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good ones-but little poetry. Men will judge
The power which the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exercised over their auditors seems to modern readers almost miraculous. Such feelings are very rare in a civilized community, and most rare among those who participate most in its improvements. They linger longest among the peasantry.
which a painter may have conceived respecting the lachrymal glands, or the circulation of the blood will affect the tears of his Niobe, or the blushes of his Aurora. If Shakspeare had written a book on the motives of human actions, it is by no means certain that it would have been a good one. It is extremely impro-ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude bable that it would have contained half so much able reasoning on the subject as is to be But could found in the "Fable of the Bees." Mandeville have created an Iago? Well as he knew how to resolve characters into their ele-death-song. ments, would he have been able to combine those elements in such a manner as to make up a man-a real, living, individual man? Perhaps no man can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind, if any thing which gives so much pleasure ought to be called unsoundness. By poetry we mean, not of course all writing in verse, nor even all good writing in verse. Our definition excludes many metrical compositions which, on other grounds, deserve the highest praise. By poetry we mean, the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the imagination: the art of doing by means of words what the painter does by means of colours. Thus the greatest of poets has described it, in lines universally admired for the vigour and felicity of their diction, and still more valuable on account of the just notion which they convey of the art in which he excelled.
"As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
These are the fruits of the "fine frenzy" which
In a rude state of society, men are children
Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge breaks in upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty become more and more definite, and the shades of probability more and more distinct, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which it calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction.
He who, in an enlightened and literary society, aspires to be a great poet, must first become a little child. He must take to pieces the whole web of his mind. He must unlearn much of that knowledge which has perhaps constituted hitherto his chief title of superiority. His very talents will be a hinderance to him. His difficulties will be proportioned to his proficiency in the pursuits which are fashionable among his contemporaries; and that proficiency will in general be proportioned to the vigour and activity of his mind. And it is well, if, after all his sacrifices and exertions, his works do not resemble a lisping man, or a modern ruin. We have seen in our own time, great talents, intense labour, and long meditation, employed in this struggle against the spirit of the age, and employed, we will not say, absolutely in vain, but with dubious success and feeble applause.
If these reasonings be just, no poet has He received a learned education. ever triumphed over greater difficulties than Milton. He was a profound and elegant classical scholar: he had studied all the mysteries of Rabbinical literature: he was intimately acquainted with every language of modern Europe, from which either pleasure or information was then to be derived. He was perhaps the only great poet of later times who has been distinguished by the excellence of his Latin The genius of Petrarch was scarcely verse. of the first order; and his poems in the ancien: language, though much praised by those who have never read them, are wretched com positions. Cowley, with all his admirable wit
* See the Dialogue between Socrates and to
and ingenuity, had little imagination; nor indeed do we think his classical diction comparable to that of Milton. The authority of Johnson is against us on this point. But Johnson had studied the bad writers of the middle ages till he had become utterly insensible to the Augustan elegance, and was as ill qualified to judge between two Latin styles as an habitual drunkard to set up for a winetaster.
nected with them. He electrifies the mind through conductors. The most unimaginative man must understand the Iliad. Homer gives him no choice, and requires from him not vertion; but takes the whole upon himself, and sets his images in so clear a light that it is impossible to be blind to them. The works of Milton cannot be comprehended or enjoyed, 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.
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 ill 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 ex-There would seem, at first sight, to be no more quisite 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 and terrible panoply which it is accustomed to wear. The strength of his imagination triumphed over every obstacle. So intense and ardent was the fire of his mind, that it not only was not suffocated beneath the weight of its fuel, but penetrated the whole superincumbent mass with its own heat and radiance.
It is not our intention to attempt any thing like a complete examination of the poetry of Miiton. 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.
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.
In support of these observations we may remark, that scarcely any passages in the poems of Milton are more generally known, or more frequently repeated, than those which are little more than muster rolls of names. They are not always more appropriate or more melodious than other names. But they are charmed names. Every one of them is 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 ena moured knights, and the smiles of rescued princesses.
'The most striking characteristic of the poetry In none of the works of Milton is his pecuof Milton is the extreme remoteness of the liar manner more happily displayed than in associations, by means of which it acts on the the Allegro and the Penseroso. It is impossireader. Its effect is produced, not so much ble to conceive that the mechanism of language by what i expresses, as by what it suggests, can be brought to a more exquisite degree of 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
water, the close packed essence from the thin | surpassed in energy and magnificence. Sodiluted mixture. They are indeed not so much phocles made the Greek drama as dramatic as poems, as collections of hints, from each of was consistent with its original form. His which the reader is to make out a poem for portraits of men have a sort of similarity; but himself. Every epithet is a text for a canto. it is the similarity not of a painting, but of a The Comus and the Samson Agonistes are bas-relief. It suggests a resemblance; but it works, which, though of very different merit, does not produce an illusion. Euripides atoffer some marked points of resemblance. tempted to carry the reform further. But it They are both Lyric poems in the form of was a task far beyond his powers, perhaps bePlays. There are perhaps no two kinds of yond any powers. Instead of correcting what composition so essentially dissimilar as the was bad, he destroyed what was excellent. He drama and the ode. The business of the dra-substituted crutches for stilts, bad sermons for matist is to keep himself out of sight, and to good odes. 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 en-tra's poet," sometimes reminds us of the beautrance 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.
style, the graceful and pathetic solemnity of the opening speech, or the wild and barbaric melody which gives so striking an effect to the choral passages. But we think it, we confess, the least successful effort of the genius of Milton.
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 Electiful 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 bestowing 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 Between these hostile elements many great conflicting ingredients, like an acid and an men have endeavoured to effect an amalgama- alkali mixed, neutralize each other. We are tion, but never with complete success. The by no means insensible to the merits of this Greek drama, on the model of which the Sam-celebrated piece, to the severe dignity of the son 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 cooperated with the circumstances under which tragedy made its first appearance. Eschylus was, head and heart, a lyric poet. In his time, The Comus is framed on the model of the the Greeks had far more intercourse with the Italian Masque, as the Samson is framed on East than in the days of Homer; and they had the model of the Greek Tragedy. It is, cernot yet acquired that immense superiority in tainly, the noblest performance of the kind war, in science, and in the arts, which, in the which exists in any language. It is as far sufollowing generation, led them to treat the perior to the Faithful Shepherdess, as the Asiatics with contempt. From the narrative Faithful Shepherdess is to the Aminta, or the of Herodotus, it should seem that they still Aminta to the Pastor Fido. It was well for looked up, with the veneration of disciples, to Milton that he had here no Euripides to misEgypt and Assyria. At this period, accord- lead him. He understood and loved the literaingly, it was natural that the literature of ture of modern Italy. But he did not feel for Greece should be tinctured with the Oriental it the same veneration which he entertained style. And that style, we think, is clearly for the remains of Athenian and Roman poetry, discernible in the works of Pindar and Eschy- consecrated by so many lofty and endearing las. The latter often reminds us of the He-recollections. The faults, moreover, of his brew writers. The book of Job, indeed, in Italian predecessors were of a kind to which 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
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 Miho", 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 with their eloquence, their sublimity, and their music. The interruptions of the dialogue, however, impose a constraint upon the writer, and break the illusion of the reader. The finest passages are those which are lyric in form as well as in spirit. "I should much commend," says the excellent Sir Henry Wotton, in a letter to Milton, "the tragical part, if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain dorique delicacy in your songs and odes, whereunto, I most plainly confess to you, I have seen yet nothing parallel in our language." The criticism was just. It is when Milton escapes from the shackles of the dialogue, when he is discharged from the labour of uniting two incongruous styles, when he is at liberty to indulge his choral raptures without reserve, that he rises even above himself. Then, like his own Good Genius, bursting from the earthly form and weeds of Thyrsis, he stands forth in celestial freedom and beauty; he seems to cry exultingly,
"Now my task is smoothly done,
to skim the earth, to soar above the clouds, to
The only poem of modern times which can
"There eternal summer dwells,
The poetry of Milton differs from that of Dante, as the hieroglyphics of Egypt differed from the picture-writing of Mexico. The images which Dante employs speak for themselves:-they stand simply for what they are. Those of Milton have a signification which is often discernible only to the initiated. Their value depends less on what they directly represent, than on what they remotely suggest However strange, however grotesque, may be the appearance which Dante undertakes to describe, he never shrinks from describing it. He gives us the shape, the colour, the sound, the smell, the taste: he counts the numbers; he measures the size. His similes are the illustrations of a traveller. Unlike those of other poets, and especially of Milton, they are introduced in a plain, business-like manner; not for the sake of any beauty in the objects from which they are drawn, not for the sake of any ornament which they may impart to the poem, but simply in order to make the meaning of the 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 Phlege thon was like that of Aqua Cheta at the no nastery of St. Benedict. The place where the heretics were confined in burning tombs re sembled 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 mari ner 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 at tempted to reach his hair." We are sensible that we do no justice to the admirable style of the Florentine poet. But Mr. Cary's transiation 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 indistinct, but solemn and tremendous imageryDespair hurrying from couch to couch, to mock
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 supplications, delaying to strike. What says Dante? "There was such a moan there as there would be if all the sick, who, between July and September, are in the hospitals of Valdichiana, and of the Tuscan swamps, and of Sardinia, were in one pit together; and such a stench was issuing forth as is wont to issue from decayed limbs."
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.
quainted? We observe certain phenomena We cannot explain them into material causes. We therefore infer that there exists something which is not material. But of this something we have no idea. We can define it only by negatives. We can reason about it only by symbols. We use the word, but we have no image of the thing: and the business of poetry 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 assigned 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 invisible, 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 Of all the poets who have introduced into Portico, and the fasces of the lictor, and the their works the agency of supernatural beings, swords of thirty legions, were humbled in the Milton has succeeded best. Here Dante de- dust! Soon after Christianity had achieved its cidedly yields to him. And as this is a point triumph, the principle which had assisted it on which many rash and ill-considered judg- began to corrupt. It became a new paganism ments have been pronounced, we feel inclined Patron saints assumed the offices of household to dwell on it a little longer. The most fatal gods. St. George took the place of Mars. St error which a poet can possibly commit in the Elmo consoled the mariner for the loss of Cas management of his machinery, is that of attempt-tor and Polux The Virgin Mother and Cicilia ng to philosophize too much. Milton has been succeeded to Venus and the Muses. The fas often censured for ascribing to spirits many functions of which spirits must be incapable. But these objections, though sauctioned 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
cination 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