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CRITICISM ON “PARADISE LOST.”
It is requisite that the language of an heroic poem should be both perspicuous and sublime. In proportion as either of these two qualities are wanting, the language is imperfect. Perspicuity is the first and most necessary qualification ; insomuch that a good-natured reader sometimes overlooks a little slip even in the grammar or syntax, where it is impossible for him to mistake the poet's sense. Of this kind is that passage in Milton, wherein he speaks of Satan
“God and His Son except,
And that in which he describes Adam and Eve
"Adam the goodliest man of men since born
It is plain that in the former of these passages, according to the natural syntax, the Divine persons mentioned in the first line are represented as created beings; and that, in the other, Adam and Eve are confounded with their sons and daughters.
If clearness and perspicuity were only to be consulted, the poet would have nothing else to do but to clothe his thoughts in the most plain and natural expressions. But since it often happens that the most obvious phrases, and those which are used in ordinary conversation, become too familiar to the ear, and contract a kind of meanness by passing through the mouths of the vulgar, a poet should take particular care to guard himself against idiomatic ways of speaking. Milton
has but few failings in this kind, of which, however, you may meet with some instances, as in the following passages :
“Embryos and idiots, eremites and friars,
White, black, and grey, with all their trumpery,
"A while discourse they hold,
Our author :
It is not therefore sufficient, that the language of an epic poem
be perspicuous, unless it be also sublime. To this end it ought to deviate from the common forms and ordinary phrases of speech. The judgment of a poet very much discovers itself in shunning the common roads of expression, without falling into such ways of speech as may seem stiff and unnatural; he must not swell into a false sublime, by endeavouring to avoid the other extreme.
Aristotle has observed, that the idiomatic style may be avoided, and the sublime formed, by the following methods. First, by the use of metaphors : such are those of Milton :-
Imparadised in one another's arms."
" And in his hand a reed
" Spangled with eyes." In these and innumerable other instances, the metaphors are very bold but just; I must however observe that the metaphors are not so thick sown in Milton, which always savours too much of wit; that they never clash with one another; and that he seldom has recourse to them where the proper and natural words will do as well.
Another way of raising the language, and giving it a poetical turn, is to make use of the idioms of other tongues. Miltor., in conformity with the practice of the ancient poets, has infused a great many Latinisms, as well as Græcisms, and sometimes Hebraisms, into the language of his poem ; as towards the beginning of it
“Nor did they not perceive the evil plight
“Who shall tempt with wand'ring feet
“ So both ascend
Under this head may be reckoned the placing the adjective after the substantive, the transposition of words, the turning the adjective into a substantive, with several other foreign modes of speech which this poet has naturalised to give his verse the greater sound, and throw it out of prose.
The third method is what agrees with the genius of the Greek language more than with that of any other tongue, and is therefore more used by Homer than by any other poet. I mean the lengthening of a phrase by the addition of words, which may either be inserted or omitted, as also by the extending or contracting of particular words by the insertion or omission of certain syllables. Milton has put in practice this method of raising his language, as far as the nature of our tongue will permit, as, in the passage above mentioned, eremite, for what is hermit in common discourse. If you observe the measure of his verse, he has with great judgment suppressed a syllable in several words, and shortened those of two syllables into one, by which method, besides the above-mentioned advantage, he has given a greater variety to his numbers. But this practice is more particularly remarkable in the names of persons and of countries, as Beëlzebub, Hessebon, and in many other particulars, wherein he has either changed the name, or made use of that which is not the most commonly known, that he might the better depart from the language of the vulgar. ; The same reason recommended to him several old words, which also makes his poem appear the more venerable, and so gives it an air of greater antiquity.
I must likewise take notice, that there are in Milton several words of his own coining, as Cerberean, miscreated, hell-doom'd, embryon atoms, and many others.
Milton, by the above-mentioned helps, and by the choice of the noblest words and phrases which our tongue would afford him, has carried our language to a greater height than any of the English poets have ever done before or after him, and made the sublimity of his style equal to that of his sentiments.
I have been the more particular in these observations on Milton's style, because it is that part of him in which he appears the most singular.
This redundancy of those several ways of speech with which Milton has so very much enriched, and in some places darkened the language of his poem, was the more proper for his use, because his poem is written in blank verse. Rhyme, without any other assistance, throws the language off from prose, and very often makes an indifferent phrase pass unregarded ; but where the verse is not built upon rhymes, there pomp of sound, and energy of expression, are indispensably necessary to support the style, and keep it from falling into the flatness of
I should, under this head of the language, consider Milton's numbers, in which he has made use of several elisions, which are not customary among other English poets, as may be particularly observed in his cutting off the letter y, when it precedes a vowel. This, and some other innovations in the measure of his verse, has varied his numbers in such a manner, as makes them incapable of satiating the ear, and cloying the reader, which the same uniform measure would certainly have done, and which the perpetual returns of rhyme never fail to do in long narrative poems. I shall close these reflections upon the language of Paradise Lost, with observing that Milton has copied after Homer rather than Virgil in the length of his periods, the copiousness of his phrases, and the running of his verses into one another.
After what I have said, I shall without further preface remark the several defects which appear in the fable, the characters, the sentiments, and the language of Milton's Paradise Lost ; not doubting but the reader will pardon me, if I allege at the same time whatever may be said for the extenuation of such defects. The first imperfection which I shall observe in the fable is that the event of it is unhappy.
The fable of every poem is either simple or implex. It is called simple when there is no change of fortune in it: implex, when the fortune of the chief actor changes from bad to good, or from good to bad. The implex fable is thought the most perfect; I suppose, because it is more proper to stir up the passions of the reader, and to surprise him with a greater variety of accidents.
The implex fable is therefore of two kinds : in the first the chief actor makes his way through a long series of dangers and difficulties, till he arrives at honour and prosperity, as we see in the story of Ulysses. In the second, the chief actor in the
poem falls from some eminent pitch of honour and prosperity, into misery and disgrace. Thus we see Adam and Eve sinking from a state of innocence and happiness, into the most abject condition of sin and sorrow.
Milton seems to have been sensible of this imperfection in his fable, and has therefore endeavoured to cure it by several expedients; particularly by the mortification which the great