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We are, in the last place, to consider the imaginary persons, or Death and Sin, who act a large part in this book. Such beautiful extended allegories are certainly some of the finest composi. tions of genius; but as I have before observed, are not agreeable to the nature of an heroic poem. This of Sin and Death is very exquisite in its kind, if not considered as a part of such a work. The truths contained in it are so clear and open, that I shall 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 per. sons 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 Diomedes ; 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 Æschylus, 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 described in all her purple spots. The Fever might have marched before her, Pain might have stood on 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.
Virg. n. xi. 368.
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 compleat 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 penitential prayers on the very place where their Judge appeared to them when he pronounced their sentence.
They forth with to the place
Watering the ground · There is a beauty of the same kind in a tragedy of Sophocles, where Oedipus, 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 Cithæron, 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 censor; 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
With incense, where the golden altar fumed, * This paragraph was added when the papers were revised for publication in volumes.-G,
By their great Intercessor, came in sight
We have the same thought expressed a second time in the intercession of the Messiah, which is conceived in very emphatic sentiments and expressions.
Among the poetical parts of scripture which Milton bas 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
The assembling of all the angels of heaven to hear the solemn decrce 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
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 discovered the lion and the eagle pur. suing each of them their prey towards the eastern gates of Paradise. There is a double beauty in this incident, not only as it presents great and just omens, which are always agreeable in