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THE HENRIADE OF VOLTAIRE.
THE Henriade is, without doubt, a regular epic poem. In several places of this work, Voltaire discovers that boldness of conception, that vivacity and liveliness of expression, by which he is so much distinguished. Several of his comparisons are new and happy. But the Henriade is not his masterpiece. In the tragic line he has certainly been more successful than in the epic. French versification is illy suited to epic poetry. It is not only fettered by rhyme, but wants elevation. Hence, not only feebleness, but sometimes prosaic flatness in the style. The poem consequently languishes; and the reader is not animated by that spirit which is inspired by a sublime composition of the epic kind.
The triumph of Henry IV. over the arms of the League, is the subject of the Henriade. The action of the poem properly includes only the siege of Paris. It is an action perfectly epic; and conducted with due regard to unity, and to the rules of critics. But it has great defects. It is founded on civil wars; and presents to the mind those 'odious objects, massacres and assassinations. It is also of too recent date, and too much within the bounds of well known history. The author has farther erred by mixing fiction with truth. The poem, for instance, opens with a voyage of Henry's to England, and an interview between him and Queen Elizabeth; though Henry never saw England, nor ever conversed with Elizabeth. In subjects of such notoriety, a fiction of this kind shocks every intelligent reader.
A great deal of machinery is employed by
Voltaire ; for the purpose of embellishing his poem. But it is of the worst kind, that of alles gorical beings. Discord, cunning, and love, appear as personages, and mix with human actors. This is contrary to all rational criticism. Ghosts, angels, and devils, have a popular existence; but every one knows that allegorical beings are no more than representations of human passions and dispositions; and ought not to have place, as actors, in a poem which relates to human transactions.
In justice, however, it must be observed, that the machinery of St. Louis possesses real dignity. The prospect of the invisible world, which St. Louis gives to Henry in a dream, is the finest passage in the Henriade. Death bringing the souls of the departed in succession before God, and the palace of the destinies opened to Henry, are striking and magnificent objects.
Though some of Voltaire's episodes are properly extended, his narration is too general. The events are superficially related, and too much crowded. The strain of sentiment, however, which peryades the Hepriade, is high and noble
MILTON'S PARADISE LOST. Milton chalk el out a new and very extraordinary course. As soon as we open his Paradise Lost, we are introduced into an invisible world, and surrounded by celestial and infernal beings. Angels and devils are not bis machinery, but his principal actors. What in any other work would be the marvellous, is in this the natural course of events ; and doubts may arise, whether his poem be strictly an epic composition. But whether it be so or not, it is certainly one of the bighest efforts of poetical genius; and in one great characteristic of epic poetry, majesty and sublimity, is equal to any that bears this name.
The subject of his poem led Milton opon difficult ground. If it had been more human and less theological; if his ocurrences had been more connected with real life; if he had afforded a greater display of the characters and passions of men; his poem would have been more pleasing to most readers. His subject, however, was peculiarly suited to the daring sublimity of his genius. As he alone was fitted for it, so he has shown in the conduct of it a wonderful stretch of imagination and invention. From a few hints, given in the sacred scriptures, he has raised a regular structure, and filled his poem with a variety of incidents. He is sometimes dry and harsh; and too often the metaphysician and divine. But the general tenor of his work is interesting, elevated, and affecting. The artful change of his objects, and the scene, laid now in heaven, now on earth, and now in hell, afford sufficient diversity; while unity of plan is perfectly supported. Calm scenes are exhibited in the employments of Adam and Eve, in Paradise; and busy scenes, and great actions in the enterprises of Satan, and in the wars of angels. The amiable innocence of our First Parents, and the proud ambition of Satan, alford a happy contrast through the whole poem, which gives it an uncommon charm. But the conclusion perhaps iş too tragic for epic poetry,
The subject naturally admits no great display of characters; but such, as could be introduced, are properly supported. Satan makes a striking figure; and is the best drawn character in the poem. Wilton has artfully given bim a mixed character, not altogether void of some good qualities. He is brave, and faithful to his troops. Amid bis impiety he is not without remorse. He is even touched with pity for our First Parents; and from the necessity of his situation justifies bis design against them. He is actuated by ambition and resentment, rather than by pure malice. The characters of Belzebub, Moloch, and Belial, are well painted. The good angels, though described with digoity, have more uniformity of character. Among them, however, the mild condescension of Raphael and the tried fidelity of Abdiel form proper characteristic distinctions. The attempt to describe God Almighty himself, was too bold, and accordingly most unsuccessful. The innocence of our First Parents is delicately painted. In some speeches, perhaps Adam appears too knowing and refined for his situation. Eve is hit off more happily. Her gentleness, modesty, and frailty, are expressively characteristic of the female character.
Milton's great and distinguishing excellence is his sublimity. In this, perhaps he excels even Homer. The first and second books of Paradise Lost are almost a continued series of the highest sublime. But, his sublimity differs from that of Homer; which is always accompanied by impetuosity and fire. The sublime of Milton is a calm and amazing grandeur. Homer warms and hur. ries us along; Milton fixes us in a state of ele. vation and astonishment. Homer's sublimity appears most in bis description of actions; Milton's in that of wonderful and stupendous objects.
But, wbile Milton excels most in sublimity, his work abounds in the beautiful, the pleasing, and the tender. When the scene is in Paradise, the imagery is gay and smiling. His descriptions show a fertile imagination; and in his similes he is remarkably happy. If faulty, it is from their too frequent allusions to matters of learning, and to ancient fables. It must also be confessed, that there is a falling off in the latter part of Paradise Lost.
The language and versification of Milton have high merit. His blank verse is harmonious and diversified; and his style is full of majesty. There may be found indeed some prosaic lines in his poem. But in a work so long and so harmonious, these may be forgiven.
Paradise Lost, amid beauties of every kind, has many inequalities. No high and daring genius was ever uniformly correct. Milton is too frequently theological and metaphysical; his words are often technical; and he is affectedly ostentatious of his learning. Many of his faults, however, are to be imputed to the pedantry of bis age. He discovers a vigour, a grasp of genius equal to every thing great; sometimes he rises above every other poet; and sometimes be falls below himself.
DRAMATIC POETRY. TRAGEDY. In all civilized nations dramatic poetry has been a favourite amusement. It divides itself into the