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tion. For a month or two it will occupy a few minutes of chat in every drawing-room, and a few columns in every magazine; and it will then, to borrow the elegant language of the play-bills, be withdrawn, to make room for the forthcoming novelties.
tion, will secure to it a certain degree of atten- | do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark ages. On the contrary we hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilized age. We cannot understand why those who believe in that most orthodox article of literary faith, that the earliest poets are generally the best, should wonder at the rule as if it were the exception. Surely the uni formity of the phenomenon indicates a corres
We wish, however, to avail ourselves of the interest, transient as it may be, which this work has excited. The dexterous Capuchins never choose to preach on the life and mira-ponding uniformity in the cause. cles of a saint, till they have awakened the devotional feelings of their auditors, by exhibiting some relic of him-a thread of his garment, a lock of his hair, or a drop of his blood. On the same principle, we intend to take advantage of the late interesting discovery, and, while this memorial of a great and good man is still in the hands of all, to say something of his moral and intellectual qualities. Nor, we are convinced, will the severest of our readers blame us if, on an occasion like the present, we turn for a short time from the topics of the day to commemorate, in all love and reverence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the glory of English literature, the champion and the martyr of English liberty.
It is by his poetry that Milton is best known; and it is of his poetry that we wish first to speak. By the general suffrage of the civilized world, his place has been assigned among the greatest masters of the art. His detractors, however, though out-voted, have not been silenced. There are many critics, and some of great name, who contrive, in the same breath, to extol the poems and to decry the poet. The works, they acknowledge, considered in themselves, may be classed among the noblest productions of the human mind. But they will not allow the author to rank with those great men who, born in the infancy of civilization, supplied, by their own powers, the want of instruction, and, though destitute of models themselves, bequeathed to posterity models which defy imitation. Milton, it is said, inherited what his predecessors created; he lived in an enlightened age; he received a finished education; and we must therefore, if we would form a just estimate of his powers, make large deductions for these advantages.
We venture to say, on the contrary, paradoxical as the remark may appear, that no poet has ever had to struggle with more unfavourable circumstances than Milton. He doubted, as he has himself owned, whether he had not been born "an age too late." For this notion Johnson has thought fit to make him the butt of his clumsy ridicule. The poet, we believe, understood the nature of his art better than the critic. He knew that his poetical genius derived no advantage from the civilization which surrounded him, or from the earning which he had acquired: and he looked back with something like regret to the ruder age of simple words and vivid impressions.
We think that, as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines. Therefore, though we admire those great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we
The fact is, that common observers reason from the progress of the experimental sciences to that of the imitative arts. The improve ment of the former is gradual and slow. Ages are spent in collecting materials, ages more in separating and combining them. Even when a system has been formed, there is still something to add, to alter, or to reject. Every generation enjoys the use of a vast hoard bequeathed to it by antiquity, and transmits it, augmented by fresh acquisitions, to future ages. In these pursuits, therefore, the firs speculators lie under great disaavantages, and, even when they fail, are entitled to praise. Their pupils, with far inferior intellectual powers, speedily surpass them in actual aitainments. Every girl, who has read Mrs. Marcet's little Dialogues on Political Economy, could teach Montague or Walpole many lessons in finance. Any intelligent man may now, by resolutely applying himself for a few years to mathematics, learn more than the great Newton knew after half a century of study and meditation.
But it is not thus with music, with painting, or with sculpture. Still less is it thus with poetry. The progress of refinement rarely sup plies these arts with better objects of imitation. It may, indeed, improve the instruments which are necessary to the mechanical operations of the musician, the sculptor, and the painter. But language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals, first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular images to general terms. Hence, the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical, that of a half-civilized people is poetical.
This change in the language of men is partly the cause, and partly the effect of a corresponding change in the nature of their intellectual operations, a change by which science gains, and poetry loses. Generalization is necessary to the advancement of knowledge, but particularly in the creations of the imagination. In proportion as men know more, and think more, they look less at individuals and more at classes. They therefore make better theories and worse poems. They give us vague phrases instead of images, and personified qualities instead of men. They may be better able to analyze human nature than their predecessors. But analysis is not the business of the poet. His office is to portray, not to dissect. He may believe in a mora, ser se, like Shaftesbury. He may refer all human actions to self-interest, like Helvetius, or he may never think about the matter at all. His creed on such subjects will no more influence his poetry, properly so called. than the notions
which a painter may have conceived respecting the lachrymal glands, or the circulation of the blood wil! 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 improbable that it would have contained half so much able reasoning on the subject as is to be found in the "Fable of the Bees." But could Mandeville have created an Iago? Well as he knew how to resolve characters into their elements, 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.
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 trun 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 These are the fruits of the "fine frenzy" which much of that knowledge which has perhaps he ascribes to the poet--a fine frenzy doubtless, constituted hitherto his chief title of supebut still a frenzy. Truth, indeed, is essential riority. His very talents will be a hinderance to poetry; but it is the truth of madness. The to him. His difficulties will be proportioned reasonings are just; but the premises are false. to his proficiency in the pursuits which are After the first suppositions have been made, fashionable among his contemporaries; and every thing ought to be consistent; but those that proficiency will in general be proportioned first suppositions require a degree of credulity to the vigour and activity of his mind. And which almost amounts to a partial and tempo- it is well, if, after all his sacrifices and exerrary derangement of the intellect. Hence, oftions, his works do not resemble a lisping all people, children are the most imaginative. man, or a modern ruin. We have seen in our They abandon themselves without reserve to own time, great talents, intense labour, and every illusion. Every image which is strongly long meditation, employed in this struggle presented to their mental eye produces on against the spirit of the age, and employed, them the effect of reality. No man, whatever we will not say, absolutely in vain, but with his sensibility may be, is ever affected by dubious success and feeble applause. Hamlet or Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story of poor Red Riding-hood. She knows that it is all false, that wolves cannot speak, that there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite of her knowledge she believes; she weeps, she trembles; she dares not go into a dark room lest she should feel the teeth of the monster at her throat. Such is the despotism of the imagination over uncultivated minds.
"As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, 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. The Mohawk hardly feels the scalping-knife while he shouts his death-song. 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.
In a rude state of society, men are children with a greater variety of ideas. It is therefore in such a state of society that we may expect to find the poetical temperament in its highest perfection. In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of
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 ac quainted 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 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 lo
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 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 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 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.
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 It is not our intention to attempt any thing ideas. Like the dwelling-place of our infancy like a complete examination of the poetry of revisited in manhood, like the song of our Miiton. The public has long been agreed as country heard in a strange land, they produce to the merit of the most remarkable passages, upon us an effect wholly independent of their the incomparable harmony of the numbers, intrinsic value. One transports us back to a and the excellence of that style which no rival remote period of history. Another places us has been able to equal, and no parodist to among the moral scenery and manners of a degrade, which displays in their highest per-distant country. A third evokes all the dear fection the idiomatic powers of the English classical recollections of childhood, the schooltongue, and to which every ancient and every room, the dog-eared Virgil, the holiday, and modern language has contributed something the prize. A fourth brings before us the of grace, of energy, or of music. In the vast splendid phantoms of chivalrous romance, field of criticism in which we are entering, the trophied lists, the embroidered housings, innumerable reapers have already put their the quaint devices, the haunted forests, the sickles. Yet the harvest is so abundant that enchanted gardens, the achievements of enathe negligent search of a straggling gleaner moured knights, and the smiles of rescued may be rewarded with a sheaf. 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, 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 | surpassed in energy and magnifice ice. St diluted 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 le Plays. 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 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.
Between these hostile elements many great men have endeavoured to effect an amalgamation, but never with complcte 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 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
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 beautiful 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 Eschylus 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 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 choral passages. But we think it, we confess, the least successful effort of the genius of Milton.
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 russer 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; 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 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,
And west winds with musky wing,
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 them. selves:-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 ilJustrations 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 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 indistinct, but solemn and tremendous imageryDespair hurrying from couch to couch, to mock