« ForrigeFortsett »
which he never saw, from observing the colour of her hood, and has been very seldom out in these his guesses. i
As I have nothing more at heart than the honour and improvement of the fair sex,' I cannot conclude this
without an exhortation to the British ladies, that they would excel the women of all other nations as much in virtue and good sense, as they do in beauty; which they may certainly do, if they will be as industrious to cultivate their minds, as they are to adorn their bodies, in the mean while I shall recommend to their most serious consideration the saying of an old Greek poet,
THERE* is nothing in nature more irksome than general discourses, especially when they turn chiefly upon words. For this reason I shall wave the discussion of that point which was started some years since, Whether Milton's Paradise Lost may be called an heroic poem ? those who will not give it that title, may call it (if they please) a Divine Poem. It will be sufficient to its
1 “I will not meddle with the Spectator let him 'fair sex’it to the world's end." Swift, ut sup. p. 158.-C.
V. Nichols's note to No. 212 of the Tatler, for some details on female dress.-G.
* These papers on Milton, being dictated by taste, and written with ele. gance, were extremely well received by the public. It was taken for granted that these necessary qualities were, of themselves, sufficient to form a great critic.-H.
perfection, if it has in it all the beauties of the highest kind of poetry; and as for those who alledge it is not an heroic poem, they advance no more to the diminution of it, than if they should say Adam is not Æneas, nor Eve, Helen.
I shall therefore examine it by the rules of epic poetry, and see whether it falls short of the Iliad or Æneid, in the beauties which are essential to that kind of writing. The first thing to be considered in an epic poem, is the fable, which is perfect or imperfect, according as the action which it relates is more or less so. This action should have three qualifications in it. First, it should be but one action. Secondly, it should be an entire action ; and thirdly, it should be a great action. To consider the action of the Iliad, Æneid, and Paradise Lost, in these three several lights Homer, to preserve the unity of his action, hastens into the midst of things, as Horace has observed; had he gone up to Leda's egg, or begun much later, even at the rape of Helen, or the in vesting of Troy, it is manifest that the story of the poem would have been a series of several actions. He therefore opens his poem with the discord of his princes, and artfully interweaves, in the several succeeding parts of it, an account of every thing material which relates to them, and had passed before this fatal dissension. After the same manner Æneas makes his first appearance in the Tyrrhene seas, and within sight of Italy, because the action proposed to be celebrated was that of his settling himself in Latium. But because it was necessary for the reader to know what had happened to him in the taking of Troy, and in the preceding parts of his voyage, Virgil makes his hero relate it by way of episode in the second and third books of the Æneid. The contents of both which books come before those of the first book in the thread of the story, though for preserving of this unity of action, they follow it in the disposition of the poem. Milton, in imitation of these two great poets, opens his Paradise Lost with
an infernal council plotting the fall of man, which is the action he proposed to celebrate; and as for those great actions, the battle of the angels, and the creation of the world, (which preceded in point of time, and which, in my opinion, would have entirely destroyed the unity of his principal action, had he related them in the same order that they happened) he cast them into the fifth, sixth, and seventh books, by way of episode to this noble poem.
Aristotle himself allows, that Homer has nothing to boast of as to the unity of his fable, though at the same time, that great critic and philosopher endeavours to palliate this imperfection in the Greek poet, by imputing it in some measure to the very nature of an epic poem. Some have been of opinion, that the Æneid also labours in this particular, and has episodes which may be looked upon as excrescencies rather than as parts of the action. On the contrary, the poem which we have now under our consideration, hath no other episodes than such as naturally arise from the subject, and yet is filled with such a multitude of astonishing incidents, that it gives us at the same time a pleasure of the greatest yariety, and of the greatest simplicity ; uniform in its nature, though diversified in its execution.'
I must observe, also, that as Virgil, in the poem, which was designed to celebrate the original of the Roman empire, bas described the birth of its great rival, the Carthaginian commonwealth; Milton, with the like art, in his poem on the Fall of Man, has related the fall of those angels who are his professed enemies. Beside the many other beauties in such an episode, its running parallel with the great action of the poem, hinders it from breaking the unity so much as another episode would have done, that had not so great an affinity with the principal subject. In short, this is the same kind of beauty which the critics ad
*The clause in Italics is not in the original folio.-C.
mire" in the Spanish Friar, or the Double Discovery, where the two different plots look like counterparts and copies of one another."
The second qualification required in the action of an epic poem is, that it should be an entire action: an action is entire when it is complete in all its parts; or, as Aristotle describes it, when it consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nothing should
go before it, be intermixed with it, or follow after it, that is not related to it; as, on the contrary, no single step should be omitted in that just and regular process which it must be supposed to take from its original to its consummation. Thus we see the anger of Achilles in its birth, its continuance, and effects; and Æneas's settlement in Italy, carried on through all the oppositions in his way to it both by sea and land. The action in Milton excels (I think) both the former in this particular; we see it contrived in hell, executed upon carth, and punished by heaven. The parts of it are told in the most distinct manner, and grow
out of one another in the most natural order. The third qualification of an epic poem is its greatness. The anger of Achilles was of such consequence, that it embroiled the kings of Greece, destroyed the heroes of Asia, and engaged all the gods in factions. The settlement of Æneas in Italy produced the Cæsars, and gave birth to the Roman empire. Milton's subject was still greater than either of the former; it does not determine the fate of single persons or nations, but of a whole species. The united powers of hell are joined together for the destruction of mankind, which they effected in part, and would have completed, had not Omnipotence itself interposed. The
A tragi-comedy, by Dryden.-C.
* The same kind of beauty which the critics admire. This likeness of two plots could never have been thought a beauty, if, to have two different plots, of any kind, in the same drama, had not been a fault.-H.
principal actors are man in his greatest perfection, and woman in her highest beauty. Their enemies are the fallen angels : the Messiah their friend, and the Almighty their protector. In short, every thing that is great in the whole circle of being, whether within the verge of nature, or out of it, has a proper part assigned it in this admirable poem.
In poetry, as in architecture, not only the whole, but the principal members, and every part of them, should be great. I will not presume to say, that the book of Games in the Æneid, or that in the Iliad, are not of this nature; nor to reprehend Virgil's simile of a top, and many others of the same kind in the Iliad, as liable to any censure in this particular; but I think we may say, without derogating from those wonderful performances, that there is an indisputable and unquestioned magnificence in every part of Paradise Lost, and, indeed, a much greater than could have been formed upon any Pagan system.
But Aristotle, by the greatness of the action, does not only mean that it should be great in its nature, but also in its duration; or, in other words, that it should have a due length in it, as well as what we properly call greatness. The just measure of this kind of magnitude, he explains by the following similitude. An animal, no bigger than a mite, cannot appear perfect to the eye, because the sight takes it in at once, and has only a confused idea of the whole, and not a distinct idea of all its parts ; if, on the contrary, you should suppose an animal of ten thousand furlongs in length, the eye would be so filled with a single part of it, that it could not give the mind an idea of the whole. What these animals are to the eye, a very short or a very long action would be to the memory.
The first would be, as it were,
· The book of Games. A mere prejudice. The critic forgets that the Games were ennobled, in the ideas of Paganism, by being made a part of the public religion.-H.