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and the noblest poem of any age or country was in danger of sinking into oblivion, when Addison stepped forth to bind the laurel on the brow of the poet, and to avert the reproach which menaced the reputation of Britain.
The mode, however, which our author adopted for the illustration of this admirable poem, has been censured by some modern critics of great acuteness and celebrity, though, in my opinion, without due allowance for the period in which the critique was produced, and for the circumstances necessary to render it effective. They appear to have formed the extravagant expectation, that, at an era when criticism was just rising into notice, and when, to render such a work as Milton's popular, it was, in the first place, essential to awaken the feelings and the taste of the people, Addison should have embraced the philosophical tone, the metaphysical research which distinguishes the present age; in fact, that, instead of merely pointing out the beauties and defects of the poem upon which he was commenting, he should have entered at large into the causes of grandeur, sublimity, pathos, &c.
Dr. Hurd, the most distinguished of our philosophical critics, after describing the plan which Longinus, Bouhours, and Addison pursued, ob
serves, as in sound criticism, candour must not be indulged at the expence of justice, I think myself obliged to add an observation concerning their defects; and that on what I must think the just principles here delivered. Though the me thod taken by these writers be scientifical, the real service they have done to criticism is not very considerable; and the reason is, they dwell too much in generals; that is, not only the genus to which they refer their species is too large, but those very subordinate species themselves are too comprehensive. Of the three critics under consideration, the most instructive is, unquestionably, Longinus. The genus itself, under which he ranks his several classes, is as particular as the species of the other two. Yet even his classes are much too general to convey any very distinct and useful information. It had been still better if this fine critic had descended to lower and more minute particularities, as subordinate to each class. For to observe of any sentiment, that it is grand or pathetic, and so of the other species of sublime, is saying very little. Few readers want to be informed of this. It had been sufficient, if any notice was to be taken at all of so general beauties, to have done it in the
way of the best critics have taken, of merely pointing
to them. But could he have discovered and produced to observation those peculiar qualities in sentiment, which occasion the impression of grandeur, pathos, &c. this had been advancing the science of criticism very much, as tending to lay open the more secret and hidden springs of that pleasure which results from poetical composition.
“ It gives one pain to refuse to such a writer as Mr. Addison any kind of merit, which he appears to have valued himself upon, and which the generality of his readers have seemed willing to allow him. Yet it must not be dissembled, that criticism was by no means his talent. His taste was truly elegant; but he had neither that vigour of understanding, nor chastised philosophical spirit, which are so essential to this character, and which we find in hardly any of the ancients besides Aristotle, and but in a very few of the moderns. For what concerns his criticism on Milton in particular, there was this accidental benefit arising from it, that it occasioned an admirable poet to be read, and his excellencies to be observed. But for the merit of the work itself, if there be any thing just in the plan, it was because Aristotle and Bossu had taken the same route before him. And as to his own proper observations, they are, for the most part, so general and indeterminate, as to afford but little instruc. tion to the reader, and are, not unfrequently, altogether frivolous *.»
Had our author pursued the plan which this learned critic has chalked out; had he written with the metaphysical acumen of a Harris or a Campbell, the gloom wbich overshadowed Milton had not been dispersed, nor would he himself have been intelligible to the bulk of his contemporaries. Addison, in fact, did that which a correct taste and sound sense dictated ;
very justly thought it necessary, in the first place, at a period when the very principles of criticism had been little diffused, and the public mind but just awakened to a sense of its previous grossness and deficiencies, to allure and fix the reader by short and elegant essays on the beauties and composition of the poet that he was endeavouring to familiarize : to have philosophized on the qualities which occasioned the impressions of grandeur, sublimity, &c. he must necessarily have perceived, had he been ever so competent to the undertaking, would, owing to the unprepared state of society, and the want of a proper audi. ence, have been useless and absurd.
The censure of Dr. Hurd appears to have arisen from a misconception as to the motive of Addison in publishing his critique. To cause Milton to be read and admired was not, as the Doctor supposes, the accidental benefit of his criticism, but its sole aim and purport. The means were admirably adapted to the end ; no tedious disquisition, no recondite theory disgusted him who turned to the Spectator for interest and amusement; all was elegant and pleasing, and the very papers that we are noticing, though embracing a department of literature, generally esteemed dry and repulsive, became, from the fascinating garb in which they were dressed, the most popular of the collection. Their author had the satisfaction of contemplating the success of his labours. Milton became a permanent favourite with the public; and the national taste underwent an amelioration from this event, which has been progressively increasing to the present times,
* Hurd's Notes on the Epistle to Augustus, vol. ii. p. 112, 113, 114, 5th edition.
The judgment of Addison in the plan that he adopted with regard to Milton, is the more to be commended, as he has elsewhere shewn himself capable of entering into the spirit of philosophical criticism with an acuteness and precision in that age totally unprecedented.
It is worthy of remark, however, that those who have blamed our author as totally defective in the philosophy of criticism, have entirely overlooked the work in which he has admirably exhibited