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or where he fancies the shores and sounding seas washing Lycidas far away; but it reaches its climax in the Paradise Lost. He produces his effects by dilating our imaginations with an impalpable hint rather than by concentrating them upon too precise particulars. Thus in a famous comparison of his, the fleet has no definite port, but plies stemming nightly toward the pole in a wide ocean of conjecture. He generalizes always instead of specifying,—the true secret of the ideal treatment in which he is without peer, and, though everywhere grandiose, he is never turgid. . . . Milton . . . is too wise to hamper himself with any statement for which he can be brought to book, but wraps himself in a mist of looming indefiniteness: —
He called so loud that all the hollow deep
thus amplifying more nobly by abstention from his usual method of prolonged evolution. No caverns, however spacious, will serve his turn, because they have limits. He could practise this self-denial when his artistic sense found it needful, whether for variety of verse or for the greater intensity of effect to be gained by abruptness. His more elaborate passages have the multitudinous roll of thunder, dying away to gather a sullen force again from its own reverberations, but he knew that the attention is recalled and arrested by those claps that stop short without echo and leave us listening. There are no such vistas and avenues of verse as his./ In reading the Paradise Lost one has a feeling of spaciousness such as no other poet gives. Milton's respect for himself and for his own mind rises well nigh to veneration. He prepares the way for his thought, and spreads on the ground before the sacred feet of his verse tapestries inwoven with figures of mythology and romance. There is no such unfailing dignity as his. . . . His sustained strength is especially felt in his beginnings. He seems always to start full-sail; the wind and tide always serve; there is never any fluttering of the canvas. . . . And the poem never becomes incoherent; we feel all through it, as in the symphonies of Beethoven, a great controlling reason in whose safe-conduct we trust implicitly. . . .
If there is one thing more striking than another in this poet, it is that his great and original imagination was almost wholly nourished by books, perhaps I should rather say set in motion by them. It is wonderful how, from the most withered and juiceless hint gathered in his reading, his grand images rise like an exhalation; how from the most battered old lamp caught in that huge drag-net with which he swept the waters of learning, he could conjure a tall genius to build his palaces. Whatever he touches swells and towers. That wonderful passage in Comus of the airy tongues, perhaps the most imaginative in suggestion he ever wrote, was conjured out of a dry sentence in Purchas's abstract of Marco Polo. Such examples help us to understand the poet. When I find that Sir Thomas Browne had said before Milton, that Adam 'was the wisest of all men since,' I am glad to find this link between the most profound and the most stately imagination of that age. Such parallels sometimes give a hint also of the historical development of our poetry, of its apostolical succession, so to speak. Every one has noticed Milton's fondness of sonorous proper names, which have not only an acquired imaginative value by association, and so serve to awaken our poetic sensibilities, but have likewise a merely musical significance. This he probably caught from Marlowe, traces of whom are frequent in him. . . .
Milton cannot certainly be taxed with any partiality for low words. He rather loved them tall, as the Prussian King loved men to be six feet high in their stockings, and fit to go into the grenadiers. He loved them as much for their music as for their meaning, — perhaps more. His style, therefore, when it has to deal with commoner things, is apt to grow a little cumbrous and unwieldy. A Persian poet says that when the owl would boast, he boasts of catching mice at the edge of a hole. Shakespeare would have understood this. Milton would have made him talk like an eagle. His influence is not to be left out of account as partially contributing to that decline toward poetic diction which was already beginning ere he died. If it would not be fair to say that he is the most artistic, he may be called in the highest sense the most scientific of our poets. If to Spenser younger poets have gone to be sung-to, they have sat at the feet of Milton to be taught. ...
It results from the almost scornful withdrawal of Milton into the fortress of his absolute personality that no great poet is so uniformly self-conscious as he. We should say of Shakespeare that he had the power of transforming himself into everything; of Milton, that he had that of transforming everything into himself.
FROM THE IMAGINARY CONVERSATIONS (SOCTHEY AND LANDOR).
Both in epic and dramatic poetry, it is action, and not moral, that is first demanded. The feelings and exploits of the principal agent should excite the principal interest. The two greatest of human compositions are here defective — I mean the Iliad and Paradise Lost. Agamemnon is leader of the confederate Greeks before Troy, to avenge the cause of Menelaus; yet not only Achilles and Diomed on his side, but Hector and Sarpedon on the opposite, interest us more than the 'king of men,' the avenger, or than his brother, the injured prince, about whom they all are fighting. In the Paradise Lost no principal character seems to have been intended. There is neither truth nor wit, however, in saying that Satan is hero of the piece, unless,' as is usually the case in human life, he is the greatest hero who gives the widest sway to the worst passions. It is Adam who acts and suffers most, and on whom the1 consequences have most influence. This constitutes him the main character; although Eve is the more interesting, Satan the more energetic, and on whom the greater force of poetry is displayed. The Creator and his angels are quite secondary. . . .
Such stupendous genius, so much fancy, so much eloquence, so much vigor of intellect, never were united as in Paradise Lost. Yet it is neither so correct nor so varied as the Iliad, nor, however important the action, so interesting. The moral itself is the reason why it wearies even those who insist on the necessity of it. Founded on an event believed by nearly all nations, certainly by all who read the poem, it lays down a principle which concerns every man's welfare, and a fact which every man's experience confirms, — that great and irremediable misery may arise from apparently small offences. But will any one say that, in a poetical view, our certainty of moral truth in this position is an equivalent for the uncertainty which of the agents is what critics call the hero of the piece? . . .
After I have been reading the Paradise Lost, I can take up no other poet with satisfaction. I seem to have left the music of Handel for the music of the streets, or at best for drums and fifes. Although in Shakespeare there are occasional bursts of harmony no less sublime, yet, if there were many such in continuation, it would be hurtful, not only in comedy, but also in tragedy. The greater part should be equable and conversational. For, if the excitement were the same at the beginning, the middle, and the end; if consequently (as must be the case) the language and versification were equally elevated throughout; any long poem would be a bad one, and worst of all, a drama. |in our English heroic verse, such as Milton has composed it, there is a much greater variety of feet, of movement, of musical notes and bars, than in the Greek heroic; and the final sounds are incomparably more diversified. My predilection in youth was on the side of Homer; for I had read the Iliad twice, and the Odyssea once, before the Paradise Lost. Averse as I am to every thing relating to theology, and especially to the view of it thrown open by this poem, I recur to it incessantly as the noblest specimen in the world of eloquence, harmony, and genius. . . .
i A rib of Shakespeare would have made a Milton; the same portion of Milton, all poets born ever since.
FROM THE ESSAY ON MILTON.
If to our English race an inadequate sense for perfection of work is a real danger, if the discipline of respect for a high and flawless excellence is peculiarly needed by us, Milton is of all our gifted men the best lesson, the most salutary influence. In the sure and flawless perfection of his rhythm and diction he is as admirable as Virgil and Dante, and in this respect he is unique amongst us. No one else in English literature and art possesses the like distinction.
Thomson, Cowper, Wordsworth, all of them good poets who