« AnteriorContinuar »
opponents ; yet surely these two devout men were both
wrong, and both in some degree unchristian in this principle. To what singular iniquities of judgment such a principle may lead, we might, perhaps, have had a most striking, and a double proof, had it been possible for these two energetic writers to exhibit alternately a portrait of each other. Milton, adorned with every graceful endowment, highly and holily accomplished as he was, appears, in the dark colouring of Johnson, a most unamiable being; but could he revisit earth in his mortal character, with a wish to retaliate, what a picture might be drawn, by that sublime and offended genius, of the great moralist, who has treated him with such excess of asperity. The passions are powerful colourists, and marvellous adepts in the art of exaggeration ; but the portraits executed by love (famous as he is for overcharging them) are infinitely more faithful to nature, than gloomy sketches from the heavy hand of hatred ; a passion not to be trusted or indulged even in minds of the highest purity or power; since hatred, though it may enter the field of contest under the banner of justice, yet generally becomes so blind and outrageous, from the heat of contention, as to execute, in the name of virtue, the worst purposes of vice. Hence arises that species of calumny the most to be regretted, the calumny lavished by men of talents and worth on their equals or superiors, whom they have rafhly and blindly hated for a difference of opinion. To such hatred the fervid and opposite characters, who gave rise to this observation, were both more inclin
ed, perhaps, by nature and by habit, than christiaa nity can allow. The freedom of these remarks on two very great, and equally devout, though different writers, may poffibly offend the partizans of both : in that case my confolation will be, that I have endeavoured to speak of them with that temperate, though undaunted sincerity, which may saa tisfy the spirit of each in a purer state of existence. There is one characteristic in Milton, which ought to be considered as the chief fource of his happiness and his fame; I mean his early and perpetual attachment to religion. It must gratify every chrifrian to reflect, that the man of our country most eminent for energy of mind, for intenseness of ap. plication, and for frankness and intrepidity in afferting whatever he believed to be the cause of truth, was so confirmedly devoted to christianity, that he seems to have made the Bible, not only the rule of his conduct, but the prime director of his genius. His poetry flowed from the scripture, as if his unparalleled poetical powers had been expressly given him by Heaven for the purpofe of imparting to religion such lustre as the most splendid of human faculties could bestow. As in the Paradise Lost he feems to emulate the sublimity of Mofes and the prophets, it appears to have been his with, in the Paradise Regained, to copy the sweetness and fimplicity of the milder evangelists. If the futile remarks that were made upon the latter work, on its first appearance, excited the spleen of the great author, he would probably have felt still more indignant, could he have seen the comment of War
burton. That disgusting writer, whose critical dictates form a fantastic medley of arrogance, acuteness, and absurdity, has asserted, that the plan of Paradise Regained is very unhappy, and that nothing was easier than to have invented a good one.
Much idle censure seems to have been thrown on more than one of Milton's poetical works, from want of due attention to the chief aim of the poet : -- If we fairly consider it in regard to Paradise Regained, the aim I allude to, as it probably occasioned, will completely justify, the plan which the presumptuous critic has fo fuperciliously condemned. Milton had already executed one extensive divine poem, peculiarly distinguished by richness and fubJimity of description; in framing a second, he would naturally wish to vary its effect; to make it rich in moral sentiment, and sublime in its mode of unfolding the highest wisdom that man can learn ; for this purpose it was necessary to keep all the ornamental
of the poem in due fubordination to the preceptive. This delicate and difficult point is accomplished with such felicity, they are blended together with such exquisite harmony and mutuał aid, that instead of arraigning the plan, we might rather doubt if any possible change could improve it; assuredly, there is no poem of epic form, where the sublimest moral instruction is so forcibly and abundantly united to poetical delight: the fplendour of the poet does not blaze, indeed, so intensely as in his larger production; here he resembles the Apollo of Ovid, softening his glory in speaking to his son, and avoiding to dazzle the fancy, that he
may desçend into the heart. His dignity is not impaired by his tenderness. The Paradise Regained is a poem, that deserves to be particularly recommended to ardent and ingenious youth, as it is ad mirably calculated to inspire that spirit of self.com. mand, which is, as Milton esteemed it, the truest heroism, and the triumph of christianity.
It is not my intention to enter into a critical analysis of the beauties and the blemishes that are visible in the poetry of Milton, not only because Addison and Johnson have both written admirably on his greatest work, but because my most excellent friend, the poet (whofe spirit I esteen most
congenial to that of Milton) is engaged in such illustration of his honoured predeceffor; I shall therefore confine myself to a single essay, detached from this narrative, under the title of " Conjectures on the Origin of the Paradise Lost.”
I must not, however, omit to speak here, as I have engaged to do, of the character bestowed by Johnson on the principal performance of the poet ; the greatest part of that character is, perhaps, the most splendid tribute that was ever paid by one powerful mind to another. Aristotle, Longinus, and Quintilian, have not spoken of their favourite Homer with more magnificence of praise; yet the character, taken altogether, is a golden image, that has lower parts of iron and of clay. The critic seems to prepare a diadem of the richest jewels; he places them, most liberally, on the head of the poet; but in the moment of adjusting his radiant
gift, he breathes upon it such a vapour of spleen, as almost annihilates its lustre.
After displaying, in the noblest manner, many of the peculiar excellencies in the poem, he says, “ its perusal is a duty rather than a pleafure; we read Milton for instruction, retire harrassed and overburthened, and look elsewhere for recreation ; we desert 'our master, and seek for companions."
Injurious as these remarks are to the poet, let us ascribe them, not to the virulence of intended den traction, but to the want of poetical sensibility in the critic; a want that may be sufficiently proved, by comparing this account of the effect produced by Paradise Lost on his own feelings with its effect on a spirit truly poetical. That enchanting poem, The Task, very happily furnishes such an illustration; it is thus that a mind attuned by nature to poetry describes the effect in question, as produced even in childhood.
« Then Milton had indeed a poet's charms
But the little delight that Johnson confesses himfelf to have taken in the poetry of Milton was rather his misfortune than his fault; it merits pity more than reproach, as it partly arose from conftitutional infelicity, and the very wide difference between the native turn of his mind and that of the poet: never were two spirits less congenial, or two christian scholars, who differed more completely in their sentiments of poetry, politics, and religion. In tem