Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

that poem intended to disparage religion, but that every thing was calculated for a contrary effect. On this point there can indeed be no question; yet it is still open to discussion, whether there are not remarks and descriptions in Milton's work which it would have been far better to have left unpenned; and, if I am not greatly mistaken, every reader of keen Christian sensibility has always been far more pained than pleased with the passages to which I allude.

Among the numerous critiques which have been written on the Paradise Lost, I do not remember to have any where seen a regular moral estimate of this celebrated poem, till I lately met with the following valuable paper in a transatlantic religious monthly miscel lany of about three years' standing, published at New-Haven, entitled "The Christian Spectator," and which contains various useful and interesting papers. The work is, I believe, scarcely, if at all, known even by name in this country; and I shall therefore for the sake of your readers, transcribe the paper in question for your pages;-a compliment which the conductors of the American publication have often paid, with handsome acknowledgments, to papers in the Christian Observer. The part of the essay to which I would chiefly invite attention, as peculiarly interesting from the recent discussions on Lord Byron's Cain, is that in which the writer gives his moral estimate of those passages in the Paradise Lost which relate to the character and sentiments of Sutan and his fallen companions.

U.

A MORAL ESTIMATE OF PARA

DISE LOST.

The literary character of this poem has been too often discussed, and is too well established, to require additional investigation at the present period. Like its predecessors, the Iliad and Eneid, of heroic

memory, Paradise Lost has received the sauction of time, and will probably last as long as that impartial panegyrist. The labours of criticism, as we learn to our surprise, first brought it into general notice; but subsequently to the days of the Spectator, down to the poet's latest and most enamoured biographers, criticism, with few exceptions, has been the echo of public applause.

The moral character of the poem, however, as is the case with every other production, is a concern of much higher importance, and that I conceive to have been, by most readers, less regarded and less understood than any thing else belonging to this great work. My object in the following observations will be to discuss its merits, purely as a religious poem, and the offspring of the genius of Christianity.

In a production like Paradise Lost, possessing the highest literary excellence, and destined, as poets say, to immortality, the moral influence is peculiarly important. It is both the proof and the effect of genius to sanction what it inspires. If therefore the impression made be favourable to evangelical piety, nothing is more to be desired; if unfavourable, nothing is more to be deprecated. The impression either way is always deep in proportion to the strength or prevalence of genius in a work. Even vice, under the glowing touches of this magical power, may, by its insinuating aspect, be mistaken for virtue; and "the worse," by its seeming consistency, be made to " appear the better reason." What then must a work, which is clearly one of the highest efforts of poetical talent, and on a sacred subject, be capable of effecting in regard to the moral exercises of the enthusiastic reader!-Judging from what has often appeared, and been acknowledged, it is not to be doubted that this poem is capable of making the deepest impressions of a serious nature. Certain it is, that no book is marked by more

distinctive features-is capable of fixing more firmly its story on the memory, or painting more vividly its images on the imagination. Whatever therefore may be its moral influence, that influence must be peculiarly commanding; and the remark may perhaps be hazarded, without the charge of extravagance, that no book in the English language, the Bible excepted, has more deeply impressed on the minds of readers its own peculiarities of religious diction, sentiment, and feeling. As a proof of its effect on our religious mental associations, it may be remarked, that many of our prevalent ideas on the primeval state of man, and his fall-on heaven and hell-on angels and evil spirits, supposed, until examined, to be derived from revelation, are merely the fictions of the poet. The Bible furnishes but comparatively few hints on these subjects, and yet, through the magical influence of Milton, we seem to be possessed of particular and full information.

The moral influence of a book is the impression of a religious nature which it is capable of producing on the mind of a susceptible, intelligent reader. According as that impression is favourable to Christian piety or not, the book is valuable or worthless in a moral view. The moral of a book, particularly of poems, is not always what it professes, or is supposed to be. The great ethical lesson of the Iliad, for instance, is said to be the advantages of union, or the evils of dissension, among princes. This thought may have been in the mind of the bard; but the real moral of the poem is the desirable nature of ambition, military prowess, and revenge. The impression which is made, the ardor which is inspired, is altogether in aid of these principles or passions. And whatever is the chief impression made by a work, this, in the opinion of an elegant essayist, is the only proper moral. The leading religious pro

position of Paradise Lost is the justification of the ways of God to man. Whether this or any similar evangelical object has been effected, and to what extent, may appear in the sequel. In the estimate which is made of the work in this respect, it will be proper, according to the remarks already suggested, to consider not merely what is theoretically established, but what is the actual and most powerful feeling inspired.

My plan will lead me to mention, first, the excellencies of the poem in a religious view.

1. Here it will immediately occur to the reader, that the solemnity of the general subject, together with the sacred character of many of the particular topics connected with it, is a consideration of no small importance. It is itself some praise, in poetry, to select an impressive subject of a serious cast, and to present for the entertainment and instruction of mankind ideas peculiar to the scriptural revelation. The world has heard enough of the feats of heroes, and the projects of great men. It is filled with the eulogy of virtues which the Bible does not recognize, and of characters which it is lamentable should have ever existed. Active courage, patriotism, friendship, and the like, in the sense they are commonly understood, are not acknowledged, according to a statement somewhere made by Paley, as constituting a part of Christiau morals; and the characters which they form are only of that description of which the world is worthy. The subjects of many of our most popular poems

are of such a nature that it would be a waste of a man's time and talents to be employed in the perusal, and much more in the composition, of them. Riches, fame, and pleasure, worldly good, and I may say worldly virtues, are sufficiently alluring to multitudes, without borrowing any addition to their charms from the "Muse's painting." In order to make the most favour

able impression on the mind, with respect to that which essentially concerns it, (if the poet's object be to do good as well as to please,) the great leading idea should be solemn, and correspondent with the awfulness or grandeur of the human destiny. Although it were easy, even on an ordinary topic, to interweave with it some moral truth, or to derive from it some striking lesson on the subject of salvation; thus by a pious deception taking hold on the mind, and influencing its associations in favour of religion; yet this has very seldom been done. Very few, like Cowper in his Task, while sporting on light or common themes have caused their readers to pass from an innocent gaiety to solemn thought, and to fall upon the most evangelical sentiments, without their perceiving any depression of poetic spirit, or any diminution of their own delight. As this is a felicity which too few have attained, or seemed desirous of attaining, there is some advantage therefore, and not a little praise, considering its uncommonness, in Milton's choice of a sacred and solemn theme for so important an attempt.

It has been made a question with the critics, whether the poet's subject is a happy one for the work he undertook; whether, if it had been more human and less divine, it would not have been more interesting to the bulk of readers. It has also been considered as a fault, that the marvellous or supernatural, forms not the machinery, as is common in others, but the ground-work of the poen. But however this may be, and however it may be decided what are the most proper subjects for the Epic Muse, yet Milton's must be allowed to be in itself good, or good for some species of poetry. Whether properly heroic or not, it possesses uncommon interest. Our minds cannot be employed upon it with too great frequency or seriousness. The Fall of man, and the circumstances whieh attended it; together with

that interest which must have been attached to it in the counsels of eternity, and that train of operations and effects which is known to have followed it in time; is a subject, of all others, the most touching and solemn, and capable of making a degree of desirable religious impression by the plainest representation. In Milton's hand it loses none of its native greatness. It was suited to the peculiar powers of his genius. He alone was fitted for it, or could bring to it sufficient elevation of thought, richness of fancy, and energy of expression. With singular felicity, he has contrived, both in the prin. cipal story, and in several digressions and episodes, to interweave a great part of the history of redemption, and many of the particular truths, precepts, and narrations of Scripture. Paradise Lost, therefore, if not an heroic, may, according to Addison, be called a divine poem. In its subject certainly, it bears this character, with the peculiar interest which it claims on such an account.

2. Another particular recommending this poem, as religion is concerned, is the generally grave and pious spirit with which it is written.-Milton seldom degrades his solemn theme by the want of a manly seriousness, and of a religious awe. He seems to himself to tread on consecrated ground, and whatever mistakes he may have made in certain representations, yet there is no reason to doubt his pious intentions, and chastened spirit. The subject itself was calculated to inspire such a feeling, and his fervent invocation of the Holy Spirit at the commencement of the poem, was a happy prognostic of the temper which might be expected to reign through it. The dews of Castalia did not more moisten his lips, than every thing which became a pious, if we may not say an eminently holy, man, had imbued his heart. While we meet with that beautiful suggestion

"Smit with the love of sacred song;

but chief

Thee, Sion, and the flowery brooks he-
neath

That wash thy hallow'd feet, and war-
bling flow,
Nightly I visit:"

Or that warmer one

"Hail, Son of God, Saviour of men! thy

name

Shall be the copious matter of my song Henceforth, and never shall my harp thy praise

Forget, nor from thy Father's praise dis-
join:"

we may indulge a hope, that the
bard would not, intentionally, infuse
into his song a spirit which was in-
consistent with such high and holy
professions. Indeed, a mind which
was capable of conceiving, or which
could be employed about such
ideas as Milton has expressed of
the majesty of God, the grace of
Messiah, the charms of goodness,
the splendour of heaven, and the
gloom of hell, may be permitted,
without a censure, to exercise its
mighty powers on these subjects.
It is difficult for a person of reflec-
tion to read some strokes, or indeed
some protracted representations, in
this book, without being throughout
arrested in his feelings, by every
thing that is solemn, not only in
the subject, but in the manner of
representing it. Let him, for in-
stance, descend into the abyss where
satan and his crew lie sweltering
in fire; let him bear them
"Converse with everlasting groans,
Unrespited, unpitied, unrepriev'd,
Ages of hopeless end,"
and he will feel that the poet has
made it a place where being itself
is a curse, and where it infinitely
concerns him not to be doomed to
take up his residence, Or let him
attend to a few representations of
the following kind; and if his mind
is not impressed with a salutary
dread of sin and its consequences,
it is no solemnity of representation
which can impress it. In the fourth
book, Gabriel addresses Satan,

thus:

“So judge thou, still presumptuous! till the wrath,

Which thou incur'st by flying, meet thy flight

Seven fold, and scourge that wisdom back to hell,

Which taught thee yet no better, that
no pain

Can equal anger infinite provok'd."
In the same book, Satan says to him-
self-

"Me miserable! which way shall I flee,
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?

Which way I flee is hell; myself am hell,
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threat'ning to devour me opens
wide;

To which the hell I suffer seems a hea-
ven."

ever, cannot be well presented by An illustration of this kind, however, cannot be well presented by be read throughout to form a proa few examples. The book must per opinion of it in this respect. favour of Paradise Lost, as a re3. It is again to be noticed in ligious poem, that it is not withevangelical truth and correct prinout its interesting development of ciples. Poetry, in general, is liable to objections on this ground. Not only is there a woeful omission of what is good, but there is a repletion of what is bad. Most be presumed in other languages, poems in our language, and it may abound with erroneous sentiments and false principles. There is, perhaps, no other species of writing so Lost forms, to a considerable defaulty in this respect. Paradise gree, an exception to the present remark. The sentiments are, for the most part, doctrinally correct, and exhibit the aspect of scriptural representation. The poet cannot be accused of entertaining materiallyunsound views of the tenets of revealed religion. In general, the profound doctrines of predestination, free grace, and moral agency; as also the momentous point relating to the incarnation of Christ, and the work of redemption by him, are represented in the manner of the Bible, as nearly perhaps as the nature of poetry will admit. This circumstance, so far as it extends, is no small praise; and were there no

principle to counteract it in other respects, would cause the poem to rank as high among the repositories of evangelical truth as among the sources of intellectual gratifica. tion.

In re

With regard to the practical effects of truth and error, or the qualities of moral action among intelligent beings, the poet is entitled to much praise in their delineation. The internal workings, and the outward aspect, of holiness and sin, both in superior natures, and in man, are represented mostly as they are known, or as they must be conceived to be.-The dignity, beauty, and excellence of the one, and the meanness, deformity, and vileness of the other, are painted in the colours of truth and nature. In his description, they are reflected as from a mirror upon the mind of the reader. We may ascertain, by looking into our hearts, how faithfully he depicts, for instance, the operations of sin from its incipiency to the full-grown overt act. counting the counsels and projects of the evil spirits, and in detailing the successive steps of the temptation and fall of man, we may find exquisite specimens of his art. With what graphical correctness, particularly, has he described that mental process, which must be supposed to have taken place in Eve, immediately previous to her first act of disobedience! Her attention is first excited by the beautiful appearance and insinuating address of the serpent, in consequence of which she suspends her rural labours. She is then affected with surprise at his possession of the powers of speech. Her surprise naturally degenerates into curiosity, and she is induced to inquire into the cause. The cause being disclosed, her curiosity is yet further aroused; and she wishes to know where the fruit, possessing such wonderful properties as the serpent ascribes to it, may be found. Prompted by such a principle, she consents to follow the tempter, and is

soon brought to the forbidden tree. Here the instinctive suggestions of her innocence made her at first positively averse to eating the fruit. But she had partially committed herself, and her curiosity being awake to the highest degree, she was prepared to give ear to the farther insinuations of the tempter. His flattering description of the virtues of the fruit, and the sight of it, create desire. She hesitates through fear;but resolving at length to eat, she reasons herself into the belief, that she may disobey her Maker with impunity, and then finishes the dreadful deed. Nothing can be conceived more natural than such a process of mind in Eve; and it is drawn with such felicity as evinces its source to have been the poet's knowledge of the Bible and of the human heart. From such delineations of moral conduct, what profitable lessons do we not receive on the great concerns of duty and salvation! How emphatically are we cautioned to avoid the causes which lead to temptation and to sin!

The feelings of the unholy, upon the supposition that they could be received into heaven, were never better expressed than in the following lines spoken by Mammon.

"Suppose he should relent, And publish grace to all, on promise

made

[blocks in formation]
« AnteriorContinuar »