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thrown more of the splendour of imagination into his Sonnets: single images, such as are scattered through all the rest of his poetry, might have been thrown into a succession of these small forms, and might have risen by a noble climax to their termination.
If there was one poetical power of Milton more eminent than another, it was his power of description: he gave an idealism to all his material images; and yet they were in the highest degree distinct and picturesque. He knew where to throw a veil, and when to make the features prominent. A poetical image should have the distinctness which a painter can depict; but it should have also something of the indefinite, which a painter cannot depict:—this is Milton's merit; and it is no less that of Dante. It is what art can never reach; what genius only gives by flashes: it is enthusiasm and inspiration.
The question at present is, not whether the Sonnets are equal to Milton's genius, but whether they are good, or as contemptible as Johnson represents them. I say that they are such as none but Milton could have written: they are full of lofty thought, moral instruction, and virtuous sentiment, expressed in language as strong as it is plain. They are pictures of a manly, resolute, inflexible spirit, and aid us in our knowledge of the poet's individual character. Is this light merit?—Where is the enlightened reader who will agree with Johnson, and wish them thrown aside?
But Johnson's prejudices against Milton were
inveterate: they must have been taken up early in life from some passion, and have grown with his growth. He never ridded himself of the impressions he imbibed from Lander: his hatred, however, was partly political. I know not what made him so bigoted and blind a partisan: his birth and station will not account for it;—probably it was imbibed jacobitism. But there was something adverse in the native structure of the minds of these two celebrated men: if Johnson had genius, it was quite dissimilar to that of Milton: it was solely argumentative: he had no inventive imagination: he saw no phantoms but the gloomy phantoms of superstition: he had no chivalrous enthusiasm: he delighted not to gaze on feudal halls, or "throngs of knights and barons bold:" he thought not of another world; of angels, and heavenly splendour, but as subjects of trembling and painful awe! He turned away from them, except so far as duty enforced his attention: he loved the world, and all its gaieties, and follies, and conflicts.
Could there be a greater contrast to the bard of 1 Paradise Lost' and ' Paradise Regained?' To him who would decapitate kings, and defy the powers of the earth? To him who would haunt groves and forests, and listen to the lonely blast, and busy himself in deep solitude, and love musing and his own creations, rather than the busy talk of social collision? Him, whose taste is opposed to our own, and from its elevation claims a superiority, we learn first to envy, then to hate, then to scorn. Till we can persuade ourselves that he is in the wrong, we feel our own degradation. Thus Johnson, when he was grasping at the head seat of the literature of his country, could not bear the memory of one whose dissimilar splendour paled his own; hence his constant detractions, his petty cavils, his malignant perversions.
To dwell on this topic is not idle or irrelevant: Johnson still holds the public ear; and to endeavour to weaken his influence is a duty neither useless nor ungenerous. The more the public studies and admires Milton, the higher will be its taste and grasp of intellect.
As to the Sonnets, if any one can read them without both pleasurable excitation and improvement, he has a sort of mind which it would be vain to attempt to cultivate — a barren soil, or one overgrown with weeds and prejudices.
ON 'SAMSON AGONISTES.'
We come again to fable and invention. 'Samson Agonistes' is written after the severe model of the ancient Greek tragedies; but it is not fit for the stage, nor intended for it: the characters are few; it indeed almost approaches to a monologue. Many object to the chorus; but for a dramatic poem it affords many opportunities of noble eloquence. Samson's character is magnificently supported: he is a giant in mind as well as in body: his language, though not suited to the effeminate polish of modern ears, is vigorous and majestic.
There is a deep pathos, but unyielding soul, in all the hero utters: the moral reflections are grand, profound, and expansive. The application every where to the poet's own misfortunes and position augments the interest twofold.
Milton, in his preface to this poem, says:— "Tragedy, as it was anciently composed, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems; therefore said by Aristotle to be of power, by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions; that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated." &c.
On this Warton makes the following note:— "Milton, who was inclined to puritanism, had good reason to think that the publication of his 'Samson Agonistes' would be very offensive to his brethren, who held poetry, and particularly that of the dramatic kind, in the greatest abhorrence : and upon that account, it is probable, that in order to excuse himself from having engaged in this proscribed and forbidden species of writing, he thought it expedient to prefix to his play a formal defence of tragedy."
Such defence of what does not require to be defended never makes impression upon bigoted minds. The blind slaves of party are never convinced by reason; they repeat by rote, and cannot be put out of their lesson.
Long speeches on the stage become tedious; but are not so to the intelligent reader: and there is no mode by which an ideal character can be represented with so much effect. A person under the influence of passion can best describe his ow/i feelings: we cannot conceive any thing more heroic than much of what is said by Samson.
In accordance with some celebrated critics, I have no doubt that the third place of excellence