« PreviousContinue »
“One is surprised,” continues Warton, “ that Milton should have delighted in romances : the images of feudal and royal life which those books afford, agreed not at all with his system. A passage should here be cited from our author's . Apology for Smectymnuus :'- I may tell you whither my younger feet wandered: I betook me among those lofty fables and romances which recount in solemn cantos the deeds of knighthood,' &c. The extraordinary and most imaginative, but inconsistent poet, exclaims, line 155,
But let my due feet never fail
To walk the studious cloisters pale, &c. Being educated at St. Paul's school, contiguous to the church, he thus became impressed with an early reverence for the solemnities of the ancient ecclesiastical architecture,—its vaults, shrines, aisles, pillars, and painted glass, rendered yet more awful by the accompaniment of the choral service."
It is unnecessary to copy the opinion which Johnson gives of “ L'Allegro" and “ Il Penseroso," because it is in every one's hands. Johnson yet allows that “they are two noble efforts of imagination.”—They would be noble for a common poet; but not comparatively for Milton: I cannot allow them that high invention which belongs to the bard of “ Paradise Lost.” Warton criticises Johnson's comment with a just severity :-“ Never,” says he, “ were fine imagery and fine imagination so marred, mutilated, and impoverished by a cold, unfeeling, and imperfect representation."_" No part of · L'Allegro,'” says Johnson, “is made to arise from the pleasures of the bottle." What sad vulgarity! Who could suspect that Milton would write a Bacchanalian song!
It seems to me that these two poems are much more valuable for their development of Milton's studies and amusements, than for their poetry, by proving his love of nature,-of books,-of solitude,-of contemplation,-of all that is beautiful, and all that is romantic,—than for those bold figures, and that glorious fiction, which were his power and his chief delight. Observation and an accurate copy of the external appearances of nature do not make the highest poetry: to copy always restrains the imagination.
When we make things after our own fashion, we have the ascendancy over them : it is better to deal with the invisible world than with the visible; but we ought to associate them together : mere description is always imperfect : all the grandeur of natural scenery will not avail, unless by its tendency to operate on the human mind. This is the spell of Gray's poetry: this makes the charm of Collins' “Ode to Evening :" this is the magic of the poetical part of Cowley's “ Essays :" all those parts of Shakspeare's dramas which break into pure poetry, are of this cast._ It is a charm, which, to my apprehension, was scarce ever reached by Dryden or Pope : Byron repeatedly reached it; sometimes he was extravagant: Wordsworth absolutely deals in it. All impression on the mind is nothing, unless the mind throws back its own colours upon it.
All the labour and all the art in the world will do nothing for poetry : they may draw copiously and freely from a cistern which they have previously filled with borrowed water ; but the water will be stale, vapid, and good for nothing.
I have said the more on these two lyrics of Milton, because they are so much more universal favourites than some of his diviner compositions. The greater part of the images are within every one's observance; but this is not, I think, a high merit: the poet's eyes should "give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”
Here the images, for the most part, are such as actually exist bodily : the touches i apon their most picturesque features are, indeed, exquisite ; and here and there are
passages of aèrial music unknown to common ears : but then the want of dignity, of the “ long-resounding pace” in the versification, lessens the magic. The whole is written lightly, and upon the surface: the poet skims away, just touches with his wings, and goes on: he does not here rise in slow and majestic dignity to the sun ; buvering sometimes on his mighty pinions, and seeming to hang over the earth, as if his eye was penetrating into its depths; and then, as if with an angel's power, again darting into the upper regions of the sky.
I can scarcely suppose that these two pieces cost Milton any labour, or time, or | strong exercise of mind : each of them might easily have been produced by him in
a few hours : but there is an abstraction of mind, a visionary enthusiasm, which requires a very different sort of nursing: 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 aērial 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 fivefeet 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 secondary poets attempt this by a false gloss : they are full I of ornament; but the ornament is a glare, or a set of artificial flowers : there is no
fragrance,-no vivifying spirit. In a true poet, like Miltoni, all springs up unsought from the fountain of the soul or the heart: it is an enthusiasm ; but an enthusiasm not unapproved by the sober judgment and the conscience. Nothing is good, which there is not some susceptibility within us ready instantly to recognise : nothing can be forced upon us by artful effort: no factitious gilding will avail. The poet's difficulty is to find expressions for what he really feels.
Now and then there may be a momentary blaze in inferior authors ; but, in bards like Milton, all is one texture of light.
Just before Milton's return from Italy in 1639, his friend Charles Deodate died, and the news met him on his arrival : he then wrote a Latin elegy on him, entitled “Epitaphium Damonis," which has some similitude to “ Lycidas." Warton says, that there are in it some new and natural country images, and the common topics are often recommended by a novelty of elegant expression : it contains some passages which wander far beyond the bounds of bucolic song, and are in his own original style of the more sublime poetry. Milton cannot be a shepherd long : his own native powers break forth, and cannot bear the assumed disguise.
At line 155 of this elegy, he hints his design of writing an epic poem on some part of the ancient British story. So, in his poem entitled “ Mansus,” he says,
Si quando indigenas revocabo in carmina reges,
Arturumque etiam sub terris bella moventem. These are the ancient kings of Britain : this was the subject for an epic poem that first occupied his mind. "King Arthur, at his death, was supposed to be carried into the subterraneous land of fairy or of spirits, where he still reigned as a king ; and whence he was to return into Britain, to renew the round table, conquer all his enemies, and re-establish his throne : he was therefore “ etiam movens bella sub terris,'' still meditating wars under the earth. The impulse of Milton's attachment to this subject was not entirely suppressed : it produced his “ History of Britain." By the expression,“ revocabo in carmina," the poet means, that these ancient kings, which were once the themes of the British bards, should now again be celebrated in verse. Milton, in his “ Church Government,” written in 1641, sys that, after the example of Tasso, " it haply would be no rashness, from an equal diligence and inclination, to present the like offer in one of our own ancient stories !" It is possible that the advice of Manso, the friend of Tasso, might determine the poet to a design of this kind.
In 1634, Milton wrote his immortal “Mask of Comus," for John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater, then Lord President of Wales, to be presented at Ludlow Castle, which was his Lordship's residence.
The poet's father held his house under the Earls of Bridgewater, at Horton, near Harefield, and not far from Ashridge : thus, perlaps, was the poet introduced to that noble family : he certainly had not yet become a decided puritan and republican. The Countess of Derby (Alice Spencer), mother-in-law of the Earl of Bridgewater, and also widow of Lord Chancellor Egerton, was a generous patroness of poets, and, among the rest, of her relation, the author of the “ Faëry Queene.'' Such a patroness would be, above all others, grateful to Milton.
“ Comus” was acted by the Earl's children, the Lord Brackley, Mr. Thomas Egerton, and the Lady Alice Egerton.
The Egertons were among the most powerful of the nobility, and lived in the most state. By a marriage with a co-heiress of the great feudal family of Stanley, who were co-heirs to the royal races of Tudor and Plantagenet, they held a sort of demi-regal respect. Their domains were large, and their character for hospitality and accomplishments stood high. This historical house have a century afterwards rendered themselves again immortal by designing and patronising national works of another class *.
Masks had been common in the time of Ben Jonson. I leave to antiquaries to trace the origin of the subject and design of “ Comus." The merit lies not in the hint but in the superstructure. The story is said to have been occasioned by a domestic incident of the Egerton family.
When we open this poem, we seem to enter on the beings and language of another world. Every word is poetry.
The first of the dramatis persona is the Spirit, whose speech runs to ninety-two lines. It is of the deepest interest to the piece, and opens to us the sovereignty of Neptune-the quartering of our island to his blue-haired deities--the parentage of Comus-his dangerous arts, and the Spirit's own protecting intervention. Next comes Comus attended by his monstrous rout, whom he thus addresses :
The star that bids the shepherd fold
Now the top of heaven doth hold, &c. The noise of their revelry calls the attention of the Lady, who now enters :
This way the noise was, if mine ear be true,
My best guide now. “ By laying the scene of this Mask,” Warton observes, "in a wild forest, Milton secured to himself a perpetual fund of picturesque description, which, resulting from situation, was always at hand. He was not obliged to go out of his way for this striking embellishment: it was suggested of necessity by present circumstances. The same happy choice of scene supplied Sophocles in Philoctetes,' Shakspeare in * As You Like It,' and Fletclier in the Faithful Shepherdess,' with frequent and even unavoidable opportunities of rural delineation; and that of the most romantic kind. But Milton has had additional advantages: his forest is not only the residence of a magician, but is exhibited under the gloom of midnight. Fletcher, however, to whom Milton is confessedly indebted, avails himself of the latter circumstance." The lady exclaims,
A thousand pbantasies
On sands, and shores, and desert wildernesses, * The canal navigation of the last Duke of Bridgewater, who died in 1803, is celebrated all over the world. The last two Earls, who succeeded him, were indeed less eminent, and dimmed-the former by his mediocrity, the latter by his eccentricities--some of the lustre of the name. The last died in 1829. Such are the chances and changes of time.
Warton says," I remember these superstitions, which are here finely applied, in the ancient voyages of Marco Paolo the Venetian, speaking of the vast and perilous desert of Lop in Asia, Cernuntur et audiuntur, in eo interdiu, et sæpius noctu, daemonum varize illusiones. Unde viatoribus summe cavendum est, ne multum ab invicem seipsos dissocient, aut aliquis a tergo sese diutius impediat. Alioquin, quamprimum propter montes et calles quispiam comitum suorum aspectum perdiderit, non facile ad eos perveniet: nam audiuntur ibi voces dæmonum, qui solitarie incedentes propriis appellant nominibus, voces fingentes illorum quos comitari se putant, ut a recto itinere abductos in perniciem deducant.'-De Regionib. Oriental. 1. 1. c. 44. But there is a mixture from Fletcher's 'Faithful Shepherdess,' A. 1. S. i. p. 108. The shepherdess mentions, among other nocturnal terrors in a wood,
Or voices calling me in dead of night.' These fancies from Marco Paolo are adopted in Heylin's Cosmographie,' I am not sure if in any of the three editions printed before. Comus' appeared *." The song on Echo is more exquisite than any thing of its kind in our language.
“Comus," says Warton, “is universally allowed to have taken some of its tints from the “Tempest.'" The following is a beautiful passage:
"Tis most true
And sits as safe as in a senate-house. On which Warton has the following somewhat singular note:-“ Not many years after this was written, Milton's friends showed that the safety of a senate-house was not inviolable: but when the people turn legislators, what place is safe from the tumults of innovation, and the insults of disobedience ?" True--if uncontrolled by king and lords, as they have lately attempted to be. The poet, speaking of chastity, says,
Yea, there, where very desolation dwells,
Be it not done in pride, or in presumption. Dr. Joseph Warton remarks, in his “ Essay on Pope," that poet's imitation of this and other passages of Milton's juvenile poems. " This is the first instance,” adds Thomas Warton, “ of any degree even of the slightest attention being paid to Milton's smaller poems by a writer of note since their first publication. Milton was dever mentioned or acknowledged as an English poet till after the appearance of Parailise Lost;' and long after that time these pieces were totally forgotten and overlooked. It is strange that Pope, by no means of a congenial spirit, should be the first who copied . Comus' or · Il Penseroso.' But Pope was a gleaner of the old English poets; and he was here pilfering from obsolete English poetry, without the leasi fear or danger of being detected.” Atl. 780 the lady says,
To him that dares
More happiness than this thy present lot.
* By studying the reveries of the Platonic writers, Milton contracted a theory encerning chastity and the purity of love, in the contemplation of which, like other visionaries, he indulged his imagination with ideal refinements, and with pleasing but unmeaning notions of excellence and perfection. Plato's sentimental
See lib. iii. p. 201, edit. 1632, fol. Sylvestre, in Du Bartas, has also the tradition in the text, ed. PL ut supr. p. 274.