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The measure is English heroic verse, without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek, and of Virgil in Latin; rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse, in longer works especially, but the invention of a barbarous age, to set off wretched matter and lame metre; graced, indeed, since by the use of some famous modern poets, carried away by custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint, to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have expressed them. Not without cause, therefore, some both Italian and Spanish poets of prime note, have rejected rhyme both in longer and shorter works, as have also long since our best English tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial, and of no true musical delight, which consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another; not in the jingling sound of like endings—a fault avoided by the learned ancients both in poetry and all good oratory. This neglect, then, of rhyme, so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem, from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming.
This First Book proposes, first in brief, the whole subject, Man's disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise wherein he was placed: then touches the prime cause of his fall, the serpent, or rather Satan in the serpent; who revolting from God, and drawing to his side many legions of angels, was by the command of God driven out of Heaven, with all his crew, into the great deep. Which action passed over, the poem hastens into the midst of things, presenting Satan with his angels now fallen into Hell, described here, not in the centre (for Heaven and Earth may be supposed as yet not made, certainly not yet accursed), but in a place of utter darkness, fitliest called Chaos: here Satan with his angels lying on the burning lake, thunderstruck and astonished, after a certain space recovers, as from confusion, calls up him who next in order and dignity lay by him; they confer of their miserable fall. Satan awakens all his legions, who lay till then in the same manner confounded; they rise, their numbers, array of battle, their chief leaders named, according to the idols known afterwards in Canaan and the countries adjoining. To these Satan directs his speech, comforts them with hope yet of regaining Heaven, but tells them lastly of a new world and new kind of creature to be created, according to an ancient prophecy or report in Heaven ; for that angels were long before this visible creation, was the opinion of many ancient fathers. To find out the truth of this prophecy, and what to determine thereon, he refers to a full council. What his associates thence attempt. Pandemonium, the palace of Satan, rises suddenly built out of the deep: the infernal peers there sit in council.
Of Man's first disobedience,1 and the fruit
1 Milton has proposed the subject of his poem in the following verses. These lines are perhaps as plain, simple, and unadorned, as any of the whole poem, in which particular the author has conformed himself to the example of Homer and the precept of Horace. His invocation to a work, which turns in a great measure upon the Sing heavenly Muse, that on the secret1 top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd,2 who first taught the chosen seed,
In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's3 brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount,* while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples the upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou knowest; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
creation of the world, is very properly made to the muse who inspired Moses in those books from whence our author drew his subject, and to the Holy Spirit who is therein represented as operating after a particular manner in the first production of nature. This whole exordium rises very happily into noble language and sentiment, as I think the transition to the fable is exquisitely beautiful and natural.—AddUon.
1 Endless difficulties have been raised respecting this epithet, which, to us, seems perfectly clear and appropriate. The poet evidently refers to Horeb or Sinai (the two heights, be it remembered, of one mountain. See Calmet in voce, and Lepsius, Discoveries in Egypt, note F, p. 444, sq.), as the place where the Almighty held conversation with Moses, when there was "a thick cloud upon the mount" (Exod. xix. 16), and when the people were forbidden "to break through unto the Lord to gaze, lest they perish."—Cf. xii. 227.
"God from the mount of Sinai, whose gray top
Compare Robinson, Biblical Researches, v. i, p. 129—" Our conviction was strengthened that here, or on some of the adjacent cliffs, was the spot where the Lord ' descended in fire,' and proclaimed the law. Here lay the plain where the whole congregation might be assembled; here was the mount that could be approached, if not forbidden; and here the mountain's brow from where alone the lightnings and thick cloud would be visible, and the thunders and the voice of the trump be heard."
2 Moses, Cf. Exod. iii. i.
3 A small river near the temple of Jerusalem.—Cf. Is. viii. 6.
* i. e. above what other poets have attempted; the Aonian Mount in Boeotia being popularly supposed to be toe haunt of the Muses.