1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Bryan Waller Procter, in "English Poetry" Edinburgh Review 42 (April 1825) 55-58.



In regard to MILTON, we scarcely know whether to prefer his sublimity or beauty. His power over both was perfect. We prostrate ourselves before him, alternately in fear and love; while he lets loose the statures of Hell upon us, or unbars the blazing doors of Heaven, or carries us "winding through the marble air," past Libra and the Pole, or laps us in a dream of Paradise, and unfolds the florid richness of his Arcadian landscapes. Milton has told a story of burning ambition. He has sung the Paean of victory over the foes of Heaven, — that "horrid crew," who, banished from the sky, and hurled headlong down to Hell,

Lay vanquished, rolling in the fiery gulf,
Confounded, though immortal:

But he has not dwarfed the contest of the angels, by striking prone their enemies, and arming with stings and reptile tails the legions who scared Chaos and the Deep, and waged even "dubious battle" with the Creator and his myriads in arms.

The Satan of Milton is the most magnificent creation in poetry. He is a personification of all that is gloomy or grand in nature, with more than the daring of man. He has the strength of a giant, the fashion of an angel, — "unconquerable will, immortal hate" — revenge that nothing can soothe, endurance which never shrinks, the intellect of heaven and the pride of earth, ambition immeasurably high, and a courage which quails not, even before God! Satan is essentially ideal. He is not like Macbeth or Lear, real in himself, literally true, and only lifted into poetry by circumstance: But he is altogether moulded in a dream of the imagination. Heaven and earth and hell are explored for gifts to make him eminent and peerless. He is compounded of all; and at last stands up before us, with the starry grandeur of darkness upon his forehead, but having the passions of clay within his heart, and his home and foundation in the depths below. It is this gleaning, as it were, from every element, and compounding them all in one grand design, which constitutes the poetry of the character. Perhaps Ariel and Caliban are as purely ideal as the hero of Milton, and approach as nearly to him as any other fiction that occurs to us; but the latter is incontestably a grander formation, and a mightier agent, and moves through the perplexities of his career with a power that defies competition. Milton's way is like the "terribil via" of Michael-Angelo, which no one before or since has been able to tread.

Comparisons have been instituted between our great poet and Dante; and there are certainly occasional resemblances in the speeches and similes; for instance—

As cranes
Chaunting their dolorous notes, traverse the sky
Stretched out in long array, so I beheld
Spirits who came loud wailing, hurried on, &c. — (Inf. c. v.)

And again—

And now there came o'er the perturbed waves
Loud-crashing, terrible, a sound that made
Either shore tremble, as if of a wind
Impetuous, from conflicting vapours sprung,
That 'gainst some forest driving all its might
Plucks off the branches, &c. — (Inf. c. 9.)

But Dante reminds us oftener of Virgil than Milton, and as often of Spenser, we think, in the treatment of his subject. We recollect the latter, particularly when we read Dante's personifications of Pleasure, of Ambition and Avarice (in the first canto of the Inferno), and the punishment of Fucci for blasphemy (in the twenty-fifth canto), and other things similarly treated. Dante's genius seems to consist in a clear and striking detail of particulars, giving them the air of absolute fact. His strength was made up of units. Milton's, on the other hand, was massy and congregated. His original idea (of Satan) goes sweeping along, and colouring the subject from beginning to end. Dante shifts from place to place, from person to person, subduing his genius to the literal truths of history, which Milton overruled and made subservient. However excellent the Florentine may be (and he is excellent), he had not the grasp nor the soaring power of the English poet. The images of Dante pass by like the phantasmas on a wall, clear, indeed, and picturesque; but although true, in a great measure, to fact, they are wanting in reality. They have complexion and shape, but not flesh or blood. Milton's earthly creatures have the flush of living beauty upon them, and show the changes of human infirmity. They inhale the odours of the garden of Paradise, and wander at will over lawns and flowers: they listen to God; they talk to angels; they love, and are tempted, and fall! And with all this there is a living principle about them, and (although Milton's faculty was by no means generally dramatic) they are brought before the reader, and made — not the shadows of what once existed — but present probable truths. His fiercer creations possess the grandeur of dreams, but they have vitality within them also, and in character and substance are as solid as the rock.

The genius of Milton was as daring as it was great. He did not seek for a theme amidst ordinary passions, with which men must sympathize, or in literal facts, which the many might comprehend. On the contrary, he plunged at once through the deep, and ventured to the gates of Heaven for creatures wherewith to people his story. Even when he descended upon earth, it was not to select from the common materials of humanity: But he dropped at once upon Paradise, and awoke Adam from the dust, and painted the primitive purity of woman, and the erect stature and yet unclouded aspect of man. Nothing can be more beautiful than his pictures of our "first parents," breathing the fragrant airs of Eden, communing with superior natures, dreaming in the golden sun, feeding upon nectareous fruits, and lying "imparadised " in one another's arms, on pillows of violet and asphodel! What can surpass the figure of Adam—

His fair large front, and eye sublime, declared
Absolute rule,

except it be that of Eve, who—

—as a veil, down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses wore,

the meekest, the purest, the loveliest of her sex. — Thus has Milton, without any of the ordinary aids, fashioned a poem, which, both for sublimity and beauty, is quite unparalleled in the history of fiction. Homer was more various, more dramatic, more uniformly active, more true to the literal fact, perhaps, than he, and Virgil more correct, while Spenser dwelt as completely upon poetic ground; but there is a grandeur of conception in Milton, a breadth of character, and a towering spirit, which stood over his subject and pervaded it from beginning to end, that we shall scarcely admit to exist in any other poet. He was, in our minds, the greatest epic poet of the world. At any rate, there is no one but Homer who can stand in competition with him. Shakespeare alone excelled them both; but he went beyond all men, and stands in the array of human intellect, like the Sun in the system, single and unapproachable.