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self more at large on that, and other parts of the poem, which are of the same shadowy nature.
Aristotle observes, that the fable in an epic poem should abound in circumstances that are both credible and astonishing; or, as the French critic chuses to phrase it, the fable should be filled with the probable and the marvellous. This rule is as fine and just as any in Aristotle's whole Art of Poetry.
If the fable is only probable, it differs nothing from a true history; if it is only marvellous, it is no better than a romance. The great secret therefore of heroic poetry, is to relate such circumstances, as may produce in the reader at the same time both belief and astonishment. This is brought to pass in a well-chosen fable, by the account of such things as have really happened, or, at least, of such things as have happened according to the received opinions of mankind.' Milton's fable is a masterpiece of this nature; as the war in heaven, the condition of the fallen angels, the state of innocence, the temptation of the serpent, and the fall of man, though they are very astonishing in themselves, are not only credible, but actual points of faith.
The next method of reconciling miracles with credibility, is by a happy invention of the poet; as in particular, when he introduces agents of a superior nature, who are capable of effecting what is wonderful, and what is not to be met with in the ordinary course of things. Ulysses's ship being turned into a rock, and Æneas's fleet into a shoal of waternymps, though they are very surprising accidents, are nevertheless probable, when we are told that they were the gods who thus transformed them. It is this kind of machinery which fills the poems both of Homer and Virgil with such circumstances as are wonderful, but not impossible, and so frequently produce in the reader the most pleasing passion that can rise in the mind of man, which is admiration. If there be any instance in the Æneid, liable to exceps tion upon this account, it is in the beginning of the third book, where Æneas is represented as tearing up the myrtle that dropped blood. To qualify this wonderful circumstance, Polydorus tells us a story from the root of the myrtle, that the barbarous inhabitants of the country having pierced him with spears and arrows, the wood which was left in his body took root in his wounds, and gave birth to that bleeding tree.
This circumstance seems to have the marvellous without the probable, because it is represented as proceeding from natural causes, without the interposition of any god, or other supernatural power capable of producing it: the spears and arrows grow of themselves, without so much as the modern help of an enchantment. If we look into the fiction of Milton's fable, though we find it full of surprising incidents, they are generally suited to our notions of the things and persons described, and tempered with a due measure of probability. I must only make an exception to the Limbo of Vanity, with his episode of Sin and Death, and some of the imaginary persons in his chaos. These passages are astonishing, tut not credible; the reader cannot so far impose upon himself as to see a possibility in them; they are the description of dreams and shadows, not of things or persons. I know that many critics look upon the stories of Circe, Polypheme, the Syrens, nay, the whole Odyssey and Iliad, to be allegories ; but allowing this to be true, they are fables, which, considering the opinions of mankind that prevailed in the age of the poet, might possibly have been according to the letter. The persons are such as might have acted what is ascribed to them, as the circumstances in which they are represented,' might possibly have been truths and realities. This appearance of probability is so absolutely requisite in the greater kinds of poetry, that. Aristotle observes, the ancient tragic writers made use of the names of such great men aş had actually lived in the world, though the tragedy proceeded upon adventures they were never engaged in, on purpose to make the subject more credible. In a word, besides the hidden meaning of an epic allegory, the plain literal sense ought to appear probable. The story should be such as an ordinary reader may acquiesce in, whatever natural, moral or political truth may be discovered in it by men of greater penetration.
Satan, after having long wandered upon the surface, or outmost wall of the universe, discovers at last a wide gap in it, which led into the creation, and is described as the opening through which the angels pass to and fro into the lower world, upon their errands to mankind. His sitting upon the brink of this passage, and taking a survey of the whole face of nature, that appeared to him new, and fresh in all its beauties, with the simile illustrating this circumstance, fills the mind of the reader with as surprising and glorious an idea as any that arises in the whole poem.
He looks down into that vast hollow of the universe with an eye, or (as Milton calls it in his first book) with the ken of an angel. He surveys all the wonders in this immense amphitheatre that lie between both the poles of heaven, and takes in at one view the whole round of the creation.
His flight between the several worlds that shined on every side of him, with a particular description of the sun, are set forth in all the wantonness of a luxuriant imagination. His shape, speech, and behaviour, upon his transforming himself into an angel of light, are touched with exquisite beauty, The poet's thought of directing Satan to the sun, which in the vulgar opinion of mankind is the most conspicuous part of the creation, and the placing in it an angel, is a circumstance very finely contrived, and the more adjusted to a poetical probability, as it was a received doctrine among the most famous philosophers, that every orb had its intelligence; Vol. II.
and as an apostle in sacred writ is said to have seen such an angel in the sun. In the answer which this angel returns to the disguised evil spirit, there is such a becoming majesty as is altogether suitable to a superior being. The part of it in which he represents himself as present at the creation, is very noble in itself, and not only proper where it is introduced, but requisite to prepare the reader for what follows in the seventh book.
I saw when at his word the formless mass,
In the following part of the speech he points out the earth with such circumstances, that the reader can scarce forbear fancying himself employed on the same distant view of it.
Look downward on the globe, whose hither side
Is day, &c. I must not conclude my reflections upon this third book of Paradise Lost, without taking notice of that celebrated complaint of Milton with which it opens, and which certainly deserves all the praises that have been given to it; though, as I have be-fore hinted, it may rather be looked upon as an excrescence than as an essential part of the poem. The same observation might be applied to that beau tiful digression upon hypocrisy in the same book.
No. 321. SATURDAY, MARCH 8.
Nec satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto.
Those who know how many volumes have been written on the poems of Homer and Virgil, will easily pardon_the length of my discourse upon Milton. The Paradise Lost is looked upon, by the best judges, as the greatest production, or at least the noblest work of genius, in our language, and therefore deserves to be set before an English reader in its full beauty. For this reason, though I have endeavoured to give a general idea of its graces and imperfections in my six first papers, I thought myself obliged to bestow one upon every book in particular. The three first books I have already dispatched, and am now entering upon the fourth. I need not acquaint my reader, that there are multitudes of beauties in this great author, especially in the descriptive parts of his poem, which I have not touched upon; it being my intention to point out those only which appear to me the most exquisite, or those which are not so obvious to ordinary readers. Every one that has read the critics who have written upon the Odyssey, the Iliad, and the Æneid, knows very well, that though they agree in their opinions of the great beauties in those poems, they have nevertheless each of them discovered several master-strokes, which have escaped the observation of the rest. In the same manner, I question not but any writer, who shall treat on this subject after me, may find several beauties in Milton, which I have not taken notice of. I must likewise observe, that as the greatest masters of critical learning differ among one another as to some particular points in an epic poem, I have not bound myself scrupulously to the rules which any one of them has laid