Изображения страниц

and spiritual life. Whether compromise be possible, whether Christianity does not require that men shall resolutely turn their backs upon wealth and fame and learning and national pride, counting this world well lost for the sake of a better, belongs to another inquiry than ours. The modern age has taken, as one might say, the sting out of Christianity by accommodating the creed to its life rather than its life to the creed, and continues to call itself Christian. Perhaps Milton was himself partly conscious that he stood between incompatibles; he seems to approach as near hesitation as was possible to his unhesitating mind. Perhaps, again, he had more sympathy with the militant than the self-effacing qualities, as he was more of a soldier than a quietist. Into his study at least of the person and ideals of Christ in Paradise Regained he imparts something hardly to be found in the Gospels. As in many a Renaissance picture, the figure of Christ seems to be painted upon a classical background and touched with something of a philosopher's air and mien. Apart from its poetry, poetry in a deliberately subdued key, this poem is of interest as the first attempt, outside the Scripture narrative, to draw the portrait of the Founder of Christianity. Hardly the Gospel portrait, hardly Christ as preached in the evangelical churches, Milton's, as might have been expected, is none the less a majestic conception. What a contrast is presented between the hero of the first and of the second epic, the great militant figure of Paradise Lost, who, within sight of Eden, hurled his superb defiance at the noonday sun, and that of Christ, who rising superior to all temptations in complete self-mastery, retains the simplicity and humility of childhood, and when the trial is over, without shadow of self-gratulation or word of triumph, turns back to the life of every day

[ocr errors][merged small]

Home to his mother's house private returned."

There is no one with whom to compare this poet in our literature. Though a student of Chaucer and Shakespeare, he is far removed from their standpoint of cheerful acquiescence in a strangely assorted, multi-coloured patch-work world, where fools and


knaves jostle the good and great. Nor though he called himself a disciple of Spenser did he share that dreaming poet's sweet reflective mood, lost in the tangled woods of his own fairyland. And if none preceded who were like him, none followed. Not in Dryden or Pope, not in Burns or Shelley, not in Wordsworth or Tennyson is heard again that clarion note of resolution and certitude, of fortitude and faith. The large utterance of the early gods" died with him and cannot be revived. Though without humour-the most repelling of defects-he retained his hold upon generations to whom humour was the breath of life; his intense religious fervour could not altogether discourage the rationalists, nor his radicalism wholly estrange the Tories. Addison devoted number after number of a society journal to an appreciation of Paradise Lost; Johnson, who hated Whig dogs, growled a full confession of his greatness; Landor, averse to all theology and particularly to Milton's, after a long and searching criticism of his faults, remarks to Southey, "Are we not somewhat like two little beggar boys, who forgetting that they are in tatters, sit noticing a few stains and rents in their father's raiment?" Dryden, the Restoration playwright, places him above both Homer and Virgil, Shelley ranks him third among the poets of the world.

Yet the Romantics have triumphed, and other qualities than his are the reigning qualities of art. Who now among the poets puts himself to school with Milton? To-day we have with us the ritual of the soul and its sorrows-" the dialogue of the mind with itself has commenced "; we have the wistful speculation, the vague desire, the frail wayward charm, the delicate nuance, the dim half-tones, "an exquisite faintness, une fadeur exquise." To the poésie intime they belong and you prefer them, le naïf, the strange, the subtle; you prefer the enchanted reverie.

You object that the beauty of Paradise Lost is outward, not shy, modest, sheltered, elusive, pensive. There is no answer to the objection. What you say, however, is true also of the Parthenon.




THE history of heroic poetry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, if we except Milton-a notable exception, indeed—is a chronicle of failure. So that in speaking of it one may be said to deal in the main with three classes of poems--those that never lived, those now dead, and those more dead than alive. Of these we may name as seventeenth-century examples, in the first class Cowley's Davideis, in the second Davenant's Gondibert, in the third Chamberlayne's Pharonnida. Cowley's, like Waller's, which also once stood high, is a vanished reputation. At one time, however, his shorter poems were admired, and a hundred years after his death Cowley still remained of sufficient importance for Johnson to write of him at length and with respect in one of the best, if not the best, of his "Lives." But his fame was not derived from his epic. "Whatever is said of Cowley," remarks Johnson, "is meant of his other works. Of the Davideis no mention is made; it never appears in books, nor emerges in conversation. By the Spectator it has been once quoted; by Rymer it has once been praised; and by Dryden in Mack Flecknoe, it has once been imitated; nor do I recollect much other notice from its publication till now, in the whole succession of English literature." The Davideis, a sacred poem of the Troubles of David, is practically destitute of any kind of interest. A very painstaking reader may undoubtedly discover in it some good lines, and even a few tolerable passages, but, unless he be very amiable, will probably feel himself insufficiently rewarded for his previous toils. The thought that the Davideis was left unfinished has never been the cause of pain. The pedestrian portions of the narrative are without offence, but

when Cowley attempts sublimity his unfitness for an epic undertaking is startlingly apparent. Here, for example, is how he describes Satan's disappointment with Saul—

"He trusted much in Saul, and rag'd and griev'd
(The great deceiver!) to be himself deceived,
Thrice did he knock his iron teeth, thrice howl,
And into frowns his wrathful forehead roll:

His eyes dart forth red flames, which scare the Night,
And with worse fires the trembling ghosts affright;
A troop of ghastly fiends compass him round,

And greedily catch at his lips' feared sound.


Are we such nothings then!' said he,' our will
Crost by a shepherd's boy! and you yet still
Play with your idle serpents here? dares none
Attempt what becomes furies? Are ye grown
Benumbed with fear, or virtue's spiritless cold,
You who were once (I'm sure) so brave and bold?
Oh! my ill-chang'd condition! oh, my fate!
Did I lose Heaven for this?'

With that with his long tail he lash'd his breast,
And horribly spoke out in looks the rest."

When he recalls the destruction of Pharaoh and his Egyptians he presents us with this picture

"In his gilt chariots ainaz'd fishes sat,

And grew with corpse of wretched princes fat:
The waves and rocks half eaten bodies stain;
Nor was it since call'd the Red Sea in vain."

"Cowley was not of God, and so he could not stand," said Rochester. But that he may not be judged by his worst- -a test too severe for most poets, Shakespeare himself, perhaps-we may add a passage of greater dignity, near the beginning of the first book

"Beneath the mighty ocean's wealthy caves,

Beneath the eternal fountain of all waves,
Where their vast court the mother waters keep,
And undisturb'd by moons in silence sleep;
There is a place, deep, wondrous deep, below,
Which genuine night and horror does o'erflow;
No bound controls th' unwearied space but Hell,
Endless as those dire pains that in it dwell,
Here no dear glimpse of the Sun's lovely face
Strikes through the solid darkness of the place;
No dawning morn does her kind reds display;
One slight weak beam would here be thought the day:
No gentle stars with their fair gems of light
Offend the tyrannous and unquestion'd Night." 1

Both Davenant and Chamberlayne have stronger claims upon

1 With the Davideis the curious may compare Prior's Solomon, in which the hero's thoughts not his acts are narrated by himself.


our attention than Cowley. Poetry which was once read excites greater interest and demands more respect than poetry which even its own age rejected. Or if that argument be disallowed, there remains another. These poets represent a very definite and curious type-the "heroic poem," as the term was understood by the seventeenth century, a type closely akin to the "heroic romance" and the "heroic play," which for a generation or two found an appreciative audience. It may be condemned, but it cannot be overlooked, unless we are willing to leave the seventeenth century, its ideals and aspirations, misunderstood. You may say Milton represents the century. He represents, undoubtedly, the spiritual side, the Puritan side. As its most perfect artist he represents too the sense of beauty, the golden legacy of the sixteenth century, in a measure unapproached by any other writer. But the later seventeenth century, emancipated from the Puritan strictness and constraint, bent upon pleasure, social in its aims, he does not represent. If we were to take Milton as the sole representative of his age, or Bunyan, how completely we should misconceive it!

The century which separates the England of Anne from the England of Elizabeth-though it may seem a strangely late date to assign-divides with distinctness modern from mediæval times. During the Civil War the deep change was somehow brought about, and one observes with interest how soon and how clearly the Augustans became conscious of it. Nowhere in the attitude of the latter age towards the former can we discern, as to us would seem proper, a sense of inferiority, everywhere is apparent rather a sense of high superiority. Hardly removed from it by more than a long lifetime, the men of Queen Anne's age thought of the Elizabethans as belonging to a remote and a barbaric past. A brief but sufficient exposition of their feelings appears in Addison's lines upon Spenser

"Old Spenser next, warmed with poetic rage,
In ancient tales amused a barbarous age;
An age that yet uncultivate and rude,
Where'er the poet's fancy led, pursued,
Through pathless fields and unfrequented floods.
To dens of dragons and enchanted woods.
But now the mystic tale, that pleased of yore,
Can charm an understanding age no more."

« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »