Page images
PDF
EPUB

6

Both his characters delight in music; but he seems to think that cheerful notes would have obtained from Pluto a complete dismission of Eurydice, of whom solemn sounds procured only a conditional release.

For the old age of Cheerfulness he makes no provision; but Melancholy he conducts with great dignity to the close of life. His Cheerfulness is without levity, and his Pensiveness without asperity.

• Through these two poems the images are properly selected and nicely distinguished; but the colours of the diction seem not sufficiently discriminated. I know not whether the characters are kept sufficiently apart. No mirth can, indeed, be found in his melancholy; but I am afraid that I always meet some melancholy in his mirth. They are two noble efforts of imagination.

The greatest of his juvenile performances is the Mask of Comus, in which may very plainly be discovered the dawn or twilight of Paradise Lost. Milton appears to have formed very early that system of diction, and mode of verse, which his maturer judgment approved, and from which he never endeavoured nor desired to deviate.

"Nor does Comus afford only a specimen of his language; it exhibits likewise his power of description and his vigour of sentiment, employed in the praise and defence of virtue. A work more truly poetical is rarely found; allusions, images, and descriptive epithets, embellish almost every period with lavish decoration. As a series of lines, therefore, it may be co dered as worthy of all the admiration with which the votaries have received it.

As a drama it is deficient. The action is not probable. A masque, in those parts where supernatural intervention is admitted, must indeed be given up to all the freaks of imagination; but, so far as the action is merely human, it ought to be reasonable, which can hardly be said of the conduct of the two brothers, who, when their sister sinks with fatigue in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together in search of berries too far to find their way back, and leave a helpless lady to all the sadness and danger of solitude. This, how. ever,

is a defect overbalanced by its convenience.

6

"What deserves more reprehension is, that the prologue spoken in the wild wood by the attendant Spirit is addressed to the audience; a mode of communication so contrary to the nature of dramatic representation, that no precedents can support it.

"The discourse of the Spirit is too long; an objection that may be made to almost all the following speeches ; they have not the sprightliness of a dialogue animated by reciprocal contention, but seem rather declamations deliberately composed, and formally repeated, on a moral question. The auditor, therefore, listens as to a lecture, without passion, without anxiety.

The song of Comus has airiness and jollity; but, what may recommend Milton's morals as well as his poetry, the invitations to pleasure are so general, that they excite no distinct images of corrupt enjoyment, and take no dengerous hold on the fancy.

The following soliloquies of Comus and the Lady are elegant, but tedious. The song must owe much to the voice, if it ever can delight. At last the Brothers enter, with too much tranquillity; and when they have feared lest their sister should be in danger, and hoped that she is not in danger, the elder makes a speech in praise of chastity, and the younger finds how fine it is to be a philosopher.

"Then descends the spirit in form of a shepherd; and the brother, instead of being in haste to ask his help, praises his singing, and enquires his business in that place. It is remarkable that at this interview the brother is taken with a short fit of rhyming. The Spirit relates that the lady is in the power of Comus; the Brother moralises again ; and the Spirit makes a long narration, of no use because it is false, and therefore unsuitable to a good Being.

"In all these parts the language is poetical, and the sentiments are generous, but there is something wanted to allure attention.

*The dispute between the Lady and Comus is the most animated and affecting scene of the drama, and wants nothing but a brisker reciprocation of objections and replies to invite attention and detain it.

* The songs are vigorous, and full of imagery; but they are harsh in their diction, and not very musical in their numbers,

Throughout the whole, the figures are too bold, and the language too luxuriant for dialogue. It is a drama in the epic style, inelegantly splendid, and tediously instructive.'

DR. JOHNSON's Life of Milton.

*If Dr. Johnson's prejudices have not led him in general to undervalue the poetry of Milton, his particular criticisms seem, however, in some instances, to expose him to the charge of that defective sensibility to poetic beauty which is too apparent in the whole course of his present labours. Nothing is indeed proved by setting one man's taste in opposition to another's ; yet when Johnson says: “Surely no man could have fancied that he read Lycidas with pleasure, had he not known the author,' while Dr. Warton has represented a relish for the same performance as a test of true taste in poetry, we cannot but suspect a strange bluntness or perversion in the feelings of the one, even admitting somewhat of enthusiasm and learned prejudice the other. Johnson, it is true, supports his censure of the piece by those arguments of plain sense which are pretty obvious, and against which it is often difficult for a work of imagination to stand ; and had the purpose been to have shown how true genius might be misled by bad models and pedantry, the lesson would have been valuable; but that such defects should annihilate all pleasure in the perusal of a work abounding in strokes of high poetry, could only happen in a mind shut against those appeals to the fancy, and those elegant associations which are the very essence of the poet's art.

• The coldness and disparagement with which he speaks of Comus, appears to me a still stronger proof of this mental callousness, perhaps the disease of his old age. He has, indeed, given it general commendation ; but had he felt its charms, could he have nicely weighed it by dramatic rules, complained of the length of its noblest passages, and employed a vulgar banter to ridicule its sentiments and incidents ? « The elder Brother makes a speech in praise of chastity, and the younger finds how fine it is to be a philosopher.” Is this the

way

in which a true critic would speak of lines glowing with dignified and virtuous feelings, and animated with the pure spirit of poetry? It will be admitted that Comus is not adapted to a

a

public theatre. It was not written for such, but for the hall of a nobleman, in the purpose of inspiring elevated sentiments into the breasts of the actors and audience; and what piece was ever calculated to effect this in a more exalted degree? Who ever, except Johnson, thought it “ inelegantly splendid, and tediously instructive ?”'_DR. AIKIN's Remarks on Johnson's Life of Milton.

L'Allegro and Il Penseroso may be called the two first descriptive poems in the English language. It is perhaps true, that the characters are not sufficiently kept apart. But this circumstance has been productive of greater excellences.

It has been remarked, “No mirth indeed can be found in his melancholy; but I am afraid I always meet some melancholy in his mirth.” Milton's is the dignity of mirth ; his cheerfulness is the cheerfulness of gravity. The objects he selects in his L'Allegro are so far gay as they do not naturally excite sadness. Laughter and jollity are named only as personifications, and never exemplified. Quips and cranks, and wanton wiles, are enumerated only in general terms. There is specifically no mirth in contemplating a fine landscape. And even his landscape, although it has flowery meads and flocks, wears a shade of pensiveness, and contains russet lawns, fallows grey, and barren mountains overhung with labouring clouds. Its old turreted mansions peeping from the trees, awakens only a train of solemn and romantic, perhaps melancholy, reflection. Many a pensive man listens with delight to the milkmaid singing blithe, to the mower whetting his scythe, and to a distant peal of village bells He chose uch lustrations as minister matter for true poetry and genuine description. Even his most brilliant imagery is mellowed with the sober hues of philosophical meditation. It was impossible for the author of Il Penseroso to be more cheerful, or to paint mirth with levity; that is, otherwise than in the colours of the higher poetry. Both poems are the result of the same feelings, and the same habits of thought. Dr. Johnson has remarked that in L'Allegro,

no part of the gaiety is made to arise from the pleasure of the bottle.” The truth is, that Milton ans to describe the cheerfulness of the

philosopher or the student, the amusements of a contemplative mind. And on this principle he seems unwilling to allow that mirth is the offspring of Bacchus and Venus, deities who preside over sensual gratifications, but rather adopts the fiction of those more serious and sapient fablers who suppose that her proper parents are Zephyr and Aurora; intimating, that her cheerful enjoyments are those of the temperate and innocent kind, of early hours and rural pleasures. That critic does not appear to have entered into the spirit, or to have comprehended the meaning of our author's Allegro.'—WARTON's Edition of Milton's Minor Poems.

[Milton, born in London in 1608; died there in 1674. On leaving Cambridge in 1632, he went to live at his father's estate at Horton near Colnbrooke, Bucks, a little to the east of Windsor. He resided at Horton five years; and in 1637 visited France and Italy. From 1638 till the restoration of Charles II. in 1660, he was occupied in political controversy, or in the official duties of Latin Secretary to Cromwell. It was during the five years of his literary retirement at Horton that Milton wrote the Arcades (1634); Conius (1631); Lycidas (1637); and L’Allegro and Il Penscroso. The precise dato of the composition of these last two is uncertain; but the subject of them seems to have been suggested to Milton by a poem prefixed to the first edition of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, some of the lines of which we here subjoin from Peck's quotation of the poem in his Memoirs of Milton, along with a song from Fletcher's comedy of Nice Valour, which the reader will at once perceive to have been present to the mind of the writer of N Penseroso.—EDITOR.] When I go musing all alone,

Hence all you vain delights, And think of diverse things foreknown ; As short as are the nights When I build castles in the air,

Wherein ye spend your folly: And void of sorrow, void of fear,

There's nought in this life sweet, Still please myself with fancies sweet,

If man were wise to see 't, Methinks the time runs very fleet;

But only Melancholy: All my joys to this are folly;

O sweetest Melancholy! Nought ro gay as Melancholy.

Welcome arms folded and fixed eyes, When to myself I act and smile,

A sigh that, piercing, mortifies, With pleasing thoughts the time beguile, A look that's fastened to the ground, By a brook side or wood so green,

A tongue chained up without a sound Unheard, unsought for, and unseen: Fountain heads, and pathless groves, Methinks I hear, methinks I see,

Places which pale passion loves Soft music, and sweet melody,

Moonlight walks, when all the fowls Towns, palaces, and cities fine,

Are warmly housed, save bats and owls; Where beauties, and fair ladies shine; A midnight bell, a parting groanAll other joys to this are folly;

These are the sounds we feed upon; Nought so blest as Melancholy.

Then stretch our bones in a still gloomy Methinks I hear, methinks I see,

valleyGhosts, goblins, fiende: my phantasy Nothing's so dainty sweet as lovely MelanPre-ents a thousand ugly shapes;

choly. Each doleful cry, each fearful sight.

FLETCHER. Doth still my troubled soul affright; All other griefs to this are jolly: Nought so curst as Melancholy.

BURTON.

« PreviousContinue »