William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

. (page 97 of 169)
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some dread as unfriendly to original thought.
Let such •remember that mind is in its own
nature dl£^ve. Its object is the univene,
which is strictly one, or bound together by
infinite connections and correspondences ;
and accordingly its natural progress is from
one to another field of thought ; and wher-
ever original power, creative genius exists,
the mind, far from being distracted or
oppressed hy the variety of its acquisitions,
will see more and more common bearings
and hidden and beautiful analogies in all the
objects of knowledge, will see mutual light
shed from truth to truth, and will compel, as
with a kingly power, whatever it understands,
to yield sotne tribute of proof, or illustra-
tion, or splendour, to whatever topic it would
unfold.

Milton's fame rests chiefly on his poetry,
and to this we naturally give our flrst>tten-
tion. By those who are accustomed to speak
of poetry as light reading, Milton's eminence
in this sphere may be considered only as
giving him a high rank among the contri-
butors to public amusement. Not so thought
Milton. Of all God's gifu of intellect, he
esteemed poetical genius the most transcen-
dent. He esteemed it in hhnself as a kind
of inspiration, and wrote his great works with
sone&ing of the conscious dimity of a pro-
phet. ^Ve aflree with Milton m his estimate
of poetry. It seems to us the divinest of all
arts; for it is the breathing or expression of
that pnindple or sentiment which is deepest
and sublimest in human nature; we mean, of
that thirst or aspimtion to which no mind is
wholly a stranger, for something purer and
k>velier. something more powerful, k>fty, and
thriUfaig, than ordinary and real life affords.
No doctrine is more common among Chris-
tiaas than that of man's immortaUty ; but it
is not so geaerally understood that the germs
or principles of his whole future being are
iMW wrapped up in his soul, as the rudiments
of the future plant in the seed. As a neces-
sary result of this constitution, the soul, pos-
sessed and moved by these mighty though
infant energies, is perpetually stretching be-
yond what is present and visible, struggling
against the bounds of its earthly prison-house,
and seeking relief and joy in imagining of
imociii ax>d ideal being. This view of our



nature, which has never been fUly developed,
and which goes farther towards explaining
the contradictions of human life than all
others, carries us to the very foundation and
sources of poetry. He who cannot interpret
by his own consciousness what we now have
said, wants the true key to works of genius.
He has not penetrated those secret recesses
of the soul where poetry is bom and nourished,
and inhales immortal vigour, and wings her-
self for her heavenward flight. In an intel-
lectual nature, framed for progress and for
higher modes of being, there must be creative
energies, powers of original and ever-growing
thought; and poetry is the form in which
these energies are chiefly manifested. It is
the glorious prerogative of this art, that it
*• makes all things new" for the gratification
of a divine instinct. It indeed finds its ele-
ments in what it actually sees and experiences,
in the worlds of matter and mind ; but it com-
bines and blends these into new forms and
according to new affinities; breaks down, if
we may so say, the distinctions and bounds of
nature ; imparts to material objects life, and
sentiment, and emotion, and invests the mind
with the powers and splendours of the out-
ward creation ; describes the surrounding
universe in the colours which the passions
throw over it, and depicts the soul m those
modes of repose or agitation, of tenderness
or sublime emotion, which manifest its thirst
for a more powerful and joyful existence. To
a man of a literal and prosaic character, the
mind may seem lawless in these workings;
but it observes higher laws than it trans-
gresses— the laws of the immortal intellect;
it is trying and developing its best faculties;
and in the objects which it describes, or in
the emotions which it awakens, anticipates
those states of progressive power, splendour,
beauty, and happiness, for which it was
created.

We accordingly believe that poetry, far
from injurin? soaety, is one of the great in-
struments of its refinement and exaltation.
It lifts the mind above ordinary life, gives it
a respite from depressing cares, and awakens
the consciousness of its affinity with what is
ptve and noble. In its legitimate and highest
efforts, it has the same tendency and aim with
Christianity; that is, to spiritualize our nature.
True, poetry has been made the instrument of
vice, the pander of bad passions ; but, when
genius thus stoops, it dims its fires, and parts
with much of its power; and, even when
poetry is enslaved to licentiousness or mis-
anthropy, she cannot wholly forget her true
vocation. Strains of pure feeling, touches of
tenderness, images of innocent happiness,
sympathies with suffering virtue, bursts of
scorn or indignation at the hoUowness of the
world, passages true to our moral nature,



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often escape in an immoral worlc, and show
us how hard it is for a gtfted spirit to divorce
itself wholly from what is good. Poetry has
a natural alliance with our best affections. It
delights in the beauty and sublimity of the
outward creation and of the soul. It indeed
portrays, with terrible energy, the excesses of
the passions; but they are passions which
show a mighty nature, which are full of
power, which command awe, and excite a
deep though shuddering sympathy. Its
great tendency and purpose is, to carry the
mind beyond and above the beaten, dusty,
weary walks of ordinary life ; to lift it into a
purer element ; and to breathe into it more
profound and generous emotion. It reveals
to us the loveliness of nature, brings back the
freshness of early feeling, revives the relish of
simple pleasures, keeps unquenched the en-
thusiasm which warmed the spring-time of
our being, refines youthful love, strengthens
our interest in human natiu^ by vivid deli-
neations of its tenderest and loftiest feelings,
spreads our sympathies over all classes of
society, knits us by new ties >vith universal
being, and, through the brightness of its
prophetic visions, helps faith to lay hold on
the future life.

We are aware that it is objected to poetry
that it p^ves wrong views and excites false
expectations of life, peoples the mind with
shadows and illusions, and builds up ima-
gination on the ruins of wisdom. That there
is a wisdom against which poetry wars — the
wisdom of the senses, which makes physical
comfort and gratification the supreme good,
and wealth the chief interest of life— we do
not deny; nor do we deem it the least service
which poetry renders to mankind, that it re-
deems them from the thraldom of this earth-
bom prudence. But, passing over this topic,
we would observe that the complaint against
poetry, as abounding in illusion and decep-
tion, is in the main groundless. In many
poems there is more of truth than in many
histories and philosophic theories. The fic-
tions of genius are often the vehicles of the
sublimest verities, and its flashes often open
new regions of thought, and throw new light
on the mysteries of our being. In poetry,
when the letter is falsehood, the spirit is often
profoundest wisdom. And, if truth thus
dwells in the boldest fictions of the poet,
much more may it be expected in his deli-
neations of life ; for the present life, which
is the first stage of the immortal mind,
abounds in the materials of poetry, and it is
the high office of the bard to detect this
divine element among the grosser labours
and pleasures of our eartlily being. The pre-
sent life is not wholly prosaic, precise, tame,
and finite. To the gifted eye it atx}unds
in the poetic. The affections, which spread



beyond ourselves and stretch Us into fotn-
rity ; the workings of mighty passions, m-hicfa
seem to arm the soul with an almost super-
human energy; the innocent and iirepnessible
joy of infancy; the bloom, and buoyancy,
and dazzling hopes of youth ; the throbbings
of the heart, when it first wakes to love, and
dreams of a happiness too vast for earth ;
woman, with her beauhr, and grace, and
gentleness, and fulness of feeling, and depth
of affection, and blushes of puritv, atmi the
tones and looks which only a mother's heart
can inspire; — these are all poetical. It is
not true that the poet paints a life wbtdi
does not exist. He only extracts and con-
centrates, as it were, life's ethereal essence,
arrests and condenses its volatile fragrance,
brings together its scattered beauties, and
prolongs its more refined bat evanescent
joys. And in this he does well; for it is
good to feel that life is not wholly usurped
by cares for subsistence and physical gratifi*
cations, but admits, in measises whicn may
be indefinitely enlarged, sentiments and de-
lights worthy of a higher being. This pofwer
of poetry to refine our views of life and hap*
piness, is more and more needed as society
advances. It is needed to withstand the
encroachments of heartless and artifidal
manners, which make dvilixation so tame
and uninteresting. It is needed to couih
teract the tendency of physical scieoce,
which, being now sought, not as fonaeriy.
for intellectual gratification, but for nmht-
plying bodily comforts, requires a new de-
velopment of imagination, taste, and poetry,
to preserve men from sinking into an earthly,
material, Epicurean life.— Our remarks in
vindication of poetry have extended beyond
our original design. They have had a higher
aim than to assert the dignity of Milton «s
a poet, and that is, to endoir and reoon>>
mend this divine art to all who reverence
and would cultivate and refine their natuie.

In delineating Milton's character as %.po^
we are saved the necessity of looking far for
its distinguishing attributes. His name is
almost identified with sublimity. He is in
truth the sublimest of men. He rises, not by
effort or discipline, but by a native tendency
and a godUke instinct, to the contemf^atwn
of objects of grandeur and awfulness. He
always moves with a conscious eoetgy.
There is no subject so >'ast or terrific as to
repel or intimidate him. The overpowering
gmndeur of a theme kindles and cutracts
him. He enters on the description of the
infernal regions with a fearless tread, as if
he felt within himself a power to erect tbe
prison-house of fallen spirits, to endide
them with flames and horrors worthy of
their crimes, to call forth from them shoots
which should "t^ar heU'« concave," and *«|



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Wntjody in ttieir Chief an Archangel's ener-
gies and a Demon's pride and hate. Even
the stupendous conception of Satan seems
never to oppress his faculties. This cha-
racter of power runs through all Milton's
works. His descriptions of nature show a
free and bold hand. He has no need of
the minute, graphic skill which we prize in
Cowpcr or Crabbe. With a few strong or
delicate touches, he impresses, as it were,
his own mind on the scenes which he would
describe, and kindles the imagination of the
gifted reader to clothe them with the same
radiant hues under which they appeared to
his own.

This attribute of power is universally felt
to characterize Milton. His sublimity is in
every roan's mouth. Is it felt that his poetry
breathes a sensibility and tenderness hardly
surpassed by its sublimity? We apprehend
that the grandeur of Milton's mmd has
thrown some shade over his milder beauties ;
and this it has done, not only by being more
striking and imping, but by the tendency
of vast mental energy to give a certain calm-
ness to the expression of tenderness and deep
foding. A great mind is the roaster of its
own enthusiasm, and does not often break
out into those tumults which pass with many
for the signs of profound emotion. Its sen-
sibility, though more intense and enduring,
is more self-possessed and less perturbed
than that of other men, and is therefore less
observed and felt, except by those who im-
derstand, through their own consciousness,
the workings and utterance of gaiuine feel-
ing. We might quote pages in illustration
of the qualities here ascribed to Milton.
Turn to "Comus," one of his earliest pro-
ductions. What sensibility breathes in the
descriptions of the benighted Lad/s singing,
by Comus and the Spirit I

** Comus.— Can any mortal mixture of earth*! mould
Breadic »uch divine enchanting rarishment f
Sore wmething holy lodges in that breast,
A«d viih diese raptures mores the vocal air
To veaXf his hidden resideikce :
How nreetly did thev float upon the viogt
Of silence, through inc empty-vaultrd night.
At crcry &I1 smoothing the rareii down
Of darkness till it smiled I I have oft heard
ytj mother Circe with thfe Sirens three,
AoiJdst the flowery«kirtled Naiadc^
Cttiliog their potent herbs, and baleful drags.
Who, as th«y sun^, would Ltke the prisonM soul
And hp it in Ely$ium ; Scylla wept.
And chid her barking waves into attention.
And fell Charybdis mormurM soft apjdauw :
Yet tbey in pteasing shmber hilled the sense,
Ar.d in sweet madness robb*d it of itself;
But snch a sacred and home-felt delight,
Such sober certainty of waking bliss,
I ucrcf heard till now." X««" 144— *&4-

**Spiarr. — At last a soft and sokmn-breathing souud
Itose like a steam of rich distilTd perfumes,
And stole upon the air^ that even Silcaco



Was took ere she was Vatt, and wished she might

Deny her natme, and be never more.

Still to be so disphtced. I was all ear.

And took in strains that might create a soul

Under the ribs of death." Lintt 55$— s6j.

In illustration of Milton's tenderness, we
¥riU open almost at a venture.

** Now Mom, her rosy steps in th* eastern clime
Advancing, sow*d the earth with orient pearl.
When Adam waked, so customM, fixr his sleep
Was aery-light, from pore digestion bred.
And temperate vapours bland, which th* only sound
Of leaves and fuming rills, Aurora^s fan.
Lightly dispersed, and the shrill matin song
Of birds on every boueh ; so much the more
His wonder was to fiitd unwakenM Eve
With tresses diKomposed, and gkiwine cheek.
As through unquiet rat: He, on hb side
Leaning half-raised, with looks of cordial love
Hung over her enamour*d, and beheld
Beauty, which, whether waking or asleep.
Shot forth peculiar graces ; then with voice
Mild, as wnen Zephyras on Flora breathe^
Her hand soft touching, whi^er*d thus : Awake,
My fiurest, mv espoused^ my latest ibnnd.
Heaven's last best |ift, my ever new delight.
Awake ! the morning shines, and the froh field
Calls us: we lose Ac prime, to mark how spring
Our teniter plants, how blows the citnm grove.
What drops the mjrrrb, and what the balmy reed.
How nature paints her colours, how the bee
8iti 00 the bloom extracting liquid sweet."

Ft. Luty B. V* Uiut 1—35.

^^60 cheerM he his fiur spouse, and she was cheer*d ;
But silently a gentle tear let £U1
From cither ey^ and wiped them with her hair;
Two other precious drop that ready stood
Each fa) dien* crystal shuce, he ere they fell
Kissed, as the gracious signs of sweet remorse.
And pioui awe that fearM to have offimded.**

Par, Lm^ B, V. Umtt ix^^i];.

Prom this very imperfect view of the qua-
lities of Milton s poetry, we hasten to his
great work, •' Paradise Lost," perhaps the
noblest momunent of human genius. The
two first books, by universal consent, stand
pre-eminent in sublimity. Hell and hell's
king have a terrible harmony, and dilate
into new grandeur and awfulness, the longer
we contemplate them. From one element,
"solid and liquid fire," the poet has framed
a world of horror and suffering, such as ima-

fination had never traversed. But fiercer
ames than those which encompass Satan,
bum in his own soul. Revenge, exasperated
pride, consuming wrath, ambition, though
fallen, yet unconquered by the thunders of
the Omnipotent, and g^rasping still at the
empire of the universe, — these form a picture
more sublime and terrible than hell. Hell
yields to the spirit which it imprisons. The
intensity of its fires reveals the intenser pas-
sions and more vehement will of Satan ; and
the ruined archangel gathers into himself the
sublimity of the scene which surrounds him.
This forms the tremendous interest of these
^Tondcrfiil books. We see mind triumphant



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ON TUB CHABACTEk AND



over tbe most terrible powers of nature. We
see unutterable agony subdued by energy of
soul. We have not inde^ in Satan those
bursts of passion which rive the soul, as well
as shatter the outward frame, of Lear. But we
have a depth of passion whicii only an arch-
angel could manifest. The all-enduring, all-
defying pride of Satan, assuming so majesti-
cally hell's burning throne, and coveting the
diadem which soorchef his thunder-blasted
brow, is a creation requiring in its author
almost the spiritual eneigy with which he in-
vests the fallen seraph. Some have doubted
whether the moral effect of such delineations
of the storms and terrible workings of the
soul is good ; whether the inteiest felt in a
spirit so transcendently evil as Satan, fkvours
otu* sympathies with virtue. But our interest
fastens, in this and lilce cases, on what is not
evil. We gaze on Satan with an awe not
unmixed with mysterious pleasure* as on a
miraculous manifestation of the fcwit of
mind. What chains us, as with a resistless
spell, in such a character, is spiritual might
made visible by the raclcing pains which it
overpowers. There is something kindling
and ennobling in the consciousness, however
awakened, of the energy which resides in
mind; and many a virtuous man has bor-
rowed new strength from the force, con-
stancy, and dauntless coumge of evil agents.
Milton's description of Satan attests in
various ways the power of his genius. Critics
have often observed, that the great difficulty
of his work was, to reconcile the spiritual
properties of his superaatural beings with
the human modes of existence which he is
obliged to ascribe to them. The difficulty is
too great for any genius whollv to overcome,
and we must acknowledge that our enthu-
siasm is in some parts of the poem checked
by a feeling of incongruity between the
spiritual ^ent and hii sphere and mode of
(^ency. But we are visited with no such
cnillicL^ doubts and misgivings in the descrip-
tion oT Satan in hell. Imagination has here
achieved its highest triumph, in imparting a
character of reality and truth to its most
daring creations. That world of horrors,
though material, is yet so remote from our
ordiiury natiu-e, that a spiritual being, exiled
from heaven, finds there an appropriate home.
There is, too, an indefiniteness in the descrip-
tion of Satan's person, which excites without
shocking the imagination, and aids us to
reconcile, in our conception of him, a human
form with his superhuman attributes. To the
production of this effect, much depends on
the first impression given by the poet; for
this is apt to follow us through the whole
work ; and here we think Milton emineivtly
successful The first glimpse of Satan is
given us in the following lines, which, whilst



too indefinite to provoke, and too sublime to
allow, the scrutiny of the reason, fill tbe ima-
gination of the reader with a form which can
hardly be effiaoed :—

^Thot Satan, udking to Ids nearest mate
With head aptitt abore the ware, andercs
That sparkliai Wased ; his odwr parts bcsidea
Prone ou the Sood, extended kM^ and lafge.
Lay floating ouny a rood.*'

Tar. Lutf B. I. thus I9t<~i96.

" Forthwith uptight he rears from off the pool
His mighty suture : on each hand the flame%
Driven backward, slope their pointing spires, and, ralTd
In bUlows, leare 1* the midst a hotrid Tale.**

JUMf ati - 4i4.

We have more which we would gladly say
of the delineation of Sataii, especi^y of the
glimpses which are now and then given of
his deep anguish and despair, and of the
touches of better feelings which are skilfully
thrown into the dark picture, both suited
and designed to blend, with our admiration,
dread, and abhorrence, a measure of that
^mpathy and interest with which every
hviiig, thinking being ought to be regarded,
and without whidi all other feelings tend to
sin and pain. But there is another topic
which we cannot leave untouched. From
hell we flee to Paradise, a region as lovely
as hell is terrible, and which, to those who
do not know tbe universality of true genius,
will ai^)ear doubly wonderful, when considered
as the creation ik the same mind which had
painted the infernal world.

Paradise and its inhabitants are in sweet
accordance, and together form a scene of
tranquil bliss, which calms and soothes,
whilst it delights, the imagination. Adam
and Eve, just moulded by the band and

auickened by the breath of God, reflect in
leir countenances and forms, as well as
minds, the intelligence, benignity, and hap-
piness of their Author. Their new existence
has the freshness and peacefiilne^ of tbe
dewy morning. Their souls, unsated and
untainted, find an innocent jov in the youth-
ful creation, which spreads and smiles around
them. Their mutual love is deep, for it is
the love of young, unworn, unexfaatisted
hearts, which meet in each other the only
human objects on whom to pour forth their
fulness of affection ; and still it is serene, for
it is the love of happy beings, who know not
suffering even by name, whose innoeence ex-
cludes not only the tumults but the thought
of jealousy and shame, who, "imparadised
in one another's arms," scarce dream of futu-
rity, so blessed is their present being. We
will not say that we envy our first parents; ftr
we feel that there may be higher happiodss
than theirs—a happiness won through siri^j^gle
with inward and outward foes - tbe happiness
of power and moral victory - lhe happijoeavi



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447



disinterested sacrifices and wide-spread love —
tlie happiness of boundless hope, and of
** thoughts which wander through eternity."
Still there are times when the spirit, op-
pressed with pain, worn with toil, tired of
tumult, sick at the sight of guilt, wounded in
its love, baffled in its hope, and trembling in
itt &ith. almost longs for the "wings of a
dove, that it might fly away" and take re-
fuge amidst the ' ' shady bowers, " the ' * vernal
airs," the "roses without thorns," the quiet,
the beauty, the loveliness of Eden. It is the
contrast of this deep peace of Paradise with
the stonns of life which gives to the fourth
and fifth books of this poem a charm so irre-
sistible, that not a few would sooner relinquish
the two first books, with all their sublimity,
than part with these. It has sometimes beoi
•aid that the English language has no good
pastoral poetiy. we would a^, in what age
or country has the pastoral reed breathed
such sweet strains as are borne to us on *' the
odoriferous winga of gentle gales" firom Mil-
ton's P»adise?

We should not fulfil our duty were we not
to say one word on what has been justly cele-
brated, the hoiraony of Milton's versification.
His numbers have the prime charm of expres-
siveness. Th^ vaiy with, and answer to, the
depth, or tenderness, or sublimity of his con-
ceptiottt, and hold intimate alliance with the
souL Like Michael Angelo. in whose hands
the marble was said to be flexible, he bends
our language^ which foreigners reproach with
hardness, taito whatever forms the sublet
demands. AH the treasures of sweet and
solemn sound am at his command. Words,
harsh and discordant in the writings of less
gifted men, flow through his poetry in a full
stream of harmony. This power over lan-
guage is not to be ascribed to Milton's musi-
cal ear. It bekxigs to the soul. It is a gift
or exercise of gemus, which has power to
impress itsdf on whatever it touches, and
finds or fiames, in sounds, motions, and
material forms^ correspondences and hanno-
nies with its own fervid thoughts and feelings.

We dose our remarks on Milton's poetry
with oibserving, that it is characterised t^
•eriousness. Great aikl various as are its
merits, it does not discover all the variety of
genius which we find in Shakspeare, whose
tmaginatkm revelled equally in regions of
mirth, beauty, and terror, now evoking
spe d re s , now spotting with fairies, and now
"ascending the highest heaven of invention."



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 97 of 169)