« ForrigeFortsæt »
not lose time in explaining them; but shall only observe, that a reader who knows the strength of the English tongue, will be amazed to think how the poet could find such apt words and phrases to describe the actions of those two imaginary persons, and particularly in that part where Death is exhibited as forming a bridge over the Chaos; a work suitable to the genius of Milton.
Since the subject I am upon gives me an opportunity of speaking more at large of such shadowy and imaginary persons as may be introduced into heroic poems, I shall beg leave to explain myself in a matter which is curious in its kind, and which none of the critics have treated of. It is certain, Homer and Virgil are full of imaginary persons, who are very beautiful in poetry when they are just shewn, without being engaged in any series of action. Homer indeed represents sleep as a person, and ascribes a short part to him in his Iliad; but we must consider, that though we now regard such a person as entirely shadowy and unsubstantial, the heathens made statues of him, placed him in their temples, and looked upon him as a real deity. When Homer makes use of other such allegorical persons, it is only in short expressions, which convey an ordinary thought to the mind in the most pleasing manner, and may rather be looked upon as poetical phrases than allegorical descriptions. Instead of telling us that men naturally fly when they are terrified, he introduces the persons of Flight and Fear, who, he tells us, are inseparable companions. Instead of saying that the time was come when Apollo ought to have received his recompence, he tells us that the Hours brought him his reward. Instead of describing the effects which Minerva's ægis produced in battle, he tells us that the brims of it were encompassed by Terror, Rout, Discord, Fury, Pursuit, Massacre, and Death. In the same figure of speaking, he represents Victory as following Dio
medes; Discord as the mother of funerals and mourning; Venus as dressed by the Graces; Bellona as wearing terror and consternation like a garment. I might give several other instances out of Homer, as well as a great many out of Virgil. Milton has likewise very often made use of the same way of speaking, as where he tells us, that Victory sat on the right hand of the Messiah when he marched forth against the rebel angels; that at the rising of the sun, the Hours unbarred the gates of Light; that Discord was the daughter of Sin. Of the same nature are those expressions, where, describing the singing of the nightingale, he adds, "Silence was pleased;" and upon the Messiah's bidding peace to the Chaos, "Confusion heard his voice." I might add innumerable instances of our poet's writing in this beautiful figure. It is plain that these I have mentioned, in which persons of an imaginary nature are introduced, are such short allegories as are not designed to be taken in the literal sense, but only to convey particular circumstances to the reader, after an unusual and entertaining manner. But when such persons are introduced as principal actors, and engaged in a series of adventures, they take too much upon them, and are by no means proper for an heroic poem, which ought to appear credible in its principal parts. I cannot forbear, therefore, thinking that Sin and Death are as improper agents in a work of this nature, as Strength and Necessity in one of the tragedies of Eschylus, who represented those two persons nailing down Prometheus to a rock, for which he has been justly censured by the greatest critics. I do not know any imaginary person made use of in a more sublime manner of thinking than that in one of the prophets, who describing God as descending from heaven, and visiting the sins of mankind, adds that dreadful circumstance, "Before him went the Pestilence." It is certain this imaginary person might have been de
scribed in all her purple spots. The fever might have marched before her, Pain might have stood at her right hand, Phrenzy on her left, and Death in her rear. She might have been introduced as gliding down from the tail of a comet, or darted upon the earth in a flash of lightning: she might have tainted the atmosphere with her breath; the very glaring of her eyes might have scattered infection. But I believe every reader will think, that in such sublime writings, the mentioning of her, as it is done in scripture, has something in it more just, as well as great, than all that the most fanciful poet could have bestowed upon her in the richness of his imagination.
No. 363. SATURDAY, APRIL 26.
Luctus, ubique pavor, et plurima mortis imago.
MILTON has shewn a wonderful art in describing that variety of passions which arose in our first parents upon the breach of the commandment that had been given them. We see them gradually passing from the triumph of their guilt, through remorse, shame, despair, contrition, prayer, and hope, to a perfect and complete repentance. At the end of the tenth book they are represented as prostrating themselves upon the ground, and watering the earth with their tears; to which the poet joins this beautiful circumstance, that they offered up their penetential prayers on the very place where their Judge appeared to them when he pronounced their
-They forthwith to the place
Repairing where he judg'd them, prostrate fell
Humbly their faults, and pardon begg'd, with tears
There is a beauty of the same kind in a tragedy of Sophocles, where Edipus, after having put out his own eyes, instead of breaking his neck from the palace battlements, (which furnishes so elegant an entertainment for our English audience,) desires that he may be conducted to Mount Citharon, in order to end his life in that very place where he was exposed in his infancy, and where he should then have died, had the will of his parents been executed.
As the author never fails to give a poetical turn to his sentiments, he describes, in the beginning of this book, the acceptance which these their prayers met with, in a short allegory, formed upon that beautiful passage in holy writ; "And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which was before the throne; and the smoke of the incense which came with the prayers of the saints ascended up before God."
-To heav'n their prayers
Flew up, nor miss'd the way, by envious winds
We have the same thought expressed a second time in the intercession of the Messiah, which is conceived in very emphatical sentiments and expressions.
Among the poetical parts, of scripture, which Milton has so finely wrought into this part of his narration, I must not omit that wherein Ezekiel, speaking of the angels who appeared to him in a
vision, adds, that " every one had four faces, and that their whole bodies, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, were full of eyes round about."
-The cohort bright
Of watchful cherubim, four faces each
The assembling of all the angels of heaven to hear the solemn decree passed upon man, is represented in very lively ideas. The Almighty is here described as remembering mercy in the midst of judgment, and commanding Michael to deliver his message in the mildest terms, lest the spirit of man, which was already broken with the sense of his guilt and misery, should fail before him.
-Yet lest they faint
At the sad sentence rigorously urg'd
(For I behold them soften'd, and with tears
The conference of Adam and Eve is full of moving sentiments. Upon their going abroad after the melancholy night which they had passed together, they discover the lion and the eagle pursuing each of them their prey towards the eastern gates of Paradise. There is a double beauty in this incident; not only as it represents great and just omens, which are always agreeable in poetry, but as it expresses that enmity which was now produced in the animal creation. The poet, to shew the like changes in nature, as well as to grace his fable with a noble prodigy, represents the sun in an eclipse. This particular incident has likewise a fine effect upon the imagination of the reader, in regard to what follows: for at the same time that the sun is under an eclipse, a bright cloud descends in the western quarter of the heavens, filled with an host of angels, and more luminous than the sun itself. The whole theatre of