Page images





His play on words, in which he delights too often'; his equivocations, which Bentley endeavours to defend by the example of the ancients; his unnecessary and ungraceful use of terms of art3, it is not necessary to mention, because they are easily remarked and generally censured, and at last bear so little proportion to the whole that they scarcely deserve the attention of a critick.

Such are the faults of that wonderful performance Paradise Lost; which he who can put in balance with its beauties must be considered not as nice but as dull, as less to be censured for want of candour than pitied for want of sensibility.

Of Paradise Regained the general judgement seems now to be right, that it is in many parts elegant, and every-where instructive. It was not to be supposed that the writer of 'Paradise Lost could ever write without great effusions of fancy and exalted precepts of wisdom. The basis of Paradise Regained is narrow; a dialogue without action can never please like an union of the narrative and dramatick powers". Had this poem been written, not by Milton but by some imitator, it would have claimed and received universal praise o.

If Paradise Regained has been too much depreciated', Sampson Agonistes has in requital been too much admired. It could only

things must be grave, majestical and
sublime, nothing of a foreign nature,
like the trifling novels which Ariosto
and others have inserted in their
poems.' DRYDEN, Works, xiv. 130.

''The only piece of pleasantry in Paradise Lost is where the evil spirits are described as rallying the angels upon the success of their newly invented artillery [Book vi. 607629]. This passage I look upon to be the most exceptionable in the whole poem, as being nothing else but a string of puns, and those too very indifferent.' ADDISON, The Spectator, No. 279.


'These passages of Satan and Belial's insulting and jesting mockery have been often censur'd; especially by an ingenious gentleman who had a settled aversion to all puns, as they are call'd; which niceness, if carried to extremity, will depreciate half of the good sayings of the old Greek and Latin wits.' BENTLEY, Para

[blocks in formation]

be by long prejudice and the bigotry of learning that Milton could prefer the ancient tragedies with their encumbrance of a chorus to the exhibitions of the French and English stages; and it is only by a blind confidence in the reputation of Milton that a drama can be praised in which the intermediate parts have neither cause nor consequence, neither hasten nor retard the catastrophe.

In this tragedy are however many particular beauties, many 267 just sentiments and striking lines; but it wants that power of attracting attention which a well-connected plan produces".

Milton would not have excelled in dramatick writing 3; he knew 268 human nature only in the gross, and had never studied the shades of character, nor the combinations of concurring or the perplexity of contending passions. He had read much and knew what books could teach; but had mingled little in the world, and was deficient in the knowledge which experience must confer *.

Through all his greater works there prevails an uniform 269 peculiarity of Diction, a mode and cast of expression which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer, and which is so tragedies which were ever exhibited are equally sublime.' H. C. Robinson's on the Athenian stage.' Newton's Diary, iii. 84. Milton, Preface, p. 63.

'It has been opposed, with all the confidence of triumph, to the dramatic performances of other nations... The whole drama, if its superfluities were cut off, would scarcely fill a single act; yet this is the tragedy which ignorance has admired and bigotry applauded.' JOHNSON, The Rambler, Nos. 139, 140.

Atterbury wrote to Pope in 1722:'I wish you would review and polish Samson Agonistes. It is written in the very spirit of the ancients, it deserves your care, and is capable of being improved, with little trouble, into a perfect model and standard of tragic poetry.' Pope's Works (Elwin and Courthope), ix. 49.

" Comus is rich in beautiful and sweet flowers, and in exuberant leaves of genius; but the ripe and mellow fruit is in Samson Agonistes. When he wrote that his mind was Hebraized. Indeed, his genius fed on the writings of the Hebrew prophets.' WORDSWORTH, Memoirs, ii. 472.

'Wordsworth concurred, he said, with Johnson in this, that it had no middle, but the beginning and end

[ocr errors]

Samson has more of the antique spirit than any production of any other modern poet. Milton is very great.' GOETHE, Eckermann's Conversations, 1850, ii. 220. See also H. C. Robinson's Diary, ii. 437, 440 n.

In the Preface Milton speaks of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as 'the three tragic poets unequalled yet by any, and the best rule to all who endeavour to write tragedy.'

2 For 'the vehement exhibition of Milton's personality' both in Samson Agonistes and Paradise Regained see Masson's Milton, vi. 658, 670.

3 'I wonder that he who ventured (contrary to the practice of all other epic poets) to imitate Homer's lownesses in the narrative should not also have copied his plainness and perspicuity in the dramatic parts; since in his speeches (where clearness above all is necessary) there is frequently such transposition and forced construction, that the very sense is not to be discovered without a second or third reading.' POPE, Postscript to The Odyssey, 1760, iv. 281.


Ante, MILTON, 234.

far removed from common use that an unlearned reader when he first opens his book finds himself surprised by a new language'. 270


This novelty has been, by those who can find nothing wrong in Milton, imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suitable to the grandeur of his ideas. 'Our language,' says Addison, 'sunk under him". But the truth is, that both in prose and verse, he had formed his style by a perverse and pedantick principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom *. This in all his prose is discovered and condemned, for there judgement operates freely, neither softened by the beauty nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts; but such is the power of his poetry that his call is obeyed without resistance, the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher and a nobler mind, and criticism sinks in admiration.

Milton's style was not modified by his subject: what is shown with greater extent in Paradise Lost may be found in Comus. One source of his peculiarity was his familiarity with the Tuscan poets: the disposition of his words is, I think, frequently Italian"; perhaps sometimes combined with other tongues. Of him, at last, may be said what Jonson says of Spenser, that 'he wrote no

'I found in Milton a true sublimity, lofty thoughts, which were clothed with admirable Grecisms, and ancient words which he had been digging from the mines of Chaucer and Spenser, and which, with all their rusticity, had somewhat of venerable in them.' DRYDEN, Works, xiii. 117. Instead of sprinkling old words [in Paradise Lost] he has dealt them with too free a hand, even sometimes to the obscuring of his sense.' lb. vii. 309.

Addison describes 'those several ways of speech with which Milton has so very much enriched, and in some places darkened, the language of his poem.' The Spectator, No. 285.

George II asked, when somebody was highly praising Milton, "Why did he not write his Paradise Lost in prose?" Warton's Pope's Works, iv. 199.

Stephen Duck, the peasant poet (post, SAVAGE, 236), 'read Paradise Lost over twice or thrice with a dictionary, before he could under

stand the language. He studied it as others study the classics.' Gent. Mag. 1736, p. 317.

Post, DRYDEN, 339 n.

3 'Our language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of soul which furnished him with such

glorious conceptions.' The Spectator, No. 297.

'The great pest of language is frequency of translation. No book was ever turned from one language into another without imparting something of its native idiom; this is the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation.' JOHNSON, Works, v. 48. 5 Ante, MILTON, 22.

Landor, criticizing Il Penseroso, 1. 156

'To walk the studious cloisters pale,' writes:-' Milton was very Italian in his custom of adding a second epithet after the substantive, where one had preceded it.' Imag. Conver. iv. 276.

[As the reading of the line thus quoted by Landor is disputed, Warton and most later editors giving‘studious cloister's pale,' another example

language',' but has formed what Butler calls 'a Babylonish Dialect, in itself harsh and barbarous, but made by exalted genius and extensive learning the vehicle of so much instruction and so much pleasure that, like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity 3.

Whatever be the faults of his diction he cannot want the praise 272 of copiousness and variety; he was master of his language in its full extent, and has selected the melodious words with such diligence that from his book alone the Art of English Poetry might be learned.

After his diction something must be said of his versification *. 273 'The measure,' he says, 'is the English heroick verse without rhyme 5.' Of this mode he had many examples among the may be found in 'Warble his native wood-notes wild.' L'Allegro, l. 134.]

'Many, if not most of Milton's odd constructions, are to be sought in the Divina Commedia, I think, rather than in the ancients.' LOWELL, Letters, ii. 433.


* 'Spenser, in affecting the ancients, writ no language.' JONSON, Works, 1756, vii. 128. See also The Rambler, No. 121.


Hudibras, i. I. 93.

3 'Milton's style in his Paradise Lost is not natural; 'tis an exotic style. As his subject lies a good deal out of the world it has a particular propriety in those parts of the poem; and when he is on earth, wherever he is describing our parents in Paradise, you see he uses a more easy and natural way of writing.' POPE, Spence's Anec. p. 174.

'Milton is never quaint, never twangs through the nose, but is everywhere grand and elegant, without resorting to musty antiquity for his beauties. On the contrary, he took a long stride forward, left the language of his own day far behind him, and anticipated the expressions of a century yet to come.' CoWPER, Works, vi. 294.

*Johnson examines Milton's versification in The Rambler, Nos. 86, 88, 90, 94.

Milton,' wrote Cowper, of all English poets that ever lived had certainly the finest ear.' In another letter he speaks of 'the unacquainted

ness of modern ears with the divine harmony of Milton's numbers and the principles upon which he constructed them. Works, v. 269; vi. 12.

'The poet's peculiar excellence, above all others, was in his exquisite perception of rhythm, and in the boundless variety he has given it both in verse and prose. Virgil comes nearest to him in his assiduous study of it, and in his complete_success.' LANDOR, Longer Prose Works, ii. 206.

'More than once,' writes F. T. Palgrave, 'did Tennyson impress upon me that Milton must have framed his

metre upon that "ocean-roll of rhythm," which underlies the hexameters of Virgil; quoting, as a perfect example, the four lines, "Continuo ventis surgentibus..." (Geor. i. 356), in which the rising of a storm is painted. Tennyson's Life, ii. 500.

'Milton certainly modelled his English verse on Virgil, as Tennyson observed to me some forty years ago.' E. FITZGERALD, More Letters, p. 218.

'Dobson's Latin translation of Paradise Lost [post, POPE, 195] is about the greatest feat ever performed in modern Latin verse, and it shows by a crucial experiment how little Milton really has in common with Virgil.' GOLDWIN SMITH, Lectures and Essays, 1881, p. 324. See also Courthope's Hist. of Eng. Poetry, 1903, iii. 444.

5The measure is English,' &c. Preface to Paradise Lost.

Italians', and some in his own country. The Earl of Surrey is said to have translated one of Virgil's books without rhyme2, and besides our tragédies a few short poems had appeared in blank verse3; particularly one tending to reconcile the nation to Raleigh's wild attempt upon Guiana, and probably written by Raleigh himself. These petty performances cannot be supposed to have much influenced Milton, who more probably took his hint from Trisino's Italia Liberata; and, finding blank verse easier than rhyme, was desirous of persuading himself that it is better".

274 Rhyme,' he says, and says truly, 'is no necessary adjunct of true poetry". But perhaps of poetry as a mental operation metre or musick is no necessary adjunct; it is however by the musick of metre that poetry has been discriminated in all languages, and in languages melodiously constructed with a due proportion of long and short syllables metre is sufficient. But one language cannot communicate its rules to another; where metre is scanty and imperfect some help is necessary. The musick of the English heroick line strikes the ear so faintly that it is easily lost, unless all the syllables of every line co-operate together; this co-operation can be only obtained by the preservation of every verse unmingled with another as a distinct system of sounds, and this distinctness is obtained and preserved by the artifice of rhyme. The variety

1 Post, MILTON, 275.

2 'He translated the second and fourth books of Virgil [Aeneid] into blank verse. This is the first composition in blank verse extant in the English language. The diction is often poetical, and the versification varied with proper pauses.' WARTON, Hist. of Eng. Poetry, ed. 1871, iv. 35.

3 Warton mentions Abraham Fleming's 'blank-verse translation of the Bucolics and Georgics, in alexandrines, in 1589. b. iv. 39.

[This poem, De Guiana Carmen Epicum, signed G. C., is prefixed to A Relation of the Second Voyage to Guiana performed and written in the year 1596 by Laurence Keymis Gent. Contained in Hakluyt's Voyages (1598-1600), vol. iii. p. 668. It consists of about 200 lines in blank verse. Raleigh is certainly not the author. Cunningham (Lives of the Poets, vol. i. p. 163 m.) states that

[blocks in formation]
« PreviousContinue »