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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, till he arrives at honour and prosperity, as we see in the story of Ulysses. 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 Edipus, 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 an 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
To cure it by several expedients.] We do not say to cure an imperfection, but a disease. For once, our author's curious felicity, in the choice of his terms, forsook him; the proper word is, conceal, or, cover.
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 an hero in it, searches for that which Milton never intended; but if he will needs fix the name of an 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 that of the Iliad or Æneid, and therefore an heathen could not form a higher notion of a poem than one of that kind which they call an heroic. Whether Milton's is not of a sublimer nature I will not presume to determine: it is sufficient, that I show there is in the Paradise Lost all the greatness of plan, regularity of design, and masterly beauties which we discover in Homer and Virgil.
I must in the next place observe, that Milton has interwoven in the texture of his fable some particulars which do not seem to have probability enough for an epic poem, particularly in the actions which he ascribes to Sin and Death, and the picture which he draws of the Limbo of Vanity, with other passages in the second book. Such allegories rather savour of the spirit of Spenser and Ariosto, than of Homer and Virgil.
In the structure of his poem he has likewise admitted of too many digressions. It is finely observed by Aristotle, that the author of an heroic poem should seldom speak himself, but throw as much of his work as he can into the mouths of those who are his principal actors. Aristotle has given no reason for this precept; but I presume it is because the mind of the reader is more awed and elevated when he hears Eneas or Achilles speak, than when Virgil or Homer talk in their own persons. Besides that assuming the character of an eminent man is apt to fire the imagination, and raise the ideas of an author. Tully tells us, mentioning his dialogue of old age, in which Cato is the chief speaker, that upon a review of it he was agreeably imposed upon, and fancied that it was Cato, and not he himself, who uttered his thoughts on that subject.
If the reader would be at the pains to see how the story of the Iliad and Eneid is delivered by those persons who act in it, he will be surprised to find how little in either of these poems proceeds from the authors. Milton has, in the
general disposition of his fable, very finely observed this great rule; insomuch, that there is scarce a third part of it which comes from the poet; the rest is spoken either by Adam and Eve, or by some good or evil spirit who is engaged either in their destruction or defence.
From what has been here observed, it appears that digres sions are by no means to be allowed of in an epic poem. If the poet, even in the ordinary course of his narration, should speak as little as possible, he should certainly never let his narration sleep for the sake of any reflections of his own. I have often observed, with a secret admiration, that the longest reflection in the Eneid is in that passage of the tenth book, where Turnus is represented as dressing himself in the spoils of Pallas, whom he had slain. Virgil here lets his fable stand still for the sake of the following remark. How is the mind of man ignorant of futurity, and unable to bear prosperous fortune with moderation! The time will come when Turnus shall wish that he had left the body of Pallas untouched, and curse the day on which he dressed himself in these spoils.' As the great event of the Æneid, and the death of Turnus, whom Æneas slew because he saw him adorned with the spoils of Pallas, turns upon this incident, Virgil went out of his way to make this reflection upon it, without which so small a circumstance might possibly have slipped out of his reader's memory. Lucan, who was an injudicious poet, lets drop his story very frequently for the sake of his unnecessary digressions, or his Diverticula, as Scaliger calls them. If he gives us an account of the prodigies which preceded the civil war, he declaims upon the occasion, and shows how much happier it would be for man, if he did not feel his evil fortune before it comes to pass, and suffer not only by its real weight, but by the apprehension of it. Milton's complaint for his blindness, his panegyric on marriage, his reflections on Adam and Eve's going naked, of the angels' eating, and several other passages in his poem, are liable to the same exception, though I must confess there is so great a beauty in these very digressions, that I would not wish them out of his poem.
I have, in a former paper, spoken of the characters of Milton's Paradise Lost, and declared my opinion, as to the allegorical persons who are introduced in it.
If we look into the sentiments, I think they are sometimes
defective under the following heads; first, as there are several of them too much pointed, and some that degenerate even into puns. Of this last kind, I am afraid is that in the first book, where speaking of the pigmies, he calls them— -The small infantry
Warr'd on by cranes
Another blemish that appears in some of his thoughts, is his frequent allusion to heathen fables, which are not certainly of a piece with the divine subject of which he treats. I do not find fault with these allusions, where the poet himself represents them as fabulous, as he does in some places, but where he mentions them as truths and matters of fact. The limits of my paper will not give me leave to be particular in instances of this kind: the reader will easily remark them in his perusal of the poem.
A third fault in his sentiments, is an unnecessary ostentation of learning, which likewise occurs very frequently. It is certain that both Homer and Virgil were masters of all the learning of their times, but it shows itself in their works, after an indirect and concealed manner. Milton seems ambitious of letting us know, by his excursions on free-will and predestination, and his many glances upon history, astronomy, geography, and the like, as well as by the terms and phrases he sometimes makes use of, that he was acquainted with the whole circle of arts and sciences.
If, in the last place, we consider the language of this great poet, we must allow what I have hinted in a former paper, that it is often too much laboured, and sometimes obscured by old words, transpositions, and foreign idioms. Seneca's objection to the style of a great author, Riget ejus oratio, nihil in ea placidum, nihil lene, is what many critics make to Milton: as I cannot wholly refute it, so I have already apologized for it in another paper; to which I may further add, that Milton's sentiments and ideas were so wonderfully sublime, that it would have been impossible for him to have represented them in their full strength and beauty, without having recourse to these foreign assistances. Our language sunk under him, and was unequal to that greatness of soul which furnished him with such glorious conceptions.
A second fault in his language is, that he often affects a kind of jingle in his words, as in the following passages, and many others:
And brought into the world a world of woe.
-Begirt th' Almighty throne
Beseeching or besieging—
This tempted our attempt
At one slight bound high over-leapt all bound.
I know there are figures for this kind of speech, that some of the greatest ancients have been guilty of it, and that Aristotle himself has given it a place in his Rhetoric among the beauties of that art. But as it is in itself poor and trifling, it is I think at present universally exploded by all the masters of polite writing.
The last fault which I shall take notice of in Milton's style, is the frequent use of what the learned call technical words, or terms of art. It is one of the great beauties of poetry, to make hard things intelligible, and to deliver what is abstruse of itself in such easy language as may be understood by ordinary readers: besides, that the knowledge of a poet should rather seem born with him, or inspired, than drawn from books and systems. I have often wondered, how Mr. Dryden could translate a passage out of Virgil, after the following manner,
Tack to the larboard, and stand off to sea,
Veer starboard sea and land.
Milton makes use of larboard in the same manner. he is upon building, he mentions Doric Pillars, Pilasters, Cornice, Freeze, Architrave. When he talks of heavenly bodies, you meet with Ecliptic, and Eccentric, the Trepidation, Stars dropping from the Zenith, Rays culminating from the Equator. To which might be added many instances of the like kind in several other arts and sciences.
I shall in my next papers give an account of the many particular beauties in Milton, which would have been too long to insert under those general heads I have already treated of, and with which I intend to conclude this piece of criticism.
1 Such easy language, as may.] Such is regularly succeeded by as, just as talis is by qualis, in Latin. But when such is joined to an adjectivesuch easy-it has only the sense and force of "so," the correlative of which is "that." He might have said—such language as may be understood,or-such easy language that it may be understood;-but not,—such easy language as may be understood.