Page images
PDF
EPUB

Spenser is allegorical throughout; Milton is only occasionally allegorical. Spenser is the poet of chivalry ; Milton is the poet of the Bible. Milton therefore is not properly romantic, nor a poet risen out of the feudal ages. He addresses himself to all nations, all ages, all manners,—all mankind : he has indeed many casts of words, and many images derived from the compositions which originated with the Troubadours; and he would not have been what he is, unless Dante and the Italian school had preceded him. Milton was a massy “cloth of gold,” while others were a slight fabric of slight materials.

Part of Dante's grandeur lies in a mystical brevity peculiar to himself. Milton sketches out his figures more fully and clearer; yet they are more difficult to sketch, because they are above humanity : whereas Dante most alludes to human characters, and their conduct on earth. This alone proves the superiority of Milton over Dante: but then Dante lived in a darker age, when the revival of learning was in its infancy : Milton had many great examples of poetical fiction before him.

Beautiful and rich as Spenser is, Milton has taken little of his cast: there is not much similarity in their language, and none in their rhythm : their fictions are of different materials, and in different forms. Milton had always a predilection for sacred subjects: he seems to have turned more to the dramatists for expression and sentiment, and even imagery; Shakspeare especially, Ben Jonson, and Beaumont and Fletcher. That Sylvester was such a favourite, must be accounted for by impressions made upon his childhood.

Milton seems always to have kept aloof in his holiness : he thus did not suffer his mind to be diluted by vulgar thoughts. The effect of his deep meditations and studies was never broken in upon. He kept up his dignity, his self-esteem, and the pride and ambition of his calling. By mingling much with the world we catch its petty passions, and lower ourselves to its tone and temperament. The facts which have been handed down to us of his life, accord well with the character of his writings: he was fearless, and this added to his strength : a timid han l will never strike out noble notes.

If it could be proved that there is no virtue or sound sense in spirituality ; that we can rely on nothing but the material objects presented to our view; then poetry would be an empty, uninstructive, and even delusive amusement; but I presume that they who attempt to set up such a philosophy will incur the disgrace of its meanness and its falsehood. All the charms and almost all the virtues of our being are spiritual. Nature has implanted in us the delight of looking to something beyond actual existences ; and in gratifying this delight lies the magic of poetry. That poetry which does not attempt and perform this, scarcely deserves the name. Above all others, unless perhaps Shakspeare, Milton has performed it. What exquisite idealism and inventiveness there is in Comus!'

But let no one mistake the fantastic for the inventive: this, instead of being a proof of genius, is proof of the want of it: yet the great vulgar, as well as the little vulgar, mistake one for the other. Charlatans in criticism consider that the mark of poetical invention is improbability, or impossibility: on this principle Homer and Virgil were minor poets. To bring the past to life is a primary purpose of poetry : this is true invention; not to describe forms merely, but mind and spirit, and internal movement. The power is in proportion to the dignity and grand characters of the actors brought into play : thus Milton rises not only to the height of humanity, but of angels good and bad, the obedient and the rebellious. What must have been the force and splendour of an imagination which could duly conceive and paint such beings! The excellence is in proportion as truth and probability are preserved in lofty creations. If this be the test, then what other poet can contend with Milton? Homer and Virgil have drawn heroes, but they were merely men : their imaginations have not risen to the wars of ethereal beings, and battles with the Almighty. And even in the softer scenes of mere human passions and enjoyments, how superior are Adam and Eve to all other personifications in poetry!

It has been objected that the subject is too lofty and solemn for human sympathy ;-a tasteless and absurd criticism. Of mere earthly scenery, what can equal the garden of Eden? Or

a for human of mere earth

Or

erated lahe a compighty su!" Every dated la

are we to have no interest in the description of it because we have lost it? On topics of almost inconceivable grandeur the poet never uses exaggerated language, but is sober, congenial, and speaks with a comprehensive majesty, as if he was master of his mighty subject, and elevated above human intellectuality. Every other bard would have betrayed weakness by inflated lan. guage. If he had thought about the minor artifices or ornaments of what is called poetry, he must have soon abandoned his task as beyond the power of human performance. All is in the thought : the plainer the language, the nobler as well as easier the execution. That frivolous adornment, that outward investment of flowers, of which petty artists boast, is mere trickery.

Had Milton taken a subject less divine, a subject from uninspired history, I doubt if he would have executed it with equal success. His own conceptions were too elevated to enter with minuteness into inferior characters : he knew not the feebler passions and little windings of the human heart: he could not draw the vast variety of man's obliquities, like Shakspeare. Whatever we are accustomed to admire in the best of other poets, sinks into paleness and insignificance before the splendour and sublimity of Milton.

But minor poets often fail, not only from want of native force, but because they propose to themselves false objects of excellence: they substitute perverse inventiveness for genuine creation; and too often describe and copy, when they ought to invent. The poet should turn spirituality into imagery ; but it must not be mere body,-it must have life, and thought, and soul. Milton has given something of material shape to the airy beings of a higher sphere, but he has never divested them of the bright and indefinable radi. ance of divinity.

There can be no unity in the description of inanimate nature, or in what is didactic; consequently there can be no perfect invention : it is only therefore in the epic or the dramatic that there can be poetry of the primary class: this will exclude from the first class many of the celebrated poets of our own country.

Looking to human agency, who has constructed with us a long and well-combined narrative of imaginary characters? If this merely human creation be difficult, what has Milton performed? How comparatively easy is it to personify and delineate. the diversity in the moral and intellectual characters of mankind,—to put it in action amid the scenes of human life, and to show human passions in conflict ! yet how rarely have even these powers been exhibited!

The true poet must create : he must leave artists to illustrate and adorn. Whoever employs himself much in the mechanism of composition, must be deficient in enthusiasm and warmth; he must feel no inspiration. Language will come of course to him who thinks profoundly, feels deeply, and sees with imaginative brightness. What is brilliant in itself, requires no ornament of paint and colours.

To study Milton's poetry is not merely the de

« PreviousContinue »