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which a painter may have conceived respecting
Perhaps no man can be a poet, or can even
He who, in an enlightened and literary
"As inagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
good ones-but little poetry. Men will judge
These are the fruits of the "fine frenzy" which
In a rude state of society, men are children
If these reasonings be just, no poet has
See the Dialogue between Socrates and To
and ingenuity, had little imagination; nor | nected with them. He electrifies the mind indeed do we think his classical diction com- through conductors. The most unimaginative parable to that of Milton. The authority of man must understand the Iliad. Homer gives Johnson is against us on this point. But him no choice, and requires from him no exerJohnson had studied the bad writers of the tion; but takes the whole upon himself, and middle ages till he had become utterly insen- sets his images in so clear a light that it is sible to the Augustan elegance, and was as ill impossible to be blind to them. The works qualified to judge between two Latin styles of Milton cannot be comprehended or enjoyed, as an habitual drunkard to set up for a wine- unless the mind of the reader co-operate with that of the writer. He does not paint a finished picture, or play for a mere passive listener. He sketches, and leaves others to fill up the outline. He strikes the key-note, and expects his hearer to make out the melody.
We often hear of the magical influence of poetry. The expression in general means nothing; but, applied to the writings of Milton, it is most appropriate. His poetry acts like an incantation. Its merit lies less in its obvious meaning than in its occult power. There would seem, at first sight, to be no more in his words than in other words. But they are words of enchantment; no sooner are they pronounced than the past is present, and the distant near. New forms of beauty start at once into existence, and all the burial places of the memory give up their dead. Change the structure of the sentence, substitute one synonyme for another, and the whole effect is destroyed. The spell loses its power: and he who should then hope to conjure with it, would find himself as much mistaken as Cassim in the Arabian tale, when he stood crying, "Open Wheat," "Open Barley," to the door which obeyed no sound but "Open Sesame!" The miserable failure of Dryden, in his attempt to rewrite some parts of the Paradise Lost, is a remarkable instance of this.
Versification in a dead language is an exotic, a far-fetched, costly, sickly imitation of that which elsewhere may be found in healthful and spontaneous perfection. The soils on which this rarity flourishes are in general as il suited to the production of vigorous native poetry, as the flower-pots of a hot-house to the growth of oaks. That the author of the Paradise Lost should have written the Epistle to Manso, was truly wonderful. Never before were such marked originality and such exquisite mimicry found together. Indeed, in all the Latin poems of Milton, the artificial manner indispensable to such works is admirably preserved, while, at the same time, the richness of his fancy and the elevation of his sentiments give to them a peculiar charm, an air of nobleness and freedom, which distinguishes them from all other writings of the same class. They remind us of the amusements of those angelic warriors who composed the cohort of Gabriel:
About him exercised heroic games
The unarmed youth of heaven. But o'er their heads Celestial armory, shield, helm, and spear, Hung bright, with diamond flaming and with gold." We cannot look upon the sportive exercises for which the genius of Milton ungirds itself, without catching a glimpse of the gorgeous In support of these observations we may and terrible panoply which it is accustomed remark, that scarcely any passages in the to wear. The strength of his imagination poems of Milton are more generally known, triumphed over every obstacle. So intense or more frequently repeated, than those which and ardent was the fire of his mind, that it not are little more than muster rolls of names. only was not suffocated beneath the weight They are not always more appropriate or of its fuel, but penetrated the whole super-more melodious than other names. But they incumbent mass with its own heat and ra- are charmed names. Every one of them is diance. the first link in a long chain of associated ideas. Like the dwelling-place of our infancy revisited in manhood, like the song of our country heard in a strange land, they produce upon us an effect wholly independent of their intrinsic value. One transports us back to a remote period of history. Another places us among the moral scenery and manners of a distant country. A third evokes all the dear classical recollections of childhood, the schoolroom, the dog-eared Virgil, the holiday, and the prize. A fourth brings before us the splendid phantoms of chivalrous romance, the trophied lists, the embroidered housings, the quaint devices, the haunted forests, the enchanted gardens, the achievements of enamoured knights, and the smiles of rescued princesses.
It is not our intention to attempt any thing like a complete examination of the poetry of Milton. The public has long been agreed as to the merit of the most remarkable passages, the incomparable harmony of the numbers, and the excellence of that style which no rival has been able to equal, and no parodist to degrade, which displays in their highest perfection the idiomatic powers of the English tongue, and to which every ancient and every modern language has contributed something of grace, of energy, or of music. In the vast field of criticism in which we are entering, innumerable reapers have already put their sickles. Yet the harvest is so abundant that the negligent search of a straggling gleaner may be rewarded with a sheaf.
The most striking characteristic of the poetry of Milton is the extreme remoteness of the associations, by means of which it acts on the reader. Its effect is produced, not so much by what it expresses, as by what it suggests, not so much by the ideas which it directly perfection. These poems differ from others conveys, as by other ideas which are con- as ottar of roses differs from ordinary rose
In none of the works of Milton is his peculiar manner more happily displayed than in the Allegro and the Penseroso. It is impossible to conceive that the mechanism of language can be brought to a more exquisite degree of
water, the close packed essence from the thin diluted mixture. They are indeed not so much poems, as collections of hints, from cach of which the reader is to make out a poem for himself. Every epithet is a text for a canto.
The Comus and the Samson Agonistes are works, which, though of very different merit, offer some marked points of resemblance. They are both Lyric poems in the form of Plays. There are perhaps no two kinds of composition so essentially dissimilar as the drama and the ode. The business of the dramatist is to keep himself out of sight, and to let nothing appear but his characters. As soon as he attracts notice to his personal feelings, the illusion is broken. The effect is as unpleasant as that which is produced on the stage by the voice of a prompter, or the entrance of a scene-shifter. Hence it was that the tragedies of Byron were his least successful performances. They resemble those pasteboard pictures invented by the friend of children, Mr. Newberry, in which a single movable | head goes around twenty different bodies; so that the same face looks out upon us successively, from the uniform of a hussar, the furs of a judge, and the rags of a beggar. In all the characters, patriots and tyrants, haters and lovers, the frown and sneer of Harold were discernible in an instant. But this species of egotism, though fatal to the drama, is the inspiration of the ode. It is the part of the lyric poet to abandon himself, without reserve, to his own emotions.
surpassed in energy and magnificence. So phocles made the Greek drama as dramatic as was consistent with its original form. His portraits of men have a sort of similarity; but it is the similarity not of a painting, but of a bas-relief. It suggests a resemblance; but it does not produce an illusion. Euripides attempted to carry the reform further. But it was a task far beyond his powers, perhaps beyond any powers. Instead of correcting what was bad, he destroyed what was excellent. He substituted crutches for stilts, bad sermons for good odes.
Milton, it is well known, admired Euripides highly; much more highly than, in our opinion, he deserved. Indeed, the caresses, which this partiality leads him to bestow on "sad Electra's poet," sometimes reminds us of the beau tiful Queen of Fairy-land kissing the long ears of Bottom. At all events, there can be no doubt that this veneration for the Athenian, whether just or not, was injurious to the Samson Agonistes. Had he taken schylus for his model, he would have given himself up to the lyric inspiration, and poured out profusely all the treasures of his mind, without bestow ing a thought on those dramatic proprieties which the nature of the work rendered it impossible to preserve. In the attempt to reconcile things in their own nature inconsistent, he has failed, as every one must have failed. We cannot identify ourselves with the characters, as in a good play. We cannot identify ourselves with the poet, as in a good ode. The conflicting ingredients, like an acid and an alkali mixed, neutralize each other. We are by no means insensible to the merits of this celebrated piece, to the severe dignity of the style, the graceful and pathetic solemnity of the opening speech, or the wild and barbaric melody which gives so striking an effect to the
Between these hostile elements many great men have endeavoured to effect an amalgamation, but never with complete success. The Greek drama, on the model of which the Samson was written, sprung from the Ode. The dialogue was ingrafted on the chorus, and naturally partook of its character. The genius of the greatest of the Athenian dramatists co-choral passages. But we think it, we confess, operated with the circumstances under which the least successful effort of the genius of tragedy made its first appearance. Eschylus Milton. was, head and heart, a lyric poet. In his time, the Greeks had far more intercourse with the East than in the days of Homer; and they had not yet acquired that immense superiority in war, in science, and in the arts, which, in the following generation, led them to treat the Asiatics with contempt. From the narrative of Herodotus, it should seem that they still looked up, with the veneration of disciples, to Egypt and Assyria. At this period, accordingly, it was natural that the literature of Greece should be tinctured with the Oriental style. And that style, we think, is clearly discernible in the works of Pindar and Eschylus. The latter often reminds us of the Hebrew writers. The book of Job, indeed, in conduct and diction, bears a considerable resemblance to some of his dramas. Considered as plays, his works are absurd: considered as choruses, they are above all praise. If, for instance, we examine the address of Clytemnestra to Agamemnon on his return, or the description of the seven Argive chiefs, by the principles of dramatic writing, we shall instantly condemn them as monstrous. But, if we forget the characters, and think only of the poetry, we shall admit that it has never been
The Comus is framed on the model of the Italian Masque, as the Samson is framed on the model of the Greek Tragedy. It is, certainly, the noblest performance of the kind which exists in any language. It is as far superior to the Faithful Shepherdess, as the Faithful Shepherdess is to the Aminta, or the Aminta to the Pastor Fido. It was well for Milton that he had here no Euripides to mislead him. He understood and loved the literature of modern Italy. But he did not feel for it the same veneration which he entertained for the remains of Athenian and Roman poetry, consecrated by so many lofty and endearing recollections. The faults, moreover, of his Italian predecessors were of a kind to which his mind had a deadly antipathy. He could stoop to a plain style, sometimes even to a bald style; but false brilliancy was his utter aver. sion. His Muse had no objection to a russet attire; but she turned with disgust from the finery of Guarini, as tawdry, and as paltry as the rags of a chimney-sweeper on May-day. Whatever ornaments she wears are of massive gold, not only dazzling to the sight, but capable of standing the severest test of the crucible. Milton attended in the Comus to the distinc
tion which he neglected in the Samson. He be compared with the Paradise Lost, is the made it what it ought to be, essentially lyrical, Divine Comedy. The subject of Milton, in and dramatic only in semblance. He has not some points, resembled that of Dante; but he attempted a fruitless struggle against a defect has treated it in a widely different manner. inherent in the nature of that species of com- We cannot, we think, better illustrate our position; and he has, therefore, succeeded, opinion respecting our own great poet, than wherever success was not impossible. The by contrasting him with the father of Tuscan speeches must be read as majestic soliloquies; literature. and he who so reads them will be enraptured The poetry of Milton differs from that of with their eloquence, their sublimity, and their Dante, as the hieroglyphics of Egypt differed music. The interruptions of the dialogue, from the picture-writing of Mexico. The however, impose a constraint upon the writer, images which Dante employs speak for themand break the illusion of the reader. The selves:-they stand simply for what they are. finest passages are those which are lyric in Those of Milton have a signification which is form as well as in spirit. "I should much often discernible only to the initiated. Their commend," says the excellent Sir Henry Wot- value depends less on what they directly reton, in a letter to Milton, "the tragical part, if present, than on what they remotely suggest the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain However strange, however grotesque, may be dorique delicacy in your songs and odes, where- the appearance which Dante undertakes to deunto, I most plainly confess to you, I have seen scribe, he never shrinks from describing it. yet nothing parallel in our language." The He gives us the shape, the colour, the sound, criticism was just. It is when Milton escapes the smell, the taste: he counts the numbers; from the shackles of the dialogue, when he is he measures the size. His similes are the ildischarged from the labour of uniting two in-lustrations of a traveller. Unlike those of other congruous styles, when he is at liberty to in- poets, and especially of Milton, they are introdulge his choral raptures without reserve, that duced in a plain, business-like manner; not he rises even above himself. Then, like his for the sake of any beauty in the objects from own Good Genius, bursting from the earthly which they are drawn, not for the sake of any form and weeds of Thyrsis, he stands forth in ornament which they may impart to the poem, celestial freedom and beauty; he seems to cry but simply in order to make the meaning of the exultingly, writer as clear to the reader as it is to himself. The ruins of the precipice which led from the sixth to the seventh circle of hell, were like those of the rock which fell into the Adige on the south of Trent. The cataract of Phlegethon was like that of Aqua Cheta at the mo nastery of St. Benedict. The place where the heretics were confined in burning tombs resembled the vast cemetery of Arles!
Now, let us compare with the exact details of Dante the dim intimations of Milton. We will cite a few examples. The English poet has never thought of taking the measure of Satan. He gives us merely a vague idea of vast bulk. In one passage the fiend lies stretched out, huge in length, floating many a rood, equal in size to the earth-born enemies of Jove, or to the sea-monster which the mariner mistakes for an island. When he addresses himself to battle against the guardian angels, he stands like Teneriffe or Atlas; his stature reaches the sky. Contrast with these descriptions the lines in which Dante has described the gigantic spectre of Nimrod. "His face seemed to me as long and as broad as the ball of St. Peter's at Rome; and his other limbs were in proportion; so that the bank, which concealed him from the waist downwards, nevertheless showed so much of him, 'that three tall Germans would in vain have attempted to reach his hair." We are sensible that we do no justice to the admirable style of the Florentine poet. But Mr. Cary's translation is not at hand, and our version, however rude, is sufficient to illustrate our meaning.
Once more, compare the lazar-house, in the eleventh book of the Paradise Lost, with the last ward of Malebolge in Dante. Milton avoids the loathsome details, and takes refuge in indistin but solemn and tremendous imageryDespair hurrying from couch to couch, to mock
"Now my task is smoothly done,
to skim the earth, to soar above the clouds, to bathe in the Elysian dew of the rainbow, and to inhale the balmy smells of nard and cassia, which the musky winds of the zephyr scatter through the cedared alleys of the Hesperides.
There are several of the minor poems of Milton on which we would willingly make a few remarks. Still more willingly would we enter into a detailed examination of that admirable poem, the Paradise Regained, which, strangely enough, is scarcely ever mentioned, except as an instance of the blindness of that parental affection which men of letters bear towards the offspring of their intellects. That Milton was mistaken in preferring this work, excellent as it is, to the Paradise Lost, we must readily admit. But we are sure that the superiority of the Paradise Lost to the Paradise Regained is not more decided than the superiority of the Paradise Regained to every poem which has since made its appearance. But our limits prevent us from discussing the point at length. We hasten on to that extraordinary production, which the general suffrage of critics has placed in the highest class of human compositions.
The only poem of modern times which can
"There eternal summer dwells,
the wretches with his attendance: Death shak- | portion of spirit with which we are best ac ing his dart over them, but in spite of suppli- quainted? We observe certain phenomena. cations, delaying to strike. What says Dante? We cannot explain them into material causes. "There was such a moan there as there would We therefore infer that there exists something be if all the sick, who, between July and Sep- which is not material. But of this something tember, are in the hospitals of Valdichiana, we have no idea. We can define it only by and of the Tuscan swamps, and of Sardinia, negatives. We can reason about it only by were in one pit together; and such a stench mbols. We use the word, but we have no was issuing forth as is wont to issue from de- image of the thing: and the business of poetry cayed limbs." is with images, and not with words. The poet uses words indeed; but they are merely the instruments of his art, not its objects. They are the materials which he is to dispose in such a manner as to present a picture to the mental eye. And, if they are not so disposed, they are no more entitled to be called poetry, than a bale of canvass and a box of colours are to be called a painting.
Logicians may reason about abstractions; but the great mass of mankind can never feel an interest in them. They must have images. The strong tendency of the multitude in all ages and nations to idolatry can be explained on no other principle. The first inhabitants of Greece, there is every reason to believe, worshipped one invisible Deity. But the necessity of having something more definite to adore produced, in a few centuries, the innumerable crowd of gods and goddesses. In like manner the ancient Persians thought it impious to exhibit the Creator under a human form. Yet even these transferred to the sun the worship which, speculatively, they considered due only to the Supreme mind. The history of the Jews is the record of a continual struggle between pure Theism, supported by the most terrible sanctions, and the strangely fascinating desire of having some visible and tangible object of adoration. Perhaps none of the secondary causes which Gibbon has as signed for the rapidity with which Christianity spread over the world, while Judaism scarcely ever acquired a proselyte, operated more powerfully than this feeling. God, the uncreated, the incomprehensible, the invisibie, attracted few worshippers. A philosopher might admire so noble a conception; but the crowd turned away in disgust from words which presented no image to their minds. It was before Deity, embodied in a human form, walking among men, partaking of their infirmities, leaning on their bosoms, weeping over their graves, slumbering in the manger, bleeding on the cross, that the prejudices of the Synagogue, and the doubts of the Academy, and the pride of the Portico, and the fasces of the lictor, and the swords of thirty legions, were humbled in the dust! Soon after Christianity had achieved its triumph, the principle which had assisted it began to corrupt. It became a new paganism Patron saints assumed the offices of household gods. St. George took the place of Mars. St. Elmo consoled the mariner for the loss of Castor and Pollux. The Virgin Mother and Cicilia succeeded to Venus and the Muses. The fascination of sex and loveliness was again joined to that of celestial dignity; and the homage of chivalry was blended with that of religion. Reformers have often made a stand against these feelings; but never with more than ap. parent and partial success. The men who de
We will not take upon ourselves the invidious office of settling precedency between two such writers. Each in his own department is incomparable; and each, we may remark, has, wisely or fortunately, taken a subject adapted to exhibit his peculiar talent to the greatest advantage. The Divine Comedy is a personal narrative. Dante is the eye-witness and earwitness of that which he relates. He is the very man who has heard the tormented spirits crying out for the second death; who has read the dusky characters on the portal, within which there is no hope; who has hidden his face from the terrors of the Gorgon; who has fled from the hooks and the seething pitch of Barbariccia and Diaghignazzo. His own hands have grasped the shaggy sides of Lucifer. His own feet have climbed the mountain of expiation. His own brow has been marked by the purifying angel. The reader would throw aside such a tale in incredulous disgust, unless it were told with the strongest air of veracity, with a sobriety even in its horrors, with the greatest precision and multiplicity in its details. The narrative of Milton in this respect differs from that of Dante, as the adventures of Amidas differ from those of Gulliver. The author of Amidas would have made his book ridiculous if he had introduced those minute particulars which give such a charm to the work of Swift, the nautical observations, the affected delicacy about names, the official documents transcribed at full length, and all the unmeaning gossip and scandal of the court, springing out of nothing, and tending to nothing. We are not shocked at being told that a man who lived, nobody knows when, saw many very strange sights, and we can easily abandon ourselves to the illusion of the romance. But when Lemuel Gulliver, surgeon, now actually resident at Rotherhithe, tells us of pigmies and giants, flying islands and philosophizing horses, nothing but such circumstantial touches could produce, for a single moment, a deception on the imagination.
Of all the poets who have introduced into their works the agency of supernatural beings, Milton has succeeded best. Here Dante decidedly yields to him. And as this is a point on which many rash and ill-considered judgments have been pronounced, we feel inclined to dwell on it a little longer. The most fatal error which a poet can possibly commit in the management of his machinery, is that of attempting to philosophize too much. Milton has been often censured for ascribing to spirits many functions of which spirits must be incapable. But these objections, though sanctioned by eminent names, originate, we venture to say, in profound ignorance of the art of poetry.
What is spirit? What are our own minds, the