« PreviousContinue »
in that state Milton must have been in his sublimer compositions. Here he deals with nothing difficult, nor enters into the mysteries of the soul.
If I say that there is not much sentiment in these descriptions, I shall probably be answered, that the images are selected by sentiment, and so arranged as to produce a particular tone of sentiment. If it be so, the sentiment is not brought out; and the poet ought not to trust to others to bring out that which he ought to express himself. It will not be pretended that there is any moral pathos here; and moral pathos is assuredly one of the finest spells of poetry. Pathos cannot be produced by a writer who has not a visionary presence of the objects which produce it: but it were better to give more of the pathos, and less of the objects.
This faculty, indeed, was not Milton's chief excellence: now and then he is pathetic in · Paradise Lost,' but he has none of Shakspeare's human pathos : he was too stern and heroic for tears.
It is rarely that I get into a different track of criticism from Warton ; but Warton was perhaps too exclusively fond of imagery and descriptions, and therefore has estimated the poems, of which I am now speaking, higher than I do. Warton also wanted pathos, but he was not without a gentle and kindly sentiment.
These descriptive poems had long fallen into oblivion, when, about 1740, they were' revived by the Wartons, who formed a school upon them. Like all schools, when they once took up the thing, they carried it too far: but Collins, in his • Ode to Evening,' stopped precisely at the true point: Gray caught some of the infusion ; and I suspect, that in two or three images or epithets, he was indebted to Collins; but did not owe his tone to the Warton school, being rather their senior, and drinking from the original fountains, not only of Milton, but still more of the Italians, as well as of the classics. Altogether, the cast and combination of the “Elegy in a Country Churchyard' is his own, though he may have borrowed particular ingredients. His is a perfect model, sui generis. Joseph Warton's • Ode to Fancy' is an attempted echo of • L'Allegro' and • Il Penseroso,' indeed, almost a cento.
ON LYCIDAS, AND EPITAPHIUM DAMONIS.
EDWARD King, fellow of Christ College, Cambridge, the friend of Milton, passing over to Ireland to visit his friends, the ship struck on a rock on the English coast, August 10th, 1637, when all on board perished. He was son of Sir John King, knight, secretary for Ireland under Queen Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. At Cambridge, Edward King was distinguished for his piety and proficiency in polite letters. •Lycidas,' which laments his death, first appeared in the Cambridge collection of verses on that occasion, 1638.
Dr. Johnson's censure on this poem is gross and tasteless : it is disgraceful only to the critic. He has treated with insolent rudeness one tenfold greater than himself: he has set the example; and why should he be spared ? I will endeavour to discuss this question with the utmost impartiality, and confer neither praise nor blame from unfounded prejudice.
This poem is so far from deserving the character applied to it by Johnson, that “ the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing,”—that the language is throughout imaginative and picturesque, and the rhythm harmonious and enchanting: there is no poem in which the epithets are more beautiful, more appropriate, and more fresh: they are like the diction of no predecessor, but of some of the occasional passages of rural description by Shakspeare in his happiest modes : the outburst at the commencement is eminently striking, and rich with poetry: the images that present themselves, and the transitions, are always natural, and sometimes sublime: they have this difference from those of · L'Allegro’ and “Il Penseroso,' that they are more spiritual; that is, they are more mingled up with intellect: they are not purely material. As to the poem being pastoral, Johnson might much more object to the Psalms; as in Addison's beautiful version,
The Lord my pasture shall prepare, &c.
where the Deity himself is represented in the character of a shepherd.
But it will be asked, what invention there is in this poem? There is invention in the epithets, in the combinations, in the descriptions, in the apostrophes, in the visionary parts of the poem, in the sorrows, the predictions, and the consolations : in all those associations, which none but a rich and poetical mind produces.
Johnson had so accustomed himself to cultivate
dry reason only, that he thought all array of imagery idle and useless. If he had any feeling, it was only when he argued himself into it; it did not come from the senses : he loved abstraction; but it was not the abstraction of shadows, nor the “ bodying forth” of “airy nothings.” Milton's mind was in a blaze, surrounded by a whole range of invisible worlds and their aërial inhabitants : his genius gave to matter an ideal light and ideal properties : he connected the dignity of human existence with the beauty and the grandeur of the scenery of nature.
The epithets which true poets give to imagery confer upon it its spell : • Lycidas’ is full of these epithets from beginning to end : they are always fresh and exquisitely vivid, but never extravagant or over-ornamental.
The versification is as regular as is consistent with vigour and variety : the five-feet lines are far preferable to the shorter lines of the two poems before discussed.
• Lycidas' is full of learned allusions, perhaps too full, which was Milton's fault.
Dr. Joseph Warton has truly said, that the admiration or dislike of this poem is an infallible test whether a reader has or has not a poetical taste: he who is not enraptured with it can have no genuine idea of poetry.
If we are asked what puts all within the range of mind before us in such brilliant or such affecting colours, we can only say that it is indefinable, but that we cannot doubt its effects. All se