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thought in Homer, and at the same time compare it with an instance of the same nature both in Virgil and Milton. Sentiments which raise laughter can very seldom be admitted with any decency into a heroic poem, whose business it is to excite passions of a much nobler nature. Homer, however, in his characters of Vulcan and Thersites, in his story of Mars and Venus, in his behaviour of Irus, and in other passages, has been observed to have lapsed into the burlesque character, and to have departed from that serious air which seems essential to the magnificence of an epic poem. I remember but one laugh in the whole Æneid, which rises in the fifth book, upon Monetes, where he is represented as thrown overboard, and drying himself upon a rock. But this piece of mirth is so well timed that the severest critic can have nothing to say against it; for it is in the book of games and diversions, where the reader's mind may be supposed to be sufficiently relaxed for such an entertainment. The only piece of pleasantry in Paradise Lost, is where the evil spirits are described as rallying the angels upon the success of their new invented artillery. This passage I look upon to be the most exceptionable in the whole poem, as being nothing else but a string of puns, and those too very indifferent ones,
- Satan beheld their plight,
And to his mates thus in derision call'd:
'O friends, why come not on those victors proud? Ere while they fierce were coming; and when we,
To entertain them fair with open front
And breast, (what could we more?) propounded terms
As they would dance: yet for a dance they seem'd
To whom thus Belial in like gamesome mood :-
Milton's Paradise Lost, b. vi. L 609, &c.
CRITIQUE ON MILTON'S PARADISE lost.
HAVING already treated of the fable, the characters, and sentiments in the Paradise Lost, we are in the last place to consider the language; and as the learned world is very much divided upon Milton as to this point, I hope they will excuse me if I appear particular in any of my opinions, and incline to those who judge the most advantageously of the author.
It is requisite that the language of a heroic poem should be both perspicuous and sublime. In proportion as cither of these two qualities is wanting, the language is imperfect. Perspicuity is the first and most necessary qualification; insomuch that a goodnatured reader sometimes overlooks a little slip even in the grammar or syntax, where it is impossible for
him to mistake the poet's sense,
Of this kind is that
passage in Milton, wherein he speaks of Satan :
-God and his Son except,
Created thing nought valu'd he nor shunn'd.'
And that in which he describes Adam and Eve :
Adam, the goodliest man of men since born
It is plain, that in the former of these passages, according to the natural syntax, the divine persons mentioned in the first line are represented as created beings; and that, in the other, Adam and Eve are confounded with their sons and daughters. Such little blemishes as these, when the thought is great and natural, we should, with Horace, impute to a pardonable inadvertency, or to the weakness of human nature, which cannot attend to each minute particular, and give the last finishing to every circumstance in so long a work. The ancient critics, therefore, who were actuated by a spirit of candour rather than that of cavilling, invented certain figures of speech, on purpose to palliate little errors of this nature in the writings of those authors who had so many greater beauties to atone for them.
If clearness and perspicuity were only to be consulted, the poet would have nothing else to do but to clothe his thoughts in the most plain and natural expressions. But since it often happens that the most obvious phrases, and those which are used in ordinary conversation, become too familiar to the ear, and contract a kind of meanness by passing through the mouths of the vulgar; a poet should take particular care to guard himself against idiomatic ways of speak
ing. Ovid and Lucan have many poornesses of expression upon this account, as taking up with the first phrases that offered, without putting themselves to the trouble of looking after such as would not only have been natural, but also elevated and sublime. Milton has but few failings in this kind, of which, however, you may meet with some instances, as in the following passages:
Embryos and idiots, eremites and friars,
-A while discourse they hold,
No fear lest dinner cool; when thus began
Who of all ages to succeed, but feeling
For this we may thank Adam.
The great masters in composition know very well that many an elegant phrase becomes improper for a poet or an orator, when it has been debased by common use. For this reason the works of ancient authors, which are written in dead languages, have a great advantage over those which are written in languages that are now spoken. Were there any mean phrases or idioms in Virgil and Homer, they would not shock the ear of the most delicate modern reader, so much as they would have done that of an old Greek or Roman, because we never hear them pronounced in our streets, or iu ordinary conversation.
It is not therefore sufficient that the language of an epic poem be perspicuous, unless it be also sublime. To this end, it ought to deviate from the common forms
forms and ordinary phrases of speech. The judgment of a post very much discovers itself in shunning the common roads of expression, without falling into such ways of speech as may seem stiff and unnatural; he must not swell into a false sublime, by endeavouring to avoid the other extreme. Among the Greeks, Eschylus, and sometimes Sophocles, were guilty of this fault; among the Latins, Claudian and Statius; and among our own countrymen, Shakespear and Lee. In these authors the affectation of greatness often hurts the perspicuity of the style, as in many others the endeavour after perspicuity prejudices its greatness.
Aristotle has observed, that the idiomatic style may be avoided, and the sublime formed, by the following methods. First, by the use of metaphors; such are those of Milton:
Imparadised in one another's arms.
And in his hand a reed
Stood waving tipt with fire.-
In these and innumerable other instances the metaphors are very bold, but just. I must however observe that the metaphors are not so thick sown in Milton, which always savours too much of wit; that they never clash with one another, which, as Aristotle observes, turns a sentence into a kind of ænigma or riddle; and that he seldom has recourse to them where the proper and natural words will do as well.
Another way of raising the language, and giving it a poetical turn, is to make use of the idioms of other tongues. Virgil is full of the Greek forms of speech, which the critics call Hellenisms, as Horace in his