Page images
PDF
EPUB

genius was wonderfully turned to the sublime, the subject is the noblest that could have entered into the thoughts of man: every thing that is truly great and astonishing has a place in it: the whole system of the intellectual world,—the chaos, and the creation—heaven, earth, and hell,—enter into the constitution of his poem."

Johnson follows in the same steps, and begins almost in the same words :—" He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius; and to know what it was that nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others,— the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful: he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said; on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of extravagance." So much for Johnson's originality!

There is indeed one leading passage in Johnson's criticism, of which no traces can be found in Addison:—and behold what it is!—

"Original deficience cannot be supplied: the want of human interest is always felt. 'Paradise Lost' is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction; retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions!" . Such was Johnson's taste; such his sensibility; such the character of his intellect! Yet this is he whose censorious and heartless judgment is to blast the fame of poets of less strength than Milton, yet of great merits, like Gray and Collins!—who is to set up Blackmore and Watts; and exalt Dryden and Pope above all other men of poetical genius!

Having thus closely examined this celebrated critique of the biographer, I find that it sinks to nothing; and as almost all his pretensions to critical judgment in the higher branches of poetry have been founded on it, the ground ought surely to be taken from under him. In his discrimination of the respective merits of Dryden and Pope he is more at home, and therefore more to be depended on.

As to Addison's Essay, it ought to be studied and almost got by heart by every cultivated mind which understands the English language. It is in all respects a masterly performance; just in thought, full of taste and the finest sensibility, eloquent and beautiful in composition, widely learned, and so clearly explanatory of the true principles of poetry, that whoever is master of them, cannot mistake in his decision of poetical merit. It puts Milton above all other poets on such tests as cannot be resisted.

One thing however must be observed, that neither Addison nor Johnson seem much acr quainted with Italian poetry.

It cannot be unacceptable to put before the reader a few extracts from Addison:—

"Homer and Virgil introduced persons whose characters are commonly known among men, and such as are to be met with either in history, or in ordinary conversation: Milton's characters, most of them, lie out of nature, and were to be formed purely by his own invention. It shows a greater genius in Shakspeare to have drawn his Caliban, than his Hotspur, or Julius Caesar: the one was to be supplied out of his own imagination, whereas the other might have been formed upon tradition, history, and observation. It was much easier, therefore, for Homer to find proper sentiments for an assembly of Grecian generals, than for Milton to diversify his infernal council with proper characters, and inspire them with a variety of sentiments. The loves of Dido and ./Eneas are only copies of what has passed between other persons. Adam and Eve before the Fall are a different species from that of mankind, who are descended from them; and none but a poet of the most unbounded invention and the most exquisite judgment, could have filled their conversation and behaviour with so many apt circumstances during their state of innocence.

"Nor is it sufficient for an epic poem to be filled with such thoughts as are natural, unless it abound also with such as are sublime. Milton's chief talent, and indeed his distinguishing excellence, lies in the sublimity of his thoughts. There are others of the moderns, who rival him in every other part of poetry; but in the greatness of his sentiments, he triumphs over all the poets both modern and ancient, Homer only excepted. It is impossible for the imagination of man to distend itself with greater ideas, than those which he has laid together in his first, second, and sixth books. The seventh, which describes the creation of the world, is likewise wonderfully sublime, though not so apt to stir up emotion in the mind of the reader, nor consequently so perfect in the epic way of writing, because it is filled with less action. Let the judicious reader compare what Longinus has observed on several passages in Homer, and he will find parallels for most of them in the ' Paradise Lost.'"

Again, in another place —

"Aristotle observes, that the fable of an epic poem should abound in circumstances that are both credible and astonishing; or, as the French critic chooses to phrase it, the fable should be filled with the probable and the marvellous. This rule is as fine and just as any in Aristotle's whole Art of Poetry.

"If the fable is only probable, it differs nothing from a true history; if it is only marvellous, it is no better than a romance: the great secret therefore of heroic poetry is to relate such circumstances as may produce in the reader at the same time both belief and astonishment. This is brought to pass in a well-chosen fable, by the account of such things as have really happened according to the received opinions of mankind. Milton's fable is a master-piece of this nature; as the War in Heaven, the Condition of the Fallen Angels, the State of Innocence, the Temptation of the Serpent, CHAPTER XXI.

THE SAME SUBJECT CONTINUED.

"The description of Adam and Eve" (continues Addison in his admirable Essay,) "in the fourth book, as they first appeared to Satan, is exquisitely drawn, and sufficient to make the fallen angel gaze upon them with all that astonishment, and those emotions of envy, in which he is represented.

"There is a fine spirit of poetry in the lines which follow; wherein they are described as sitting on a- bed of flowers, by the side of a fountain, amidst a mixed assembly of animals. The speeches of these first two lovers flow equally from passion and sincerity: the professions they make to one another are full of warmth; but at the same time founded on truth: in a word, they are the gallantries of Paradise. The part of Eve's speech, in which she gives an account of herself upon her first creation, and the manner in which she was brought to Adam, is, I think, as beautiful a passage as any in Milton, or perhaps in any other poet whatsoever. These passages are

« PreviousContinue »