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in Milton's works ought to be assigned to ' Samson Agonistes'—placing the ' Paradise Lost' first, and 'Paradise Regained' second. Though ' Comus' is exquisite poetry, it has not so much grandeur and holiness: it certainly is more purely imaginative; but then we must consider the compound of the four great essentials; and we must always prefer sublimity to sweetness. To live among the nymphs and dryads is delightful; but moral heroism is more delightful. One is duty; the other is only pleasure.
We are entitled to amuse ourselves by sometimes living in a purely visionary world; but sometimes also we are called upon to perform our part among the human inhabitants of the solid earth: and the grandeur of bold enterprise, or patient suffering, has a longer, deeper, and more instructive hold upon the mind, than any simple and unmixed play upon the fancy or the senses.
The 'Comus' is the work of a younger man, full of hope, elasticity, and joy: the tragedy is the pouring out of one enriched by the wisdom of age and experience, mellowed by misfortune, and elevated by patience under danger and calumny;— of one "fallen on evil tongues and evil days;"— of one resolved to lift himself above sublunary oppression, and rising in grandeur in proportion to the severity of his trials.
We muse in this tragedy upon the great bard mingling his ideal inventions with his own personal gloomy recollections and his present sorrows and privations. We trace the workings of his heroic spirit; and we see the sublime picture of lofty virtue and splendid genius " struggling with the storms of fate."
The temperament of poetry is heat and exhalation: it throws out flashes, of which labour and art cannot supply scintillae. Its warmth and tone communicate its contagion to others. Whatever there is of artificial and mechanical attempt to produce this effect on others, fails, and ends in nothing. It is like dead air, whence we draw no healthful breath.
No one can write with the powers of a poet except when he is in a state of excitement. All must be centred within him :—there the fire must burn and blaze. He must see with the mental eye, and pore, and believe. Language will accompany this state of spiritualism without being searched for. If the thought does not predominate over the expression, it is not only charmless, but weak and faulty:—
Cold as the snow upon Canadian hills,
It wakes no spark within, but chills the heart.
The spell comes from the imagination:—there can be no warmth in literary composition where there is no imagination.
The force and brightness of the fire is in proportion to the richness and abundance of the fuel applied to it. Milton applied all invention, all wisdom, all learning, and all knowledge.
Perhaps we must bring to the reading of Milton much greatness of spirit, a strong and unsophisticated fancy—much erudition, and much power of thought, to enable us thoroughly to taste and admire him. In this he differs from Shakspeare, who is equally fitted for the people, and for the most radiant and most cultivated minds. One can scarcely deny that this is a superiority in Shakspeare: Milton could not have been what he was without the aid of intense study; but as Milton could not have done what Shakspeare did, so Shakspeare could not have done what Milton did. To have produced 'Samson Agonistes' would have been utterly beyond Shakspeare's reach: Shakspeare, however, would have given more variety of characters, and richness and contrast of incidents: he would have drawn Dalilah more inviting, and Samson more tender: his language would have been more flowing—more vernacular; and if not so sublime, more beautiful: it would have sunk with less consideration, and more immediately into people's hearts.—' Samson Agonistes' is for study, and not to be lightly perused. But let no scholar—let no magnanimous-souled being, who understands the English language, and has any tincture of education, omit to read it, and muse upon it again and again, and lay it up in the treasured stores of his memory: it will exercise and improve all his intellectual faculties, and elevate his heart:—it has at once novelty, truth, and wisdom. He may learn by it lessons for the great affairs of life, enlarge his comprehension, and fortify his bosom.
He may be taught that sublimity and strength of language lie not in glitter or floweriness;—that strength is naked, and boldness of conception can support itself.
I Have thus given my opinion distinctively of Milton's epic, dramatic, and lyrical genius. I have done it sincerely, without exaggeration, and, after a habit of considering the subject for many years, with an earnest desire to form a right judgment.
To praise upon mere authority can answer no good purpose; the repetition of false praise will add to its nauseousness: but there can be no certainty of merit, unless we strictly establish principles which shall become a test to it. The endless diversity of capricious opinion puts every thing afloat: we can trust to nothing but the concurrence of all ages and all nations. If, therefore, we find that what was laid down by Aristotle has received the sanction of posterity under all changes of manners and varieties of countries, reason enjoins us to rely upon it as truth: I take, therefore, Aristotle's four requisites of good poetry to be undeniable. By these rules Milton must ever stand where he has been placed—at the head