« AnteriorContinuar »
TVhich was the greater Poet - Shakspere or Milton;
OPENER. — Sir, It will be readily admitted that nothing conduces more to give the mind clearness and distinctness of thought, than the practice of criticism; and therefore it will be acknowledged that I have proposed a question for debate which is calculated to afford useful and healthy mental exercise.
We are to judge between two poets; between the two greatest poets (as I believe) that ever lived. We are to say which is the greater poet of the two. By greater I mean altogether largersouled. I do not wish to know which is the greater in any particular quality, but in the sum and total of his qualities. The question will now, I think, be clearly understood.
I wish to guard against one error: the error of judging the poet as the man. It is between the works, and not between the lives, of these two writers that I wish for a comparison : to their works alone, then, let us refer.
My own opinion runs in favour of Shakspere's
superiority. I will not deny that Milton may have soared higher than Shakspere, but Shakspere's, if not so lofty, is a more extended flight. Milton's genius has a tendency to concentration : Shakspere's to diffusion. Milton flies perpendicularly, Shakspere horizontally. The question becomes, therefore, Which flight was the better, more useful, and more admirable of the two ?
As I said before, I give the palm to Shakspere. I think that his vision is keener and truer and quicker than Milton's. Both are Poets of Humanity; both address themselves to universal feelings and passions; but Shakspere seems to have known the human heart better, and to have addressed it more effectually, than Milton did. This appears to arise from the fact that Shakspere's vision was direct, and perfectly clear: whilst Milton's vision had to pass through the medium of his imagination. Milton rose aloft from the crowd of men, and looked down upon them as through a microscope; Shakspere mingled with men and saw them face to face. Milton therefore may have seen erroneously; whilst Shakspere's vision must have been absolutely true. He who sees through a microscope may perchance have a false or distorted lens before him, whilst he who uses the naked eye is liable to no such danger. Thus it was that Milton's vision of the world was less true than Shakspere's : Shakspere saw clearly and without a medium : Milton saw through his imagination : and therefore less directly and less distinctly.
I have argued from fact to theory: now let me return from theory to fact. Take the idea of the world and of life which you get from Milton, and take the idea of the world and of life which you gather from Shakspere. Place them side by side: what do you see? Milton makes Earth a grand colossal universe of thought; and Man a great, theological, metaphysical, moral THINKER and DEBATER: Shakspere makes the earth a world full of busy, active, practical life; and Man a restless DOER; working, feeling, hoping, despairing; replete with energy, intelligence, and passion. In a word, man is with Milton an imaginary being; with Shakspere a real one. Milton gives us man as he would have made him: Shakspere pourtrays him as he is.
This is all I wish to say upon this subject for the present.
SECOND SPEAKER. — Sir, I regard Milton as the greater Poet of the two.
I do so because I think that in the qualily of Imagination he is decidedly superior: and Imagination is, in my opinion, the highest quality a l'oet can display.
The great poem of Paradise Lost is the instance I select in proof.
The very conception of this extraordinary work is sufficient to stamp Milton as the first of Poets.
“ To vindicate eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to man is an idea that only the highest style of mind could have conceived. And the execution of the idea is as wonderful as the conception of it. Eden, Earth, Hell, and Heaven, are in turns presented to us, and described with a vividness, distinctness, and force which we look for in vain in
It is said that Milton was incorrect in his description of human life and character : but surely the critics who say so must have forgotten the masterly and touching delineation which he has given us of our First Parents in Paradise. Anything more purely beautiful I cannot conceive. The untainted souls of the new-created pair: their innocent delight in the new scene spread before them : their deep mutual love, the love of young, unworn, unexhausted hearts: the freshness, quiet sweetness, and unclouded loveliness of Eden : form the most surpassingly beautiful and delightful picture that poetry ever conceived. I know not where, save in Holy Writ, the tired spirit of man may find such soothing
rest and consolation as in the Paradise of Milton. The contrast of its deep unruffled peace with the storms of life gives to this portion of the poem a charm which no other work that I know of possesses.
The imagination that produced this work is second to none on earth.
THIRD SPEAKER. —- Sir, I am not disposed to deny that Imagination is the highest quality a Poet can possess : although perhaps it would not be difficult to argue with success that the power of describing the Actual is quite as great as the power of describing the Possible or Imagined. But I am disposed to deny that Milton possesses this quality more eminently than Shakspere.
Milton has imagined Paradise : Shakspere has imagined Fairy-land. Milton has imagined Satan: Shakspere has imagined Ariel and the Weird Sisters. The supernatural is, indeed, common ground to both : and each treads it with equal propriety. Milton's power herein has been noticed : now let us glance at Shakspere's. Consider, then, the exquisite chasteness and perfect keeping of Shakspere's supernatural pictures; whether of Oberon and Fairy-land, or Hecate and Witchland. Whether it be the Fairy
“ Hanging a pearl in every cowslip's ear," or whether it be Puck