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I have already spoken of the characters of Milton's Paradise Lost, and declared my opinion as to the allegorical persons who are introduced in it.
If we look into the sentiments, I think they are sometimes defective under the following heads. First, as there are several of them too much pointed, and some that degenerate even into puns. Of this last kind, I conceive, is that in the first book, where, speaking of the pigmies, he calls them
the small infantry Warr'd on by cranes.
Another blemish that appears in some of his thoughts, is his frequent allusion to heathen fables, which are not certainly consonant with the divine subject of which he treats. I do not find fault with these allusions, where the poet himself represents them as fabulous, as he does in some places, but where he mentions them as truths and matters of fact.
A third fault in his sentiments is an unnecessary ostentation of learning, which likewise occurs very frequently. It is certain that both Homer and Virgil were masters of all the learning of their times, but it shows itself in their works after an indirect and concealed manner. Milton seems ambitious of discovering, by his excursions on free-will, and predestination, and his many glances upon history, astronomy, geography, and the like, as well as by the terms and phrases he sometimes makes use of, that he was acquainted with the whole circle of arts and sciences.
If, in the last place, we consider the language of this great poet, we must allow, that it is often too much laboured, and sometimes obscured, by obsolete words, transpositions, and foreign iddioms. Seneca's objection to the style of a great author, Riget ejus oratio, nihil in ea placidum, nihil lene, is what many critics make to Milton; to which I may farther add, that Milton's sentiments and ideas were so wonderfully sublime, that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full strength and beauty without having recourse to these foreign assistances.
Our language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of soul which furnished him with such glorious conceptions.
A second fault in his language is, that he often affects a kind of jingle in his words, as in the following passages, and many others :
That brought into this world a world of woe.
Beseeching or besieging.
This tempted our attempt.
At one flight bound high overleap'd all bound.
I know there are precedents for this kind of speech; that some of the greatest ancients have adopted it; and that Aristotle himself has given it a place in his Rhetoric, among the beauties of that art; but it is in itself poor and trifling, it is, I think, at present, universally exploded by all the masters of polite writing.
The last defect I shall notice in Milton's style, is the frequent use of what the learned call technical words or terms of art. It is one of the great beauties of poetry to make hard things intelligible, and to deliver what is abstruse of itself in such easy language as may be understood by ordinary readers: besides that, the knowledge of a poet should rather seem born with him, or inspired, than drawn from books and systems. I have often wondered how Dryden could translate a passage out of Virgil after the following
Milton makes use of larboard in the same manner. When he is upon building he mentions Doric pillars, pilasters, cornice, frieze, architrave. When he talks of heavenly bodies, you meet with ecliptic and eccentric, the trepidation, stars dropping from the zenith, rays culminating from the equator. To which might be added many instances of the like kind in several other arts and sciences.
I have seen in the works of a modern philosopher, a map of the spots in the sun. My last observations on faults and blemishes in Milton's Paradise Lost, may be considered as a piece of the same nature. Το pursue the allusion; as it is observed, that among the bright parts of the luminous body abovementioned, there are some which glow more intensely and dart a stronger light than others; so, notwithstanding I have already shown Milton's poem to be very beautiful in general, I shall now proceed to take notice of such beauties as appear to me more exquisite than the rest (*).
The works of inferior geniuses have their infancy, and often receive additions of strength and beauty in the several impressions they undergo whilst their authors live: but the following poem came into the world, like the persons whom it celebrates, in a state of maturity. However, though in the first Edition it was disposed into ten books only, Milton thought proper, in the second, to make a new division of it into twelve; not, we suppose, with respect to the Æneis, for he was, in both senses af the phrase, above imitation, but, more probably, because the length of the seventh and tenth required a pause in the narration, he divided them each
The metre is English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of a poem, but the invention of a barbarous age, graeed indeed by the use of
1. There are other criticisms written by Addison, and inserted in the Spectator, which forms a part of the British Classics.
modern poets, carried away by custom. Rhyme has been rejected by the most eminent Italian and Spanish poets, and long since in the best English tragedies, as, to all judicious ears, trivial, and of no musical delight, which consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and sense variously drawn out from one verse into another, not in jingling sounds of similar endings, a fault avoided by learned authors. The neglect of rhyme is so far from being taken as a defect, though it may seem so to vulgar readers, that it rather is to be esteemed as the first example set, in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poetry, from the troublesome bondage of rhyming.