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The very cause, which invests them with the sanctity of religious awe, repels as uncongenial the fictions and illusions of the poet; they may inspire the Psalmist to pour forth his soul in prayer and admiration and awe and holy love, but they refuse to be moulded by the epic poet in plastic figures, forms familiar to us, and in which we discover extent, weight, colour, and all the grosser attributes of matter. Let not the epic poet plead the example of sacred writings. It is because of their sacredness that those forms should not be taken from the altar and arrayed as dramatis personae, and made to speak and act like other mortal beings, the earthborn though ever so sublime fancies of the poetic muse.* Who can listen to a conversation of God the Father and God the Son without the silent shudder of a man guilty unwillingly of sacrilege? Who can bear irony put into the mouth of God? Who can undertake to justify the ways of God to man except by prayer, and faith, and humble submission to Providence.
There was a time, when sacred history was the only subject of dramatical composition, when the Biblical account of the Fall, of the Flood, of Moses and David, nay of the Birth, the Life, the Death of Christ were acted on the stage. What was it, that called forth these phenomena? It was not the poetic, but the religious interest in the subjects of these productions. We have overcome that period of imperfect development of true religious sentiment and poetical art. We acknowledge
* Hallam Lit. of Eur., vol. IV. c. 5, s. 25. "It is difficult to enlarge or adorn such a story by fiction. Milton has done much in this way, yet he was partly restrained by the necessity of conforming to Scripture."
+ Milton's Paradise Lost, v. 719.
"Son, thou in whom my glory I behold
Is rising, who intends to erect his throne
This our high place, our sanctuary, our hill."
This justification of the ways of God to man is, after all, not so much contained in the whole conduct of the poem, it is not practically exemplified by narrated events, but theoretically set forth in isolated passages, more especially in the speech of God to the Messiah, III. 80-134:-" Only begotten Son," &c.
that it was not correct taste, that produced mysteries and miracle plays, but an intense, though rude, not to say coarse, religiosity. We pardon the pious friars, who wrote their crude dramas to honour God in their way; we even respect them for their zeal, and we sympathise in some degree with their delighted and edified audiences; but we hold their productions to be false taste and a perversion of religion. We do not think, that these subjects are the best that could be selected, although they do possess a general interest. Mr. Hallam's theory therefore, it appears, does not apply to dramas. But is not the religious epic in its peculiar branch, what the miracle play is as a drama? What is the difference but this,-that the latter brings its persons before the bodily eye, whilst the epic paints them to our imagination?
The day of the miracle play is gone. It lingers, supported, and as it were sublimated, by the strains of music in our oratorios, where the words are overlooked and music alone fills the ear and the heart. The days of the sacred epic are numbered too. The time is coming, and we can discern its approach by unmistakeable signs, when the subject of "Paradise Lost," in spite of the general interest which it excites, and which has made it so popular, will be among the first and most powerful reasons to remove it from the table, and erase it from the imagination of the pious Christian.
In venturing to pronounce this prophecy, I take my standing exclusively upon the above-mentioned ground, viz., the general unfitness of a sacred subject for epic poetry. But I am aware, that other secondary causes, allied to and partly derived from the main cause, tend to the same effect. The mysteries of religion are dangerous ground. The
*Hallam's Lit. of Europe, IV. 5, sec. 30:-"Yet much that is ascribed to God, sometimes with the sanction of Scripture, sometimes without it, is not wholly pleasing, such as the Oath, that shook heaven's vast circumference,' and several other images of the same kind, which bring down the Deity in a manner not consonant to philosophical religion, however it may be borne out by the sensual analogies or mythic symbolism of oriental writing."
+ Johnson's Life of Milton, p. 172: -" Pleasure and terror are indeed the genuine sources of poetry: but poetical pleasure must be such as human imagination can at least conceive; and poetical terror such as human strength and fortitude may combat. The good and evil of eternity are too ponderous for the wings of wit; the mind sinks under them in passive helplessness, content with calm belief and humble adoration."
Johnson's Life of Milton, p. 163:-"Milton has been censured for the impiety, which sometimes breaks from Satan's mouth; for there are thoughts, which no observation of character can justify, because no good man would willingly permit them to pass, however transiently, through his own mind. To make Satan speak as a rebel without any such expressions as might taint the readers imagination, was indeed one of the great difficulties in Milton's undertaking." This is a fault of the subject, not of the poet, and shows the truth of what we have advanced in the text.
poet cannot be vague and general in his opinions of the Deity. He must declare for one or the other dogina; without well defined outlines and bold relief his figures would be lifeless shadows. Thus, Milton was unavoidably led by poetical necessity to Arianism. This cannot fail to repel a large number of readers, though so little prominence is given to that dogma, that before the discovery of Milton's treatise on Christian Doctrine, (in 1823,) perhaps few readers suspected its existence. In this rigid generation such heterodoxy as this cannot fail to operate powerfully against the continued popularity of the poem, and it is asserted, that already its sale has been impaired since that fatal discovery.
If Milton has tried to avoid shocking orthodox Christians by his Arianism, which the necessity of poetical anthropomorphism perhaps imperiously demanded, he was on the other hand led astray, (and again by the peculiarity of his subject,) to indulge his natural taste for dogmatic and controversial theology, by giving us his own views on the nature and attributes of spiritual beings, and to give to these views advisedly, and quite unnecessarily, a provoking distinctness.
refer only to one instance the elaborate demonstration that angels require food, (Par. Lost, V. 404.) mixed up with the crudest notions on physical science that could disfigure a noble poem (Par. Lost, V. 407):
"And food alike those pure
Intelligential substances require,
As doeth your rational; and both contain
Within them every lower faculty
Of sense, whereby they hear, see, smell, touch, taste;
Tasting concoct, digest, assimilate,
As may compare with Heaven; and to taste
The Angel, nor in mist, the common gloss
Of real hunger and concoctive heat
To transubstantiate what redounds, transpires
Can turn, or holds it possible to turn
Metals of drossiest ore to perfect gold."
The subject of "Paradise Lost" has been found to contain elements, that make it in some degree intractable material for an epic poem. Let us now examine, if this defect is perhaps compensated by an abundance of other qualities, which may deserve the high praise bestowed upon it by Mr. Hallam and other critics. This leads us to inquire, what are the qualities of a subject matter, or to use a technical term, a fable, which are the most favourable for the successful exercise of the epic poet's genius. The answer seems to be simple. The fable must abound in opportunities for exhibiting the moral, intellectual and physical qualities of men in their contact with one another, with nature and God in as great a variety as possible, and in such situations, as will create the sympathy of joy or sorrow in the reader's heart, and will tend to raise and ennoble his sentiments. The persons introduced by the epic poet must be varied to avoid monotony and dullness, they must be such, that we can put ourselves in their places; their actions, their trials, misfortunes, or joys, must be akin to those which agitate our own hearts.
How are these postulates complied with by the fable of “Paradise Lost?" In the first place the agents are few in number, and this necessarily sets a limit to great variety. The Deity is not prominent, and perhaps too prominent, as it is. Then there are the angels, the fallen spirits, Adam and Eve; five characters to fill up a poem of such length.*
I anticipate and I shall answer the objection, that there are many angels, acting different parts, and demons likewise. This is true arithmetically, but not poetically. If we count up the seraphs and the various spirits of hell, who are mentioned by name, or take a part in
If we reckon Sin, Death, Chaos, and Night, we obtain a few more actors; but they are extraneous to the progress of the action; they are not dramatis persone, but symbolical decorations of the scenes. They will be spoken of below.
+ The catalogue of the second book has this defect, that it contains many names which are not further referred to in the story. Homer's catalogue (Iliad, II. Book,) enumerates the heroes who really take a part in the war. But Milton's Satanic host only passes review in the second book. Few of them are even mentioned in the sixth; for the rest of the poem they do not exist. Hallam's Lit. of Europe, IV. 5, 32.
the action, we shall indeed obtain a larger number of acting persons; but the characters of these spiritual agents are necessarily so devoid of individuality, that nothing attributed to any of them could not have been equally performed by any of the rest. It is the same person acting under different names. The archangel Raphael relates to Adam the fall of Lucifer; Michael draws the veil from future ages; Abdiel returns faithful from the rebellious spirits. What is there in the peculiarity of Raphael, that would make him less fit to relate the murder of Abel than the battle of the spiritual hosts, or to prove his fidelity to God like Abdiel; he cannot be thought either less prophetic or less faithful than his fellow angels. On the other hand-is not Satan the whole Satanic host? What are Beelzebub and Moloch and Belial in the Pandemoniac council, but the expression of some slight shade of thought? Their harangues might have been embodied in a lengthened monologue of Satan; there would be no inconsistency if the hesitation of Belial was put into the mouth of Satan as a momentary doubt.* And granted that in the council there is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference of sentiment, is there not perfect uniformity of action? In the battle the exploits of one might as well have been ascribed to another, there is a variety of names but no variety of individual character.
What is the cause of this defect? Is the poet to blame or the subject? No doubt Milton might have varied the monotonous unanimity of hell by introducing discord, angry feelings, distrust, treason, mutual accusation and recrimination, and other varieties of evil passions among the followers of Satan. On the other hand he was debarred by the nature of his subject from making these beings really interesting to man by an admixture of virtues.†
*Not so monologue-like is the debate in the council of the Greeks (Iliad, II. Book.) The parts of Agamemnon and Thersites are different in every respect.
+He has preferred representing them in perfect concord, (II. 496—“ Devil with devil damned firm concord holds,") perhaps to preserve conformity with Scripture. To introduce a variety of other evil passions was very difficult. Milton hardly attempted it, and where he did, he failed.
This concord is no virtue, as Milton would have it appear, but conspiracy.-The poet says of Belial, II., 115:
"His thoughts were low,
To vice industrious, yet to nobler deeds
What "noble deeds" can be attributed to a fallen angel? Not surely the war with the Almighty, which Belial dissuaded. Yet it would almost appear so, for (verse 227) he is said to have "counselled ignoble ease and peaceful sloth." We cannot justify the poet for calling the rebellion of the evil spirits a noble deed. It is a blemish of a different kind, though flowing from the same source, to make Mammon, (I. 679,)
"The least erected spirit that fell From Heaven; for e'en in Heaven his looks and thoughts