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Addison says, that he who desires to know whether he has a true taste for history or not, should consider whether he is pleased with Livy's manner of telling a story ; so, perhaps it may be said, that he who wishes to know whether he has a true taste for poetry or not, should consider whether he is highly delighted or not with the perusal of Milton's "Lycidas.” If I might venture to place Milton's works, according to their degrees of poetic excellence, it should be perhaps in the following order : Paradise Lost, Comus, Samson Agonistes, Lycidas, L'Allegro, Il Penseroso. The last three are in such an exquisite strain, says Fenton, that though he had left no other monuments of his genius behind him, his name had been immortal.—Jos. WARTON.
Of“Lycidas,” the diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing : what beauty there is, we must therefore seek in the sentiments and images. It is not to be considered as the effusion of real passion; for passion runs not after remote allusions and obscure opinions : passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of “rough satyrs” and “Fauns with cloven heel.” Where there is leisure for fiction there is little grief.
In this poem there is no nature, for there is nothing new : its form is that of a pastoral, easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting; whatever images it can supply are long ago exhausted ; and its inherent improbability always forces dissatisfaction on the mind. When Cowley tells of Harvey, that they studied together, it is easy to suppose how much he must miss the companion of his labours, and the partner of his discoveries; but wbat image of tenderness can be excited by these lines ?
We drove afield, and both together heard
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night. We know that they never drove afield, and that they had no flocks to batten; and though it be allowed that the representation may be allegorical, the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought because it cannot be known when it is found.
Among the flocks, and copses, and flowers, appear the heathen deities; Jove and Phoebus, Neptune and Æolus, with a long train of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies. Nothing can less display knowledge, or less exercise invention, than to tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must now feed his flocks alone, without any judge of his skill in piping ! and how one god asks another what is become of Lycidas, and how neither god can tell. He, who thus grieves, will excite no sympathy; he who thus praises, will confer no honour.
This poem has yet a grosser fault. With these trifling fictions are mingled the most awful and sacred truths, such as ought never to be polluted with such irreverend combinations. The shepherd likewise is now a feeder of sheep, and afterwards an ecclesiastical pastor, a superintendant of a christian flock. Such equivocations are always unskilful; but here they are indecent, and at least approach to impiety; of which, however, I believe the writer not to have been conscious. Such is the power of reputation justly acquired, that its blaze drives away the eye from nice examination. Surely no man could have fancied that he read “Lycidas” with pleasure had he not known its author.-JOHNSON.
Dr. Johnson observes, that “ Lycidas” is filled with the heathen deities; and a long train of mythological imagery, such as a college easily supplies; but it is such also, as even the court itself could now have easily supplied. The public diversions, and books of all sorts, and from all sorts of writers, more especially compositions in poetry, were at this time overrun with classical pedantries : but what writer, of the same period, has made these obsolete fictions the vehicle of so much fancy and poetical description? How beautifully has he applied this sort of allusion to the druidical rocks of Denbighshire, to Mona, and the fabulous banks of Deva! It is objected, that its pastoral form is disgusting ; but this was the age of pastoral: and yet “Lycidas” has but little of the bucolic cant, now so fashionable. The satyrs and fauns are but just mentioned. If any trite rural topics occur, how are they heightened !
Together both, ere the high lawns appear'd
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night. Here the daybreak is described by the faint appearance of the upland lawns under the first gleams of light; the sunset by the buzzing of the chaffer ; and the night sheds her
fresh dews on their flocks. We cannot blame pastoral imagery, and pastoral allegory, which carry with them so much natural painting. In this piece there is perhaps more poetry than sorrow : but let us read it for its poetry. It is true, that passion plucks no berries from the myrtle and ivy, nor calls upon Arethuse and Mincius, nor tells of "rough Satyrs with cloven heel :" but poetry does this; and in the hands of Milton does it with a peculiar and irresistible charm. Subordinate poets exercise no invention, when they tell how a shepherd has lost his companion, and must feed his flocks alone, without any judge of his skill in piping : but Milton dignifies and adorns these common artificial incidents with unexpected touches of picturesque beauty, with the graces of sentiment, and with the novelties of original genius. It is objected “here is no art, for there is nothing new." To say nothing that there may be art without novelty, as well as novelty without art, I must reply that this objection will vanish, if we consider the imagery which Milton has raised from local circumstances. Not to repeat the use he has made of the mountains of Wales, the Isle of Man, and the river Dee, near which Lycidas was shipwrecked ; let us recollect the introduction of the romantic superstition of St. Michael's Mount in Cornwall, which overlooks the Irish seas, the fatal scene of his friend's disaster.
But the poetry is not always unconnected with passion. The poet lavishly describes an ancient sepulchral rite, but it is made preparatory to a stroke of tenderness : he calls for a variety of flowers to decorate his friend's hearse, supposing that his body was present, and forgetting for a while that it was floating far off in the ocean. If he was drowned, it was some consolation that he was to receive the decencies of burial. This is a pleasing deception : it is natural and pathetic. But the real catastrophe recurs; and this circumstance again opens a new vein of imagination.
Dr. Johnson censures Milton for his allegorical mode of telling that he and Lycidas studied together, under the fictitious images of rural employments, in which he says, there can be no tenderness; and prefers Cowley's lamentation of the loss of Harvey, the companion of his labours, and the partner of his discoveries. I know not, if in this similarity of subject Cowley has more tenderness; I am sure he has less poetry: I will allow that he has more wit, and more smart similes. The sense of our author's allegory on this occasion is obvious, and is just as intelligible as if he had used plain terms. It is a fiction, that, when Lycidas died, the woods and caves were deserted and overgrown with wild thyme and luxuriant vines, and that all their echoes mourned; and that the green copses no longer waved their joyous leaves to his soft strains : but we cannot here be at a loss for a meaning; a meaning, which is as clearly perceived as it is elegantly represented. This is the sympathy of a true poet. We know that Milton and King were not “nursed on the same hill;" that they did not "feed the same flock by fountain, shade, or rill;" and that “rough Satyrs” and “Fauns with cloven heel” never danced to their “rural ditties :" but who hesitates a moment for the application ! Nor are such ideas more untrue, certainly not less far-fetched and unnatural, than when Cowley says that he and Harvey studied together every night with such unremitting diligence, that the twin stars of Leda, so famed for love, looked down upon the twin students with wonder from above. And where is the tenderness, when he wishes, that, on the melancholy event, the branches of the trees at Cambridge, under which they walked, would combine themselves into a darker umbrage, dark as the grave in which his departed friend was newly laid ? Our author has also been censured for mixing religious disputes with pagan and pastoral ideas : but he had the authority of the Mantuan and Spenser, now considered as models in this way of writing. Let me add, that our poetry was not yet purged from its Gothic combinations; nor had legitimate notions of discrimination and propriety so far prevailed, as sufficiently to influence the growing improvements of English composition. These irregularities and incongruities must not be tried by modern criticism.-T. WARTON.
The rhymes and numbers, which Dr. Johnson condemns, appear to me as eminent proofs of the poet's judgment; exhibiting in their varied and arbitrary disposition, an ease and gracefulness, which infinitely exceed the formal couplets or alternate rhymes of modern Elegy. Lamenting also the prejudice which has pronounced “Lycidas” to be vulgar and disgusting, I shall never cease to consider this monody as the sweet effusion of a most poetic and tender mind; entitled, as well by its beautiful melody, as by the frequent grandeur of its sentiments and language, to the utmost enthusiasm of admiration. -TODD.
L’ALLEGRO AND IL PENSEROSO.
It will be no detraction from the powers of Milton's original genius and invention to remark, that he seems to have borrowed the subject of “ L'Allegro” and “Il Penseroso," together with some particular thoughts, expressions, and rhymes, more especially the idea of a contrast between these two dispositions, from a forgotten poem prefixed to the first edition of Burton's " Anatomie of Melancholy,” entitled 6. The Author's Abstract of Melancholy; or, a dialogue between Pleasure and Pain.” Here Pain is Melancholy. It was written, as I conjecture, about the year 1600. I will make no apology for abstracting and citing as much of this poem, as will be sufficient to prove to a discerning reader how far it had taken possession of Milton's mind. The measure will appear to be the same; and, that our author was at least an attentive reader of Burton's book, will be perhaps concluded from the traces of resemblance which may be noticed in passing through the “ L'Allegro" and “Il Penseroso."
When I goe musing all alone,
All my joyes to this are folly ;
All other joyes to this are folly;
Nought so sweet as Melancholy !
All my griefes to this are folly ;
Nought so damnde as Melancholy ! In Beaumont and Fletcher's “Nice Valour, or Passionate Madman," there is a beautiful song on Melancholy, some of the sentiments of which, as Sympson long since observed, appear to have been dilated and heightened in the “Il Penseroso." Milton has more frequently and openly copied the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher than of Shakspeare: one is therefore surprised, that in his panegyric on the stage, he did not mention the twin bards, when he celebrates the learned sock" of Jonson, and the “wood-notes wild” of Shakspeare: but he concealed his love.—T. WARTON.
I will add the song from “Nice Valour,” together with the remarks of an ingenious critic on its application to “Il Penseroso :"
Hence, all you vain delights,
Wherein you spend your folly ;
A midnight bell, a parting groan ;
These are the sounds we feed upon :
Nothing 's so dainty-sweet as lovely Melancholy. “It would be, doubtless, in the opinion of all readers, going too far to say, that this song deserves as much notice as the ‘Penseroso' itself: but it so happens, that very little of the former can remain unnoticed, whenever the latter is praised. Of this song, the construction is, in the first place, to be admired : it divides into three parts: the first part displays the moral of melancholy; the second, the person or figure; the third, the circumstance, that is, such things as increase or flatter the disposition : nor is it surprising that Milton should be struck with the images and sentiments it affords, most of which are somewhere inserted in the “Il Penseroso.' It will not, however, be found to have contributed much to the construction of Milton's poem : the subjects they severally exhibit are very different : they are alike only, as shown under the same disposition of melancholy. Beaumont's is the melancholy of the swain ; of the mind, that contemplates nature and man but in the grove and the cottage: Milton's is that of a scholar and philosopher; of the intellect, that has ranged the mazes of science, and that decides upon vanity and happiness, from large intercourse with man, and upon extensive knowledge and experience. To say, therefore, that Milton was indebted to Beaumont's song for his . Penseroso,' would be absurd : that it supplied some images to his poem will be readily allowed ; and that it would be difficult to find, throughout the ‘Penseroso, amidst all its variety, any more striking than what Beaumont's second stanza affords, may also be granted. Milton's poem is among those happy works of genius, which leave a reader no choice how his mind shall be affected." _“Cursory remarks on some of the ancient English Poets, particularly Milton.”—Lond. printed, but not published, 1789. p. 114.
The date of these poems has not been ascertained; but Mr. Hayley has observed. _“It seems probable, that these two enchanting pictures of rural life, and of the diversified delights arising from a contemplative mind, were composed at Horton;" to which place Milton went to reside with his father in 1632, and where he continued at least five years.-TODD.
INTRODUCTORY REMARKS. WHEN Milton's juvenile poems were revived into notice about the middle of the last century, these two short lyrics became, I think, the most popular: they are very beautiful : but in my opinion far from the best of the poet's youthful productions: they have far less invention than “Comus” or “Lycidas;" and surely invention is the primary essential: they have more of fancy than invention, as those two words are in modern use distinguished from each other. Besides, it is clear that they were suggested by the poem affixed to "Burton's Anatomie of Melancholy," and a song in the “ Nice Valour” of Beaumont and Fletcher.
There is here no fable, which is absolutely necessary for prime poetry: the rural descriptions are fresh, forcible, picturesque, and most happily selected; but still many of them seem to me much less original than those of “Lycidas” and “Comus ;” and though there is a certain degree of contemplative sentiment in them all, it is not of so passionate or sublime a kind as in those other exquisite pieces, in which there is more of moral instruction and mingled intellect; and, in short, vastly more of spirituality.
The scenery of nature, animate and inanimate, derives its most intense interest from its connexion with our moral feelings and duties, and our ideal visions. If I am not mistaken, Gray thought this, when he spoke of merely descriptive poems. Gray's own stanza, in his “Fragment on Vicissitude,” beginning
Yesterday the sullen year
Saw the snowy whirlwind fly ... perhaps the finest stanza in his poems, is a most striking example of this sublime combination.
I say, that these two admired lyrics of Milton have less of this combination than I could wish: they were written in the buoyancy and joyousness of youth, though the joyousness of the latter is pensive: all was yet hope with the poet; none of the evils of life had yet come upon him : it was the joy of mental display and visionary glory; of a mind proudly displaying its own richness, and throwing from its treasures beams of light on all external objects : but it was the rapidity of a ferment too much in motion to allow it to wait long enough on particular topics ; therefore there was in these two productions less intensity than in most of the author's other poetry: he is here generally content to describe the surface of what he notices. His learned allusions abound, though not so much perhaps as in most of his other writings: these, however, are not the proofs of his genius, but only of his memory and industry.
I admit, that the choice of the imagery of these pieces could only have been made by a true poet, of nice discernment and brilliant fancy; of a mind constantly occupied by contemplation, and skilful in making use of all those superstitions in which the visionary delight; and that the whole are woven into one web of congenial associations, which make a beautiful and splendid constellation : still a large portion of the ingredients, taken separately, have been anticipated by other poets.
These remarks will probably draw forth the question, “Whence then has arisen the superior popularity of these two compositions?” I may now be forgiven for asserting, that popularity is a doubtful test of merit. One reason may be, that they are more easily understood ; that they are less laboured, and less deep: that they do not try and fatigue, either the heart or the intellect. The mass of the people like slight amusement, and subjects of easy apprehension: the greater part of Milton's poetry is too solemn and thought-working for their taste or their power.
In the sublime bard's latter poems,-in his epics and his drama,—and even in his early monody of “Lycidas, his rural images, though not more picturesque nor perhaps except in “Lycidas," quite so fresh, yet derive a double force from their position ;-from the circumstances of the persons on whom they are represented as acting ;-as, for instance, on Adam, Eve, Satan, our Saviour, Samson, and on the mourners for the death of Lycidas.
When the description of scenery forms part of a fable, and is connected with the development of a story, the mind of the reader is already worked up into a state of sensitiveness and sympathy, which confers upon surrounding objects hues of augmented impression.
When Milton recalls to his mind those images with which he had been familiar in the society of his friend Lycidas, they awaken, from the accident of his death, affections and regrets which they never had done before. When Eve is about to be expelled from Paradise, how she grieves over her lost flowers and gardendelights ! How the “air of heaven, fresh-blowing," invigorates and charms Samson, when brought out froin a close prison ! How affecting is the scene in the wil. derness, when, after a night of tremendous tempest, our Saviour is cheered by a balmy morning of extreme brilliance !
These are what make fable necessary to constitute the highest poetry. I do not recollect that this has been sufficiently insisted upon by former critics: the want of it is assuredly experienced in Thomson's beautifully descriptive poem of the “Seasons.”