« PreviousContinue »
have a place in an epic work. For my own part, I should be glad the reader would think so, for the sake of the poem I am now examining; and must further add, that if such empty unsubstantial beings may be ever made use of on this occasion, never were any more nicely imagined, and employed in more proper actions, than those of which I am now speaking.
Another principal actor in this poem is the great enemy of mankind. The part of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey is very much admired by Aristotle, as perplexing that fable with very agreeable plots and intricacies, not only by the many adventures in his voyage, and the subtility of his behaviour, but by the various concealments and discoveries of his person in several parts of that poem. But the crafty being I have now mentioned makes a much longer voyage than Ulysses, puts in practice many more wiles and stratagems, and hides himself under a greater variety of shapes and appearances, all of which are severally detected, to the great delight and surprise of the reader.
We may likewise observe with how much art the poet has varied several characters of the persons that speak * in his infernal assembly. On the contrary, how has he represented the whole Godhead exerting itself towards man in its full benevolence, under the three-fold distinction of a Creator, a Redeemer, and a Comforter!
Nor must we omit the person of Raphael, who, amidst his tenderness and friendship for man, shews such a dignity and condescension in all his speech and behaviour, as are suitable to a superior nature. The angels are, indeed, as much diversified in Milton, and distinguished by their proper parts, as the gods are in Homer or Virgil. The reader will find nothing ascribed to
* Has varied several characters of the persons that speak. He means, I suppose, and should therefore have said " Has varied the characters of the several persons that speak,” &c.-H.
Uriel, Gabriel, Michael, or Raphael, which is not in a particular manner suitable to their respective characters.'
There is another circumstance in the principal actors of the Iliad and Æneid, which gives a peculiar beauty to those two poems, and was therefore contrived with very great judgment. I mean the authors having chosen for their heroes, persons who were so nearly related to the people for whom they wrote. Achilles was a Greek, and Æneas the remote founder of Rome. By this means their countrymen (whom they principally proposed to themselves for their readers) were particularly attentive to all the parts of their story, and sympathized with their heroes in all their adventures. A Roman could not but rejoice in the escapes, successes, and victories, of Æneas, and be grieved at any defeats, misfortunes, or disappointments, that befel him; as a Greek must have had the same regard for Achilles. And it is plain, that each of those poems have lost this great advantage, among those readers to whom their heroes are as strangers, or indifferent persons.
Milton's poem is admirable in this respect, since it is impos
sible for any of its readers, whatever nation, country or people, ideal petirs
he may belong to, not to be related to the persons who are the principal actors in it; but what is still infinitely more to its advantage, the principal actors in this poem are not only our progenitors, but our representatives. We have an actual interest in every thing they do, and no less than our utmost happiness is concerned, and lies at stake in their behaviour.
I shall subjoin, as a corollary to the foregoing remark, an admirable observation out of Aristotle, which hath been very
1 These two last sentences were not in the original paper in folio.-C.
* Each of those poems have lost. To inake the grammar exact, he should have said " Those pooms have, each of them, lost this,” be.
much misrepresented in the quotations of some modern critics. “If a man of perfect and consummate virtue falls into a mis. fortune, it raises our pity, but not our terror, because we do not fear that it may be our own case, who do not resemble the suffering person. But (as that great philosopher adds) if we see a man of virtue, mixt with infirmities, fall into any misfortune, it does not only raise our pity, but our terror ; because we are afraid that the like misfortune may happen to ourselves, who resemble the character of the suffering person."
I shall only remark in this place, that the foregoing observation of Aristotle, though it may be true in other occasions, does not hold in this; because in the present case, though the persons who fall into misfortune are of the most perfect and consummate virtue, it is not to be considered as what may possibly be, but what actually is our own case; since we are embarked with them on the same bottom, and must be partakers of their happiness or misery.
In this, and some other very few instances, Aristotle's rules for epic poetry (which he had drawn from his reflections upon Homer) cannot be supposed to square exactly with the heroio poems which have been made since his time; since it is evident to every impartial judge, his rules would still have been more perfect, could he have perused the Æneid which was made some hundred years after his death.
In my next I shall go through other parts of Milton's poem; and hope that what I shall there advance, as well as what I have already written, will not only serve as a comment upon Milton, but upon Aristotle.
No. 279. SATURDAY, JANUARY 19.
Reddere personæ scit convenientia cuique.
HOP. Ars Poet, 316.
He knows what best befits each character.
We have already taken a general survey of the fable and characters in Milton's Paradise Lost : the parts which remain to be considered, according to Aristotle's method, are the sentiments and the language. Before I enter upon the first of these, I must advertise my reader, that it is my design, as soon as I have finished my general reflections on these four several heads, to give particular instances out of the poem now before us, of beauties and imperfections which may be observed under each of them, as also of such other particulars as may not properly fall under any of them. This I thought fit to premise, that the reader may not judge too hastily of this piece of criticism, or look upon it as imperfect, before he has seen the whole extent of it.
The sentiments in an epic poem are the thoughts and behaviour which the author ascribes to the persons whom he introduces, and are just when they are conformable to the characters of the several persons. The sentiments have likewise a relation to things as well as persons, and are then perfect when they are such as are adapted to the subject. If in either of these cases the poet endeavours to argue or explain, magnify or diminish, to raise love or hatred, pity or terror, or any other passion, we ought to consider whether the sentiments he makes use of are proper for those ends. Homer is censured by the critics for his defect as to this particular in several parts of the Iliad and Odyssey,; though at the same time, those who have treated this great poet with candour, have attributed this defect to the times in which he lived. It was the fault of the age, and not of Homer, if there wants that delicacy in some of his sentiments, which now appears in the works of men of a much inferior genius. Besides, if there are blemishes in any particular thoughts, there is an infinite beauty in the greatest part of them. In short, if there are many poets who would not have fallen into the meanness of some of his sentiments, there are none who could have risen up to the greatness of others. Virgil bas excelled all others in the propriety of his sentiments. Milton shines likewise very much in this particular: nor must we omit one consideration which adds to his honour and reputation. Homer and Virgil introduced persons whose characters are commonly known among men, and such as are to be met with either in history, or in ordinary conversation. Milton's characters, most of them, lie out of nature, and were to be formed purely by his own invention. It shows a greater genius in Shakespear to have drawn his Caliban, than his Hotspur or Julius Cæsar : the one was to be supplied out of his own imagination, whereas the other might have been formed upon tradition, history, and observation. It was much easier, therefore, for Homer to find proper sentiments for an assembly of Grecian generals, than for Milton to diversify his infernal council with proper characters, and inspire them with a variety of sentiments.! The loves of Dido and Æneas are only copies of what has passed between other persons. Adam and Eve, before the fall, are a. different species from that of mankind, who are descended from them; and none but a poet of the most unbounded invention, and the most exquisite judgment, could have filled their conversation and behaviour with so many circumstances during their state of innocence.