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ful man sees the cock strut, and hears the horn and hounds echo in the wood; then walks, not unseen, to observe the glory of the rising sun; or listens to the singing milk-maid, and views the labours of the plowman and the mower; then casts his eyes around him over scenes of smiling plenty, and looks up to the distant tower, the residence of some fair inhabitant thus he pursues rural gaiety through a day of labour, or of play, and delights himself at night with the fanciful narratives of superstitious ignorance.
«The pensive man walks unseen to muse at midnight; and hears the sullen curfew. If the weather drives him home, he sits in a room lighted only by glowing embers, or, by a lonely lamp, outwatches the north star, to discover the habitation of separate souls; and varies the shades of meditation, by contemplating the magnificent and pathetic scenes of tragic and epic poetry. When the morning comes, a morning gloomy with rain and wind, he walks into the dark trackless wood, falls asleep by some murmuring water, and with melancholy enthusiasm expects some dream of prognostication, or some music played by aerial performers.
<< Both mirth and melancholy are solitary, silent inhabitants of the breast, that neither receive nor transmit communication; no mention is therefore made of a philosophical friend, or a pleasant companion. The seriousness does not arise from any participation of calamity, nor the gaiety from the pleasures of the bottle.
«The man of cheerfulness, having exhausted the country, tries what towered cities will afford, and mingles with scenes of splendour, gay assemblies, and nuptial festivities; but he mingles a mere spectator; as when the learned comedies of Jonson, or the wild dramas of Shakspeare, are exhibited, he attends the theatre.
« The pensive man never loses himself in crowds, but walks the cloister, or frequents the cathedral. Milton probably had not yet forsaken the church.
<< Both his characters delight in music; but he seems to think that cheerful notes would have obtained from Pluto a complete dismission of Eurydice, of whom solemn sounds only procured an additional release.
« For the old age of Cheerfulness he makes no provision, but Melancholy he conducts with great dignity to the close of life. His cheerfulness is without levity, and his pensiveness without austerity.
<< Through these two poems the images are properly selected, and nicely distinguished; but the colours of the diction seem not sufficiently discriminated. I know not whether the characters are kept sufficiently apart. No mirth can, indeed, be found in his melancholy, but I am afraid that I always meet some melancholy in his mirth. They are two noble efforts of imagination.
Mr. Warton, professor of poetry in the University of Oxford, intimates, that Milton borrowed many of the images in these two fine poems from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy,» a book published in 1624, and at sundry times since, abounding in learning, curious information, and pleasantry. Mr. Warton says, that Milton appears to have been an attentive reader of this book, and we can vouch, from the authority of a literary friend of Dr. Johnson's, that the Doctor frequently resorted to the same book for amusement after the fatigue of study.
The greatest of our author's juvenile productions is the Masque of Comus, in which, as the critic remarks, may very plainly be discovered the dawn or twilight of Paradise Lost; and we observe further, upon his authority, that a work more truly poetical is rarely found; allusions, images, and descriptive epithets, embellish every period with lavish decorations. As a series of lines, therefore, it may be considered as worthy of all the admiration with which the votaries have received it; as a drama it is deficient, the action is not probable.
« A Masque, in those parts where supernatural intervention is admitted, must indeed be given up to all the freaks of imagination; but, so far as the action is merely human. it ought to be reasonable, which can hardly be said of the conduct of the two brothers, who, when their sister sinks with fatigue in a pathless wilderness, wander both away together, in search of berries, too far to find their way back, and leave a helpless female to all the sadness and danger of
solitude. This, however, is a defect overbalanced by its convenience. What descrves more reprehension is, that the prologue, spoken in the wild wood by the attendant Spirit, is addressed to the audience: a mode of communication so contrary to the nature of dramatic representation, that no precedents can support it.
«The discourse of the Spirit is too long; an objection that may be made to almost all the following speeches; they have not the sprightliness of a dialogue, animated by reciprocal contention, but seem rather declamations deliberately composed, and formally repeated, on a moral question. The auditor, therefore, listens as to a lecture, without passion, without anxiety. The song of Comus has airiness and jollity; but, what may recommend Milton's morals as well as his poetry, the invitations to poetry are so general, that they excite no distinct images of corrupt enjoyment, and take no dangerous hold on the fancy.
« The soliloquies of Comus are elegant, but tedious; and we cannot but remark that, unless they are delivered with great judgment, rather pall than entertain the auditors. The language is poetical, and the sentiments are noble, the songs are animating, and full of imagery; and it is, upon the whole, drawn in the epic style, splendid and instructive. »>
We have now only to observe that the songs were set to music by the late Dr. Arne, at the revival of the piece on the English stage, which in consequence had a considerable run; and the beautiful air of Sweet Echo, by Sabrina, the Pastoral Nymph, has always a most delightful and enchanting effect.
The Sonnets of Milton deserve not any particular comments; for of the best it can only be said, that they are not bad; and perhaps only the eighth, and twenty-first are truly entitled to this slender commendation. The fabric of a Sonnet, however adapted to the Italian language, has never succeeded in ours, which, having greater variety of terminations, requires the rhymes to be often changed. Those little pieces may be dispatched without much anxiety; a greater work calls for greater care.d
Dr. Johnson prefaces his admirable criticism on Milton's Paradise Lost with some very pertinent remarks, which shew his great judgment of the nature and design of poetry. Having dismissed his examination of the merits of the former works, he thus proceeds:
« 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 to the help of reason. Fpic Poetry undertakes to teach the most important truths by the most pleasing precepts, and therefore relates some great event in the most affecting manner. 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 just bounds and different shades of vice and virtue; from policy and the practice of life, he has to learn the description of characters, 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. >>
The Doctor further observes that Bossu, an eminent French critic, is of opinion, that the poet's first work is to find a moral, which his fable is afterwards to illustrate and establish; and from thence takes occasion to remark, that this seems to have been the process only of Milton, and that the moral of other poems is incidental and consequent : in
Milton's only it is essential and intrinsic. His purpose was the most useful and the most arduous; « to vindicate the ways of God to man; to shew the reasonableness of religion, and the necessity of obedience to the Divine Law. »
To convey this moral, our critic proceeds to state, << there must be a fable, a narration artfully constructed, so as to excite curiosity, surprise, and 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 which were to follow it; he has interwoven the system of theology with such propriety, that every part appears necessary, and scarcely any recital is wished shorter sor the sake of quickening the progress of the main action.
« The subject of an epic poem is 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 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 inhabiants of the globe.
Of other agents in the poem, the chief are such as it is irreverence to name on flight occasions. The rest were lower powers;
Of which the least could wield
Those elements, and arm him with the force
Of all their regions;