« ForrigeFortsæt »
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 the top, and many other 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 call proper greatness. The just measure of this kind of magnitude, he explains by the following similitude. An animal, no bigger than a mile, 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, lost and swallowed up by it, and the other difficult to be contained in it. Homer and Virgil have shown 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 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 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
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 offenuing the religion of their country by it. But as for Milton, he had not only 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 surprizing incidents, which bear so close 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 mure curious than instructive; none of the critics, either ancient or modern, having laid down rules to circumscribe the action of an epic poem within any determined number of years, days, or hours.
But of this more particularly hereafter.
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 and that is admitied into his poem, acts a pait which wouid have been suitable to no other deity. His princes are as much distinguished by their manners as by their dominions ; and even those ainong them, whose characters scem wholly made up of courage, differ from one anviber as to the particular kinds of courage in which they excel. In short, there is scarce a speech or action in the bliad, which the
· reader may not ascribe to the person that speaks or ads, without seeing his name at the head of it.
Homer does not only outshine all other poets in the variety, but also in the novelty of his characters. He has introduced among his Grecian princes a person, who had lived in three ages of men, and conversed with Theseus, Hercul's, Polyphemus, and the first race of heroes. His principal actor is the son of a Goddess, not to mention the offspring of other Deities, who have likewise a place in his poem, and the venerable Trojan prince who was the father of so many kings and heroes. There is in these several characters of Homer, a certain dignity as well as novilty, which adapts them in a more peculiar manner to the nature of an heroic poem. Though at the same time, to give them the greater variety, he has described a Vulcan, that is, a buffoon among his Gods, and a Thersites among his more tals.
Virgil falls infinitely short of Homer in the characters of his poem, both as to their variety and novelty. Æneas is indeed a perfect character, but as for Achates, though he is stiled the hero's friend, he does nothing in the whole poem which may deserve that title.
Gyas, Muestheus, Sergestus, and Cloanthus, are all of them men of the same stamp and character,
-fortemque Gyan, fortemque Cloanthum.
There are indeed several very natural incidents in the part of Ascanius; as that of Dido cannot be suíñiciently admired. I do not see any thing new or particular in Turnus. Pallas and Evander are remote copies of Hector and Priam, as Lausis and Mezentius are almost parailels to Pallas and Evander. The characters of Nisus and turialus are beautiful, but common. We must not forget the parts of Sinon, Camilla, and some few others, which are fine improvements on the Greek poet. In short, there is neither that variety nor novelty in the persons of the Æneid, which we meet with in those of the Iliad.
If we look into the characters of Milton, we shall find that he has introduced all the variety his fable was capable
of receiving. The whole species of mankind was in two persons at the time to which the subject of his poem is confined. We have, however, four distinét characters in these
We see Man and Woman in the highest innocence and perfection, and in the most abje state of guilt and infirmity. The two last characters are, indeed, very common and obvious, but the two first are not only more magnificent, but more new than any characters either in Virgil or Homer, or indeed in the whole circie of
Milton was so sensible of this defect in the subject of his poem, and of the few characters it would afford him, chat he has brought into it two actors of a shadowy and fictitious nature, in the persons of Sin and Dearh, by which means he has wrought into the body of his fáble a very beautiful and well invented allegory. But notwithstanding the fineness of this allegory may atone for it in some measure, I cannot think that persons of such a chimerical existence are proper actors in an epic poem ; because thure is not that measure of probability annexed to them, which is requisite in writings of this kind, as I shall slow more at large hereafter.
Virgil has, indeed, admitted Fame as an actress in the Æneid, but the part she acts is very short, and none of the most admired circumstances in that divine work. We fiad in mock-heroic poems, particularly in the Dispensary and the Lutrin, several allegorical persons of this nature, whichi are very beautiful in those compositions, and may, perhaps, be used as an argument, that the authors of them were of opinion, such characters might 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 farther add, that if such cmpty unsub. stantial beings may be ever made use of on this occasion, never were any more nicely imagined, and emploved in more proper actions, than those of wh.ch 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 Fery much admired by Aristotle, as perplexing that table with very agreeable plots and intricacies, not only by the
many adventures in his voyage, and the subtlety of his beliaviour, but by the various concealments and discoveries of his person in several parts of that poem. But the crafty be. ing Iliave now mentioned, makes a much longer voyage than Ulysses, purs 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 benevoleuce 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, shows 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 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 vidtories of Æneas, and be grieved at any defeats, misfortunes, or disappointments that betel 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 im•