« AnteriorContinuar »
which a painter may have coeived respecting
Perhaps no man cane a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without acertain unsoundness of mind, if any thing/hich gives so much pleasure ought to be caed unsoundness. By poetry we mean, not course all writing in verse, nor even all bod writing in verse. Our definition exclude many metrical composition's which, on oth grounds, deserve the highest praise. By petry we mean, the art of employing words in sch a manner as to produce an illusion on thimagination: the art of doing by means of weds what the painter does by means of colour Thus the greatest of poets has described, in lines universally admired for the vigou and felicity of their diction and still more aluable on account of the just notion which hey convey of the art in which he excelled.
"As imagination odies forth
The forms of thingeinknown, the poet's pen
good ones-but little poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create. They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief. The Greek Rhapsodists, according to Plato, could not recite Homer without almost falling into convulsions. T Mohawk hardly feels the scalping-knife while he shouts his 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.
These are the fruit of the "fine frenzy" which
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 ever triumphed over greater difficulties than Milton. He received a learned education. He was a profound and elegant classical scholar: he had studied all the mysteries of Rabbinical literature: he was intimately asquainted 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 verse. The genius of Petrarch was scarcely of the first order; and his poems in the ancient language, though much praised by those who have never read them, are wretched com positions. Cowley, with all his admirable wit
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 wine
nected with tha. He electrifies the mind through conduars. The most unimaginative man must undetand the Iliad. Homer gives him no choice, al requires from him no exer. tion; but takes he whole upon himself, and sets his images so clear a light that it is impossible to be lind to them. The works of Milton cannot comprehended or enjoyed unless the mind the reader co-operate with that of the writer. He does not paint a finished picture, or play fr a mere passive listener He sketches, and aves others to fill up the outline. He strike the key-note, and expect his hearer to make ut the melody.
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 We often hear f the magical influenc ill suited to the production of vigorous native of poetry. The expession in general mean poetry, as the flower-pots of a hot-house to the nothing; but, applie to the writings of Milton. growth of oaks. That the author of the Para- it is most appropria. His poetry acts like dise Lost should have written the Epistle to an incantation. It: merit lies less in it. Manso, was truly wonderful. Never before obvious meaning thn in its occult power were such marked originality and such ex- There would seem, atirst sight, to be no mor quisite mimicry found together. Indeed, in all in his words than in other words. But they the Latin poems of Milton, the artificial manner are words of enchantment; no sooner are ther indispensable to such works is admirably pre-pronounced than the ast is present, and the served, while, at the same time, the richness distant near. New fems of beauty start a of his fancy and the elevation of his senti- once into existence, an all the burial place ments give to them a peculiar charm, an air of the memory give up their dead. Chang of nobleness and freedom, which distinguishes the structure of the satence, substitute on them from all other writings of the same class. synonyme for another, ad the whole effect it They remind us of the amusements of those destroyed. The spell loes its power: and h angelic warriors who composed the cohort of who should then hope to onjure with it, woul! Gabriel: find himself as much mistaken as Cassim in the Arabian tale, when h stood crying, "Open Wheat," "Open Barley' to the door which obeyed no sound but "(pen Sesame!" The miserable failure of Dryen, in his attempt t rewrite some parts of the Paradise Lost, is remarkable instance of ths.
24 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 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.
In support of these olservations we may remark, that scarcely ary passages in the poems of Milton are mor generally known, or more frequently repeated, than those which are little more than muster rolls of name They are not always more appropriate c 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 infanc 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 u among the moral scenery and manners of a distant country. A third evokes all the dear classical recollections of childhood, the school room, 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 housing 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 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,
In none of the works of Milton is his pecu liar manner more happily displayed than i the Allegro and the Penseroso. It is imposs ble to conceive that the mechanism of languaş can be brought to a more exquisite degree
ot so much by the ideas which it directly perfection. These poems differ from other nveys, as by other ideas which are con-las ottar of roses differs from ordinary ros
water, the close packed essence from the thin diluted mixture. They are indeed not so much poems, as collections of hints, from each of which the reader is to make out a poem for himself. Every epithet is a text for a canto.
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 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 Milton, it is well known, admired Euripides soon as he attracts notice to his personal feel-highly; much more highly than, in our opinion, ings, the illusion is broken. The effect is as he deserved. Indeed, the caresses, which this unpleasant as that which is produced on the partiality leads him to bestow on "sad Elecstage 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 tiful Queen of Fairy-land kissing the long ears the tragedies of Byron were his least success- of Bottom. At all events, there can be no ful performances. They resemble those paste- doubt that this veneration for the Athenian, board pictures invented by the friend of child- whether just or not, was injurious to the Samren, Mr. Newberry, in which a single movable son Agonistes. Had he taken Eschylus for head goes around twenty different bodies; so his model, he would have given himself up to that the same face looks out upon us succes- the lyric inspiration, and poured out profusely sively, from the uniform of a hussar, the furs all the treasures of his mind, without bestowof a judge, and the rags of a beggar. In all ing a thought on those dramatic proprieties the characters, patriots and tyrants, haters and which the nature of the work rendered it imlovers, the frown and sneer of Harold were possible to preserve. In the attempt to recondiscernible in an instant. But this species of cile things in their own nature inconsistent, he egotism, though fatal to the drama, is the inspi- has failed, as every one must have failed. We ration of the ode. It is the part of the lyrie cannot identify ourselves with the characters, poet to abandon himself, without reserve, to his as in a good play. We cannot identify ourown emotions. selves 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 barbarie 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.
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 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 re-his mind had a deadly antipathy. He could semblance to some of his dramas. Considered stoop to a plain style, sometimes even to a bald as plays, his works are absurd: considered as style; but false brilliancy was his utter averchoruses, they are above all praise. If, for sion. His Muse had no objection to a russet instance, we examine the address of Clytem- attire; but she turned with disgust from the nestra to Agamemnon on his return, or the de- finery of Guarini, as tawdry, and as paltry as scription of the seven Argive chiefs, by the the rags of a chimney-sweeper on May-day. principles of dramatic writing, we shall in- Whatever ornaments she wears are of massive stantly condemn them as monstrous. But, if gold, not only dazzling to the sight, but capable we forget the characters, and think only of the of standing the severest test of the crucible
Landare shan the
and in the Bamno to the dieti
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. 4 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 Phlege thon was like that of Aqua Cheta at the mo 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 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 indistinct, 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,