Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]

principal subject. In short, this is the fame kind of beauty which the criticks admire in the Spanish Friar, or the Double Discovery, where the two different plots look like counter-parts and copies of one another.

The second qualification required in the action of an epick poem, is, that it should be an entire action. An action is entire when it is complete in all its parts; or, as Aristotle describes it, when it consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nothing should

go

before it, be intermixed with it, or follow after it, that is not related to it. As, on the contrary, no single step should be omitted in that just and regular process, which it must be supposed to take from its original to its confummation. Thus we see the anger of Achilles in its birth, its continuance, and effects; and Æneas's settlement in Italy, carried on through all the oppositions in his way to it both by sea and land. The action in Milton excells (I think) both the former in this particular: We see it contrived in Hell, executed upon Earth, and punished by Heaven. The parts of it are told in the most distinct manner, and grow out of one another in the most natural order.

The third qualification of an epick poem is its Greatness. The anger of Achilles was of fuch consequence, that it embroiled the kings of Greece, destroyed the heroes of Asia, and engaged all the gods in factions. Æneas's settlement in Italy produced the Cæsars, and gave birth to the Roman empire. Milton's subject was ftill greater than either of the former; it does not determine the

fate of single persons or nations, but of a whole fpecies. The united Powers of Hell are joined together for the destruction of mankind, which they effected in part, and would have completed, had not Omnipotence itself interposed. The principal actors are Man in his greatest perfection, and Woman in her highest beauty. Their enemies are the Fallen Angels; the Messiah their friend, and the Almighty their protector. In short, every thing that is great in the whole circle of being, whether within the verge of nature, or out of it, has a proper part assigned it in this admirable Poem.

In poetry, as in architecture, not only the whole, but the principal members, and every part of them, fhould be great. I will not presume to say, that the book' of games in the Æneid, or that in the Iliad, are not of this nature, or to reprehend Virgil's fimile of the top, and many other of the same kind in the Iliad, as liable to any cenfure in this particular; but I think we may lay, without derogating from those wonderful performances, that there is an indisputable and unquestioned magnificence in every part of Paradise Lost, and indeed a much greater than could have been formed upon any pagan fytiem.

But Ariftotle, by the greatness of the action, does not only mean that it Thould be great in its nature, but also in its duration, or in other words, that it should have a due length in it, as well as what we properly call greatnets. The just measure of this kind of magnitude, he explains by the following fimilitude. An animal, no bigger than a mite, cannot appear perfect to the eye, because the light

takes it in at once, and has only a confused idea of the whole, and not a distinct idea of all its parts; if, on the contrary, you should suppose an animal of ten thousand furlongs in length, the eye would be so filled with a single part of it, that it could not give the mind an idea of the whole. What these animals are to the eye, a very short or a very long action would be to the memory. The first would be, as it were, loft and swallowed up by it, and the other difficult to be contained in it. Homer and Virgil have ihown their principal art in this particular; the action of the Iliad, and that of the Æneid, were in themselves exceeding short, but are so beautifully extended and diversified by the invention of episodes, and the machinery of gods, with the like poetical ornaments, that they make up an agreeable story, sufficient to employ the memory without overcharging it. Milton's action is enriched with such a variety of circumstances, that I have taken as much pleasure in reading the contents of his books, as in the best invented story I ever met with. It is poffible that the traditions, on which the Iliad and Encid were built, had more circumstances in them, than the history of the Fall of Man, as it is related in Scripture. Besides, it was easier for Homer and Virgil to dash the truth with fiction, as they were in no danger of offending the religion of their country by it. But as for Milton, he had not only a very few circumstances upon which to raise his Poem, but was also obliged to proceed with the greateft caution in every thing that he added out of his own invention. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the restraint he was under, he has filled his story with so many surprising incidents, ` which bear so close an analogy with what is delivered in Holy Writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate reader, without giving offence to the most scrupulous.

The modern criticks have collected, from several hints in the Iliad and Æneid, the space of time, which is taken up by the action of each of those poems; but, as a great part of Milton's story was transacted in regions that lie out of the reach of the fun and the sphere of day, it is impossible to gratify the reader with such a calculation, which indeed would be more curious than instructive;

* which bear so close an analogy with what is delivered in Holy Writ,] “ It would not, I believe, be impossible, though the talk might appear too invidious, to point out several incidents in Milton, that are fo far from having a close analogy with what is delivered in Holy Writ, that in reality they have no analogy with it at all. And, setting aside this confideration, it is not easy to determine, how far invention, the poet's peculiar province, extends, when it is circumfcribed by the Christian System. For it may be questioned, whether fiction is at all allowable, when the Divine Being is the subject of it." A Letter concerning Epick Poems, taken from Scripture History, Lond. 1764, p. 21. The writer of this Letter cites the remark of Gibbon, in his Ejay on the Study of Literature. See the English edition, 1764, p. 23. “ The Almighty Fiat of Mofes strikes us with admiration ; but reason cannot comprehend, nor imagination des seribe, the operations of a Deity, at whofe command alone millions of worlds are made to tremble: nor can we read with any satisfactory pleasure of the Devil, in Milton, warring for two whole days in Heaven against the armies of the Omnipotent.”

Todd. which indeed would be more curious than instructive;) The following account of the time, employed in the action of the Poem, is copied from a MS sound among Sir Robert Walpole's Papers

none of the criticks, either ancient or modern, having laid down rules to circumfcribe the action

in bishop ATTERBURY's hand-writing; and is printed in the 5th vol. of Atterbury's Epift. Correspondence, 1798, p. 191.

“ The scene opens 18 days after the defeat of the rebellious Angels: for they were nine days falling, and had lain nine days astonished on the burning lake, B. vi. 871, B. i. 50.

“What time was spent in the consultation of Devils, and Satan's voyage to the gates of Hell, and through Chaos, &c. till he alighted on the top of Mount Niphates, Milton no where intimates; and it is vain to measure that space: but he is said to have stopped on Mount Niphates at noon, B. iv. 30.

“ He sees Adam and Evé towards evening, B. iv. 331, 355, 540, and 590.

“ That night he tempts Eve with a dream, and leaves Paradise just before day-light, B. iv. 1014, 1015.

“ In the morning Adam and Eve wake, B. v. 1; and pay their adorations, B. v. 139; and then go to work, and return to their bower at noon, where Raphael then visits them, B. v. 300, 311, 369, 376. Raphael stays with them till evening, B. v. 376; and then departs, B. viii. 653.

“ Satan returns at midnight, B. xi. 53, into Paradise on the eighth night after he parted from thence, B. ix. 63, 67, including the night of his departure, that is, the seventh night inclusive, after Raphael left Paradise.

“ During the night he ranges Paradise, B. ix. 181; and enters the terpent, B. ix. 187.

“ In the morning, B. ix. 192, Adam and Eve go out reparately to their work. Eve is tempted, and about noon eats the forbidden fruit, B. ix. 739.

“ That evening the Son comes down to Paradife to judge them, B. X. 53, 92, 95. Adam and Eve spend that night in mutual expoftulations, and then in devotions.

“ Next morning, B. xi, 135, 175, as they are going to their labour, Raphael meets and stops them; and, after revealing to them what was to happen to them and their feed, drives them that evening out of Paradise.

“ So that ten days and ten nights is the utmost extent of time during which the action of the Poein continues; except the time

« PreviousContinue »