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Where the bright Seraphim, in burning row,
Singing everlastingly, &c.
Again : in his “ Address to his Native Language,” at a vacation exercise in the college, anno ætatis 19, he says,
But haste thee straight to do me once a pleasure,
Immortal nectar to her kingly sire : &c. “Here," Warton again observes, “ are strong indications of a young mind, anticipating the subject of the 'Paradise Lost,' if we substitute Christian for Pagan ideas. He was now deep in the Greek poets."
The style, the picturesqueness of language, the character of the imagery, which Milton adopted from the first, was peculiar to himself. I do not say that many of the words, and even images, might not be found scattered in preceding poets, as Spenser, Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Joshua Sylvester's Du Bartas : but they could not be found combined into a uniform and unbroken texture, nor with the same uniformity of elevated and spiritual thought. In almost all precedent poets they are patches. That Milton was minutely familiar with the poems of all his celebrated predecessors is sufficiently evident: but so far as he used them, he only used them as ingredient particles. Spenser is rich and picturesque, but Milton has a character distinct from him. Milton's texture is more massy : the gold is weightier; he has a haughtier solemnity.
CHAPTER II. CRITICAL ACCOUNT OF MILTON'S COLLEGE POETRY. Though there were many things which had a tendency to make Milton in his boyhood and first youth discontented with the social institutions of his country, as they then displayed themselves in all their abuses; yet the relics of former greatness still remained in such preservation as to give full force to the imagination: the names, the feudal history, the trophies of former magnificence, were all fresh, Though King James was mean, pedantic, and corrupt, King Charles had a royal spirit, and a benevolent, accomplished mind: he loved literature and the arts, and had subtle, if not grand, abilities. At this time, therefore, Milton's love of monarchical and aristocratical splendour was contending with his puritanic education, and his personal hatred of arbitrary power : his rich imagination and his stern judgment were at variance : his early poems rarely, if ever, touch upon sectarianism : Spenser and Shakspeare, courts, castles, and theatres, did not agree with Calvinistic rigours and formalities. Milton's enthusiasm was, as Warton observes, the enthusiasm of the poet, not of the puritan.
At this time he had more of description and less of abstract thought : that sublime elevation of axiomatic wisdom was not yet reached; but from his earliest,
years he appears to have been conversant and delighted with the tone and expressions of the Hebrew poetry : his grand and inimitable “Hymn on the Nativity proves this. In that hymn is every poetical perfection, mingled with a sort of prophetic solemnity, which fills us with a religious awe: the nervous harmony and climax of the lines are also admirable. It was written in 1629, when he was in his twenty-first year, probably as a college exercise. Mark this stanza :
No war, or battle's sound,
Was heard the world around;
The hooked chariot stood
Unstain'd with human blood;
And kings sat still with awful eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by. Or these two stanzas :
The oracles are dumb;
No voice, or hideous hum,
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
The lonely mountains o'er,
And the resounding shore,
From haunted spring, and dale
Edged with poplar pale,
With flower-inyoven tresses torn,
The nymphs in twilight-shade of tangled thickets mourn. Dr. Joseph Warton observes here : "attention is irresistibly awakened and engaged hy the air of solemnity and enthusiasm that reigns in this stanza and some that follow. Such is the power of true poetry, that one is almost inclined to believe the superstition real."
I cannot doubt that this hymn was the congenial prelude of that holy and inspired imagination which produced the “Paradise Lost,” nearly forty years afterwards.
I am not aware that our young bard had any prototype in this sort of ode: the form, the matter, the imagery, the language, the rhythm, are all new. Milton seems himself in the state of wonder and awe of the shepherds, and of all those whom he describes as affected by this miracle. The trembling, the fervour, the blaze is true inspiration. In this state, the poet, visited by heavenly appearances, must have forgot all worldly fear, and written at this early age solely after his own ideas. The manner in which he describes the dim superstitions of the false oracles is quite magical.
I mention these things here as illustrative of Milton's life. We must consider him now, when he had scarcely reached manhood, as already a perfect poet: he had stamped his power; and was entitled to take his own course accordingly in future life. Good words and pleasing thoughts may easily be worked into harmonious verse; but this is not poetry. I know nothing in which the genuine spell of poetry more breaks out than in the hymn I have here been praising. To show this, I must cite one more stanza :
And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
In vain with cymbals' ring
They call the grisly king
The brutal gods of Nile as fast,
Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste. “These dreadful circumstances," says Warton," are here endued with life and action; they are put in motion before our eyes, and made subservient to a new purpose of the poet by the superinduction of a poetical fiction, to which they give
occasion. Milton, like a true poet, in describing the Syrian superstition, selects such as were most susceptible of poetical enlargement; and which, from the wildness of their ceremonies, were most interesting to the fancy."
There are magical words of the same character in almost every stanza. There is not a finer line in the whole range of descriptive poetry than this :
In dismal dance about the furnace blue. Yet this ode Johnson passes over in silence. Milton was already in a state of mental fervour, in which all the materials of poetry were spiritualised into a pure golden flame ascending in glory to the skies. Read also the two following lines, where the poet speaks of the flight of Osiris :
In vain with timbrell'd anthems dark
The sable-stoléd sorcerers bear his worshipp'd ark. We cannot reason upon the effect of such combinations of words,—the charm is indefinable. Into what a temperament of aërial power must the author have been worked! Well might this sublime priest of the Muses then exclaim,
Nec duri libet usque minas preferre magistri,
Cæteraque ingenio non subeunda meo. No notice has been handed down how this extraordinary performance was received : it seems yet to have produced no fame to him. When he retired to his father's house at Horton next year, he retired as one who had yet done nothing. His Latin poems want the solemnity, the sublimity, the enthusiasm, the wildness, the imaginativeness, of these English, in which the spirit of Dante and Spenser already began to show itself, moulded up with a character of his own. But Ovid was a poet of a more whimsical and undignified kind, of whom it was strange that he should have been fond, but whom his Latin verses almost everywhere show to have been a great favourite with him.
When we see to what holy subjects and holy imagery Milton's mind was already turned, there is reason for some surprise that he should still have had it in contemplation to produce an epic poem on the inferior and comparatively puerile theme of King Arthur, which no imaginative invention could have invested with the same dignity; when even chivalry had not yet arrived at its historic grandeur, and when everything must have had a fabulousness which shocked probability. This is the more extraordinary, because Milton, though intimately conversant with the old romances, was still more familiar with the spirit, the language, the sublimity of the Sacred Story. It is clear that he was not frightened by the difficulty of duly treating this awful subject, from the manner in which he touched upon it in his majestic hymn, where he showed himself a master of all its mysterious tones. Had he at this time taken subjects from the Bible for a series of odes and hymns, he might even have excelled himself.
He has been supposed not to have had a lyrical ear : nothing can be a greater mistake. The arrangement of his stanza, and the climax of his rhymes in this hymn, are perfect. To my perception there is no other lyrical stanza in our
guage so varied, so musical, and so grand. The Alexandrian close is like the swelling of the wind when the blast rises to its height.
The poet, perhaps, already grasped at too immense a circuit of human learning : he might be at this early age darkening his mind with the factitious subtleties of politics and theology, which might overlay the sublime and inimitable fire of the Muse. It seems as if he pursued the most abstruse, dry, and puzzling tracks of study. It is indeed to be remarked, that in most of his poems there is an occasional over-fondness for allusion to these blind parts of learning. Life is not long enough for everything; nor can the most ardent lame of the intellect entirely overcome an excessive superincumbence of dead matter.
Though Milton's Latin poetry has been remarked not generally to partake of the character of his English, it has some exceptions. Warton observes of his poem “In Quintum Novembris.”- '—a college exercise,--that "it contains a council, conspiracy, and expedition of Satan, which may be considered as an early and promising prolusion of the bard's genius to the · Paradise Lost.'
In this poem the cave of Phonos (Murther) and Prodotes (Treason), with its inhabitants, are finely imagined, and in the style of Spenser.
“There is,” says Warton, “great poetry and strength of imagination in supposing that Murther and Treason often fly as alarmed from the inmost recesses of their own horrid cavern, looking back, and thinking themselves pursued.”
In his seventeenth year Milton wrote a poem, (" In Obitum Præsulis Eliensis,") on Dr. Nicholas Felton, bishop of Ely, who died 5th October, 1626. In the midst of his lamentations he supposes himself carried to heaven. Cowper shall give the general reader a taste of it; for as Warton, candid in his very admiration, observes, “ this sort of imagery, so much admired in Milton, appears to me to be much more practicable than many readers seem to suppose.”
I bade adieu to bolts and bars,
Or e’en the Scorpion's horrid claws, &c. &c. The same elegant and classical commentator remarks, that "the poet's natural disposition, so conspicuous in the 'Paradise Lost, and even in his prose works, for describing divine objects, such as the bliss of the saints, the splendour of heaven, and the music of the angels, is perpetually breaking forth in some of the earliest of his juvenile poems, and here more particularly in displaying the glories of heaven, which he locally represents, and clothes with the brightest material decorations : bis fancy, to say nothing of the Apocalypse, was aided and enriched with descriptions in romances.”
The next poem, “Naturam non pati senium,” a college exercise, is also praised by Warton. He says that it “ is replete with fanciful and ingenious allusions. It has also a vigour of expression, a dignity of sentiment, and elevation of thought, rarely found in very young writers."
The poem consists of sixty-nine lines. The whole is beautiful. In answer to those who assert the liability of nature to old age, the poet says,
At Pater Omnipotens, fundatis fortius astris,
Hence the prime mover wheels itself about
Beautiful, as at first, ascends the star
And to discriminate the night and day.--COWPER. Gray, a century afterwards, wrote tripos verses, at Cambridge, on the subject“ Anne Luna est habitabilis?"
In 1627, anno ætatis 15, Milton wrote his elegy, "Ad Thomam Junium præceptorem suum, apud mercatores Anglicos Hamburghæ agentes, Pastoris munere fungentem.” This Thomas Young was Milton's tutor before he went to St. Paul's school. He was a Puritan, of Scotch birth. He returned to England in 1628, and was afterwards preferred by the Parliament to the mastership of Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1644, whence he was ejected for refusing the engagement. He died, and was buried at Stow-market, in Suffolk, where he had been vicar thirty
From Young, Milton says that he received his first introduction to poetry.
Primus ego Aonios, illo præeunte, recessus
Lustrabam, et bifidi sacra vireta jugi ;
Castalio sparsi læta ter ora mero.
CHAPTER III. THE SUBJECT OF MILTON'S COLLEGE POETRY CONTINUED. It does not appear at what exact date Milton wrote his beautiful Latin poem to his father, (who lived till 1647,) excusing his devotion to the Muses : it was probably before he left Cambridge. Though it assumes that his father did not oppose his pursuits, yet I think we may infer that he had endeavoured to persuade him to occupy himself with some lucrative profession :
Nec tu perge precor, sacras contemnere Musas, &c.
Et vos, o nostri, juvenilia carmina, lusus,
Nomen, ad exemplum, sero servabitis ævo. This is an aspiration which Warton praises with congenial enthusiasm, and which was duly fulfilled to its utmost extent.
This poem may be taken as perfectly biographical, as well as poetical : I think it proper, therefore, to give the whole poem, as translated by Cowper.
TO HIS FATHER.
* See Mitford's Poetical Dedication to his edition of Parnell.