1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Milton

Thomas Green, 24 June 1799; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 235-41.



Read a very elegant piece of criticism, intituled "A Letter to the Rev. Mr. T. Warton, on his late Edition of Milton's Juvenile Poems"; ascribed, and I believe truly, to the late Rev. Samuel Darby, of Ipswich. In most of the strictures, I very heartily concur; there is one, however, from which I am disposed to dissent more vehemently, perhaps, than the occasion may seem to warrant.

"'Towred Cities please us then.' MILTON: Allegro.

"'Then, that is, at night!' WARTON.

"An odd time, surely, for TOWRED Cities to please, when they cannot be seen. It is not Milton's wont to throw about his epithets thus at random. I remember, indeed, a party of young students from the University, who skaited down the river to Ely, and, arriving there late, would view the cathedral by candle and lantern. But the fact is rather singular; and it may be said in their excuse, that they were educated — juncosi ad littora Cami. THEN serves only, I apprehend, to shift the scene from the country to the town. The description of the morning is inimitable; and Milton must have been a very early riser, as well as an excellent poet., to mark its progressive beauties so distinctly and minutely as he has done. The lark startling the dull night with his song — the dappled dawn — the cock with lively din scattering the rear of darkness, and strutting out before his dames — the poet stealing forth to take his walk by hedge-row elms or hillocks green, to meet the sun (as Gray expresses it) at his Eastern Gate — robed in flames of amber, the clouds dight in a thousand colours, (forgive his liveries) — the plowman, the milkmaid, the mower, the shepherd, all with their proper attributes — the eye catching new pleasures as the sun advances — the discovery of the lawns, fallows, nibbling flocks, clouds resting on the breast of the mountains, meadows, rivers, towers and battlements bosomed high in tufted trees — form, in the whole, a picture which is unequalled, and would give new force and spirit to the glowing pencil of Reubens. I think the words, v. 67. — 'Every Shepherd tells his tale,' are well explained, as in this interpretation (which I own is new to me) the time is precisely marked. The description of the day is carried on with the same spirit, and the evening closes with a display of rural amusements and rural superstition. We are then carried to town amidst the busy hum of men. We are not to expect here the same entertainment we met with in the country. There is, however, a day-piece and a night-piece; and the evening is passed in a manner most agreeable to a man of taste and reflection, with Johnson and Shakespear, or in hearing soft Lydian airs, married to immortal verse." P. 7.

This is certainly ingenious and acute; and evinces a very delicate perception, and just relish, of the beautiful and appropriate imagery which Milton has employed, with such exquisite taste, in the most truly delicious and engaging, perhaps, of all his compositions: I cannot help thinking, however, that the reasons for excepting to Warton's, and (as I conceive) the ordinary interpretation of the passage, are far from conclusive; and I must confess, at the same time, that I should very reluctantly submit to their authority, if they were, as infinitely preferring an agreeable illusion, to an unacceptable truth.

The only objection expressly alleged against the obvious construction of the line in question, is derived from the epithet "towred", regarded as inapplicable to a night-piece: but there seems an indirect reference to another — the description of "the busy hum of men" — as a circumstance equally unsuitable to such a season; and an oblique glance at a third — in a supposed allusion (I conceive) of the Poet to tilts and tournaments, as forming part of the amusements of the Town — which, if it could be fairly established, would, no doubt, fix the period to the day. Let us examine each of these objections in its order. I. The epithet "towred" is manifestly employed to denote populousness and opulence—

Huge Cities, and high-tower'd, that well might seem
The seats of mightiest monarchs—
Par. Regained, B. 3, V. 261.

—such qualities, as would fit the imagined Capitals for those splendid scenes with which the Poet was preparing to enliven them; and which are by no properties more emphatically indicated, than by the clustering turrets, and aspiring battlements and pinnacles, of castles, churches, palaces, and public buildings. These, no doubt, are august and striking objects to the eye: let them be ever so imposing, however, it is not on their account that the Poet, on this occasion, exhibits Cities as delightful; but for considerations of a very different order, which these symbols of magnificence, thus slightly suggested to the imagination, merely serve to introduce. This, I conceive, would be a satisfactory answer to the objection, were the epithet in question altogether inapplicable, as depictive of the effect of such objects in the night: but there is no necessity for any such concession. Every one who has entered a considerable town, by moonlight, or amidst the glare of high rejoicings, must have been struck with the sublime effect of its loftier edifices, either majestically reposing under the pale but resplendent tint which "sleeps" (as Shakespear so exquisitely describes it) upon the face of nature; or partially illumed, in vivid gleams, by the immediate blaze of lamps and torches. Such objects may be more picturesque and pleasing, viewed at a distance — (Milton had before so viewed them) —, gilded by the morning sun, or trembling in the haze of noon; but they are incomparably more grand and impressive, when approached — (and the Poet here evidently supposes them near) —, under either of the former aspects. II. But what shall we say to the circumstance by which this proximity is so strikingly marked — to "the busy hum of men"? Does not such a description instantly suggest the noontide buzz of populous cities — the indefatigable murmur of Cheapside and the Change; and can such an image possibly comport with the stillness and solitude of night? Certainly, not with stillness and solitude: but are these the necessary accompaniments of the close of day? Are they such accompaniments as the inhabitants of crowded Capitals are accustomed to witness? Are they the accompaniments of such an evening as, I contend, the Poet is about to introduce? To secluded peasantry, indeed, the objected image might well appear unsuited to the evening; but a frequenter of the parties of gaiety and fashion, will surely attest its admirable adaptation to express the first effect upon the ear, of a scene, however late the hour,

Where throngs of knights and barons bold,
In weeds of peace, high triumphs hold;
With store of Ladies—.

The busy bee may close his labours with the day: but Man, intent on pleasure, holds another language—

Rigour now is gone to bed,
And Advice, with scrupulous head:
Strict Age, and sour Severity,
With their grave saws in slumber lie.
We that are of purer fire,
Imitate the starry quire;
Who in their nightly, watchful spheres,
Lead, in swift round, the months and years.
* * * * * * * * * *
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove—
Venus now wakes, and wakens Love.
—Come! Let us now our rites begin.
Comus, 107, &c.

III. The last objection, appears at first view by far the most formidable of the three; and, could it be substantiated, would undoubtedly be decisive of the question. If tilts and tournaments are really introduced as parts of the entertainment in the Town-scene, the time is irrevocably fixed to day. Let us view the passage, then:

Where throngs of knights and barons bold,
In weeds of peace, high triumphs hold;
With store of Ladies, whose bright eyes
Rain influence, and judge the prize
Of wit or arms, while all contend
To win her praise whom all commend.

Here is a manifest and direct allusion, indeed, to jousts and tournaments; but surely nothing which determines them to be passing at the time. On the contrary, there are three expressions which seem purposely introduced to obviate such an interpretation: — the knights and barons are emphatically stated to be clad "in weeds of peace"; whereas a tournament was, in all respects, and particularly in dress and accoutrements, the express image of war: — the occasion of assembling, is denominated a "triumph"; which Steevens, in a note on Shakespear's expression (1st. P. of King Henry the 4th., Act 3, scene 3.) "O, thou art a perpetual triumph, an everlasting bonfire-light", defines to be "a general term for any public exhibition, such as a royal marriage, a grand procession, &c, which commonly being at night, were attended by a multitude of torchbearers": — and the prize of wit is adjudged on the occasion, as well as arms. Whatever interpretation explained, in an easy way, these apparent inconsistencies, would merit attention, if not reception, on that consideration alone. Now it appears from M. De St. Palaye's Memoirs of Chivalry, that it was customary to close these martial exhibitions of our ancestors, with a solemn banquet — a supper — called the Feast of Tournaments; that at this high festival, this "triumph", all the guests, the dames, the barons, knights, and squires, appeared in their robes of state and ceremony; that, in the course of it, the prize of arms was frequently adjudged; that the parties afterwards engaged in contentions of wit and games of skill; and that the splendour of the evening was often still farther heightened by the introduction of masques and pageants, after the taste and fashion of the times:

There let Hymen oft appear,
In saffron robe, with taper clear;
And pomp, and feast, and revelry,
With masque, and antique pageantry.

We have only to conceive ourselves transported to a festival of this nature, and every circumstance of Milton's description will correspond exactly with the scene into which we are ushered: — there can be little difficulty, therefore, in conceding, that this is the scene which the Poet designed to exhibit.

That Warton's construction, then, is at least admissible, I trust, may safely be assumed; and that, if admissible, it is incomparably the most poetical, is surely past all dispute. — Milton's design in the Allegro and Penseroso, has perhaps been regarded with too much refinement by Johnson, when he considers it as being — not what Theobald, with still more refinement, supposed, "to shew how objects derived their colours from the mind, by representing the operation of the same things upon the gay and the melancholy temper, or upon the same man as he is differently disposed" — but rather "to illustrate, how, among the successive variety of appearances, every, disposition of mind takes hold on those by which it may be gratified". To me, the Poet's aim appears simply, to exhibit a succession of such appearances as are best adapted to interest and cherish a cheerful or pensive disposition. But however this may be, his conduct, in the pursuit of what must be regarded as his leading object, under any supposition, is clear and admirable. He personates, in turn, both characters; and conducts himself through a series of scenes and images congenial to each. These scenes and images are not promiscuously thrown together: they are exhibited in the order in which they naturally occur — in the succession in which they might actually have been witnessed and enjoyed; and thus essentially contribute to the vivacity and dramatic effect of the piece. In the Penseroso, the scene commences in the evening, and is pursued through the next day: in the Allegro, it opens in the morning, when first

* * * the lark begins his flight,
And singing startles the dull night;

and is continued, through periods marked by the most characteristic imagery, true to nature and exquisitely touched,

Till the live-long day-light fails:

But the recreations of a country life are not yet exhausted: the spicy, nut-brown ale is introduced; and the rustic beverage is accompanied with appropriate tales of village superstition, till the hour of rest (an early hour) arrives, the whispering winds lull all to slumber, and universal stillness closes up the evening. Then — at this pause — if Warton's interpretation be received, the Poet shifts the scene; and from the sequestered hamlet, hushed in silence and repose, transports us suddenly, and by an unexpected and awakening contrast, into the midst of luxurious cities, now revelling in the height of their festivities; where he mingles with whatever is most crowded, and brilliant, and exhilirating — the sumptuous feast, the gorgeous pageant, the splendid drama, and the inspiring concert. A transition more truly animating and delightful, never was conceived: it has the same effect, as when, in some entrancing Symphony, after a Minor-movement gradually softened by a lentando and diminuendo to a close that dies away upon the ear, the whole force of the orchestra abruptly breaks forth in the original key and to brisk measure. The transition it not only exquisite in itself, but its introduction is infinitely happy. It possesses perfectly both the requisites of that "curiosa felicitas" which constitutes the fondest wish of the aspirer to elegance of composition; — it has all the ease which seems the gift of fortune, with all the justness which forms the triumph of art. After having chased the delights of the country through the day, the Poet is naturally led to resort in the evening to cities; and cities, at this juncture, readily furnish those glittering spectacles which contrast so admirably with the tranquil pleasures of the day. Destroy this continuity — suppose a total break in the scene — conceive that the Poet, after having left us to slumber through the night, goes over again the next day, in the town, the same circuit which he had, the evening before, completed in the country, and — I will not say that the spirit of the piece is gone — but I am sure it is miserably impaired. Every reader of taste, must forcibly feel the difference: he will abandon, if he be compelled to abandon, the illusion arising from the obvious interpretation of the contested passage, with sincere regret: and will be tempted to exclaim, with the enthusiast in Horace, to the sturdy disciplinarians who should compel him to such a measure—

* * * * * * * Pol, me occidistis amici,
Non servastis, ait; cui sic extorta voluptas,
Et demptus, per vim, mentis gratissimus error.
L. 2, Epis. 2, v. 138, &c.