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Milton's* genius was equal to his theme, and his theme comprehended the loftiest, loveliest, and most solemn subjects that touch the heart or elevate the understanding of man. We live at too remote period to discover how far his powers may have been excited or trained by his time. But the characteristic of the poetic mind is, to be impressed by all influences, to be laying up its treasures from every event and vicissitude, to be gathering its materials of future brilliancy and power from the highest and lowest sources, from the visible and the invisible, till it coerces those vaporous and unformed things into shape, and lifts them up for the admiration of the world, with the buoyancy and radiance of a cloud painted by the sun. The stern superstitions of the republicans, the military array of the land, the vast prayer-meetings, and the fierce and gloomy assemblages, whether for war, council, or worship, are to be traced in Milton ; and the most unrivalled fragments of the · Paradise Lost,' may be due to his having lived in the midst of an age of public confusion, of sorrow and of slaughter.
Milton was the most learned of poets. Learning oppresses the nerveless mind, but invigorates the powerful one. The celestial armour of the Greek hero,
Born in London, 1608. died 1074.
which let in death to his feeble friend, only gave celes. tial speed and lightness to the limbs of the chosen champion. But the true wonder is, the faculty by which Milton assimilates his diversified knowledge and makes the most remote subservient to his thene. His scholarship is gathered from all times and all line guages; and he sits in the midst of this various and magnificent treasure from the thousand provinces of wisdom, with the majesty of a Persian king.
Dryden revived poetry in England, after its anathe ma by the Puritans, and its corruption by the French taste of Charles II. and his court. He was the firsi who tried the powers of the language in satire to any striking extent: and his knowledge of life, and his masculine and masterly use of English, placed him at the summit of political poets, a rank which has never been lowered. No English poet wrote more voluwi. nously, and none retained a more uncontested superiority during life. By a singular fortune, his vigour and fame increased to the verge
grave. A rapid succession of Poets followed, of whom Pope retains the pre-eminence. His animation and pois. nancy made him the favourite of the higher ranks; .. favour which seldom embodies itself with the
* Born, 1631, died 1700
feelings of a people. But the poetry of the Essay on
· Man,' however founded on an erroneous system, has the great preservative qualities that send down authorship to remote times. Its dignity, force, and grandeur fix it on the throne of didactic poetry. Pope's compliance with habits, then sanctioned by the first names of society, has humiliated his muse. But no man will desire to extinguish the good for the sake of the evil; and in the vast and various beauty, morality, and grace of Pope, we may wisely forget that he ever wrote an unworthy line.
It is not the purpose of this rapid sketch to more than allude to subsequent writers. Our own age has produced individuals, whose ability will be honoured to the latest period of the language. But the genuine praise of the Poet rests with posterity : and of those noble ornaments of our country, and it can possess none nobler, happily all survive, with the exception of Keats, Wolfe, and the mightier name of Byron.
Keats died at an early age, probably long before his powers were matured; but not till he had given promise of excellence in his peculiar style. His versification was chiefly formed on the model of Spencer; and few as his poems are, they exhibit a rich and delicate conception of the beauty of our language
Wolfe's fame chiefly rests on a fine poem to the memory of Sir John Moore.
Lord Byron's merits and defects, as a poet, have been largely attributed to the personal temperament that accounts for, and palliates,, his personal career. T'be constitutional irritability which embittered his days, probably gave birth to the pride, sternness, and misanthrophy of his style, its love of the darker passions, and its sullen and angry views of human life. But the error was often nobly redeemed by the outbreak of a noble mind, by touches of the finest feeling; flashes of sunshine through the gloom; vistas of the rosiest beauty, through a mental wilderness that seemed to have been bared and blackened in the very wrath of nature.
Like all men of rank, he had temptations to contend with, that severely try man. Fortune, flattering companionship, and foreign life, were his natural perils ; and we can only lament that, when a few years more might have given him back to his country, with his fine faculties devoted to her service, and cheered by true views of human life, his career was closed. His moral system as a poet is founded on the double error, that great crimes imply great qualities; and, that virtue is a slavery. Both maxims palpably untrue ; for crime is so much within human means, that the most stupendous crime may be committed by the most abject of human beings. And common experience shows, that to be superior to our habits and passions is the only true freedom ; while the man of the wildest license is only so much the more fettered and bowed down. But on the grave of Byron there can be but one inscription—that living long enough for fame, he died too soon for his country. All hostility should be sacrificed on the spot where the remains of the great poet sleep; and no man worthy to tread the ground, will approach it but with homage for his genius, and sorrow that such genius should have been sent to darkness, in the hour when it might have begun to fulfil its course, and, freed from the mists and obliquities of its rising, run its high career among the enlighteners of mankind.
The object of this volume is to give such a selection from our eminent writers, as may best exhibit their styles of thought and language. All their beauties it would be impossible to give. But the following pages contain many of those passages on which their authors would perhaps be most content to be tried at the