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The sudden changes which often take place in the fossils after passing one of the boundaries of the different groups of rocks, cannot be held to prove that the destruction of one assemblage of organic beings and the introduction of another set was in itself a sudden act. The interval which elapsed between the formation of two consecutive beds of rock can often be proved to have been a very long one,
in most cases, have been of any imaginable length of duration. The fact that one bed now rests upon another merely proves that nothing was deposited between them, or, if there was anything deposited, that it was removed again. As long a period of non-production may have elapsed in the interval as sufficed for the deposition of many thousand feet of beds in another place.
When we have a great series of beds containing many similar fossils throughout, it not unfrequently happens that a few species occur in the lower beds, which become scarce or disappear in the upper ones, while new species come in, in the upper beds, which do not appear in any below. These facts, joined with the difficulty of imagining any means for the rapid extermination of a widely diffused species, prove it to have been always a slow and gradual process.
In like manner, however, we may suppose new species to have originated, and the multiplication and diffusion of the individuals over large areas must obviously be a slow and gradual process. Those individuals, of which the remains are found in the stratified rocks, were merely a few caught from time to time in the partial and local sediments that happened to be thrown down here and there, at the bottom of seas or lakes, under circumstances favourable for their preservation.
No argument, then, can be properly based merely on the absence of the remains of organic beings which were intermediate in details of structure between those that we do find.
In contemplating vast periods of past time, such as those which geology compels us to deal with, they sometimes appear to diminish in proportion to their remoteness, just as vast distant spaces dwindle in the eye. If we could visit one of the nearest fixed stars and still see the earth, the
space between it and the sun would appear to be nothing, and our little globe would seem to be rubbing against the greater luminary as it revolved round it. The ninety-five millions of miles, seemingly annihilated in the one case, are only a fair image of the many times ninety-five millions of years that elude the grasp of our mental vision in the other.— Adapted from Geology for Schools, by PROFESSOR JUKES.
CRITICISM ON “PARADISE LOST.”
THERE is nothing in Nature more irksome than general discourses, especially when they turn chiefly upon words. For this reason I shall waive the discussion of that point which was started some years since, whether Milton's Paradise Lost may be called an heroic poem ? Those who will not give it that title, may call it, if they please, a divine poem. It will be sufficient to its perfection, if it has in it all the beauties of the highest kind of poetry; and as for those who allege it is not an heroic poem, they advance no more to the diminution of it, than if they should say Adam is not Æneas, nor Eve Helen.
I shall therefore examine it by the rules of epic poetry. The first thing to be considered in an epic poem is the fable, which is perfect or imperfect, according as the action which it relates is more or less so. This action should have three qualifications in it. First, It should be but one action. Secondly, It should be an entire action; and, Thirdly, It should be a great action. To consider the action of the Iliai,
Æneid, and Paradise Lost, in these three several lights. Homer, to preserve the unity of his action, hastens into the midst of things; he opens his poem with the discord of his princes, and artfully interweaves, in the several succeeding parts of it, an account of everything material which relates to them and had passed before that fatal dissension. After the same manner, Æneas makes his first appearance in the Tyrrhene Seas, and within sight of Italy, because the action proposed to be celebrated was that of settling himself in Latium. But because it was necessary for the reader to know what had happened to him in the taking of Troy, and in the preceding parts of his voyage, Virgil makes his hero relate it by way of episode in the second and third Books of the Æneid. Milton, in imitation of these two great poets, opens his Paradise Lost with an Infernal Council plotting the Fall of Man, which is the action he proposed to celebrate ; and as for those great actions, which preceded, in point of time, the Battle of the Angels, and the Creation of the World (which would have entirely destroyed the unity of his principal action, had he related them in the same order that they happened), he cast them into the fifth, sixth, and seventh Books, by way of episode to this noble poem.
The second qualification required in the action of an epic poem, is, that it should be an entire action. An action is entire when it is complete in all its parts; or when it consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nothing should go before it, be intermixed with it, or follow after it, that is not related to it; as, on the contrary, no single step should be omitted in that just and regular progress which it must be supposed to take from its original to its consummation. Thus we see the anger of Achilles in its birth, its continuance and effects; and Æneas's settlement in Italy, carried on through all the oppositions in his way to it both by sea and land. The action in Milton excels, I think, both the former in this particular; we see it contrived in hell, executed upon earth, and punished by heaven. The parts of it are told in the most distinct manner, and grow out of one another in the most natural order.
The third qualification of an epic poem is its greatness. The anger of Achilles was of such consequence, that it embroiled the kings of Greece, destroyed the heroes of Troy, and engaged all the gods in factions. Æneas's settlement in Italy produced the Cæsars, and gave birth to the Roman empire. Milton's subject was still greater than either of the former : it does not determine the fate of single persons or nations, but of a whole species. The united powers of hell are joined together for the destruction of mankind, which they effected in part, and would have completed, had not Omnipotence itself interposed. The principal actors are man in his greatest perfection, and woman in her highest beauty. Their enemies are the fallen angels: the Messiah their Friend, and the Almighty their Protector. In short, everything that is great in the whole circle of being, whether within the verge of nature, or out of it, has a proper part assigned it in this noble poem.
In poetry, as in architecture, not only the whole, but the principal members, and every part of them, should be great. And I think we may say that there is an unquestionable magnificence in every part of Paradise Lost, and indeed a much greater than could have been formed upon any pagan system.
But by the greatness of the action is meant that it should be great not only in its nature, but also in its duration, or in other words, that it should have a due length in it, as well as what we properly call greatness. The just measure of this kind of magnitude, is explained by the following similitude. An animal, no bigger than a mite, cannot appear perfect to the eye, because the sight takes it in at once, and has only a confused idea of the whole, and not a distinct idea of all its parts. If, on the contrary, you should suppose an animal of ten thousand furlongs in length, the eye would be so filled with a single part of it, that it could not give the mind an idea of the whole. What these animals are to the eye, a very short or a very long action would be to the memory. The first would be, as it were, lost and swallowed up by it, and the other difficult to be contained in it. Homer and Virgil have shown their principal art in this particular; the action of the Iliad, and that of the Æneid, were in themselves exceeding short, but are so beautifully extended and diversified by the invention of episodes, and the machinery of gods, with the like poetical ornaments, that they make up an agreeable story, sufficient to employ the memory without overcharging it. Milton's action is enriched with such a variety of circumstances, that I have taken as much pleasure in reading the contents of his books, as in the best invented story I ever met with. It is possible that the traditions on which the Iliad and Æneid were built, had more circumstances in them than the history of the Fall of Man, as it is related in Scripture. Besides, it was easier for Homer and Virgil to dash the truth with fiction, as they were in no danger of offending the religion of their country by it. But as for Milton, he had not only a very few circumstances upon which to raise his poem, also obliged to proceed with the greatest caution in everything that he added out of his own invention. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the restraints he was under, he has filled his story with so many surprising incidents, which bear so close an analogy with what is delivered in Holy Writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate reader, without giving offence to the most scrupulous.