« AnteriorContinuar »
under such mortification by a magnanimous confidence in the justice of future ages, and a fanguine anticipation of his poetical immortality. The strength and dignity of his mind would indeed have armed him against any possible disappointment of his literary ambition ; but such was the reception of his work, that he could not be disappointed. Johnson has vindicated the public on this point with judgment and success : “ The sale of books (he observes) was
not in Milton's age what it is in the present; the nation “ had been fatisfied, from 1623 to 1664, that is forty-one
years, with only two editions of the works of Shakespeare, “ which probably did not together make one thousand
copies. The sale of thirteen hundred copies in two years, in opposition to so much recent enmity, and to a style of versification new to all, and disgusting to many,
was an uncommon example of the prevalence of genius.” These remarks are perfe&ly just; but when their author proceeds to say, " the admirers of Paradise Lost did not “ dare to publish their opinion,” he seems to forget the very spirited eulogies that were, during the life of the poet, bestowed on that performance. Panegyrick can hardly assume a bolder tone than in the English and Latin verses addressed to Milton by Marvel and Barrow. He received other compliments not inferior to these. The muse of Dryden assured him, that he possessed the united excellencies of Homer and of Virgil ; and, if we may rely on an anecdote related by Richardson, the Paradise Lost was announced to the world in a very singular manner, that may
be thought not ill-suited to the pre-eminence of the work. Sir John Denham, a man distinguished as a soldier, a senator, and a poet, came into the House of Commons with a proof-lheet of Milton's new composition wet from the press; and being questioned concerning the paper in his hand, he said, it was “ part of the noblest poem that ever
was written in any language or in any age.” Richardson, whose active and liberal affection for the poet led him to search with intelligent alacrity and success for every occurrence that could redound to his honour, has recorded another incident, which must be particularly interesting to every lover of literary anecdote, as it discovers how the Paradise Loft was first introduced to Dryden, and with what fervency of admiration he immediately. spoke of it. The Earl of Dorset and Fleetwood Shepard, the friend of Prior, found the poem, according to this story, at a bookseller's in Little Britain, who, lamențing its want of circulation, entreated the Earl to recommend it ; Dorset, after reading it himself, sent it to Dryden, who said, in returning the book, “ This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.”. These were probably the real sentiments of Dryden on his first perusal of the poem ; but as that unhappy genius was not bleft with the independent magnanimity of Milton, his opinions were apt to fluctuate according to his interest, and we find him occasionally disposed to exalt or degrade the transcendent performance, which he could not but admire. As the six celebrated verses, in which he has complimented the English Homer, so much resemble what he said of him to Lord Dorset, it is probable that those verses were written
while his mind was glowing with admiration from his first
There are prefixt to this opera fome very animated but injudicious verses by, poor Nát. Lee, who has lavished the most exaggefated praise or his friend Dryden, at the expence of the fuperior poet.
It is highly pleasing to reflect, that Milton, who had fo many evils to fustain in the course of his chequered life, had
yet the high gratification of being assured, by very competent judges, that he had gloriously succeeded in the prime object of his literary ambition, the great poetical atchievement, which he projected in youth, and accomplished in old age. He probably received such animating assurances from
many of his friends, whose applause, being intended for his private fatisfaction, has not defcended to our time; but when we recollect the honours already mentioned, that were paid to the living poet by Denham, Dryden, and Marvel, we may rest satisfied in the persuasion, that he enjoyed a grateful earnest of his future renown, and, according to the petition he addressed to Urania,
« Fit audience found tho' few.”
if the spirit of a departed bard can be gratified by any circumstances of posthumous renown, it might gratify Milton to perceive, that his divine poem was first indebted for general celebrity to the admiration of Sommers and of Addison, two of the most accomplished and most amiable of English names. Sommers promoted the first ornamented edition of Paradise Lost in 1688; and Addison wrote his celebrated papers on Milton in 1712.
But to return to the living author ; in the year 1670, the great poet afpired to new distinction, by appearing in the character of an historian. He had long meditated a work, which, in his time, was particularly. wanted in our
language, and which the greater cultivation bestowed by the present age on this branch of literature has not yet produced in perfection-an eloquent and impartial history of England. Milton executed only fix books, beginning with the most early fabulous period, and closing with the Norman conquest. Why he should have given the first part (fays Johnson) which he seems not to believe, and which is universally rejected, it is difficult to conjecture.” Had the critic taken the trouble to peruse a few pages of the work in question his difficulty would have vanished; he would at least have found the motive of the author, if he had not esteemed it satisfactory :
“ I have determined (says Milton) in speaking of the ancient and rejected British fables, to bestow the telling over even of these reputed tales, be it for nothing else but in favour of our English poets and rhetoricians, who by their art will know how to use them judiciously.” This sentiment implies a striking fondness for works of imagination, and a good natured disposition to promote them.
The historian discovers higher aims as he advances in his work, and expresses a moral and patriotic desire to make the lessons suggested by the early calamities of this nation a source of wisdom and virtue to his improving countrymen. 'The
very passage, which was most likely to produce such an effect, was struck out of the publication by the Gothic hand of the licenfer, an incident that seems to give new energy to all the noble arguments, which the injured author had formerly adduced in vindicating the liberty of the press. The passage in question contained a very masterly sketch