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kind. His descriptions show an uncommonly fertile imagination; and in his similes he is, for the most part, remarkably happy. They are seldom improperly introduced; seldom either low or trite. They generally present to us images taken from the sublime or the beautiful class of objects: if they have any faults, it is their alluding too frequently to matters of learning and to fables of antiquity. In the latter part of Paradise Lost, there must be confessed to be a falling off. With the fall of our first parents, Milton's genius seems to decline. Beauties, however, there are, in the concluding books, of the tragic kind. The remorse and contrition of the guilty pair, and their lamentations over Paradise, when they are obliged to leave it, are very moving. The last episode, of the angels shewing Adam the fate of his posterity, is happily imagined; but, in many places, the execution is languid.
Milton's language and versification have high merit. His style is full of majesty, and wonderfully adapted to his subject. His blank verse is harmonious and diversified, and affords the most complete example of the elevation which our language is capable of attaining by the force of numbers. It does not flow, like the French verse, in tame, regular, uniform melody, which soon tires the ear; but is sometimes smooth and flowing, sometimes rough; varied in its cadence, and intermixed with discords, so as to suit the strength and
freedom of epic composition. Neglected and prosaic lines, indeed, we sometimes meet with; but, in a work so long, and in the main so harmonious, these may be forgiven.
On the whole, Paradise Lost is a poem that abounds with beauties of every kind, and that justly entitles its author to a degree of fame not inferior to any poet; though it must be also admitted to have many inequalities. It is the lot of almost every high and daring genius, not to be uniform and correct. Milton is too frequently theological and metaphysical; sometimes harsh in his language; often too technical in his words, and affectedly ostentatious of his learning. Many of his faults must be attributed to the pedantry of the age in which he lived. He discovers a vigour, a grasp of genius, equal to every thing that is great if at some times he falls much below himself, at other times he rises above every poet of the ancient or modern world.
DRAMATIC POETRY has, among all civilized nations, been considered as a rational and useful entertainment, and judged worthy of careful and serious discussion. According as it is employed upon the light and the gay, or upon the grave and affecting incidents of human life, it divides itself into the two forms of comedy or tragedy. But as great and serious objects command more attention than little and ludicrous ones; as the fall of a hero interests the public more than the marriage of a private person; tragedy has been always held a more dignified entertainment than comedy.The one rests upon the high passions, the virtues, crimes, and sufferings of mankind; the other on their humours, follies, and pleasures. Terror and pity are the great instruments of the former; ridicule is the sole instrument of the latter. Tragedy shall therefore be the object of our fullest discussion. This and the following Lecture shall be employed on it; after which I shall treat of what is peculiar to comedy.
Tragedy, considered as an exhibition of the characters and behaviour of men in some of the most trying and critical situations of life, is a noble idea of poetry. It is a direct imitation of human manners and actions. For it does not, like the epic poem, exhibit characters by the narration and description of the poet; but the poet disappears, and the personages themselves are set before us, acting and speaking what is suitable to their characters. Hence, no kind of writing is so great a trial of the author's profound knowledge of the human heart. No kind of writing has so much power, when happily executed, to raise the strongest emotions. It is, or ought to be, a mirror in which we behold ourselves, and the evils to which we are exposed; a faithful copy of the human passions, with all their direful effects, when they are suffered to become extravagant.
As tragedy is a high and distinguished species of composition, so also, in its general strain and spirit, it is favourable to virtue. Such power hath virtue happily over the human mind, by the wise and gracious constitution of our nature, that as admiration cannot be raised in epic poetry, so neither in tragic poetry can our passions be strongly moved, unless virtuous emotions be awakened within us. Every poet finds, that it is impossible to interest us in any character, without representing that character as worthy and honourable, though it may not be perfect; and that the great
secret for raising indignation is, to paint the son who is to be the object of it in the colours of vice and depravity. He may indeed, nay, he must represent the virtuous as sometimes unfortunate, because this is often the case in real life; but he will always study to engage our hearts in their behalf; and though they may be described as unprosperous, yet there is no instance of a tragic poet representing vice as fully triumphant and happy, in the catastrophe of the piece. Even when bad men succeed in their designs, punishment is made always to attend them; and misery of one kind or other is shewn to be unavoidably connected with guilt. Love and admiration of virtuous characters, compassion for the injured and the distressed, and indignation against the authors of their sufferings, are the sentiments most generally excited by tragedy. And therefore, though dramatic writers may sometimes, like other writers, be guilty of improprieties; though they may fail of placing virtue precisely in the due point of light, yet no reasonable person can deny tragedy to be a moral species of composition. Taking tragedies complexly, I am fully persuaded, that the impressions left by them upon the mind are, on the whole, favourable to virtue and good dispositions. And, therefore, the zeal which some pious men have shown against the entertainments of the theatre must rest only upon the abuse of comedy; which, indeed, has frequently been so great as to justify very severe censures against it.