« PreviousContinue »
MR. ADDISON'S CRITICISM
Cedite, Romani scriptores ; cedite, Graii.
Propert. El. 34. lib. 2. ver. 65.
THERE is nothing in nature more irksome than general discourses, especially when they turn chiefly upon words. For this reason I shall wave the difcussion of that point which was started some years since, Whether Milton's Paradise Lost may be called an heroick poem? Those, who will not give it that title, may call it (if they please) a divine poem. It will be sufficient to its perfection, if it has in it all the beauties of the highest kind of poetry; and as for those who allege it is not an heroick poem, they advance no more to the diminution of it, than if they should tay Adam is not Æneas, or Eve Helen.
I fhall therefore examine it by the rules of epick poetry, and see whether it falls short of the Iliad or Æneid, in the beauties which are essential to that kind of writing. The first thing to be confidered in an epick poem, is the FABLE, which is perfect or imperfect, according as the action which it relates is more or lefs fo. This action should
have three qualifications in it. First, it should be but one action. Secondly, it should be an entire action. Thirdly, it should be a great action. To consider the action of the Iliad, Æneid, and Paradise Lost, in these three several lights. Homer, to preserve the unity of his action, haftens into the midst of things; as Horace has observed. Had he gone up to Leda's egg, or begun much later, even at the rape of Helen, or the investing of Troy; it is manifeft, that the story of the poem would have been a series of several actions. He therefore opens
with the discord of his princes, and artfully interweaves, in the several succeeding parts of it, an account of every thing material which relates to them, and had passed before that fatal difsension. After the fame manner, Æneas makes his first appearance in the Tyrrhene seas, and within fight of Italy, because the action, proposed to be celebrated, was that of his settling himself in Latium. But because it was necessary for the reader to know what had happened to him in the taking of Troy, and in the preceding parts of his voyage, Virgil makes his hero relate it by way of episode, in the second and third books of the Æneid. The contents of both which books come before those of the first book in the thread of the story, though, for preserving of this unity of action, they follow it in the difpofition of the poem. Milton, in imitation of these two great poets, opens his Paradise Lost, with an infernal council plotting the Fall of Man; which is the action he proposed to celebrate; and as for thofe great actions, which preceded in point of time, the battle of the angels, and the creation of the world, (which would have entirely destroyed the unity of his principal action, had he related them in the same order that they happened,) he caft them into the fifth, fixth, and seventh books, by way of episode to this noble Poem.
Aristotle himself allows, that Homer has nothing to boast of as to the unity of his fable, though at the same time that great critick and philosopher endeavours to palliate this imperfection in the Greek poet by imputing it, in fome measure, to the very nature of an epick poem. Some have been of opinion, that the Æneid also labours in this particular, and has episodes which may be looked upon as excrescences rather than as parts of the action. On the contrary, the Poem, which we have now under our confideration, has no other episodes than such as naturally arise from the subject; and yet is filled with such a multitude of astonishing incidents, that it gives us at the same time a pleasure of the greatest variety, and of the greatest fimplicity; uniform in its nature, though diverfified in the execution.
I must observe also, that, as Virgil, in the poem which was designed to celebrate the original of the Roman empire, has described the birth of its great rival, the Carthaginian commonwealth; Milton, with the like art in his Poem on the Fall of Man, has related the fall of those Angels who are his professed enemies. Besides the many other beauties in such an episode, its running parallel with the great action of the poem hinders it from breaking the unity fo much as another episode would have done, that had not so great an affinity with the