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CRITICISM ON “PARADISE LOST.”
HAVING examined the action of Paradise Lost, let us in the next place consider the actors.
Milton was so sensible of the defect in the subject of his poem--of the few characters it would afford him, that he has brought into it two actors of a shadowy and fictitious nature, in the persons of Sin and Death, by which means he has wrought into the body of his fable a very beautiful and well-invented allegory. But notwithstanding the fineness of this allegory may atone for it in some measure, I cannot think that persons
of such a chimerical existence are proper actors in an epic poem, because there is not that measure of probability annexed to them which is requisite in writings of this kind, as I shall show more at large hereafter.
Another principal actor in this poem is the great Enemy of Mankind. The part of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey is very much admired, as perplexing that fable with very agreeable plots and intricacies, not only by the many adventures in his voyage, and the subtilty of his behaviour, but by the various concealments and discoveries of his person in several parts of that poem. But the crafty being I have now mentioned, makes a much longer voyage than Ulysses, puts in practice many more wiles and stratagems, and hides himself under a greater variety of shapes and appearances, all of which are severally detected, to the great delight and surprise of the reader.
We may likewise observe with how much art the poet has varied several characters of the persons that speak to his infernal assembly. On the contrary, how has he represented the whole Godhead exerting itself towards man in its full benevolenco under the threefold distinction of a Creator, a Redeemer, and a Comforter !
Nor must we omit the person of Raphael, who, amidst his tenderness and friendship for man, shows such a dignity and condescension in all his speech and behaviour, as are suitable to a superior nature. The angels are indeed as much diversified in Milton, and distinguished by their proper parts, as the gods are in Homer or Virgil. The reader will find nothing ascribed to Uriel, Gabriel, Michael, or Raphael, which is not in a particular manner suitable to their respective characters.
There is another circumstance in the principal actors of the Iliad and Æneid, which gives a peculiar beauty to those two poems, and was therefore contrived with very great judgment. I mean the authors having chosen for their heroes persons who were so nearly related to the people for whom they wrote. Achilles was a Greek, and Æneas the remote founder of Rome. By this means their countrymen (whom they principally proposed to themselves for their readers) were particularly attentive to all the parts of their story, and sympathised with their heroes in all their adventures. A Roman could not but rejoice in the escapes, successes, and victories of Æneas, and be grieved at any defeats, misfortunes, or disappointments that befel him; as a Greek must have had the same regard for Achilles. And it is plain that each of those poems have lost this great advantage among those readers to whom their heroes are as strangers or indifferent persons.
Milton's poem is admirable in this respect, since it is impossible for any of its readers, whatever nation, country, or people he may belong to, not to be related to the persons who are the principal actors in it; but what is still infinitely more to its advantage, the principal actors in this poem are not only our progenitors, but our representatives. We have an actual interest in everything they do, and no less than our utmost happiness is concerned, and lies at stake, in all their behaviour. “If a man of perfect and consummate virtue falls into a misfortune, it raises our pity, but not our terror, because we do not fear that it may be our own case, who do not resemble the suffering person.” But: “If we see a man of virtue mixed with infirmities, fall into any misfortune, it does not only raise our pity but our terror, because we are afraid that the like misfortunes may happen to ourselves, who resemble the character of the suffering person."
I shall take another opportunity to observe that a person of an absolute and consummate virtue should never be introduced in tragedy, and shall only remark in this place, that the foregoing observation, though it may be true in other occasions, does not hold in this, because, in the present case, though the persons who fall into misfortune are of the most perfect and consummate virtue, it is not to be considered as what may possibly be, but what actually is our own case ; since we are embarked with them on the same bottom, and must be partakers of their happiness or misery.
CRITICISM ON “PARADISE LOST.”
The Sentiments in an epic poem are the thoughts and behaviour which the author ascribes to the persons whom he introduces, and are just when they are conformable to the characters of the several persons. The sentiments have likewise a relation to things as well as persons, and are then perfect when they are such as are adapted to the subject. If in either of these cases the poet endeavours to argue or explain, to magnify or diminish, to raise love or hatred, pity or terror, or any other passion, we ought to consider whether the sentiments he makes use of are proper for those ends. Milton shines very much in this particular : nor must we omit one consideration which adds to his honour and reputation. Homer and Virgil introduced persons whose characters are commonly known among men, and such as are to be met with either in history or in ordinary conversation. Milton's characters, most of them, lie out of nature, and were to be formed purely by his own invention. It shows a greater genius in Shakespeare to have drawn his Caliban than his Hotspur or Julius Cæsar : the one was to be supplied out of his own imagination, whereas the other might have been formed upon tradition, history, and observation. Adam and Eve, before the fall, are a different species from that of mankind, who are descended from them; and none but a poet of the most unbounded invention and the most exquisite judgment could have filled their conversation and behaviour with so many apt circumstances during their state of innocence.
Nor is it sufficient for an epic poem to be filled with such thoughts as are natural, unless it abound also with such as are sublime.
Milton's chief talent, and indeed his distinguishing excellence, lies in the sublimity of his thoughts. There are others of the moderns who rival him in every other part of poetry ; but in the greatness of his sentiments he triumphs over all the poets both modern and ancient, Homer only excepted. It is impossible for the imagination of man to distend itself with greater ideas than those which he has laid together in his first, second, and sixth books. The seventh, which describes the creation of the world, is likewise wonderfully sublime, though not so apt to stir up emotion in the mind of the reader, nor, consequently, so perfect in the epic way of writing, because it is filled with less action.
From what has been said, we may infer that as there are two kinds of sentiments, the natural and the sublime, which are always to be pursued in an heroic poem, there are also two kinds of thoughts which are carefully to be avoided. The first are such as are affected and unnatural; the second such as are mean and vulgar.
But since several thoughts may be natural which are low and grovelling, an epic poet should not only avoid such sentiments as are unnatural or affected, but also such as are meali and vulgar. There are few blemishes to be observed in Milton under this head.
The only piece of pleasantry in Paradise Lost is where the evil spirits are described as rallying the angels upon the success of their new-invented artillery. This passage I look upon to be the most exceptionable in the whole poem, as being nothing else but a string of puns, and those, too, very indifferent ones.
"Satan beheld their plight,
O friends, why come not on those victors proud ?
To whom thus Belial in like gamesome mood :
Thus they among themselves in pleasant vein