« PreviousContinue »
characteristics : it is full of imagery; but principally primal, not metaphorical imagery. • Lycidas' appears to me much more vigorous, more expansive, more vivid, more full of sentiment and intellectuality, than · L'Allegro' and · Il Penseroso,' which are the popular favourites.
It is extraordinary that Johnson, had the courage to venture such a disreputable criticism; but he was now in the height of his fame, and had grown humoursome and arbitrary. His contemporaries feared his vituperation and personal invectives. The Wartons were mild men, and loved too much their own quiet :* Mason lived at a distance from him, and abhorred and feared him: Gray was dead: Johnson's club were all his flatterers and worshippers : Burke was absorbed in politics; and Sir Joshua Reynolds never ventured to engage in literary conflict with him. A few feeble missiles were aimed at him by Potter and other mediocrists; but it was a crisis of no brilliance : Hayley became a fashionable poet; and Beattie lost his spirits, and could not carry the • Minstrel' beyond the second canto: Robertson and Gibbon were great in history; but they did not much concern themselves with poetry: Sir William Jones was yet young, vain, and ambitious to go with the stream: Horace Walpole was too delicate, and too fearful of the rude ridicule of Johnson to enter the lists with him ; nor probably would his taste have led him to it: I doubt whether Milton's genius had much of his sympathy.
* As T. Warton's book appeared in 1785, he probably composed his remarks soon after the Lives' were published in 1781. Whether he would have printed them while the doctor lived, may be a question.
In this age, such an ebullition of vulgar acrimony and hard insensibility would not have been left unassailed and unrepelled. The Southeys, the Lockharts, the Wordsworths, the Wilsons, the Campbells, the Moores, and many an unfleshed sword besides, would all have stepped forth. The flattering Thrales, and Boswells, and Hawkinses, and Murphys, would have had no shield.
I do not know how Cowper felt: he had not yet broke forth into fame, and perhaps was too meek to have then dared an opinion of his own; but he has left many proofs that he was a devoted admirer of Milton. I was a boy when the life of Milton came out; though the lives of the more modern poets appeared after I arrived at Cambridge; and then my indignation at the attacks on Collins and Gray rose to a height which has never since subsided.
ON Milton's sonnets.
The Sonnets are another object of Johnson's virulent attack: they have a character of their own, supported for the most part by a naked majesty of thought. The model is drawn from the Italians; and Milton's favourite, Dante, set him the example. He took little from the tone of Petrarch: he has none of Petrarch's sweetness. The sternness, severity, gloominess, and sublimity of Dante had his entire sympathy. The English reader may find specimens of Dante's manner in his Sonnets, excellently translated by Hayley, in the notes to his poem on Epic Poetry : I must admit that, in the Sonnets, Milton has not reached his model.
The brevity of the Sonnet will scarcely admit the greater traits of poetry: there is no space for fable ; but for the preservation of a single grand thought it is admirably fitted. Mr. Dyce, in his • Specimens of English Sonnets, from the time of Henry VIII., chronologically arranged,' has shown their progress and their fashions. They were favourites with Spenser and Shakspeare, and many less eminent poets of those days; as, Sydney, Constable, B. Barnes, Daniel, and Drayton. It appears to me that the Sonnets both of Spenser and Shakspeare have been commended too much: they are quaint, laboured, and often metaphysical. Of all authors, Wordsworth has most succeeded in this department.
But there are many of Milton's which are very grand in their nakedness: they have little of picturesque imagery. To make use once more of an expression of Johnson—not as applied to them, but to other parts of Milton—their sublimity is argumentative: it is intellectual and spiritual. There is something at times of ruggedness and involution in the words : they rarely flow. They are spoken as by one, who, conscious of the force of the thought, scorns ornament; they have something of the brevity and the dictatorial tone of the oracle, and seem to come from one who feels conscious that he is entitled to authority. Compositions so short can only have weight when they come from established names : every word ought to be pregnant with mind, with thought, sentiment, or imagery. The form will not allow diffuseness and smooth diluted periods: the repetition of the rhymes certainly aggravates the difficulty.
If it can be shown that in any one of these Sonnets of Milton there is not much sterling ore, I will give it up. In all there is some important thought, or opinion, or sentiment developed. The modulation may sometimes appear rough to delicate and sickly ears; and there is not the nice polish of a lady's gem come from a refining jeweller's workshop : it is all massy gold,—not fillagreed away into petty ornaments.
The Sonnet on Cromwell is majestic ;-on his blindness, sublime ;-on his twenty-second birthday, both pathetic and exalted : others are moral and axiomatic; and others descriptive. Not one is a mere effusion of idle words or insipid common-place; not one has the appearance of being written for the sake of writing.
The necessity of compression gives this form of composition a great merit, when the fountain of the writer's mind is abundant. It is true, that in this short space, barrenness itself can find enough to fill up the outline; but in Milton there is no unmeaning sentence or useless word.
The form of the Sonnet, however, does not refuse mellifluousness when the occasion requires, as Petrarch almost every where proves. No verses can be more mellifluous than Petrarch's : something of this will, perhaps, be attributed to the softness of the Italian language ; but the English tongue is also capable of it, however obstinately Johnson may have pronounced otherwise. Milton had no Laura to flatter and idolise : he found in his wife a dull, insensate, and capricious woman, unwarmed by his genius, and inapprehensive of his moral qualities : his admiration turned to disgust, and his resentment to bitterness.
One may conceive that his genius might have