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all of them employed to lift up the reader's imagination,
him a suitable idea of so great an action. With what art has the poet represented the whole body of the earth trembling, even before it was created!
All Heaven resounded; and had earth been then,
In how sublime and just a manner does he afterwards describe the whole Heaven shaking under the wheels of the Messiah's chariot, with that exception of the throne of God!
Under his burning wheels
Notwithstanding the Messiah appears clothed with so much terror and majesty, the poet has still found means to make his readers conceive an idea of him beyond what he himself was able to describe.
Yet half his strength he put not forth, but check'd
In a word, Milton's genius, which was so great in itself, and so strengthened by all the helps of learning, appears in this book every way equal to his subject, which was the most sublime that could enter into the thoughts of a poet. As he knew all the arts of affecting the mind, he knew it was necessary to give it certain resting-places and opportunities of recovering itself from time to time: he has, therefore, with great address interspersed several speeches, reflections, similitudes, and the like reliefs, to diversify his narration, and ease the attention of the reader, that he might come fresh to his great action; and by such a contrast of ideas, have a more lively taste of the nobler parts of his description.
No. 339. SATURDAY, MARCH 29.
- Ut his erordia primis
LONGINUS has observed, that there may be a loftiness in sentiments, where there is no passion, and brings instances out of ancient authors to support this his opinion. The pathetic, as that great critic observes, may animate and inflame the sublime, but is not essential to it. Accordingly, as he further remarks, we very often find that those who excel most in stirring up the passions, very often want the talent of writing in the great and sublime manner; and so on the contrary. Milton has shewn himself a master in both these ways of writing. The seventh book, which we are now entering upon, is an instance of that sublime which is not mixt and worked up with passion. The author appears in a kind of composed and sedate majesty; and though the sentiments do not give so great an emotion as those in the former book, they abound with as magnificent ideas. The sixth book, like a troubled ocean, represents greatness in confusion; the seventh affects the imagination like the ocean in a calm, and fills the mind of the reader, without producing in it any thing like tumult or agitation.
The critic above-mentioned, among the rules which he lays down for succeeding in the sublime way of writing, proposes to his reader that he should imitate the most celebrated authors who have gone before him, and been engaged in works of the same nature; as in particular, that if he writes on a poetical subject, he should consider how Homer would have spoken on such an occasion. By this means one great genius often catches the flame from another, and writes in his spirit without copying servilely after him. There are a thousand shining passages in Virgil, which have been lighted up by Homer.
Milton, though his own natural strength of genius was capable of furnishing out a perfect work, has doubtless very much raised and ennobled his conceptions, by such an imitation as that which Longinus has recommended.
In this book, which gives us an account of the six days' works, the poet received but very few assistances from heathen writers, who were strangers to the wonders of creation. But as there are many glorious strokes of poetry upon this subject in holy writ, the author has numberless allusions to them through the whole course of this book. The great critic I have before mentioned, though an heathen, has taken notice of the sublime manner in which the law-giver of the Jews has described the creation in the first chapter of Genesis ; and there are many other passages in scripture, which rise up in the same majesty, where this subject is touched upon. Milton has shewn his judgment very remarkably, in making use of such of these as were proper for his poem, and in duly qualifying those high 'strains of eastern poetry, which were suited to readers whose imaginations were set to an higher pitch, than those of colder climates.
Adam's speech to the angel, wherein he desires an account of what had passed within the regions of nature before the creation, is very great and solemn. The following lines, in which he tells him, that the day is not too far spent for him to enter upon such a subject, are exquisite in their kind.
And the great light of day yet wants to run
His generation, &c. The angel's encouraging our first parents in a modest pursuit after knowledge, with the causes which he assigns for the creation of the world, are very just and beautiful. The Messiah, by whom, as we are told in scripture, the worlds were made, comes forth in the power of his Father, surrounded with an host of angels,
and clothed with such a majesty as becomes his entering upon a work, which, according to our conceptions, appears the utmost exertion of omnipotence. What a beautiful description has our author raised upon that hint in one of the prophets ; ' And behold there came four chariots out from between two mountains, and the mountains were mountains of brass."
About his chariot numberless were pour’d,
On golden hinges moving I have before taken notice of these chariots of God' and of these gates of Heaven, and shall here only add that Homer gives us the same idea of the latter as opening of themselves, though he afterwards takes off from it, by telling us, that the hours first of all removed those prodigious heaps of clouds which lay as a barrier before them.
I do not know any thing in the whole poem more sublime than the description which follows, where the Messiah is represented at the head of his angels, as looking down into the Chaos, calming its confusion, riding into the midst of it, and drawing the first out-line of the creation.
On heav'nly ground they stood, and from the shore
Silence ye troubled waves, and thou deep, peace,
Nor staid, but on the wings of cherubim
Follow'd in bright procession, to behold
This be thy just circumference, O world. The thought of the golden compasses is conceived altogether in Homer's spirit, and is a very noble incident in this wonderful description. Homer, when he speaks of the gods, ascribes to them several arms and instruments with the same greatness of imagination. Let the reader only peruse the description of Minerva's Ægis, or Buckler, in the fifth book of the Iliad, with her spear, which would overturn whole squadrons, and her helmet that was sufficient to cover an army drawn out of an hundred cities; the golden compasses in the above-mentioned passage appear a very natural instrument in the hand of him, whom Plato somewhere calls the Divine Geometrician. As poetry delights in clothing abstracted ideas in allegories and sensible images, we find a magnificent description of the creation formed after the same manner in one of the prophets, wherein he describes the Almighty architect as measuring the waters in the hollow of his hand, meeting out the heavens with his span, comprehending the dust of the earth in a measure, weighing the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance. Another of them describing the Supreme Being in this great work of creation, represents him as laying the foundations of the earth, and stretching a line upon it. And in another place as garnishing the heavens, stretching out the north over the empty place, and hanging the earth upon nothing. This last noble thought Milton has expressed in the fol. lowing verse.
And earth self-balanc'd on her center hung.
The beauties of description in this book lie so very