic'; and are only censured here from a mere resolve to find fault.
The caviller contends that here is no grief, for grief does not deal in imagery or remote allusions ; but, as Warton observes, if there is not deep grief, there is rich poetry. Milton's genius lay in strength and sublimity, not tenderness. This was one of a set of academical verses, written to glorify the deceased, and fix his memory upon the list of fame ; and by what other possible means could Milton have effected it with equal success ?
In what way would the critic have expressed his sorrow? Johnson was no more remarkable for tenderness than Milton : his gravity was gloom, not tenderness. Milton saw in the death of the virtuous and accomplished an elevation to a higher and happier sphere of existence ; Johnson beheld death with anxiety, doubt, and fear : Milton exulted; Johnson sighed, trembled, and was despondent: the thought paralysed Johnson ; it cheered and irradiated Milton. Thus it supplied them with opposite figures and modes of expression.
* Tickell's “ Elegy on Addison” is probably the model which Johnson would have chosen. Tickell is solemp, and sometimes tender ; but he has none of Milton's richness and illumination.
That prime charm of poetry, the rapidity and the r ciation of beautiful ideas, is pre-eminently exhibite sudden transitions to contrasted images and sentiment delightful ferment;
And o'er the cheek of sorrow th
A melancholy grace. It strikes me, that there is no poem of Milton, in v imagery is so breathing, so brilliant, and so new, as in t similitude to it, is that of some descriptive passages « brightness and modulation of words seem always to ha and ear.
But though strength was Milton's characteristic, the turns of thought and expression, in this poem, which a in pathetic recollections, and tearful sighs; in that sor say what he will, belongs to true poetry : in grief ni but genuine, though hopeful, and mingled with rays o
Perhaps I should be inclined to say more on this ex but I must forbear, lest those remarks should run to its length.
In this Monody the author bewails a learned friend, wi
passage from Chester on the Irish seas, 1637; and b; of our corrupted clergy, then in their bighth.
Yer once more, O ye laurels, and once m
* Ye myrlles brown, with ivy never Newton has supposed, that Milton, while he mentions King as a poet, adds the myrtle, the tree of Venus, to show age for love. We will allow that King, whatever hidden i enumerating the myrtle, was of a proper age for love, bei and the ivy our critic thinks to be expressive of King's reward. In the mean time, I would not exclude another pi ing the berries and the leaves of laurel, myrtle, and ivy, he pastoral or rural turn of this poem.-T. Warton.
The opening of this poem always struck me as singularly felicity in this combination of poetic words, which cannot be
b I come to pluck your berries, &c. This beautiful allusion to the unripe age of his friend, Icaves before the mellowing year," is not antique, I think, Spenser. Seo “Shep. Cal.” Jan. ver. 37. The poct the name of Colin Clout, “ All so my lustful leafe is drie and st
Milton had most probably in his mind a passage in Cicer death of young persons is compared to unripe fruit plucker and that of old persons to fully ripe mellow fruit that falls i arboribus, cruda si sint, vi avelluntur; si matura et cocta, e tibus vis aufert, senibus maturitas."-DUNSTER.
e Mellowing year. Here is an inaccuracy of the poet : the “ mellowing" ye of the laurel, the myrtle, and the ivy; which last is charact -T. WARTON.
Compels me to disturb your season due :
Begin then, Sisters of the sacred well,
For we were nursed upon the self-same hill ;
d And build the lofty rhyme. A beautiful Latinism. Hor. “ Ep.” 1. iii. 24. “ Seu condis amabile carmen.” And " De Arte Poet." v. 436. " Si carinina coudes." —Newton.
Todd here cites a passage from Spenser's “Ruines of Rome," st. 25. I see little similitude.
e Melodious tear.
The epithet “coy" is at present restrained to person : anciently it was more generally combined. Our author has the same use and sense of “coy” in the “ Apology for Smectymnuus :"-" Thus lie at the mercy of a coy flurting style, to be girded with frumps and curtall gibes,” &c.— T. Warton.
& My sable shroud. Mr. Dunster has little doubt that Milton here means the “ dark grave;" shroud being the Miltonic word for recess, harbour, hiding-place ; yet he has overlooked the passages in Sylvester, which occasioned, in my opinion, the introduction of "sable shroud into Milton's Monody. And, first, Sylvester uses the precise expression, though with a different meaning, in his “ Bethulian's Rescue,” lib. iv. p. 991, edit. 1621.
Still therefore, cover'd with a sable shroud,
Hath she kept home, as to all sorrow vow'd.
O happy pair! upon your sable toomb
May mel and manna ever showring come. And what farther confirms me in the application of tomb or grave to Milton's text is a passage from a funeral Elegy of Sylvester, edit. supr. p. 1171.
From my sad cradle to my sable chest,
Poore pilgrim I did finde few months of rest.-TODD. I cannot think that, applied to Lycidas, “ shroud" means tomb, as Todd supposes, because Sylvester so used it, in reference to a different case.
h Together both, &c. From the regularity of his pursuits, the purity of his pleasures, his temperance, and general simplicity of life, Milton habitually became an early riser: hence he gained an acquaintance with the beauties of the morning, which he so frequently contemplated with delight, and has therefore so repeatedly described in all their various appearances : and
Under the opening eyelids of the morn
But, O, the heavy change, now thou a
this is a subject which he delineates with the lively pencil
for Smectymnuus,” he declares, “ Those morning haunts | home; not sleeping or concocting the surfeits of an irregul
winter often before the sound of any bell awakens men to as oft as the bird that first rouses, or not much tardye ** Prose Works," i. 109. In“ L'Allegro," one of the first d hear the “ Jark begin his flight." His lovely landscape attractive charms at sun-rising, and seems most delicious season prime for sweetest scents and airs." In the presen alludes to the stated early hours of a collegiate life, whicl hill," with his friend Lycidas at Cambridge.-T. Wakton.
This is a beautiful note of T. Warton, characteristic of tb such as few others, if any, could have written, 1
! Under the opening eyelids of the m Perhaps from Thomas Middleton's “Game at Chesse,” a about the end of the reign of James I. 1625.
Like a pearl Dropt from the opening eyelids of the n
Upon the bashful rose.-T. WARTON. The “ eyelids of the morning" is a phrase of sublime origi let it see the dawning of the day," or, as in the margin, See also chap. xli. 18. And Sophocles, “ Antigone,” v. 11
We drove afield. That is, “ we drove our flocks afield.” I mention this, t in the “Church-yard Elegy,” yet with another meaning, n readers. " How jocund did they drive their team afield !"'Gray seems to have had every expression of Milton by be
k Her sultry horn. * We continued together till noon," &c. The gray-fly i gray-fly, or trumpet-fly; and “sultry horn" is the sharp h! the bottest part of the day. But by some this has been tho its flight in the evening.–T. WARTON.
| Battening our flocks.
Could you on this fair mountain leave to
m His toestering wheel. Drawing toward the west. So in Chaucer's "Troil and C