Page images
PDF
EPUB

tive;

Lost,' in the first lines of which, the same numbers, in every respect, are hardly once repeated ; as Mr. Say has observed in his “Remarks on the Numbers of Paradise Lost,' 1745, p. 126.”

But as Johnson can never write long without writing some things justly and powerfully, I cannot refrain from citing the following passages :

“It has been long observed, that the idea of beauty is vague and undefined, different in different minds, and diversified by time and place," &c. “ It is in many cases apparent that this quality is merely relative and compara

that we pronounce things beautiful, because they have something, which we agree, for whatever reason, to call beauty, in a greater degree than we have been accustomed to find it in other things of the same kind; and that we transfer the epithet as our knowledge increases, and appropriate it to higher excellence, when higher excellence comes within our view. Much of the beauty of writing is of this kind; and therefore Boileau justly remarks, that the books which have stood the test of time, and been admired through all the changes which the mind of man has suffered, from the various evolutions of knowledge, and the prevalence of contrary customs, have a better claim to our regard than any modern can boast; because the long continuance of their reputation proves that they are adequate to our faculties and agreeable to nature.

“It is, however, the task of criticism to establish principles; to improve opinion into knowledge; and to distinguish those means of pleasing which depend upon known causes and rational deduction, from the nameless and inexplicable elegances which appeal wholly to the fancy; from which we feel delight, but know not how they produce it; and which may well be termed the enchantresses of the soul. Criticism reduces those regions of literature under the dominion of science, which have hitherto known only the anarchy of ignorance, the caprices of fancy, and the tyranny of prescription."

Johnson, no doubt, did right in endeavouring to establish principles and rules with regard to versification ; but wrong principles do more harm than none at all. Either Johnson is on this subject wrong, or Milton is a very bad versifier : I do not think that any man of taste, or a tolerable ear, will in these days adopt the latter opinion : I do not believe that any one will endure the monotony of the pure iambic couplet carried beyond twenty or thirty lines. The occasional intermixture of the metrical feet of the ancients, judiciously applied, distinguishes Milton's blank verse from all other in our language. Iambic blank verse, or that which approaches to iambic, or even a mixed spondaic, wants all its force and diversity; or often becomes languid and diffuse, without the variety of musical prose.

As Milton's style is always condensed and full of matter, it may be said to have a tendency to harshness; for there is no doubt that our language is too much loaded with consonants, especially in our nouns and verbs : but if properly pronounced, there is no poetical author who has more sonorous or soft verses. At the same time, it must be admitted, that he has less fluency than Shakspeare, or even Spenser; but certainly more nerve and strength than either of them. Shakspeare has a more idiomatic combination of words with a simple, beautiful, and spell-like colloquiality : Milton's combinations are new, learned, and often, perhaps too often, latinised: he is never trite : his mind always appears in full tension, and apart from the vulgar and the light.

SAMSON AGONISTES*:

A Bramatick Poem.

Τραγωδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας, κ. τ.λ.

ARISTOT. “Poet.,” cap. 6.
Tragoedia est imitatio actionis seriæ, &c., per misericordiam et metum

perficiens talium affectuum lustrationem.

INTRODUCTORY REMARKS.

THE excellence of this drama, which strictly follows the Greek model, lies principally in its majestic moral strength : the two preceding poems are divine epics; this deals entirely in topics of human nature and human manners. It is not adapted to exhibition on the stage : it is too didactic; and has too few actors and too few incidents. The fable, the characters, the sentiments, and the language are all admirably preserved: the story does not linger, as some have pretended; but goes forward with intense interest to the end. The opening is in the chastest style of poetical beauty. “The breath of heaven fresh-blowing” gives ease to Samson's body, but not to his mind, which, when in solitude and at leisure, agonises his heart with regrets. Nothing can be more pathetic than the comparison of his present fallen state with his early hopes and past glories; and then the reflection that for this change he had no one to blame but himself :

O loss of sight, of thee I most complain !
Blind amongst enemies, O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age !
Light, the prime work of God, to me is extinct,
And all her various objects of delight

Annull’d, which might in part my grief have eased, &c. The observations of the Chorus, descriptive of Samson's dejected appearance in this situation, are very fine, contrasted with the recollection of his former mighty actions and triumphs :

O mirrour of our fickle state,
Since man on earth unparalleld,
The rarer thy example stands,
By how much from the top of wondrous glory,
Strongest of mortal men,

To lowest pitch of abject fortune thou art fallen. The dialogues between Samson and his father are everywhere supported with force, elevation, and moral wisdom; and the unexampled simplicity of the language in which they are conveyed augments the deep impression which they everywhere make.

Perhaps, as a summary of divine dispensations, nothing even in Milton can be found so awful and comprehensive.

* Samson Agonistes. That is, Samson an actor; Samson, being represented in a play. Agonistes, ludio, histrio, actor, scenicus.--NEWTON.

Agonistes is here rather athleta. The subject of the drama is Samson brought forth to exhibit his athletic powers. See ver. 1314. That such was Milton's intended sense of “ Agonistes." may farther be collected from his use of the word “Antagonist,” ver. 1628.-DUNSTER.

Then bursts forth, at verse 667, that complaint of most deep and stupendous eloquence, beginning,

God of our fathers, what is man ! Then enters Dalila, with the renewal of all her arts, and coquetries, and false smiles. With what a proud and overwhelming scorn does the hero treat her insidious advances ! what a contrast is Dalila to Eve, even when, like Eve to Adam, she affects to own her transgression! Samson exclaims, v. 748—

Out, out, hyæna ! these are thy wonted arts,
And arts of every woman false like thee,
To break all faith, all vows, deceive, betray;
Then, as repentant, to submit, beseech,
And reconcilement move with feign'd remorse,
Confess, and promise wonders in her change;
Not truly penitent, but chief to try
Her husband, how far urged his patience bears,
His virtue or weakness which way to assail :
Then with more cautious and instructed skill
Again transgresses, and again submits ;
That wisest and best men full oft beguiled,
With goodness principled not to reject
The penitent, but ever to forgive,
Are drawn to wear out miserable days,
Entangled with a poisonous bosom snake,
If not by quick destruction soon cut off,

As I by thee, to ages an example. As the dialogue goes on, each party speaks in that natural train which leads to the consummation of the tragedy; and with poetic force and plenitude of rich sentiment, which belong to Milton alone.

All poetry of a high order is produced by a union of all the best faculties of the mind, and all the noblest emotions of the heart. What is called the understanding, or reason, alone, will produce no poetry at all: even the imagination added to it will not be sufficient, unless there be sentiment and pathos raised by what that imagination presents. To supply the materials of that imagination, there must be observation, knowledge, learning, and memory. In the amalgamation of all these Milton's drama excels.

The character of Samson Agonistes is magnificently supported : he speaks always in a tone becoming his circumstances, his position, his sufferings, and his destiny : everything is grand, animated, natural, and soul-elating.

It is a minor sort of poetry to relate things as a stander-by : the author must throw himself into the character of the person represented, and speak in his name. Pope, in his characters of men and women, tells us their several opinions and passions; but these opinions and passions should be uttered by themselves. There is a sympathy we feel with the eloquent relater of his own sorrows, which cannot be raised by the relation of a third person.

The character of Manoah, Samson's father, is full of nature and parental affection.

The Chorus is everywhere attractive by poetry, moral wisdom, and eloquent pathos. I will not disguise my opinion, that the versification of these lyrical parts is occasionally, and only occasionally, inharmonious, abrupt, and harsh; and such as my ear can scarcely reconcile to any sort of metre.

The sudden presage which prompted Samson to consent to exhibit himself in the theatre, after the stern reluctance he had previously expressed, is very sublime. The tone of the whole drama is in the highest degree of elevation : the thoughts, sentiments, and words are those of a mental giant.

Added to the mighty interest which these create, is the conviction that through the whole the poet has a relation to his own case;—his blindness, his proscription, his poverty,

With darkness, and with danger compass'd round; his fortitude, his defiance, his unimpaired strength, his loftiness of soul, his conscious power from the vastness of his intellect, and the firmness of his principles.

..

OF THAT SORT OF DRAMATICK POEM WHICH IS CALLED

TRAGEDY.

(WRITTEN BY MILTON HIMSELF.]

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 terrour, 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. Nor is Nature wanting in her own effects to make good his assertion : for so, in physick ", things of melancholick hue and quality are used against melancholy, sour against sour, salt to remove salt humours : hence philosophers, and other gravest writers, as Cicero, Plutarch, and others, frequently cite out of tragick poets, both to adorn and illustrate their discourse. The apostle Paul himself thought it not unworthy to insert a verse of Euripides e into the text of Holy Scriptures, 1 Cor. xv. 33 ; and Paræus, commenting on the Revelation, divides the whole book as a tragedy, into acts distinguished each by a chorus of heavenly harpings and song between. Heretofore men

* Of that sort of dramatick poem, called Tragedy. 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 this 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.T. WARTON,

b For 80, in physick, &c. These expressions of Milton may be supposed to refer to the doctrine of signatures then in vogue; which had been introduced by Paracelsus between the years 1530 and 1540, and which inferred the propriety of the use of any vegetable or mineral in medicine, from the similarity of colour, shape, or appearance, which these remedies might bear to the part affected. Thus yellow things, as saffron, turmeric, &c., were given in liver complaints, from their analogy of colour to the bile ; and other remedies were given in nephritic disorders, because the seed or leaf of the plant resembled the kidney. See Paracelsus, “ Labyrinth. Med.” c. 8, and Dr. Pemberton's very elegant Preface to the English edition of the “London Dispensary.”-DUNSTER.

A verse of Euripides. The verse, here quoted, is “Evil communications corrupt good manners :" but I am inclined to think that Milton is mistaken in calling it a verse of Euripides; for Jerome and Grotius (who published the fragments of Menander) and the best commentators, ancient and modern, say that it is taken from the “Thais" of Menander, and it is extant among the fragments of Menander, p. 79. Le Clerc's edit. Such slips of memory may be found sometimes in the best writers.NEWTON.

Mr. Glasse, the learned translator of this tragedy into Greek iambics, agrees with Dr. Newton. Dr. Macknight, in his excellent “Translation of the Epistles,” is of opinion, that the sentiment is of elder date than the time of Menander ; that it was one of the proverbial verses commonly received among the Greeks, the author of which cannot now be known. Clemens Alexandrinus calls it a tragic iambic, “Strom.” lib. i. and Socrates the historian expressly assigns it to Euripides, “Ecc. Hist.” lib. iii. cap. 16. ed. Vales. p. 189. It is extant indeed in the fragments of Euripides, as well as in those of the comic writer. Milton therefore is not to be charged with forgetfulness or mistake.-TODD.

in highest dignity have laboured not a little to be thought ableto compose a tragedy; of that honour Dionysius the elder was no less ambitious, than before of his attaining to the tyranny. Augustus Cæsar also had begun his Ajax; but, unable to please his own judgement with what he had begun, left it unfinished. Seneca, the philosopher, is by some thought the author of those tragedies (at least the best of them) that go under that name. Gregory Nazianzen, a father of the church, thought it not unbeseeming the sanctity of his person to write a tragedy d, which is entitled “Christ Suffering.” This is mentioned to vindicate tragedy from the small esteem or rather infamy, which in the account of many it undergoes at this day with other common interludes ; happening through the poet's errour of intermixing comick stuff with tragick sadness and gravity; or introducing trivial and vulgar persons, which by all judicious hath been counted absurd; and brought in without discretion, corruptly to gratify the people. And though ancient tragedy use no prologue e, yet using sometimes, in case of self-defence, or explanation, that which Martial calls an epistle; in behalf of this tragedy coming forth after the ancient manner, much different from what among us passes for best, thus much beforehand may be epistled ; that Chorus is here introduced after the Greek manner, not ancient only but modern, and still in use among the Italians. In the modelling therefore of this poem, with good reason, the ancients and Italians are rather followed, as of much more authority and fame. The measure of verse used in the Chorus is of all sorts, called by the Greeks monostrophick, or rather apolelymenon“, without regard had to strophe, antistrophe, or epode, which were a kind of stanzas framed only for the musick, then used with the Chorus that sung; not essential to the

poem, and therefore not material; or, being divided into stanzas or pauses, they may be called allæostropha. Division into act and scene referring chiefly to the stage, (to which this work never was intended) is here omitted.

It suffices if the whole drama be found not produced beyond the fifth act. Of the style and uniformity, and that commonly called the plot, whether intricate or explicit, which is nothing indeed but such oeconomy, or disposition of the fable, as may stand best with verisimilitude and decorum; they only will best judge who are not unacquainted with Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the three tragick poets unequalled yet by any, and the best rule to all who endeavour to write tragedy, The circumscription of time, wherein the whole drama begins and ends, is, according to ancient rule and best example, within the space of twenty-four hours.

d A tragedy, &c. A very severe, but very just criticism, on this tragedy of Gregory, which has been too much applauded.—Jos. WARTON.

e Though ancient tragedy use no prologue. That is, no prologue apologising for the poet, as we find the ancient comedy did. See Terence's prologues.--HURD.

i Apolelymenon Free from the restraint of any particular measure, not from all measure whatsoever.—HURD.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »