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CRITIQUE ON MILTON'S PARADISE LOST. (No. 291).
I HAVE now considered Milton's Paradise Lost under those four great heads of the fable, the characters, the sentiments, and the language; and have shown that he excels, in general, under each of these heads. I hope that I have made several discoveries which may appear new, even to those who are versed in critical learning. Were I indeed to choose my readers, by whose judgment I would stand or fall, they should not be such as are acquainted only with the French and Italian critics, but also with the ancient and modern who have written in either of the learned languages. Above all, I would have them well versed in the Greek and Latin poets, without which a man very often fancies that he understands a critic, when in reality he does not comprehend his meaning. It is in criticism as in all other sciences and speculations: one who brings with him any implicit motions and observations, which he has made in his reading of the poets, will find his own reflections methodised and explained, and perhaps several little hints that had passed in his mind, perfected and improved in the works of a good critic; whereas one who has not these previous lights is very often an utter stranger to what he reads, and apt to put a wrong interpretation upon it. Nor is it sufficient that a man, who sets up for a judge in criticism, should have perused the authors above-mentioned, unless he has also a clear and logical head. Without this talent he is perpetually puzzled and perplexed amidst his own blunders, mistakes the sense of those he would confute, or, if he chances to think right, does not know how to convey his thoughts to another with clearness and perspicuity. Aristotle, who was the best critic, was also one of the best logicians that ever appeared in the world. Mr. Locke's Essay on Human Understanding would be thought a very odd book for a man to make himself master of, who would get a reputation by critical writings; though at the same time it is very certain that an author, who has not learned the art of distinguishing between words and things, and of ranging his thoughts and setting them in proper lights, whatever notions he may have, will lose himself in confusion and obscurity. I might further observe that there is not a Greek or Latin critic, who has not shown, even in the style of his criticisms, that he was a master of all the elegance and delicacy of his native tongue.
The truth of it is, there is nothing more absurd than for a man to set up for a critic, without a good insight into all the parts of learning; whereas many of those who have endeavoured to signalise themselves by works of this nature, among our English writers, are not only defective in the above-mentioned particulars, but plainly discover, by the phrases which they make use of, and by their confused way of thinking, that they are not acquainted with the most common and ordinary systems of arts and sciences. A few general rules extracted out of the French authors, with a certain cant of words, has sometimes set up an illiterate heavy writer for a most judicious and formidable critic.
One great mark, by which you may discover a critic who has neither taste nor learning, is this, that he seldom ventures to praise any passage in an author which has not been before received and applauded by the public, and that his criticism turns wholly upon little faults and errors. This part of a critic is so very easy to succeed in, that we find every ordinary reader, upon the publishing of a new poem, has wit and ill-nature enough to turn several passages of it into ridicule, and very often in the right place. This Mr. Dryden has very agreeably remarked in those two celebrated lines;
“Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow :
A true critic ought to dwell rather upon excellencies than imperfections, to discover the concealed beauties of a writer, and communicate to the world such things as are worth their observation. The most exquisite words and finest strokes of an author are those which very often appear the most doubtful and exceptionable to a man who wants a
relish for polite learning; and they are these which a sour undistinguishing critic generally attacks with the greatest violence. Tully observes, that it is very easy to brand or fix a mark upon what he calls verbum ardens, or, as it may be rendered into English, “a glowing bold expression,” and to turn it into ridicule by a cold ill-natured criticism. A little wit is equally capable of exposing a beauty and of aggravating a fault; and though such a treatment of an author naturally produces indignation in the mind of an understanding reader, it has however its effect among the generality of those whose hands it falls into, the rabble of mankind being very apt to think that every thing which is laughed at, with any mixture of wit, is ridiculous in itself. Such a mirth as this is always unseasonable in a critic, as it rather prejudices the reader than convinces him, and is capable of making a beauty, as well as a blemish, the subject of derision. A man who cannot write with wit on a proper subject is dull and stupid; but one who shows it in an improper place is as impertinent and absurd. Besides, a man who has the gift of ridicule is apt to find fault with any thing that gives him an opportunity of exerting his beloved talent, and very often censures a passage, not because there is any fault in it, but because he can be merry upon it. Such kinds of pleasantry are very unfair and disingenuous in works of criticism, in which the greatest masters, both ancient and modern, have always appeared with a serious and instructive air. As I intend in my next paper to show the defects in Milton's Paradise Lost, I thought fit to premise these few particulars, to the end that the reader may know I enter upon it as on a very ungrateful work, and that I shall just point at the imperfections without endeavouring to inflame them with ridicule. I must also observe with Longinus, that the productions of a great genius, with many lapses and inadvertencies, are infinitely preferable to the works of an inferior kind of author, which are scrupulously exact, and conformable to all the rules of correct writing. I shall conclude my paper with a story out of Boccalini, which sufficiently shows us the opinion that judicious author entertained of the sort of critics I have been here mentioning. “A famous critic (says he), having gathered together all the faults of an eminent poet, made a present of them to Apollo, who received them very graciously, and resolved to make the author a suitable return for the trouble he had been at in collecting them. In order to this, he set before him a sack of wheat, as it had been just thrashed out of the sheaf. He then bid him pick out the chaff from among the corn, and lay it aside by itself. The critic applied himself to the task with great industry and pleasure, and, after having made the due separation, was presented by Apollo with the chaff for his pains.” ADDISON.
CRITIQUE ON MILTON'S PARADISE LOST. (No. 297).
AFTER what I have said in my last Saturday's paper, I shall enter on the subject of this without further preface, and remark the several defects which appear in the fable, the characters, the sentiments and the language of Milton's Paradise Lost; not doubting but the reader will pardon me, if I allege at the same time whatever may be said for the extenuation of such defects. The first imperfection which I shall observe in the fable is, that the event of it is unhappy.
The fable of every poem is, according to Aristotle's division, either simple or implea. It is called simple when there is no change of fortune in it; implea, when the fortune of the chief actor changes from bad to good, or from good to bad. The implex fable is thought the most perfect; I suppose, because it is more proper to stir up the passions of the reader, and to surprise him with a greater variety of accidents.
The implex fable is therefore of two kinds: in the first the chief actor makes his way through a long series of dangers and difficulties, until he arrives at honour and prosperity, as we see in the stories of Ulysses and AEneas. In the second, the chief actor in the poem falls from some eminent pitch of honour and prosperity, into misery and disgrace. Thus we see Adam and Eve sinking from a state of innocence and happiness, into the most abject condition of sin and sorrow. The most taking tragedies among the ancients were built on this last sort of implex fable, particularly the tragedy of CEdipus, which proceeds upon a story, if we may believe Aristotle, the most proper for tragedy that could be invented by the wit of man. I have taken some pains in a former paper to show that this kind of implex fable, wherein the event is unhappy, is more apt to affect an audience than that of the first kind, notwithstanding many excellent pieces among the ancients, as well as most of those which have been written of late years in our own country, are raised upon contrary plans. I must however own, that I think this kind of fable, which is the most perfect in tragedy, is not so proper for a heroic poem. Milton seems to have been sensible of this imperfection in his fable, and has therefore endeavoured to cure it by several expedients; particularly by the mortification which the great adversary of mankind meets with upon his return to the assembly of infernal spirits, as it is described in a beautiful passage of the tenth book; and likewise by the vision wherein Adam, at the close of the poem, sees his offspring triumphing over his great enemy, and himself restored to a happier paradise than that from which he fell. There is another objection against Milton's fable, which is indeed almost the same with the former, though placed in a different light, namely,–that the hero in the Paradise Lost is unsuccessful, and by no means a match for his enemies. This gave occasion to Mr. Dryden's reflection, that the devil was in reality Milton's hero. I think I have obviated this objection in my first paper. The Paradise Lost is an epic or a narrative poem, and he that looks for a hero in it, searches for that which Milton never intended ; but if he will needs fix the name of a hero upon any person in it, it is certainly the Messiah who is the hero, both in the principal action and in the chief episodes. Paganism could not furnish out a real action for a fable greater than WOL. II. O