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OBSERVATIONS ON MILTON'S POETRY CONTINUED. Miltox lived in a time, perhaps, more propitious to poetry than even the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Superstition, chivalry, and romance had begun to abate ; but philosophy and reason had commenced their influence, without checking imagination. The times were stirring, and such times are propitious to the Muse. The public mind began to let itself loose from old chains.
From the days of the Restoration there has been no poetical freedom of mind ; unless in our own latter days.
The counteraction to the favourableness I have spoken of, was the metaphysical taste introduced by King James. That monarch had no imagination, but a ridiculous pedantry.. Talents of a secondary nature, which were the slaves of example, might bow to this ; but bad models would not repel genius while it could choose its own.
The language had not yet arrived at fastidiousness : the picturesque energies of feudal chivalry were not forgotten, nor had their influence over the imagination entirely ceased : they were enough in the belief of the people to be capable of being recalled. The drama had arrived at great force of excellence, though mixed with many irregularities.
The ranks and characters of society were yet distinctly marked. There was luxury and polish without effeminacy ; learning had not yet exhausted itself; if the court was corrupt, it was not yet frivolous. There was enthusiasm of loyalty, and enthusiasm of rebellion.
The age of Elizabeth was imaginative and romantic, but not classical ; the age of Jardes was pedantic ; the age of Charles was fitted for a sober heroism.
Milton had the encouragement of foreigners for his early Latin poetry, which received their high praise when he travelled into Italy. Gray, equally eminent by similar compositions about the same age, did not exhibit to them his talents in this department ; if he had received the same approbation, it would not have given him the same confidence. One was all buoyancy, the other all depression ; one had received his father's encouragement, the other his father's blight; one had vowed himself to glory, the other was too timid to think of it.
Of modern poets, Gray's epithets are perhaps most picturesque ; but they do not unite with them visionariness, like Milton's. Examine the “ Elegy in the Churchyard :” they are all pictures of material realities. All the descriptions in that beautiful poem are merely such as a curious and tasteful eye could derive from observation only; there is no invention.
In all the descriptive poems of Milton there is rich and wonderful invention. The combinations in “ Lycidas” are strikingly inventive : this is one of its marked features, and gives it that passion which shows itself in the excitement of the mind. There is a hurry of ideas; a conflict of lamentations and consolations.
In alınost all the contemporary poetry there is flatness, lameness, and mean colloquiality ; a high tone is never uniformly sustained : strong words are mixed with weak, and one half of a line falls from the other : in some, there is a feeble, thin, and conversational diffusion ; as in old George Wither. It is sustainment which is Milton's characteristic excellence : single good lines may be found in his predecessors. His strains are closely wrought, and everywhere with the golden thread ; with grand images, and noble combinations of design.
Milton lived for the Muse; he vowed himself to the Muse. He professed it; he did Dot pretend to speak of it as a mere idle amusement, as if he was half ashamed of it: he knew its worth, its dignity, and its difficulties. No one wanting enthusiasm ever succeeded in this vocation : its purposes cannot be effected by doubtful spirits and faint hopes. Gray affected to write merely as an occasional amusement, and not to make a business of it ; this affectation was beneath a great mind.
Spenser is allegorical throughout; Milton is only occasionally allegorical. Spenser is the poet of chivalry ; Milton is the poet of the Bible. Milton therefore is not properly romantic, nor a poet risen out of the feudal ages. He addresses himself to all nations, all ages, all manners,—all mankind : he has indeed many casts of words, and many images derived from the compositions which originated with the Troubadours; and he would not have been what he is, unless Dante and
the Italian school had preceded him. Milton was a massy “cloth of gold,” while others were a slight fabric of slight materials.
Part of Dante's grandeur lies in a mystical brevity peculiar to himself. Milton sketches out his figures more fully and clearer ; yet they are more difficult to sketch, because they are above humanity ; whereas Dante most alludes to human characters, and their conduct on earth. This alone proves the superiority of Milton over Dante : but then Dante lived in a darker age, when the revival of learning was in its infancy : Milton had many great examples of poetical fiction before him.
Beautiful and rich as Spenser is, Milton has taken little of his cast : there is not much similarity in their language, and none in their rhythm : their fictions are of different materials, and in different forms. Milton had always a predilection for sacred subjects : he seems to have turned more to the dramatists for expression and sentiment, and even imagery ; Shakspeare especially, Ben Jonson, and Beaumont and Fletcher. That Sylvester was such a favourite, must be accounted for by impressions made upon his childhood.
Milton seems always to have kept aloof in his holiness : he thus did not suffer his mind to be diluted by vulgar thoughts. The effect of his deep meditations and studies was never broken in upon. He kept up his dignity, his self-esteem, and the pride and ambition of his calling. By mingling much with the world we catch its petty passions, and lower ourselves to its tone and temperament. The facts which have been handed down to us his life, accord well with the character of his writings : he was fearless, and this added to his strength : a timid land will never strike out noble notes.
If it could be proved that there is no virtue or sound sense in spirituality; that we can rely on nothing but the material objects presented to our view ; then poetry would be an empty, uninstructive, and even delusive amusement : but I presume that they who attempt to set up such a philosophy will incur the disgrace of its meanness and its falsehood. All the charms and almost all the virtues of our being are spiritual. Nature has implanted in us the delight of looking to something beyond actual existences ; and in gratifying this delight lies the magic of poetry. That poetry which does not attempt and perform this, scarcely deserves the name. Above all others, unless perhaps Shakspeare, Milton has performed it. What exquisite idealism and inventiveness there is in “ Comus !''
But let no one mistake the fantastic for the inventive : this, instead of being a proof of genius, is proof of the want of it: yet the great vulgar, as well as the little vulgar, mistake one for the other. Charlatans in criticism consider that the mark of poetical invention is improbability, or impossibility : on this principle Homer and Virgil were minor poets. To bring the past to life is a primary purpose of poetry; this is true invention ; not to describe forms merely, but mind and spirit
, and internal movement. The power is in proportion to the dignity and grand characters of the actors brought into play : thus Milton rises not only to the height of humanity, but of angels good and bad, the obedient and the rebellious. What must have been the force and splendour of an imagination which could duly conceive and paint such beings. The excellence is in proportion as truth and probability are preserved in lofty creations. If this be the test, then what other poet can contend with Milton ? Homer and Virgil have drawn heroes, but they were merely men : their imaginations have not risen to the wars of ethereal beings, and battles with the Almighty. And even in the softer scenes of mere human passions and enjoyments, how superior are Adam and Eve to all other personifications in poetry!
It has been objected that the subject is too lofty and solemn for human sympathy; - a tasteless and absurd criticism. Of mere earthly scenery, what can equal the garden of Eden? Or are we to have no interest in the description of it because we have lost it ? On topics of almost inconceivable grandeur the poet never uses exaggerated language, but is sober, congenial, and speaks with a comprehensive majesty, as if he was master of his mighty subject, and elevated above human intellectuality, Every other bard would have betrayed weakness by inflated language. If he had thought about the minor artifices or ornaments of what is called poetry, he must have soon abandoned his task as beyond the power of human performance. All is in the thought ; the plainer the language, the nobler as well as easier the execution. That frivolous adornment, that outward investment flowers, of which petty artists boast, is mere trickery.
Had Milton taken a subject less divine, a subject from uninspired history, I doubt if he would have executed it with equal success. His own conceptions were too elevated to enter with minuteness into inferior characters : he knew not the feebler pa-sions and little windings of the human heart : he could not draw the vast variety of man's obliquities, like Shakspeare. Whatever we are accustomed to admire in the best of other poets, sinks into paleness and insignificance before the splendour and sublimity of Milton.
But minor poets often fail, not only from want of native force, but because they propose to themselves false objects of excellence : they substitute perverse inventiveness for genuine creation ; and too often describe and copy, when they ought to invent. The poet should turn spirituality into imagery ; but it must not be mere body, it must have life, and thought, and soul. Milton has given something of material shape to the airy beings of a higher sphere, but he has never divested them of the bright and indefinable radiance of divinity.
There can be no unity in the description of inanimate nature, or in what is di. dactic ; consequently there can be no perfect invention : it is only therefore in the epic or the dramatic that there can be poetry of the primary class : this will ex. elude from the first class many of the celebrated poets of our own country,
Looking to human agency, who has constructed with us a long and well-combined narrative of imaginary characters! If this merely human creation be difficult, what has Miton performed ? How comparatively easy is it to personify and delineate the diversity in the moral and intellectual characters of mankind,- to put it in action amid the scenes of human life, and to show human passions in conflict ! yet bow rarely have even these powers been exhibited !
The true poet must create : he must leave artists to illustrate and adorn. Whoever employs himself much in the mechanism of composition, must be deficient in enthusiasm and warmth; he must feel no inspiration. Language will come of course to him who thinks profoundly, feels deeply, and sees with imaginative brightness. What is brilliant in itself, requires no ornament of paint and colours.
To study Milton's poetry is not merely the delight of every accomplished mind, but it is a duty. He who is not conversant with it, cannot conceive how far the genius of the Muse can go. They who have no mirror in their minds to receive and reflect, may be but slightly and dimly touched ; but they must let the rays sline opon them, even as the sun falls upon the barren rocks ; at some happy moroent they may be benefited by the genial beams.
Here are none of the frivolous idlenesses ; the wanton sports of imagination ; the false voluptuousness ; the whimsical fictions ; the affected pathos ; the sickly whinings ; the forced deliriums ; the raptures of extravagant words ; the feigned melancholy; the morbid musings ; the dreamy mistiness of unmeaning verbiage ; the echoes of echoes of artificial sounds. All is pure majesty ; the sober strength, the wisdom from above, that instructs and awes. It speaks as an oracle-not with a mortal voice.
The bard, whatever might have been his inborn genius, could never have attained this height of argument and execution but by a life of laborious and holy preparatio ;-a constant conversance with the ideas suggested by the Sacred Writings ; the habitual resolve to lift his mind and heart above earthly thoughts ; the incessant exercise of all the strongest faculties of the intellect ; retirement, temperance, courge, hope, faith.
He had all the aids of learning ; all the fruit of all the wisdom of ages ; all the effect of all that poetic genius, and all that philosophy had achieved: all were infused and mingled up in his mind with his own native growth. Had his learning been heaped on a mind of less native splendour, it could have produced none of these results : it fell upon a fire, which bore it up into a golden and ethereal flame.
While the gigantic productions of such a mind were in progress, the poet must have felt strong consolations for all his misfortunes, privations, and dangers ; but not onmixed, it appears, with some regrets and some complainings. This last we most inser froin the passages in “Samson Agonistes," already noticed.
Whoever is powerful in virtuous faculties, and exercises them as he ought, must necessarily feel a great and proud delight from the exertion ; but in the noble employment of the mind there is unmingled delight : hours become like minutes, and days like hours. Sitting in the humble porch of bis humble house, blind, poor,
meanly clad, unattended, how great must Milton have felt above all kings and conquerors of the earth,-above the possessors of the wealth of the world, the inhabitants of marble palaces and golden saloons ! He knew his own dignity; and it was among his glories that he knew it. He never shrunk from the assertion of his own ascendency. It did not lower his self-esteem to hear the popular shouts bestowed on his inferiors,-on Waller, and Cowley, and Denham, and the wits that basked in the sunshine of the Court, while he was neglected, and his sublime strains unfelt and untasted : he knew the day would come when all that was wise and great must acknowledge his supremacy.
Perhaps self-confidence was among his leading traits : if he had been deficient in this quality he would never have performed what he did. It may produce rashness ; where there is innate strength it will produce success. Temerity is better than a chilling and helpless fear; to have power, and not to know it, is worse perhaps than not to have it: whoever depends on the opinions of others, and cannot assert his own cause, is almost sure to be crushed.
Nothing is more useful in literary biography than to endeavour to ascertain by what means others have attained extraordinary excellence: there must always be a concurrence of causes, of which some may perhaps be accidental : the inborn gift is first, and indispensable ; but encouragement, discipline, and toil, are also necessary. It is clear that Milton showed the superiority of his endowments at ten years old ; and all other concurrences would have done nothing without these.
Can any case be shown where true genius did not exhibit itself in early childhood ? It appears to me very improbable. I know no ascertained case. An extreme sensibility is a primary ingredient: this must show itself early. Sometimes common observers have mistaken the symptoms of genius ; but this does not alter the case. Vulgar censors often take the appearances of genius in childhood for folly ; as bas been so beautifully described by Beattie, in“ Young Edwin.”
CHAPTER XIX. RECAPITULATION OF MILTON'S PERSONAL CHARACTER. I KNOW not that much can be added to the traits of Milton's character which I have already given. As in almost all cases of great genius, there is a consonance in the qualities of the poetry and the poet. Grandeur, inflexibility, sternness, originality, naked force,-all true splendour, or strength, arises from internal conviction or belief.
The poet was never compliant to the ways of the world : from his very childhood he kept himself aloof : he nursed his visions in solitude, and soothed his haughty hopes of future loftiness of fame by lonely musing : the ideal world in which his mind lived would not coalesce with the rude concourse of mankind.
As to his own purity and sanctity of soul, the declarations and enthusiastic apostrophes in his own prose writings render it impossible to doubt it: he made them in the hearing of his most bitter enemies, public enemies through all Europe,rendered furious by a common cause, in which all the principles of ancient institutions were involved. The extent to which he carried his arguments appears to me wrong, and I cannot deem his conclusions other than harsh and vindictive ; but, as I have said before, I do not think that tenderness of feeling was his distinction. His gigantic heart was not easily melted into tears : he knew how to paint rebellious angels, mighty even in their defeat.
All his excitements were intellectual : his thoughts were compound : but it is surprising how a mind habituated for twenty years to the coarse routine of public business could at once throw it all off, and produce a poetical texture so closewrought, and of such unmingled majesty. Plain as the style is, it never sinks into colloquiality or the language of business : he had kept his genius aloof from his daily occupation, and suffered not the world to blow or breathe upon it.
In the commencement of the ninth book of the “ Paradise Lost" the poet speaks of his subject as more heroic than the subjects of the Iliad and Æneid :
If answerable style I can obtain
And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
Standing on earth, not rapt above the pole,
Urania : and fit audience find, though few. That his inward light became more radiant from his outward darkness I cannot doubt. This he expresses himself in the sublime opening of his third book :
Thee I revisit safe,
of things invisible to mortal sight. There is nothing in all the materials of biography more applicable to an author's character than this affecting and majestic burst of egotism : though it will be repeated in the poetry, I should consider myself worse than tasteless if I omitted to insert it here.
If we do not dwell on these parts of the poet's thoughts and feelings, we pass over his principal and most exalted traits. The metrical writer, whose life is not a poem, is of an inferior class, and a mere poetical artist. No assumed character, -Dothing, which does not proceed from “a believing mind,” (to use Collins's expression,) will be efficient. Milton, while he was composing “Paradise Lost," battled with the angels, and lived in the garden of Eden. While he was dictating the passages I have cited, how unutterably grand must have been the exaltation of his mind!