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guage can never supply the want of fable, or cha racters, 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 generalisation, which separates the represented being from 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 greatness 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 can
not 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 voluntary taste of common intellect;—yet it is surely a duty, that all who desire to attain the advantages of a cultivated education, should have impressed 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 choosing 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 might 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 rebel angel-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 excellencies : 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 aste.
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 applica