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LIVES OF THE POETS.
I am now to examine Paradise Lost; a poem which, considered with respect to design, may claim the first place, and with respect to performance the second, among the productions of the human mind.
By the general consent of critics, the first praise of genius is due to the writer of an epic poem, as it requires an assemblage of all the powers' which are singly sufficient for other compositions. Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth, by calling imagination tothe help of reason. Epic poetry undertakes to teach the most important truths by the most pleasing precepts, and therefore relates some great event in the most affecting maimer. History must supply the writer with the rudiments of narration, which he must improve and exalt by a nobler art, must animate by dramatic energy, and diversify by retrospection and anticipation; morality must teach him the exact bounds and different shades of vice and virtue; from policy and the practice of life he has to learn the discriminations of character, and the tendency of the passions, either single or combined; and physiology must supply him with illustrations and images. To put these materials to poetical use, is required an imagination capable of painting nature and realizing fiction. Nor is he yet a poet till he has attained the whole extension of his language, distinguished all the delicacies of phrase, and all the colours of words, and learned to adjust their different sounds to all the varieties of metrical modulation.
1 Bossu is of opinion that the poet's first work is to find a moral, which his fable is afterwards to illustrate and establish. This seems to have been the process only of Milton: the moral of other poems is incidental and consequent; in Milton's only it is essential and intrinsie. 2His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous; to vindicate the ways of God to man; to show the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the divine law.
To convey this moral there must be a fable, a narration artfully constructed, so as to excite curiosity and surprise expectation. In this part of his work Milton must be confessed to have equalled every other poet. He has involved in his account of the fall of man the events which preceded and those that were to follow it: he has interwoven the whole system of theology with such propriety that every part appears to be necessary; and scarcely any recital is wished shorter for the sake of quickening the progress of the main action.
The subject of an epic poem is naturally an event of great importance. That of Milton is not the destruction of a city, the conduct of a colony, or the foundation of an empire. His subject is the fate of worlds, the revolutions of heaven and of earth; rebellion against the Supreme King raised by the highest order of created beings; the overthrow of their host and the punishment of their crime; the creation of a new race of reasonable creatures; their original happiness and innocence, their forfeiture of immortality, and their restoration to hope and peace.
Great events can be hastened or retarded only by persons of elevated dignity. Before the greatness displayed in Milton's poem, all other greatness shrinks away. The weakest of his agents are the highest and noblest of human beings, the original parents of mankind, with whose actions the elements consented; on whose rectitude or deviation of will depended the state of terrestrial nature, and the condition of all the future inhabitants of the globe.
Of the other agents in the poem, the chief are such as it is irreverence to name on slight occasions. The rest were lower powers:
"Of which the least could wieM
Those elements, and arm him with the force
powers which only the control of Omnipotence restrains from laying creation waste, and filling the vast expanse of space with ruin and confusion. To display the motives and actions of beings thus superior, so far as human reason can examine them, or human imagination represent them, is the task which this mighty poet has undertaken and performed.
In the examination of epic poems much speculation is commonly employed upon the characters. The characters in the Paradise Lost which admit of examination are those of angels and of man; of angels good and evil; of man in his innocent and sinful state.
Among the angels, 3the virtue of Raphael is mild and placid, of easy condescension and free communication; 4that of Michael is regal and lofty, and, as may seem, attentive to the dignity of his own nature. Abdiel and Gabriel appear occasionally, and act as every incident requires; 6 the solitary fidelity of Abdiel is very amiably painted.
Of the evil angels, the characters are more diversified. To Satan, as Addison observes, such sentiments are given as suit the most exalted and most depraved being. Milton has been censured by Clarke, for the impiety which sometimes breaks from Satan's mouth. For there are thoughts, as he justly remarks, which no observation of character can justify, because no good man would willingly permit them to pass, however transiently, through his own mind. To make Satan speak as a rebel, without any such expressions as might taint the reader's imagination, was indeed one of the great difficulties in Milton's undertaking, and I cannot but think that he has extricated himself with great happiness. There is in Satan's speeches little that can give pain to a pious ear. The language of rebellion cannot be the same with that of obedience. The malignity of Satan foams in haughtiness and obstinacy; but his expressions are commonly general, and no otherwise offensive than as they are wicked.
The other chiefs of the celestial rebellion are very judiciously discriminated in the first and second books; and the ferocious character of Moloch appears, both in the battle and the council, with exact consistency.
To Adam and to Eve are given, during their innocence, such sentiments as innocence can generate and utter. Their love is pure benevolence and mutual veneration; their repasts are without luxury, and their diligence without toil. Their addresses to their Maker, have, little more than the voice of admiration and gratitude. Fruition left them nothing to ask, and Innocence left them nothing to fear.
But with, guilt enter distrust and discord, mutual accusation, and stubborn self-defence; they regard each other with alienated minds, and dread their Creator as the avenger of their transgression. At last they seek shelter in his mercy, soften to repentance, and melt' in supplication. Both before and after the Eall, the superiority of Adam is diligently sustained.
Of the probable and the marvellous, two parts of a vulgar epic poem, which 6immerge the critic in deep consideration, the Paradise Lost requires little to be said. It contains the history of a miracle, of Creation and Redemption; it displays the power and the mercy of the Supreme Being; the probable therefore is marvellous, and the marvellous is probable. The substance of the narrative is truth: and as truth allows no choice, it is, like necessity, superior to rule. To the accidental or adventitious parts, as to everything human, some slight exceptions may be made. But the main fabric is immovably supported.
It is justly remarked by Addison, that this poem has, by the nature of its subject, the advantage above all others, that it is universally and perpetually interesting. All mankind will, through all ages, bear the same relation to Adam and to Eve, and must partake of that good and evil which extend to themselves.
Of the machinery, so called from 7 6tos airo /j.ijxa.i'ris, by which is meant the occasional interposition of supernatural power, another fertile topic of critical remarks, here is no room to speak, because everything is done under the immediate and visible direction of Heaven; but the rule is so far observed that no part of the action could have been accomplished by any other means.
Of episodes, I think there are only two, contained in Raphael's relation of the war in heaven, and Michael's prophetic account of the changes to happen in this world. Both are closely connected with the great action; one was necessary to Adam as a warning, the other as a consolation.
To the completeness or integrity of the design nothing can be objected; it has distinctly and clearly what Aristotle requires,—a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is perhaps no poem of the same length from which so little can be taken without apparent mutilation. 8 Here are no funeral games, nor is there any long description of a shield. The short digressions at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books, might doubtless be spared, but superfluities so beautiful, who would take away? or who does not wish that the author of the Iliad had gratified succeeding ages with a little knowledge of himself? Perhaps no passages are more frequently or more attentively read than those extrinsic paragraphs; and since the end of poetry is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical with which all are pleased.
The questions, whether the action of the poem be strictly one, whether the poem can be properly termed heroic, and who is the hero, are raised by such readers as draw their principles of judgment rather from books than from reason. Milton, though he intituled Paradise Lost only a poem, yet calls it himself heroic song. Dryden, "petulantly and indecently, denies the heroism of Adam, because he was overcome; but there is no reason why the hero should not be unfortunate, except established practice, since success and virtue do not go necessarily together. Cato is the hero of Lucan, but Lucan's authority will not be suffered by Quintilian to decide. However, if success be necessary, Adam's deceiver was at last crushed; Adam was restored to his Maker's favour, and therefore may securely resume his human rank.
After the scheme and fabric of the poem, must be considered its component parts, the sentiments and the diction.
The sentiments, as expressive of manners, or appropriated to characters, are for the greater part unexceptkmably just.
Splendid passages, containing lessons of morality, or precepts of prudence, occur seldom. Such is the original formation of this.