Imatges de pÓgina
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CHAPTER XXII.

THE MERITS OF MILTON COMPARED WITH THOSE OF OTHER POETS.

Ir is universally admitted that the primary and most essential quality of a poet is invention; but it must be invention also of a sublime or beautiful kind; and, to be perfect, it must display this excellence in fable, characters, sentiments, and language. Of all our English poets Milton only has combined all these merits. Shakspeare wanted the first, though he was admirable in the last three. What invention of fable, or even of character, is there in Dryden or Pope? I can hardly think that strictly they have invention of sentiments; for these are by them drawn from observation.

Spenser attained the marvellous in pure invention; but his fictions go beyond nature, and outrage our faith. Chaucer's tales are rarely, if ever, original: they are principally borrowed from the Italians, or from old romances. Sackville's famous legend is historical.

The productions of subsequent poems of the

best fame, I do not speak of the living,-are too brief for much fable, except of Lord Byron: but whatever splendours Lord Byron had, his fables are generally extravagant. In Cowley, Waller, Denham, Prior, Thomson, Collins, Gray, Young, Akenside, Shenstone, Cowper, Burns, Beattie, the Wartons, Kirke White, Shelley,* Coleridge, there was no fable. In Crabbe were short fables; -but if they did not want nature, they wanted dignity they were colloquial and monotonous. Hayley had nothing of the force of fiction;-all his incidents were unpoetical.

Thus it is, that before the sun of Milton all other stars are paled,—unless of Homer and Virgil;— and what is there in the fable of these two that can stand before the divine brightness of the bard of angels?

With regard to characters, invention of such as are at once true to nature, and yet grand, or attractive, is very rare. Those of Dryden and Pope are portraits, copied from individuals: they are admirable as portraits :-but they have not the sublimity of poetic invention; they have frail humanity for their types. They have not the magnificence of Satan and his brother rebels, still less of the good angels, nor the purity and beauty of Adam and Eve.

Where there is not invention, there cannot be adequate grandeur. Experience and reality fall short of our ideal greatness. We can always

* Sir Walter Scott requires an examination peculiar to himself.

imagine higher things than we observe; and give full evidence to that imagination :—but not if it exceeds probability,—or at least possibility.—Incredulus odi.-Shakspeare, having conceived a character, always preserves it, as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet, &c. Each electrifies by acting appropriately: but this can never be effected by drawing merely from observation: the inventor is the master of the very soul of the person he invents. He rules all the motives and conduct of the invented being;-and if he paints any inconsistency, it is from his own weakness, and want of sagacity.

The same principles apply to the sentiments as to the characters: if not in conformity with the moral and intellectual traits of the character represented, they are faulty; while that character itself must be striking and estimable, as well as natural.

To invent fable, characters, sentiments,-all with these excellencies,-can only be within the power of a gigantic mind.-Lastly, we come to the language. This ought to be such as expresses these complex inventions the most clearly, most harmoniously, and at the same time with the most dignity. Whatever overlays them,-whatever draws attention from the thought to the words,is faulty if the thought is good, it does not want to be raised by the dress :-if it is weak, or trite, it is not fit for poetry; and no ornament of cover can supply a radical defect ::—on the contrary, it is a deception, which, when detected, disgusts.Tinnit; inane est.-The florid style is always bad.

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An over-regard to a monotonous harmony fatigues in Pope. Nothing can be more tiresome than a long continuation of the unbroken couplet.

Milton's metrical combinations,-unfettered by rhyme,―run into every vanity and extent of musical cadence;—and his diction has often double force from its bold nakedness. His majestic thoughts support themselves in the plainest words.

What is called an illustrative imagination is a feebler sort of power:-it is a petty invention.Metaphors and similes may occasionally show visibly what in its abstraction is not easily conceived; but these are rarely necessary except in didactic poetry, which is of an inferior class. Sometimes the thought and the metaphor rise together in the mind, and cannot be separated; but there are spiritual ideas sublimer than any illustration from materiality.

The embodiment ought to lie, not in the metaphor, but in the abstraction itself. By the junction of the metaphor there are two ideas; and the attention is drawn from the principal to the secondary. He, whose chief strength exists in his secondary ideas, is not a great poet. I must confess that I think this was mainly the case with Dryden and Pope. What are Pope's Moral Essays' but illustration and decoration ?-A vast proportion of the primary thoughts is trite.-There is no embodiment except in the dress :-the inside remains abstract. There is not only no contexture of fable, but no fable at all. Mere skill in lan

VOL. I.

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guage can never supply the want of fable, or cha racters, or sentiments.

Characters and sentiments derive a complex force from a well-combined fable: they are comparatively feeble, if insulated. The actions and the movements of the head and heart are operated upon by the conflicting or consecutive incidents of the fable; and each differently according to the discriminative conformation of the respective

actors.

That generalisation, which separates the represented being from an intricate and particular train of circumstances, can never exhibit him in those strong, affecting, and vivid lights, which are forced forward by the gradual developments of a well-feigned and well-told tale.

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Let Pope draw the characters of Buckingham and Wharton, to say nothing of the absence of invention, we do not read them in a moral worked up by the recital of a long succession of incidents. They are single figures,-contemplated only by themselves.

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The absence of fable, then, is a defect, which must insuperably disqualify a candidate for a seat on the highest point of Parnassus. Will the Rape of the Lock' be pleaded in Pope's favour? Here the invention has neither greatness nor nature it is a sportive trifle, as far as the fable goes it is a piece of exquisite artifice; a laboured gem of fillagree-work.

The power of language must not be wanting ;but it is the least of the four requisites. It can

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