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glare of the witches' caldron upon the blasted heath; in a fourth,
we watch the elves, under the yellow moonlight, dancing their
ringlets to the wind. And how perfect in their kind is the
splendour or the loveliness of those ever-changing scenes;
whether, as in the Troilus and Cressida,
Upon the ringing plains of windy Troy
or in As You Like It, we watch the wounded deer, stumbling wearily beside the rivulet under the waving boughs of the Forest of Ardennes; or in Macbeth see the 'temple-haunting martlet' flitting to and fro in the 'eager air' about the Castle of Inverness; or in Cymbeline take shelter under the noble Briton's cave; or in Romeo and Juliet assist at the lighted masque in the hall of the Capulets; or with Julius CcEsar stand, thronged with conspiring senators, in the Capitol of Rome. Sometimes the electric flame of the poet's genius seems to be blazing in the lightning, sometimes to be slumbering in the dewdrop.
In the following pages only one or two passages have been selected from his plays—partly because they are all familiar to us as household words, but chiefly because such passages lose so incomparably when they are dissevered from their context.
William Shakespeare died in 1616; in that year Milton was a child of eight years old. The genius of Milton dominates throughout the seventeenth century as that of Shakespeare in the sixteenth. It was the short and splendid period of Puritan mastery interpolated between the Shakespeare of Elizabeth and the Dryden of Charles II. Other poets indeed there were: there were Donne, and Quarles, and George Herbert, and Crashaw, and Herrick; there were Cowley, and Marvell, and Waller; and a crowd of Cavalier poets before the Revolution and after the Restoration. Side by side with these, 'with his garland and singing robes about him,' stands the solitary sublime form of John Milton, perhaps the very noblest of England's sons. Shakespeare was a more myriad-minded genius, but Milton was the rarer and the lordlier soul. It may be his literary imperfection, but assuredly it is his moral strength, that Milton could not have conceived such a character as Falstaff. For that 'foul gray-haired iniquity' he would have had no bursts of inextinguishable laughter, nor any other words than those of King Henry V:—
'I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers.
A modern writer has imagined Milton appearing at the Mermaid Tavern, a pure, beautiful youth, and, in answer to some burst of witty ribaldry, casting among the company that grand theory of his, 'that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem—that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honourablest things.' 'What a blush would have mounted on the old face of Ben Jonson before such a rebuke 1 what interruption of the jollity! what mingled uneasiness and resentment !—what forced laughter to conceal consternation! Only Shakespeare, one thinks, would have turned on the bold youth a mild and approving eye, would have looked round the room to observe the whole scene; and remembering, perhaps, some
passages in his own life, would, mayhap, have had his own thoughts.'
But the days of Milton's manhood were cast among men infinitely more degraded than the Elizabethan wits; and among the rhymesters of the Restoration he stands out like a being of another sphere. In the darkest days of English history, amid the loudest dissonance of Bacchus and his revellers, in days which, as Macaulay says, cannot be recalled without a blush, 'the days of servitude without foyalty, and sensuality without love, of dwarfish talents and gigantic vices, the paradise of cold hearts and narrow minds, the golden age of the coward, the bigot, and the slave';—in those days, blind, detested, impoverished, deserted, Milton—
with voice unchanged,
still 'gazed on the bright countenance of Truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies,' and gave to the world, in Paradise Lost, the imperishable memorial of a lofty soul. Dryden and Milton were contemporaries for more than forty years; but while Dryden was adding by numerous plays and prologues to the corruption of the stage, Milton was speaking in a voice which has been compared to the swell of the advancing tide, settling into the long thunder of billows, breaking for leagues along the shore. While the gay creatures who fluttered in the brief sunshine of a licentious prosperity were grating upon their 'scrannel pipes' their 'lean and flashy songs,' he was asserting Eternal Providence, and justifying the ways of God to man.
There is no need to apologise for the length of the extracts from the grand austere Puritan, who took his inspiration not 'from the heat of youth and the vapours of wine,' not even 'by the invocation of Dame Memory and her syren daughters,' but 'by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and all knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he will.'
The next poets who mark an epoch in English literature are Dryden and Pope. Dryden died in the year 1700 (and here let me remark, in passing, that three of our greatest poets died in the first year of a century—Chaucer in 1400, Dryden in 1700, Cowper in 1800). It is the merit of Dryden to have brought into perfection the heroic couplet; and this is what Gray alludes to when he says— .
Behold, where Dryden's less presumptuous car
Wide o'er the fields of glory bear
Two coursers of ethereal race,
With necks in thunder clothed, and long-resounding pace.
That Dryden was a great poet is undeniable; that he desecrated his high powers and burned them, like the incense of Israel, in unhallowed shrines, is no less certain. Happily, poetry like most of his, 'prurient yet passionless,' is also ephemeral. He was well aware of—he was even deeply penitent for—the sin he had committed in thus polluting the vestal flames of genius by kindling them on the altar of base passions; and in some of his own noblest lines he says—
O gracious God, how far have we
It is not without regret that I have here omitted his famous Alexander s Feast, and substituted for it his other less-known Ode on St. Cecilia's Day. The latter contains however some very majestic lines, and is in many respects better suited for the following pages.
The impulse begun by Dryden was continued by Pope, who
Made poetry a mere mechanic art,
And every scribbler had his tune by heart.
As Milton reflects the grandeur of Puritanism in the glorious days of Cromwell, as Dryden in his many instances of false taste represents the decadent reign of Charles II, so Pope, in his smooth, artificial mannerism, is the representative of the eighteenth century. In that age critics could quote with extravagant admiration a description of Night in which the mountains are said to nod their drowsy heads, and the flowers to sweat under the night-dews. The poet of such an age, if he reflected the characteristics of his own time, could hardly be expected to excel except in philosophical poetry like The Essay on Man, or in such scathing satire as the lines to Addison, or such glittering mock-heroics as The Rapt of the Lock. In Pope's time all affectation of' the great' in poetry was over; for