« PreviousContinue »
which is indeed almost the same with the former, though placed in a different light, namely—That the hero in the Paradise Lost is unsuccessful, and by no means a match for his enemies. This gave occasion to Mr. Dryden's reflection, that the devil was in reality Milton's hero. I think I have obviated this objection in my first paper. The Paradise Lost is an epic, or a narrative poem, and he that looks for an hero in it, searches for that which Milton never intended; but if he will needs fix the name of an hero upon any person in it, it is certainly the Messiah who is the hero, both in the principal action, and in the chief episodes. Paganism could not furnish out a real action for a fable greater than that of the Iliad or Æneid, and therefore an heathen could not form an higher notion of a poem than one of that kind which they call an heroic. Whether Milton's is not of a sublimer nature I will not presume to determine; it is sufficient that I shew there is in Paradise Lost all the greatness of plan, regularity of design, and masterly beauties which we discover in Homer and Virgil.
I must in the next place observe, that Milton has interwoven in the texture of this fable some particulars which do not seem to have probability enough for an epic poem, particularly in the actions which he ascribes to Sin and Death, and the picture which he draws of the · Limbo of Vanity, with other passages in the second book. Such allegorięs rather savour of the spirit of Spenser and Ariosto, than of Homer and Virgil.
In the structure of his poem he has likewise admitted too many digressions. It is finely observed by Aristotle, that the author of an heroic poem should seldom speak himself, but throw as much of his work as he can into the mouths of those who are his principal actors. Aristotle has given no reason for this precept: but I presume it is because the mind of the reader is more awed, and elevated, when he hears Æneas or Achilles speak, than when Virgil or Homer talk in their own persons. Besides that assuming the character of an eminent man is apt to fire the imagination, and raise the ideas of the author. Tully tells us, mentioning his dialogue of old age, in which Cato is the chief speaker, that upon a review of it he was agreeably imposed upon, and fancied that it was Cato, and not he himself, who uttered his thoughts on that subject.
If the reader would be at the pains to see how the story of the Iliad and the Æneid is delivered by those persons who act in it, he will be surprised to find how little either of these poems proceeds from the authors. Milton has, in the general disposition of his fable, very finely observed this great rule; insomuch that there is scarce a tenth part of it which comes from the poet; the rest is spoken either by Adam or Eve, or by some good or evil spirit who is engaged, either in their destruction, or defence. From what has been here observed it
appears, that digressions are by no means to be allowed of in an epic poem. If the poet, even in the ordinary course of his narration, should speak as little as possible, he should certainly never let his narration sleep for the sake of any reflections of his own. I have often observed, with a secret admiration, that the longest reflection in the Æneid is in that passage of the tenth book, where Turnus is represented as dressing himself in the spoils of Pallas, whom he had slain. Virgil here lets his fable stand still, for the sake of the following remark. "How is the mind of man ignorant of futurity, and unable to bear prosperous fortune with moderation! The time will come when Turnus shall wish that he had left the body of Pallas
untouched, and curse the day on which he dressed himself in these spoils. As the great event of the Æneid, and the death of Turnus, whom Æneas slew because he saw him adorned with the spoils of Pallas,
this incident, Virgil went out of his way to make this reflection upon it, without which so small a circumstance might possibly have slipt out of his reader's memory. Lucan, who was an injudicious poet, lets drop his story very frequently for the sake of his unnecessary digressions, or his diverticula, as Scaliger calls them. If he gives us an account of the prodigies which preceded the civil war, he declaims
upon the occasion, and shews how much happier it would be for man, if he did not feel his evil fortune before it comes to pass; and suffer not only by its real weight, but by the apprehension of it. Milton's complaint for his blindness, his panegyric on marriage, his reflections on Adam and Eve's going naked, of the angels' eating, and several other passages in his poem, are liable to the same exception, though I must confess there is so great a beauty in these very digressions, that I would not wish them out of his poem.
I have in a former paper spoken of the characters of Milton's Paradise Lost, and declared my opinion as to the allegorical persons who are introduced in it.
If we look into the sentiments, I think they are sometimes defective under the following heads; first, as there are several of them too much pointed, and some that degenerate even into puns. Of this last kind I am afraid is that in the first book, where, speaking of the pygmies, he calls them
The small infantry
Another blemish that appears in some of his thoughts, is his frequent allusion to heathen fables, which are not certainly of a piece with the divine subject of which he treats. I do not find fault with these allusions where the poet himself represents them as fabulous, as he does in some places, but where he mentions them as truths and matters of fact. The limits of my paper will not give me leave to be particular in instances of this kind; the reader will easily remark them in his perusal of the poem.
A third fault in his sentiments is an unnecessary ostentation of learning, which likewise occurs very frequently. It is certain that both Homer and Virgil were masters of all the learning of their times, but it shews itself in their works after an indirect and concealed manner. Milton seems ambitious of letting us know, by his excursions on free-will and predestination, and his many glances upon history, astronomy, geography, and the like, as well as by the terms and phrases he sometimes makes use of, that he was acquainted with the whole circle of arts and sciences.
If in the last place we consider the language of this great poet, we must allow what I have hinted in former paper,
that it is often too much laboured, and sometimes obscured by old words, transpositions, and foreign idioms. Seneca's objection to the style of a great author, Riget ejus oratio, nihil in eâ placidum, nihillene,' is what many critics make to Milton. As I cannot wholly refute it, so I have already apologized for it in another paper: to which I may
further add, that Milton's sentiments and ideas were so wonderfully sublime, that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full strength and beauty, without having recourse to these foreign assistances. Our language sunk under him, and was
unequal to that greatness of soul which furnished him with such glorious conceptions.
A second fault in his language is, that he often affects a kind of jingle in his words, as in the following passages
Begirt th' Almighty throne Beseeching or besieging This pted our attempt At one slight bound high overleapt all bound. I know there are figures for this kind of speech ; toat some of the greatest ancients have been guilty of it, and that Aristotle himself has given it a place in his rhetoric among the beauties of that art. But as it is in itself poor and trifling, it is, I think, at present universally exploded by all the masters of polite writing.
The last fault which I shall take notice of in Milton's style, is the frequent use of what the learned call technical words, or terms of art. It is one of the greatest beauties of poetry, to make hard things intelligible, and to deliver what is abstruse of itself in such easy language as may be understood by ordinary readers; besides that the knowledge of a poet should rather seem born with him, or inspired, than drawn from books and systems. I have often wondered how Mr. Dryden could translate a passage out of Virgil after the following manner :
Tack to the larboard and stand off to sea,
Veer starboard sea and land.Milton makes use of larboard in the same manner. When he is upon building, he mentions doric pillars, pilasters, cornice, freeze, architrave. When he talks of heavenly bodies, you meet with ecliptic and eccentric, the trepidation, stars dropping from the zenith,