Page images

Great pains have been taken to discover what is called the origin of “Paradise Lost.” Such conjectures may amuse the curious in bibliography ; for higher purposes tliey are but empty trifles. The great number of authors, to whom it is pretended to track the poet, is alone a proof how little certainty there is in such researches. It appears to me that these critics mistake the nature of originality, It is not so much in the novelty of the ingredients, as in their selection and new combinations, that originality consists.

In confirmation of what the poet has said of his “ long chusing, and beginning late," he thus expresses himself in his second book of the Reformation of Church Government,” in 1641 :

“ Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him towards the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine ; like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist, or the trencher fury of some rhyming parasite ; nor to be obtained of dame Memory and her siren daughters ; but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs.”

I am convinced that this is the only true account of the origin of “ Paradise Lost.” Shakspeare's originality might be still more impugned, if an anticipation of hints and similar stories were to be taken as proof of plagiarism. In many of the dramatist's most beautiful plays the whole tale is borrowed, as for instance, “ Romeo and Juliet” from Luigi da Porto : but Shakspeare and Milton turn brass into gold. This sort of passage-hunting has been carried a great deal too far, and has disgusted and repelled the reader of feeling and taste. The novelty is in the racipess, the life, the force, the just association, the probability, the truth ; that which is striking because it is extravagant, is a false novelty. He who borrows to make patches is a plagiarist; but what patch is there in Milton ? All is interwoven, and forms part of one web.

No doubt, the holy bard was always intent upon sacred poetry, and drew his principal inspirations from Scripture. This distinguishes his style and spirit from those of all other poets ; and gives him a solemnity which has not been surpassed save in the Book whence welled that inspiration.

The poem is one which could not have been produced solely by the genius of Milton, without the addition of an equal extent and depth of learning, and an equal labour of reflection. Neither Shakspeare, nor Spenser, nor any other great poet, of any country, could have produced it. It is never an effusion. I conjecture that it was produced slowly, after long musing on each passage ; though he hints otherwise himself. It has always a great compression. Perhaps its perpetual allusions to all past literature and history are sometimes carried a little too far for the popular reader; and the latinised style requires to be read with the attention due to an ancient classic.

Probably all the author's diversified mental faculties and acquirements worked together in the production of almost every portion of this majestic edifice. There is nothing of mere simple imagination in any part : all is moral, didactic, wise, sublime, as well as creative and visionary.

All language appears diluted in every other poet, compared with Milton's: it has few transpositions ; and is never guilty of flowery ornaments, which vulgar taste mistakes for poetical richness. Serious, profound, devoted, gigantic in conception, and sublime in words, he speaks as an inspired emanation of a higher state of being! There is a sombre awe in him, to which we listen as to an oracle. He dictates and imposes a force of authority, which we dare not question. We tremble while we believe.

În the Life which I have thus attempted of the most sublime of all English authors, it has not been my purpose to be minute, and to collect together all which had been previously told of the great poet.

It has seemed to me on the present occasion even judicious to adhere to the leading features only; and to give them, not from the representations of others, but from my own feelings, reflections and convictions. I am afraid that there are many who admire Milton, principally, if not solely, upon the force of authority. All

the admiration I have myseif expressed is strictly sincere : I have uttered no affected raptures ; and I have not spoken but from the unchanging opinion of a long and studious life.

To bave given povelty to a subject so often treated, would be almost a hopeless wish. In stating the dry facts of such a topic there can be little variety of expression : but I have rather relied upon the force of opinions and comments, than of facts already known : of the justness and taste of these, and of the manner in which they are expressed, others must judge : the quality on which I rely is their sincerity. I have not been pleading as a plausible advocate for one whom I have undertaken the task of praising : the difficulty has not been in finding pleas for admiration, but in finding language adequate to the demands for which excellence gave occasion. The personal character of the poet should be all along concurrent with the genius of his poetry. From bis very childhood he was a worshipper of the Muse Urania.

It has been unfortunate for Milton that his most popular biographer should be Johnson, whose Memoir is written in such a deliberate spirit of detraction as to fix on the writer a certain degree of moral turpitude. As a critic he has here shown extreme insensibility and want of taste, except on the “Paradise Lost," of which his eulogy, though strongly expressed, is, as I shall attempt to prove, little more in substance than a copy from Addison.

He who criticised Milton with the most congenial spirit was Thomas Warton. Hayley had an amiable enthusiasm ; but his style was languid, diffuse, and often sickly, full of colloquial and feminine superlatives ; such as “most affectionate"“ most tender"_“most afflicting.” Hayley was full of elegant erudition, but he had no imagination: Bishop Newton was classical, but feeble and unoriginal: Bentley and Warburton were acute but fantastic. It is hardly necessary to characterise minor annotators.


The two grand criticisms on the “ Paradise Lost" are those of Addison and Johnson, Whatever praise Johnson may have obtained for what he has written on this subject, a strict examination will show that he owes entirely to his predecessor : all is drawn from Addison. It is true, that he has clothed it in his own diction ; and that it had passed through the ordeal of his own mind, so as not to be reproduced identical ; but yet precisely similar : it has a more compressed contexture ; and more point, which is taken for more force.

Both critics consider this divine poem under the four heads of fable, characters, sentiments, and language ; and both concur in all the necessary requisites of each, and that Milton has fulfilled them all. As an epitome of Addison, that which Johnson has written is valuable; as an original, it has no merit at all. In one nxpect it is more adapted to modern taste; that it less often insists on bringing those questions to the standard models of Homer and Virgil ; which, however excellent, must be now admitted to be sometimes arbitrary : in general, however, they are founded on reason, and therefore indispensable.

As greatness is the first quality, the superiority of Milton's fable to those of Homer and Virgil cannot be disputed : nor is his manner of conducting it less skilful and perfect ; having unity, always going forward to its end, and never interrupted by irrelevant episodes. The vastness of the invention of the outline, when little could be drawn from tradition, history, or observation, is stupendous.

The characters are equally out of the conception of mere human musing. The delineation of Satan, and the other Fallen Angels, would have appeared to any other inind but Milton's beyond the reach of human ability. The ideas of Adam and Eve before the Fall might not appear so utterly hopeless : but as they then partook of divinity, nothing but the boldest imagination could have veutured upon the subject.

The sentiments appropriate to such characters could only be supplied by a genius partaking of an inspiration above humanity. The grandeur of thought must have lieen incessant, and liable to no depressions : the imagination of many may be strong enough to invent and communicate the workings of human passions and

human intellects ; but of angels in obedient bliss, of angels in rebellion, who but Milton could venture to paint the designs or emotions ?

Nor is the difficulty of adequate language less than of adequate conception. How are we to express the spiritual, but by the aid of signs drawn from materiality? And this is liable to the objection, that what is divine is degraded by an illustration from what is earthly: Even Milton himself has not escaped this censure. However, there is a considerable portion of Milton's poem which does not consist in the sublimity of imagery, but in what Johnson, I think, calls “argumentative sublimity;"—thoughts which are purely intellectual.

Johnson has not followed Addison through all the details in which these grand principles are examined and exemplified ; but such as he has selected are mainly the same : nor has he failed to insist on the faults which have struck his predecessor. I am not sure that Addison himself, with all his candour, has not sometimes censured causelessly : I think that he has done so in the famous allegory of Sin and Death in the tenth book; and I am fortified in this opinion by Bishop Atterbury, whose taste was not only unquestionable, but exquisite. It is an invention of inexpressible magnificence, both in conception and expression : its materiality is the object of disapprobation by the critics.

It seems to me impossible to draw the line how far the shadowy beings of spirit may be represented by poets as taking part in material agency : if not allowed at all, there must be an end to the sublimest allegories.

It is true that Sin and Death might have passed from the gates of hell to earth without building a bridge of such materials as Milton supposes : but though it was not necessary, I cannot consider it an unpardonable license upon the ground of its materiality. It may be said that it is allowable to personify abstract ideas, and give them some minglement of action ; but not to carry it far. Thus Gray, in his “ Hymn to Adversity," speaks of her “ iron hand ;" and Collins, in his “Ode to the Passions,” exhibits of Fear as striking the “chords ” of the harp. But such ideal creatures may surely be allowed to act a little more on reality than this. The rule is good, that the invention ought not to go beyond what we are capable of believing,

- at least in our moments of enthusiasm. Whether the allegory of Sin and Death, under the effect of such vivid and sublime description, goes beyond this, will depend on the different structure of different minds. For my part, I can see the gates of hell open, and the bridge in the progress of its formation! There are many passages in the poetry of the Bible not less typified by material description; but many of these objectors are the very people who have least genuine taste for spirituality:

One of the finest passages of Johnson is the following :-“ The appearances of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate Milton's appetite of greatness. To paint things as they are requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy: Milton's delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility ; reality was a scene too narrow for his mind : he sent his faculties out upon discovery into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings, to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven." But this is far above the general tone of his criticisms, and is half undone again by a passage in a subsequent page, where he speaks of the inconvenience of the design, which requires the description of what cannot be described,—the agency of spirits : he is sometimes raised above himself by the inspiration of Addison's noble essay ; then he sinks again to his own level. It was not Addison's opinion that the agency of spirits could not be described; he only says that spirits must not be too particularly engaged in action. Bishop Newton justifies these agencies of imaginary beings : I have no doubt that they are the very essences of the highest poetry. It is true that to bring Violence, Strength, and Death on the stage, as active persons, is absurd ; and that what may be introduced in poetry may be sometimes improper for the definite lines and colourings of sculpture and painting. What is most sublime is often vague, and half enveloped in mists. Addison says,

“ Milton seems to have known perfectly well wherein his strength lay, and has therefore chosen a subject entirely conformable to those talents of which he was master. As his genius was wonderfully turned to the sublime, the subject is the noblest that could have entered into the thoughts of man : every thing that is truly great and astonishing has a place in it: the whole system of the


intellectual world, the chaos, and the creation-heaven, earth, and hell,,enter into the constitution of his poem.”

Johnson follows in the same steps, and begins almost in the same words :" He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius ; and to know what it was that nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others,- the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful : he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said ; on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of extravagance." So much for Johnson's originality!

There is indeed one leading passage in Johnson's criticism, of which no traces can be found in Addison :-and behold what it is !_“ Original deficience cannot be supplied : the want of human interest is always felt. • Paradise Lost' is one of the books wbich the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction; retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation ; we desert our master, and seek for companions !”

Such was Johnson's taste ; such his sensibility ; such the character of his intelleet! Yet this is he whose censorious and heartless judgment is to blast the fame of poets of less strength than Milton, yet of great merits, like Gray and Collins who is to set up Blackmore and Waits ; and exalt Dryden and Pope above all other men of poetical genius !

Having thus closely examined this celebrated critique of the biographer, I find that it sinks to nothing; and as almost all his pretensions to critical judgment in the higher branches of poetry have been founded on it, the ground ought surely to be taken from under him. In his discrimination of the respective merits of Dryden and Pope he is more at home, and therefore more to be depended on.

As to Addison's Essay, it ought to be studied and almost got by heart by every cultivated mind which understands the English language. It is in all respects a masterly performance ; just in thought, full of taste and the finest sensibility, eloquent and beautiful in composition, widely learned, and so clearly explanatory of the true principles of poetry, that whoever is master of them, cannot mistake in his decision of poetical merit. It puts Milton above all other poets, on such tests as cannot be resisted,

One thing however must be observed, that neither Addison nor Johnson seem much acquainted with Italian poetry.

It cannot be unacceptable to put before the reader a few extracts from Addison :

“ Homer and Virgil introduced persons whose characters are commonly known among men, and such as are to be met with either in history, or in ordinary con. versation : Milton's characters, most of them, lie out of nature, and were to be formed purely by his own invention. It shows a greater genius in Shakspeare to have drawn his Caliban, than his Hotspur, or Julius Cæsar : the one was to be supplied out of his own imagination, whereas the other might have been formed pun tradition, history, and observation. It was much easier, therefore, for Homer to find proper sentiments for an assembly of Grecian generals, than for Milton to diversify his infernal council with proper characters, and inspire them with a variety of sentiments. The loves of Dido and Æneas are only copies of what has passed between other persons. Adam and Eve before the Fall are a different species from that of mankind, who are descended from them ; and none but a poet of the most unbounded invention and the most exquisite judgment,could have filled their conversation and behaviour with so many apt circumstances during their state of innocence.

* Nor is it sufficient for an epic poem to be filled with such thoughts as are natural, unless it abound also with such as are sublime. Milton's chief talent, and indeed his distinguishing excellence, lies in the sublimity of his thoughts. There are others of the moderns, who rival him in every other part of poetry ; but in the greatness of his sentiments, he triumphs over all the poets both modern and ancient, Homer only excepted. It is impossible for the imagination of man to disteod itself with greater ideas, than those which he has laid together in his first, second, and sixth books. The seventh, which describes the creation of the world, is likewise wonderfully sublime, though not so apt to stir up emotion in the mind

of the reader, nor consequently so perfect in the epic way of writing, because it is | filled with less action. Let the judicious reader compare what Longinus has

observed on several passages in Homer, and he will find parallels for most of them in the · Paradise Lost.'”

Again, in another place—“Aristotle observes, that the fable of an epic poem should abound in circumstances that are both credible and astonishing ; or, as the French critic chooses to phrase it, the fable should be filled with the probable and the mar. vellous. This rule is as fine and just as any in Aristotle's whole Art of Poetry.

“ If the fable is only probable, it differs nothing from true history; if it is only marvellous, it is no better than a romance : the great secret therefore of heroic poetry is to relate such circumstances as may produce in the reader at the same time both belief and astonishment. This is brought to pass in a well-chosen fable, by the account of such things as have really happened according to the received opinions of mankind. Milton's fable is a master-piece of this nature ; as the War in Heaven, the Condition of the Fallen Angels, the State of Innocence, the Temptation of the Serpent, and the Fall of Man, though they are very astonishing in themselves, are not only credible, but actual points of faith.

“ Again, when Satan is within prospect of Eden, and looking round upon the glories of the creation, he is filled with sentiments different from those which he discovered whilst he was in hell. The place inspires him with thoughts more adapted to it: he reflects upon the happy condition from whence he fell, and breaks forth into a speech that is softened with several transient touches of remorse and self-accusation : but at length he confirms himself in impenitence, and in his design of drawing man into his own state of guilt and misery. This conflict of passions is raised with a great deal of art, as the opening of his speech to the Sun is very bold and noble.

“ The speech is, I think, the finest that is ascribed to Satan in the whole poem. The evil spirit afterwards proceeds to make his discoveries concerning our first parents, and to learn after what manner they may be best attacked. His bounding over the walls of Paradise ; his sitting in the shape of a cormorant upon the tree of life, which stood in the centre of it, and overtopped all the other trees of the garden ; his alighting among the herd of animals, which are so beautifully represented as playing about Adam and Eve, together with his transforming himself into different shapes, in order to hear their conversations, are circumstances that give an agreeable surprise to the reader, and are devised with great art, to connect that series of adventures in which the poet has engaged this great artificer of fraud.

“The thought of Satan's transformation into a cormorant, and placing himself on the Tree of Life, seems raised upon that passage in the Iliad, where two deities are described as perching at the top of an oak in the shape of vultures.

“ His planting himself at the ear of Eve under the form of a toad, in order to produce vain dreams and imaginations, is a circumstance of the same nature, as his starting up in his own form is wonderfully fine, both in the literal description, and in the moral which is concealed under it. His answer upon his being discovered, and demanded to give an account of himself, is conformable to the pride and intrepidity of his character."



“The description of Adam and Eve” (continues Addison in his admirable Essay), " in the fourth book, as they first appeared to Satan, is exquisitely drawn, and sufficient to make the fallen angel gaze upon them with all that astonishment, and those emotions of envy, in which he is represented.

“There is a fine spirit of poetry in the lines which follow ; wherein they are described as sitting on a bed of flowers, by the side of a fountain, amidst a mixed assembly of animals. The speeches of these first two lovers flow equally from passion and sincerity: the professions they make to one another are full of warmth ; but at the same time founded on truth': in a word, they are the gallantries of Paradise. The part of Eve's speech, in which she gives an account of herself upon her first creation, and the manner in which she was brought to Adam, is, I think, as beautiful a passage as any in Milton, or perhaps in any other poet whatso

« PreviousContinue »