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other poets; for this superiority he was indebted to his acquaintance with the sacred writings. The antient epic poets, wanting the light of Revelation, were very un. skilful teachers of virtue; their principal characters may be great, but they are not amiable. The reader may rise from their works with a greater degree of actire or passive fortitude, and sometimes of prudence; but he will be able to carry away few precepts of justice, and none of mercy.
From Italian writers it appears, that the advantages of even Christian knowledge may be possessed in vain. Ariosto’s pravity is generally known; and, though the Deliverance of Jerusalem may be considered as a sacred subject, the poet has been very sparing of moral instruction.
In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought and purity of manners, escept when the train of the narration requires the introduction of the rebellious spirits ; and even they are compelled to acknowledge their subjection to God, in such a manner as excites reverence and confirms piety.
Of human beings there are but two; but those two are the parents of mankind, venerable before their fall for dignity and innocence, and amiable after it for pl. pentance and submission. In the first state their affection is tender without weak. ness, and their piety sublime without presumption. When they have sinned, they show how discord begins in mutual frailty, and how it ought to cease in mutual forbearance; how confidence of the divine favour is forfeited by sin, and how hope of pardon may be obtained by penitence and prayer. A state of innocence we can only conceive, if indeed, in our present misery, it be possible to conceive it; but the sentiments and worship proper to a fallen and offending being, we have all to learn, as we have all to practise.
The poet, whatever be done, is always great. Our progenitors in their first state conversed with angels; even when folly and sin had degraded them, they had not in their humiliation the port of mean suitors; and they rise again to reverential regard, when we find that their prayers were heard.
As human passions did not enter the world before the Fall, there is in the Paradise Lost little opportunity for the pathetic; but what little there is has not been lost. That passion which is peculiar to rational nature, the anguish arising from the con. sciousness of transgression, and the horrours attending the sense of the divine displea. sure, are very justly described and forcibly impressed. But the passions are mored only on one occasion ; sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of this poem; sublimity variously modified, sometimes descriptive, sometimes argumentative.
The defects and faults of Paradise Lost, for faults and defects every work of maa must have, it is the business of impartial criticism to discover. As, in displaying the excellence of Milton, I have not made long quotations, because of selecting beauties there had been no end, I shall in the same general manner mention that which seems to deserve censure: for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages, which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish in some degree the honour of our country ?
The generality of my scheme does not admit the frequent notice of verbal inaccu. racios : which Bentley, perhaps better skilled in grammar than in poetry, has often found, though he sometimes made them, and which he imputed to the obtrusions of a rciiser, whom the author's blindness obliged him to employ; a supposition rasa
and groundless, if he thought it true; and vile and pernicious, if, as is said, he in private allowed it to be false.
The plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither hun man actions nor human manners 11. The man and woman who act and suffer are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know. The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged; beholds no condition in which he can by any ef. fort of imagination place himself; he has, therefore, little natural curiosity or sympathy.
We all, indeed, feel the effects of Adam's disobedience; we all sin like Adam, and like him must all bewail our offences; we have restless and insidious enemies in the fallen angels : and in the blessed spirits we have guardians and friends; in the redemption of mankind we hope to be included ; and in the description of Heaven and Hell we are surely interested, as we are all to reside hereafter either in the regions of horrour or of bliss.
But these truths are too important to be new; they have been taught to our in. fancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversations, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life. Being therefore not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.
Of the ideas suggested by these awful scenes, from some we recede with reverence, except when stated hours require their association; and from others we shrink with horrour, or admit them only as salutary inflictions, as counterpoises to our interests and passions. Such images rather obstruct the career of fancy than incite it.
Pleasure and terrour are indeed the genuine sources of poetry; but poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can at least conceive; and poetical terrour such as human strength and fortitude may combat. The good and evil of eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit; the mind sinks under them in pis. sive helplessness, content with calm belief and humble adoration.
Known truths, however, may take a different appearance, and be conveyed to the mind by a new train of intermediate images. This Milton has undertaken, and, performed with pregnancy and vigour of mind peculiar to himself. Whoever considers the few radical positions which the Scriptures afforded him, will wonder hy what energetic operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety, restrained as he was by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction.
Here is a full display of the united force of study and genius; of a great accu. mulation of materials, with judgment to digest, and fancy to combine them: Milton was able to select from nature, or from story, from ancient fable, or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind, fermented by study, and exalted by imagina. tion.
It has been therefore said, without an indecent hyperbole, by one of his ecnomiasts, that in reading Paradise Lost we read a book of universal knowledge.
But original deficience cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is al.
· u But, says Dr. Warton, it has throughout a reference to hunan life and actions. C.
ways felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harrassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert out master, and seek for companions.
Another inconvenience of Milton's design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described, the agency of spirits. He saw that immateriality sup. plied no images, and that he could not show angels acting but by instruments of action; he therefore invested them with form and matter. This, being necessary, was therefore defensible; and he should have secured the consistency of his system, by kecping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts. But he has unhappily perplexed his poetry with his philosophy. His infernal and celestial powers are sometimes pure spirit, and sometimes animated body. When Satan walks with his lance upon the burning marl, he has a body; when, in his passage between llell and the new world, he is in danger of sinking in the vacuity, and is supported by a gust of rising vapours, he has a body; when he animates the toad, he seems to be mere spirit, that can penetrate matter at pleasure; when he starts up in his own shape, he has at least a determined form; and, when he is brought before Gabriel, he has a spear and a shield, which he had the power of hiding in the toad, though the arms of the contending angels are evidently ma terial.
The vulgar inhabitants of Pandæmonium, being incorporeal spirits, are at large, though without number, in a limited space: yet, in the battlc, when they were overwhelmed by mountains, their armour hurt them, 66 crushed in upon their snbstance, now grown gross by sinning.” This likewise happened to the uncor. rupted angels, who were overthrown the sooner for their arms, for unarmed they might easily as spirits have evaded by contraction or remove.” Even as spirits they are hardly spiritual; for 66 contraction” and “ remove” are images of matter; but if they could have escaped without their armour, they might have escaped from it, and left only the empty cover to be battered. Uriel when he rides on a sunbeam, is mate. rial; Satan is material when he is afraid of the prowess of Adam.
The confusion of spirit and matter, which pervades the whole narration of the war of Heaven, fills it with incongruity; and the book in which it is related is, I beliere, the favourite of children, and gradually neglected as knowledge is increased.
After the operation of immaterial agents which cannot be explained, may be col. sidered that of allegorical persons which have no real existence. To exalt causes into agents, to invest abstract ideas with form, and animate them with activity, has always been the right of poetry. But such airy beings are, for the most part, suffered only to do their natural office, and retire. Thus Fame tells a tale, and Victory hovers over a general, or perches on a standard; but Fame and Victory cab do no more. To give them any real employment, or ascribe to them any material agency, is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by ascribing effects to non-entity. In the Prometheus of Æschylus, we see Violence and Streugth, and in the · Alcestis of Euripides, we see Death, brought upon the stage, all as active persons of the drama; but no precedents can justify absurdity.
Milton's allegory of Sin and Death is undoubtedly faulty. Sin is indeed the
mother of Death, and may be allowed to be the portress of Hell; but when they stop the journey of Satan, a journey described as real, and when Death offers him battle, the allegory is broken. That Sin and Death should have shown the way to Hell, might have been allowed; but they cannot facilitate the passage by building a bridge, because the difficulty of Satan's passage is described as real and sensible, and the bridge ought to be only figurative. The Hell assigned to the rebellious spirits is described as not less local than the residence of man. It is placed in some distant part of space, separated from the regions of harmony and order by a chaotic waste and an unoccupied vacuity ; but Sin and Death worked up a mole of aggra. vated soil, cemented with asphaltus; a work too bulky for ideal architects.
This unskilful allegory appears to me one of the greatest faults of the poem ; and to this there was no temptation but the author's opinion of its beauty.
To the conduct of the narrative some objections may be made. Satan is with great expectation brought before Gabriel in Paradise, and is suffered to go away unmolested. The creation of man is represented as the consequence of the vacuity left in Heaven by the expulsion of the rebels; yet Satan mentions it as a report 66 rife in Heaven” before his departare.
To find sentiments for the state of innocence was very difficult; and something of anticipation perhaps is now and then discovered. Adam's discourse of dreams seems not to be the speculation of a new.created being. I know not whether his answer to the angel's reproof for curiosity does not want something of propriety; it is the speech of a man acquainted with many other men. Some philosophical no. tions, especially when the philosophy is false, might have been better omitted. The angel, in a comparison, speaks of timorous deer, before deer were yet timorous, and before Adam could understand the comparison.
Dryden remarks, that Milton has some flats among his elevations. This is only to say, that all the parts are not equal. In every work, one part must be for the sake of others : a palace must have passages; a poem must have transitions. It is no more to be required that wit should always be blazing, than that the Sun should always stand at noon. In a great work there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the world a succession of day and night. Milton, when he has expatiated in the sky, may be allowed sometimes to revisit Earth; for what other author ever soared so high, or sustained his flight so long?
Milton, being well versed in the Italian poets, appears to have borrowed often from them; and, as every man catches something from his companions, his desire of imitating Ariosto's levity has disgraced his work with the Paradise of Fools; a fica tion not in itself ill-imagined, but too ludicrous for its place.
His play on words, in which he delights too often; his equivocations, which Bent. ley endeavours to defend by the example of the ancients ; his unnecessary and un. graceful use of terms of art, it is not necessary to mention, because they are easily remarked, and generally censured; and at last bear so little proportion to the nole, that they scarcely deserve the attention of a critic.
Such are the faults of that wonderful performance, Paradise Lost; which he who can put in balance with its beauties, must be considered not as nice but as dull, as s to be censured for want of candour, than pitied for want of sensibility.
Paradise Regained, the general judgment seems now to be right, that it is in
many parts elegant, and every where instructive. It was not to be supposed that the writer of Paradise Lost could ever write without great effusions of fancy, and ex. alted precepts of wisdom. The basis of Paradise Regained is narrow; a dialogue without action can never please like an union of the narrative and dramatic powers, Had this poem been written not by Milton, but by some imitator, it would have claimed and received universal praise.
If Paradise Regained has been too much depreciated, Sampson Agonistes has in requital been too much admired. It could only be by long prejudice, and the bi. gotry of learning, that Milton could prefer the ancient tragedies, with their encum. brance of a chorus, to the exhibitions of the French and English stages; and it is only by a blind confidence in the reputation of Milton, that a drama can be praised in which the intermediate parts have neither cause nor consequence, neither hasten nor retard the catastrophe.
In this tragedy are however many particular beauties, many just sentiments and striking lines; but it wants that power of attracting the attention which a well-con. nected plan produces.
Milton would not have excelled in dramatic writing; he knew human nature only in the gross, and had pever studied the shades of character, nor the combinations of concurring, or the perplexity of contending passions. He had read much, and knew what books could teach, but had mingled little in the world, and was deficient in the knowledge which experience must confer.
Through all his greater works there prevails an uniform peculiarity of diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer; and which is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprised by a new language.
This novelty has been, by those who can find nothing wrong in Milton, imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suitable to the grandeur of his ideas. “ Our lan. guage,” says Addison, “sunk under him." But the truth is, that, both in prose and verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantic principle. He was desir. ous to use English words with a foreign idiom. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned; for there judgment operates freely, neither softened by the beau. ty, nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts : but such is the power of his poetry, that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to ai higher and nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration.
Milton's style was not modified by his subject; what is shown with greater extent in Paradise Lost, may be found in Comus. One source of his peculiarity was his familiarity with the Tuscan poets; the disposition of his words is, I think, frequently Italian ; perhaps sometimes combined with other tongues. Of him, at last may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that “ he wrote no language,” but has formed what Butler calls a Babylonish dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive learning the vehicle of so much instruction and so much plca. sure, that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity.
Whatever be the faults of his diction, he cannot want the praise of copiousness and variety: he was master of his language in its full extent; and has selected the melodious words with such diligence, that from his book alone the art of English poetry might be learned.