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The Syrian damsels to lament his fate,
The reader will pardon me if I insert as a note on this beautiful passage, the account given us by the late ingenious Mr. Maundrell of this ancient piece of worship, and probably the first occasion of such a superstition. 'We came to a fair large river-doubtless the ancient river Adonis, so famous for the idolatrous rites performed here in lamentation of Adonis. We had the fortune to see what may be supposed to be the occasion of that opinion which Lucian relates concerning this river, viz. That this stream, at certain seasons of the year, especially about the feast of Adonis, is of a bloody colour; which the heathens looked upon as proceeding from a kind of sympathy in the river for the death of Adonis, who was killed by a wild boar in the mountains, out of which this stream rises. Something like this we saw actually come to pass; for the water was stained to a surprising redness; and, as we observed in travelling, had discoloured the sea a great way into a reddish hue, occasioned doubtless by a sort of minium, or red earth, washed into the river by the violence of the rain, and not by any stain from Adonis's blood.'
The passage in the catalogue, explaining the manner how spirits transform themselves by contraction or enlargement of their dimensions, is introduced with great judgment, to make way for
several surprising accidents in the sequel of the poem. There follows one, at the very end of the first book, which is what the French critics call marvellous, but at the same time probable by reason of the passage last mentioned. As soon as the infernal palace is finished, we are told the multitude and rabble of spirits immediately shrunk themselves into a small compass, that there might be room for such a numberless assembly in this capacious hall. But it is the poet's refinement upon this thought which I most admire, and which is indeed very noble in itself. For he tells us, that notwithstanding the vulgar among the fallen spirits contracted their forms, those of the first rank and dignity still preserved their natural dimensions:
Thus incorporeal spirits to smallest forms
The character of Mammon, and the description of the Pandemonium, are full of beauties.
There are several other strokes in the first book wonderfully poetical, and instances of that sublime genius so peculiar to the author. Such is the description of Azazel's stature, and the infernal standard which he unfurls; as also of that ghastly light by which the fiends appear to one another in their place of torments:
The seat of desolation, void of light,
Save what the glimm'ring of those lived flames
The shout of the whole host of fallen angels when drawn up in battle array:
-The universal host up sent
A shout that tore hell's concave, and beyond
The review, which the leader makes of his infernal army:
-He through the armed files
Darts his experienc'd eye, and soon traverse
The flash of light which appeared upon the drawing of their swords:
He spake; and to confirm his words out flew
The sudden production of the Pandæmonium:
Anon out of the earth a fabric huge
Rose like an exhalation, with the sound
The artificial illuminations made in it:
From the arch'd roof
Pendent by subtle magic, many a row
Of starry lamps and blazing cressets,* fed
There are also several noble similes and allusions in the first book of Paradise Lost. And here I must observe, that when Milton alludes either
* Cresset, i. e. a blazing light set on a beacon, in French, croissete, because beacons formerly had crosses on their tops. JOHNSON.
to things or persons, he never quits his simile until it rises to some very great idea, which is often foreign to the occasion that gave birth to it. The resemblance does not, perhaps, last above a line or two, but the poet runs on with the hint until he has raised out of it some glorious image or sentiment, proper to inflame the mind of the reader, and to give it that sublime kind of entertainment which is suitable to the nature of an heroic poem. Those who are acquainted with Homer's and Virgil's way of writing, cannot but be pleased with this kind of structure in Milton's similitudes. I am the more particular on this head, because ignorant readers, who have formed their taste upon the quaint similes and little turns of wit, which are so much in vogue among modern poets, cannot relish these beauties which are of a much higher nature, and are therefore apt to censure Milton's comparisons, in which they do not see any surprising points of likeness. Monsieur Perrault was a man of this vitiated relish, and for that very reason has endeavoured to turn into ridicule several of Homer's similitudes, which he calls comparaisons à longue queue,' long-tailed comparisons.' I shall conclude this paper on the first book of Milton with the answer which Monsieur Boileau makes to Perrault on this occasion: 'Comparisons,' says he, 'in odes and epic poems, are not introduced only to illustrate and embellish the discourse, but to amuse and relax the mind of the reader, by frequently disengaging him from too painful an attention to the principal subject, and by leading him into other agreeable images. Homer, says he, excelled in this particular, whose comparisons abound with such images of nature as are proper to relieve and diversify his subjects. He contin
ally instructs the reader, and makes him take notice even in objects which are every day before his eyes, of such circumstances as he should not otherwise have observed.' To this he adds, as a maxim universally acknowledged, that it is not necessary in poetry for the points of the comparison to correspond with one another exactly, but that a general resemblance is sufficient, and that too much nicety in this particular savours of the rhetorician and epigrammatist.'
In short, if we look into the conduct of Homer, Virgil, and Milton, as the great fable is the soul of each poem, so to give their works an agreeable variety, their episodes are so many short fables, and their similes so many short episodes; to which you may add, if you please, that their metaphors are so many short similes. If the reader considers the comparisons in the first book of Milton, of the sun in an eclipse, of the sleeping leviathan, of the bees swarming about their hive, of the fairy dance, in the view wherein I have here placed them, he will easily discover the great beauties that are in each of those passages.
No. 304. MONDAY, FEB. 18, 1711-12.
Vulnus alit venis et cæco carpitur igni.
THE circumstances of my correspondent, whose letter I now insert, are so frequent, that I cannot want compassion so much as to forbear laying it