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Edinburgh Reriew. - 1841.
[EDINBURGH REVIEW, 1825.]
Towards the close of the year 1823, Mr. Le-, antiquity, no scrupulous purity, none of the mon, Deputy Keeper of the State Papers, in the ceremonial cleanness which characterize: he course of his researches among the presses of diction of our academical Pharisees. He dues his office, met with a large Latin manuscript not attempt to polish and brighten his composi. With it were found corrected copies of the tion into the Ciceronian gloss and brilliancy. foreign despatches written by Milton, while he He does not, in short, sacrifice sense and spirit filled the office of Secretary, and several papers to pedantic refinements. The nature of his relating to the Popish Trials and the Rye-house subject compelled him to use many words Plot. The whole was wrapped up in an enve • That would have made Quintilian stare and gasp." lope, superscribed “To Mr. Skinner, Merchant.” On examination, the large manuscript proved But he writes with as much ease and freedura to be the long lost Essay on the Doctrines of as if Latin were his mother tongue; and Christianity, which, according to Wood and where he is least happy, his failure seems to Toland, Milton finished after the Restoration, arise from the carelessness of a native, not and deposited with Cyriac Skinner. Skinner, from the ignorance of a foreigner. What Denit is well known, held the same political opi- ham with great felicity says of Cowley, may be nions with his illustrious friend. It is therefore applied to him. He wears the garb, but not probable, as Mr. Lemon conjectures, that he the clothes, of the ancients. may have fallen under the suspicions of the Throughout the volume are discernible the government during that persecution of the traces of a powerful and independent mind, Whigs which followed the dissolution of the emancipated from the influence of authority, Oxford Parliament, and that, in consequence and devoted to the search of truth. He proof a general seizure of his papers, this work fesses to form his system from the Bible alone; may have been brought to the office in which , and his digest of Scriptural texts is certainly it had been found. But whatever the adven- among the best that have appeared. But he is tures of the manuscript may have been, no not always so happy in his inferences as in his doubt can exist, that it is a genuine relic of the citations. great poet.
Some of the heterodox opinions which he Mr. Sumner, who was commanded by his avows seem to have excited considerable majesty to edit and translate the treatise, has amazement: particularly his Arianism, and acquitted himself of this task in a manner his notions on the subject of polygamy. Yel honourable to his talents and to his character. we can scarcely conceive that any person His version is not indeed very easy or elegant; could have read the Paradise Lost without but it is entitled to the praise of clearness and suspecting him of the former, nor do we think fidelity. His notes abound with interesting that any reader, acquainted with the history of quotations, and have the rare merit of really his life, ought to be much startled at the latter. e.ucidating the text. The preface is evidently The opinions which he has expressed respect the work of a sensible and candid man, firm in ing the nature of the Deity, the eternity of matnis cwn religious opinions, and tolerant to- ter, and the observation of the Sabbath, might, wards those of others.
we think, have caused more just surprisc. The book itself will not add much to the But we will not go into the discussion of fame of Milton. It is, like all his Latin works, these points. The book, were it far more orwell written—though not exactly in the style thodox, or far more heretical than it is, would of the Prize Essays of Oxford and Cambridge. not much edify or corrupt the present generaThere is no elaborate imitation of classical tion. The men of our time are not to be con
verted or perverted by quartos. A few mort * Joanris Milloni, Angli, de Doctrina Christiana libri days, and this Essay will follow the Defensar duo posthumi. A Treatise on Christian Doctrine, com- Populi to the dust and silence of the upper piled froin the Holy Scriptures alone. By JOHN MILTON, shelf. The name of its author, and the re. translated from the original by Charles R. Sumner, MA.. &c. &c. 1825.
markable circumstances attending its publics
dion, will secure to it a certain degree of atten- | do not admire them the more because they tion. For a month or two it will occupy a few have appeared in dark ages. On the contrary minutes of chat in every drawing-room, and a we hold that the most wonderful and splendid few columns in every magazine; and it will proof of genius is a great poem produced in a then, to borrow the elegant language of the civilized age. We cannot understand why play-bills, be withdrawn, to make room for the those who believe in that most orthodox article forthcoming novelties.
of literary faith, that the earliest poets are We wish, however, to avail ourselves of the generally the best
, should wonder at the rule interest, transient as it may be, which this as if it were the exception. Surely the uni work has excited. The dexterous Capuchins formity of the phenomenon indicates a corres never choose to preach on the life and mira- ponding uniformity in the cause. cles of a saint, till they have awakened the The fact is, that common observers reason devotional feelings of their auditors, by exhi- from the progress of the experimental sciences biting some relic of him-a thread of his gar- to that of the imitative arts. The improvement, a lock of his hair, or a drop of his blood. ment of the former is gradual and slow. Ages On the same principle, we intend to take ad- are spent in collecting materials, ages more in vantage of the late interesting discovery, and, separating and combining them. Even when while this memorial of a great and good man a system has been formed, there is still someis still in the hands of all, to say something of thing to add, to alter, or to reject. Every genehis moral and intellectual qualities. Nor, we ration enjoys the use of a vast hoard beare convinced, will the severest of our readers queathed to it by antiquity, and transmits it, blame us if, on an occasion like the present, augmented by fresh acquisitions, to future we turn for a short time from the topics of the ages. In these pursuits, therefore, the first day to commemorate, in all love and reve- speculators lie under great disaavantages, and, rence, the genius and virtues of John Milton, even when they fail, are entitleå io praise. the poet, the statesman, the philosopher, the Their pupils, with far inferior intellectuai glory of English literature, the champion and powers, speedily surpass them in actual aitain. the martyr of English liberty.
ments. Every girl, who has read Mrs. Marcet's It is by his poetry that Milton is best known; little Dialogues on Political Economy, could and it is of his poetry that we wish first to teach Montague or Walpole many lessons in speak. By the general suffrage of the civilized finance. Any intelligent man may now, by world, his place has been assigned among the resolutely applying himself for a few years to greatest masters of the art. His detractors, mathematics, learn more than the great Newhowever, though out-voted, have not been ton knew after half a century of study and silenced. There are many critics, and some meditation. of great name, who contrive, in the same But it is not thus with music, with painting, breath, to extol the poems and to decry the poet. or with sculpture. Still less is it thus with poThe works, they acknowledge, considered in etry. The progress of refinement rarely supthemselves, may be classed among the noblest plies these arts with better objects of imitation. productions of the human mind. But they will It may, indeed, improve the instruments which not allow the author to rank with those great are necessary to the mechanical operations of men who, born in the infancy of civilization, the musician, the sculptor, and the painter, supplied by their own powers, the want of in- But language, the machine of the poet, is best struction, and, though destitute of models them- fitted for his purpose in its rudest state. Naselves, bequeathed to posterity models which tions, like individuals, first perceive, and then defy imitation. Milton, it is said, inherited abstract. They advance from particular imwhat his predecessors created; he lived in an ages to general terms. Hence, the vocabulary enlightened age; he received a finished edu- of an enlightened society is philosophical, that cation; and we must therefore, if we would of a half-civilized people is poetical. form a just estimate of his powers, make large This change in the language of men is partdeductions for these advantages.
ly the cause, and partly the effect of a corresWe venture to say, on the contrary, para- ponding change in the nature of their intellecdoxical as the remark may appear, that no tual operations, a change by which science poet has ever had to struggle with more un- gains, and poetry loses. Generalization is nefavourable circumstances than Milton. He cessary to the advancement of knowledge, but doubted, as he has himself owned, whether particularly in the creations of the imagitation. he had not been born “an age too late.” For în proportion as men know more, and think this notion Johnson has thought fit to make more, they look less at individuals and more him the butt of his clumsy ridicule. The poet, at classes. They therefore make better theowe believe, understood the nature of his art ries and worse poems. They give us vague better than the critic. He knew that his poeti- phrases instead of images, and personified cal genius derived no advantage from the qualities instead of men. They may be better civilization which surrounded him, or from able to analyze human nature than their pre. the earning which he had acquired : and he decessors. But analysis is not the business luoked back with something like regrel to the of the poet. His office is to portray, not to disTuder age of simple words and vivid impres- sect. He may believe in a mora, ser.se, like sions.
Shaftesbury. He may refer all human action3 We think that, as civilization advances, po- to self-interest, like Helvetius, or he may nevej etry almost necessarily declines. Therefore, think about the matter at all. His creed on thongh we admire those great works of imagi- such subjects will no more influence his nation which have appeared in dark ages, we poeiry, properly so called. than the notions
which a painter may have conceived respecting good onesbut little poetry. Men will judge the lachrymal glands, or the circulation of the and compare; but they will not crcate. They blood will affect the tears of his Niobe, or the will talk about the old poets, and comment on blushes of his Aurora. If Shakspeare had them, and to a certain degree enjoy them. written a book on the motives of human ac. But they will scarcely be able to conceive the tions, it is by no means certain that it would effect which poetry produced on their ruder have been a good one. It is extremely impro- ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude bable that it would have contained half so of belief. The Greek Rhapsodists, according to much able reasoning on the subject as is to be Plato, could not recite Homer without almost found in the “Fable of the Bees.” But could falling into convulsions.* The Mohawk hardly Mandeville have created an Iago? Well as he feels the scalping-knife while he shouts his knew how to resolve characters into their ele- death-song. The power which the ancient menis, would he have been able to combine bards of Wales and Germany exercised over those elements in such a manner as to make their auditors seems to modern readers almost up a man-a real, living, individual man? miraculous. Such feelings are very rare in a
Perhaps no man can be a poet, or can even civilized community, and most rare among enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness those who participate most in its improveof mind, if any thing which gives so much ments. They linger longest among the peapleasure ought to be called unsoundness. By santry. poetry we mean, not of course all writing in Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the verse, nor even all good writing in verse. mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion Our definition excludes many metrical compo on the eye of the body. And, as the magic sitions which, on other grounds, deserve the lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects highest praise. By poetry we mean, the art of its purpose most completely in a dark age. employing words in such a manner as to pro- As the light of knowledge breaks in upon its duce an illusion on the imagination: the art of exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty bedoing by means of words what the painter does come more and more definite, and the shades by means of colours. Thus the greatest of of probability more and more distinct, the poets has described it, in lines universally ad- hues and lineaments of the phantoms which it mired for the vigour and felicity of their dic- calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot tion, and still more valuable on account of the unite the incompatible advantages of reality just notion which they convey of the art in and deception, the clear discernment of truth which he excelled.
and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction. "As imagination bodies forth
He who, in an enlightened and literary The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen. society, aspires to be a great poet, must first Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing become a little child. He must take to pieces A local habitation and a name.”
the whole web of his mind. He must unlearn These are the fruits of the “fine frenzy" which much of that knowledge which has perhaps he ascribes to the poet--a fine frenzy doubtless, constituted hitherto his chief title of supe. but still a frenzy. Truth, indeed, is essential riority. His very talents will be a hinderance to poetry; but it is the truth of madness. The to him. His difficulties will be proportioned reasonings are just; but the premises are false. to his proficiency in the pursuits which are After the first suppositions have been made, fashionable among his contemporaries; and every thing ought to be consistent; but those that proficiency will in general be proportioned first suppositions require a degree of credulity to the vigour and activity of his mind. And which almost amounts to a partial and tempo- it is well, if, after all his sacrifices and exerrary derangement of the intellect. Hence, of tions, his works do not resemble a lisping all people, children are the most imaginative. man, or a modern ruin. We have seen in our They abandon themselves without reserve to own time, great talents, intense labour, and every illusion. Every image which is strongly long meditation, employed in this struggie presented 'to their mental eye produces on against the spirit of the age, and employed, them the effect of reality. No man, whatever we will not say, absolutely in vain, but with his sensibility may be, is ever affected by dubious success and feeble applause. Hamlet or Lear, as a little girl is affected by If these reasonings be just, no poet has the story of poor Red Riding-hood. She knows ever triumphed over greater difficulties than that it is all false, that wolves cannot speak, Milton. He received a learned education. that there are no wolves in England. Yet in He was a profound and elegant classical spite of her knowledge she believes; she scholar: he had studied all the mysteries of weeps, she trembles ; she dares not go into a Rabbinical literature: he was intimately acdark room west she should feel the teeth of the quainted with every language of modern Eumonster at her throat. Such is the despotism rope, from which either pleasure or information of the imagination over uncultivated minds. was then to be derived." He was perhaps the
In a rude state of society, men are children only great poet of later times who has been with a greater variety of ideas. It is there distinguished by the excellence of his Latin fore in such a state of society that we may verse. The genius of Petrarch was scarcely spect to find the poetical temperament in its of the first order; and his poems in the ancien? highest perfection. In an enlightened age language, though much praised by those who there will be much intelligence, much science, have never read them, are wretched com much philosophy, abundance of just classifica. positions. Cowley, with all his admirable wi' ion and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and sloquence, abundance of verses, and even of See the Dialogue between Socrates and lo