« PreviousContinue »
an Epic poem on King Arthur, or some other part of the old British story. See 'Epitaphium Damonis' (Deodatus), and 'Epistola ad Mansum.'
In his 'Elegia in adventum Veris,' written in his twentieth year, the poet tells us that his poetical powers revived with the spring.
Milton's early love of the theatre has been already mentioned; Warton also observes this, and refers to ' L'Allegro,' v. 131: but in another place the critic remarks, that his warmest poetical predilections were at last totally obliterated by civil and religious enthusiasm. Milton's writings afford a striking example of the strength and weakness of the same mind. Seduced by the gentle eloquence of fanaticism, he listened no more to the " wild and native wood-notes of Fancy's child." In his 'Iconoclastes' he censures King Charles for studying "one, whom we well know was the closet companion of his solitudes, William Shakspeare."
Nothing could be farther than Milton was, in his own early poetry, from this sour puritanism. In his ' Ode at a Solemn Musick,' he addresses "the harmonious sisters, Voice and Verse," to "wed their divine sounds:"—
And to our high-raised phantasy present
With those just spirits that wear victorious palms,
Here is an anticipation of the ' Paradise Lost.'
Again: in his 'Address to his Native Language,' at a vacation exercise in the college, anno setatis 19, he says,—
But haste thee straight to do me once a pleasure,
And from thy wardrobe bring thy choicest treasure;
Not those new-fangled toys and trimming slight,
Which takes our late fantasticks with delight;
But cull those richest robes and gayest attire,
Which deepest spirits and choicest wits desire.
Yet I had rather, if I were to choose,
Thy service in some graver subject use;
Such as may make thee search thy coffers round
Before thou clothe my fancy in fit sound;
Such where the deep transported mind may soar
Above the wheeling poles, and at Heaven's door
Look in, and see each blissful deity,
How he before the thunderous throne doth lie,
Listening to what unshorn Apollo sings
To the touch of golden wires, while Hebe brings
Immortal nectar to her kingly sire: &c.
"Here," Warton again observes, " are strong indications of a young mind, anticipating the subject of the ' Paradise Lost,' if we substitute Christian for Pagan ideas. He was now deep in the Greek poets."
The style, the picturesqueness of language, the character of the imagery, which Milton adopted from the first, was peculiar to himself. I do not say that many of the words, and even images, might not be found scattered in preceding poets, as Spenser, Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Joshua Sylvester's Du Bartas; but they could not be found combined into an uniform and unbroken texture, nor with the same uniformity of elevated and spiritual thought. In almost all precedent poets they are patches. That Milton was minutely familiar with the poems of all his celebrated predecessors is sufficiently evident; but so far as he used them, he only used them as ingredient particles. Spenser is rich and picturesque, but Milton has a character distinct from him. Milton's texture is more massy: the gold is weightier: he has a haughtier solemnity.
CRITICAL ACCOUNT OF MILTON S COLLEGE POETRY.
Though there were many things which had a tendency to make Milton in his boyhood and first youth discontented with the social institutions of his country, as they then displayed themselves in all their abuses; yet the relics of former greatness still remained in such preservation as to give full force to the imagination: the names, the feudal history, the trophies of former magnificence, were all fresh. Though king James was mean, pedantic, and corrupt, king Charles had a royal spirit, and a benevolent, accomplished mind: he loved literature and the arts, and had subtle, if not grand, abilities. At this time, therefore, Milton's love of monarchical and aristocratical splendor was contending with his puritanic education, and his personal hatred of arbitrary power: his rich imagination and his stern judgment were at variance: his early poems rarely, if ever, touch upon sectarianism: Spenser and Shakspeare, courts, castles, and theatres, did not agree with Calvinistic rigours and formalities. Milton's enthusiasm was, as Warton observes, the enthusiasm of the poet, not of the puritan.
At this time he had more of description and less of abstract thought: that sublime elevation of axiomatic wisdom was not yet reached; but from his earliest years he appears to have been conversant and delighted with the tone and expressions of the Hebrew poetry: his grand and inimitable ' Hymn on the Nativity' proves this. In that hymn is every poetical perfection, mingled with a sort of prophetic solemnity, which fills us with a religious awe: the nervous harmony and climax of the lines are also admirable. It was written in 1629, when he was in his twenty-first year, probably as a college-exercise. Mark this stanza:—
No war, or battle's sound,
Was heard the world around;
The hooked chariot stood
Unstain'd with human blood;
And kings sat still with awful eye,
Or these two stanzas :—
The oracles are dumb;
No voice, or hideous hum,
Apollo from his shrine
Can no more divine,
No nightly trance, or breathed spell,
The lonely mountains o'er,