Imatges de pÓgina
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CHAPTER IV.

ON L'ALLEGRO AND IL PENSEROSO.

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MILTON left the university of Cambridge in 1632, at the age of twenty-three, and retired to the villa of his father at Horton in Buckinghamshire : here he wrote those juvenile poems, which are the most celebrated. The exact date of the L'Allegro,' and Il Penseroso,' is not known: it is evident that they were suggested by a poem in Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy,' and by a few beautiful stanzas of Beaumont and Fletcher. These poems are familiar to all: they are rich in picturesque description of natural imagery, selected and combined with the power of splendid genius, according to the opposite humours of cheerfulness and contemplative melancholy; and are the more attractive, because they paint Milton's individual taste, character, and habits. The style of the scenery is principally adapted to the spot and neighbourhood where he now lived.

But if I may venture the opinion, I will own that these are not the compositions in which the peculiarity of the grandeur of Milton's genius dis

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plays itself. Beautiful as these Odes are, there are others, besides Milton, who might have written them :-not many indeed. They have not the solemnity, the dim and unearthly visions,-the awful and gigantic grandeur,-the prophetic enthusiasm, the terrible roll and bound and swell of the Hymn on the Nativity. The subject did not call for such merits;-but then, if they are excellent, they are excellent in an inferior walk.

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Probably I shall be thought heterodox in this judgment. I much prefer Il Penseroso' to 'L'Allegro,' as more solemn, more deep-coloured, and more original in its imagery. Perhaps the general merit of these two pieces lies more in a selection of rural pictures combined with taste, than in particular images, except in a few passages of the latter poem. The metre wants variety and so

norousness.

The passages I chiefly allude to, are Contemplation

down to

Again:

Him that yon soars on golden wing,

-the far-off curfeu sound,

Over some wide-water'd shore,
Swinging slow with sullen roar.

Thus, Night, oft see me in thy pale career; down to the end.

In general, there is more of description than of sentiment, more of the material than of the immaterial, in these two compositions: but there are some parts of them which are very important to the illustration of the poet's character. The poet describes a very early period of the morning,

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"by selecting and assembling such picturesque objects," says Warton, as were familiar to an early riser. He is waked by the lark, and goes into the fields: the sun is just emerging, and the clouds are still hovering over the mountains: the cocks are crowing, and, with their lively notes, scatter the lingering remains of darkness. Human › labours and employments are renewed with the dawn of day: the hunter, formerly much earlier at his sport than at present, is beating the covert; and the slumbering morn is roused with the cheerful echo of hounds and horns: the mower is whetting his scythe to begin his work; the milkmaid, whose business is of course at daybreak, comes abroad singing; the shepherd opens his fold, and takes the tale of his sheep, to see if any were lost in the night," &c. line 67.

When he sees towers and battlements bosomed high in tufted trees, the same excellent commentator says, "it is the great mansion-house in Milton's early days, before the old-fashioned architecture had given way to modern arts and improvements. Turrets and battlements were conspicuous marks of the numerous new buildings of King Henry VIII., and of some rather more ancient, many of which yet remained in their original state unchanged and undecayed: nor was that style, in part at least, quite omitted in Inigo Jones's first manner; where only a little is seen, more is left to the imagination. These symptoms of an old palace, especially when thus disposed, have a greater effect than a discovery of larger parts,

and even a full display of the whole edifice. The embosomed battlements, and the spreading top of the tall grove, on which they reflect a reciprocal charm, still farther interest the fancy from the novelty of combination; while just enough of the towering structure is shown to make an accompaniment to the tufted expanse of venerable verdure, and to compose a picturesque association. With respect to their rural residence, there was a coyness in our gothic ancestors: modern seats are seldom so deeply ambushed they disclose all their glories at once; and never excite expectation by concealment, by gradual approaches, and by interrupted appearances."

At line 131, the poet alludes to a stage worthy

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Then to the well-trod stage anon,

If Jonson's learned sock be on ;

Or sweetest Shakspeare, fancy's child,

Warble his native wood-notes wild.

Milton had not yet gone such extravagant lengths in puritanism, as to join with his reforming brethren in condemning the stage.

By "trim gardens" (Il Pens. 1. 50), Milton means those gardens of elaborate artifice and extravagance, of which Bacon has given a description; some of which I still remember in existence, in my own boyhood, sixty years ago. There was a sort of magnificence and variety about them, in some respects more interesting than modern bareness. I often wish them back;-the terraces, the slopes, the wilderness-walks, the mazes, the alleys, the garden-plots, the gravel-walks, the bowers, the

summer-houses, the bowling-greens, have been too rudely and indiscriminately swept away. Where the poet says, line 109,

Or call up him who left half-told

The story of Cambuscan bold,

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he expresses his admiration of Chaucer, "the father of English poetry," says Warton, "who is here distinguished by a story remarkable for the wildness of its invention; and hence Milton seems to make a very pertinent and natural transition to Spenser, whose Faëry Queene,' although it externally professes to treat of tournaments and the trophies of knightly valour, of forests drear and terrific enchantments, is yet allegorical, and contains a remote meaning concealed under the veil of a fabulous story and of a typical narrative, which is not immediately perceived. Spenser sings in sage and solemn tunes, with respect to his morality, and the dignity of his stanza. In the mean time, it is to be remembered that there were other great bards, and of the romantic class, who sang in such tunes, and who mean 'more than meets the ear.' Both Tasso and Ariosto pretend to an allegorical and mysterious meaning; and Tasso's enchanted forest, the most conspicuous fiction of the kind, might have been here intended. Berni allows that his incantations, giants, magic gardens, monsters, and other romantic imageries, may amuse the ignorant, but that the intelligent have more penetration. Orl. Inam. 1. 1. c. xxv. Ma voi ch'avete gl' intelletti sani, Mirate la dottrina che s' asconde Sotto queste coperte alte e profonde.

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