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REMARKS ON THE SONNETS.
THE brevity of the Sonnet will scarcely admit the greater traits of poetry: there is no space for fable; but for the preservation of a single grand thought it is admirably fitted. Mr. Dyce, in his "Specimens of English Sonnets, from the time of Henry VIII., chronologically arranged," has shown their progress and their fashions. They were favourites with Spenser and Shakspeare, and many less eminent poets of those days; as, Sydney, Constable, B. Barnes, Daniel, and Drayton. It appears to me that the Sonnets both of Spenser and Shakspeare have been commended too much they are quaint, laboured, and often metaphysical. Of all authors, Wordsworth has most succeeded in this department.
But there are many of Milton's which are very grand in their nakedness: they have little of picturesque imagery. To make use once more of an expression of Johnson-not as applied to them, but to other parts of Milton-their sublimity is argumentative: it is intellectual and spiritual. There is something at times of ruggedness and involution in the words: they rarely flow. They are spoken as by one, who, conscious of the force of the thought, scorns ornament; they have something of the brevity and the dictatorial tone of the oracle, and seem to come from one who feels conscious that he is entitled to authority. Compositions so short can only have weight when they come from established names: every word ought to be pregnant with mind, with thought, sentiment, or imagery. The form will not allow diffuseness and smooth diluted periods: the repetition of the rhymes certainly aggravates the difficulty.
If it can be shown that in any one of these Sonnets of Milton there is not much sterling ore, I will give it up. In all there is some important thought, or opinion, or sentiment developed. The modulation may sometimes appear rough to delicate and sickly ears; and there is not the nice polish of a lady's gem come from a refining jeweller's workshop: it is all massy gold, not fillagreed away into petty ornaments.
The Sonnet on Cromwell is majestic;- -on his blindness, sublime;-on his twenty-second birthday, both pathetic and exalted: others are moral and axiomatic; and others descriptive.
The necessity of compression gives this form of composition a great merit, when the fountain of the writer's mind is abundant. It is true,
that in this short space, barrenness itself can find enough to fill up the outline but in Milton there is no unmeaning sentence or useless word.
If there was one poetical power of Milton more eminent than another, it was his power of description: he gave an idealism to all his material images; and yet they were in the highest degree distinct and picturesque. He knew where to throw a veil, and when to make the features prominent. The question at present is, not whether the Sonnets are equal to Milton's genius, but whether they are good, or as contemptible as Johnson represents them. I say that they are such as none but Milton could have written they are full of lofty thought, moral instruction, and virtuous sentiment, expressed in language as strong as it is plain. They are pictures of a manly, resolute, inflexible spirit, and aid us in our knowledge of the poet's individual character; and if any one can read them without both pleasurable excitation and improvement, he has a sort of mind which it would be vain to attempt to cultivate-a barren soil, or one overgrown with weeds and prejudices. SIR EGERTON BRYDGES.
TO THE NIGHTINGALE.
O NIGHTINGALE, that on yon bloomy spray
Whether the Muse or Love call thee his mate,
ON HIS BEING ARRIVED TO THE AGE OF
How soon hath Time, the subtle thief of youth,
And inward ripeness doth much less appear,
It shall be still in strictest measure even
To that same lot, however mean or high,
Toward which Time leads me, and the will of Heaven;
As ever in my great Task Master's eye.
SONNET I-4. Lead on propitious May, | his own innate character, vowed to great because the nightingale is supposed to begin singing in April.
6. First heard, &c., that is, if first heard, &c.
SONNET II-This Sonnet is preeminent ly interesting as an early development of
undertakings, and grieved that his vir tues and sublime ambition had yet advanced no step in its own accomplishment. Here the language is simple, chaste, and smooth, and the numbers are not unmelodious.-BRYDGES.
WHEN THE ASSAULT WAS INTENDED TO THE
CAPTAIN, or Colonel, or Knight in arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless doors may seize,
If deed of honour did thee ever please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms.
The great Emathian conquerour bid spare
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare.
TO A VIRTUOUS YOUNG LADY.
LADY, that in the prime of earliest youth
Wisely hast shunn'd the broad way and the green,
To fill thy odorous lamp with deeds of light,
And hope that reaps not shame. Therefore be sure,
SONNET III.-Ths Sonnet shows that the poet had now conceived that firm opinion of his own genius and worth which never afterwards deserted him. It was written in 1642, when the king's army had arrived at Brentford, and had thrown the whole city into consternation.
11. Pindarus. Every reader of ancient history knows that when Alexander of Macedonia assaulted and destroyed Thebes, he ordered the house of Pindar to stand untouched and entire, though thousands of Thebans were put to death and thousands more sold into slavery. As a poet, Milton had as good a right to expect protection as Pindar.
13. Sad Electra's poet. Plutarch relates that when the Lacedemonian general took Athens, it was proposed in a council of war to rase the city entirely, and convert its site into a desert. But during the debate a certain Phocian sung some fine lines from the "Electra" of Euripides, which so affected the hearers that they declared it an unworthy act to reduce a place, so celebrated for the produc tion of illustrious men, to total ruin. By the epithet sad, Milton denominates the pathetic character of Euripides. Re peated signifies recited.-T. WARTON.