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powers which only the control of Omnipotence could restrain 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, is the task which this great Poet has undertaken, and performed.
In the examination of epic-poems, much speculation is commonly employed on the characters. The characters in « Paradise Lost, » which admit of examination, are those of angels and man; of angels, good and evil; of man, in his innocent and sinful state.
« Of the probable and the marvellous, two parts of an epic-poem which immerge the critic in deep consideration, the « Paradise Lost » requires little to be said. It contains the history and redemption; it displays the power and mercy of the Supreme Being; the probable 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 every thing human, some slight exceptions may be made, but the main fabric is immoveably supported. >>
Dr. Johnson's observes, that it is justly remarked by Addison, that « this poem, by the nature of its subject, has the advantage above all others, as it is universally and perpetually interesting. All mankind will, throughout all ages, bear the same relation to Adam and to Eve, and must partake of that good and evil which extend to themselves.
«To the completeness of the design nothing can be objected; it has distinctly and clearly what is requisite for a finished poem; a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is not, perhaps, any poem of the same length, from which so little can be taken without apparent mutilation. The thoughts, which are occasionally called forth in the progress of this sublime composition, are such as could only be produced by an imagination, in the highest degree fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study and unlimited curiosity. The heat of Milton's mind might be said to sublimate his learning, to throw off, into his work, the spirit of science unmingled with its grosser parts.
« He had considered creation in its whole extent; his descriptions are therefore learned. He had accustomed his imagination to unrestrained indulgence; his conceptions were therefore extensive. The characteristic quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural part is gigantic loftiness. He can please when pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish.
« He seems to have been well acquainted with his own genius, and to know what it was that nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others; the power of displaying the vast, illuminating the splendid, enforcing the awful, darkening the gloomy, and aggravating the dreadful; he therefore chose a subject on which too much could not be said; on which he might tire his fancy without the censure of extravagance.
«The appearance of nature, and the occurrences of life, did not satiate his appetite of greatness. To paint things as they are, requires a minute attention, and employs the memory rather than the fancy. Milton's delight was to sport in the wide regions of possibility; reality was a scene tɔo narrow for his mind. He sent his faculties out upon discovery into worlds where only imagination can travel, and delighted to form new modes of existence, and furnish sentiment and action to superior beings; to trace the counsels of hell, or accompany the choirs of heaven. But he could not always be in other worlds; he must sometimes revisit earth, and tell of things visible and known. When he cannot raise wonder by the sublimity of his mind, he gives delights by its fertility.
« Whatever be his subject, he never fails to fill the imagination. But his images and descriptions of the scenes or operations of Nature, do not seem to be always copied from original form, nor to have the freshness and energy of immediate observations. He saw nature, as Dryden expresses it, << through the spectacles of books,» and, on most occasions, calls learning to his assistance. The garden of Eden brings to his mind the vale of Enna, where Proserpine was gather
ing flowers. Satan makes his way through fighting elements, like Argo between the Cyanean rocks, or Ulysses between. the two Sicilian whirpools, when he shunned Charybdis on the left. The mythological allusions have been justly censured, as not being always introduced with propriety; yet they contribute variety to the narration, and produce an alternate exercise of the memory and the fancy.
<«< His similies are less numerous, and more various, than those of his predecessors: but he does not confine himself within the limits of rigorous comparison: his great excellence is amplitude, and he expands the adventitious image beyond the dimensions which the occasion required. Thus comparing the shield of Satan to the orb of the moon, he crowds the imagination with the discovery of the telescope, and all the wonders which the telescope discovers.
<<< Of his moral sentiments, it is hardly praise to affirm, that they excel those of all other poets: for this superiority he was indebted to his acquaintance with the sacred writings. The ancient epic poets, wanting the light of revelation, were unskilful teachers of virtue; their principal characters may be great, but they are not amiable. In Milton, every line breathes sanctity of thought, and purity of manners; except when the train of the narration requires the introduction of rebellious spirits; and even they are compelled to acknowledge their subjection to the Deity, in such a manner as excites reverence, aud confirms piety.
« Of human beings, in this sublime poem, there are but two; but those two are the parents of mankind, venerable before the fall for dignity and innocence, and amiable after it for repentance and submission. In their first state, their affection and their piety are sublime without presumption.
« As human passions did not enter the world before the fall, there is in « Paradise Lost » little opportunity for the pathetic; but what little there is has not been lost. The passions are moved only upon occasion. Sublimity is the general and prevailing quality in this poem; sublimity variously modified; sometimes descriptive, sometimes argumentative.
« Pleasure and terror are the genuine sources of poetry;
but poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can at least conceive, and poetical terror, such as human strength and fortitude may combat. Known truths, however, may be conveyed to the mind, by a new train of intermediate images. This Milton had undertaken, and performed, with a pregnancy and vigour of mind, peculiar to himself. Whoever considers the few radical positions which the sacred writings afforded him, will wonder by what energetic operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them. to so much variety, restrained, as he was, by religious reverence, from licentiousness of fiction.
activity, has always been the right of poetry. But such aerial beings are, for the most part, suffered only to do their natural office, and retire. Thus Fame tells a tale, and Victory hovers over a general, or perches on a standard; but Fame and Victory can do no more. To give them any real employment, or ascribe to them any material agency, is to make them allegorical no longer, but to shock the mind by ascribing effects to non-entity. >>
Dryden remarks, that Milton has some flats among his elevations. ་ This, the Doctor observes, « is only to say, that all the parts are not equal. In every work, one part must be for the sake of others; a palace must have passages; a poem must have transitions. It is no more to be required, that wit should always be blazing, than that the sun should always stand at noon. In a great work, there is a vicissitude of luminous and opaque parts, as there is in the world a succession of day and night. Milton, when he has expatriated on the sky, may be allowed sometimes to revisit earth; for what other author ever soared so high, or sustained his flight so long?
«< Such,» concludes the critic, « are the defects of that wonderful performance « Paradise Lost, which he, who could put in balance with its beauties, must be considered not as nice, but as dull; as less to be censured for want of candour, than pitied for want of sensibility. >>
Of Paradise Regained, » Dr. Johnson thinks the general judgment to be right; that it is, in many parts, elegant and every where instructive. It was not to be reasonably supposed, that the writer of « Paradise Lost, could ever write without great effusions of fancy, and exalted precepts of wisdom. The business of « Paradise Regained is circumscribed; a dialogue, without action, can never please like an union of the narrative and dramatic powers. «Had this poem,» says the doctor, « been written not by Milton, but by some imitator, it would have claimed and received universal praise.»>
In «< Samson Agonistes,» there are many particular beauties, many just sentiments and striking lines; but it wants that power of attracting the attention which a well-digested plan produces. Milton seems to have been attached to the