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which a painter may have conceived respecting good ones—but little poetry. Men will judge
the lachrymal glands, or the circulation of the blood will affect the tears of his Niobe, or the blushes of his Aurora. If Shakspeare had written a book on the motives of human actions, it is by no means certain that it would have been a good one. It is extremely improbable that it would have contained half so much able reasoning on the subject as is to be found in the “Fable of the Bees.” But could Mandeville have created an Iago 1 Well as he knew how to resolve characters into their elements, would he have been able to combine those elements in such a manner as to make up a man—a real, living, individual man? Perhaps no man can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind, if any thing which gives so much pleasure ought to be called unsoundness. By poetry we mean, not of course all writing in verse, nor even all good writing in verse. Our definition excludes many metrical compositions which, on other grounds, deserve the highest praise. By poetry we mean, the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the imagination: the art of doing by means of words what the painter does by means of colours. Thus the greatest of poets has described it, in lines universally admired for the vigour and felicity of their diction, and still more valuable on account of the just notion which they convey of the art in which he excelled. “As imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.” These are the fruits of the “fine frenzy” which he ascribes to the poet—a fine frenzy doubtless, but still a frenzy. Truth, indeed, is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness. The reasonings are just; but the premises are false. After the first suppositions have been made, every thing ought to be consistent; but those first suppositions require a degree of credulity which almost amounts to a partial and temporary derangement of the intellect. Hence, of all people, children are the most imaginative. They abandon themselves without reserve to every illusion. Every image which is strongly presented to their mental eye produces on them the effect of reality. No man, whatever his sensibility may be, is ever affected by Hamlet or Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story of poor Red Riding-hood. She knows that it is all false, that wolves cannot speak, that there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite of her knowledge she believes; she weeps, she trembles; she dares not go into a dark room lest she should feel the teeth of the monster at her throat. Such is the despotism of the imagination over uncultivated minds. In a rude state of society, men are children with a greater variety of ideas. It is therefore in such a state of society that we may expect to find the poetical temperament in its highest perfection. In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science,
much philosophy, abundance of just classifica:
tion and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of |
and compare; but they will not create. They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief. The Greek Rhapsodists, according to Plato, could not recite Homer without almost falling into convulsions." The Mohawk hardly
feels the scalping-knife while he shouts his
death-song. The power which the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exercised over their auditors seems to modern readers almost miraculous. Such feelings are very rare in a civilized community, and most rare among those who participate most in its improvements. They linger longest among the peasantry. Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge breaks in upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty become more and more definite, and the shades of probability more and more distinct, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which it calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction. He who, in an enlightened and literary society, aspires to be a great poet, must first become a little child. He must take to pieces the wholc web of his mind. He must unlearn much of that knowledge which has perhaps constituted hitherto his chief title of superiority. His very talents will be a hinderance to him. His difficulties will be proportioned to his proficiency in the pursuits which are fashionable among his contemporaries; and that proficiency will in general be proportioned to the vigour and activity of his mind. And it is well, if, after all his sacrifices and exertions, his works do not resemble a lisping man, or a modern ruin. We have seen in our own time, great talents, intense labour, and long meditation, employed in this struggle against the spirit of the age, and employed, we will not, say, absolutely in vain, but with dubious success and seeble applause. If these reasonings be just, no poet has ever triumphed over greater difficulties than Milton. He received a learned education. He was a profound and elegant classical scholar: he had studied all the mysteries of Rabbinical literature: he was intimately ac
and ingenuity, had little imagination; nor , nected with them. He electrifies the mind indeed do we think his classical diction com- through conductors. The most unimaginative parable to that of Milton. The authority of man must understand the Iliad. Homer gives Johnson is against us on this point. But him no choice, and requires from him no i rer. Johnson had studied the bad writers of the tion; but takes the whole upon himself, and iniddle ages till he had become utterly insen- sets his images in so clear a light that it is sible to the Augustan elegance, and was as ill impossible to be blind to them. The works qualified to judge between two Latin styles of Milton cannot be comprehended or enjoyed, as an habitual drunkard to set up for a wine- unless the mind of the reader co-operate with taster.
that of the writer. He does not paint a finished Versification in a dead language is an exotic, picture, or play for a mere passive listener. a far-fetched, costly, sickly imitation of that He sketches, and leaves others to fill up the which elsewhere may be found in healthful outline. He strikes the key-note, and expects and spontaneous perfection. The soils on his hearer to make out the melody. which this rarity flourishes are in general as We often hear of the magical influence ill suited to the production of vigorous native of poetry. The expression in general means poetry, as the flower-pots of a hot-house to the nothing; bul, applied to the writings of Milton, growth of oaks. That the author of the Para- it is most appropriate. His poetry acts like dise Lost should have written the Epistle to an incantation. Its merit lies less in its Manso, was truly wonderful. Never before obvious meaning than in its occull power. were such marked originality and such'ex-There would seem, at first sight, to be no more quisite mimicry found together. Indeed, in all in his words than in other words. But they the Latin poems of Milton, the artificial manner are words of enchantment; no socner are they indispensable to such works is admirably pre-pronounced than the past is present, and the served, while, at the same time, the richness distant near. New forms of beauty start at of his fancy and the elevation of his senti- once into existence, and all the burial places ments give to them a peculiar charm, an air of the memory give up their dead. Change of nobleness and freedom, which distinguishes the structure of the sentence, substitute one them from all other writings of the same class. synonyme for another, and the whole effect is They remind us of the amusements of those destroyed. The spell loses its power: and he angelic warriors who composed the cohort of who should then hope to conjure with it, would Gabriel:
I find himself as much mistaken as Cassim in
the Arabian tale, when he stood crying, “Open " About him exercised heroic games
The unarmed youth of heaven. But o'er their heads Wheat," “ Open Barley," to the door which Celestial armory, shield, helm, and spear,
obeyed no sound but “Open Sesame !" The Hung bright, with diamond flaming and with gold."
miserable failure of Dryden, in his attempt to We cannot look upon the sportive exercises rewrite some parts of the Paradise Lost, is a for which the genius of Milton ungirds itself, remarkable instance of this. without catching a glimpse of the gorgeous 1 In support of these observations we may and terrible panoply which it is accustomed remark, that scarcely any passages in the to wear. The strength of his imagination poems of Milton are more generally known, triumphed over every obstacle. So intense or more frequently repeated, than those which and ardent was the fire of his mind, that it notare little more than muster rolls of names, only was not suffocated beneath the weight They are not always more appropriate or of its fuel, but penetrated the whole super- more melodious than other names. But they incumbent mass with its own heat and ra- are charmed names. Every one if them is diance.
the first link in a long chain of associated It is not our intention to attempt any thing ideas. Like the dwelling-place of our infancy like a complete examination of the poetry of revisited in manhood, like the song of our Miiton. The public has long been agreed as country heard in a strange land, they produce to the merit of the most remarkable passages, upon us an effect wholly independent of their the incomparable harmony of the numbers, intrinsic value. One transports us back to a and the excellence of that style which no rival remote period of history. Another places 115 has been able to equal, and no parodist to among the moral scenery and manners of a degrade, which displays in their highest per- distant country. A third evokes all the dear section the idiomatic powers of the English classical recollections of childhood, the schooltongue, and to which every ancient and every room, the dog-eared Virgil, the holiday, and modern language has contributed something the prize. A fourth brings before us the of grace, of energy, or of music. In the vast splendid phantoms of chivalrous romance, field of criticism in which we are entering, the trophied lists, the embroidered housings, innumerable reapers have already put their the quaint devices, the haunted forests, the sickles. Yet the harvest is so abundant that enchanted gardens, the achievements of ena. the negligent search of a straggling gleaner moured knights, and the smiles of rescued inay be rewarded with a sheas.
princesses. 'I'he most striking characteristic of the poetry | In none of the works of Milton is bis pecite of Milton is the extreme remoteness of the liar manner more happily displayed than in Associations, by means of which it acts on the the Allegro and the Penseroso. It is impossi. reader. Its effect is produced, not so much ble to conceive that he mechanism of language ly what is expresses, as by what it suggests, can be brought to a more exquisite degree of Hol so much by the ideas which it directly perfection. These poems differ from others conveys, as by other ideas which are con las ottar of roses differs from ordinary rose water, the close packed essence from the thin surpassed in energy and magnificence. So diluted mixture. They are indeed not so much phocles made the Greek drama as dramatic as poems, as collections of hints, from each of was consistent with its original form. His which the reader is to make out a poem for portraits of men have a sort of similarity; but himself. Every epithet is a text for a canto. it is the similarity not of a painting, but of a
The Comus and the Samson Agonistes are bas-relief. It suggests a resemblance; but it works, which, though of very different merit, does not produce an illusion. Euripides atoffer some marked points of resemblance. tempted to carry the reform further. But it They are both Lyric poems in the form of was a task far beyond his powers, perhaps bePlays. There are perhaps no two kinds of yond any powers. Instead of correcting what composition so essentially dissimilar as the was bad, he destroyed what was excellent. He drama and the ode. The business of the dra- substituted crutches for stilts, bad sermons for matist is to keep himself out of sight, and to good odes. let nothing appear but his characters. As Milton, it is well known, admired Euripides soon as he attracts notice to his personal feel highly; much more highly than, in our opinion, ings, the illusion is broken. The effect is as he deserved. Indeed, the caresses, which this unpleasant as that which is produced on the partiality leads him to bestow on “sad Elecstage by the voice of a prompter, or the en-tra's poet," sometimes reminds us of the beautrance of a scene-shifier. Hence it was that tiful Queen of Fairy-land kissing the long ears the tragedies of Byron were his least success of Bottom. At all events, there can be no ful performances. They resemble those paste- doubt that this veneration for the Athenian, board pictures invented by the friend of child- whether just or not, was injurious to the Sam. ren, Mr. Newberry, in which a single movable son Agonistes. Had he taken Æschylus for head goes around twenty different bodies; so his model, he would have given himself up to that the same face looks out upon us success the lyric inspiration, and poured out profusely sively, from the uniform of a hussar, the furs all the treasures of his mind, without bestowof a judge, and the rags of a beggar. In all ing a thought on those dramatic proprieties the characters, patriots and tyrants, haters and which the nature of the work rendered it im. lovers, the frown and sneer of Harold were possible to preserve. In the attempt to recon. discernible in an instant. But this species of Cile things in their own nature inconsistent, he egotism, though fatal to the drama, is the inspi- has failed, as every one must have failed. We ration of the ode. It is the part of the lyrics cannot identify ourselves with the characters, poe: lo abandon himself, without reserve, to his as in a good play. We cannot identify our. own emotions.
selves with the poet, as in a good ode. The Between these hostile elements many great conflicting ingredients, like an acid and an men have endeavoured to effect an amalgama-alkali mixed, neutralize each other. We are tion, but never with complete success. The by no means insensible to the merits of this Greek drama, on the model of which the Sam- celebrated piece, to the severe dignity of the son was written, sprung from the Ode. The style, the graceful and pathetic solemnity, of dialogue was ingrafted on the chorus, and the opening speech, or the wild and barbaric naturally partook of its character. The genius melody which gives so striking an effect to the of the greatest of the Athenian dramatists co-choral passages. But we think it, we confess, operated with the circumstances under which the least successful cffort of the genius of tragedy made its first appearance. Æschylus Milton. was, head and heart, a lyric poet. In his time, The Comus is framed on the model of the the Greeks had far more intercourse with the Italian Masque, as the Samson is framed on East than in the days of Homer; and they had the model of the Greek Tragedy. It is, cernot yet acquired that immense superiority in tainly, the noblest performance of the kind war, in science, and in the arts, which, in the which exists in any language. It is as far su. following generation, led them to treat the perior to the Faithful Shepherdess, as the Asiatics with contempt. From the narrative Faithful Shepherdess is to the Aminta, or the of Herodotus, it should seem that they still Aminta to the Pastor Fido. It was well for looked up, with the veneration of disciples, to Milton that he had here no Euripides to misEgypt and Assyria. At this period, accord- lead him. He understood and loved the litera. ingly, it was natural that the literature of ture of modern Italy. But he did not feel for Greece should be tinctured with the Oriental it the same veneration which he entertained style. And that style, we think, is clearly for the remains of Athenian and Roman poetry, discernible in the works of Pindar and Eschy- consecrated by so many losty and endearing las. The latter often reminds us of the He-recollections. The faults, inoreover, of his brew writers. The book of Job, indeed, in Italian predecessors were of a kind to which conduct and diction, bears a considerable re- his mind had a deadly antipathy. He could semblance to some of his dramas. Considered stoop to a plain style, sometimes even to a bald as plays, his works are absurd: considered as style; but false brilliancy was his utter aver. choruses, they are above all praise. If, for sion. His Muse had no objection to a russet instance, we examine the address of Clytem- attire; but she turned with disgust from the gestra to Agameinnon on his return, or the de- finery of Guarini, as tawdry, and as paltry as scription of the seven Argive chiefs, by the the rags of a chimney-sweeper on May-day, principles of dramatic writing, we shall in. Whatever ornaments she wears are of massive stantly condemn them as monstrous. But, if gold, not only dazzling to the sight, but capable we forget the characters, and think only of the of standing ihe severest test of the crucible. poetry, we shall admit that it has never been Milton attended in the Comus to the distinc
tion which he neglected in the Samson. He made it 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 most 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 in-congruous 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, I can fly, or I can run,” to skim the earth, to soar above the clouds, to bathe in the Elysian dew of the rainbow, and to inhale the balmy smells of nard and cassia, which the musky winds of the zephyr scatter through the cedared alleys of the Hesperides." There are several of the minor poems of Milton on which we would willingly make a few remarks. Still more willingly would we enter into a detailed examination of that admirable poem, the Paradise Regained, which, strangely enough, is scarcely ever mentioned, except as an instance of the blindness of that parental affection which men of letters bear towards the offspring of their intellects. That Milton was mistaken in preferring this work, excellent as it is, to the Paradise Lost, we must readily admit. But we are sure that the superiority of the Paradise Lost to the Paradise Regained is not more decided than the superiority of the Paradise Regained to every oem which has since made its appearance. ut our limits prevent us from discussing the point at length. We hasten on to that extraordinary production, which the general suffrage of critics has placed in the highest class of iiuman compositions. The only poem of modern times which can
* “There eternal summer dwells,
ds of hyacinths and roses,
Where young Adonis of reposes,
be compared with the Paradise Lost, is the Divine Comedy. The subject of Mihon, in some points, resembled that of Dante; but he has treated it in a widely different manner. We cannot, we think, better illustrate our opinion respecting our own great poet, than by contrasting him with the father of Tuscan literature. The poetry of Milton differs from that of Dante, as the hieroglyphics of Egypt differed from the picture-writing of Mexico. The images which Dante employs speak for themselves:—they stand simply for what they are. Those of Milton have a signification which is often discernible only to the initiated. Their value depends less on what they directly re. present, than on what they remotely suggest However strange, however grotesque, may be the appearance which Dante undertakes to describe, he never shrinks from describing it. He gives us the shape, the colour, the sound, the smell, the taste: he counts the numbers; he measures the size. His similes are the illustrations of a traveller. Unlike those of other poets, and especially of Milton, they are introduced in a plain, business-like manner; not for the sake of any beauty in the objects from which they are drawn, not for the sake of any ornament which they may impart to the poemn, but simply in order to make the meaning of the writer as clear to the reader as it is to himself. The ruins of the precipice which led from the sixth to the seventh circle of hell, were like those of the rock which fell into the Adige on the south of Trent. The cataract of Phlege thon was like that of Aqua Cheta at the mo nastery of St. Benedict. The place where the heretics were confined in burning tombs resembled the vast cemetery of Arles' Now, let us compare with the exact details of Dante the dim intimations of Milton. We will cite a few examples. The English poet has never thought of taking the measure of Satan. He gives us merely a vague idea of vast bulk. In one passage the fiend lies stretched out, huge in length, floating many a rood, equal in size to the earth-born enemies of Jove, or to the sea-monster which the mariner mistakes for an island. When he addresses himself to battle against the guardian angels, he stands like Teneriffe or Atlas; his stature reaches the sky. Contrast with these descriptions the lines in which Dante has described the gigantic spectre of Nimrod. “His face seemed to me as long and as broad as the ball of St. Peter's at Rome; and his other limbs were in proportion; so that the bank, which concealed him from the waist downwards, nevertheless showed so much of him, that three tall Germans would in vain have attempted to reach his hair.” We are sensible that we do no justice to the admirable style of the Florentine poet. But Mr. Cary's translation is not at hand, and our version, however rude, is sufficient to illustrate our meaning. Once more, compare the lazar-house, in the eleventh book of the Paradise Lost, with the last ward of Malebolge in Dante. Milton avoids the loathsome details, and takes refuge in indistinct, but solemn and tremendous imagery— Despair hurrying from couch to couch, to mock the wretches with his attendance: Death shaking his dart over them, but in spite of supplications, delaying to strike. What says Dante? “There was such a moan there as there would be if all the sick, who, between July and September, are in the hospitals of Valdichiana, and of the Tuscan swamps, and of Sardinia, were in one pit together; and such a stench was issuing forth as is wont to issue from decayed limbs.” We will not take upon ourselves the invidious office of settling precedency between two such writers. Each in his own department is incomparable; and each, we may remark, has, wisely or fortunately, taken a subject adayted to exhibit his peculiar talent to the greatest advantage. The Divine Comedy is a personal narrative. Dante is the eye-witness and earwitness of that which he relates. He is the very man who has heard the tormented spirits crying out for the second death; who has read the dusky characters on the portal, within which there is no hope; who has hidden his face from the terrors of the Gorgon; who has fled from the hooks and the seething pitch of Barbariccia and Diaghignazzo. His own hands have grasped the shaggy sides of Lucifer. His own feet have climbed the mountain of expiation. His own brow has been marked by the purifying angel. The reader would throw aside such a tale in incredulous disgust, unless it were told with the strongest air of veracity, with a sobriety even in its horrors, with the greatest precision and multiplicity in its details. The narrative of Milton in this respect differs from that of Dante, as the adventures of Amidas differ from those of Gulliver. The author of Amidas would have made his book ridiculous if he had introduced those minute particulars which give such a charm to the work of Swift, the nautical observations, the affected delicacy about names, the official documents transcribed at full length, and all the unmeaning gossip and scandal of the court, springing out of nothing, and tending to nothing. We are not shocked at being told that a man who lived, nobody knows when, saw many very strange sights, and we can easily abandon ourselves to the illusion of the romance. But when Lemuel Gulliver, surgeon, now actually resident at Rotherhithe, tells us of pigmies and giants, flying islands and philosophizing horses, nothing but such circumstantial touches could produce, for a single moment, a deception on the imagination. Of all the poets who have introduced into their works the agency of supernatural beings, Milton has succeeded best. Here Dante decidedly yields to him. And as this is a point on which many rash and ill-considered judgments have been pronounced, we feel inclined to dwell on it a little longer. The most fatal error which a poet can possibly commit in the management of his machinery, is that of attempting to philosophize too much. Milton has been often censured for ascribing to spirits many functions of which spirits must be incapable. But these objections, though sanctioned by eminent names, originate, we venture to say, in profound ignorance of the art of poetry. hat is spirit? What are our own minds, the
! parent and partial success.
portion of spirit with which we are best ac quainted! We observe certain phenomena We cannot explain them into material causes. We therefore infer that there exists something which is not material. But of this something we have no idea. We can define it only by negatives. We can reason about it only by symbols. We use the word, but we have no image of the thing: and the business of poetry is with images, and not with words. The poet uses words indeed; but they are merely the instruments of his art, not its objects. They are the materials which he is to dispose in such a manner as to prescnt a picture to the mental eye. And, if they are not so disposed, they are no more entitled to be called poetry, than a bale of canvass and a box of colours are to be called a painting. Logicians may reason about abstractions; but the great mass of mankind can never feel an interest in them. They must have images. The strong tendency of the multitude in all ages and nations to idolatry can be explained on no other principle. The first inhabitants of Greece, there is every reason to believe, worshipped one invisible Deity. But the necessity of having something more definite to adore produced, in a few centuries, the innumerable crowd of gods and goddesses. In like manner the ancient Persians thought it impious to exhibit the Creator under a human form. Yet even these transferred to the sun the worship which, speculatively, they considered due only to the Supreme mind. The history of the Jews is the record of a continual struggle between pure Theism, supported by the most terrible sanctions, and the strangely fascinating desire of having some visible and tangible object of adoration. Perhaps none of the secondary causes which Gibbon has assigned for the rapidity with which Christianity spread over the world, while Judaism scarcely ever acquired a proselyte, operated more powerfully than this feeling. God, the uncreated, the incomprehensible, the invisibie, attracted few worshippers. A philosopher might admire so noble a conception; but the crowd turned away in disgust from words which presented no image to their minds. It was before Deity, embodied in a human form, walking among men, partaking of their infirmities, leaning on their bosoms, weeping over their graves, slumbering in the manger, bleeding on the cross, that the prejudices of the Synagogue, and the doubts of the Academy, and the pride of thi. Portico, and the fasces of the lictor, and the swords of thirty legions, were humbled in the dust! Soon after Christianity had achieved its triumph, the principle which had assisted it began to corrupt. It became a new paganism Patron saints assumed the offices of household gods. St. George took the place of Mars. St. Elmo consoled the mariner for the loss of Cas tor and Por.ux The Virgin Mother and Cicilia succeeded to Venus and the Muses. The fas: cination of sex and loveliness was again joined to that of celestial dignity; and the homage of chivalry was blended with that of religion. Reformers have often made a stand against these feelings; but never with more than apThe men who de