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BORN, 1608,—DIED, 1674.
It is difficult to know what to do with some of the finest passages in Milton's great poem. To treat the objectionable points of their story as mythological, might be thought irreverent to opi. nion ; and to look upon them in the light in which he at first wished us to regard them (for he is understood to have changed his own opinions of it), involves so much irreverence towards the greatest of beings, that it is painful to seem to give them counte
The difficulty is increased in a volume of the present kind, which is intended to give the reader no perplexity, except to know what to admire most. I have therefore thought it best to confine the extracts from Paradise Lost to unconnected passages; and the entire ones to those poems which he wrote when a happy youth, undegenerated into superstition. The former will still include his noblest flights of imagination: the rest are ever fresh, true, and delightful.
Milton was a very great poet, second only (if second) to the very greatest, such as Dante and Shakspeare ; and, like all great poets, equal to them in particular instances. He had no pretensions to Shakspeare's universality; his wit is dreary; and (in general) he had not the faith in things that Homer and Dante had, apart from the intervention of words. He could not let them speak for themselves without helping them with his learning. In all he did, after a certain period of youth (not to speak it irreverently), something of the schoolmaster is visible; and a gloomy religious creed removes him still farther from the universal gratitude and delight of mankind. He is understood, however, as I have just intimated, to have given this up before he died. He had then run the circle of his knowledge, and probably come round to the wiser, more cheerful, and more poetical beliefs of his childhood.
In this respect, Allegro and Penseroso are the happiest of his productions; and in none is the poetical habit of mind more abundantly visible. They ought to precede the Lycidas (not unhurt with theology) in the modern editions of his works, as they did in the collection of minor poems made by himself. Paradise Lost is a study for imagination and elaborate musical structure. Take almost any passage, and a lecture might be read from it on contrasts and pauses, and other parts of metrical harmony; while almost every word has its higher poetical meaning and intensity ; but all is accompanied with a certain oppressiveness of ambitious and conscious power. In the Allegro and Penseroso, &c., he is in better spirits with all about him ; his eyes had not grown dim, nor his soul been forced inwards by disappointment into a proud self-esteem, which he narrowly escaped erecting into self-worship. He loves nature, not for the power he can get out of it, but for the pleasure it affords him; he is at peace with town as well as country, with courts and cathedral. windows; goes to the play and laughs; to the village-green and dances; and his study is placed, not in the Old Jewry, but in an airy tower, from whence he good-naturedly hopes that his candle—I beg pardon, his “lamp,” for he was a scholar from the first, though not a Puritan-may be “ seen” by others. His mirth, it is true, is not excessively merry. It is, as Warton says, the “ dignity of mirth ;" but it is happy, and that is all that is to be desired. The mode is not to be dictated by the mode of others; nor would it be so interesting if it were.
The more a man is himself the better, provided he add a variation to the stock of comfort, and not of sullenness. Milton was born in a time of great changes; and in the order of events and the working of good out of ill, we are bound to be grateful to what was of a mixed nature in himself, without arrogating for him that exemption from the mixture which belongs to no man. the same principle on which nature herself loves joy better than grief, health than disease, and a general amount of welfare than the reverse (urging men towards it where it does not prevail, and mak. ing many a form of discontent itself but a mode of pleasure and
self-esteem), so Milton's great poem never has been, and never can be popular (sectarianism apart) compared with his minor ones; nor does it, in the very highest sense of popularity, deserve to be. It does not work out the very piety it proposes; and the piety which it does propose wants the highest piety of an intelligible charity and reliance. Hence a secret preference for his minor poems among many of the truest and selectest admirers of Paradise Lost,-perhaps with all who do not admire power in any shape above truth in the best; hence Warton's fond edition of them, delightful for its luxurious heap of notes and parallel passages; and hence the pleasure of being able to extract the finest of them, without misgiving, into a volume like the present.
SATAN'S RECOVERY FROM HIS DOWNFALL.
He scarce had ceas’d, when the superior Fiend
And broken chariot wheels : so thick bestrown,
THE FALLEN ANGELS GATHERED AGAIN TO WAR.
All these and more came flocking ; but with looks
A shout, that tore Hell's concave, and beyond