Page images

of his art, if art it may be called. But the extraordinary thing is, that he has no second in this combination of merits,—that he stands alone!

There are those whom this will offend; but it is the stern truth. If fable, in the sense in which Aristotle uses it, is a necessary essential, the conclusion is incontrovertible.

Of all the fifty-two poets whose Lives have been written by Johnson, and of whom not less than seventeen are mere versifiers, and several of them mediocre versifiers, — Dryden and Pope stand, in common estimation, next to Milton. But however I may sin against the popular opinion, I persevere in saying that they are deficient in this first essential, to which I have alluded: I assert that they have no poetical invention. Pope's · Rape of the Lock' will scarcely be objected to me; nor Dryden’s · Fables, which are all borrowed.

Sir William Temple’s observation of the rarity of poetical genius, so often cited, is thus verified. Single qualities may not be uncommon; it is the union of all the essentials which so seldom occurs. Milton had them all, and each in the most eminent degree. Pope may be said to have had the last three : Dryden wanted the first, and, perhaps, the third.

So far as poetry is to be considered not only the voice of pleasure but the voice of wisdom, whatever fiction is contrary to probability, is not only not praiseworthy, but culpable. It justly brings poetry into contempt, and gives it the name of an idle, empty art. I prefer even insipidity and triteness to extravagance; the effort to surprise is always vicious. The poet's business is to exhibit nature, but nature in an exalted state : hence I cannot approve Crabbe's poetry, however true to life his descriptions may be. On the other hand, I must admit that Byron in his fictions goes sometimes far beyond nature.

These are small names, even the last, to mention after Milton, whose fables utter the songs of angels and archangels; and whose sanctity, elevated into the highest sublimity, keeps due music with the choirs of Heaven! Not but Byron might, if he had been equally devout, have followed Milton in this track.

I am conscious what talents far above mine it requires to treat adequately the subject I have here undertaken : but others, as weak as I am, have already entered on the task with less respectfulness and less love, and I am willing to attempt to wipe away some of the stains they have left. For fifty years I have had an unquenchable desire to refute Johnson's perverse criticisms and malignant obloquies. I know not by what spell his authority over the public is still great. To almost every new edition of Milton, except Todd's and Mitford's, Johnson's Life of the Poet has continued to be reprinted. This repetition surely becomes nauseous.

But he who gains novelty at the expense of truth, pays too dear for it; and gains what is not worth having. Nothing is more easy than to sti


mulate for a moment by what is new, though unfounded: but sobriety of judgment, and nicety of taste, must give their sanction to what is pronounced. All inconsiderate and unmeasured praise is hurtful.

I have forborne to commend any composition of this mighty poet without long and calm thought. I have considered that the powers of Johnson entitled him to a cool and careful consideration before I ought to venture to contradict his opinion ; but that, when I could no longer doubt, no force of authority ought to restrain my expression.

But much greater authority than Johnson's on a poetical question is on my side :-Dryden, Ada dison, Gray, the Wartons, Cowper, Hayley, and innumerable others.

It would be almost superfluous to say more of Milton's merits as a poet, after all that I have said : recapitulation in his case would probably weaken its effect. He had not only every requisite of the Muse; but every one of the highest order, and in the highest degree. His invention of poetical fable, and poetical imagery, was exhaustless, and always grand, and always consistent with the faith of a cultivated and sensitive mind. Sublimity was his primary and unfailing power. His characters were new, surprising, gigantic, or beautiful; and full of instruction, such as high wisdom sanctioned. His sentiments were lofty, comprehensive, eloquent, consistent, holy, original; and an amalgamation of spirit, religion, intellect, and marvellous learning. His language was his own: sometimes a little rough and unvernacular; but as magnificent as his mind: of pregnant thought; naked in its strength; rich and picturesque, where imagery was required; often exquisitely harmonious, where the occasion per-, mitted ; but sometimes strong, mighty, and speaking with the voice of thunder.

I can scarcely go further, to constitute the greatest poet of our nation, and, in my opinion, of the world: for surely, taking dignity of fable and other characters into the question, Homer and Virgil cannot be compared with Milton! And, to fortify me, Addison and Dryden have come to the same conclusion.

In moral character the poet stands among the noblest and the best. His spirit was as holy, and his heart as sanctified, as his writings: for this we must admit the testimony of his own repeated declaration in the face of malignant enemies, and the foulest passion of detraction. But, as humanity cannot be perfect, he was provoked by diabolical slander into recriminations unbecoming the dignity of his supreme genius, and devout heart. His politics were severe, and, in my apprehension, wrong; but they were conscientious. The principles which he entertained, the boldness of his mind pushed to an unlimited and terrible extent: and thus he was brought to justify the decapitation of Charles I. I would forget this, if I could ; because, remembering it, I cannot but

confess that I feel it a cloud upon his dazzling glory: but as Horsley said on another occasion :

One passing vapour shall dissolve away,
And leave thy glory's unobstructed ray !

« PreviousContinue »