There are few persons, I presume, among those who are in the habit of exercising their mental faculties, exempt from occasionally suffering an unconquerable lassitude and imbecility, the effect perhaps of over-exertion, and often of great anxiety and fatigue. On such occasions the assistance of eminent friends, which is at all times highly acceptable, becomes doubly gratifying. It is therefore with more than common satisfaction, that at a moment when my spirits are low, and my humble talents more than commonly weak, I am enabled to communicate a very excellent translation of an Italian Sonnet of Milton by the learned and poetic editor of that poet's Paradise Regained [Charles Dunster].
"Milton's-Fourth Sonnet, 'Diodati, io te'l diro,' &c. Translated from the Italian."
Yes, Diodati, wonderful to tell,
Ev'n I — the stubborn wretch, who erst despis'd
The God of Love, and laugh'd his chains to scorn,
Am fall'n, where oft the brave have captur'd been.
Nor golden tresses, nor the vermeil cheek,
Are my resistless victors. A new form
Of foreign beauty fascinates my soul:
That nobly graceful portance; those smooth brows
Arch'd with the lustrous gloss of loveliest black
That converse sweet, with various tongues adorn'd;
That song, whose charming potency might well
Draw down the labouring moon from her high path,
But 'gainst whose magic strains to close the ear,
Avails not, — while those radiant eyes beam fire?
There seems to my ear a kind of stately Miltonic movement in these verses, which makes the want of rhyme unperceived.
In my humble judgment, the Sonnets of Milton, however condemned by the malignant sarcasms of Johnson, though I will not say they are among the best of his compositions, partake almost every where of the majestic plainness of his lofty genius. For seven and twenty years they have been the objects of my admiration; and I do not like them the less because they are deficient in all the finical prettinesses of modern poetry. When I hear of their harsh and bald deformities, I only smile with scorn at the tasteless inability to discern in them the spirit of an exalted mind above the artifices of a tinsel dress.
I have already given my opinion in the memoir of Dr. Darwin, and elsewhere, of those narrow notions of poetry, which too many indulge. They seem to think it confined to sparkling images, to pointed expressions, and harmonious rhymes. Even the best of these ingredients is of very inferior importance to that sublimity or tenderness of soul, which has the power of communicating its own strong impressions to the reader. He who busies himself with the tricks of language, is never hurried away by the fire of natural thoughts.
A manly mind hates all the minor machinery of poetical composition, though it be the only part which a feeble or vitiated critic comprehends or relishes. But yet how contemptible is he, who in the boundless varieties of the human intellect, and the boundless space over which it may travel, would confine our judgments to one or two models of excellence! If Spenser, and Shakspeare, and Milton were poets, so were Cowley and Dryden; yet how unlike! Where then is to be found the definition of poetry large enough to comprehend its powers?
Of all the Sonnets of Milton, I am almost inclined to prefer the XIXth, On his Blindness. It has, to my weak taste, such various excellences, as I am unequal to praise sufficiently. It breathes doctrines at once so sublime and consolatory, as to gild the gloomy paths of our existence here with a new and singular light.
Of Milton's harshness, may it not be observed, that originality often appears like harshness? Commonplace phrases seem smooth, because we are habituated to them, while a new combination of words sounds rough to our ears. How far from harsh are those fine lines in the XIVth Sonnet to the memory of Mrs. Thomson, where he says,
"Thy works and alms —
Staid not behind, nor in the grave were trod
Love led them on, and Faith who knew them best,
Thy handmaids, clad them o'er with purple beams
And azure wings—
And then closes by saying that "the Judge"—
thenceforth bid thee rest,
And drink thy fill of pure immortal streams?
How majestic is the flow of those vigorous lines in his Address to Cromwell, when he speaks of him a the chief of men, who
To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough'd,
And on the neck of crowned Fortune proud
Hast rear'd God's trophies, and his works pursued,
While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbrued,
And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,
And Worcester's laureat wreath.
The study of these Sonnets would suggest a chaster and more classical style to our modern poetasters and critics. But perhaps without his strength of thought such plainness would not be endured.
Dec. 20, 1807.