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state, their affection is tender without weakness, and their piety sublime without presumption. When they have sinned, they show how discord begins in mutual frailty, and how it ought to cease in mutual forbearance; how confidence of the divine favour is forfeited by sin; and how hope of pardon may be obtained by penitence and prayer. A state of innocence we can only conceive, if, indeed, in our present misery, it be possible to conceive it; but the sentiments and worship proper to a fallen and offending being, we have all to learn, as we have all to practise.
The poet, whatever be done, is always great. Our progenitors, in their first state,conversed with angels; even when folly and sin had degraded them, they had not, in their humiliation, “the port of mean suitors;” and they rise again to reverential regard, when we find that their prayers were heard.
As human passions did not enter the world, before the fall, there is, in the Paradise Lost, little opportunity for the pathetick; but what little there is has not been lost. That passion which is peculiar to rational nature, the anguish arising from the consciousness of transgression, and the horrours attending the sense of the divine displeasure, are very justly described and forcibly impressed. But the passions are moved only on one occasion; sublimity is the general and prevailing quality of this poem; sublimity variously modified, sometimes descriptive, sometimes argumentative.
The defects and faults of Paradise Lost, for faults and defects every work of man must have, it is the
business of impartial criticism to discover. As, in displaying the excellence of Milton, I have not made long quotations, because of selecting beauties there had been no end, I shall, in the same general manner, mention that which seems to deserve censure; for what Englishman can take delight in transcribing passages, which, if they lessen the reputation of Milton, diminish, in some degree, the honour of our country?
The generality of my scheme does not admit the frequent notice of verbal inaccuracies; which Bentley, perhaps, better skilled in grammar than in poetry, has often found, though he sometimes made them, and which he imputed to the obtrusions of a reviser, whom the author's blindness obliged him to employ; a supposition rash and groundless, if he thought it true; and vile and pernicious, if, as is said, he, in private, allowed it to be false.
The plan of Paradise Lost has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners". The man and woman who act and suffer are in a state which no other man or woman can ever know. The reader finds no transaction in which he can be engaged; beholds no condition in which he can, by any effort of imagination, place himself; he has, therefore, little natural curiosity or sympathy.
We all, indeed, feel the effect of Adam's disobedience; we all sin, like Adam, and, like him, must all bewail our offences; we have restless and insidi
mBut, says Dr. Warton, it has, throughout, a reference to human life and actions. C.
ous enemies in the fallen angels; and in the blessed spirits we have guardians and friends; in the redemption of mankind we hope to be included; and in the description of heaven and hell we are, surely, interested, as we are all to reside, hereafter, either in the regions of horrour or of bliss.
But these truths are too important to be new; they have been taught to our infancy; they have mingled with our solitary thoughts and familiar conversations, and are habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life. Being, therefore, not new, they raise no unaccustomed emotion in the mind; what we knew before, we cannot learn; what is not unexpected, cannot surprise.
Of the ideas suggested by these awful scenes, from some we recede with reverence, except when stated hours require their association;and from others we shrink with horrour, or admit them only as salutary inflictions, as counterpoises to our interests and passions. Such images rather obstruct the career of fancy than incite it.
Pleasure and terrour are, indeed, the genuine sources of poetry; but poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can, at least, conceive; and poetical terrour, such as human strength and fortitude may combat. The good and evil of eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit; the mind sinks under them, in passive helplessness, content with calm belief and humble adoration.
Known truths, however, may take a different appearance, and be conveyed to the mind by a new
train of intermediate images. This Milton has undertaken, and performed with pregnancy and vigour of mind peculiar to himself. Whoever considers the few radical positions which the scriptures afforded him, will wonder by what energetick operation he expanded them to such extent, and ramified them to so much variety, restrained, as he was, by religious reverence from licentiousness of fiction.
Here is a full display of the united force of study and genius; of a great accumulation of materials, with judgment to digest, and fancy to combine them: Milton was able to select from nature or from story, from ancient fable or from modern science, whatever could illustrate or adorn his thoughts. An accumulation of knowledge impregnated his mind, fermented by study, and exalted by imagination.
It has been, therefore, said, without an indecent hyperbole, by one of his encomiasts, that in reading Paradise Lost, we read a book of universal knowledge.
But original deficience cannot be supplied. The want of human interest is always felt. Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions.
Another inconvenience of Milton's design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described, the agency of spirits. He saw that immateri.
ality supplied no images, and that he could not show angels acting but by instruments of action; he, therefore, invested them with form and matter. This, being necessary, was, therefore, defensible; and he should have secured the consistency of his system, by keeping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts. But he has, unhappily, perplexed his poetry with his philosophy. His infernal and celestial powers are sometimes pure spirit, and sometimes animated body. When Satan walks with his lance upon the “burning marl,” he has a body; when, in his passage between hell and the new world, he is in danger of sinking in the vacuity, and is supported by a gust of rising vapours, he has a body; when he animates the toad, he seems to be mere spirit, that can penetrate matter at pleasure; when he starts “up in his own shape, he has, at least, a determined form; and, when he is brought before Gabriel, he has " a spear and a shield,” which he had the power of hiding in the toad, though the arms of the contending angels are evidently material.
The vulgar inhabitants of Pandæmonium, being “incorporeal spirits,” are “at large, though without number,” in a limited space: yet, in the battle, when they were overwhelmed by mountains, their armour hurt them,“crushed in upon their substance, now grown gross by sinning.” This, likewise, happened to the uncorrupted angels, who were overthrown the “sooner for their arms, for unarmed they might easily, as spirits, have evaded by contraction or remove.” Even as spirits they are hardly spiritual;