Page images

not acting as becomes one; we should more easily pardon the fault, than the apology. Now it is very true, that an epick poet is no more inspired *than any other writer, and perhaps was never seriously believed to be so. But as he lays claim to inspiration; and before the whole world professes to display the most interesting and most marvellous events, to be particularly informed in regard to the thoughts as well as actions of men, and to know the affairs of invisible beings and the economy of unseen worlds; we have a right to expect from him a language as much elevated above that of history and philosophy, as his assumed character and pretensions are higher than those of the historian and philosopher. From such a man, supposed to be invested with such a character, we have indeed a right to require every possible perfection of human thought and language. And therefore, if he were to introduce mean persons talking in their own dialect, it would be as unnatural, as if a great orator, on the most solemn occasion, were to lisp and prattle like a child; or a hero to address his victorious army in the jargon of a gypsy or pickpocket.

In the epopee, the muse, or rather the poet, is supposed to speak from beginning to end; the incidental orations ascribed to Thersites or Nestor, to Ulysses or Polypheme, to Ascanius or Eneas, to Satan or Raphael, not being delivered, as in tragedy, by the several speakers in their own persons, but rehearsed by the poet in the way of narrative. These orations, therefore, must not only be adapted to the characters of those to whom they are ascribed, and to the occasion upon which they are spoken, but must also partake of the supposed dignity of the poet's character. And if so, they must be elevated to the general pitch of the composition; even though they be said to have been uttered by persons from whom, in common life, elegance of style would not have been expected. And a certain degree of the same elevation, must adhere to every description in epick poetry, thou the thing described should be comparatively unimportant: which is no more than we naturally look for, when an eloquent man, in a solemn assembly, gives a detail of ordinary events, or recapitulates, in his own style and manner, the sentiments of an illiterate peasant. So that in the epick poem, (and in all serious poetry, narrative or didactick, wherein the poet is the speaker,) language, in order to be natural, must be suited to the assumed or supposed character of the poet, as well as to the occasion and subject. Polyphemus, in a farce or comedy, might speak

clownishly; because he there appears in person, and rusticity is his character: but Homer and Virgil, rehearsing a speech of Polyphemus, would indeed deliver thoughts suitable to his character and condition, but would express them in their own elegant and harmonious language. And hence we see, how absurdly those criticks argue, who blame Virgil for making Eneas too poetical (as they are pleased to phrase it) in the account he gives Dido of his adventures. They might with equal reason affirm, that every person in the Iliad and Odyssey, as well as Eneid, speaks too poetically. The mistake arises from confounding epick with dramatick composition, and supposing that the heroes both of the one and of the other speak in their own persons. Whereas, in the first the poet is the only speaker, and in the last he never speaks at all: nay, the first is nothing more, from beginning to end, but a narration, or speech, delivered by a person assuming, and pretending to support, the character of an inspired poet. In the style, therefore, of the epopee, the poetick character must every where predominate, as well as the heroick; because a speech, in order to appear natural, must be suited to the supposed character of the speaker, as well as to the things and persons spoken of.

The puns that Milton ascribes to his devils, on a certain occasion,* are generally and justly condemned. It has, however, been urged, as an 'apology for them, that they are uttered by evil beings, who may be supposed to have lost, when they fell, all taste for elegance, as well as for - virtue: and that the poet, on this one occasion, might have intended to make them both detestable as devils, and despicable as buffoons. But this plea cannot be admitted. For the fiends of Milton, notwithstanding their extreme wickedness, retain an elevation of mind, without which they could not have appeared in an epick poem, and which is inconsistent with the futility of a buffoon or witling. Granting, then, (what is not likely) that the poet, in this one instance, meant to render them contemptible for their low wit, he must yet be blamed for assigning them a part so repugnant to their general character. Or, even if he could be vindicated on this score, he is liable to censure for having put so paltry a part of his narration in the mouth of the holy angel Raphael. Or, if even for this we were to pardon him, still he is inexcusable, for having forgotten the assumed dignity of his own character so far, as to retail those wretched quibbles;

* Paradise Lost, book 6. vers. 609-627

which, whether we suppose them to be uttered by an angel, a devil, or an epick poet, are grossly unnatural, because totally unsuitable to the condition and character of the speaker. A mind possessed with great ideas does not naturally attend to such as are trifling;* and, while actuated by admiration, and other important emotions, will not be apt to turn its view to those things that provoke contempt or laughter. Such we suppose the mind of every sublime writer to be; and such in fact it must be, as long at least as he employs himself in sublime composition.

* Who that, from Alpine heights, his labouring eye

Shoots round the wide horizon, to survey
The Nile or Ganges rolling his bright wave
Through mountains, plains, through empires black

with shade,
And continents of sand, will turn his gaze
To mark the windings of a scanty rill,
That murmurs at his feet?

Pleasures of Imagination, book 1. “ The meditations,” says a very ingenious writer, (speaking of the view from Mount Etna), “ elevated in proportion to the grandeur and sublimity “ of the objects that surround us; and here, where you “ have all nature to rouse your imagination, what man

can remain inactive?” See the whole passage; which, from its sublimity, one would be tempted to think had been composed on the spot. Brydon's Travels, letter 10.

are ever

« PreviousContinue »