I am now venturing on ground even higher than that of Shakespeare: I shall now endeavour to persue the dauntless wing of the muse of Milton; the greatest, because, the sublimest of poets. "Nor second He," (nay, but first, if you please, Mr. Gray; as I hope that I shall demonstrate.)
Nor second He who rode sublime
Upon the seraph-wings of estacy;
The secrets of the abyss to spy;
He passed the flaming bounds of place and time;
The living throne; the sapphire blaze;
Where angels tremble while they gaze,
He saw; but blasted with excess of light,
Closed his eyes in endless night.
Gray's Progress of Poesy.
"The first glory of every people arises from its authours." — So says our great literary dictator: and he said so at a time when the bursts of conscious genius are entitled — not to our indulgence; but to our veneration: he said it, when his talents were in their full vigour; when he was personally unnoticed; and when, on the hardest terms, be was earning bread, and glory. This proud civil maxim was not thrown off when he was intoxicated with literary prosperity; when, with faculties in the decline; when, with a mind still powerful, but comparatively enfeebled, he endeavoured to injure the reputation, and the fame, of illustrious men. The proud maxim, however, is well founded; whatever objection may be made to it, not of argument; but of selfishness, and prejudice; by wealth, and power. Our, intellectual part is the image of God, after which, we were created; to excell, therefore, in the cultivation, and in the splendid exertion of this faculty, is, beyond all question, "the first glory of every people." From my heart, I am glad that it is so: and let me not be thought romantick; still less let me be thought affected; if I congratulate with an English audience on the fact; as I am now aspiring, with a tremulous, yet with a zealous mind, to take a deliberate survey of the poetry of Milton.
The subject of my present Lecture; our first of all poets; excelled in the elegant, and the pathetic, as well as in the sublime. But as the sublime was, perhaps, his leading characteristick, (undoubtedly it was, in his truly divine poem of Paradise Lost,) I shall endeavour to give a comprehensive, but clear ideal- or definition, of that capital species of writing. To write, then, with sublimity, is to chuse the greatest; the most splendid; or the most awful existing, or imaginable objects; and to express, or display them, with a corresponding propriety, force, and majesty of language. Thus to chuse, and thus to express what we have chosen, demands, with a most masterly judgement, the utmost force, ardour, and unbounded expansion of genius; or, in other words, the rarest poetical endowments. I should hope, that it would not be very difficult to prove, that these endowments were in a supereminent degree, bestowed on Milton, by nature; and by a long course of intense application; which was only less astonishing than his genius; and without which, whatever the idle, and the vain may fancy, nothing great can be atchieved.
If it shall evidently appear that Milton, is thus transcendently sublime, Shakespeare must undoubtedly yield to him the first place, in the rank of great poets. This precedence cannot be denied to the latter; however true it is, that an epick, and dramatick poet, on account of their different plans, and objects, cannot be minutely, and accurately compared. I am not yet as old as Nestor; nor do I wish to reach his age; therefore, if, in the course of these Lectures, I should have occasion particularly to mention myself, that mention never shall be made but when it is necessarily connected with more important objects; with objects, which may afford some useful information; or some entertainment, to those who hear me. When Goldsmith's Deserted sorted Village came out, I wrote, and published, some observations on that elegant poem. In those observations, when my judgement was not so mature as, I should hope, it is, now; I mentioned the sublimity of Shakespeare. Dr. Johnson, in conversing with me, after he had read those remarks, told me, that sublimity was so far from being a characteristick of Shakespeare, that he could not recollect one sublime passage in that great poet. Here, certainly, either his memory, or his judgement failed him. Shakespeare, however, is not, in a distinguishing manner, inspired with the sublime; nor was it so requisite for his walk, various, and magnificent though it is, as for the stupendous, the boundless range of Milton. Milton, therefore, is superiour to Shakespeare; because he displays the more rare, and august talents of the human mind. Let Shakespeare have all our just; our well-merited admiration; but idolatry is erroneous excess: to prefer any authour to Shakespeare, is a kind of profaneness to the glorious prejudice of an English ear: as many very liberal, and excellent criticks will suffer no superiour to Homer; no competitor with him; from their prejudices in favour of antiquity, and of Greek; prejudices inglorious, and ignoble.
As I should wish not to give any improper weight to my own judgement; I shall be obliged, in this Lecture, to undertake a labour which may seem dry, and fatiguing to superficial minds: I shall endeavour to lay before you, fairly collated, and united, the authorities of two celebrated criticks, to evince, and establish, an important truth. This I cannot possibly effect, without several quotations from those writers. I trust, however, that these quotations will not prove tedious, or uninteresting to those who unaffectedly love critical, and poetical information, and entertainment. I shall quote from two highly respected names; from Mr. Addison, and from Dr. Johnson: the passages which I shall introduce, will present to us some essential constituents, and laws of poetry; particularly of the epick muse: and thus they will vindicate, for poetry itself, its proper dignity; they will show that it is not merely an object of transitory amusement; but of the most acute, and animated attention; and of the sublimest exertion of the human mind. To this general, will be added an individual consequence, which will excite a glorious national pride, in all who hear me; my quotations will prove, beyond dispute, that Milton is the first, because the sublimest poet, that ever adorned the world.
I cannot enter on my present task, which is equally pleasing, and awful to me, without paying my tribute of sincere, and warm homage, to the memory of that amiable, elegant, and masterly critick, Addison. What a contrast are his charming commentaries on the Paradise Lost, to the frequent absurdity; to the frequent asperity, (I speak out; for the heroick virtue; and the heroick poetry of Milton are at stake,) to the iniquity of Johnson! what a transparent, and luminous tenour doth his fine spirit bold, between the old, servile criticism of Greece, and the modern metaphysical abstractions of the North! Aristotle, as a critick, is a servile copyist from Homer: all his laws for epick writing are drawn from the practice of Homer. Here, the Grecian bard introduces a council of the gods; there he introduces a council of heroes: therefore, by other epick poets, similar objects must be assigned to the corresponding places. Mr. Richardson, in analyzing some of the dramas of Shakespeare, tells you minutely how you are affected by such a passion, or by such a situation; and then lays before you the analogous passage from Shakespeare, to show you, at once, the genius of the poet, and his own critical, and philosophical penetration. He might have saved himself the trouble; for what he thought investigations were immediately obvious to common sense, he might have saved himself the trouble for a nobler reason; the soul of Shakespeare rushes upon the audience; and their souls feel, in a moment, all that was drawled out to them in the many pages of cold, and creeping criticism: their souls,
Not touched, but rapt; not wakened, but inspired.
in what a different manner from these formal criticks; in how superiour a manner, does Addison make us intimately acquainted with the glories of Milton! He is not a slave to critical system, or to poetical example. Whenever the beautiful of the great, arises to his view, he gives it all its praise; whether or no a similar instance can be produced, in Homer, or Virgil; and whether or no it is consecrated by the sanction of Aristotle. In these commentaries, he applies his knowledge of the sacred as well as of the profane classicks, to a most instructive and entertaining use; by that knowledge, he was particularly qualified to illustrate Milton. Consonant with his freedom from prejudice, and pedantry, is his spirit and his taste. Poetry is to be illustrated by poetical colouring; without this, it will only be clouded, and obscured, by argument, and learning. Milton presents to the susceptible, and active mind of Addison, all his magnificence and grandeur; Addison returns to Milton sentiments that are worthy of the imagery which he had received. Milton is brought by Addison to the fair, and vivid light of his own imagination; he throws his mild, but bright flame into the blaze of Milton: the congenial fires naturally, and easily assimilate; they mix — they work, together they refine each other.
Well might this judicious, and elegant critick take, for the first motto to his just, and animated observations on Paradise Lost, a line from Propertius, which exalts our English poet — "Above all Greek; above all Roman fame:" — "Cedite Romani scriptores; cedite Graii!" — It is indeed evident from the general tenour of those papers in the Spectator, to which I now refer, that Mr. Addison thought Milton the first of first-rate poets; though we must acknowledge that at times his better judgement seems to be implicitly. controuled by the authority of the schools, and by the image of the old, and venerable Homer. From his own words, however, it may be demonstrated that, in fact, he decides for Milton. "The third qualification of an epick poem (says Addison) is its greatness. The anger of Achilles was of such consequence that it embroiled the Kings of Greece; destroyed the Heroes of Troy; and engaged all the Gods in factions. Aeneas's settlement in Italy produced the Caesars; and gave birth to the Roman Empire. Milton's subject was still greater than either of the former. It does not determine the fate of single persons, or nations; but of a whole species. The united powers of hell are joined together for the destruction of mankind; which they effected, in, part; and would have compleated, had not Omnipotence itself interposed. The principal actors are, Man, in his greatest perfection, and Woman in her highest beauty. Their enemies are, the fallen Angels: the Messiah, their friend; and the Almighty, their protector. In short, every thing that is great, in the whole circle of being; whether within the verge of nature, or out of it, has a proper part assigned it, in this noble poem." — "In poetry, as in architecture," says the same fine writer, "not only the whole, but the principal members, and every part of them, should be great. I will not presume to say, that the Book of Games in the Aeneid, or that in the Iliad, are not of this nature; nor to reprehend Virgil's simile of the Top, and many others of the same kind, in the Iliad, as liable to any censure in this particular; but I think we may say, without derogating from those wonderful performances, that there is an unquestionable magnificence in every part of Paradise Lost; and indeed a much greater than could have been formed upon any Pagan system." Spectator: No. 267. And in another paper, we have the following just and liberal observations. — "Nor must we omit one consideration,, which adds to his honour and reputation. Homer, and Virgil introduced persons whose characters are commonly known among, men; and such as are to be met with either' in history, or in ordinary conversation. Milton's characters lie, most of them, out of nature; and were to be formed, purely, by his own invention." ———*———*———*——— Again: — "Adam, and Eve, before the fall, are of a different species from that of mankind who are descended from them; and none but a poet of the most unbounded invention; and of the most exquisite judgement, could have filled their conversation, and behaviour, with so many apt circumstances, during their state of innocence." No. 279. The same paper contains the following similar observations: — "Milton's chief talents, and indeed his distinguishing excellence lies in the sublimity of his thoughts. There are others of, the moderns who rival him in every other part of poetry; but in the greatness of his sentiments, he triumphs over all the poets, both modern and ancient; Homer only excepted. It is impossible for the imagination of man, to distend itself with greater ideas than those which he has laid together, in his first, second, and sixth books." No. 279.
It would be very presumptuous in me, whom you have long indulged with your attention, to apprehend that your minds would be fatigued with another quotation from Addison, in honour of our great poet. "Horace," (says Mr. Addison,) "advises a poet to consider, thoroughly, the nature, and force of his genius. Milton seems to have known perfectly well wherein his strength lay; and has, therefore, chosen a subject entirely conformable to those talents of which he was master. As his genius was wonderfully turned to the sublime, his subject is the noblest that could have entered into the mind of man. Every thing that is truly great, and astonishing has a place in it. The whole system of the intellectual world; the chaos, and the creation; heaven, earth, and hell, enter into the constitution of his poem." No. 315.
Such is Addison's opinion of the sentiments, and imagery of Milton's epick poem. In the 285th paper of the Spectator, he considers, and estimates; the style, or language of our poet. That paper well deserves our most attentive perusal. "Milton," (says he,) "by the abovementioned helps;" [viz: by his poetical improvements of our language; by which it is greatly strengthened, and elevated; and which are specified in the preceding part of the paper;] — "by these auxiliaries, and by the choice of the noblest words, and phrases, which our tongue would afford him; Milton," (we are assured by no less a critick than Addison,) "has carried our language to a greater height than any of the English poets have ever done before, or after him; and made the sublimity of his style equal to that of his sentiments."
I beg that you may favour this part of my Lecture with a fixed, and close attention. I am endeavouring to warrant my own enthusiasm; and, I hope, my own cool, and right judgement, with superiour authority. I trust that I shall prove, with a demonstration almost mathematically rigid, that, in the opinion of a most generous, and in that of a most ungenerous critick, all other epick poets, in their great characteristicks, are far excelled by our English Milton.
"The subject of an epick poem," (says Dr. Johnson, in his criticism on the Paradise Lost,) "is naturally an event of great importance. That of Milton is not the destruction of a city; the conduct of a colony; or the foundation of an empire. His subject is the fate of worlds; the revolutions of heaven, and of earth; rebellion against the Supreme King, raised by the highest order of created beings; the overthrow of their host, and the punishment of their crime; the creation of a new race of reasonable creatures; their original happiness, and innocence; their forfeiture of immortality; and their restoration to hope, and peace. Great events can be hastened, or retarded, only by persons of elevated dignity. Before the greatness displayed in Milton's poem, all other greatness shrinks away. The weakest of his agents are the highest,, and noblest of human beings; the original parents of mankind; with whose actions the elements consented; on whose rectitude, or deviation of will, depended the state of terrestrial nature, and the condition of all the future inhabitants of the globe. ———*———*———*——— Of the other agents in the poem, the chief are such as it is irreverence to name, on slight occasions. The rest were lower powers;
—Of which the least could wield
Those elements, and arm him with the force
Of all their regions:—
powers, which only the controul of Omnipotence restrains from laying creation waste, and filling the vast expanse of space with ruin, and confusion. To display the motives, and actions of beings thus superiour; so far as human reason can examine them, or human imagination can represent them; is the task which this mighty poet has undertaken, and performed." Life of Milton: pages 173, 174, 175.
In his Lives of the Poets, "si sic omnia dixisset," we should have had more critical justice, and more vigour of critical eloquence. But I think that he has already contradicted himself by anticipation; contradicted what I have here quoted; what is just, full, and decisive; by asserting in a former page, that "Paradise Lost, with respect to design, may claim the first place; and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind." Pages 169, 170. My former citation from Johnson, may seem to give us, from that authour, a sufficient encomium on our poet. But I will follow him, now, and hereafter, through some of those mazes, and involutions, with which every authour is industrious to perplex himself, and his readers, who opposes his prejudices to his own conviction. This task I undertake; to do justice on him; and to do justice to Milton. If strongly impressed with a consciousness of right, one honestly, and openly steps forth to vindicate the cause of injured greatness; if he meets, with a proper fortitude, or with a proper contempt, the selfish malevolence, and resentment of trade; or the torrent of lavish, and undistinguishing eulogy; be surely means well to the publick; at least, he surely doth not deserve the frown, and the censure, of the commonwealth of letters.
"The characteristick quality of his poem," (adds our stern critick,) "is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant; but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural port is gigantick loftiness. He can please where pleasure is required; but it is his peculiar power to astonish." p. 187.
There is nothing in this paragraph, to which a mind that can penetrate, and distinguish, will subscribe, except that Milton is astonishingly sublime. It is one of the many specious paragraphs of Johnson, in which the reflecting glitter of antithesis, and the pompous equipoise of periods, pass, with the uncautious reader, for the force of genius, and the brilliancy of wit. Milton was as much a master of the elegant, and pathetick, as he was of the sublime. The latter, indeed, often includes both the former; as the greater includes the less. The various, and extensive region of poetry which he pervaded, will always be evident, from his works; for they do not appeal to your Aristotles, and your Johnsons; but to more unprejudiced, and unostentatious judges; to the instantaneous, and lively pulse of the human heart; and to the glowing pictures of the human fancy. Of the tender, and the beautiful, even in his Paradise Lost, there are capital examples. Johnson, and other criticks might imagine that he excells more in the sublime; because he makes it more his object; and because it naturally strikes us with a more powerful, and rapturous admiration. — "He seems to have been well acquainted," (continues our critick,) "with his genius; and to know what it was that Nature had bestowed upon him more bountifully than upon others; the power of displaying the vast; illuminating the splendid; enforcing the awful; darkening the gloomy; and aggravating the dreadful: he, therefore, chose a subject on which too much could not be said; on which he might tire his fancy, without the censure of extravagance." p. 187, 188. In another place he asks — "What other authour ever soared so high; or sustained his flight so long?" p. 210. None, I hope, we will all reply. Well, therefore, might Algarotti give us a still more majestick picture of the sublime of Milton: — "Gigantesca sublimita Miltoniana."
I hope that what I have quoted from Addison, and Johnson, has proved interesting, and entertaining. The quotations are certainly not impertinent; for they are my very powerful vouchers, while I endeavour, to establish the unrivalled greatness of Milton, as an epick poet. I shall sum up the evidence of both, as concisely as I can.
Mr. Addison asserts (not without preceding, and collateral proofs) that "there is, unquestionably, a much greater magnificence in every part of Paradise lost, than could have been formed on any Pagan system;" that "as the genius of Milton was wonderfully turned to the sublime, his subject is the noblest that could have entered into the mind of man:" — and that "he has carried our language to a greater height than any of the English poets have ever done, before or after him; and made the sublimity of his style equal to that of his sentiments." Therefore it is demonstrated, that where Addison makes an exception in favour of Homer, he must have made that exception, from an implicit, or involuntary complaisance for old classical impressions; and that he esteemed Milton by far the sublimest of poets. Let us now hear the sentience of Dr. Johnson. Even at his severe tribunal, justice to the genius of Milton will be amply administered, or amply extorted. The reluctant tribute of a great adversary is the very pinnacle of praise. "The weakest of his agents," (says the Doctor,) are the highest, and noblest of human beings; the original parents of mankind. Of the superiour agents in the poem, the chief are such as it is irreverence to name on slight occasions." — In another place; — "He seems to have been well acquainted with his [own transcendent] genius; the power of displaying the vast; illuminating the splendid; enforcing the awful; darkening the gloomy; and aggravating the dreadful: — What other authour ever soared so high; or sustained his flight so long? ———*———*———*——— Before the greatness displayed in Milton's poem, all other greatness shrinks away." Therefore it is demonstrated that Johnson's profound homage to Homer is, like Addison's, the homage of prejudice; and that Milton, according to his verdict, in the choice of his subject, and in the sublimity of his fable, and sentiments, has left all other poets far behind him.
But the sentence of Johnson is not completely pronounced, till I oblige him ultimately to acknowledge that the style of Milton holds a march, and a grandeur, that are worthy of the splendour, and immensity of its objects. I shall, here, have some confusion to redress; but the result will reward my pains. In the pages. which I must now examine, rays of light break in upon the palpable obscure, and dispell it: hence the force of truth is the more convincing; and its victory the more glorious.
"Through all his greater works," (says our modern Stagyrite,) "there prevails an uniform peculiarity of diction; a mode, and cast of expression, which bears little resemblance to that of any former writer; and which is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprised by a new language."
"This novelty has been, by those who can find nothing wrong in Milton, imputed to his laborious endeavours after words suitable to the grandeur of his ideas. — 'Our language' (says Addison) 'sunk under him.' But the truth is, that both in prose, and verse, he had formed his style by a perverse, and pedantick principle. He was desirous to use English words with a foreign idiom. This, in all his prose, is discovered, and condemned; for there judgement operates freely; neither softened by the beauty; nor awed by the dignity of his thoughts. But such is the power of his poetry; that his call is obeyed, without resistance; the reader feels himself in captivity to a higher, and a nobler mind; and criticism sinks in admiration." ———*———*———*——— "Of him, (he adds in another passage) may be said what Ben Jonson says of Spenser; that he wrote no language; but has formed what Butler calls a Babylonish dialect; in itself harsh, and barbarous; but made by exalted genius, and extensive learning, the vehicle of so much instruction, and so much pleasure, that like other lovers, we find grace in its deformity."
"Whatever be the faults of his diction, be cannot want the praise of copiousness, and variety: he was master of his language, in its full extent; and has selected the melodious words with such diligence, that from his book alone the art of poetry might be learned." Pp. 214; 215; 216; 217.
The three paragraphs which I have now quoted are such a heap of inconsistency, and confusion, that distinctly, and fully to show their incongruity, and absurdity, will draw more of my attention than they deserve. Out of thy own mouth will I condemn thee! Such incoherent passages are best refuted by themselves. We are told by this literary oracle, that "through all his greater works, there prevails an uniform peculiarity of diction." In a subsequent page we are told by the same oracle, that "he cannot want the praise of copiousness, and variety." — "His mode, and cast of expression," it seems, "is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprised by a new language." ———*———*———*——— "Of him, at last, may be said, what Ben Jonson says of Spenser; that he wrote no language; but has formed what Butler calls a Babylonish dialect, harsh, and barbarous." — Now, I should suppose that I might, without presumption, insist, that it never was in the power of man; not even of Milton, to make such a horrid, and unintelligible style, the vehicle of great pleasure, and instruction; and that such a style would never have its origin in the union of exalted genius, and extensive learning. By the cumbrous, and clumsey vehicle, the spirit, and the grace, which were to infuse the pleasure, and instruction, would be smothered, and destroyed. But absolute miracles are wrought by this jargon, in which Milton chose to communicate his ideas. "Such is the power of his poetry, that his call" (in the confused, and dissonant language of Babel) "is obeyed without resistance; the reader feels himself in captivity, to a higher, and a nobler mind; and criticism sinks in admiration." Now, I will farther venture to insist, that there never was a pretender to poetry (for such men can only be pretenders); there never was a writer, in an affected, uncouth, and barbarous manner, "whose call we obeyed without resistance; to whom we felt ourselves in captivity, as to a higher, and a nobler mind; and by whose" verses, (for I will not deign to call them "poetry,") we were absorbed "in admiration." The genius of the true poet always seizes you with the heat, and rapidity of fire; consequently his style must be as ardent, and luminous as his flame. If it is harsh, heavy, and obscure, that flame must be checked, and deadened, to the sense, and feelings of the reader. Even lightning from Heaven cannot pervade a rugged, and impenetrable rock. Peculiarities it may have; but they will not be the peculiarities of a foppish, or pedantick affectation; they will be formed with the art of a master in eloquence; they will give a strength, and dignity to his numbers, without stiffness, or bombast; his improvements of the vernacular diction will mark with a memorable epocha, the literary annals of his country; he will invigorate, enrich, and adorn his native language: — "Latium beabit divite Lingua."
Such fortunate liberties, it will be found, it will be felt, by every one who reads with liberality, and taste; — such fortunate liberties Milton took with the English tongue. I am keeping the field against Johnson, under the banners of a very great general; I have Addison on my side. That candid, and elegant critick informs us, that Milton, by such, a use of metaphors as could only have been produced by his vigorous, and fertile mind; by judiciously, and happily adopting foreign idioms; and by an occasional extension, and contraction of words, equally judicious, and happy; — "has carried our language to a greater height than any of the English poets have ever done before, or after him; and made the sublimity of his style equal to that of his sentiments." — But according to Dr. Johnson, instead of raising our language to heights unknown before; instead of raising it to the sublimity of his subject; he debased; he sunk it, to a stiff, pedantick, unintelligible jargon; nay, he absolutely annihilated it; for we are told, that "he wrote no language."
The style of Milton deserved the praise of Addison. If, as Johnson boldly asserts, "an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprized by a new language;" — that new language is one of the many "speciosa miracula" of our poet; for we no sooner enter on it than it charms, and captivates. These effects could not be produced, if it was not striking, and perspicuous; for how can our sentiments be strongly rouzed, and inflamed with objects of which we have but a confused perception? every genuine poet is a kind of herald from heaven to earth: he writes a language that is all clearness, and energy; — not merely to the scholar, and the philosopher; but to his country; to mankind; to the universe. The Paradise Lost will always be read with a most lively, and exalted pleasure, by any person of a common education; if he has but natural good sense, and taste. The few obscurities of Milton proceed not from the general structure, and tenour of his language; but from an injudicious, and indeed apparently ostentatious display of science, and learning. Technical, and philosophical terms of remoter occurrence; and therefore very improper for the poetical style; names of cities, and countries, taken from the more learned geography; and perhaps varied in their form, that they may be the more consonant with the magnificent Miltonian harmony; references to the wilder, and imaginary regions of romance, as to real history; — these deviations (which are, comparatively, but seldom indulged) from the more interesting language of the muse, are among the faults of our ipimorta1 poet; and they have justly incurred the censure of Addison. Permit me to repeat, that the mind of the greatest genius will be more or less tinctured with the complexion of the times in which he lives. The faults which I have now mentioned; the low jesting, likewise; the pun, to which he sometimes descends; and the school divinity which we find in his poem; these weaknesses are not congenial with the great soul of Milton; they are the foibles of the age.
Mr. Addison was not, as Dr. Johnson would make us believe, one of the undistinguishing, and childish admirers of our authour; he was not one of those "who can find nothing wrong in Milton." He said, indeed, very truly; with a just, animated, and most honourable eulogy; that "our language sunk under him; and was unequal to that greatness of soul which furnished him with such glorious conceptions."
Our language sunk under Milton; and it sunk under Dr. Johnson; from different causes. It sunk under Milton, only as his imagination soared above it: it sunk under Johnson, from the scholastick weight which he laid upon it. Where that weight does not interfere, he is a very great writer: but in taste he was deficient; otherwise we should not have had such erroneous, and severe strictures on Milton; nor would the lexicographer so often have shaded the splendid pages of the Rambler. The epithets, "rugged," and "pedantick," which he gives to Milton's style, are totally inconsistent with one of his juster observations; that "the heat of his mind might be said to sublimate his learning; to throw off into his work the spirit of science, unmingled with its grosser parts." And when Johnson charges an authour with ruggedness, and pedantry, he gives us a remarkable instance that the literary, as well as the moral man, may not be sufficiently acquainted with his own faults. This charge against Milton brings to my recollection an answer which he made to me, many years ago; when I told him what pleasure I had received in reading Dr. Lowth's famous pamphlet against Warburton. "Sir, you are very right; Warburton never got such a drubbing as that pamphlet gave him; but you may perceive in it the hardness of the scholar."
It is now time for me to remind you, that, upon the whole, agreeably to the criticism of Johnson as well as of Addison, the style of Milton is worthy of its objects; or, in other words, that it is more sublime than any other style in the poetical world. We have obtained; or rather we have extorted the verdict of Johnson, in favour of our divine poet; he hath given it us, in spite of himself; in spite of his declamation; for I cannot say, in spite of his arguments to the contrary; — a verdict ignoble to the critick; but glorious to the poet. Dr. Johnson warmly acknowledges, that a reader of Paradise Lost, notwithstanding its unpropitious language, immediately becomes the captive of the poet; and is insensible to every thing but rapture, and admiration. Now, these effects never accompanied the reading of any poem; unless the style was characteristick of the thoughts; unless it was luminous, glowing, and harmonious; unless, with vigour, and grace, it expanded, or soared, with the ideas of its authour. We may, therefore, be convinced that Milton has no rival, in sublimity of sentiment, imagery, and language.
Before 1 take my leave of Johnson for awhile, permit me to observe that no man could apprehend from him such contemptuous remarks, on the style of Milton, who should only read that part of his book where he asserts that "our poet deserved all the praise of copiousness, and variety; that he was master of his language, in its full extent; and has selected the melodious words with such diligence, that from his book alone the art of English poetry might be learned." Page 217.
This period alone is a direct, and complete contradiction to the novelty, ruggedness, and barbarity of style, of which he accuses Milton. Nor can higher praise be given to the thoughts of any poet, if it was not absurd (for it never had, and it never can have, a foundation in fact,) than to remark, that those thoughts in a moment counteract, and totally subdue the natural effects of the uncouth language of the Babylonish dialect, in which they are conveyed; and that we no sooner begin to read Milton, than we are captivated, enchanted, and enraptured, by the exuberance, and beauty, and sublimity of his genius.
It is perhaps not more disagreeable to anyone, than to myself, to quote, and to animadvert on quotations. Several motives, however, and as I thought, of sufficient importance, induced me, in this part of my Lecture, to be dangerously minute; for it is difficult to be minute, and not to be cold. You will perhaps already think that I have proved Milton to be the greatest of poets; and surely this is not an insignificant point that I have gained; in the estimation of every lover of poetry, and of England. If Johnson's superficial, inconsistent, and ungenerous animadversions on our authour, had not been enforced by a celebrated name, I honestly own to you, that I should not have given them any particular attention. The implicit homage that has been payed to the edicts of this magisterial dictator, shows that we live not in an age of literary investigation, and inquiry; shows with what a laxity of mind we read; and that we too easily catch, repeat, and respect, the echo of the day. I am sorry that truth, essential to my present endeavours, obliges me to say, that an authour, whose writings, when his talents were in their full vigour; and before his haughty, and overbearing mind was inflated with adulation, were of essential, and memorable service to learning, and to virtue, hath, in his Lives of our English Poets, treated men greater than himself, with an unwarrantable superciliousness, and contempt. These Lives came forth at a time very inauspicious for the fate of languishing literature; when manly knowledge, and taste, were not much cultivated amongst us; when, consequently, very unqualified adventurers invaded the region of the muses; caught the suffrages of an unreflecting publick; and were borne gayly along, on the tide of a sounding, but short-lived popularity; a popularity courted by selfish, and sordid vanity; despised by generous, and magnanimous ambition. If I can at all contribute, by my attempts, to promote a zeal for true poetry, by presenting to you its nature, and its laws, with some degree of propriety; without malignity against any one, (for, believe me, my heart is a present engrossed by superiour objects,) but with a spirit of independence; and with an eye intent on the golden scale of poetical justice; I shall repose on your equitable sentiments; and if I deserve it, I shall have your approbation. I sincerely, and ardently wish that I had powerful coadjutors in this good, and glorious cause; I wish that men of abilities more forcible, and commanding than mine, would devote their intellectual exertions to the vindication, and encouragement of a neglected, and divine art. For however my doctrine may be disputed, or despised, by little, austere, and gloomy souls; or by the limited, and groveling views of policy; few advocates would be found more powerful than poetry, under prudent and generous auspices, to enforce the practice of every private and publick virtue; few more powerful to stimulate the human mind to every benevolent, and noble deed.
I have been defending the out-works of our poetical hero; let me take a view of his large, and lofty citadel. Milton's poem is founded on our religion. Here the poet made a most judicious choice; because by that choice, the sentiments of our best belief, and of our profoundest veneration, co-operated with genius; to give a kind of reality even to the vast objects of his peculiarly amplifying, and creative powers. The choice was happy, for another reason. Conscious that those powers were of a magnitude almost more than human, he was determined that they should produce images worthy of their immensity. He knew that too excessive a greatness, in mind, in character, and in form, could hardly be attributed to the persons, and regions, which lay before him. He knew it; and he took a flight without limits: he saw, and he presented to our sight, the most contrasted; and astonishing objects; perfect beauty, and perfect deformity; beings of infinite dread, and of infinite majesty. His theatre is unbounded space; its scenes; its machinery; and its heroes, exist, and act, in unbounded duration. The descriptive powers of the poet; his spirit, and his fire, are congenial with his objects. Those powers either give us a calm, but heartfelt delight; they captivate our fancy with their serene, but expanded charms; or we are irresistibly transported with their rapidity, and their ardour. Without any general, or infatuated prejudice; but with nature, I hope, and reason, for me; Milton might dispense with those rules of accuracy which, perhaps, could not, with propriety, be altogether neglected by any other poet; though by a generous poet, they will never be minutely observed: and I wish that I had ability, and importance enough, to enfeeble the reign of their coercion. In his serene, and beautiful; and in his tumultuous, and tremendous scenery; he arrests our eager attention; he wins all the interest of our heart; he converts fiction into reality; he seizes, and holds fast, by his potent, magical spell, every faculty of the soul; — by the thunder, and lightning of his muse; or by the persuasion, and pathos of her eloquence. Who can object, and censure, because, in the fourth book of Paradise Lost, Satan, a spirit, invisible, by nature, exposes himself, in a visible form, to the resentment of his adversaries; when, at the side of Eve, in the same book, he starts up, from the toad, in his own shape, at the touch of the spear of Ithuriel? Who, that is endowed with susceptibility; who, that is endowed with the power of reciprocating fancy, can thus object, and censure; can admit comparative trifles into his mind; while, in reading that exquisite book to which I refer, he is embosomed in the bloom, and bliss of Paradise; while he imbibes the harmonious, the celestial strains, of our seraphick poet? Who, that hath learned the best of learning; to refine learning by sentiment; — what active, and expanded breast, born with a passion for the great, and the unbounded, can harbour the frosty logick of criticism; can attend to the cold severity of reason; when they would restrain the poetry; the inspiration of Milton? While such a reader, in the sixth book; a book of a more arduous, and astonishing structure, is agitated with as excessive rapture as poetry can give, and as human nature can bear; will he not treat as a caviller, and a trifler; will he not treat with a noble contempt, or indignation, the critick who shall remind him, that ethereal substances are necessarily invulnerable; and that it was, therefore, their own fault, if they were crushed with their armour? Will not Johnson; will not even Addison shrink in his eye; while, in dread conflict, Michael, and Satan are engaged; the cherubim, and seraphim standing aloof, in anxious expectation; while the heavenly angels are appalled, when the cannon of Pandaemonium begins to play; while those recollected angels tear up the mountains, and launch them at the foe; — while all creation shakes at the tempest of this war; all but the throne of God!
Dr. Johnson makes an envious, and malignant, but I hope, an impotent attempt, to depreciate, and to degrade, this glorious scenery. He is industrious to level with the ground the very acme of the sublime of Milton. The "confusion of spirit, and matter (says he) which pervades the whole narration of the war of Heaven, fills it with incongruity; and the book in which it is related, is, I believe, the favourite of children; and gradually neglected, as knowledge is increased." — Life of Milton, p. 257. — It is not easy to determine whether the passage which I have now quoted, is more strongly marked with malevolence, or absurdity: for it is not to be supposed that Johnson could think as he wrote, on this occasion. The sixth, as, indeed, all the other books of Paradise Lost, may so far impress the fancy of children, as to strike it with the splendour, and majesty of their pictures; but that divine poem, and every celebrated part of it, can produce their full poetical effects only in minds which are maturely cultivated, and expanded, by time, and by a liberal education. The "confusion of spirit, and matter," which he censures, can only draw the notice of a cold, and captious critick. The true; the generous critick well knows, that physical, and metaphysical accuracy, are often freely dispensed with, in poetry; especially, where they are largely redeemed by poetical excellence. Such a critick can pay no attention to the abstract distinctions of spirit, and matter, while the war of Heaven is recited to him, by Milton; for the mind; the soul; all the faculties of the man, are totally, and ardently devoted, to the just, and great proportions of the imagery; to the astonishing sublime of the poet. And with these objects he will be the more powerfully captivated, and delighted, the greater that the augmentation; the greater that the accumulation has been, of his various, and extensive knowledge.
Dr. Johnson might, with as little hesitation, have extended the application of this contemptuous language to the whole poem: for he did not apply it, with a more glaring impropriety, to the sixth book; which, in the opinion of all good judges of poetical merit, most magnificently displays the greatness of its authour. Milton wrote his immortal poem, when his mind was in its manly maturity; when it was enriched with all the advantages of education, and study. It has always been admired, as the first of epick poems; not only by the most enlightened Englishmen but by the most distinguished literary men of foreign countries; in whose minds it never could have been impressed with all its original vigour. Addison employed his polite, and masterly learning; he exerted his fine imagination, and his accomplished judgement; to illustrate; to praise; and to recommend to the world, a work, which our modern Zoilus of a greater poet than Homer, sinks to a mere object of amusement for boys, and girls. And before Addison published his observations on this work, Dryden, the greatest of criticks, and one of the greatest of poets bad ranked it — "above all Greek; above all Roman fame." Even Johnson himself; one of whose pages, when he treats of Milton, frequently refutes another; acknowledges, that his objects, and his persons, are the most beautiful; the most perfect; the greatest, and the most awful, that could enter into the mind of man; and be likewise acknowledges that the execution is equal to the design; and that it is impossible for poetry to effect more than this mighty poet hath atchieved. When all these particulars are collectively considered; what can be greater absurdity; what can be greater injustice; what, in Dr. Johnson, can be more palpable self-contradiction; than to assert; or believe; or imagine, that as our knowledge is increased, our interest in the Paradise Lost is diminished; and that it is only "the favourite of children;" who, certainly can completely feel, and distinguish nothing more in poetry, than its simplest, its lowest beauties; if, indeed, their minds are capable of that acquisition.
With this analogy let us reason, and be satisfied; or rather with this analogy let us feel, and be transported, when in the second book, the original, horrible, and glorious images of sin, and death, are presented before us. The strictures of Dr. Johnson against these poetical beings are trifling, and futile. The important, and durable part which is assigned to them, is censured by Mr. Addison; and his censures are always pronounced with such liberality; they have so firm a foundation; or, at least, they are supported by so good authority, that they deserve our consideration, and respect. The appearance, and action, he observes, of personified passions, affections, or purely ideal objects, should be short, and momentary; and he exemplifies this rule, from the greatest poets. Thus Victory, in Homer, follows Diomedes; Venus is dressed by the graces; and in our own poet, Silence is pleased with the strains of the nightingale; and Confusion hears the voice of the Messiah. "For when such persons (I give you his own words) are introduced as principal actors, and engaged in a series of adventures, they take too much upon them; and are by no means proper for a heroick poem, which ought to appear credible in all its parts." — I am far from thinking this rule, in a general view, insignificant; but I do not find it of much consequence, as it is here applied. Milton showed not only great invention, but ingenious art, by introducing sin, and death into his poem; as his subject afforded him but few principal personages. The objection of improbability loses much of its weight, on serious reflexion. How little is there in the Paradise Lost that religion obliges us to believe? Dr. Johnson once told me, that wherever Milton excells Homer, he owes that excellence to the superiority of his religion. I beg leave to deny the assertion. Johnson himself, has denied it, since he made it. And indeed, when we recollect his talents, we may be rather surprised at his contradictions of himself, both in conversation and in writing. — "Whoever considers" (saith he) "the few radical positions which the scriptures afforded to Milton, will wonder by what energetick operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety; restrained, as he was, by religious reverence, from licentiousness of fiction." — Thus far, I quote Dr. Johnson. God forbid that I should seem to slight religion; but I apprehend that its leading aim, is to make us good men; not great poets. The sacred history, as well as the divine morality, of revelation, is, in general, simple, and concise; the simplicity of both, indeed, frequently rises to the sublime; and when the sublime is characterized with simplicity, it is the sublime, in perfection. But almost all the forcible eloquence of Milton, all the majesty, and corresponding ornaments of his characters; all his vast and awful scenes; all his active, and magnificent machinery, are his own creation. In fact; the existence, and action of Gabriel, and Satan, as they exist, and act, in Paradise Lost, are as improbable as the existence of these allegorical persons, sin, and death; which are so obnoxious to austere criticism. Therefore let criticism
Still spread her cobwebs o'er the eye of day;
The muse's wing shall brush them all away.
The interview between Sin, and Satan, at the gates of Hell, is presented by Milton; he raises the terrifick scene; his soul "rides in the whirlwind, and directs the storm." The soul of the reader, too, blends with the tumult; and is vehemently moved with a mixed horrour, and transport of agitation. Permit me to recite to you some of the striking lines of this astonishing scene; I am willing to suffer some mortification for the sake of Milton; I know how unequal I am to a proper repetition of his verses; but they must be miserably recited, indeed, if they do not convince us, that it was in his power, above all other poets, to make his objects tea!, and present, for the time; and that he was therefore authorized by the originality, and, fervour of his mind, to break through common, and established laws.
—The other shape [he speaks of death]
(If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called, that shadow seemed;
For each seemed either;) black it stood as night;
Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell;
And shook a dreadful dart. — What seemed his head,
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.
Satan was now at hand; and from his seat
The monster moving, onward came as fast,
With horrid strides; hell trembled as he strode.
The undaunted fiend what this might he, admired;
Admired, not feared.—
B. 2nd. v. 666.
I omit several verses of this description; and proceed to another picturesque passage in the same description; in competition with which, the expression of Salvator Rosa, and of Michael Angelo, is deadened; and their colouring is eclipsed.
So spake the griesly terrour, and in shape,
So speaking, and so threatening, grew tenfold
More dreadful, and deform. On the other side,
Incensed with indignation Satan stood,
Unterrified; and like a comet burned,
That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge,
In the arctick sky; and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence, and war. Each at the head
Levelled his deadly aim; their fatal hands
No second stroke intend; and such a frown
Each cast at the other, as when two black clouds,
With Heaven's artillery fraught, come rattling on,
Over the Caspian; then stand front to front;
Hovering a space; till winds the signal blow,
To join their dark encounter, in mid air:
So frowned the mighty combatants, that hell
Grew darker at their frown. v. 704.
The imagery of this picture is in the height of poetical vigour, and sublimity. The simile of the immense, and fiery comet, shedding pestilence, and war; that of two black clouds, that come rattling on, over the Caspian; and the darkness of hell, grown darker by the frowns of the combatants; are, all, thrown out, with an unrivalled force, and manner. In the former quotation; the undefined likeness of a kingly crown, which the spectre had on; emblematick of his future universal empire; the ambiguity of his form, which had neither shape, nor substance, that could be described; — his semblance of a head, left to be more distinctly, but infinitely figured, by imagination; — these are the productions of a mighty master, who could give animated being, and bold relief, to the slightest shades; the productions of a of a great maker, who could call into life, and action, all poetical possibilities; in short, they are the atchievements only of Miltonian genius; as happy in art, as disdainful of bounds. Who can think, for a moment, of allegory violating probability, while he is fired with such imagery, and with such description? The dreadful dart which Death shakes, in the Miltonic painting, should be as fatal to the sophistry of Johnson; and I add, with some regret, even to the fairer criticism of Addison, as it was, afterwards, destructive to the human kind.
Mr. Addison very justly admires that fertility of fancy, and those powers of expression, by which the poet gave such proper, and nervous sentiments, to Sin and Death; those imaginary persons; especially, where, in the tenth book, they throw a bridge over chaos; a work, which that distinguishing critick observes, is extremely characteristick of the genius of Milton. Nothing can be more feeble, and confused, than Johnson's absurd, and iiliberal criticism on this work "of wondrous art pontifical:" I am almost confident that whoever dispassionately reads his critique on this finely invented structure, will agree with me, that he loses his way; stumbles, and falls through it; — to him it has proved the "pons asinorum" of our great poetical geometrician. What unprejudiced reader, of taste, would not be extremely mortified, if the persons of Sin, and Death; and even the bridge over chaos, were inevitably, and for ever, left out of the poem? In Johnson's declamatory pages against Milton, there is one very sensible remark: it should have been recollected by no man more frequently than by himself: I wish that it was properly and effectually considered; "the graces beyond the rules of art," that are "snatched" by genius, would not, then, be so often reprobated by the rigour of the schools. "Since the end of poetry" (says he) "is pleasure, that cannot be unpoetical, with which all are pleased."
No gratitude to Milton for the exquisite pleasure which we feel from his poetry, can defend his limbo of vanity, in the third book of Paradise Lost. The extreme improbability, and the levity of the fable, render it very unworthy of a place in the poem in which it is contained. Such wild allegories we might have expected from Spenser, or Ariosto; but they ill become the poet, who, in majesty, and grandeur, is far superiour to Virgil; — to Homer. Of this Paradise of Fools, Dr. Johnson remarks very properly, that "it is not ill imagined; but too ludicrous for its place." Page 211. Pope, in the fifth canto of his Rape of the Lock, has finely improved on this allegorical satire, with a spirit, elegance, and humour, peculiar to himself. To transplant it into its proper soil, was, to improve it. It suits the gaiety of a mock-heroick; but not the gravity of a real epick poem.
Among the digressions of Milton from his main subject; or the "diverticula," (as such detached pieces are termed by Scaliger; when he is speaking of Lucan,) I must lay a particular stress on his elegy, as I may call it, on his own blindness; at the opening of the third book. I hardly need to observe that his previous address to light, is as fine as it is sublime. Those lines on his blindness prove that he was a master of the pathetick, and beautiful, as well as of the sublime. The lines, indeed, to which I allude, are wrought up to a rare, and exquisite excellence, by what he intimately, and poignantly felt, from his privation of sight. For genius hath a double force, when it is actuated by any passage of our own lives; when it is impelled by an immediate interest of passion, and the heart. Such digressions, however, are condemned, as improper in an epick poem; not only by severe, but by liberal criticks; from their too great veneration for Aristotle, and for precedent. For my own part, if we are ever to have another great epick poem, may it be enriched, and adorned with such digressions as that which we now have in our view; and with such glorious allegorical persons, as Sin and Death. Such digressions, and allegories, whatever prejudices, and dogmas may say, relieve, and amuse the mind with a charming variety; surely, without distracting it, if it is any mind at all; without making it forget, or lose sight of the main tenour of the poem. If our memory, or attention, while we peruse an interesting, and excellent authour, is so easily dislocated, (if you will allow me the expression,) and if we mean that he should afford us real pleasure, or advantage, we should let nothing intervene while we are perusing him; not even the common avocations of the day. Surely, our chat over a dish of coffee, or the reading of a news-paper, will more probably crush our feeble remembrance of the heroick strain, than a shorter, and more congenial poetical transition. Addison, after condemning the impropriety of the passages, which I am endeavouring to defend, honestly acknowledges, that "there is so great a beauty in those very digressions, that he would not wish them out of the poem." Spectator No. 297. "The short digressions, at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books, might, doubtless, be spared," (says Dr. Johnson,) but he adds; "Superfluities so beautiful, who would take away?" "Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret." I wish for nothing stronger to warrant these digressions than such acknowledgements. It would be my pride, as it is my literary duty, to destroy the remaining authority of these old laws, of these ancient instances. I hope that I am not more confident than I ought to be: for do not I appeal to Nature? and does not Nature distinctly give her voice in my favour?
As Milton's great learning was worthy of his genius, we may be sure that he was well acquainted with all the eminent laws of poetry, which had been enacted on the chair of criticism, from the days of the Stagyrite, down to modern times. It is not improbable that be foresaw the objections that would be made to his allegorical, and digressive passages; but he foresaw, too, that they would soar above the shafts of criticism, to the admiration of latest ages. In poetry, as in morality, the formal absurdities of the schools yield, by degrees, to eternal, and noble truth; and to the genuine, and conspiring sentiments of mankind: and our great master knew how he could display the one, and excite the other. He knew that to cut the gordian knots of oracular superstition, was the prerogative of Alexanders.
If we march, like men, in the foot-steps of such a poet, and such a critick, we shall smile at the rabbinical dispute, whether or no the Paradise Lost is an epick poem. Let us not as Mr. Addison remarks, debate about words; if you will not call it an epick, or heroick, let us call it a divine poem; which, in truth, it is, in the two senses of the epithet. Every poem must be a heroick poem, which has a great foundation, or theme; and which comprehends, and exhibits, grand objects. Therefore we cannot be at a loss for the proper title to Paradise Lost. But criticks have been puzzled to find a hero to this poem. Suppose that it has several heroes; where is the harm of that, my venerable seniors; if for awhile you can shut out Homer, and Aristotle, from your recollection; and if those heroes produce no confusion in the fable? but if we must assign one distinguished hero to this incomparable work, I own, I think, with Dryden, that "the devil, in reality, is Milton's hero." For though he is wicked, and rebellious, he is intrepid, and eloquent, throughout; he is the most active, and enterprizing being in the poem; and he atchieves a memorable, and devilishly famous deed; the fall of man. Every generous mind will see that I am speaking, here, merely in the spirit of criticism; without the least irreverence to the better, and superiour personages; and especially, to the Divine Being! If it is a fault in an epick poet to chuse a worthless person for his hero; the father of poetry was a capital offender; for I can hardly imagine a more sullen, savage, odious wretch than the Achilles of Homer. The essential moral difference between the two heroes, is, that the power of Achilles to do ill is less than that of Satan; for each of the gentlemen does all the mischief that he can. But the Devil, fallen angel that he was, was, by nature, a far superiour being to the other; he was a far more splendid genius than Achilles. The magnitude of the poets was commensurate with that of the heroes; Milton, therefore, in poetical propriety, was more judicious in his choice of a hero than Homer.
No book, of human composition, is so well calculated as the Paradise Lost, to strengthen, refine, and elevate the mind; to raise it beyond the view of inferiour, and sordid objects. Religion and nature cooperate, while we read this authour, to make us spurn every selfish, and low passion to make us assert the divine origin of the soul. He paints innoxious life in the most enchanting colours; he most emphatically shows the blessed consequences of obedience, and the dire effects of disobedience, to the divine will. He impresses us, as strongly as it is possible, with an idea of the misery of the bad, and of the happiness of the good. By being intimately conversant with Milton, our mental powers, and affections are purified, and exalted, to their highest degree of sentiment, by another cause, by nature; I mean, by their communication, and contract with a great mind. Milton's genius, as I have already observed, naturally persued images for which it was formed; it ranged amidst the vast, and unbounded; every thing, with him, is upon a great scale. Hence, if we are not absolutely in the dregs of mortality, the productions of his genius dilate, and sublimate our souls with collateral ideas. Certainly we must leave all earthly dross behind us, when we. mount, with Milton, to the gold that bespangles the firmament. When we survey the august, and stupendous forms of his heroes, and demigods; when we listen to their new; but striking, and inspiring eloquence; to an eloquence characteristick of their forms; we feel an ambition for true greatness; for the noblest persuits, and passions. When we travel, with him, through immeasurable space; through Earth, Erebus, Chaos, and Olympus; we look back on our own sublunary state with indifference; on human beings, with a mild superiority of sentiment. Our morality, and religion expand, with our excursions; we deem nothing so diminutive as human pride; indeed, this "great globe itself, and all who it inhabit," seem but specks in the creation. If such effects are produced by a great poet, in the mind of the reader, I will not, with other criticks, elaborately endeavour to find a moral in Milton.
I have observed that every thing in this poem is upon a great scale. Will you permit me to give you a specimen of the truth of what I have advanced. The ensign of Satan is raised, in the first book of Paradise Lost, and in these lines:
Then strait commands, that at the warlike sound
Of trumpets loud, and clarions, be upreared
His mighty standard; that proud honour claimed
Azazel, as his right; a cherub tall;
Who, forthwith, from the glittering staff unfurled
The imperial ensign; which, full high advanced,
Shone, like a meteor streaming to the wind;
With gems, and golden lustre, rich emblazed;
Seraphick arms, and trophies! all the while,
Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds;
At which the universal host, upsent
A shout that tore Hell's concave; and beyond,
Frighted the reign of Chaos, and old Night.
B. 1st. l. 531.
To point out particularly the beauties or rather the glories of this passage, would be to affront your sentiments, and your taste. It is a very sublime passage, though the scene lies in the infernal regions. There is not so much glowing, and sublime imagery in any equal number of lines in Homer. I am far from supposing that you are not well acquainted with the supereminently great as well as beautiful parts of this divine poem. Yet permit me now to present to you, a passage of each kind; that I may give my immediate, striking, and incontestable proofs, that I have not been undistinguishing, lavish, and extravagant, in my warm praise of our epick poet. At the close of the fourth book, where Satan is brought before Gabriel, by the guardian angels of Paradise, and
severely reproved, and threatened by that. celestial chief, his haughty, and intrepid character is admirably displayed in the following lines:
So threatened he; but Satan to no threat
Gave heed; but waxing more in rage, replied:—
Then, when I am thy captive, talk of chains,
Proud limitary cherub! But ere then,
Far heavier load thyself expect to feel,
From my prevailing arm; though Heaven's King
Ride on thy wings; and then, with thy compeers,
Used to the yoke, drawst his triumphant wheels,
In progress through the road of heaven star-paved.
While thus he spake, the angelick squadron bright
Turned fiery red; sharpening in mooned horns
Their phalanx; and began to hem him round
With ported spears; as thick as when a field
Of Ceres, ripe for harvest, waving, bends
Her bearded grove of ears; which way the wind
Sways them; the careful plowman doubting stands;
Lest on the threshing floor, his hopeful sheaves
Prove chaff. — On the other side, Satan alarmed,
Collecting all his might, dilated stood
Like Teneriff, or Atlas, unremoved;
His stature reached the sky; and on his crest
Sate horrour plumed!
B. IVth: v. 968.
Permit me to make two quotations more; in which you will find the extremely beautiful united with the extremely, sublime. "I do not know any thing in the whole poem (says Mr. Addison) more sublime than the description which follows; where the Messiah is represented at the head of his angels, as looking down into the chaos; calming its confusion; riding into the midst of it; and drawing the first out-line of the creation." — I quote several verses preparatory to the objects which are here mentioned by Mr. Addison:
—Meanwhile the son
On his great expedition now appeared;
Girt with omnipotence; with radiance crowned
Of majesty divine. Sapience, and love
Immense; and all his father in him shone.
About his chariot numberless were poured
Cherub, and seraph; potentates, and thrones;
And virtues; winged spirits; and chariots winged;
From the armoury of God; where stand, of old,
Myriads, between two brazen mountains lodged
Against a solemn day; harnessed at hand;
Celestial equipage; and now came forth,
Spontaneous; for within them spirit lived,
Attendant on their lord; — Heaven opened wide
Her ever-during gates; harmonious sound!
On golden hinges moving; — to let forth
The king of glory; in his powerful word,
And spirit, coming, to create new worlds!
On heavenly ground they stood; and from the shore,
They viewed the vast, immeasurable abyss;
Outrageous a sea; dark; wasteful; wild;
Up, from the bottom turned, by furious winds,
And surging waves; as mountains, to assault
Heaven's height, and with the centre mix the pole.
Silence, ye troubled waves, and thou, deep, peace!
Said then the omnifick word; your discord end!
Nor staid; but on the wings of cherubim
Uplifted, in paternal glory rode
Far into Chaos, and the world unborn;
For Chaos heard his voice. Him all his train
Followed, in bright procession; to behold
Creation; and the wonders of his might!
Then staid the fervid wheels; and in his hand
He took the golden compasses; prepared
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe; and all created things.
One foot he centered; and the other turned
Round, through the vast profundity obscure;
And said: — thus far extend; thus far, thy bounds;
This be thy just circumference, O world;
B. VIIth. v. 192.
The luminaries of heaven thus make their glorious appearance on the fourth day:
First, in his East, the glorious lamp was seen,
Regent of day; and all the horizon round
Invested with bright rays; jocund to run
His longitude through Heaven's high road; the grey
Dawn, and he pleiades before him danced;
Shedding sweet influence; — less bright the moon;
But opposite, in levelled west was set;
His mirrour: with full face borrowing her light
From him; for other light she needed none
In that aspect; and still that distance keeps
Till night; then in the East her turn she shines,
Revolved on Heaven's great axle; and her reign
With thousand lesser lights dividual holds;
With thousand, thousand stars, which then appeared;
Spangling the hemisphere!
B. VIIth. v. 370.
You will be pleased to recollect, that these elegant, beautiful, and sublime quotations, are extracted from a poet, of whom Dr. Johnson asserts, that "his diction is so far removed from common use, that an unlearned reader, when he first opens his book, finds himself surprised by a new language; that he formed a Babylonish dialect, harsh and barbarous; and that he wrote no language." — Many, many passages, equal or superiour to these which I have ventured to recite, are to be found in Paradise Lost: I may surely assert, without exaggeration, that it contains fewer uninteresting lines than any other poem of its length. Dr. Johnson's criticisms have been as unjust, and injurious, to several other illustrious poetical names as they were to Milton: therefore it is rather surprising, that even the heavy tyranny of prejudice, combined with the coquettish tyranny of fashion, could have raised this biographer to the rank of a poetical lawgiver, in a free and enlightened country. He once told me in his ardent style of diminution, and amplification, that "all the epick poets were babies to Homer." — If you will allow me to adopt the decisive language of our great cavalier, I think that I am better warranted to assert, that all those poets are babies to Milton. I hardly think that the concluding couplet of Dr. Barrow's Latin encomium on our poet goes to far.
Haec quicunque leget, tantum cecinesse putabit
Maeonidem ranas, Virgilium culices.
I need not tell you that I subscribe, from my heart, to the generous tribute of honest Dryden: — "This man," (said he) "cuts us all out; and the ancients, too."
Of this great man; of this unrivalled poet, I have yet more to say; even to the extent of two Lectures; — to which I wish that what I have already said of him, could induce you to attend. Should this wish be realized, my sincere, impartial, and strenuous endeavours to do justice to Milton, will be amply rewarded.