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ON LYCIDAS, AND EPITAPHIUM DAMONIS.
EDWARD KING, fellow of Christ College, Cambridge, the friend of Milton, passing over to Ireland to visit his friends, the ship struck on a rock on the English coast, August 10th, 1637, when all on board perished. He was son of Sir John King, knight, secretary for Ireland under Queen Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. At Cambridge, Edward King was distinguished for his piety and proficiency in polite letters. Lycidas, which laments his death, first appeared in the Cambridge collection of verses on that occasion, 1638.
Dr. Johnson's censure on this poem is gross and tasteless it is disgraceful only to the critic. He has treated with insolent rudeness one tenfold greater than himself: he has set the example; and why should he be spared? I will endeavour to discuss this question with the utmost impartiality, and confer neither praise nor blame from unfounded prejudice.
This poem is so far from deserving the charac
ter applied to it by Johnson, that "the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing," that the language is throughout imaginative and picturesque, and the rhythm harmonious and enchanting: there is no poem in which the epithets are more beautiful, more appropriate, and more fresh: they are like the diction of no predecessor, but of some of the occasional passages of rural description by Shakspeare in his happiest modes: the outburst at the commencement is eminently striking, and rich with poetry: the images that present themselves, and the transitions, are always natural, and sometimes sublime they have this difference from those of 'L'Allegro' and 'Il Penseroso,' that they are more spiritual; that is, they are more mingled up with intellect: they are not purely material. As to the poem being pastoral, Johnson might much more object to the Psalms; as in Addison's beautiful version,
The Lord my pasture shall prepare, &c.
where the Deity himself is represented in the character of a shepherd.
But it will be asked, what invention there is in this poem? There is invention in the epithets, in the combinations, in the descriptions, in the apostrophes, in the visionary parts of the poem, in the sorrows, the predictions, and the consolations in all those associations, which none but a rich and poetical mind produces.
Johnson had so accustomed himself to cultivate
dry reason only, that he thought all array of imagery idle and useless. If he had any feeling, it was only when he argued himself into it; it did not come from the senses: he loved abstraction; but it was not the abstraction of shadows, nor the "bodying forth" of "airy nothings." Milton's mind was in a blaze, surrounded by a whole range of invisible worlds and their aërial inhabitants his genius gave to matter an ideal light and ideal properties: he connected the dignity of human existence with the beauty and the grandeur of the scenery of nature.
The epithets which true poets give to imagery confer upon it its spell: Lycidas' is full of these epithets from beginning to end: they are always fresh and exquisitely vivid, but never extravagant or over-ornamental.
The versification is as regular as is consistent with vigour and variety: the five-feet lines are far preferable to the shorter lines of the two poems before discussed.
Lycidas' is full of learned allusions, perhaps too full,-which was Milton's fault.
Dr. Joseph Warton has truly said, that the admiration or dislike of this poem is an infallible test whether a reader has or has not a poetical taste: he who is not enraptured with it can have no genuine idea of poetry.
If we are asked what puts all within the range of mind before us in such brilliant or such affecting colours, we can only say that it is indefinable, but that we cannot doubt its effects. All se
condary poets attempt this by a false gloss: they are full of ornament; but the ornament is a glare, or a set of artificial flowers: there is no fragrance, no vivifying spirit. In a true poet, like Milton, all springs up unsought from the fountain of the soul or the heart: it is an enthusiasm; but an enthusiasm not unapproved by the sober judgment and the conscience. Nothing is good, which there is not some susceptibility within us ready instantly to recognize: nothing can be forced upon us by artful effort: no factitious gilding will avail. The poet's difficulty is to find expressions for what he really feels.
Now and then there may be a momentary blaze in inferior authors; but, in bards like Milton, all is one texture of light.
Just before Milton's return from Italy in 1639, his friend Charles Deodate died, and the news met him on his arrival: he then wrote a Latin elegy on him, entitled Epitaphium Damonis,' which has some similitude to Lycidas.' Warton says that there are in it some new and natural country images, and the common topics are often recommended by a novelty of elegant expression: it contains some passages which wander far beyond the bounds of bucolic song, and are in his own original style of the more sublime poetry. Milton cannot be a shepherd long: his own native powers break forth, and cannot bear the assumed disguise.
At line 155 of this elegy, he hints his design of writing an epic poem on some part of the ancient
British story. So, in his poem entitled 'Mansus,'
Si quando indigenas revocabo in carmina reges,
These are the ancient kings of Britain: this was the subject for an epic poem that first occupied his mind. King Arthur, at his death, was supposed to be carried into the subterraneous land of fairy or of spirits, where he still reigned as a king; and whence he was to return into Britain, to renew the round table, conquer all his enemies, and re-establish his throne: he was therefore “etiam movens bella sub terris," still meditating wars under the earth. The impulse of Milton's attachment to this subject was not entirely suppressed it produced his History of Britain.' By the expression, "revocabo in carmina," the poet means, that these ancient kings, which were once the themes of the British bards, should now again be celebrated in verse. Milton, in his
Church Government,' written in 1641, says that, after the example of Tasso, "it haply would be no rashness, from an equal diligence and inclination, to present the like offer in one of our own ancient stories!" It is possible that the advice of Manso, the friend of Tasso, might determine the poet to a design of this kind.