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stating the dry facts of such a topic there can be little variety of expression : but I have rather relied upon the force of opinions and comments, than of facts already known: of the justness and taste of these, and of the manner in which they are expressed, others must judge: the quality on which I rely is their sincerity. I have not been pleading as a plausible advocate for one whom I. have undertaken the task of praising : the difficulty has not been in finding pleas for admiration, but in finding language adequate to the demands for which excellence gave occasion. The personal character of the poet should be all along concurrent with the genius of his poetry. From his very childhood he was a worshipper of the Muse Urania.
It has been unfortunate for Milton that his most popular biographer should be Johnson, whose Memoir is written in such a deliberate spirit of detraction as to fix on the writer a certain degree of moral turpitude. As a critic he has here shown extreme insensibility and want of taste, except on the · Paradise Lost, of which his eulogy, though strongly expressed, is, as I shall attempt to prove, little more in substance than a copy from Addison.
He who criticised Milton with the most congenial spirit was Thomas Warton. Hayley had an amiable enthusiasm ; but his style was languid, diffuse, and often sickly, full of colloquial and feminine superlatives; such as “most affectionate” —“ most tender”_"most afflicting.” Hayley
models of Homer and Virgil; which, however excellent, must be now admitted to be sometimes arbitrary : in general, however, they are founded on reason, and therefore indispensable.
As greatness is the first quality, the superiority of Milton's fable to those of Homer and Virgil cannot be disputed: nor is his manner of conducting it less skilful and perfect; having unity, always going forward to its end, and never interrupted by irrelevant episodes. The vastness of the invention of the outline, when little could be drawn from tradition, history, or observation, is stupendous.
The characters are equally out of the conception of mere human musing. The delineation of Satan, and the other Fallen Angels, would have appeared to any other mind but Milton's beyond the reach of human ability. The ideas of Adam and Eve before the Fall might not appear so utterly hopeless; but as they then partook of divinity, nothing but the boldest imagination could have ventured upon the subject.
The sentiments appropriate to such characters could only be supplied by a genius partaking of an inspiration above humanity. The grandeur of thought must have been incessant, and liable to no depressions : the imagination of many may be strong enough to invent and communicate the workings of human passions and human intellects; but of angels in obedient bliss, of angels in rebellion, who but Milton could venture to paint the designs or emotions ?
· Nor is the difficulty of adequate language less than of adequate conception. How are we to express the spiritual, but by the aid of signs drawn from materiality? And this is liable to the objection, that what is divine is degraded by an illustration from what is earthly. Even Milton himself has not escaped this censure. However, there is a considerable portion of Milton's poem which does not consist in the sublimity of imagery, but in what Johnson, I think, calls “argumentative sublimity;"—thoughts which are purely intellectual.
Johnson has not followed Addison through all the details in which these grand principles are examined and exemplified; but such as he has selected are mainly the same: nor has he failed to insist on the faults which have struck his predecessor. I am not sure that Addison himself, with all his candour, has not sometimes censured causelessly : I think that he has done so in the famous allegory of Sin and Death in the tenth book; and I am fortified in this opinion by Bishop Atterbury, whose taste was not only unquestionable, but exquisite. It is an invention of inexpressible magnificence, both in conception and expression: its materiality is the object of disapprobation by the critics. · It seems to me impossible to draw the line how far the shadowy beings of spirit may be represented by poets as taking part in material agency: if not allowed at all, there must be an end to the sublimest allegories.
It is true that Sin and Death might have passed from the gates of hell to earth without building a bridge of such materials as Milton supposes : but though it was not necessary, I cannot consider it an unpardonable license upon the ground of its materiality. It may be said that it is allowable to personify abstract ideas, and give them some minglement of action; but not to carry it far. Thus Gray, in his • Hymn to Adversity,' speaks of her “iron hand ;” and Collins, in his • Ode to the Passions,' exhibits of Fear as striking the “chords” of the harp. But such ideal creatures may surely be allowed to act a little more on reality than this. The rule is good, that the invention ought not to go beyond what we are capable of believing,--at least in our moments of enthusiasm. Whether the allegory of Sin and Death, under the effect of such vivid and sublime description, goes beyond this, will depend on the different structure of different minds. For my part, I can see the gates of hell open, and the bridge in the progress of its formation! There are many passages in the poetry of the Bible not less typified by material description; but many of these objectors are the very people who have least genuine taste for spirituality.
One of the finest passages of Johnson is the following :-“The appearances of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate Milton's 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 action to superior beings, to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven.” But this is far above the general tone of his criticisms; and is half undone again by a passage in a subsequent page, where he speaks of the inconvenience of the design, which requires the description of what cannot be described,--the agency of spirits : he is sometimes raised above himself by the inspiration of Addison's noble essay; then he sinks again to his own level. It was not Addison's opinion that the agency of spirits could not be described; he only says that spirits must not be too particularly engaged in action. Bishop Newton justifies these agencies of imaginary beings: I have no doubt that they are the very essences of the highest poetry. It is true, that to bring Violence, Strength, and Death on the stage, as active persons, is absurd; and that what may be introduced in poetry may be sometimes improper for the definite lines and colourings of sculpture and painting. What is most sublime is often vague, and half enveloped in mists.