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Or, that his hallow'd reliques should be liid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid ? It is remarkable that, while our author was himself meditating “to build the lofty rhyme," and frame a work more stately, and not less enduring, than a “star.ypointing pyramid,” his minor productions, whereon he exercised and perfected his skill for that great undertaking, on materials the most precious and wrought into the most exquisite symmetry, he left strewn about, here and there, for chance publication, without so much . as giving his name, when he allowed them to escape into print. Even at the stage of prime manhood, when his muse, in her halcyon days, had brought forth Comus—
That happy miracle of her rare birthhe abandoned it, as the ostrich trusts her young in the wilderness, to be disclosed to the world by his friend Henry Lawes, who composed the accompanying music, when it was performed with lordly pomp at Ludlow Castle; the principal actors being three children of the noble family of John, Earl of Bridgewater, on whose misadventure, in a neighbouring wood, the romantic fable is founded. In point of fine fancy, rich embellishment, diction of unsurpassable beauty, and high-toned moral sentiment, this masque may be pronounced the most perfect of Milton's compositions. But to be enjoyed, it must be read as a poem, for the sake of these excellences, and not as a drama representing anything probable or possible in human life, under any imaginable circumstances, even admitting the preternatural machinery which the poet has introduced to exalt a simple incident into tragic dignity. For, were Comus and his crew, Sabrina and her nymphs, as real as the lady herself, the elder and the younger brother, but especially the attendant spirit, would not have discoursed so learnedly, nor acted so dilatorily (though each may have felt all that each is made to express), in a crisis of such agonising suspense and imminent peril to the captured lady, after they knew her situation. With this drawback (if it be one except in reference to a stage exhibition) Comus may claim the eulogium which a critic of the purest taste, the late Dr. Aikin, has passed upon
it. He says: “The poem possesses great beauty of versification, varying from the gayest Anacreontics to the most majestic and sonorous heroics. On the whole, if an example were required of a work made up of the very essence of poetry; perhaps none of equal length, in any language, could be produced answering this character in so high a degree as the Masque of Comus." It may be added that here Milton first tried his hand in blank verse, and proved himself master of the whole diapason of rythmical tones and cadences, through all their implications.' — JAMES MONTGOMERY'S Memoir of Milton.
"In none of the works of Milton is his peculiar manner more happily displayed than in the Allegro and the Penseroso. It is impossible to conceive that the mechanism of language can be brought to a more exquisite degree of perfection. These poems differ from others, as atar of roses differs from ordinary rose water, the close packed essence from the thin diluted mixture. They are, indeed, not so much poems as collections of hints, from each of which the reader is to make out a poem for himself. Every epithet is a text for a stanza.
• The Comus and the Samson Agonistes are works which, though of very different merit, offer some marked points of resemblance. Both are lyric poems in the form of playş. There are, perhaps, no two kinds of composition so essentially dissimilar as the drama and the ode. The business of the dramatist is to keep himself out of sight, and to let nothing appear but his characters. As soon as he attracts notice to his personal feelings, the illusion is broken; the effect is as unpleasant as that which is produced on the stage by the voice of the prompter or the entrancé of a scene-shifter.
But this species of egotism, though fatal to the drama, is the inspiration of the ode. It is the part of the lyric poet to abandon himself without reserve to his own emotions.
Between these hostile elements many great men have endeavoured to effect an amalgamation, but never with complete
The Comus is framed on the model of the Italian Masque, as the Samson is framed on the model of the Greek Tragedy. It is certainly the noblest performance of the kind which exists in any language. It is as far superior to the Faithful Shepherdess as the Faithful Shepherdess is to the Aminta, or the Aminta to the Pastor Fido. It was well for Milton that he had here no Euripides to mislead him. He understood and loved the literature of modern Italy; but he did not feel for it the same veneration which he entertained for the remains of Athenian and Roman poetry, consecrated by so many lofty and endearing recollections. The faults, moreover, of his Italian predecessors were of a kind to which his mind had a deadly antipathy. He could stoop to a plain style, sometimes even to a bald style; but false brilliancy was his utter aversion. His muse had no objection to a russet attire; but she turned with disgust from the finery of Guarini, as tawdry and as paltry as the rags of a chimney-sweeper on May-day. Whatever ornaments she wears are of massive gold, not only dazzling to the sight, but capable of standing the severest test of the crucible.
Milton attended, in the Comus, to the distinction which he afterwards neglected in the Samson. He made his Masque what it ought to be, essentially lyrical, and dramatic only in semblance. He has not attempted a fruitless struggle against a defect inherent in the nature of that species of composition ; and he has therefore succeeded, wherever success was not impossible. The speeches must be read as majestic soliloquies ; and he who so reads them will be enraptured with their eloquence, their sublimity, and their music. The interruptions of the dialogue, however, impose a constraint upon the writer, and break the illusion of the reader. The finest passages are those which are lyric in form as well as in spirit.
"“I should much commend,” says the excellent Sir Henry Wotton, in a letter to Milton, “ the tragical part, if the lyrical did not ravish me with a certain Dorique delicacy in your songs and odes, whereunto I must plainly confess to you I have seen yet nothing parallel in our language.” The criticism was just. It is when Milton escapes from the shackles of the dialogue, when he is discharged from the labour of uniting two incongruous styles, when he is at liberty to indulge his choral raptures without reserve, that he rises even above himself. Then, like his own good Genius bursting from the earthly form and weeds of Thyrsis, he stands forth in celestial freedom and beauty; he seems to cry exultingly
Now my task is smoothly done,
MACAULAY's Critique on Milton.
• Comus was sufficient to convince any one of taste and feeling that a great poet had arisen in England, and one partly formed in a different school from his contemporaries. Many of them had produced highly beautiful and imaginative passages ; but none had evinced so classical a judgment, none had aspired to so regular a perfection. Jonson had learned much from the ancients ; but there was a grace in their best models which he did not quite attain. Neither his Sad Shepherd nor the Faithful Shepherdess of Fletcher has the elegance or dignity of Comus. A noble virgin and her young brothers, by whom the Masque was originally represented, required an elevation, a purity, a sort of severity of sentiment, which no one in that age
could have given but Milton. He avoided, and nothing loth, the more festive notes which dramatic poetry was wont to mingle with its serious strain. But for this he compensated by the brightest hues of fancy, and the sweetest melody of song. In Comus we find nothing prosaic or feeble, no false taste in the incidents, and not much in the language, nothing over which we should desire to pass on a second perusal. The want of what we may call personality, none of the characters having names except Comus himself, who is a very indefinite being, and the absence of all positive attributes of time and place, enhance the ideality of the fiction by a certain indistinctness not unpleasing to the imagination.'— HALLAM's Literature of Europe.
“Of the two pieces, L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, I believe opinion is uniform ; every man that reads them, reads them with pleasure. 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 the 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 wood; 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 real 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.
' Both Mirth and Melancholy are solitary, silent inhabitants of the breast, that neither receive nor transmit communication; no mention is therefore made of a philosophical friend, or a pleasant companion. The seriousness does not arise from any participation of calamity, nor the gaiety from the pleasures of the bottle.
"The man of cheerfulness, having exhausted the country, tries what towered cities will afford, and mingles with scenes of splendour, gay assemblies, and nuptial festivities; but he mingles a mere spectator, as, when the learned comedies of Jonson, or the wild dramas of Shakespeare are exhibited, he attends the theatre.
The pensive man never loses himself in crowds, but walks the cloister, or frequents the cathedral. Milton probably had not yet forsaken the church.