« PreviousContinue »
flights of imagination: the rest are ever fresh, true, and delightful.
Milton was a very great poet, second only (if second) to the very greatest, such as Dante and Shakspeare; and, like all great poets, equal to them in particular instances. He had no pretensions to Shakspeare's universality; his wit is dreary; and (in general) he had not the faith in things that Homer and Dante had, apart from the intervention of words. He could not let them speak for themselves without helping them with his learning. In all he did, after a certain period of youth (not to speak it irreverently), something of the schoolmaster is visible; and a gloomy religious creed removes him still farther from the universal gratitude and delight of mankind. He is understood, however, as I have just intimated, to have given this up before he died. He had then run the circle of his knowledge, and probably come round to the wiser, more cheerful, and more poetical beliefs of his childhood.
In this respect, Allegro and Penseroso are the happiest of his productions; and in none is the poetical habit of mind more abundantly visible. They ought to precede the Lycidas (not unhurt with theology) in the modern editions of his works, as they did in the collection of minor poems made by himself.
Paradise Lost is a study for imagination and elaborate musical structure. Take almost any passage, and a lecture might be read from it on contrasts and pauses, and other parts of metrical harmony; while almost every word has its higher poetical meaning and intensity; but all is accompanied with a certain oppressiveness of ambitious and conscious power. In the Allegro and Penseroso, &c., he is in better spirits with all about him; his eyes had not grown dim, nor his soul been forced inwards by disappointment into a proud selfesteem, which he narrowly escaped erecting into self-worship. He loves nature, not for the power he can get out of it, but for the pleasure it affords him; he is at peace with town as well as country, with courts and cathedral-windows; goes to the play and laughs ; to the village-green and dances ; and his study is placed, not in the Old Jewry, but in an airy tower, from whence he good-naturedly hopes that his candle—I beg pardon, his “lamp” (for he was a scholar from the first, though not a Puritan)—may be “seen" by others. His mirth, it is true, is not excessively merry. It is, as Warton says, the “ dignity of mirth ;" but it is happy, and that is all that is to be desired. The mode is not to be dictated by the mode of others; nor would it be so interesting if it were. The more a man is himself the better, provided he add a variation to the stock of comfort, and not of sullenness. Milton was born in a time of great changes; he was bred to be one of the changers; and in the order of events, and the working of good out of ill, we are bound to be grateful to what was of a mixed nature in himself, without arrogating for him that exemption from the mixture which belongs to no man.
But upon the same principle on which nature herself loves joy better that grief, health than disease, and a general amount of welfare than the reverse (urging men towards it where it does not prevail, and making many a form of discontent itself but a mode of pleasure and self-esteem), so Milton's great poem never has been, and never can be popular (sectarianism apart) compared with his minor ones; nor does it, in the very highest sense of popularity, deserve to be. It does not work out the very piety it proposes; and the piety which it does propose wants the highest piety of an intelligible charity and reliance. Hence a secret preference for his minor
poems among many of the truest and selectest admirers of Paradise Lost,-perhaps with all who do not admire power in any shape above truth in the best; hence Warton's fond edition of them, delightful for its luxurious heap of notes and parallel passages; and hence the pleasure of being able to extract the finest of them, without misgiving, into a volume like the present.
SATAN'S RECOVERY FROM HIS DOWNFALL.
He scarce had ceas’d, when the superior Fiend
Warriors, the flower of Heaven, once yours, now lost,
THE FALLEN ANGELS GATHERED AGAIN TO WAR.
All these and more came flocking; but with looks