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A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring, and dale
Edged with poplar pale,
With flower-inwoven tresses torn
Dr. Joseph Warton observes here: "attention is irresistibly awakened and engaged by the air of solemnity and enthusiasm that reigns in this stanza and some that follow. Such is the power of true poetry, that one is almost inclined to believe the superstition real."
I cannot doubt that this hymn was the congenial prelude of that holy and inspired imagination which produced the ' Paradise Lost,' nearly forty years afterwards.
I am not aware that our young bard had any prototype in this sort of ode: the form, the matter, the imagery, the language, the rhythm, are all new. Milton seems himself in the state of wonder and awe of the shepherds, and of all those whom he describes as affected by this miracle. The trembling, the fervour, the blaze, is true inspiration. In this state, the poet, visited by heavenly appearances, must have forgot all worldly fear, and written at this early age solely after his own ideas. The manner in which he describes the dim superstitions of the false oracles is quite magical.
I mention these things here as illustrative of Milton's life. We must consider him now, when he had scarcely reached manhood, as already a perfect poet: he had stamped his power; and was entitled to take his own course accordingly in future life. Good words and pleasing thoughts may easily be worked into harmonious verse; but this is not poetry. I know nothing in which the genuine spell of poetry more breaks out than in the hymn I have here been praising. To show this, I must cite one more stanza:—
And sullen Moloch, fled,
Hath left in shadows dread
In vain with cymbals' ring
They call the grisly king
The brutal gods of Nile as fast,
Isis, and Orus, and the dog Anubis, haste.
"These dreadful circumstances," says Warton, "are here endued with life and action; they are put in motion before our eyes, and made subservient to a new purpose of the poet by the superinduction of a poetical fiction, to which they give occasion. Milton, like a true poet, in describing the Syrian superstitions, selects such as were most susceptible of poetical enlargement; and which, from the wildness of their ceremonies, were most interesting to the fancy."
There are magical words of the same character in almost every stanza. There is not a finer line in the whole range of descriptive poetry than this:—
In dismal dance about the furnace blue.
Yet this ode Johnson passes over in silence. Milton was already in a state of mental fervour, in
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which all the materials of poetry were spiritualised into a pure golden flame ascending in glory to the skies.
Read also the two following lines, where the poet speaks of the flight of Osiris:—
In vain with timbrell'd anthems dark
We cannot reason upon the effect of such combinations of words,—the charm is indefinable. Into what a temperament of aerial power must the author have been worked! Well might this sublime priest of the Muses then exclaim,
Nee dnri libet usque minus perferre magistri,
No notice has been handed down how this extraordinary performance was received: it seems yet to have produced no fame to him. When he retired to his father's house at Horton next year, he retired as one who had yet done nothing. His Latin poems want the solemnity, the sublimity, the enthusiasm, the wildness, the imaginativeness, of, these English, in which the spirit of Dante and Spenser already began to show itself, moulded up with a character of his own. But Ovid was a poet of a more whimsical and undignified kind, of whom it was strange that he should have been fond, but whom his Latin verses almost every where show to have been a great favourite with him.
When we see to what holy subjects and holy imagery Milton's mind was already turned, there is reason for some surprise that he should still have had it in contemplation to produce an epic poem on the inferior and comparatively puerile theme of King Arthur, which no imaginative invention could have invested with the same dignity; when even chivalry had not yet arrived at its historic grandeur, and when every thing must have had a fabulousness which shocked probability. This is the more extraordinary, because Milton, though intimately conversant with the old romances, was still more familiar with the spirit, the language, the sublimity of the Sacred Story. It is clear that he was not frightened by the difficulty of duly treating this awful subject, from the manner in which he touched upon it in his majestic hymn, where he showed himself a master of all its mysterious tones. Had he at this time taken subjects from the Bible for a series of odes and hymns, he might even have excelled himself.
He has been supposed not to have had a lyrical ear: nothing can be a greater mistake. The arrangement of his stanza, and the climax of his rhymes in this hymn, are perfect. To my perception there is no other lyrical stanza in our language so varied, so musical, and so grand. The Alexandrian close is like the swelling of the wind when the blast rises to its height.
The poet perhaps already grasped at too immense a circuit of human learning: he might be at this early age darkening his mind with the factitious subtleties of politics and theology, which might overlay the sublime and inimitable fire of the Muse. It seems as if he pursued the most abstruse, dry, and puzzling tracks of study. It is indeed to be remarked, that in most of his poems there is an occasional over-fondness for allusion to these blind parts of learning. Life is not long enough for every thing; nor can the most ardent flame of the intellect entirely overcome an excessive superincumbence of dead matter.
Though Milton's Latin poetry has been remarked not generally to partake of the character of his English, it has some exceptions. Warton observes of his poem 'In Quintum Novembris,'— a college exercise,—that "it contains a council, conspiracy, and expedition of Satan, which may be considered as an early and promising prolusion of the bard's genius to the ' Paradise Lost.'"
In this poem the cave of Phonos (Murther) and Prodotes (Treason), with its inhabitants, are finely imagined, and in the style of Spenser.
"There is," says Warton, "great poetry and strength of imagination in supposing that Murther and Treason often fly as alarmed from the inmost recesses of their own horrid cavern, looking back, and thinking themselves pursued."
In his seventeenth year Milton wrote a poem, (' In Obitum Praesulis Eliensis,') on Dr. Nicholas Felton, bishop of Ely, who died 5th October, 1626. In the midst of his lamentations he supposes himself carried to heaven. Cowper shall give the general reader a taste of it; for as Warton, candid in his very admiration, observes, "this sort of