Изображения страниц

before his idea to exalt and announce the earth rolling on, wrapt in the har it. He introduces to us

[blocks in formation]

"All the sea-girt isles, Tha, like to rich and various gems, inlay The unadorned bosom of the deep; " + and

"That undisturbed song of pure concent, Aye sung before the sapphire-colour'd throne, To Him that sits thereon,

With saintly shout, and solemn jubilee ; Where the bright Seraphim, in burning row, Their loud-uplifted angel-trumpets blow." § He gathered into full nosegays the flowers scattered through the other poets:

"Ye valleys low, where the mild whispers use Of shades, and wanton winds, and gushing brooks,

On whose fresh lap the swart-star sparely looks;

Throw hither all your quaint enamell'd eyes, That on the green turf suck the honied showers,

And purple all the ground with vernal flowers.

Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
The tufted crow-toe, and pale jessamine,
The white pink, and the pansy freak'd with

The glowing violet,

The musk-rose, and the well-attired woodbine, With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head, And flower that sad embroidery wears: every Bid amaranthus all his beauty shed, And daffadillies fill their cups with tears, To strew the laureat herse where Lycid lies." ||

When still quite young, on his quitting Cambridge, he inclined to the magnificent and grand; he wanted a great Howing verse, an ample and sounding strophe, vast periods of fourteen and four-and-twenty lines. He did not face objects on a level, as a mortal, but from on high, like those archangels of Goethe, who embrace at a glance the whole ocean lashing its coasts and

*Arcades, l. 32. † Comus, l. 188-190. 1 Ibid. l. 21-23.

Ode at a Solemn Music, l. 6–11
Lycidas, l. 136-151.

Faust. Prolog im Himmel.

mony of the fraternal stars.

It was

not life that he felt, like the masters of the Renaissance, but grandeur, like Eschylus, and the Hebrew seers,* manly and lyric spirits like his own, who nourished like him in religious emotions and continuous enthusiasm, like him displayed sacerdotal pomp and majesty. To express such a sentiment, images and poetry addressed only to the eyes, were not enough; sounds also were requisite, and that more intro spective poetry which, purged from corporeal shows, could reach the soul. Milton was a musician; his hymns rolled with the slowness of a measured song and the gravity of a declamation; and he seems himself to be describing his art in these incomparable verses, which are evolved like the solemn har mony of an anthem:

"But else, in deep of night, when drowsiness Hath lock'd up mortal sense, then listen I To the celestial sirens' harmony,

That sit upon the nine infolded spheres,
And sing to those that hold the vital shears,
And turn the adamantine spindle round,

On which the fate of Gods and men is wound.

Such sweet compulsion doth in musick lie,
To lull the daughters of Necessity,
And keep unsteady Nature to her law,
And the low world in measured motion draw
After the heavenly tune, which none can

Of human mould, with gross unpurged ear."

[ocr errors]

With his style, his subjects differed he compacted and ennobled the poet's domain as well as his language, and consecrated his thoughts as well as his words. He who knows the true nature of poetry soon finds, as Milton said a little later, what despicable crea tures "libidinous and ignorant poetas. ters are, and to what religious, glori ous, splendid use poetry can be put in things divine and human. "These abilities, wheresoever they be found are the inspired gift of God, rarely be stowed, but yet to some (though most abuse) in every nation; and are of power, beside the office of a pulpit, to imbreed and cherish in a great peop.e

* See the prophecy against Archbishop Laud in Lycidas, l. 130:

"But that two-handed engine at the door Stands ready to smite once, ard smite ne more."

Arcades, l. 61-73.

the seeds of virtue and public civility, to allay the perturbations of the mind, and set the affections in right tune; to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought with high providence in his church; to sing the victorious agonies of martyrs and saints, the deeds and triumphs of just and pious nations, doing valiantly through faith against the enemies of Christ."*

In fact, from the first, at St. Paul's School and at Cambridge, he had written paraphrases of the Psalms, then composed odes on the Nativity, Circumcision, and the Passion. Presently appeared sad poems on the Death of a Fair Infant, An Epitaph on the Marchioness of Winchester; then grave and noble verses On Time, At a solemn Musick, a sonnet On his being arrived to the Age of Twenty-three, his late spring which no bud or


shew'th." At last we have him in the country with his father, and the hopes, dreams, first enchantments of youth, rise from his heart like the morning breath of a summer's day. But what a distance between these calm and bright contemplations and the warm youth, the voluptuous Adonis of Shakspe are! He walked, used his eyes, list :ned; there his joys ended; they are but the poetic joys of the soul :

[ocr errors]

To hear the lark begin his flight,
And singing, startle the dull night,
From his watch-tower in the skies,
Till the dappled dawn doth rise;
While the plowman, near at hand,
Whistles o'er the furrow'd land,
And the milk-maid singeth blithe,
And the mower whets his sithe,
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the hawthorn in the dale." t

To see the village dances and gayety; to i sok upon the "high triumphs" and the "busy hum of men" in the "tower'd cities; "above all, to abandon himself to melody, to the divine roll of sweet verse, and the charming dreams which they spread before us in a golden light; this is all; and presently, as if he had gone too far, to counterbalance this eulogy of visible joys, he summons Me ancholy.

The Reason of Church Government, book i. Mitford, 147. † L'Allegro, l. 41–68.

[ocr errors]

"Come, pensive Nun, devout and pure, Sober, stedfast, and demure, All in a robe of darkest grain, Flowing with majestick train, And sable stole of Cypress lawn Over thy decent shoulders drawn. Come, but keep thy wonted state, With even step, and musing gait ; And looks commercing with the skies, Thy rapt soul sitting in thine eyes." With her he wanders amidst grave thoughts and grave sights, which recall a man to his condition, and prepare him for his duties, now amongst the lofty colonnades of primeval trees, whose "high-embowed roof" retains the silence and the twilight under their shade; now in

"The studious cloysters pale, With antick pillars massy proof, And storied windows richly dight, Casting a dim religious light;"†

[ocr errors]

now again in the retirement of the study, where the cricket chirps, where the lamp of labor shines, where the mind, alone with the noble minds of the past, may "Unsphere

The spirit of Plato, to unfold What worlds or what vast regions hold The immortal mind, that hath forsook Her mansion in this fleshly nook." + He was filled with this lofty philosophy. Whatever the language he used, English, Italian, or Latin, whatever the kind of verse, sonnets, hymns, stanzas, tragedy or epic, he always returned to it. He praised everywhere chaste love, piety, generosity, heroic force.

It was not from scruple, but it was innate in him; his chief need and faculty led him to noble conceptions. He took a delight in admiring, as Shakspeare in creating, as Swift in destroy. ing, as Byron in combating, as Spenser in dreaming. Even on ornamental poems, which were only employed to exhibit costumes and introduce fairy. tales in Masques, like those of Ben Jonson, he impressed his own charac ter. They were amusements for the castle; he made out of them lectures on magnanimity and constancy: one of them, Comus, well worked out, with a complete originality and extraordinary elevation of style, is perhaps his mas terpiece, and is simply the eulogy of virtue.

*Il Penseroso, l. 31–40. ↑ Ibid. l. 156-160.

Ibid. 1. 88-93.

Here at the beginning we are in the heavens. A spirit, descended in the midst of wild woods, repeats this ode : 'Before the starry threshold of Jove's court My mansion is, where those immortal shapes Of bright aerial spirits live insphered In regions mild of calm and serene air, Above the smoke and stir of this dim spot, Which men call earth; and, with lowthoughted care

Confined, and pester'd in this pinfold here, Strive to keep up a frail and feverish being, Unmindful of the crown that Virtue gives, After this mortal change, to her true ser


Amongst the enthron'd Gods on sainted seats. ""*

Such characters cannot speak: they sing. The drama is an antique opera, composed like the Prometheus, of solein hymns. The spectator is transported beyond the real world. He does not listen to men but to sentiments. He hears a concert, as in Shakspeare; the Comus continues the Midsummer Night's Dream, as a choir of deep men's voices continues the glowing and sad symphony of the in


"Through the perplex'd paths of this drear wood,

The nodding horror of whose shady brows Threats the forlorn and wandering passenger," t

strays a noble lady, separated from her two brothers, troubled by the "sound of riot and ill-managed merriment" which she hears from afar. The son of Circe the enchantress, sensual Comus enters with a charming rod in one hand, his glass in the other, amid the clamor of men and women, with torches in their hands, headed like sundry sorts of wild beasts;" it is the hour when

The sounds and seas, with all their finny drove,

Now to the moon in wavering morrice move;

And, on the tawny sands and shelves Trip the pert faeries and the dapper elves." l'he lady is terrified and sinks on her knees: and in the misty forms which loat above in the pale light, perceives the mysterious and heavenly guardians who watch over her life and honor: "O, welcome, pure-eyed Faith; white-handed Hope,

Thou Lovering angel, girt with golden wings;

* Comus, l. 1-11. 3 Zivid, 7. 115-118.

And thou, unblemish'd form of Chastity,
I see ye visibly, and now believe
That He, the Supreme good, t' whom al
things ill

Are but as slavish officers of vengeance,
Would send a glistering guardian, if need

To keep my life and honour unassail'd. Was I deceived, or did a sable cloud Turn forth her silver lining on the night? I did not err; there does a sable cloud Turn forth her silver lining on the night, And casts a gleam over this tufted grove." 66 a soft and She calls her brothers in solemn-breathing sound," which "rose like a steam of rich distill'd perfumes, and stole upon the air,"† across the "violet-embroider'd vale," to the dissolute god whom she enchants. He comes disguised as a "gentle shep herd," and says:

"Can any mortal mixture of earth's mould Breathe such divine, enchanting ravish. ment?

Sure something holy lodges in that breast,
And with these raptures moves the vocal air
To testify his hidden residence.

How sweetly did they float upon the wings
Of silence, through the empty-vaulted night,
At every fall smoothing the raven down
Of darkness, till it smiled! I have oft

My mother Circe with the syrens three,
Amidst the flowery-kirtled Naiades,
Culling their potent herbs and baleful drugs
Who, as they sung, would take the prison'd

And lap it in Elysium: Scylla wept,
And chid her barking waves into attention.
But such a sacred and home-felt delight,
Such sober certainty of waking bliss,
I never heard till now." +

They were heavenly songs which Comus heard; Milton describes, and at the same time imitates them; he makes us understand the saying of his master Plato, that virtuous melodies teach virtue.

[ocr errors]

Circe's son has by deceit carried off the noble lady, and seats her, with nerves all chained up," in a sumptu. ous palace before a table spread with all dainties. She accuses him, resists insults him, and the style assumes ar air of heroical indignation, to scorn the offer of the tempter.

"When lust,

By unchaste looks, loose gestures, and for talk,

But most by lewd and lavish act of sin,
Lets in defilement to the inward parts;
The soul grows clotted by contagion,

↑ Ibid. l. 37-39.

* Ibid. l. 213-225. ↑ Ibid l. 244-264.

↑ Ibid. l. 555-557


Sprinkled by this cool and chaste hand, the lady leaves the "venom'd seat which held her spell-bound; the brothers, with their sister, reign peacefully in their father's palace; and the Spirit, who has conducted all, pronounces this ode, in which poetry leads up to philosophy; the voluptuous light of an Oriental legend beams on the Elysium of the good, and all the splendors of nature assemble to render virtue more seductive.

"To the ocean now I fly,

And those happy climes that lie
Where day never shuts his eye
Up in the broad fields of the sky:
There I suck the liquid air
All amidst the gardens fair

Of Hesperus, and his daughters three
That sing about the golden tree:
Along the crisped shades and bowers
Revels the spruce and jocund spring;
The Graces, and the rosy-bosom'd Hours,
Thither all their bounties bring;
There eternal Summer dwells,
And west winds, with musky wing,
About the cedar'n alleys fling
Nard and cassia's balmy smells.
Iris there with humid bow

Waters the odorous banks, that blow
Flowers of more mingled hew
Than her purfled scarf can shew;

Comus, L. 463-473. It is the elder brother who utters these lines when speaking of his sister.-TR. ↑ Ibid. l. 861-863.

Ibid. l. 890

Ibid. l. 976-1023.

† Edward King died in 1637.

Would to Heaven he could have written it as he tried, in the shape of a drama, or better, as the Prothemeus of Eschylus, as a lyric opera! A peculiar kind of subject demands a peculiar kind of style; if you resist, you destroy your work, too happy if, in the deformed medley, chance produces and preserves a few beautiful fragments., To bring the supernatural upon the scene, you must not continue in your every-day mood; if you do, you look as if you did not believe in it. Vision reveals it, and the style of vision must express it. When Spenser writes, he dreams. We listen to the happy concerts of his aerial music, and the varying train of his fanci

second wife, dead a year after their | discussion has ended by subduing the marriage, his wel beloved "saint". lyric flight; accumulated learning by "brought to me, like Alcestis, from choking the original genius. The poei the grave, came, vested all in no more sings sublime verse, he re white, pure as her mind;" loyal lates or harangues, in grave verse. He friendships, sorrows bowed to or sub- no longer invents a personal style; he dued, aspirations generous or stoical, imitates antique tragedy or epic. In which reverses did but purify. Old Samson Agonistes he hits upon a cold age came; cut off from power, action, and lofty tragedy, in Paradise Regained even hope, he returned to the grand on a cold and noble epic; he composes dreams of his youth. As of old, he an imperfect and sublime poem in Parwent out of this lower world in search adise Lost. of the sublime; for the actual is petty, and the familiar seems dull. He sejects his new characters on the verge of sacred antiquity, as he selected his old ones on the verge of fabulous antiquity, because distance adds to their stature; and habit, ceasing to measure, ceases also to depreciate them. Just now we had creatures of fancy: Joy, daughter of Zephyr and Aurora; Melancholy, daughter of Vesta and Saturn; Comus, son of Circe, ivy-crowned, god of echoing woods and turbulent excess. Now we have Samson, the despiser of giants, the elect of Israel's God, the destroyer of idolaters, Satan and nis peers, Christ and his angels; they come and rise before our eyes like superhuman statues; and their far re-ful apparitions unfolds like a vapor moval, rendering vain our curious hands, preserves our admiration and their majesty. We rise further and higher, to the origin of things, amongst eternal beings, to the commencement of thought and life, to the battles of God, in this unknown world where sentiments and existences, raised above the ken of man, elude his judgment and criticism to command his veneration and awe; the sustained song of solemn verse unfolds the actions of these shadowy figures; and then we xperience the same emotion as in a cathedral, while the music of the organ rolls along among the arches, and amidst the brilliant light of the tapers clouds of incense hide from our view the colossal columns.

But if the heart remains unchanged, the genius has become transformed. Manliness has supplanted youth. The richness has decreased, the severity has increased. Seventeen years of fighting and misfortune have steeped his soul in religious ideas. Mythology has yielded to theology; the habit of

before our accommodating and dazzled gaze. When Dante writes, he is rapt; and his cries of anguish, his transports, the incoherent succession of his infernal or mystical phantome, carry us with him into the invisible world which he describes. Ecstasy alone renders visible and credible the objects of ecstasy, If you tell us of the exploits of the Deity as you tell us of Cromwell's, in a grave and lofty tone, we do not see God; and as He constitutes the whole of your poem, we do not see any thing. We conclude that you have accepted a tradition, that you adorn it with the fictions of your mind, that you are a preacher, not a prophet, a decorator, not a poet. We find that you sing of God as the vulgar pray to Him, after a formula learnt, not from spontaneous emotion. Change your style, or, rather if you can, change your emotion. Try and discover in yourself the ancient fervor of psalmists and apostles, to re create the divine legend, to experience the sublime agitations by which the in spired and disturbed mind perceives

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »