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The Lycidas has been the subject of a contest so fierce as to leave it difficult to conceive that either party is altogether in the right. “In this poem,” says Johnson, “there is no nature, for there is no truth: there is no art, for there is nothing new. Its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting: whatever images it can supply, are long ago exhausted; and its inherent improbability : always forces dissatisfaction on the mind.” ....“Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, &c.” Nay, he even goes so far as to say, “ Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known its author.” Sir Egerton Brydges, on the contrary, maintains that “ so far from deserving the character applied to it by Johnson, 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, or more fresh ; they are like the diction of no predecessor, but of some of the occasional passages of rural description by Shakspere in his happiest moods. 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." Dr. Warton goes still further, and insists that the admiration or dislike of this poem is an infallible test whether a reader has or has not a poetical taste: .... that he who is not enraptured with it can have no genuine idea of poetry.
The truth probably lies in a medium between the splenetic prejudice of Johnson and the enthusiasm of his more partial biographers. That there is a rhapsodical wildness about the Lycidas, few will deny; and it must be further admitted that it is rendered less intelligible to many by the affluence of classical allusion with which it is perhaps overloaded. In
deed the embarras de richesses was the necessary condition of such a mind as Milton's. With so vast a repository of knowledge, and with a faculty of association so importunately lively, his great difficulty must have been to insulate his thoughts from a throng of classical or extraneous associations, to discern an indorsement on many which otherwise he would mistake for his own, and to eliminate those references which, however familiar to his own mind, would be lost upon the multitude of his less privileged readers. In spite, however, of this splendid defect, it is difficult to imagine how Dr. Johnson could have read such passages as the following, and then attribute the admiration of Lycidas to the blinded partiality of the reader:
Weep no more, woful shepherds, weep no more
It is remarkable that the Comus came out without a name, and that of Lycidas, which was written at the request of his college, as a monody upon one of its fellows, who was wrecked and drowned in the Irish Sea, the authorship was only indicated by the initials J. M.
Passing by the masque entitled Arcades, which is said to have been presented at Harefield, before Alice, Countess
Dowager of Derby, and acted by her own grandchildren, we next have to notice the poems entitled L’Allegro, and Il Penseroso, which are generally supposed to have been written about the same time; that is, during Milton's residence at Horton. The genial charm of these two poems appeared to have thawed for a moment the icy prejudice of Johnson himself. He pronounced them two noble efforts of imagination; and observes, with great discrimination, “ The author's design is not what Theobald has remarked, merely to show how objects derive their colours from the mind, by representing the operation of the same things upon the gay and melancholy temper, or upon the same man as he is differently disposed; but rather, how among the successive variety of appearances every disposition of mind takes hold on those by which it may be gratified.
“The cheerful man hears the lark in the morning; the pensive man hears the nightingale in the evening. The cheerful man sees the cock strut, and hears the horn and hounds echo in the woods; then walks not unseen' to observe the glory of the rising sun, or listen to the singing milk-maid, and view the labours of the ploughman, and the mower; then casts his eyes about him over scenes of smiling plenty; and looks up to the distant tower, the residence of some fair inhabitant; thus he pursues rural gaiety, through a day of labour, or of play, and delights himself at night with the fanciful narratives of superstitious ignorance.
“ The pensive man at one time walks unseen, to muse at midnight; and at another, hears the sullen curfew. If the weather drives him home, he sits in a room lighted only by glowing embers; or by a lonely lamp outwatches the north star, to discover the habitation of separate souls, and varies the shades of meditation by contemplating the magnificent or pathetic scenes of tragic and epic poetry. When the morning comes, a morning gloomy with rain and wind, he walks into the dark trackless woods, falls asleep by some murmuring water, and with melancholy enthusiasm expects
some dream of prognostication, or some music played by aerial performers."
All genuine poets unconsciously portray themselves; and it can scarcely be doubted, that in these exquisite delineations of temperament and feeling, Milton is representing the impressions which his own mind, in two actual but opposite phases, received from the external causes he depicts. They contain an unbroken succession of the most graceful images which nature and art can supply; and over the whole is shed a tone of delicacy and tenderness which invests the most ordinary scenes with the charm of romance. Any comparison of the beauties of these poems would be alike difficult and unsatisfactory. Probably Il Penseroso was the more natural emanation of the author's habitual sentiment, and, if he ever compared them, the object of his preference.*.
On the 3rd of April, 1637, Milton was called to mourn the loss of his mother, who died at Horton, and was buried in the village church ; and shortly after this event, he resolved on a plan of continental travel, with a special design to a sojourn in Italy and Greece. At a date intervening between his family affliction and his departure from England, (Sept. 23, 1637,) we find a letter addressed by him to his college friend, Deodati, which requires a passing reference, as containing the first disclosure which remains to us of the aspiration to an immortality of fame which Milton so early and so prophetically entertained. The letter is in Latin, and the passage referred to is to the following effect :“ But you are now anxious, as I know, to have your curiosity gratified. You solicitously inquire even about my thoughts. Attend, then, Deodati! but let me spare myself a blush by speaking in your ear; and for a moment, let me talk
* In Lord Teignmouth's Life of Sir William Jones, we find, in a letter from the latter, written on the spot, some very pleasing pages in which he endeavours, with much plausibility, to show that these poems must have been written at Horton, by pointing out, in the scenery of that neighbourhood, almost every natural image and object which the poet describes.
proudly to you. Do you ask me what is in my thought? So may God prosper me, as it is nothing less than immortality. But how shall I accomplish it? My wings are sprouting, and I meditate to fly; but while my Pegasus yet lifts himself on very tender pinions, let me be prudent and humble.” On the eve of his departure, he received a most flattering letter from Sir Henry Wootton, by means of which he was brought into association with Lord Scudamore, the English Ambassador at Paris; by whom he was, in that capital, introduced to the celebrated Grotius, and from whom he received letters of introduction, which proved of essential service to him in Italy. In the brief recapitulation of his own history, which he introduces perforce into his Second Defence of the People of England, and to which I have already referred, he thus cursorily sketches the events of this part of his history:— “On my departure, the celebrated Henry Wootton, who had long been King James's Ambassador at Venice, gave me a signal proof of his regard, in an elegant letter which he wrote, breathing not only the warmest friendship, but containing some maxims of conduct which I found very useful in my travels. The noble Thomas Scudamore, King Charles's ambassador, to whom I carried letters of recommendation, received me most courteously at Paris. His lordship gave me a card of introduction to the learned Hugo Grotius, at that time Ambassador from the Queen of Sweden to the French court; whose acquaintance I anxiously desired, and to whose house I was accompanied by some of his lordship's friends. A few days after, when I set out for Italy, he gave me letters to the English merchants on my route, that they might show me any civilities in their power. Taking ship at Nice, I arrived at Genoa, and afterwards visited Leghorn, Pisa, and Florence. In the latter city, which I have always more particularly esteemed for the elegance of its dialect, its genius, and its taste, I stopped