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blending with Dr. Newton's Notes, occasionally abbreviated, some supplemental notes from Warton's and Dunster's editions of the
His edition of Paradise Lost is little more than a duplicate of Newton's; and his edition of the other poems is mostly a compilation from Newton, Dunster, and Warton. In 1835, Sir Egerton Brydges published an edition in 6 vols. small 8vo, containing a few notes of general illustration extracted from former editions"; from these two editions I have derived no benefit.
I subjoin the following few general remarks on Milton's imitations of the Ancients, from a short anonymous essay, now out of print. The particular illustrations of this excellent author's theories, and his applications, I have liberally availed myself of in the Notes :
“ Aristotle ascribes the origin of poetry to the pleasure we take in imitations, which distinguishes us from all other creatures, and makes us lovers of painting and sculpture as well. This pleasure arises from the comparison the mind makes between the imitation, and thing imitated. Hence it is evident, that when one good poet imitates another, we have a double pleasure ; the first proceeding from a comparison of the description with its object, and the second from comparing the one description with the other.
" That in every simile we have a double pleasure : first, in comparing the image it conveys with its object; the other, in comparing it with the subject it was designed to illustrate ; but if the simile be imitated from another author, we have still one pleasure more.
“That when a poet imitates a description from another poet, which had been imitated from a third, our pleasure is still the greater ; therefore the imitations in Milton are, in this respect, beyond those of Virgil, because he has imitated some places of Virgil which are imitations of Homer.
“We must observe, that in poetical descriptions, paintings, &c. the greater likeness they bear to what we consider as the original, our pleasure is the more. But here it is different with these secondary imitations we treat of; for frequently a considerable alteration from the original has a very agreeable effect; for we have in our nature a principle to be delighted with what is new, to which it is plain the latter kind of imitations is not very conformable ; on which account they ought to have, as well as a likeness, a due variation, that at one and the same time they may gratify our several dispositions, of being pleased with what is imitated, and with what is new. And from this it
that in these imitations there ought generally to be observed a medium betwixt a literal translation and a distant allusion; as the first destroys the pleasure we have from what is new, and the latter encroaches on what we receive from imitations.
“ Homer had certainly more invention than Virgil ; and Virgil more judgment than Homer. But Homer had more of Virgil's talent, than Virgil had of his; and, besides, possessed his own in a greater degree than Virgil did his own : in short, Homer had more judgment than Virgil had invention, and more invention than Virgil had judgment. Yet the Æneid does not fall so short of the Iliad, as Virgil's genius seems to do of Homer's ; which, no doubt, in a great part, is owing to his skilful imitations.
“But Milton surpasses both; for he was equal to Homer in invention, and superior to him and Virgil in judgment.
“The passages a poet is to imitate ought to be selected with great care, and should ever be the best parts of the best authors, and always ought to be improved in the imitation ; so that vastly less invention and judgment is required to make a good original, than a fine imitation. Accordingly, we are told by the old writer of the Life of Virgil, that it was a saying of that poet, that it would be easier to take the club from Hercules, than a line from Homer.
“But from Milton's having refined exceedingly upon some passages of Homer and Virgil, we would not infer that he was a greater poet than either of them, though the consideration of the whole poem will justly entitle him to that rank; but only that these imitations would cost the author more pains, and give the reader greater pleasure, than an original composition. And indeed several of those passages he has imitated were so extremely fine in the original, that to improve them required a care and happiness superior to that which produced them.
Milton frequently in an imitation does not confine himself to the passage he principally takes it from, but renders it more complete by hints taken from other places of the same author, or from another author.
“ As Virgil found it such a difficult thing to improve the verses of Homer, so it must have been a more difficult labour for Milton to improve on Virgil's imitations,—and yet he has always succeeded. But the merit of ordinary poets consists in the difficulty of imitating, -and the more literal they are, the better.”
Addison's criticism on Paradise Lost is so eminently sagacious, learned, and just, and so indispensable to every commentator who wishes his labours to be useful, that it forms a necessary portion of every good commentary. His remarks on isolated passages of the poem I have given in the Notes, wherever I found them elucidatory: and I here quote some general observations as guides to direct the reader to a proper comprehension of the scheme and principles of an epic poem.
“ I shall waive the discussion of that point which was started a few years since, whether the Paradise Lost may be called an heroic poem.
Those who will not give it that title may call it a divine poem ; it will be sufficient to its perfection if it has in it all the beauties of the highest kind of poetry; and as for those who allege it is not an heroic poem, they advance no more to the diminution of it, than if they should say that Adam is not Æneas, or Eve Helen. The first thing to be considered in an epic poem is the fable, which is perfect or imperfect according as the action is more or less so. This action should have three qualifications in it: first, it should be one action ; secondly, it should be an entire action; thirdly, it should be a great action. Homer, to preserve the unity of his action, opens his poem with the discord of his princes, and artfully interweaves, in the several succeeding parts, an account of every thing material which relates to them, and had passed before that fatal dissension. In the same manner Æneas makes his first appearance on the Tuscan seas, within sight of Italy, because the action proposed to be celebrated was that of his settling in Latium. But because it was necessary for the reader to know what had happened to him in the taking of Troy, and in the preceding parts of his voyage, Virgil makes his hero relate it by way of episode, in the second and third books. Milton, in imitation of these great poets, opens his Paradise Lost with an infernal council plotting the fall of man, which is the action he proposed to celebrate; and casts the great actions which preceded it—the war in heaven, and the creation, into the fifth, sixth, and seventh books, by way of episode, in order to preserve the unity of the principal action. Aristotle himself allows that Homer has not much to boast of as to the unity of the fable; so, many have been of opinion that, the Æneid has episodes which are excrescences.
On the contrary, Paradise Lost has none, however various and astonishing the incidents, that do not naturally arise from the subject. As Virgil, in the poem which was designed to celebrate the origin of the Roman empire, has 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—an episode, which, running parallel with the main action, does not break its unity.
“The second qualification, i. e. that the action should be entire, requires that nothing should be stated as going before it, intermixed with it, or following it, which is not related to it. this particular, Paradise Lost excels the Iliad and Æneid. The action is contrived in hell, executed on earth, and punished by heaven.
“The third qualification is greatness. The anger of Achilles was of such consequence, that it embroiled the heroes of Greece, destroyed those of Asia, and engaged all the gods in faction. Æneas's settlement in Italy produced the Roman empire and all its heroes. Milton's subject was greater than either ; it does not determine the fate of single persons or nations, but of the whole human race. 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 to it in this admirable poem. In poetry, as in architecture, not only the whole, but the principal members should be great ; and without derogating from those wonderful performances, the Iliad and Æneid, I think there is much greater
magnificence in Paradise Lost than could have been formed on any pagan system.
“ The action of the Iliad, and that of the Æneid, were, in themselves, exceedingly short; but are so beautifully diversified and extended by the invention of episodes, and the machinery of 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 by such a 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, 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 restraint, 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.”
It has been asserted by Pope, Johnson, and other critics of acknowledged authority in their remarks on English versification, that in all smooth English poetry, there is naturally a pause at the fourth, fifth, or sixth syllable, upon the judicious management and change of which depends the melody and variety of the verse. Milton not limiting himself to this generally received principle, varies the pause according to the sense, and varies it through all the ten syllables of the verse, by which he is master of greater and more diversified harmony, especially in Paradise Lost, than any other English poet. In the first six lines of this poem, he varies the pause no less than five times, making it rest in the first line on the 7th syllable; in the second and third line on the 6th ; in the fourth on the 5th ; in the fifth on the 3d ; and in the sixth on the 4th. A few instances of his laying the pause on other