« VorigeDoorgaan »
little more than the voice of admiration and gratitude. Fruition left them nothing to ask; and innocence left them nothing to fear.
But with guilt enter distrust and discord, mutual accusation, and stubborn self-defence; they regard each other with alienated minds, and dread their Creator as the avenger of their transgression. At last they seek shelter in his mercy, soften to repentance, and melt in supplication. Both before and after the fall, the superiority of Adam is diligently sustained.
Of the probable and the marvellous,-two parts of a vulgar epic poem which immerge the critic in deep consideration, the Paradise Lost requires little to be said. It contains the history of a miracle, of creation and redemption; it displays the power and the mercy of the Supreme Being : the probable therefore is marvellous, and the marvellous is probable. The substance of the narrative is truth; and, as truth allows no choice, it is, like necessity, superior to rule. To the accidental or adventitious parts, as to every thing human, some slight exceptions may be made; but the main fabric is immovably supported.
It is justly remarked by Addison, that this poem has, by the nature of its subject, the advantage above all others, that it is universally and perpetually interesting. All mankind will, through all ages, bear the same relation to Adam and to Eve, and must partake of that good and evil which extend to themselves.
Of the machinery, so called from Ocòs atrò unxavñs, by which is meant the occasional interposition of supernatural power, another fertile topic of critical remarks, here is no room to speak, because every thing is done under the immediate and visible direction of Heaven; but the rule is so far observed, that no part of the action could have been accomplished by any other means.
Of episodes, I think there are only two, contained in Raphael's relation of the war in heaven, and Michael's prophetic account of the changes to happen in this world. Both are closely connected with the great action; one was necessary to Adam as a warning, the other as a consolation.
To the completeness or integrity of the design nothing can be objected; it has distinctly and clearly what Aristotle requires, a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is perhaps no poem, of the same length, from which so little can be taken without apparent mutilation. Here are no funeral games, nor is there any long description of a shield. The short digressions at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books, might doubtless be spared; but superfluities so beautiful who would take away? or who does not wish that the author of the Iliad had gratified succeeding ages with a little knowledge of himself ? Perhaps no passages are more frequently or more attentively read than those extrinsic paragraphs; and since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.
The questions, whether the action of the poem be strictly one, whether the poem can be properly termed heroic, and who is the hero, are raised by such readers as draw their principles of judgment rather from books than from reason. Milton, though he intituled Paradise Lost only a poem, yet calls it himself heroic song. Dryden
petulantly and indecently denies the heroism of Adam, because he was overcome : but there is no reason why the hero should not be unfortunate, except established practice, since success and virtue do not go necessarily together. Cato is the hero of Lucan; but Lucan's authority will not be suffered by Quintilian to decide. However, if success be necessary, Adam's deceiver was at last crushed; Adam was restored to his Maker's favour, and therefore may securely resume his human rank.
After the scheme and fabric of the poem, must be considered its component parts, the sentiments and the diction.
The sentiments, as expressive of manners or appropriated to characters, are, for the greater part, unexceptionably just.
Splendid passages, containing lessons of morality or precepts of prudence, occur seldom. Such is the original formation of this poem, that, as it admits no human manners till the fall, it can give little assistance to human conduct. Its end is to raise the thoughts above sublunary cares or pleasures. Yet the praise of that fortitude with which Abdiel maintained his singularity of virtue against the scorn of multitudes, may be accommodated to all times; and Raphael's reproof of Adam's curiosity after the planetary motions, with the answer returned by Adam, may be confidently opposed to any rule of life which any poet has delivered.
The thoughts which are occasionally called forth in the progress are such as could only be produced by an imagination in the highest degree fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study and unlimited curiosity. The heat of Milton's mind may be said to sublimate his learning, to throw off into his work the spirit of science, unmingled with its grosser parts.
He had considered creation in its whole extent, and his descriptions are therefore learned. He had accustomed his imagination to unrestrained indulgence, and his conceptions therefore were extensive. The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant; but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural port is gigantic loftiness.* He can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish.
He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others, – the powers of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful : he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said ; on which he might tire his fancy, without the censure of extravagance.
The appearances of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate his appetite of greatness. To paint things as they are requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy, Milton's delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery into worlds where only imagination can travel; and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and
* Algarotti terms it gigantesca sublimita Miltoniana.
action to superior beings, to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven.
But he could not be always in other worlds; he must sometimes revisit earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder by the sublimity of his mind, he gives delight by its fertility.
Whatever be his subject, he never fails to fill the imagination. But his images and descriptions of the scenes or operations of nature do not seem to be always copied from original form, nor to have the freshness, raciness, and energy of immediate observation. He saw nature, as Dryden expresses it, through the spectacles of books, and on most occasions calls learning to his assistance. The garden of Eden brings to his mind the vale of Enna, where Proserpine was gathering flowers. Satan makes his way through fighting elements, like Argo between the Cyanean rocks; or Ulysses between the two Sicilian whirlpools, when he shunned Charybdis on the larboard. The mythological allusions have been justly censured, as not being always used with notice of their vanity ; but they contribute variety to the narration, and produce an alternate exercise of the memory and the fancy.
His similes are less numerous and more various than those of his predecessors. But he does not confine himself within the limits of rigorous comparison; his great excellence is amplitude, and he expauds the adventitious image beyond the dimensions which the occasion required. Thus, comparing the shield of Satan to the orb of the moon, he crowds the imagination with the discovery of the telescope, and all the wonders which the telescope discovers.
Of his moral sentiments it is hardly praise to affirm that they excel those of all other poets; for this superiority he was indebted to his acquaintance with the Sacred Writings. The ancient epic poets, wanting the light of Revelation, were very unskilful teachers of virtue; their principal characters may be great, but they are not amiable. The reader may rise from their works with a greater degree of active or passive fortitude, and sometimes of prudence; but he will be able to carry away few precepts of justice, and none of mercy.
From the Italian writers it appears that the advantages of even Christian knowledge may be possessed in vain. Ariosto's pravity is generally known; and though the Deliverance of Jerusalem may be considered as a sacred subject, the poet has been very sparing of moral instruction
In Milton every line breathes sanctity of thought and purity of manners, except when the train of the narration requires the introduction of the rebellious spirits; and even then they are compelled to acknowledge their subjection to God in such a manner as excites reverence and confirms piety.
Of human beings there are but two, but those two are the parents of mankind; venerable before their fall for dignity and innocence, and amiable after it for repentance and submission. In the first state their affection is tender without weakness, and their piety sublime without presumption. When they have sinned, they show how discord begins in mutual frailty, and how it ought to cease in mutual forbearance; how confidence of the Divine favour is forfeited by sin,
and how hope of pardon may be obtained by penitence and prayer. A state of innocence we can only conceive,-if, indeed, in our present misery, it be possible to conceive it; but the sentiments and worship proper to a fallen and offended being we have all to learn, as we have all to practise.
The poet, whatever be done, is always great. Our progenitors in their first state conversed with angels; even when folly and sin had degraded them, they had not in their humiliation the port of mean suitors; and they rise again to reverential regard when we find that their prayers were heard.
As human passions did not enter the world before the fall, there is in the Paradise Lost little opportunity for the pathetic ; but what little there is has not been lost. That passion which is peculiar to rational nature, the anguish arising from the consciousness of transgression, and the horrors attending the sense of the Divine displeasure, are very justly described and forcibly impressed. But the passions are moved only on one occasion ; sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of this poem,-sublimity variously modified, sometimes descriptive, sometimes argumentative.
The defects and faults of Paradise Lost-for faults and defects every work of man must have—it is the business of impartial criticism to discover. As, in displaying the excellence of Milton, I have not made long quotations, because of selecting beauties there had been no end, I shall in the same general manner mention that which seems to deserve censure; for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages, which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish in some degree the honour of our country?
The generality of my scheme does not admit the frequent notice of verbal inaccuracies, which Bentley, perhaps better skilled in grammar than in poetry, has often found, though he sometimes made them; and which he imputed to the obtrusions of a reviser, whom the author's blindness obliged him to employ : a supposition rash and groundless, if he thought it true; and vile and pernicious, if, as is said, he in private allowed it to be false.
The plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners.* The man and woman who act and suffer are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know. The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged ; beholds no condition in which he can by any effort of imagination place himself; he has, therefore, little natural curiosity or sympathy.
We all, indeed, feel the effects of Adam's disobedience; we all sin like Adam, and like him must all bewail our offences; we have restless and insidious enemies in the fallen angels, and in the blessed spirits we have guardians and friends ; in the redemption of mankind we hope to be included; and in the description of heaven and hell we are surely interested, as we are all to reside hereafter either in the regions of horror or of bliss.
But these truths are too important to be new; they have been
* But, says Dr. Warton, it has throughout a reference to human life and actions,
taught to our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversations, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life. Being therefore not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind : what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.
Of the ideas suggested by these awful scenes, from some we recede with reverence, except when stated hours require their association ; and from others we shrink with horror, or admit them only as salutary inflictions, as counterpoises to our interests and passions. Such images rather obstruct the career of fancy than incite it.
Pleasure and terror are indeed the genuine sources of poetry ; but poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can at least conceive, and poetical terror such as human strength and fortitude may combat. The good and evil of eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit; the mind sinks under them in passive helplessness, content with calm belief and humble adoration,
Known truths, however, may take a different appearance, and be conveyed to the mind by a new train of intermediate images. This Milton has undertaken, and performed with pregnancy and vigour of mind peculiar to himself. Whoever considers the few radical positions which the Scriptures afforded him, will wonder by what energetic operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety, restrained as he was by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction.
Here is a full display of the united force of study and genius; of a great accumulation of materials, with judgment to digest, and fancy to combine them : Milton was able to select froin nature or from story, from ancient fable or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind, fermented by study, and exalted by imagination.
It has been therefore said, without an indecent hyperbole, by one of his encomiasts, that in reading Paradise Lost we read a book of universal knowledge.
But original deficience cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer that it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation ; we desert our master, and seek for companions.
Another inconvenience of Milton's design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described, the agency of spirits. He saw that immateriality supplied no images, and that he could not show angels acting but by instruments of action; he therefore invested them with form and matter. This being necessary, was therefore defensible; and he should have secured the consistency of his system by keeping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts. But he has unhappily perplexed his poetry with his philosophy. His infernal and celestial powers are sometimes pure spirit, and sometimes animated body. When Satan walks with his lance upon the burning marl, he has a body ;