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TOWARDS the close of the year 1823, Mr. | of the prize essays of Oxford and Cambridge. Lemon, deputy keeper of the state papers, in There is no, elaborate imitation of classical the course of his researches among the presses antiquity, no scrupulous purity, none of the of his office, met with a large Latin manu- ceremonial cleanness which characterizes the script. With it were found, corrected copies diction of our academical Pharisees. The of the foreign despatches. written by Milton, author does not attempt to polish and brighten while he filled the office of Secretary, and his composition into the Ciceronian gloss and several papers relating to the Popish Trials brilliancy. He does not in short sacrifice and the Rye-house Plot. The whole was sense and spirit to pedantic refinements. The wrapped up in an envelope, superscribed Te nature of his subject compelled him to use Mr. Skinner, Merchant. On examination, the many words large manuscript proved to be the long lost Essay on the Doctrines of Christianity, which, according to Wood and Toland, Milton finished after the Restoration, and deposited with Cyriac Skinner. Skinner, it is well known, held the same political opinions with his illustrious friend. It is therefore probable, as Mr. Lemon conjectures, that he may have fallen under the suspicions of the government during that persecution of the Whigs which followed the dissolution of the Oxford parliament, and that, in consequence of a general seizure of his papers, this work may have been brought to the office in which it has been found. But whatever the adventures of the manuscript may have been, no doubt can exist that it is a genuine relic of the great poet.
Mr. Sumner, who was commanded by his Majesty to edit and translate the treatise, has acquitted himself of his task in a manner honorable to his talents and to his character. His version is not indeed very easy or elegant; but it is entitled to the praise of clearness and fidelity. His notes abound with interesting quotations, and have the rare merit of really elucidating the text. The preface is evidently the work of a sensible and candid man, firm in his own religious opinions, and tolerant towards those of others.
The book itself will not add much to the fame of Milton. It is, like all his Latin works, well written, though not exactly in the style
* Jonnis Miltoní Angli, de Doctrinâ Christiana libri duo posthumi. A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, compiled from the Holy Scriptures alone. By JOHN MILTON, translated from the Original by Charles R. Sumner, M.A., etc. etc. 1825.
"That would have made Quintilian stare and gasp." But he writes with as much ease and freedom as if Latin were his mother tongue; and, where he is least happy, his failure seems to arise from the carelessness of a native, not from the ignorance of a foreigner. We may apply to him what Denham with great felicity says of Cowley. He wears the garb, but not the clothes of the ancients.
Throughout the volume are discernible the traces of a powerful and independent mind, emancipated from the influence of authority, and devoted to the search of truth. Milton professes to form his system from the Bible alone; and his digest of scriptural texts is certainly among the best that have appeared. But he is not always so happy in his inferences as in his citations.
Some of the heterodox doctrines which he avows seemed to have excited considerable amazement, particularly his Arianism, and his theory on the subject of polygamy. Yet we can searcely conceive that any person could have read the Paradise Lost without suspecting him of the former; nor do we think that any reader, acquainted with the history of his life, ought to be much startled at the latter. The opinions which he has expressed respecting the nature of the Deity, the eternity of matter, and the observation of the Sabbath, might, we think, have caused more just surprise.
But we will not go into the discussion of these points. The book, were it far more orthodox or far more heretical than it is, would not much edify or corrupt the present genera
tion. The men of our time are not to be con- | poet has ever had to struggle with more unverted or perverted by quartos. A few more favorable circumstances than Milton. He days, and this essay will follow the Defensio doubted, as he has himself owned, whether he Populi, to the dust and silence of the upper had not been born "an age too late." For shelf. The name of its author, and the re- this notion Johnson has thought fit to make markable circumstances attending its publica-him the butt of much clumsy ridicule. The tion, will secure to it a certain degree of at-poet, we believe, understood the nature of his tention. For a month or two it will occupy a art better than the critic. He knew that his few minutes of chat in every drawing-room; poetical genius derived no advantage from the and a few columns in every magazine; and it civilization which surrounded him, or from will then, to borrow the elegant language of the learning which he had acquired; and he the play-bills, be withdrawn, to make room looked back with something like regret to the for the forthcoming novelties. ruder age of simple words and vivid impressions.
We wish however to avail ourselves of the interest, transient as it may be, which this We think that, as civilization advances, work has excited. The dexterous Capuchins poetry almost necessarily declines. Therenever choose to preach on the life and miracles fore, though we fervently admire those great of a saint, till they have awakened the devo- works of imagination which have appeared tional feelings of their auditors by.exhibiting in dark ages, we do not admire them the some relic of him, a thread of his garment, a more because they have appeared in dark lock of his hair, or a drop of his blood. On ages. On the contrary, we hold that the the same principle, we intend to take advan-most wonderful and splendid proof of genius tage of the late interesting discovery, and, is a great poem produced in a civilized age. while this memorial of a great and good man We cannot understand why those who believe is still in the hands of all, to say something in that most orthodox article of literary faith, of his moral and intellectual qualities. Nor, that the earliest poets are generally the best, we are convinced, will the severest of our should wonder at the rule as if it were the exreaders blame us if, on an occasion like the ception. Surely the uniformity of the phepresent, we turn for a short time from the nomenon indicates a corresponding uniformtopics of the day, to commemorate, in all love ity in the cause. and reverence, the genius and virtues of John The fact is, that common observers reason Milton, the poet, the statesman, the philoso- from the progress of the experimental science pher, the glory of English literature, the to that of the imitative arts. The improvechampion and the martyr of English liberty.ment of the former is gradual and slow. It is by his poetry that Milton is best Ages are spent in collecting materials, ages known; and it is of his poetry that we wish more in separating and combining them. first to speak. By the general suffrage of the Even when a system has been formed, there civilized world, his place has been assigned is still something to add, to alter, or to reject. among the greatest masters of the art. His Every generation enjoys the use of a vast detractors, however, though outvoted, have hoard bequeathed to it by antiquity, and not been silenced. There are many critics, transmits that hoard, augmented by fresh acand some of great name, who contrive in the quisitions, to future ages. In these pursuits, same breath to extol the poems and to decry therefore, the first speculators lie under great the poet. The works they acknowledge, con- disadvantages, and, even when they fail, are sidered in themselves, may be classed among entitled to praise. Their pupils, with far inthe noblest productions of the human mind. ferior intellectual powers, speedily surpass But they will not allow the author to rank them in actual attainments. Every girl who with those great men who, born in the infancy has read Mrs. Marcet's little dialogues on Poof civilization, supplied, by their own powers, litical Economy could teach Montague or the want of instruction, and, though destitute Walpole many lessons in finance. Any intelof models themselves, bequeathed to posterity ligent man may now, by resolutely applying models which defy imitation. Milton, it is said, himself for a few years to mathematics, learn inherited what his predecessors created; he more than the great Newton knew after half lived in an enlightened age; he received a fin- a century of study and meditation. ished education; and we must therefore, if we would form a just estimate of his powers, make large deductions in consideration of these advantages.
But it is not thus with music, with painting, or with sculpture. Still less is it thus with poetry. The progress of refinement rarely supplies these arts with better objects of imiWe venture to say, on the contrary, para- tation. It may indeed improve the instrudoxical as the remark may appear, that no ments which are necessary to the mechanical
operations of the musician, the sculptor, and | greatest of poets has described it, in lines the painter. But language, the machine of universally admired for the vigor and felicity the poet, is best fitted for his purpose in its of their diction, and still more valuable on acrudest state. Nations, like individuals, first count of the just notion which they convey of perceive, and then abstract. They advance the art in which he excelled:
from particular images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical, that of a half-civilized people is poetical.
"As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
This change in the language of men is partly These are the fruits of the "fine frenzy " the cause and partly the effect of a correspond- which he ascribes to the poet, -a fine frenzy ing change in the nature of their intellectual doubtless, but still a frenzy. Truth, indeed, operations, of a change by which science gains is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of and poetry loses. Generalization is necessary madness. The reasonings are just; but the to the advancement of knowledge; but partic- premises are false. After the first supposiularly is indispensable to the creations of the tions have been made, every thing ought to imagination. In proportion as men know be consistent; but those first suppositions remore and think more, they look less at indi- quire a degree of credulity which almost viduals and more at classes. They therefore amounts to a partial and temporary derangemake better theories and worse poems. They ment of the intellect. Hence of all people give us vague phrases instead of images, and children are the most imaginative. They personified qualities instead of men. They abandon themselves without reserve to every may be better able to analyze human nature illusion. Every image which is strongly prethan their predecessors. But analysis is not sented to their mental eye produces on them the business of the poet. His office is to por- the effect of reality. No man, whatever his tray, not to dissect. He may believe in a sensibility may be, is ever affected by Hamlet moral sense, like Shaftesbury; he may refer or Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story all human actions to self-interest, like Helve- of poor Red Riding-hood. She knows that it tius; or he may never think about the matter is all false, that wolves cannot speak, that at all. His creed on such subjects will no there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite more influence his poetry, properly so called, of her knowledge she believes; she weeps; then the notions which a painter may have she trembles; she dares not go into a dark conceived respecting the lacrymal glands, or room lest she should feel the teeth of the monthe circulation of the blood, will affect the ster at her throat. Such is the despotism of tears of his Niobe, or the blushes of his Aurora. the imagination over uncultivated minds. If Shakespeare 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?
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 good ones; but little poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create. They will talk about the old poets, and comPerhaps no person can be a poet, or can ment on them, and to a certain degree enjoy even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsound- them. But they will scarcely be able to conness of mind, if any thing which gives so ceive the effect which poetry produced on much pleasure ought to be called unsound- their ruder ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, · ness. By poetry we mean not all writing in the plenitude of belief. The Greek Rhapsoverse, nor even all good writing in verse. dists, according to Plato, could scarce recite Our definition excludes many metrical com- Homer without falling into convulsions. The positions which, on other grounds, deserve Mohawk hardly feels the scalping knife while the highest praise. By poetry we mean the he shouts his death-song. The power which art of employing words in such a manner as the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exto produce an illusion on the imagination, the ercised over their auditors seems to modern art of doing by means of words what the readers almost miraculous. Such feelings painter does by means of colors. Thus the are very rare in a civilized community, and
most rare among those who participate most | ill qualified to judge between two Latin styles in its improvements. They linger longest as a habitual drunkard to set up for a wineamong the peasantry.
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
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 the poet calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment all the Latin poems of Milton the artificial of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction. manner indispensable to such works is admirHe who, in an enlightened and literary so- ably preserved, while, at the same time, his ciety, aspires to be a great poet, must first genius gives to them a peculiar charm, an air become a little child. He must take to pieces of nobleness and freedom, which distinguishes the whole web of his mind. He must unlearn them from all other writings of the same much of that knowledge which has perhaps class. They remind us of the amusements of constituted hitherto his chief title to superi- those angelic warriors who composed the coority. His very talents will be a hindrance hort of Gabriel: 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 vigor 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 labor, and long meditation, employed in this struggle triumphed over every obstacle. So intense against the spirit of the age, and employed, we will not say, absolutely in vain, but with dubious success and feeble applause.
"About him exercised heroic games
The unarmed youth of heaven. But o'er their heads
Hung high, with diamond flaming and with gold."
and ardent was the fire of his mind, that it not only was not suffocated beneath the weight of fuel, but penetrated the whole superincumbent mass with its own heart and radiance.
val has been able to equal, and no paródist to degrade, which displays in their highest perfection the idiomistic powers of the English tongue, and to which every ancient and every modern language has contributed something
If these reasonings be just, no poet has ever triumphed over greater difficulties than Milton. He received a learned education; he It is not our intention to attempt any thing was a profound and elegant classical scholar; like a complete examination of the poetry of he had studied all the mysteries of Rabbinical Milton. The public has long been agreed as literature; he was intimately acquainted with to the merit of the most remarkable passages, every language of modern Europe, from the incomparable harmony of the numbers, which either pleasure or information was and the excellence of that style, which no rithen 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 of grace, of energy, or of music. In the vast have never read them, are wretched compositions. 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 The most striking characteristic of the Johnson had studied the bad writers of the middle ages till he had become utterly insensible to the Augustan elegance, and was as
field of criticism on 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.
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