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Addison concludes his series of eloquent, just, and admirable criticisms thus :"I hare now finished my observations on a work which does an honour to the English nation. I have taken a general view of it under these four heads,—the fable
, the characters, the sentiments, and the language : I have in the next place spoken of the censures which our author may incur under each of these heads; of which I might have enlarged the number if I had been disposed to dwell on so ungrateful a subject. I believe, however, that the severest reader will not find any little fault in heroic poetry, which this author has fallen into, that does not come under one of these heads, among which I have distributed his several blemishes.
" After having thus treated at large of Paradise Lost,' I could not think it sufficient to have celebrated this poem in the whole, without descending to particulars : I have therefore endeavoured not only to prove that the poem is beautiful in general, but to point out its particular beauties, and to determine wherein they consist. I have endeavoured to show how some passages are beautiful by being sublime ; others by being soft ; others by being natural, which of them are recommended by the passion ; which by the moral ; which by the sentiment; and which by the expression. I have likewise endeavoured to show how the genius of the poet shines by a happy invention, a distant allusion, or judicious imitation ; how he had copied or improved Homer or Virgil, and raises his own imaginations by the use he has made of several poetical passages in Scripture. I might have inserted also several passages of Tasso which our author has imitated ; but as I do not look upon Tasso to be a sufficient voucher, I would not perplex my reader with such quotations, as might do more honour to the Italian than the English poet. In short
, I have endeavoured to particularise those innumerable kinds of beauty, which it would be tedious to recapitulate, but which are essential to poetry; and which many be met with in the works of this great author." I have here cited enough to draw again the attention of the modern reader to an elegant and exquisite author, whom the more recent fame of subsequent critics seems in some degree to have pushed aside ; but who is as superior to Johnson, as Milton is to Pope or Dryden. “Addison was not vigorous in his metrical composi
but he had a beautiful invention in prose. He was a classical scholar, of far finer taste than Johnson ; and if not more profound as a moralist, more rich, more chaste, and, as it seems to me, more original. Johnson's critique on Milton is an instance how much he secretly borrowed. In his “ Rambler" is a large proportion of verbiage : he has none of that nice, delicate, and sensitive discrimination which delights in Addison ; those touches of the heart ; those unforced and mellow observations ; those flashes of polished and exquisite humour. He too often dictates as a pedagogne, and silences by his coarseness. It is not out of place thus to censure him in a "Life of Milton," whom he has traduced with as much bad taste in literature as malignity of temper. And what is the worth of the praise by which he has affected to counteract his scoffs and his cavils I-a disguised echo of the encomiura of a predecessor, whose principles of poetry he was outraging by the whole tenor of his own judgments through the series of poetical biographies he was then composing. Examine the rules by which Addison has tried the details of execution in the successive books of “ Paradise Lost:" will the praises or censures of Johnson on the poets whom he has criticised abide these tests? Johnson cared little for poetical invention, for imagery, or for sentiment: his whole idea of excellence lay in what he called ratiocination in verse: thus Dryden and Pope were his supreme favourites.
I remember how he shocked the taste and the creed of the higher and more imaginative classes of his poetical readers, when his “Lives" came out : but he was the fashion of the day; and the attempt was vain to stem the tide. The sensitive were stunned by his coarseness ; and the worldlings and the talkers became insolent in their triumph. An epigrammatic point, an observation on life, a stinging couplet, can be felt and repeated by every pert disputant in society: but cite a noble passage from a great poet, and it draws sneers or ridicule !
Johnson's work did great injury to the national taste ; and debases it even to this day. Imagination, repressed in its proper issues, has broken out in wrong places : it has become fantastic and distorted; in seek not to be obvious, it has becotne unnatural. In the search for novelty we ought not to feign impossibilities or improbabilities : nothing should be extravagant ; nothing over-coloured. We are to imagine what may be ; but which is at the same time grand, beautiful, or
pathetic. We are to take advantage of the dim hints of remote history, to fill up the details with the marvellous, the sublime, and the fair. Poetry deals more with the imaginationthan the understanding ; but it must not outrage the understanding.
Some contend that Johnson had imagination : if he had, it was the imagination of big and vague words: all his “Rasselas” consists of generalisations: it is little more than a series of moral observations; sometimes powerful or plaintive; too often pompous and verbose, where triteness is covered by grandiloquence. On a few occasions he may have been picturesque-especially in his “Journey to the Hebrides ;” but very rarely. Sounding words are easily put together by one long practised in literary composition. He has given no proof of distinct images; of that power of selecting the leading feature, which revives the whole object, and which, above all others, Milton and Shakspeare possessed ; and which distinguishas the epithets in Gray's “ Elegy," and Collins's “ Ode to Evening.” Johnson not only could not invent such, but his mind had no mirror for them when they were presented by others ; it gave him no pleasure to muse upon them. He had the faculty of powerful reason and strong memory; but the materials of thought afforded by his fancy were sterile and few: he loved therefore society and busy manners for the purposes of observation ; in solitude he was miserable: he had no relief from painful recollections. It is thus, in part, that we may account for his distaste of Milton. When he praised, the praise was extorted, and borrowed under the powerful authority of a mightier critic.
THE MERITS OF MILTON COMPARED WITH THOSE OF OTHER POETS.
It is universally admitted that the primary and most essential quality of a poet is invention ; but it must be invention also of a sublime or beautiful kind ; and, to be perfect, it must display this excellence in fable, characters, sentiments, and language. Of all our English poets, Milton only has combined all these merits. Shakspeare wanted the first, though he was admirable in the last three. What invention of fable, or even of character, is there in Dryden or Pope ? I can hardly think that strictly they have invention of sentiments ; for these are by them drawn from observation.
Spenser attained the marvellous in pure invention; but his fictions go beyond nature, and outrage our faith. Chaucer's tales are rarely, if ever original: they are principally borrowed from the Italians, or from old romances, Sackville's famous legend is historical. The productions of subsequent poems of the best fame,-I do not speak of the living, -are too brief for much fable, except of Lord Byron: but whatever splendours Lord Byron had, his fables are generally extravagant. In Cowley, Waller, Denham, Prior, Thomson, Collins, Gray, Young, Akenside, Shenstone, Cowper, Burns, Beattie, the Wartons, Kirke White, Shelley,* Coleridge, there was no fable. In Crabbe were short fables ;-but if they did not want nature, they wanted dignity: they were colloquial and monotonous. Hayley had nothing of the force of fiction ;-all his incidents were unpoetical.
Thus it is, that before the sun of Milton, all other stars are paled, -unless of Homer and Virgil ;—and what is there in the fable of these two that can stand before the divine brightness of the bard of angels ?
With regard to characters,-invention of such as are at once true to nature, and yet grand, or attractive, is very rare. Those of Dryden and Pope are portraits,copied from individuals : they are admirable as portraits :- but they have not the sublimity of poetic invention; they have frail humanity for their types. They have not the magnificence of Satan and his brother rebels,-still less of the good angels, nor the purity and beauty of Adam and Eve.
Where there is not invention, there cannot be adequate grandeur. Experience and reality fall short of our ideal greatness. We can always imagine higher things than we observe ; and give full evidence to that imagination :- but not if it exceeds probability, -or at least possibility.-Incredulus odi.-Shakspeare, having conceived a character, always preserves it ; as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, &c. Each electrifies by acting appropriately: but this can never be effected by drawing
* Sir Walter Scott requires an examination peculiar to himself.
merely from observation : the inventor is the master of the very soul of the person be invents. He rules all the motives and conduct of the invented being ;-and if he paints any inconsistency, it is from his own weakness, and want of sagacity.
The same principles apply to the sentiments as to the characters: if not in conformity with the moral and intellectual traits of the character represented, they are faulty; while that character itself must be striking and estimable, as well as natural.
invent fable, characters, sentiments,-all with these excellencies,-can only be within the power of a gigantic mind — Lastly, we come to the language. This ought to be such as expresses these complex inventions the most clearly, most har. moniously, and at the same time with the most dignity. Whatever overlays them, - whatever draws attention from the thought to the words,—is faulty: if the thought is good, it does not want to be raised by the dress :-if it is weak, or trite, it is not fit for poetry; and no ornament of cover can supply a radical defect :-on the contrary, it is a deception, which, when detected, disgusts.- T'innit;-inane est.— The Aorid style is always bad. An over-regard to a monotonous harmony fatigues in Pope. Nothing can be more tiresome than a long continuation of the unbroken couplet.
Milton's metrical combinations,—unfettered by rhyme, run into every variety and extent of musical cadence ;-and his diction has often double force from its bold nakedness. His majestic thoughts support themselves in the plainest words.
What is called an illustrative imagination is a feebler sort of power :—it is a petty invention --Metaphors and similes may occasionally show visibly what in its abstraction is not easily conceived; but these are rarely necessary except in didactic poetry, which is of an inferior class. Sometimes the thought and the metaphor rise together in the mind, and cannot be separated ; but there are spiritual ideas sublimer than any illustration from materiality. The embodiment ought to lie, not in the metaphor, but in the abstraction itself. By the junction of the metaphor there are two ideas ; and the attention is drawn from the principal to the secondary. He, whose chief strength exists in his secondary ideas, is not a great poet. I'must confess that I think this was mainly the case with Dryden and Pope. What are Pope's “Moral Essays" but illustration and decoration ?-A vast proportion of the primary thoughts is trite. There is no embodiment except in the dress :-the inside remains abstract. There is not only no contexture of fable, but no fable at all. Mere skill in language can never supply the want of fable, or characters, or sentiments.
Characters and sentiments derive a complex force from a well combined fable : they are comparatively feeble, if insulated. The actions and the movements of the head and heart are operated upon by the conflicting or consecutive incidents of the fable ; and each differently according to the discriminative conformation of the respective actors. That generalization, which separates the represented being froin an intricate and particular train of circumstances, can never exhibit him in those strong, affecting and vivid lights, which are forced forward by the gradual developments of a well-feigned and well-told tale. Let Pope draw the characters of Buckingham and Wharton,-to say nothing of the absence of invention,--we do not read them in a moral worked up by the recital of a long succession of incidents. They are single figures,-contemplated only by themselves. The absence of fable, then, is a defect, which must insuperably disqualify a candidate for a seat on the highest point of Parnassus. Will the “ Rape of the Lock” be pleaded in Pope's favour? Here the invention has neither greatners nor nature : it is a sportive trifle, as far as the fable goes : it is a piece of exquisite artifice; a laboured gem of fillagree-work.
The power of language must not be wanting ;-but it is the least of the four requisites. It cannot be truly good, where the thought is wanting ;-but it is sometimes wanting where the thought is good. It is that, of which the semblance of excellence is most easily attained ; and which is most apt to delude the common reader.
Flowing language is the taste of superficial and feeble minds : perhaps it is because they only regard the ornament, and can take in but a single image at a time. If there be deep thought into the bargain, it is too complex for
them. Let us suppose,--what I am afraid is true,-that Milton is too high for the yolantary taste of common intellect ;-yet it is surely a duty, that all who desire to attain the advantages of a cultivated education, should have iinpressed upon them by labour and care his sublimity, his beauty, and his wisdom.
We may not
only improve, but acquire taste by patient lessons. By distinctly studying the genuine purposes of poetry ; by having pointed out to us in whom the chief merit lies ; by learning in what it consists ; by clear definitions and demonstrative explanations ; by examples precisely applicable ; by calm reasoning ; by unexaggerated praise, -we may assist and lead the popular opinion and sympathy.
There will always be books of bad criticism,-books proceeding not only from a vicious judgment or mean taste, but from interested motives ; and these will have the more effect, because they flatter the opinions and failings of the vulgar : but they ought not to go uncounteracted : what is repeated without contradiction is soon taken to be a truth.
The true principles of poetical invention laid down by Addison are incontrovertible ; but they are not such as are assumed by common critics,—who deem the improbable and the extravagant a greater proof of genius than the natural ;-who, at the same time, like a tale of familiar life better than a tale of genuine grandeur ; and who consider a piquant epigram on the manners of daily occurrence a better proof of intellect and sagacity than an epic poem.
I know not why vulgarity should be considered natural; but, if it be so, there is a high nature also, as well as a low nature, and poets are bound to choose the best. The characters, the sentiments, the language-all must follow the tone and colours of the fable. In choo
his fable, therefore, Milton felt conscious of his own gigantic power. Any other mind would have shrunk from the hope to sustain the other requisites at the same height. Homer or Virgil Inight find no difficulty in supporting the career of Achilles, Hector, or Æneas ; but how different the case of the first two of human beings before the Fall; or of their seducer, the rebelangel-Satan!
There is copious and diversified invention in the Fairy Queen ; but it wants unity, and unbroken progression to one definite end. It is almost like a collection of episodes : the tales are concurrent rather than consecutive.—Under all the influences of chivalry, when it was not yet extinct, the mind might be brought to have a poetical belief of those tales as allegories ; but that belief can scarcely be sustained now that the feudal ages have passed away. Even in Spenser's own age, he often verged on the bounds of what the mind would then deem extravagant. Our poetical belief in “ Paradise Lost" is cherished by our belief in Scripture. It is miraculous that he never offends the imagination, considering our habitual awe on such subjects.
Dante is often sublime as he is gloomy, and has a grand and vast imaginative invention ; but he has no combination and unity of fable; and he has only sketches and outlines rather than finished characters. His sentiments are sometimes obscure, and there is a mass of crude and irrelevant intermixtures : it is something of a chaos of mighty fragments, rather than a regular building of finished Gothic architecture. Of Milton, all the parts are exactly disposed, and none left imperfect : they are all of the same date, in the same style, and in the most graceful proportions.
Beautiful poetry, with an equal regard to the four essential principles, may be written on a far humbler subject than Milton's : but where is it now to be found ! -and why has it not been written ! One cause I would assign is this, that false criticism chills it. Technical critics require technical excellences : they like finer work, and gaudy colours, and varnish : they pay little regard to the solid ore ; they look to the mechanical workmanship : there must be a flower here, and a piece of gold-leaf there ; and all must be polished into one uniform model till it shines, and sparkles, and dazzles: or, on the other hand, it must be full of such wonders as were never heard or thought of before ;-raving expressions, irregular and dissonant numbers, and an affected sort of madness, which is called originality and invention! Since the bursting forth of the French Revolution in 1789, we have had a great deal of this : it has begun to subside ; better criticisms and wiser times are come. Nothing unnatural and monstrous has ever long kept its hold on the public taste.
Addison's rules are so founded on eternal reason, that they never can be shaken. There cannot be true poetry of a high order without invention of fable, characters, and sentiments,-and those having such qualities as the critic demands. A fantastic invention is the invention of a madman : it is not genius! The purpose of poetry is to convey exalted truths through the medium of feigned examples : if it gives no instruction, one requisite of prime poetry is wanting. They who only deal in decorative poetry, produce flowers without fruits; and, generally, only artificial flowers.
If we receive any pleasure from these stimulative compositions, they work us into a factitious fury, which unfits us for the sober business of life. We retire from the holy strains of Milton, improved in wisdom, fortified against the ills of existence, patient'in adversity, and glorying in the works of the Creator. His enthusiasm is always philosophical.
Many will think me too severe in the application of the theory I have adopted, because it will degrade into a much lower class several of their favourite poets. They may still regard them with affection, for they may still afford them refined pleasures ; but we must not put their pretensions on false grounds. He cannot strictly deserve the name of poet, who is not an inventor or creator ; and he who does not admire Milton to enthusiasm, does not know what poetry is: he may delude himself, but the test is infallible. Mean and dull minds love the worst poets most, or, rather, those smooth versifiers who have no poetry in them.
ON PARADISE REGAINED." There is less complex fable in the “Paradise Regained ” than in its predecessor: it is chiefly argumentative, while the other is narrative, dramatic, and full of imagery; but it is scarcely less sublime, if we may allow of argumentative sublimity. It has far more of the moral and practical wisdom, which relates to the state of mankind after the Fall, and therefore affords more lessons of instruction. It has less of the blaze of the sun, but more of the mellow mildness of its setting radiance : it has, however, enough of fable in it, in the poetical sense : the characters are few, and the language, for the most part, subdued and plain : the sentiments are abundant, wise, elevated, and beautiful. Here the poet is more profuse, and more rich, even than in the “Paradise Lost.” I cannot bring myself to admit that there is less genius or less excellence in this poem than in the other. If fable were the only grand essence of poetry, then I must yield. Imagery implies materiality and embodiment: so far it is less splendid; but my own taste leads me to the intellectual, the spiritual, the ideal. This may allow of fable, as well as what is more narrative; yet it cannot be denied that there is less invention in the “ Paradise Regained :"the story being singular, there was less opportunity for it. Milton had, in the second book of bis Reason of Church Government, long before hinted that the rules of Aristotle were not always strictly to be kept ; but rather nature to be followed ; and that the Book of Job might be considered as “a brief model of an epic poem.”
However we may rebel against the principles of Aristotle when they are arbitrary, we must consider the greater part of them to be built on nature and truth ; and so far not to be departed from. Fiction, therefore, whether imaginative or spiritual, is indispensable to poetry. For this reason, history in metre is not poetry; por is the narrative of what is drawn from observation poetry.
I am fully aware what will be the result of an adherence to these strict principles : it will exclude a great part of what has taken to itself the name of poetry. When a writer of verses speaks in his own person, and describes, not his visionary, but his actual feelings and opinions, it is not poetry. We cannot lift ourselves up to the height of an invented character, because sad realities intervene to chill us.
Let us tako the example of a popular author, and refer to Cowper's “ Task." Here is no fable ; here are no invented characters ; it wants therefore a primary Essential of the best poetry. Then why does it please!, because it is the language of poetry ; because in his own person the author speaks the sentiments and tone of poetry. Still the one grand requisite is not there.
The same objection applies to the greater part of Cowley's works, except to the language, where there is often beautiful imagery. I believe nobody reads the + Davideis." There is no invented fable in Pope's • Eloisa :”—all that is borrowed either from biography or former fictions. All the charm lies in the animation, passion, and harmonious eloquence of the style and versification. The true poet surrounds himself with ideal worlds ; he lives out of himself ; he lives in others, but those others of his own creation. He escapes from realities to possibilities; but how low have strength of wing for this! Scarce any can long support themselves in the air : in those ethereal realms their wings soon droop beneath the heat.