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When fir Henry Wootton, in 1637, had received from Milton the compliment of a present of COMUS, at first separately printed by the care of Henry Lawes, he returned a panegyric on the performance, in which real approbation undoubtedly concurred with the partiality of private friendship, and a grateful sense of this kind testimony of Milton's regard. But Wootton, a scholar and a poet, did not perceive the genuine graces of this exquifite masque, which yet he professes to have viewed with fingular delight. His conceptions did not reach to the higher poetry of Comus. He was rather struck with the pastoral mellifluence of its lyric measures, which he styles a certain Doric delicacy in the fongs and odes, than with its graver and more majestic tones, with the folemnity and variety of its peculiar vein of original invention. This drama was not to be generally characterised by its songs and odes: nor do I know that softness and sweetness, although they want neither, are particularly characteristical of those passages, which are most commonly rough with strong and crouded images, and rich in personification. However, the Song to Echo, and the initial strains of Comus's invocation, are much in the style which Wootton describes.
The first edition of these poems, comprehending COMUS already printed, and LYCIDAS, of which there was also a previous impression, is dated in 1645, But I do not recollect, that for
seventy years afterwards, they are once mentioned in the whole succession of English literature. Perhaps the only instance on record, in that period of time, of their having received any, even a fight, mark of attention or notice, is to be found in archbishop Sancroft's papers at Oxford. In these papers is contained a very considerable collection of poetry, but chiefly religious, exactly and elegantly transcribed with his own hand, while he was a fellow of Emanuel college, and about the year 1648, from Crashaw, Cowley, Herbert, Alabaster, Wootton, and other poets then in fashion. And among
these extracts is Milton's ODE ON THE NATIVITY, faid by Sancroft to be selected from “ the first page of John Milton's poems.” Also our author's version of the fifty-third Psalm, noted by the transcriber, I suppose as an example of uncommon exertion of genius, to have been done in the fifteenth year of the translator's age“. Sancroft, even to his maturer years, retained his strong early predilection to polite literature, which he still continued to cultivate ; and from these and other remains of his studies in that pursuit, now preferved in the Bodleian library, it appears, that he was a diligent reader of the poetry of his times, both in English and Latin. In an old Miscellany, quaintly called NAPS ON PARNASSUS, and printed in 1658, there is a recital of the most excellent English poets; who, according to this author's enumeration, are Chaucer, Lydgate, Hardyng, * MSS. Coll. TANN. Num. 465. See f. 34.60.
Spenser, Drayton, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Beaumont and Fletcher, Sandys, Cowley, and Clieveland, with some others then living and perhaps in fashion, but now forgotten. But there is not a fyllable of the writer of L'ALLEGRO, IL PENSEROSO, and COMUS. Nor is there the
quantity of an hemistich quoted from any of these poems, in the Collections of those who have digested the Beauties or Phrases of the English Poets from 1655 to 1738, inclusively. The first of these, is the English Treasury of Wit and Language, by John Cotgrave, 1655. The second, the English Parnassus, or an Help to English Poesy, by Joshua Poole of Clare-Hall, 1657. And not to omit the intermediate labours of Bysshe and Gildon, the latter of whom promises “to give the reader the
great images that are to be found in our poets “ who are truly great, as well as their topics and “ moral reflections,” the last, and by far the most copious and judicious compilation of the kind extant, is the BRITISH MUSE in throe volumes, by Thomas Hayward, with a good Preface by Oldys, published in 1738. Yet this author professes chiefly to consider, “neglected and expiring merit, and to “ revive and preserve the excellencies which time “ and oblivion were upon the point of cancelling, “ rather than to repeat what others had extracted " before.”
a Lond. 12mo. See Signat. B.4. • Reprinted, 1677. 8vo.
Pref. p. xx. We are surprised to find Dennis, in his Letters, published 1721, quoting a few verses from Milton's Latin Poems, relating to his Travels. See p.78.79. But Dennis had them from Toland's Life of Milton.
Patrick Hume, a Scotchman, in 1695, published a large and very learned commentary on the PARADISE LOST, to which some of his succesfors in the same province, apprehending no danger
of detection from a work rarely inspected, and too pedantic and cumbersome to attract many readers, have been often amply indebted, without even the most distant hint of acknowledgment. But Hume, in comparing Milton with himself, perhaps conscious of his importance as a commentator on the sublimities of the epic muse, not once condescends to draw a single illustration from this volume of his author. In 1732, Bentley, mistaking his object, and to the disgrace of his critical abilities, gave a new and splendid edition of the
The principal design of the Notes is to prove, that the poet's native text was vitiated by an infinite variety of licentious interpolations and factitious readings, which, as he pretends, proceeded from the artifice, the ignorance, or the misapprehension, of an amanuensis, to whom Milton, being blind, had been compelled to dictate his verses. To ascertain his criticisms in detecting or reforming these imaginary forgeries, he often appeals to words and phrases in the same poem. But he never attempts to confirm his conjectures from the smaller poems, written before the poet was blind : and from which, in the
prosecution of the same arbitrary mode of emendation, his analogies in many instances might have consequently derived a much stronger degree of
authority and credibility. The truth is, Bentley was here a stranger. I must however except, that he once quotes a line from the beginning of comUS.
The first printed encomium which this volume of Milton seems to have received, was from the pen of Addison. In a specTATOR, written 1711, he mentions Milton's Laughter in the opening of L'ALLEGRO as a very poetical figure : and adds, citing the lines at large, that Euphrolyne's groupe of Mirth is finely described '. But this specimen and recommendation, although from fo favourite a writer, and fo elegant a critic, was probably premature, and I suspect contributed but little to make the poem much better known. In the mean time I will venture to pronounce, that although the citation immediately resulted from the subject of Addison's paper, he thought it the finest groupe or description either in this piece or its companion the PENSEROSO. Had Addison ever entered into the true spirit and genius of both poems, he certainly did not want opportunities of bringing them forward, by exhibiting passages of a more poetical character. But such passages would not have coincided with Addison's subordinate ideas of poetry.
My brother remembers to have heard my father say, that when he once, at Magdalene college Oxford, mentioned this volume to Mr. Digby, the intimate friend of Pope, Mr. Digby expreffed
a PARAD, L. B. i. 16.
b Num. 249.