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Mr. Masson has given an excellent analysis of these writings, selecting with great judgment the salient passages, which have an air of blank-verse thinly disguised as prose, like some of the corrupted passages of Shakespeare. We are particularly thankful to him for his extracts from the pamphlets written against Milton, especially for such as contain criticisms on his style. It is not a little interesting to see the most stately of poets reproached for his use of vulgarisms and low words. We seem to get a glimpse of the schooling of his “choiceful sense" to that nicety which could not be content till it had made his native tongue “search all her coffers round.” One cannot help thinking also that his practice in prose, especially in the long involutions of Latin periods, helped him to give that variety of pause and that majestic harmony to his blank-verse which have made it so unapproachably his own. Landor, who, like Milton, seems to have thought in Latin, has caught somewhat more than others of the dignity of his gait, but without his length of stride. Wordsworth, at his finest, has perhaps approached it, but with how long an interval ! Bryant has not seldom attained to its serene equanimity, but never emulates its pomp. Keats has caught something of its large utterance, but altogether fails of its nervous severity of phrase. Cowper's muse (that moved with such graceful ease in slippers) becomes stiff when (in his translation of Homer) she buckles on her feet the cothurnus of Milton. Thomson grows tumid wherever he assays the grandiosity of his model. It is instructive to get any glimpse of the slow processes by which Milton arrived at that classicism which sets him apart from, if not above, all our other poets.
In gathering up the impressions made upon us by Mr. Masson's work as a whole, we are inclined rather to regret his copiousness for his own sake than for ours. The several parts, though disproportionate, are valuable, his research has been conscientious, and he has given us better means of understanding Milton's time than we possessed before. But how is it about Milton himself? Here was a chance, it seems to me, for a fine bit of portrait-painting. There is hardly a more stately figure in literary history than Milton's, no life in some of
its aspects more tragical, except Dante's. In both these great poets, more than in any others, the character of the men makes part of the singular impressiveness of what they wrote and of its vitality with after times. In them the man somehow overtops the author. The works of both are full of autobiographical confidences. Like Dante, Milton was forced to become a party by himself. He stands out in marked and solitary individuality, apart from the great movement of the Civil War, apart from the supine acquiescence of the Restoration, a self-opinionated, unforgiving, and unforgetting man. Very much alive he certainly was in his day. Has Mr. Masson made him alive to us again? I tear not. At the same time, while we cannot praise either the style or the method of Mr. Masson's work, we cannot refuse to be grateful for it. It is not so much a book for the ordinary reader of biography as for the student, and will be more likely to find its place on the libraryshelf than the centre-table. It does not in any sense belong to light literature, but demands all the muscle of the trained and vigorous reader. “Truly, in respect of itself, it is a good life ; but in respect that it is Milton's life it is naught.”
Mr. Masson's intimacy with the facts and dates of Milton's career renders him peculiarly fit in some respects to undertake an edition of the poetical works. His edition, accordingly, has distinguished merits. The introductions to the several poems are excellent, and leave scarcely anything to be desired. The general introduction, on the other hand, contains a great deal that might well have been omitted, and not a little that is positively erroneous. Mr. Masson's discussions of Milton's English seem olten to be those of a Scotsman to whom English is in some sort a foreign tongue. It is almost wholly inconclusive, because confined to the Miltonic verse, while the basis of any altogether satisfactory study should surely be Miltonic prose ; nay, should include all the poetry and prose of his own age and of that immediately preceding it. The uses to which Mr. Masson has put the concordance to Milton's poems tempt one sometimes to class him with those whom the poet himself taxed with being "the mousehunts and ferrets of an index,"
For example, what profits a discussion of Milton's åtag leyóueva, a matter in which accident is far more influential than choice? * What sensible addition is made to our stock of knowledge by learning that “the word woman does not occur in any form in Milton's poetry before 'Paradise Lost,'” and that it is “exactly so with the word female ?” Is it any way remarkable that such words as Adam, God, Heaven, Hell, Paradise, Sin, Satan, and Serpent should occur “very frequently” in “Paradise Lost?" Would it not rather have been surprising that they should not? Such trifles at best come under the head of what old Warner would have called cumber-minds. It is time to protest against this minute style of editing and commenting great poets. Gulliver's miscroscopic eye saw on the fair skins of the Brobdignagian maids of honour “a mole here and there as broad as a trencher,” and we shrink from a cup of the purest Hippocrene after the critic's solar miscroscope has betrayed to us the grammatical, syntactical, and, above all, hypothetical monsters that sprawl in every drop of it. When a poet has been so much edited as Milton, the temptation of whosoever undertakes a new edition to see what is not to be seen becomes great in proportion as he finds how little there is that has not been seen before.
Mr. Masson is quite right in choosing to modernise the spelling of Milton, for surely the reading of our classics should be made as little difficult as possible, and he is right also in making an exception of such abnormal forms as the poet may fairly be supposed to have chosen for melodic reasons. His exhaustiva discussion of the spelling of the original editions seems, however, to be the less called-for as he himself appears to admit that the compositor, not the author, was supreme in these matters, and that in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases to the thousand Milton had no system, but spelt by immediate inspiration. Yet Mr. Masson fills nearly four pages with an analysis of the vowel sounds, in which, as if
* If things are to be scanned so micrologically, what weighty inferences might not be drawn from Mr. Masson's invariably printing άπαξ λεγομενα! !
to demonstrate the futility of such attempts so long as men's ears differ, he tells us that the short a sound is the same in man and Darby, the short o sound in God and does, and what he calls the long o sound in broad and wrath. Speaking of the apostrophe, Mr. Masson tells us that “it is sometimes inserted, not as a possessive mark at all, but merely as a plural mark : hero's for heroes, myrtle's for myrtles, Gorgons and Hydra's, etc.” Now, in books printed about the time of Milton's the apostrophe was put in almost at random, and in all the cases cited is a misprint, except in the first, where it serves to indicate that the pronunciation was not heróës as it had formerly been.* In the “possessive singular of nouns already ending in s," Mr. Masson tells us, “ Milton's general practice is not to double the s; thus, Nereus wrinkled look, Glaucus spell. The necessities of metre would naturally constrain to such forms. In a possessive followed by the word sake or the word side, dislike to [of] the double sibilant makes us sometimes drop the inflection. In addition to "for righteousness' sake,' such phrases as 'for thy name sake,' and 'for mercy sake' are allowed to pass; bedside is normal and riverside nearly so." The necessities of metre need not be taken into account with a poet like Milton, who never was fairly in his element till he got off the soundings of prose and felt the long swell of his verse under him like a steed that knows his rider. But does the dislike of the double sibilant account for the dropping of the s in these cases? Is it not far rather the presence of the s already in the sound satisfying an ear accustomed to the English slovenliness in the pronunciation of double consonants ? It was this which led to such forms as conscience sake and on justice side, and
*“That you may tell heroës, when you come
-CHAPMAN's Odyssey, viii. 336, 337.
In the fac-simile of the sonnet to Fairfax I find
“ Thy firm, unshak’n vertue ever brings,"
which shows how much faith we need give to the apostrophe.
which beguiled Ben Jonson and Dryden into thinking, the one that noise and the other that corps was a plural.* What does Mr. Masson say to hillside, Bankside, seaside, Cheapside, spindleside, spearside, gospelside (of a church), nightside, countrsyide, wayside, brookside, and I know not how many more? Is the first half of these words a possessive? Or is it not rather a noun impressed into the service as an adjective ? How do such words differ from hilltop, townend, candlelight, rushlight, cityman, and the like, where no double s can be made the scapegoat? Certainly Milton would not have avoided them for their sibilancy, he who wrote
“And airy tongues that syllable men's names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses,”
“ So in his seed all nations shall be blest,"
" And seat of Salmanasser whose success,"
verses that hiss like Medusa's head in wrath, and who was, I think, fonder of the sound than any other of our poets. Indeed, in compounds of the kind we always make a distinction wholly independent of the doubled s. Nobody would boggle at mountainside; no one would dream of saying on the fatherside or motherside.
Mr. Masson speaks of “the Miltonic forms vanquisht, markt, lookt, etc.” Surely he does not mean to imply that these are peculiar to Milton ? Chapman used them before Milion was born, and pressed them farther, as in nak't and saf't for naked and saved. He often prefers the contracted form in his
prose also, showing that the full form of the past participle in ed was
* Mr. Masson might have cited a good example of this from Drummond, whom (as a Scotchman) he is fond of quoting for an authority in English
Sleep, Silence' child, sweet father of soft rest.'
The survival of horse for horses is another example. So by a reverse process pult and shay have been vulgarly deduced from the supposed plurals pulse and chaise.