As part of his long essay on heroic poetry, Samuel Wesley discusses a series of poets from Homer to Milton, including Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser, whose powers of invention atone for a lack of design. Wesley's remarks on Milton's Paradise Lost are particularly notable, including his approval of blank verse and archaisms: "His Discourse of Light is incomparable; and I think 'twas worth the while to be blind to be its Author" sig. b.
The preface was added in the second edition.
Samuel Johnson: "Sacred History has been always read with submissive reverence, and an imagination over-awed and controlled. We have been accustomed to acquiesce in the nakedness and simplicity of the authentick narrative, and to repose on its veracity with the historian as he goes, and stop with him when he stops. All amplification is frivolous and vain: all addition to that which is already sufficient for the purposes of religion seems not only useless, but in some degree prophane" "Abraham Cowley" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81) 1:49-50.
To begin then with Grandsire Homer, this may be added to the particular Remarks have been already made. I think none will deny but the Disposition of his Iliads, is so truly admirable, so regular, and exact, that one would be apt to think he wrote his Poem by Aristotle's Rules, and not Aristotle his Rules by his Poem. I confess I once thought he had been oblig'd to his Commentators for most of the Beauties they celebrated in him; but I am now, on a nearer view, so well satisfied to the contrary, that I can ne'er think his Poem writ by piece-meal, without any Connexion or Dependence: wherein Dionysius the Halicarnassian very justly praises the Order and Management of the Design, as well as the Grandeur and Magnificence of the Expression, and the sweet and passionate Movements. Nor is it without reason that Horace, Longinus, and all Antiquity have given him, as the Model of just and noble Sentiments and Expressions. I must confess there's something in his Numbers that strikes me more than even Virgil's, his Thoughts and Expressions appear stronger than his, tho it cannot be denied that Virgil's Design is much more regular. Rapin says a great deal of that Prince of the Latin Poets, tho indeed he can never say enough, "He had an admirable Taste," says he, "of what's natural, an excellent Judgment for the Order, and an incomparable Delicacy for the Number and Harmony of his Versification." And adds, "That the Design of the Poem is, if we consider all its Circumstances, the most judicious and best-laid that ever was or ever will be." There is indeed a prodigious Variety in Virgil, and yet the same Soul visible in every Line. His own great Spirit informs his Poetical World, and like that he speaks of,
—totos infusa per Artus
Mens agitat Molem, & magno se corpore miscet.
He's soft with the height of Majesty, his Marcellus, his Dido, and, I think, above all his Elegy on Pallas is very noble and tender. The joints so strong and exactly wrought, the Parts so proportionable the Thoughts and Expression so great, the Compliments so fine and just, that I could ne'er endure to read Statius, or any of the rest of the Antient Latins after him; with whom therefore I shan't concern my self nor trouble my Reader. Ariosto was the first of the Moderns who attempted any thing like an Heroic Poem, and has many great and beautiful Thoughts; but at the same time, 'tis true, as Balsac observes, that you can hardly tell whether he's a Christian or an Heathen, making God swear by Styx, and using all the Pagan Ornaments; his Fancy very often runs away with his Judgment, his Action is neither one nor simple, nor can you imagine what he drives at; he has an hundred Hero's but you can't tell which he designs should be chief: Orlando indeed seems a wild Imitation of Homer's Achilles, but his Character is not bright enough to make him the Principal; and besides he orders it so, that he does more great Actions when he's mad then when sober. Agreeable to this are Rapin's thoughts of him, which, in few words, are, "That he's elevated and admirable in his Expressions, his Descriptions fine, but that he wants Judgment; and speaks well, but thinks ill, and that tho the Parts are handsome enough, yet the whole Work can by no means pass for an Epic Poem, he having never seen the Rules of Aristotle"; which he thinks Tasso had, and therefore wrote much better, whom he commends as more correct in his Design, more regular in the ordering of his Fable, and more accomplish'd in all parts of his Poem than any other of the Italians, whom yet he justly blames, because he has two Hero's Godfredo and Rinaldo, of whom Godfredo seems the principal, and yet Rinaldo performs the greatest part of the notable Actions. He seems to imitate Agamemnon and Achilles, but then he raises his Agamemnon too high, or keeps him too low, for he hardly lets him do one great Action through the whole Work. He further criticises upon him as mingling too much Gallantry with his Poem, which, he thinks, is unbecoming the Gravity of his Subject. But whether this Censure be just, I know not, for Love and Gallantry runs through all Virgil's Aeneids, in the instances of Helen, Dido and Lavinia, and indeed it gives so great a Life to Epic, that it hardly can be agreeable without it, and I question whether ever it has been so. Nor is he more just, I think, against Tasso's Episodes, which he blames as not proper to circumstantiate his principal Action, not entring into the Causes and Effects thereof, but seeking too much to please, tho I think this Charge is unjust, for 'tis in his Episodes, if any where, that Tasso is admirable. I might here give several Instances, but shall, at present, only refer my Reader to that of Tancred and Erminia, and I'm mistaken if he does not dissent from Rapin in this particular. Sannazarius and Vida were the next who did any thing remarkable in Epic; they both writ in Latin on the same Subject, both Christian Heroics; Rapin says they both had good a Genius for Latin the Purity of their Style being admirable, but that their ordering of the Fable has nothing in't of Delicacy, nor is the manner of their Writing proportionable to the dignity of the Subject. For Sannazarius he's indeed so faulty, that one can hardly with Patience read him, the whole Structure of his imperfect Piece, de partu, being built on Heathen Fable; yet he has great and vigorous Thoughts and very Poetical Expressions, tho therein Vida far excells him, whose Thoughts are so noble, and the Air of his Stile so great, that the Elogy Balzak gives his Countryman Tasso, wou'd as well or rather better have fitted him; "That Virgil is the Cause; Vida is the first; and Vida, that Virgil is not alone." It is true, as Rapin observes, that his Fable is very simple, and perhaps so much the better, considering the Subject; tho he forgets not Poetical Ornaments, where there's occasion, if he does not lean a little to Sannazarius's Error; for he talks of the Gorgons and Sphinxes, the Centaurs and Hydra's and Chimeras, tho much more sparingly and modestly than the other. He has the happiest beginning that perhaps is to be found in any Poem, and by mingling his Proposition and Invocation, has the advantage of placing one of the noblest Thoughts in the World in the first Line, without danger of falling into the absurdity of Horace's Author with his Fortunam Priami: For thus he sings,
Qui mare, qui terras, qui caelum numine comples — Spiritus alme, &c.
After the Invocation, in the very beginning of the Poem, he's preparing the Incidents for his Hero's Death; he brings him to Jerusalem at the Passover with Hosanna's; then raises his Machins, and falls to the Description of Hell. He through the whole, uses his Figures very gracefully; few have bin more happy in Comparisons, more moving in Passion, succinct yet full in Narration: Yet is he not without Faults; for in the second Book he brings him to his last Supper in the Garden, from thence before Caiaphas and Pilate; which too much precipitates the main Action: Besides, it seems harsh and improbable to bring in S. John, and Joseph, our Saviours reputed Father, as he does in the third and fourth Book, giving Pilate an account of his Life; not to insist on the general Opinion, that Joseph was not then alive. But notwithstanding these few failures, it can't be deny'd, that his Description of our Saviours Passion in the fourth Book, is incomparably fine; the disturbance among the Angels on that occasion; his Character of Michael, and the Virgins Lamentation under the Cross, and at the Sepulchre, are inimitable. And thus much for Vida, on whom I've been more large because I've often made use of his Thoughts in this following Work; his Poem being the most complete on that Subject I've ever seen or expect to see. And here han't the English more reason to complain of Rapin, that he takes no notice of their Heroic Poems, than Lopez Vega of Tasso, for not mentioning the Spaniards at the Siege of Jerusalem: but since he has been so partial, as not to take any notice of our Writers, who sure as much deserve it as their Dubartas and Ronsard; We may have liberty to speak of our own, and to do 'em Justice: To begin with Spencer, who I think comes the nearest Ariosto of any other; he's almost as irregular, but much more Natural and Lovely: But he's not only Irregular, but Imperfect too, I mean, as to what he intended; and therefore we can't imagine what it wou'd have been, had he liv'd to complete it. If Fable be the Essence of Epic, his Fairy Queen had certainly enough of that to give it that name. He seems, by the account he gives of it to Sir Walter Rawleigh, to have design'd one Principal Hero King Arthur, and one main important Action bringing him to his Throne; but neither of these appear sufficiently distinct, or well defin'd, being both lost in the vast Seas of Matter which compose those Books which are finish'd. This however must be granted, the Design was Noble, and required such a comprehensive Genius as his, but to draw the first Scetch of it: And as to the Design, so the Thoughts are also very great, the Expressions flowing natural and easie, with such a prodigious Poetical Copia as never any other must expect to enjoy. Gondibert methinks wants Life; the Style is rather stiff than Heroic, and has more of Statius than Virgil; one may see every where a great deal of Art, and Pains, and Regularity, even to a fault; nor is a Genius wanting, but its so unnatural, that an ingenious Person may find much more pleasure in reading a worse Poet. Besides, his Stanza's often cramp the Sence, and injure many a noble Thought and Passion. But Mr. Cowley's Davideis is the Medium between both; it has Gondiberts Majesty without his stiffness, and something of Spenser's Sweetness and Variety without his Irregularity: Indeed all his Works are so admirable, that another Cowley might well be employ'd in giving them their just Elogy. His Hero is according to the antient Model, truly Poetical, a mixture of some Faults and greater Virtues. He had the advantage of both Love and Honour for his Episodes, nay; and Friendship too, and that the noblest in History. He had all the sacred History before him, and liberty to chuse where he pleased, either by Narration or Prophesie; nor has he, as far as he has gone, neglected any Advantages the Subject gave him. Its a great Loss to the World that he left the Work unfinish'd, since now he's dead, its always like to continue so. As for Milton's Paradice Lost its an Original, and indeed he seems rather above the common Rules of Epic than ignorant of them. Its I'm sure a very lovely Poem, by what ever Name its call'd, and in it he has many Thoughts and Images, greater than perhaps any in Virgil or Homer. The Foundation is true History, but the turn is Fable: The Action is very Important, but not uniform; for one can't tell which is the Principal in the Poem, the Wars of the Angels, or the Fall of Man, nor which is the Chief Person Michael or Adam. Its true, the former comes in as an Episode to the latter, but it takes up too great a part thereof, because its link'd to it. His Discourse of Light is incomparable; and I think 'twas worth the while to be blind to be its Author. His Description of Adam and Eve, their Persons and Love, is almost too lively to bear reading: Not but that he has his inequalities and repetitions, the latter pretty often, as have, more or less, all other Poets but Virgil. For his antique Words I'm not like to blame him whoever does: And for his blank Verse, I'm of a different mind from most others, and think they rather excuse his uncorrectness than the contraries; for I find it's easier to run into it, in that sort of Verse, than in Rhyming Works, where the Thought is oftner turned; whereas here the Fancy flows on without check or controul. As for his Paradice Regain'd, I nothing wonder that it has not near the Life of his former Poem, any more than the Odysses fell short of the Iliads. Milton, when he writ this, was grown Older, probably poorer: He had not that scope for Fable, was confin'd to a lower Walk, and draws out that in four Books which might have been well compriz'd in one: Notwithstanding all this, there are many strokes which appear truly his; as the Mustering of the Parthian Troops, the Description of Rome by the Devil to our Saviour, and several other places.
And now I've done with all the rest, I may take liberty to say something of my own....