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an infernal council plotting the fall of man, which is the action he proposed to celebrate; and as for those great actions, the battle of the angels, and the creation of the world, (which preceded in point of time, and which, in my opinion, would have entirely destroyed the unity of his principal action, had he related them in the same order that they happened) he cast them into the fifth, sixth, and seventh books, by way of episode to this noble poem.
Aristotle himself allows, that Homer has nothing to boast of as to the unity of his fable, though at the same time, that great critic and philosopher endeavours to palliate this imperfection in the Greek poet, by imputing it in some measure to the very nature of an epic poem. Some have been of opinion, that the Æneid also labours in this particular, and has episodes which may be looked upon as excrescencies rather than as parts of the action. On the contrary, the poem which we have now under our consideration, hath no other episodes than such as naturally arise from the subject, and yet is filled with such a multitude of astonishing incidents, that it gives us at the same time a pleasure of the greatest variety, and of the greatest simplicity; uniform in its nature, though diversified in its exccution.'
I must observe, also, that as Virgil, in the poem, which was designed to celebrate the original of the Roman empire, bas described the birth of its great rival, the Carthaginian commonwealth; Milton, with the like art, in his poem on the Fall of Man, has related the fall of those angels who are his professed enemies. Beside the many other beauties in such an episode, its running parallel with the great action of the poem, hinders it from breaking the unity so much as another episode would have done, that had not so great an affinity with the principal subject. In short, this is the same kind of beauty which the critics admire" in the Spanish Friar, or the Double Discovery, where the two different plots look like counterparts and copies of one another."
* The clause in Italies is not in the original folio.-C.
The second qualification required in the action of an epic poem is, that it should be an entire action: an action is entire when it is complete in all its parts; or, as Aristotle describes it, when it consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nothing should go before it, be intermixed with it, or follow after it, that is not related to it; as, on the contrary, no single step should be omitted in that just and regular process which it must be supposed to take from its original to its consummation. Thus we see the anger of Achilles in its birth, its continuance, and effects; and Æneas's settlement in Italy, carried on through all the oppositions in his way to it both by sea and land. The action in Milton excels (I think) both the former in this particular; we see it contrived in hell, executed upon earth, and punished by heaven. The parts of it are told in the most distinct manner, and grow out of one another in the most natural order.
The third qualification of an epic poem is its greatness. The anger of Achilles was of such consequence, that it embroiled the kings of Greece, destroyed the heroes of Asia, and engaged all the gods in factions. The settlement of Æneas in Italy produced the Cæsars, and gave birth to the Roman empire. Milton's subject was still greater than either of the former; it does not determine the fate of single persons or nations, but of a whole species. The united powers of hell are joined together for the destruction of mankind, which they effected in part, and would have completed, had not Omnipotence itself interposed. The
'A tragi-comedy, by Dryden.-C. • The same kind of beauty which the critics admire. This likeness of two plots could never have been thought a beauty, if, to have two different plots, of any kind, in the same drama, had not been a fault.-H.
principal actors are man in his greatest perfection, and woman in her highest beauty. Their enemies are the fallen angels : the Messiah their friend, and the Almighty their protector. In short, every thing that is great in the whole circle of being, whether within the verge of nature, or out of it, has a proper part assigned it in this admirable poem.
In poetry, as in architecture, not only the whole, but the principal members, and every part of them, should be great. I will not presume to say, that the book of Games" in the Æneid, or that in the Iliad, are not of this nature; nor to reprehend Virgil's simile of a top, and many others of the same kind in the Iliad, as liable to any censure in this particular; but I think we may say, without derogating from those wonderful performances, that there is an indisputable and unquestioned magnificence in every part of Paradise Lost, and, indeed, a much greater than could have been formed upon any Pagan system.
But Aristotle, by the greatness of the action, does not only mean that it should be great in its nature, but also in its duration; or, in other words, that it should have a due length in it, as well as what we properly call greatness. The just measure of this kind of magnitude, he explains by the following similitude. An animal, no bigger than a mite, cannot appear perfect to the eye, because the sight takes it in at once, and has only a confused idea of the whole, and not a distinct idea of all its parts ; if, on the contrary, you should suppose an animal of ten thousand furlongs in length, the eye would be so filled with a single part of it, that it could not give the mind an idea of the whole. What these animals are to the eye, a very short or a very long action would be to the memory. The first would be, as it were,
• The book of Games. A mere prejudice. The critic forgets that the Games were ennobled, in the ideas of Paganism, by being made a part of the public religion.-H.
lost and swallowed up by it, and the other difficult to be contained in it. Homer and Virgil have shewn their principal art in this particular ; the action of the Iliad, and that of the Æneid were in themselves exceeding short; but are so beautifully extended and diversified by the invention of episodes, and the machinery of the gods, with the like poetical ornaments, that they make up an agreeable story sufficient to employ the memory without overcharging it. Milton's action is enriched with such variety of circumstances, that I have taken as much pleasure in reading the contents of his books, as in the best invented story I ever met with. It is possible, that the traditions on which the Iliad and Æneid were built, had more circumstances in them than the history of the Fall of Man, as it is related in scripture. Besides, it was easier for Homer and Virgil to dash the truth with fiction, as they were in no danger of offending the religion of their country by it. But as for Milton, he had not only a very few circumstances upon which to raise his poem, but was also obliged to proceed with the greatest caution in every thing that he added out of his own invention. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the restraints he was under, he has filled his story with so many surprising incidents, which bear so close an analogy with what is delivered in holy writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate reader, without giving offence to the most scrupulous.
The modern critics have collected, from several hints in the Iliad and Æneid, the space of time which is taken up by the action of each of those poems; but as a great part of Milton's story was transacted in regions that lie out of the reach of the sun, and the sphere of day, it is impossible to gratify the reader with such a calculation, which, indeed, would be more curious than instructive; none of the critics, either ancient or modern,
having laid down rules to circumscribe the action of an epic
determined number of years, days, or hours.
No. 273. SATURDAY, JANUARY 12.
Notandi sunt tibi Mores,
HOE Ars Poet. 156.
Having examined the action of Paradise Lost, let us in the next place consider the actors. This is Aristotle's method of considering, first the fable, and secondly, the manners; or, as we generally call them in English, the fable and the characters.
Homer has excelled all the heroic poets that ever wrote, in the multitude and variety of his characters. Every god that is admitted into his poem, acts a part which would have been suitable to no other deity. His princes are as much distinguished by their manders as by their dominions; and even those among them, whose characters seem wholly made up of courage, differ from one another as to the particular kinds of courage in which they excel. In short, there is scarce a speech or action in the Iliad, which the reader may not ascribe to the person that speaks or acts, without seeing his name at the head of it.
Homer does not only out-shine all other poets in the variety, but also in the novelty of his characters. He hath introduced among his Grecian princes a person who had lived thrice the age of man, and conversed with Theseus, Hercules, Polyphemus, and
Some editions read—This piece of criticism on Milton's Paradise Lost shall be carried on in the following Saturday's papers.-G.
& Vid. Spect. 308.