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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, therebelangel-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 political 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 dazzies : or, on the other hand, it must be full of such wonders as were never heard or thought of before ;-raving expressions, irregularand 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 his 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; nor 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 take 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 few 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.
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 flatnesses 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 littlenėss. 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 encumbered 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" are almost
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 his 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 aldermen 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 says 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 characteristics : 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 Penseroso,” 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 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.
* As T. Warton's book appeared in 1785, he probably composed his remarks soon after the “Lives” were published in 1781. Whether he would have printed them while the Doctor lived, may be a question.
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 sweetness. 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 twentysecond birth-day, both pathetic and exalted : others are moral and axiomatic; and others descriptive. Not one is a mere effusion of idle words or insipid commonplace; not one has the appearance of being written for the sake of writing.