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They are willing to rest upon the earth, and be content with the solid substances around and before them. Appeals to the imagination, however, are not the less excellent because they are above the vulgar taste. Because there are those among the people whom something of fact pleases better than exalted fiction, is this fiction to be debased in the scale of excellence? We know not the mysteries of Providence, nor why this great poetical genius is so sparingly dispensed : we only know that upon this great scale all except four or five are found wanting. Poetical artists, whose skill lies in the mechanical parts, are numerous : the dress is a bauble ; the creative thought is the essence. There is not much difficulty in finding language to illustrate a trite truth, and rhymes to give it harmony to the ear; but the combination of incidents, and exhibition of ideal characters, is another affair.
I have already said that we have scarcely any Epics in our language subsequent to Milton's, except the mean and miserable fatnesses of Blackmore : perhaps, however, a few modern poems may come under the denomination ; as Southey's “ Joan of Arc," “ Madoc,” and “Roderic," and some of Scott's and Byron's productions ; but Scott's are more lyrical, and many of Byron's Tales incline to this
. They want the regularity of the old heroic poem: the characters, too, are not quite natural. Gray's “ Bard” may be called a fable ; but if it be, it is a lyrical fable.
After the choice of subjects executed by Milton, all others fade into littleness. This is one of the difficulties which he has thrown upon his successors. The actors and the machinery from human materials must appear comparatively uninteresting: We may invent some great hero ; but how spiritless will he appear before Satan! and how mean, before Adam and Eve, will all other human beings show themselves !
Still something might be done better than has been done ; at once natural, vigorous, and new. We may imagine characters distinctly discriminated, moral, intellectual, generous, bold, enterprising, lofty; and we may put them into a progression of movements, wading through conflicting obstacles, and going forwards to some great end. We may borrow these from no history, nor derive much from observation—the whole may be invention; yet we may keep close to the probabilities of nature, but nature sublimed by virtue, and high inborn endowments,
This will free us from the servile task of copying from actual examples, which freezes the energies of the mind, and binds us down in chains to the earth ; because we can always imagine more than we can find, and conceive ideal virtue higher than any which experience justifies. So of ideal beauty :-we can embody visions of fairness and purity, such as no individual ever possessed.
But to invent single characters is not so impracticable, as to make several so invented act their parts in one story, and have their respective qualities drawn out by the conflict. “ Hic labor, hoc opus est.” A short poem, delineating a single character, real or imaginary, does but little. Prior's “ Henry and Emma " goes a little farther, but the fable is not his own: he has merely given a modern versification to the dialogue. As far as it goes, it is very beautiful. Gray's “ Elegy” is a soliloquy, and not of an ideal person. Not one of Dryden's Fables is original.
It is remarked that the style of the “ Paradise Regained " is much less encum. bered with allusions to abstruse learning than the “ Paradise Lost.” Different critics assign different reasons for this. It is probable that the poet was influenced by regard to the simple language of the New Testament: in previous parts of the Bible there is much more of poetical ornament and figurative richness.
It is probable also that the latter poem was written more hastily and less laboured. As to much imagery,—though a splendid charm, when just and grand, or beautiful, -it is not an essential of poetry. There may be invention, which is not in its strict sense imaginative : it may be purely intellectual and spiritual.
OF MILTON'S JUVENILE POEMS, It appears, that Milton, from the first verses he composed, always tended to sacred subjects, and was always familiar with the style and images of the Scripture: he had early the idea of an epic poem ; but his first productions were short and lyrical : in these the invention lay in the sentiments and language : he was always picturesque, and often sublime : his “ L'Allegro" and “Il Penseroso
entirely descriptive, though there is something of a distinct character in those descriptions as applicable to different states of mind. Here he speaks mainly in liis own person, and consonant to his own individual taste : I think, however, that there is less originality in these than in most of his other poems.
"Comus * is the invention of a beautiful fable, enriched with shadowy beings and visionary delights : every line and word is pure poetry, and the sentiments are as exquisite as the images. It is a composition which no pen but Milton's could have produced ; though Shakspeare could have written many parts of it, yet with less regularity
, and, of course, less philosophical thought and learning; less profundity and solemnity ; but perhaps with more buoyancy and transparent flow.
" Lycidas” stands alone : Johnson says it has no passion; the passion results from the imaginative richness: the bursts of picturesque imagery give a melancholy
rapture to a sensitive fancy. But Johnson had no fancy. It is like entering into | an enchanted forest, where the wood-nymphs are mourning over their loves in strains of aerial music ; or approaching a fairy island, where the sea-nymphs are singing melodious dirges from its promontories.
Johnson's censure of Milton for representing himself and Lycidas as shepherds, would go to destroy all figurative language. A shepherd's, as long as poetry has been known, has been considered a poetical life : his conversance with the fields and open air, joined to his leisure, connects itself with all picturesque imagery. The Scriptures would have afforded the critic an authority which one should have supposed he would have respected ; as, for instance, the beautiful adaptation of Addison, beginning
The Lord my pasture shall prepare,
And feed me with a shepherd's care. But Johnson had an abhorrence of a rural abode : with him “the full tide of life was at Charing Cross." He preferred the roll of the hackney-coach, and the cries of London, to the sound of the woodman's axe, the shepherd's halloo, and the echo of the deep-mouthed hounds ringing from some forest-slope ; and the witticisms of aldernen in waistcoats of scarlet-and-gold at the full-clad table of Thrale the brewer, to dreams by the side of murmuring rivers, or a book in some shade, with the greenery of nature at his feet.
It is not true that there is no grief in “Lycidas;" but grief shows itself in different minds according as they are differently constructed. An imaginative mind does not grieve in the same way as a sterile one: it is not stunned; it expatiates abroad: it dwells on all the scenes in which it has been associated with the object of its loss. If it is full of tears, those tears are gilded by hope : but Johnson looked to death only with a sullen gloom; he saw no bright emanations of joy playing in the skies : with him it was, that
Low, sullen sounds his grief beguiled. COLLINS. Johnson prefers Cowley's “ Elegy on his friend W. Hervey," on account of its plain unmetaphorical language. Why did he not mention that of Tickell on Addison, where he speaks of their walking and conversing in consecrated groves? The critic ways there is no nature in “ Lycidas,” for there is no truth ; no art, for there is nothing new. This I do not understand ; a proper novelty is the result of genius, not of art. But the assertion that there is no novelty in this composition is not just: the imagery and the combinations are all new: raciness is one of its beautiful ebaracteristics : it is full of imagery ; but principally primal, not metaphorical imagery. "Lycidas" appears to me much more vigorous, more expansive, more vivid, more full of sentiment and intellectuality, than “ L'Allegro” and “Il PenseT08)," which are the popular favourites.
It is extraordinary that Johnson had the courage to venture such a disreputable criticism ; but he was now in the height of his fame, and had grown humoursome and arbitrary. His contemporaries feared his vituperation and personal invectives. The Wartons were mild men, and loved too much their own quiet * : Mason lived at a distance from him, and abhorred and feared him : Gray was dead : Johnson's club were all his flatterers and worshippers : Burke was absorbed in politics ; and Sir Joshua Reynolds never ventured to engage in literary conflict with him. A few feeble missiles were aimed at him by Potter and other mediocrists ; but
* As T. Warton's book appeared in 1783, he probably composed his remarks soon after the "Lives" were published in 1781. Whether he would have printed them wbile the Doctor lived, may be a question.
it was a crisis of no brilliance : Hayley became a fashionable poet ; and Beattie lost his spirits, and could not carry the “ Minstrel” beyond the second canto : Robertson and Gibbon were great in history; but they did not much concern themselves with poetry : Sir William Jones was yet young, vain, and ambitious to go with the stream: Horace Walpole was too delicate, and too fearful of the rude ridicule of Johnson to enter the lists with him ; nor probably would his taste have led him to it: I doubt whether Milton's genius had much of his sympathy.
In this age, such an ebullition of vulgar acrimony and hard insensibility would not have been left unassailed and unrepelled. The Southeys, the Lockharts, the Wordsworths, the Wilsons, the Campbells, the Moores, and many an unfleshed sword besides, would all have stepped forth. The flattering Thrales, and Boswells, and Hawkinses, and Murphys, would have had no shield.
I do not know how Cowper felt : he had not yet broke forth into fame, and perhaps was too meek to have then dared an opinion of his own ; but he has left many proofs that he was a devoted admirer of Milton. I was a boy when the Life of Milton came out ; though the Lives of the more modern poets appeared after I arrived at Cambridge ; and then my indignation at the attacks on Collins and Gray rose to a height which has never since subsided.
ON MILTON'S SONNETS. The Sonnets are another object of Johnson's virulent attack : they have a character of their own, supported for the most part by a naked majesty of thought. The model is drawn from the Italians ; and Milton's favourite, Dante, set him the example. He took little from the tone of Petrarch : he has none of Petrarch's
The sternness, severity, gloominess, and sublimity of Dante had his entire sympathy. The English reader may find specimens of Dante's manner in his Sonnets, excellently translated by Hayley, in the notes to his poem on Epic Poetry : I must admit that, in the Sonnets, Milton has not reached his model.
The brevity of the Sonnet will scarcely admit the greater traits of poetry: there is no space for fable ; but for the preservation of a single grand thought it is admirably fitted. Mr. Dyce, in his “ Specimens of English Sonnets, from the time of Henry VIII., chronologically arranged,” has shown their progress and their fashions. They were favourites with Spenser and Shakspeare, and many less eminent poets of those days; as Sydney, Constable, B. Barnes, Daniel, and Drayton. It appears to me that the Sonnets both of Spenser and Shakspeare have been commended too much : they are quaint, laboured, and often metaphysical. Of all authors, Wordsworth has most succeeded in this department.
But there are many of Milton's which are very grand in their nakedness: they have little of picturesque imagery. To make use once more of an expression of Johnson-not as applied to them, but to other parts of Milton--their sublimity is argumentative : it is intellectual and spiritual. There is something at times of ruggedness and involution in the words : they rarely flow. They are spoken as by one, who, conscious of the force of the thought, scorns ornament; they have something of the brevity and the dictatorial tone of the oracle, and seem to come from one who feels conscious that he is entitled to authority. Compositions so short can only have weight when they come from established names : every word ought to be pregnant with mind, with thought, sentiment, or imagery. The form will not allow diffuseness and smooth diluted periods : the repetition of the rhymes certainly aggravates the difficulty.
If it can be shown that in any one of these Sonnets of Milton there is not much sterling ore, I will give it up. In all there is some important thought, or opinion, or sentiment developed. The modulation may sometimes appear rough to delicate and sickly ears ; and there is not the nice polish of a lady's gem come from a refining jeweller's workshop : it is all massy gold, -not fillagreed away into petty ornaments.
The Sonnet on Cromwell is majestic ;-on his blindness, sublime ;-on his twenty-second birth-day, both pathetic and exalted : others are moral and axiomatic; and others descriptive. No one is a mere effusio idle words or insipid commonplace ; not one has the appearance of being written for the sake of writing.
The necessity of compression gives this form of composition a great merit, when the fountain of the writer's mind is abundant. It is true, that in this short space, barrenness itself can find enough to fill up the outline ; but in Milton there is no
urmeaning sentence or useless word. The form of the Sonnet, however, does not I refuse mellifluousness when the occasion requires, as Petrarch almost everywhere
proves. No verses can be more mellifluous than Petrarch’s : something of this will, perhaps, be attributed to the softness of the Italian language ; but the English tongue is also capable of it, however obstinately Johnson may have pronounced otherwise. Milton had no Laura to flatter and idolise : he found in his wife a dull, insensate, and capricious woman, unwarmed by his genius, and inapprehensive of his moral qualities: his admiration turned to disgust, and his resentment to bitterness. One may conceive that his genius might have thrown more of the splendour of imagitation into his Sonnets : single images, such as are scattered through all the rest of his poetry, might have been thrown into a succession of these small forms, and might have risen by a noble climax to their termination.
If there was one poetical power of Milton more eminent than another, it was his power of description ; he gave an idealism to all his material images; and yet they were in the highest degree distinct and picturesque. He knew where to throw a veil, and when to make the features prominent. A poetical image should have the distinctness which a painter can depict ; but it should have also something of the indefinite, which a painter cannot depict :-this is Milton's merit; and it is no less that of Dante. It is wbat art can never reach : what genius only gives by fiashes : it is enthusiasm and inspiration.
The question at present is, not whether the Sonnets are equal to Milton's genius, but whether they are good, or as contemptible as Johnson represents them. I say that they are such as none but Milton could have written : they are full of lofty thought, moral instruction, and virtuous sentiment, expressed in language as strong as it is plain. They are pictures of a manly, resolute, inflexible spirit, and aid us in our knowledge of the poet's individual character. Is this light merit ?- Where is the enlightened reader who will agree with Johnson, and wish them thrown aside ?
But Johnson's prejudices against Milton were inveterate : they must have been taken up early in life from some passion, and have grown with his growth. He never ridded himself of the impressions he imbibed from Lauder : his hatred howEver was partly political. I know not what made him so bigoted and blind a partisan : his birth and station will not account for it ;--probably it was imbibed jacobitism. But there was something adverse in the native structure of the minds of these two celebrated men : if Johnson had genius, it was quite dissimilar to that of Milton: it was solely argumentative : he had no inventive imagination : he saw no phantoms but the gloomy phantoms of superstition : he had no chivalrous enthusiasm : he delighted not to gaze on feudal halls, or“ throngs of knights and barons bold :" he thought not of another world ; of angels, and heavenly splendour, but as subjects of trembling and painful awe! He turned away from them, except so far as duty enforced his attention ; he loved the world, and all its gaieties, and follies, and conflicts. Could there be a greater contrast to the bard of “ Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained !" To him who would decapitate kings, and defy the powers of the earth ? To him who would haunt groves and forests, and listen to the lonely blast, and basy himself in deep solitude, and love musing and his own creations, rather than the busy talk of social collision? Him, whose taste is opposed to our own, and from its elevation claims a superiority, we learn first to envy, then to hate, then to scorn. Till we can persuade ourselves that he is in the wrong, we feel our own degradation. Thus Johnson, when he was grasping at the head seat of the literature of his country, could not bear the memory of one whose dissimilar splendour paled his own ; hence his constant detractions, his petty cavils, his malignant perversions.
To dwell on this topic is not idle or irrelevant : Johnson still holds the public ear; and to endeavour to weaken his influence is a duty neither useless nor ungenerous. The more the public studies and admires Milton, the higher will be its taste and grasp of intellect. As to the Sonnets, if any one can read them without both pleasurable excitation and improvement, he has a sort of mind which it would be vain to attempt to cultivate a barren soil, or one overgrown with weeds and prejudices,
oy (SAMSON AGONISTES." We come again to fable and invention. “Samson Agonistes ” is written after the severe model of the ancient Greek tragedies; but it is not fit for the stage, nor intended for it: the characters are few; it indeed almost approaches to a monologue. Many object to the Chorus; but for a dramatic poem it affords many opportunities of noble eloquence. Samson's character is magnificently supported : he is a giant in mind as well as in body: his language, though not suited to the effeminate polish of modern ears, is vigorous and majestic.
There is a deep pathos, but unyielding soul, in all the hero utters: the moral reflections are grand, profound, and expansive. The application everywhere to the poet's own misfortunes and position augments the interest twofold.
Milton, in his preface to this poem, says:—“ Tragedy, as it was anciently composed, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems; therefore said by Aristotle to be of power, by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions; that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated,” &c.
On this Warton makes the following note :-“ Milton, who was inclined to puritanism, had good reason to think that the publication of his • Samson Agonistes ! would be very offensive to his brethren, who held poetry, and particularly that of the dramatic kind, in the greatest abhorrence : and upon that account, it is probable, that in order to excuse himself from having engaged in this proscribed and forbidden species of writing, he thought it expedient to prefix to his play a formal defence of tragedy.” Suchi defence of what does not require to be defended never makes impression upon bigoted minds. The blind slaves of party are never convinced by reason ; they repeat by rote, and cannot be put out of their lesson, Long speeches on the stage become tedious; but are not so to the intelligent reader : and there is no mode by which an ideal character can be represented with so much effect. A person under the influence of passion can best describe his own feelings: we cannot conceive any thing more heroic than much of what is said by Samson.
In accordance with some celebrated critics, I have no doubt that the third place of excellence in Milton's works ought to be assigned to “Samson Agonistes”. placing the “ Paradise Lost ”first, and “Paradise Regained” second. Though “ Conius” is exquisite poetry, it has not so much grandeur and holiness: it certainly is more purely imaginative ; but then we must consider the compound of the four great essentials ; and we must always prefer sublimity to sweetness. To live among the nymphs and dryads is delightful; but moral heroism is more delightful. One is duty; the other is only pleasure.
We are entitled to amuse ourselves by sometimes living in a purely visionary world; but sometimes also we are called upon to perform our part among the human inhabitants of the solid earth: and the grandeur of bold enterprise, or patient suffering, has a longer, deeper, and more instructive hold upon the mind, than any simple and unmixed play upon the fancy or the senses.
The • Comus” is the work of a younger man, full of hope, elasticity, and joy: the tragedy is the pouring out of one enriched by the wisdom of age and experience, mellowed by misfortune, and elevated by patience under danger and calumny :of one “ fallen on evil tongues and evil days;”—of one resolved to lift himself above sublunary oppression, and rising in grandeur in proportion to the severity of his trials. We muse in this tragedy upon the great bard mingling his ideal inventions with his own personal gloomy recollections and his present sorrows and privations. We trace the workings of his heroic spirit ; and we see the sublime picture of lofty virtue and splendid genius“ struggling with the storms of fate.” The temperament of poetry is heat and exhalation: it throws out flashes, of which labour and art cannot supply scintillæ. Its warmth and tone communicate its contagion to others.
Whatever there is of artificial and mechanical attempt to produce this effect on others, fails, and ends in nothing. It is like dead air, whence we draw no healthful breath. No one can write with the powers of a poet except when he is in a state of excitement. All must be centred within him :-there the fire must burn and blaze. He must see with the mental eye, and pore, and believe. Language will ac