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take notice of, misrepresented Virgil's way of thinking as to this particular, in the translation he has given us of the Æneid. I do not remember that Homer anywhere falls into the faults above-mentioned, which were, indeed, the false refinements of later ages. Milton, it must be confest, has sometimes erred in this respect, as I shall show more at large in another paper; though, considering all the poets of the age in which he writ were infected with this wrong way of thinking, he is rather to be admired that he did not give more into it, than that he did sometimes comply with the vicious taste which still prevails so much among modern writers.
But since several thoughts may be natural which are low and grovelling, an epic poet should not only avoid such sentiments as are unnatural or affected, but also such as are mean and vulgar. Homer has opened a great field of raillery to men of more delicacy than greatness of genius, by the homeliness of some of his sentiments. But, as I have before said, these are rather to be imputed to the simplicity of the age in which he lived, to which I may also add, of that which he described, than to any imperfection in that divine poet. Zöilus among the ancients, and Monsieur Perrault among the moderns, pushed their ridicule very far upon him, on account of some such sentiments. There is no blemish to be observed in Virgil under this head, and but a very few in Milton.
I shall give but one instance of this impropriety of thought in Homer, and at the same time compare it with an instance of the same nature, both in Virgil and Milton. Sentiments which raise laughter can very seldom be admitted with any decency into an heroic poem, whose business is to excite passions of a much nobler nature. Homer, however, in his characters of Vulcan and Thersites, in his story of Mars and Venus, in his behaviour of Irus, and in other passages, has been observed to have lapsed into the burlesque character, and to have departed from that serious air which seems essential to the magnificence of an epic poem. I remember but one laugh in the whole Æneid, which rises in the fifth book, upon Monotes, where he is represented as thrown overboard, and drying himself upon a rock. But this piece of mirth is so well timed, that the severest critic can have nothing to say against it, for it is in the book of games and diversions,
where the reader's mind may be supposed to be sufficiently relaxed for such an entertainment. The only piece of pleasantry in Paradise Lost, is where the evil spirits are described as rallying the angels upon the success of their newly invented artillery. This passage I look upon to be the most exceptionable in the whole poem, as being nothing else but a string of puns, and those too very indifferent.
-Satan beheld their plight,
And to his mates thus in derision called.
O friends, why come not on these victors proud!
And breast, (what could we more ?) propounded terms
As they would dance; yet for a dance they seemed
To whom thus Belial, in like gamesome mood.
No. 285. SATURDAY, JANUARY 26.
Ne quicunque Deus, quicunque adhibebitur heros,
Migret in obscuras humili sermone tabernas :
Aut dum vitat humum, nubes et inania captet. HOR.
HAVING already treated of the fable, the characters, and sentiments in the Paradise Lost, we are in the last place to consider the language; and as the learned world is very much divided upon Milton as to this point, I hope they will excuse me if I appear particular in any of my opinions, and incline to those who judge the most advantageously of the author.
It is requisite that the language of an heroic poem should be both perspicuous and sublime. In proportion as either of these two qualities are wanting,' the language is imperfect. Perspicuity is the first and most necessary qualification; insomuch, that a good-natured reader sometimes overlooks a little slip even in the grammar or syntax, where it is impossible for him to mistake the poet's sense. Of this kind is that passage in Milton, wherein he speaks of Satan : -God and his Son except,
Created thing nought value he nor shunn'd.
And that in which he describes Adam and Eve:
Adam the goodliest man of men since born
sons, the fairest of her daughters Eve.
It is plain, that in the former of these passages, according to the natural syntax, the divine persons mentioned in the first line are represented as created beings; and that in the other, Adam and Eve are confounded with their sons and daughters. Such little blemishes as these, when the thought is great and natural, we should, with Horace, impute to a pardonable inadvertency, or to the weakness of human nature, which cannot attend to each minute particular, and give the last finishing to every circumstance in so long a work. The ancient critics, therefore, who were acted by a spirit of candour, rather than that of cavilling, invented certain figures of speech, on purpose to palliate little errors of this nature in the writings of those authors who had so many greater beauties to atone for them.
If clearness and perspicuity were only to be consulted, the poet would have nothing else to do but to clothe his thoughts in the most plain and natural expressions. But since it often happens, that the most obvious phrases, and those which are used in ordinary conversation, become too familiar to the ear, and contract a kind of meanness by passing through the mouths of the vulgar, a poet should take particular care to guard himself against idiomatic ways of speaking. Ovid and Lucan have many poornesses of expression upon this account, as taking up with the first phrases
1 Are wanting.] It should be is wanting.
2 If clearness and perspicuity were, &c.] Here are two substantives indeed, but one thing only is expressed. He should have said-"if clearness or perspicuity was only."
that offered, without putting themselves to the trouble of looking after such as would not only be natural, but also elevated and sublime. Milton has but a few failings in this kind, of which, however, you may meet with some instances, as in the following passages.
Embryos and Idiots, Eremites and Friars,
White, black, and grey, with all their trumpery,
-Awhile discourse they hold,
No fear lest dinner cool; when thus began
Who of all ages to succeed, but feeling
The evil on him brought by me, will curse
The great masters in composition know very well that many an elegant phrase becomes improper for a poet or an orator, when it has been debased by common use. reason the works of ancient authors, which are written in dead languages, have a great advantage over those which are written in languages that are now spoken. Were there any mean phrases or idioms in Virgil and Homer, they would not shock the ear of the most delicate modern reader so much as they would have done that of an old Greek or Roman, because we never hear them pronounced in our streets, or in ordinary conversation.
It is not, therefore, sufficient, that the language of an epic poem be perspicuous, unless it be also sublime. To this end it ought to deviate from the common forms and ordinary phrases of speech. The judgment of a poet very much discovers itself in shunning the common roads of expression, without falling into such ways of speech as may seem stiff and unnatural; he must not swell into a false sublime, by endeavouring to avoid the other extreme. Among the Greeks, Eschylus, and sometimes Sophocles, were guilty of this fault among the Latins, Claudian and Statius; and among our own countrymen, Shakspeare and Lee. In these authors the affectation of greatness often hurts the perspicuity of the style, as in many others the endeavour after perspicuity prejudices its greatness.
Aristotle has observed, that the idiomatic style way be avoided, and the sublime formed, by the following methods. First, by the use of metaphors: such are those in Miltor.
Imparadised in one another's arms.
Stood waving, tipt with fire.-
In these, and innumerable other instances, the metaphors are very bold, but just; I must, however, observe, that the metaphors are not thick-sown in Milton, which always savours too much of wit; that they never clash with one another, which, as Aristotle observes, turns a sentence into a kind of an enigma or riddle; and that he seldom has recourse to them where the proper and natural words will do as well.
Another way of raising the language, and giving it a poetical turn, is to make use of the idioms of other tongues. Virgil is full of the Greek forms of speech, which the critics call Hellenisms, as Horace in his Odes1 abounds with them, much more than Virgil. I need not mention the several dialects which Homer has made use of for this end. Milton, in conformity with the practice of the ancient poets, and with Aristotle's rule, has infused a great many Latinisms, as well as Græcisms, and sometimes Hebraisms, into the language of his poem; as towards the beginning of it,
Nor did they not perceive the evil plight
In which they were, or the fierce pains not feel,
The dark, unbottomed, infinite abyss,
-So both ascend
In the visions of God
Under this head may be reckoned the placing the adjective after the substantive, the transposition of words, the turning the adjective into a substantive, with several other foreign modes of speech, which this poet has naturalized to give his verse the greater sound, and throw it out of prose.
The third method mentioned by Aristotle, is what agrees with the genius of the Greek language more than with that
1 Horace in his Odes.] He says, in his Odes, to show that Horace used these Hellenisms properly.