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It is on this project that Beelzebub grounds his proposal:
“—What if we find
The reader may observe how just it was, not to omit in the first book the project upon which the whole poem turns: as also that the prince of the fallen angels was the only proper person to give it birth, and that the next to him in dignity was the fittest to second and support it.
There is besides, I think, something wonderfully beautiful, and very apt to affect the reader's imagination, in this ancient prophecy or report in heaven, concerning the creation of man. Nothing could show more the dignity of the species, than this tradition which ran of them before their existence. They are represented to have been the talk of heaven before they were created. Virgil, in compliment to the Roman commonwealth, makes the heroes of it appear in their state of pre-existence: but Milton does a far greater honour to mankind in general, as he gives us a glimpse of them even before they are in being.
The rising of this great assembly is described in a very sublime and poetical manner:
“Their rising all at once was as the sound
The diversions of the fallen angels, with the particular account of their place of habitation, are described with great pregnancy of thought and copiousness of invention. The diversions are every way suitable to beings who had nothing left them but strength and knowledge misapplied. Such are their contentions at the race, and in feats of arms, with their entertainments, in the following lines:—
WOL. II. P
“Others, with vast Typhoean rage more fell,
Their music is employed in celebrating their own criminal exploits, and their discourse in sounding the unfathomable depths of fate, free-will, and fore-knowledge.
The several circumstances in the description of hell are finely imagined; as the four rivers which disgorge themselves into the sea of fire, the extremes of cold and heat, and the river of oblivion. The monstrous animals produced in that infernal world are represented by a single line, which gives us a more horrid idea of them than a much
longer description would have done.
This episode of the fallen spirits, and their place of habitation, comes in very happily to unbend the mind of the reader from its attention to the debate. An ordinary poet would indeed have spun out so many circumstances to a great length, and by that means have weakened, instead of illustrated, the principal fable.
The flight of Satan to the gates of hell is finely imagined.
I have already declared my opinion of the allegory concerning Sin and Death, which is, however, a very finished piece in its kind, when it is not considered as a part of an epic poem. The genealogy of the several persons is contrived with great delicacy. Sin is the daughter of Satan, and Death the offspring of Sin. The incestuous mixture between Sin and Death produces those monsters and hellhounds which from time to time enter into their mother, and tear the bowels of her who gave them birth. These are the terrors of an evil conscience, and the proper fruits of Sin, which naturally rise from the apprehensions of Death. This last beautiful moral is, I think, clearly intimated in the speech of Sin, where, complaining of this her dreadful issue, she adds,
“Before mine eyes in opposition sits
I need not mention to the reader the beautiful circumstance in the last part of this quotation. He will likewise observe how naturally the three persons concerned in this allegory are tempted by one common interest to enter into a confederacy together, and how properly Sin is made the portress of hell, and the only being that can open the gates to that world of tortures.
The descriptive part of this allegory is likewise very strong, and full of sublime ideas. The figure of Death, the regal crown upon his head, his menace of Satan, his advancing to the combat, the outcry at his birth, are circumstances too noble to be passed over in silence, and extremely suitable to this King of Terrors. I need not mention the justness of thought which is observed in the generation of these several symbolical persons; that Sin was produced upon the first revolt of Satan, that Death appeared soon after he was cast into hell, and that the terrors of conscience were conceived at the gate of this place of torments. The description of the gates is very poetical, as the opening of them is full of Milton's spirit:
- On a sudden open fly
In Satan's voyage through the chaos there are several
imaginary persons described, as residing in that immense
waste of matter. This may perhaps be conformable to the
taste of those critics who are pleased with nothing in a poet
which has not life and manners ascribed to it; but, for my own part, I am pleased most with those passages in this description which carry in them a greater measure of probability, and are such as might possibly have happened. Of this kind is his first mounting in the smoke that rises from the infernal pit, his falling into a cloud of nitre, and the like combustible materials, that by their explosion still hurried him forward in his voyage; his springing upward like a pyramid of fire, with his laborious passage through that confusion of elements which the poet calls
“The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave.”
The glimmering light which shot into the chaos from the utmost verge of the creation, with the distant discovery of the earth that hung close by the moon, are wonderfully beautiful and poetical. ADDISON.
CRITIQUE ON MILTON'S PARADISE LOST. (No. 315).
HoRACE advises a poet to consider thoroughly the nature and force of his genius. Milton seems to have known perfectly well wherein his strength lay, and has therefore chosen a subject entirely conformable to those talents of which he was master. As his genius was wonderfully turned to the sublime, his subject is the noblest that could have entered into the thoughts of man. Everything that is truly great and astonishing has a place in it. The whole system of the intellectual world; the chaos, and the creation; heaven, earth, and hell; enter into the constitution of his poem. Having in the first and second books represented the infernal world with all its horrors, the thread of his fable naturally leads him into the opposite regions of bliss and glory. If Milton's majesty forsakes him any where, it is in those parts of his poem where the divine persons are introduced as speakers. One may, I think, observe, that the author proceeds with a kind of fear and trembling, whilst he
describes the sentiments of the Almighty. He dares not give his imagination its full play, but chooses to confine himself to such thoughts as are drawn from the books of the most orthodox divines, and to such expressions as may be met with in Scripture. The beauties, therefore, which we are to look for in these speeches, are not of a poetical nature, nor so proper to fill the mind with sentiments of grandeur as with thoughts of devotion. The passions which they are designed to raise, are a divine love and religious fear. The particular beauty of the speeches in the third book consists in that shortness and perspicuity of style in which the poet has couched the greatest mysteries of Christianity, and drawn together, in a regular scheme, the whole dispensation of Providence with respect to man. He has represented all the abstruse doctrines of predestination, free-will and grace, as also the great points of incarnation and redemption, (which naturally grow up in a poem that treats of the fall of man.) with great energy of expression, and in a clearer and stronger light than I ever met with in any other writer. As these points are dry in themselves to the generality of readers, the concise and clear manner in which he has treated them is very much to be admired, as is likewise that particular art which he has made use of in the interspersing of all those graces of poetry which the subject was capable of receiving. The survey of the whole creation, and of every thing that is transacted in it, is a prospect worthy of Omniscience; and as much above that in which Virgil has drawn his Jupiter, as the Christian idea of the Supreme Being is more rational and sublime than that of the heathens. The particular objects on which he is described to have cast his eye are represented in the most beautiful and lively manner:
“Now had the Almighty Father from above