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The shapes of the fallen angels are not discernible in the gloom of hell by the lurid gleam of those flames "from which no light but rather darkness visible serves only to discover sights of woe." But without light and shade no picture has roundness of form, or life-like plasticity. Unqualified and unrelieved depravity does not interest, it is not one of the things we feel to be real or possible; it is an abstraction and an idea, not a thing, that we can perfectly realise in truth.
It is a great mistake to say, that Satan appears in too favourable a light, and that he is the real hero of the poem. He has, in truth, no qualities, which are good in themselves, but only such, which may be sanctified by serving a good end, as fortitude, endurance, courage. Who can admire them, unless he admires the end for which they are called into play? The virtue of courage is the offspring of righteousness. It steels the sinews of the man who feels justice on his side; it forsakes him, who is inwardly conscious of wrong, and leaves him exposed to the irresistible strength and divine fortitude of justice and of truth.
As the fallen spirits are necessarily represented as totally alienated from God, and all that is acceptable in his sight, so on the other hand,
Were always downward bent, admiring more
Milton was conscious of the dilemma, in which he was placed by the nature of his fable. On the one side he attributes to the fallen angels, on philosophical grounds, "semblance of worth, not substance," (I. 529); and on the other, he is, by aesthetic motives, compelled to admit (II. 432,) “ that neither do the spirits damned lose all their virtue." As regards the poem, the latter admission is theoretical, the former practical; that is to say, the poet acts upon the former conviction throughout his work, and the latter thesis is inserted like a mental reservation, to keep open a back door in an argument. This element of contradiction is not confined to the just-mentioned case. It is found also in those passages which treat of fate. In all of them, with one exception, fate is represented like the fatum of the ancients, as a fixed all-ruling power, even beyond that of the Deity. This offensive doctrine cannot be considered as practically set aside in the poem, by that one passage, in which God says: "What I will, is fate." In a work of fiction we cannot proceed as systematically as in a scientific treatise. We cannot expect, that a definition given in one part of the work, should be rigidly applied everywhere. Persons and things must appear, what they are, from the mode in which they generally act and are spoken of; they must not require, that the true light should be thrown upon them only from one passage. Suppose that passage lost, everything else should remain discernible. To illustrate my meaning,--if Homer had wished to represent Penelope as a second Helen, it would have been nothing to the purpose, had he said in a line or two, that she was false to her husband. Our impression is the result of what we see her do; we could not form a different opinion of her even on the authority of the poet, unless he made her act differently. If we saw the name of Athene under a statue of Aphrodite, we should not be convinced that it was the Goddess of Arts, even should the sculptor himself have chiselled the letters. Thus, to return to the point, from which we started, the spirits of Milton's hell are thoroughly wicked, because they act willingly in direct opposition to God, nor can we invest them with any good qualities, although the poet may say, that they had some left.
the angels stand at the opposite extreme of unalloyed purity; they are all lost to our vision in a dazzling brilliancy of resplendent light. They are without sin and even without weakness appreciable to us; they are consequently all not only of one mould, but of one so superhuman, that we look at their actions without ever venturing to identify ourselves with them; they may command our admiration but they cannot gain human sympathy.*
I come now to speak of the human beings which the fable of 'Paradise Lost" furnishes. There are indeed two human beings, but alas, they are hardly human. Adam is not like one of ourselves; he cannot feel and think and act as men do in human society. He is placed under conditions such as no other human being ever was since; he is of his own kind, incapable of experiencing the thousand-fold variety of human feelings and passions to which his descendants owe so much of misery and of bliss. He has only Eve to associate with; both are virtuous and happy; they are provided with every want, they can gratify every wish, they know neither pain, nor denial, nor hostility, nor anything to make them truly moral agents; there is but one fault that they can be guilty of. In the one act of disobedience is summed up their sinfulness. On this subject the remarks of Dr. Johnson are so just and concise, that I cannot do better than transcribe them, p. 166, "Such is the original formation of this poem, that as it admits no human manners till the fall, it can give little assistance to human conduct," p. 171, "The plan of Paradise Lost' has this inconvenience, that it comprises neither human actions nor human manners,” p. 173, "The want of human interest is always felt."
What a difference is presented by the fables of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey!" Gods and men in an infinite variety of age, of station, of sex, of rank, of power and influence; from the majesty of Zeus, who shakes heaven and earth with the nod of his head, to the low scurrility of Irus the beggar parasite, and the petulance of Thersites the hunchback what is there of human beauty or deformity, what of magnanimity or of vice, which does not furnish its vigorous colours to the adornment of those grandest and most truthful of pictures? Here we
All that Johnson can say on this topic is this, (p. 163,) "Among the angels the virtue of Raphael is mild and placid, of easy condescension and free communication; that of Michael is regal and lofty, and, as may seem, attentive to the dignity of his own nature. Abdiel and Gabriel appear occasionally and act as every incident requires. The solitary fidelity of Abdiel is very amiably painted." After descanting on Satan he says, (ibid) "The other chiefs of the celestial rebellion are very judiciously discriminated in the first and second books; and the ferocious character of Moloch appears both in the battle and the council with exact consistency."
meet with the venerable Nestor, the fond eulogist of the past generation, and the youthful Achilles, the hope, not to be realised, of the future; the imperious sternness and implacability of Agamemnon; the cunning and daring of Odysseus; the heroic devotion of Hector; the conjugal fidelity of Penelope; the seductive charms of Helen; and Andromache's maternal tenderness, that breaks out into tears, when her foreboding spirit foresees the approaching orphanhood of the child at her bosom.
We cannot exhaust or even indicate the exuberance of forms which the fertile soil of the Homeric fables shoots forth, to display all the luxuriance of the richest colours, in the vivifying light of the poet's genius. When with the illusion of a lively imagination we have evoked before our eyes these gorgeous pictures, and suddenly turn to the sublime sameness, the grand and majestic monotony of the "Paradise Lost," we can fancy to realise the feelings with which the desert traveller returns to the dreary reality of a sandy waste, sublime though awful, from the momentary enchantment in which he had gazed upon the waving trees and glittering cupolas of a Fata Morgana.*
The great superiority of the Homeric fables over that of the "Paradise Lost" is not confined to the greater variety of the material, and to the intensity of human interest, excited by it. As a religious epic, it was so far from giving offence to the pious feelings of many generations of Greeks, that it almost supplied the want of a sacred volume, and became, to a great extent, the highest authority in matters of religion. It was Homer, that inspired Phidias to the divine conception of his Olympic Zeus, and around this masterpiece of the combined genius of poet and sculptor it was, that, for ages and ages, the solemn assemblies of the scattered tribes of the Hellenes were gathered to celebrate their festive games, to sing their enraptured odes, and to display the whole of their gay religion, full of pomp, gold, and pride; it adorned the altar of the centre of the Greek religion, and that of the Greek brotherhood.
Such was the fable of the Homeric poems; and such the contrast of that of the "Paradise Lost." Without attempting totally to exhaust the subject, let us now proceed to inquire into the design, that is, the plan and structure of the poem.
The plan of the "Paradise Lost" is in all essentials that of the "Odyssey," and it has therefore all the merits and all the demerits of
Addison says, "The angels are indeed as much diversified in Milton, and distinguished by their proper parts, as the Gods are in Homer or Virgil." How could a classical scholar write this?
an imitation. It stands in this respect on a level with Virgil's “Aeneid.” In both, we miss the vigour of originality, which imparts peculiar charms to Dante and to the Niebelungen.
The poet begins in the middle of his story, and brings up the beginning in the form of a narrative by one of the acting persons. The prophetic revelations of the fate of the human race, made by Michael to Adam, are framed after the visions which Odysseus and Aeneas are represented to have seen in the nether world. The prominence given to material battles is quite in the spirit and after the model of the antique, especially the "Iliad." There is little variety in respect of design. Once adopting the Greek style of Architecture, we have little choice and freedom. All the outlines and proportions of our structure are given with the fixedness almost of a natural law; we have only to accommodate it to our site, and we may indulge in a few slight modifications of detail. The general plan will not admit of much innovation. No modern architect has ever shown originality in the Greek style of ecclesiastical architecture, except where he has been led astray to the barbarous hybridism of a style half gothic, half Greek, vainly attempting to be original by combining incongruous elements. I have therefore, very little to say on this subject. It is true, the design of "Paradise Lost" is not original, but it is a successful reproduction of the chaste style of the unrivalled Ionic model.
Intimately connected with the enquiry into the design, is that into the management of detail and embellishments. This is for the parts, what the design is for the whole. And as in architecture the decorations and the arrangement of parts grow out of and are intimately connected with the general plan; so the plan of an epic poem is intimately connected with and essentially qualified by the tone and spirit with which persons and circumstances, events and actions, sentiments and natural agents are described. The imagery, allusions, illustrations, the whole poetical apparatus are of such importance, that their selection very much qualifies the judgment which is to be passed on the design, and on the whole poem. It seems sometimes part of the design, and inseparable from it, or hardly distinguishable, and therefore our inquiry into this part of "Paradise Lost" may be looked upon by those who like, as affecting the design.
It is a natural rule of Architecture, that the detail and the decoration of a building, should be in the character of the style. We have compared the design of the "Paradise Lost" to that of a Greek temple. But it is not sacred to a Greek deity; it is like a christian church conceived in, and devoted to the spirit of our sacred books. Then what
is the meaning of heathen gods and heroes filling the pediments and the metopes and the frieze? Is this demanded by the adopted style, or does not the object to which the building is devoted, demand different decorations? Nothing has been so generally blamed in Milton as his frequent allusions to Greek mythology, nor are these objections unfounded, as we shall presently see.
What is the rationale of these objections? It cannot be, that the Greek mythology is in itself devoid of beauty. Nobody ever found fault with Homer,or Pindar, or Aeschylus, for the ever charming forms of Olympic beauty, which they introduced into their poems. Nor is our aesthetic objection a puritanical aversion to images, or even to heathen gods. We justly admire a group of Venus and the Graces, if the sculptor's chisel has been inspired by true art. We hang up in our Museums the masterly productions of Rubens and Titian, even when they represent goddesses, and nymphs and satyrs. Why object to Chaos, or Saturn, or Mulciber in "Paradise Lost?" It is this, that these figures offend against the spirit of truth. We do not like to hear them spoken of as realities by a man, who, like ourselves, knows them to be fictions. Grave, and venerable and truth-loving to austerity as Milton must ever appear, there is in his employment of Greek mythology almost a dash of frivolity. The poet is playing with beings whom he professes to believe to be devils, but whom he really looks upon as poetical imagery, as mere productions of fancy. There is neither a poetical nor a religious conviction in the poet's mind of the reality of his mythological personages. They cannot inspire him, and they cannot of course gain the sympathy of his reader. They lack the reality of truth. They are artificial accompaniments in which we may admire skill and labour, but which cannot produce that never-failing effect of genuine poetical inspiration, wedded with truthfulness, which warms us with the poet's enthusiasm, and raises us, willing or unwilling, with him to the regions to which he soars.
It is truth, that is wanting in Milton's mythological persons; and this want makes us indifferent to them. In Homer they have the reality of life; the poet believes in them, and thus he can succeed in making us momentarily believe in their real existence, and to sympathise with whatever agitates their souls. The same effect cannot be produced by any modern author. The Greek mythology has ceased to inspire with that only true inspiration which is allied to truth and faith. It may furnish subjects for works of sculpture or painting, which never appeal to our heart and feelings like those of poetry. But even in these works it is a fatal error to mix up mythological figures with such as are true