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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. The form of the Sonnet, however, does not refuse mellifluousness when the occasion requires, as Petrarch almost everywhere proves. No verses can be more mellifluous than Petrarch's: something of this will perhaps be attributed to the softness of the Italian language; but the English tongue is also capable of it, however obstinately Johnson may have pronounced otherwise. Milton had no Laura to flatter and idolise: he found in his wife a dull, insensate, and capricious woman, unwarmed by his genius, and inapprehensive of his moral qualities: his admiration turned to disgust, and his resentment to bitterness. One may conceive that his genius might have thrown more of the splendour of imagination into his Sonnets: single images, such as are scattered through all the rest of his poetry, might have been thrown into a succession of these small forms, and might have risen by a noble climax to their termination.
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. A poetical image should have the distinctness which a painter can depict; but it should have also something of the indefinite, which a painter cannot depict :-this is Milton's merit; and it is no less that of Dante. It is what art can never reach: what genius only gives by flashes: it is enthusiasm and inspiration.
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. Is this light merit?-Where is the enlightened reader who will agree with Johnson, and wish them thrown aside? But Johnson's prejudices against Milton were inveterate: they must have been taken up early in life from some passion, and have grown with his growth. He never ridded himself of the impressions he imbibed from Lauder: his hatred however was partly political. I know not what made him so bigoted and blind a partisan: his birth and station will not account for it;-probably it was imbibed jacobitism. But there was something adverse in the native structure of the minds of these two celebrated men: if Johnson had genius, it was quite dissimilar to that of Milton: it was solely argumentative: he had no inventive imagination: he saw no phantoms but the gloomy phantoms of superstition: he had no chivalrous enthusiasm: he delighted not to gaze on feudal halls, or "throngs of knights and barons bold:" he thought not of another world; of angels, and heavenly splendour, but as subjects of trembling and painful awe! He turned away from them, except so far as duty enforced his attention; he loved the world, and all its gaieties, and follies, and conflicts.
Could there be a greater contrast to the bard of "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained?" To him who would decapitate kings, and defy the powers of the earth? To him who would haunt groves and forests, and listen to the lonely blast, and busy himself in deep solitude, and love musing and his own creations, rather than the busy talk of social collision? Him, whose taste is opposed to our own, and from its elevation claims a superiority, we learn first to envy, then to hate, then to scorn. Till we can persuade ourselves that he is in the wrong, we feel our own degradation. Thus Johnson, when he was grasping at the head seat of the literature of his country, could not bear the memory of one whose dissimilar splendour paled his own; hence his constant detractions, his petty cavils, his malignant perversions. To dwell on this topic is not idle or irrelevant: Johnson still holds the public ear; and to endeavour to weaken his influence is a duty neither useless nor ungenerous. The more the public studies and admires Milton, the higher will be its taste and grasp of intellect. As to the Sonnets, 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,
ON "SAMSON AGONISTES."
WE come again to fable and invention. "Samson Agonistes" is written after the severe model of the ancient Greek tragedies; but it is not fit for the stage, nor intended for it: the characters are few; it indeed almost approaches to a monologue. Many object to the Chorus; but for a dramatic poem it affords many opportunities of noble eloquence. Samson's character is magnificently supported: he is a giant in mind as well as in body: his language, though not suited to the effeminate polish of modern ears, is vigorous and majestic.
There is a deep pathos, but unyielding soul, in all the hero utters: the moral reflections are grand, profound, and expansive. The application everywhere to the poet's own misfortunes and position augments the interest twofold.
Milton, in his preface to this poem, says:—“ Tragedy, as it was anciently composed, hath been ever held the gravest, moralest, and most profitable of all other poems; therefore said by Aristotle to be of power, by raising pity and fear, or terror, to purge the mind of those and such like passions; that is, to temper and reduce them to just measure with a kind of delight, stirred up by reading or seeing those passions well imitated," &c.
On this Warton makes the following note :-"Milton, who was inclined to puritanism, had good reason to think that the publication of his 'Samson Agonistes would be very offensive to his brethren, who held poetry, and particularly that of the dramatic kind, in the greatest abhorrence: and upon that account, it is probable, that in order to excuse himself from having engaged in this proscribed and forbidden species of writing, he thought it expedient to prefix to his play a formal defence of tragedy." Such defence of what does not require to be defended never makes impression upon bigoted minds. The blind slaves of party are never convinced by reason; they repeat by rote, and cannot be put out of their lesson. Long speeches on the stage become tedious; but are not so to the intelligent reader: and there is no mode by which an ideal character can be represented with so much effect. A person under the influence of passion can best describe his own feelings: we cannot conceive anything more heroic than much of what is said by Samson. In accordance with some celebrated critics, I have no doubt that the third place of excellence in Milton's works ought to be assigned to "Samson Agonistes "placing the "Paradise Lost" first, and "Paradise Regained" second. Though "Comus" is exquisite poetry, it has not so much grandeur and holiness: it certainly is more purely imaginative; but then we must consider the compound of the four great essentials; and we must always prefer sublimity to sweetness. To live among the nymphs and dryads is delightful; but moral heroism is more delightful. One is duty; the other is only pleasure.
We are entitled to amuse ourselves by sometimes living in a purely visionary world; but sometimes also we are called upon to perform our part among the human inhabitants of the solid earth: and the grandeur of bold enterprise, or patient suffering, has a longer, deeper, and more instructive hold upon the mind, than any simple and unmixed play upon the fancy or the senses.
The "Comus" is the work of a younger man, full of hope, elasticity, and joy: the tragedy is the pouring out of one enriched by the wisdom of age and experience, mellowed by misfortune, and elevated by patience under danger and calumny:of one "fallen on evil tongues and evil days;"-of one resolved to lift himself above sublunary oppression, and rising in grandeur in proportion to the severity of his trials. We muse in this tragedy upon the great bard mingling his ideal inventions with his own personal gloomy recollections and his present sorrows and privations. We trace the workings of his heroic spirit; and we see the sublime picture of lofty virtue and splendid genius "struggling with the storms of fate." The temperament of poetry is heat and exhalation: it throws out flashes, of which labour and art cannot supply scintillæ. Its warmth and tone communicate its contagion to others. Whatever there is of artificial and mechanical attempt to produce this effect on others, fails, and ends in nothing. It is like dead air, whence we draw no healthful breath. No one can write with the powers of a poet except when he is in a state of excitement. All must be centred within him:-there the fire must burn and blaze. He must see with the mental eye, and pore, and believe. Language will
accompany this state of spiritualism without being searched for. If the thought does not predominate over the expression, it is not only charmless, but weak and faulty:Cold as the snow upon Canadian hills,
It wakes no spark within, but chills the heart.
The spell comes from the imagination :-there can be no warmth in literary composition where there is no imagination.
The force and brightness of the fire is in proportion to the richness and abundance of the fuel applied to it. Milton applied all invention, all wisdom, all learning, and all knowledge.
Perhaps we must bring to the reading of Milton much greatness of spirit, a strong and unsophisticated fancy-much erudition, and much power of thought, to enable us thoroughly to taste and admire him. In this he differs from Shakspeare, who is equally fitted for the people and for the most radiant and most cultivated minds. One can scarcely deny that this is a superiority in Shakspeare: Milton could not have been what he was without the aid of intense study; but as Milton could not have done what Shakspeare did, so Shakspeare could not have done what Milton did. To have produced "Samson Agonistes" would have been utterly beyond Shakspeare's reach: Shakspeare, however, would have given more variety of characters, and richness and contrast of incidents: he would have drawn Dalilah more inviting, and Samson more tender: his language would have been more flowing— more vernacular; and if not so sublime, more beautiful: it would have sunk with less consideration, and more immediately into people's hearts.-"Samson Agonistes" is for study, and not to be lightly perused. But let no scholar-let no magnanimoussouled being, who understands the English language, and has any tincture of education, omit to read it, and muse upon it again and again, and lay it up in the treasured stores of his memory: it will exercise and improve all his intellectual faculties, and elevate his heart:-it has at once novelty, truth, and wisdom. He may learn by it lessons for the great affairs of life, enlarge his comprehension, and fortify his bosom. He may be taught that sublimity and strength of language lie not in glitter or floweriness;-that strength is naked, and boldness of conception can support itself.
I HAVE thus given my opinion distinctively of Milton's epic, dramatic, and lyrical genius. I have done it sincerely, without exaggeration, and, after a habit of considering the subject for many years, with an earnest desire to form a right judgment. To praise upon mere authority can answer no good purpose; the repetition of false praise will add to its nauseousness: but there can be no certainty of merit, unless we strictly establish principles which shall become a test to it. The endless diversity of capricious opinion puts every thing afloat: we can trust to nothing but the concurrence of all ages and all nations. If, therefore, we find that what was laid down by Aristotle has received the sanction of posterity under all changes of manners and varieties of countries, reason enjoins us to rely upon it as truth: I take, therefore, Aristotle's four requisites of good poetry to be undeniable. By these rules Milton must ever stand where he has been placed-at the head of his art, if art it may be called. But the extraordinary thing is, that he has no second in this combination of merits,-that he stands alone! There are those whom this will offend; but it is the stern truth. If fable, in the sense in which Aristotle uses it, is a necessary essential, the conclusion is incontrovertible.
Of all the fifty-two poets whose Lives have been written by Johnson, and of whom not less than seventeen are mere versifiers, and several of them mediocre versifiers, -Dryden and Pope stand, in common estimation, next to Milton. But however I may sin against the popular opinion, I persevere in saying that they are deficient in this first essential, to which I have alluded: I assert that they have no poetical invention. Pope's "Rape of the Lock" will scarcely be objected to me; nor Dryden's "Fables," which are all borrowed. Sir William Temple's observations of the rarity of poetical genius, so often cited, is thus verified. Single qualities may not be uncommon: it is the union of all the essentials which so seldom occurs. Milton had them all; and each in the most eminent degree. Pope may be said to have had the last three: Dryden wanted the first, and perhaps the third.
So far as poetry is to be considered not only the voice of pleasure, but the voice of wisdom, whatever fiction is contrary to probability, is not only not praiseworthy, but culpable. It justly brings poetry into contempt, and gives it the name of an idle, empty art. I prefer even insipidity and triteness to extravagance; the effort to surprise is always vicious. The poet's business is to exhibit nature, but nature in an exalted state: hence I cannot approve Crabbe's poetry, however true to life his descriptions may be. On the other hand, I must admit that Byron in his fictions goes sometimes far beyond nature. These are small names, even the last, to mention after Milton, whose fables utter the songs of angels and archangels; and whose sanctity, elevated into the highest sublimity, keeps due music with the choirs of Heaven! Not but Byron might, if he had been equally devout, have followed Milton in this track. I am conscious what talents far above mine it requires to treat adequately the subject I have here undertaken: but others, as weak as I am, have already entered on the task with less respectfulness and less love, and I am willing to attempt to wipe away some of the stains they have left. For fifty years I have had an unquenchable desire to refute Johnson's perverse criticisms and malignant obloquies. I know not by what spell his authority over the public is still great. To almost every new edition of Milton, except Todd's and Mitford's, Johnson's Life of the Poet has continued to be reprinted. This repetition surely becomes nauseous.
But he who gains novelty at the expense of truth, pays too dear for it; and gains what is not worth having. Nothing is more easy than to stimulate for a moment by what is new, though unfounded: but sobriety of judgment, and nicety of taste, must give their sanction to what is pronounced. All inconsiderate and unmeasured praise is hurtful. I have foreborne to commend any composition of this mighty poet without long and calm thought. I have considered that the powers of Johnson entitled him to a cool and careful consideration before I ought to venture to contradict his opinion; but that, when I could no longer doubt, no force of authority ought to restrain my expression.
But much greater authority than Johnson's on a poetical question is on my side: -Dryden, Addison, Gray, the Wartons, Cowper, Hayley, and innumerable others. It would be almost superfluous to say more of Milton's merits as a poet, after all that I have said: recapitulation in his case would probably weaken its effect. He had not only every requisite of the Muse; but every one of the highest order, and in the highest degree. His invention of poetical fable, and poetical imagery, was exhaustless, and always grand, and always consistent with the faith of a cultivated and sensitive mind. Sublimity was his primary and unfailing power. His characters were new, surprising, gigantic, or beautiful; and full of instruction, such as high wisdom sanctioned. His sentiments were lofty, comprehensive, eloquent, consistent, holy, original; and an amalgamation of spirit, religion, intellect, and marvellous learning. His language was his own sometimes a little rough and unvernacular; but as magnificent as his mind of pregnant thought; naked in its strength; rich and picturesque, where imagery was required; often exquisitely harmonious, where the occasion permitted: but sometimes strong, mighty, and speaking with the voice of thunder.
I can scarcely go further, to constitute the greatest poet of our nation, and, in my opinion, of the world: for surely, taking dignity of fable and other characters into the question, Homer and Virgil cannot be compared with Milton! And, to fortify me, Addison and Dryden have come to the same conclusion.
In moral character the poet stands among the noblest and the best. His spirit was as holy, and his heart as sanctified as his writings: for this we must admit the testimony of his own repeated declaration in the face of malignant enemies, and the foulest passion of detraction. But, as humanity cannot be perfect, he was provoked by diabolical slander into recriminations unbecoming the dignity of his supreme genius, and devout heart. His politics were severe, and, in my apprehension, wrong; but they were conscientious. The principles which he entertained, the boldness of his mind pushed to an unlimited and terrible extent: and thus he was brought to justify the decapitation of Charles I. I would forget this, if I could; because, remembering it, I cannot but confess that I feel it a cloud upon his dazzling glory but as Horsley said on another occasion:
MEMORANDA RELATING TO THE FAMILY OF POWELL OF FOREST-HILL, OXFORDSHIRE.
"Milton married in 1643, a daughter of Justice Powell of Sandford, in the vicinity of Oxford, and lived in a house at Forest-hill, about three miles from Oxford."
TODD'S LIFE OF MILTON, vol. i. p. 25, ed. 1809.
NOTHING can possibly be more erroneous. The families of Powell, alias ap Howell, of Sandford, and Powell of Forest-hill, were not in the remotest degree connected: the former were Roman Catholics. Milton's first wife was Mary, daughter of Richard Powell of Forest-hill. About twenty years ago, the writer, being strongly impressed with the incorrectness of the above statement, and residing for a few months at Oxford, compiled a pedigree of the family of Powell of Sandford, by which the fact is proved to demonstration. There were then no memorials of the family in the church of Forest-hill; and the earliest register commencing A. D. 1700, no notice respecting them could be gleaned from that source. It is probable they came gradually into prosperity under the wings of the Bromes. One Richard Powell is "remembered " as a "servant" (perhaps bailiff or steward) under the will of George Brome of Halton, and is mentioned before the testator's armourer. Richard Powell of Forest-hill, and Sir Edward Master of Ospringe, in Kent, were executors under the will of George Brome's widow, Eliz. (made 8th September, 1629) proved February 6th, 1634-5.
The will of Edmund Brome of Forest-hill, made November 8th, 1625, was proved August 12th, 1628, by Richard Powell, (sole executor) Milton's father-in-law. There is no pedigree of the family to be met with; but the following are some memoranda respecting the will of Richard Powell of Forest-hill, Esq., made December 30th, 1646, proved March 26th, 1647, by his widow, Anne; and on May 10th, 1662, by his son Richard; by which act the effect of the power so given to the mother was done away with. One of the attesting witnesses was John Milton, his son-in-law; but the original will not being now (1831) at Doctors' Commons, curiosity will be disappointed in the expectation of seeing the poet's handwriting. The testator names as executor, in the first place, his eldest son Richard; and in the second, in case of said Richard's unwillingness to act, his wife Anne: and in the third place, in case of said Anne being unwilling to do so, his friend Mr. John Ellstone of Forest-hill, to whom he gives twenty shillings for a ring. He appoints as overseers his loving friends Sir John Curson and Sir Robert Pye, Knights, and gives to them twenty shillings each for a ring.
He devises his house, &c., at Forest-hill, (alias Forsthall) and alludes to his recently compounding for the same at Goldsmiths' Hall, to his eldest son Richard, subject, however, to as follows:-Payment of debts and funeral expenses, &c., satisfying a bond to Anne his, the testator's wife, in reference to her jointure, and which the testator was not able at that period (1646) to discharge out of his personal property; and the remainder was then to be divided into two parts: one of them to belong to the said Richard, and the other to be divided among such of his brothers and sisters as might not have been already, at the time of the testator's decease, provided for; and the sisters to have one-third more apiece than their brothers.
The testator desires that his daughter, Milton, may be had regard to, as to the sufficiency of her portion; and more, if his, the testator's estate will bear it.
His houses and lands at Wheatley, and all other properties of the testator, not so above specifically bequeathed, &c., are given to his said son Richard.
The marriage portion, £1000, promised to John Milton by his father-in-law, was never paid, according to the biographies of the poet. His distresses in the royal cause prevented, probably, the payment of it.
[I am indebted for this information to the kindness of Mr. Frederick Holbrooke of Parkhurst, Bexley.-ED.]