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power grows more vigorous after it has been tried.
Thousands go down to the grave, unconscious of the native faculties, which, if exercised, might have distinguished them : but buried faculties are an incumbrance, and breed diseases; and it cannot be doubted that this was one of the maladies of Gray. · Milton was never to be silenced: the fire within found vent; and then his great heart was at ease, and triumphed.
There was not the same force and depth in his early Latin poems, as in his early English : this perhaps arose from the constraint of writing in a foreign and dead language. He was compelled to look to models; and whatever merits the ancient classic poets have, they have not the sombre tone and colouring, and the picturesque imaginativeness, which began in the Italian school with Dante. Of that school, Milton was the noblest and most inborn scholar : in some of his earliest English verses he caught Dante's magnificent darkness, his mystical images, his spiritual visions.
Milton is never an empty dealer in words; it is always the thought, the sentiment, the image, which impels him to speak : it breathes; it throws forth the raciness of life. His earliest poems travel out of the track of mere observation, and explore the spiritual world. He ventures among miracles, and hears aerial voices, and rises among the choirs of angels. In any but the most sublime genius it would have been rash hardihood to have entered so early on such unearthly sub
jects. He has acquitted himself with the vigour of the most matured age.
If the “Hymn on the Nativity' was a college exercise, its original force is the more extraordinary, because he was under the surveillance of technical judges; and nothing but a master-genius could have emboldened him to take his own peculiar course. How those to whom it was addressed must have stared, when they compared it with the creeping, feeble, lame, colloquial, trite compositions, which surrounded it! They must have started, half annoyed, half doubting, half delighted against their will, half shrinking at what they suspected to be rebellious audacity; half recollecting models; then beginning to think that the young poet had found out a new language, but whispering to themselves that heresies from admitted models ought to be discouraged.
The example was not followed ; no one caught the tone: probably it was found too difficult to assume. No one had the genius, or the force, or the taste, to achieve it. The first edition of the 6 Juvenile Poems' appeared in 1645; no other was called for for nearly thirty years.
It is wilful misrepresentation therefore to say that these poems received much notice from Milton's contemporaries : they are far above the taste of his age, or perhaps of the immediate popular taste of any age. Common readers love common passions, and the images which are familiar to them: they like practical observations upon actual daily life, and witticisms upon their neighbours, rivals, and superiors.
OBSERVATIONS ON MILTON'S POETRY CONTINUED.
Milton lived in a time perhaps more propitious to' poetry than even the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Superstition, chivalry, and romance, had begun to abate; but philosophy and reason had commenced their influence, without checking imagination. The times were stirring; and such times are propitious to the Muse. The public mind began to let itself loose from old chains.
From the days of the Restoration there has been no poetical freedom of mind ; unless in our own latter days.
The counteraction to the favourableness I have spoken of, was the metaphysical taste introduced by King James. That monarch had no imagination, but a ridiculous pedantry. Talents of a secondary nature, which were the slaves of example, might bow to this; but bad models would not repel genius, while it could choose its own.
The language had not yet arrived at fastidiousness: the picturesque energies of feudal chivalry were not forgotten, nor had their influence over the imagination entirely ceased : they were enough in the belief of the people to be capable of being recalled. The drama had arrived at great force of excellence, though mixed with many irregularities.
The ranks and characters of society were yet distinctly marked. There was luxury and polish, without effeminacy : learning had not yet exhausted itself: if the Court was corrupt, it was not yet frivolous. There was enthusiasm of loyalty, and enthusiasm of rebellion. · The age of Elizabeth was imaginative and romantic, but not classical: the age of James was pedantic : the age of Charles was fitted for a sober heroism.
Milton had the encouragement of foreigners for his early Latin poetry, which received their high praise when he travelled into Italy. Gray, equally eminent by similar compositions about the same age, did not exhibit to them his talents in this department: if he had received the same approbation, it would not have given him the same confidence. One was all buoyancy, the other all depression: one had received his father's encouragement, the other his father's blight: one had vowed himself to glory, the other was too timid to think of it.
Of modern poets, Gray's epithets are perhaps most picturesque ; but they do not unite with them visionariness, like Milton's. Examine the • Elegy in the Churchyard :' they are all pictures of material realities. All the descriptions in that
beautiful poem are merely such as a curious and tasteful eye could derive from observation only; there is no invention.
In all the descriptive poems of Milton there is rich and wonderful invention. The combinations in • Lycidas' are strikingly inventive : this is one of its marked features, and gives it that passion which shows itself in the excitement of the mind. There is a hurry of ideas; a conflict of lamentations and consolations.
In almost all the contemporary poetry there is flatness, lameness, and mean colloquiality : a high tone is never uniformly sustained : strong words are mixed with weak, and one half of a line falls from the other: in some, there is a feeble, thin, and conversational diffusion; as in old George Wither. It is sustainment which is Milton's characteristic excellence : single good lines may be found in his predecessors. His strains are closely wrought, and every where with the golden thread ; with grand images, and noble combinations of design.
Milton lived for the Muse; he vowed himself to the Muse. He professed it; he did not pretend to speak of it as a mere idle amusement, as if he was half ashamed of it: he knew its worth, its dignity, and its difficulties. No one wanting enthusiasm ever succeeded in this vocation : its purposes cannot be effected by doubtful spirits and faint hopes. Gray affected to write merely as an occasional amusement, and not to make a business of it: this affectation was beneath a great mind.