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of his youthful age. I am not sure that I like his Ovidian graces. I prefer the solemn tones of his grander imagery; his picturesque descriptions of the scenery of nature; his voices among the lonely mountains; his evening contemplations, and his studious melancholy by the night-lamp. I prefer his allusions to the fables of Gothic romance rather than to the pantheon of the classics, which does not carry with it any part of our belief. Our imaginations can easily enter into the superstitions of the dark ages, which have far more of dignity and sublimity.
Perhaps Milton was at this date more proud of his scholarship than of his own original genius, as Petrarch to the last preferred his own Latin poems to his Italian, and placed on them his hopes of fame. But in a language which is not our own, we can never equally express our unborrowed thoughts. In bringing our phraseology to the test, we are driven to the train of mind of others. It is only when the language rises up with the mental conception, that it is racy and vigorous. Hence in my opinion there is a radical defect in all modern Latin poetry—though it may still have great merit of a secondary sort. I deny that Milton shows in these Latin compositions, unless perhaps on some rare occasion, any thing of the peculiarity of his native genius.
In his own tongue there are bursts of that mind which produced 'Paradise Lost,' even in his verses from the age of thirteen. Sometimes an image,—sometimes an epithet displays it. A holy inspiration had already commenced in his mind. The tone of the Sacred Writings had taken fast possession of his enthusiasm: this perhaps was increased by his study of Dante. In Spenser there is more profusion and more flexibility; but not the same sombre and sublime cast: in Shakspeare also, there is more sweetness, and less study,—more of the "native woodnote wild;"—but not that solemn and divine strain, as if an oracle spoke. There is a sort of prophetic awe in the out-breathings of Milton, like that of the Hebrew poetry: yet there is nothing totally uncompounded with human learning. Perhaps it were better, if it had been. It is occasionally encumbered.
Milton conforms every thing to his own grand inventions. Shakspeare enters into the souls of others: Spenser brings them upon the stage in groups, in all the allegorical fabulousness of their outward forms;—he is the painter of the times of chivalry, moralized into fictions of his own, which display the different virtues in the adventures of different knights; they form wonderful tales of inexhaustible variety, — giants, and enchanted castles, and imprisoned damsels, rescued by heroic courage and divine interference.
On L'allegro And Il Penseroso.
Milton left the university of Cambridge in 1632, at the age of twenty-three, and retired to the villa of his father at Horton in Buckinghamshire: here he wrote those juvenile poems, which are the most celebrated. The exact date of the ' L'Allegro,' and 'Il Penseroso,' is not known: it is evident that they were suggested by a poem in Burton's ' Anatomy of Melancholy,' and by a few beautiful stanzas of Beaumont and Fletcher. These poems are familiar to all: they are rich in picturesque description of natural imagery, selected and combined with the power of splendid genius, according to the opposite humours of cheerfulness and contemplative melancholy; and are the more attractive, because they paint Milton's individual taste, character, and habits. The style of the scenery is principally adapted to the spot and neighbourhood where he now lived.
But if I may venture the opinion, I will own that these are not the compositions in which the peculiarity of the grandeur of Milton's genius displays itself. Beautiful as these Odes are, there are others, besides Milton, who might have written them :—not many indeed. They have not the solemnity,—the dim and unearthly visions,—the awful and gigantic grandeur,— the prophetic enthusiasm,—the terrible roll and bound and swell of the ' Hymn on the Nativity.' The subject did not call for such merits;—but then, if they are excellent, they are excellent in an inferior walk.
Probably I shall be thought heterodox in this judgment. I much prefer ' Il Penseroso' to ' L'Allegro,' as more solemn, more deep-coloured, and more original in its imagery. Perhaps the general merit of these two pieces lies more in a selection of rural pictures combined with taste, than in particular images,—except in a few passages of the latter poem. The metre wants variety and sonorousness.
The passages I chiefly allude to, are Contemplation—
Him that yon soars on golden wing, down to
the far-off curfeu sound,
Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging slow with sullen roar. Again:
Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career;
down to the end.
In general, there is more of description than of sentiment, more of the material than of the immaterial, in these two compositions: but there are some parts of them which are very important to the illustration of the poet's character. The poet describes a very early period of the morning, "by selecting and assembling such picturesque objects," says Warton, "as were familiar to an early riser. He is waked by the lark, and goes into the fields: the sun is just emerging, and the clouds are still hovering over the mountains: the cocks are crowing, and, with their- lively notes, scatter the lingering remains of darkness. Human labours and employments are renewed with the dawn of day: the hunter, formerly much earlier at his sport than at present, is beating the covert; and the slumbering morn is roused with the cheerful echo of hounds and horns: the mower is whetting his scythe to begin his work; the milkmaid, whose business is of course at daybreak, comes abroad singing; the shepherd opens his fold, and takes the tale of his sheep, to see if any were lost in the night," &c. line 67.
When he sees towers and battlements bosomed hioh in tufted trees, the same excellent commentator says, "it is the great mansion-house in Milton's early days, before the old-fashioned architecture had given way to modern arts and improvements. Turrets and battlements were conspicuous marks of the numerous new buildings of King Henry VIII., and of some rather more ancient, many of which yet remained in their original state unchanged and undecayed: nor was that style, in part at least, quite omitted in Inigo Jones's first manner; where only a little is seen, more is left to the imagination. These symptoms of an old palace, especially when thus disposed, have a greater effect than a discovery of larger parts,