Copyright
William Hazlitt.

Lectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. online

. (page 7 of 38)
Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 7 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


distinct from every other writer. He is a writer of centos, and yet

in originality scarcely inferior to Homer. The power of his mind

•imped on every line. The fervour of his imagination melts

D and renders malleable, as in a furnace, the most contradictory

irialB. In ; is works, we feel ourselves under the influence

of a mighty intellect, that the nearer it approaches to others, becomes

more distinct from them. The quantity of art in him shews the

strength of his genius : the weight of his intellectual obligations

would have oppressed any other writer. Milton's learning has the

58



ON SHAKSPEARE AND MILTON

effect of intuition. He describes objects, of which he could only
have read in books, with the vividness of actual observation. His
imagination has the force of nature. He makes words tell as
pictures.

1 Him followed Rimmon, whose delightful seat
Was fair Damascus, on the fertile banks
Of Abbana and Pharphar, lucid streams.'

The word lucid here gives to the idea all the sparkling effect of the
most perfect landscape.
And again :

' As when a vulture on Imaus bred,
Whose snowy ridge the roving Tartar bounds,
Dislodging from a region scarce of prey,
To gorge the flesh of lambs and yeanling kids
On hills where flocks are fed, flies towards the springs
Of Ganges or Hydaspes, Indian streams ;
But in his way lights on the barren plains
Of Sericana, where Chineses drive
With sails and wind their cany waggons light.'

It Milton had taken a journey for the express purpose, he could not
have described this scenery and mode of life better. Such passages
are like demonstrations of natural history. Instances might be
multiplied without end.

We might be tempted to suppose that the vividness with which he
describes visible objects, was owing to their having acquired an
unusual degree of strength in his mind, after the privation of his sight ;
but we find the same palpableness and truth in the descriptions which
occur in his early poems. In Lycidas he speaks of ' the great vision
of the guarded mount,' with that preternatural weight of impression
with which it would present itself suddenly to ' the pilot of sonic
small night-foundered skiff' : and the lines in the Penseroso, describing
' the wandering moon,'

' Riding near her highest noon,
Like one that had been led astray
Through the heaven's wide pathless way,'

are as if he had gazed himself blind in looking at her. There is also
the same depth of impression in his descriptions of the objects of all
the different senses, whether colours, or sounds, or smells — the same
absorption of his mind in whatever engaged his attention at the time.
It has been indeed objected to Milton, by a common perversity of
criticism, that his ideas were musical rather than picturesque, as if
because they were in the highest degree musical, they must be (to

59



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

keep the sage critical balance even, and to allow no one man to possess
two qualities at the same time) proportionably deficient in other
respects. But Milton's poetry is not cast in any such narrow,
common-place mould ; it is not so barren of resources. His worship
of the Muse was not so simple or confined. A sound arises 'like
a steam or' rich distilled perfumes ' ; we hear the pealing organ, but
the incense on the altars is also there, and the statues of the gods are
ranged around ! The ear indeed predominates over the eye, because
it is more immediately affected, and because the language of music
blends more immediately with, and forms a more natural accompani-
ment to, the variable and indefinite associations of ideas conveyed by
words. But where the associations of the imagination are not the
principal thing, the individual object is given by Milton with equal
force and beauty. The strongest and best proof of this, as a
characteristic power of his mind, is, that the persons of Adam and
Eve, of Satan, &c. are always accompanied, in our imagination, with
the grandeur of the naked figure ; they convey to us the ideas of
sculpture. As an instance, take the following :

' He soon

Saw within ken a glorious Angel stand,

The same whom John saw also in the sun :

His back was turned, but not his brightness hid ;

Of beaming sunny rays a golden tiar

Circled his head, nor less his locks behind

Illustrious on his shoulders fledge with wings

Lay waving round ; on some great charge employ "d

He seem'd, or fix'd in cogitation deep.

Glad was the spirit impure, as now in hope

To find who might direct his wand'ring flight

To Paradise, the happy seat of man,

His journey's end, ami our beginning woe.

But first he casts to change his proper shape,

Which else might work him danger or delay

And now a stripling cherub he appears,

N it of the prime, yet such as in his face

Youth smiled celestial, and to every limb

Suitable grace diffus'd, so well he feign'd :

Under a coronet his flowing hair

In curls on either cheek play'd ; wings he wore

Ot many a colour' d plume sprinkled with gold.

Hi habit fit for speed succinct, and held

Before his decent steps a silver wand.'

The figures introduced here have all the elegance and precision of
a Greek statue ; glossy and impurpled, tinged with golden light, and
musical as the strings of Memnon's harp !

6o



ON SHAKSPEARE AND MILTON

Again, nothing can be more magnificent than the portrait or
Beelzebub :

' With Atlantean shoulders fit to bear
The weight of mightiest monarchies : '

Or the comparison of Satan, as he 'lay floating many a rood,' to
• that sea beast,'

' Leviathan, which God of all his works
Created hugest that swim the ocean-stream ! '

What a force of imagination is there in this last expression ! What
an idea it conveys of the size of that hugest of created beings, as if it
shrunk up the ocean to a stream, and took up the sea in its nostrils as
a very little thing ? Force of style is one of Milton's greatest
excellences. Hence, perhaps, he stimulates us more in the reading,
and less afterwards. The way to defend Milton against all impugners,
is to take down the book and read it.

Milton's blank verse is the only blank verse in the language (except
Shakspeare's) that deserves the name of verse. Dr. Johnson, who
had modelled his ideas of versification on the regular sing-song of
Pope, condemns the Paradise Lost as harsh and unequal. I shall not
pretend to say that this is not sometimes the case ; for where a
degree of excellence beyond the mechanical rules of art is attempted,
the poet must sometimes fail. But I imagine that there are more
perfect examples in Milton of musical expression, or of an adaptation of
the sound and movement of the verse to the meaning of the passage,
than in all our other writers, whether of rhyme or blank verse, put
together, (with the exception already mentioned). Spenser is the
most harmonious of our stanza writers, as Dryden is the most sounding
and varied of our rhymists. But in neither is there any thing like the
same ear for music, the same power of approximating the varieties of
poetical to those of musical rhythm, as there is in our great epic poet.
The sound of his lines is moulded into the expression of the sentiment,
almost of the very image. They rise or fall, pause or hurry rapidly
on, with exquisite art, but without the least trick or affectation, as the
occasion seems to require.

The following are some of the finest instances :

' His hand was known

In Heaven by many a tower'd structure high ; —
Nor was his name unheard or unador'd
In ancient Greece : and in the Ausonian land
Men called him Mulciber : and how he fell
From Heaven, they fabled, thrown by angry Tove

61



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

^heer o'er the chrystal battlements; from morn

To noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,

A summer's day ; and with the setting sun

Dropt from the zenith like a falling star

On Lemnos, the ^Egean isle : thus they relate,

Erring.' —

' But chief the spacious hall

Thick swarm'd, both on the ground and in the air,
Brush'd with the hiss of rustling wings. As bees
In spring time, when the sun with Taurus rides,
Pour forth their populous youth about the hive
In clusters ; they among fresh dews and flow'rs
Fly to and fro: or on the smoothed plank,
The suburb of their straw-built citadel,
New rubb'd with balm, expatiate and confer
Their state affairs. So thick the airy crowd
Swarm'd and were straiten'd ; till the signal giv'c ;
Behold a wonder ! They but now who seem'd
In bigness to surpass earth's giant sons,
Now less than smallest dwarfs, in narrow room
Throng numberless, like that Pygmean race

oiid the Indian mount, or fairy elves,
Whose midnight revels by a forest side
Or fountain, some belated peasant sees,
Or dreams he sees, while over-head the moon
Sits arbitress, and nearer to the earth
Wheels her pale course : they on their mirth and dance
Intent, with jocund music charm his ear ;
At once with joy and fear his heart rebounds.'

1 can only give another instance, though I have some difficulty in
lea\ing off.

' Round he surveys (and well might, where he stood
So high above the circling canopy
Of night's extended shade) from th' eastern point
Of Libra to the fleecy star that bears
Ainlromeda far off Atlantic seas
B< yond the horizon : then from pole to pole
He views in breadth, and without longer pause
Down right into the world's first region throws
His flight precipitant, and winds with ease
Through the pure marble air his oblique way
Amongst innumerable stars that shone
Stars distant, but nigh hand seem'd other worlds;
Or other worlds they seem'd or happy isles,' &c.

The verse, in this exquisitely modulated passage, floats up and down



ON SIIAKSPEARE AND MILTON

as ii it had itself wings. Milton has himself given us the theory of his
versification —

* Such as the meeting soul may pierce

In notes with many a winding bout

Of linked sweetness long drawn out.

Dr. Johnson and Pope would have converted his vaulting Pegasus
into a rocking-horse. Read any other blank verse but Milton's, —
Thomson's, Young's, Cowper's, Wordsworth's, — and it will be
found, from the want of the same insight into ' the hidden soul of
harmony,' to be mere lumbering prose.

To proceed to a consideration of the merits of Paradise Lost, in
the most essential point of view, I mean as to the poetry of character
and passion. I shall say nothing of the fable, or of other technical
objections or excellences ; but I shall try to explain at once the
foundation of the interest belonging to the poem. I am ready to give
up the dialogues in Heaven, where, as Pope justly observes, ' God
the Father turns a school-divine' ; nor do I consider the battle of the
angels as the climax of sublimity, or the most successful effort of
Milton's pen. In a word, the interest of the poem arises from the
daring ambition and fierce passions of Satan, and from the account or
the paradisaical happiness, and the loss of it by our first parents.
Three-fourths of the work are taken up with these characters, and
nearly all that relates to them is unmixed sublimity and beauty. The
two first books alone are like two massy pillars of solid gold.

Satan is the most heroic subject that ever was chosen for a poem ;
and the execution is as perfect as the design is lofty. He was the
first of created beings, who, for endeavouring to be equal with the
highest, and to divide the empire of heaven with the Almighty, was
hurled down to hell. His aim was no less than the throne of the
universe ; his means, myriads of angelic armies bright, the third part
of the heavens, whom he lured after him with his countenance, and
who durst defy the Omnipotent in arms. His ambition was the
greatest, and his punishment was the greatest ; but not so his despair,
for his fortitude was as great as his sufferings. His strength of mind
was matchless as his strength of body ; the vastness of his designs
did not surpass the firm, inflexible determination with which he
submitted to his irreversible doom, and final loss of all good. His
power of action and of suffering was equal. He was the greatest
power that was ever overthrown, with the strongest will left to resist
or to endure. He was baffled, not confounded. He stood like a
tower ; or

' As when Heaven's fire

Hath scathed the forest oaks or mountain pines. 1

63



LECTURES ON THE ExNGLISH POETS

He was still surrounded with hosts of rebel angels, armed warriors,
who own him as their sovereign leader, and with whose fate he
sympathises as he views them round, far as the eye can reach ; though
he keeps aloof from them in his own mind, and holds supreme
counsel only with his own breast. An outcast from Heaven, Hell
trembles beneath his feet, Sin and Death are at his heels, and man-
kind are his easy prey.

1 All is not lost ; th' unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what else is not to be overcome,'

are still his. The sense of his punishment seems lost in the magnitude
of it ; the fierceness of tormenting flames is qualified and made
innoxious by the greater fierceness of his pride ; the loss of infinite
happiness to himself is compensated in thought, by the power of
inflicting infinite misery on others. Yet Satan is not the principle
of malignity, or of the abstract love of evil — but of the abstract love
of power, of pride, of self-will personified, to which last principle all
other good and evil, and even his own, are subordinate. From this
principle he never once flinches. His love of power and contempt
tor suffering are never once relaxed from the highest pitch of intensity.
His thoughts burn like a hell within him ; but the power of thought
holds dominion in his mind over every other consideration. The
consciousness of a determined purpose, of ' that intellectual being,
those thoughts that wander through eternity,' though accompanied
with endless pain, he prefers to nonentity, to ' being swallowed up
and lost in the wide womb of uncreated night.' He expresses the
sum and substance of all ambition in one line. ' Fallen cherub, to be
weak is miserable, doing or suffering ! ' After such a conflict as
his, and such a defeat, to retreat in order, to rally, to make terms,
to exist at all, is something ; but he does more than this — he founds
a new empire in hell, and from it conquers this new world, whither
he bends his undaunted flight, forcing his way through nether and
surrounding fires. The poet has not in all this given us a mere
shadowy outline; the strength is equal to the magnitude of the
conception. The Achilles of Homer is not more distinct ; the
Titans were not more vast ; Prometheus chained to his rock was not
a more terrific example of suffering and of crime. Wherever the
figure of Satan is introduced, whether he walks or flies, ' rising aloft
incumbent on the dusky air,' it is illustrated with the most striking
and appropriate images : so that we see it always before us, gigantic,
irregular, portentous, uneasy, and disturbed — but dazzling in its faded
64



ON SHAKSPEARE AND MILTON

splendour, the clouded ruins of a god. The deformity of Satan
is only in the depravity of his will ; he has no bodily deformity to
excite our loathing or disgust. The horns and tail are not there,
poor emblems of the unbending, unconquered spirit, of the writhing
agonies within. Milton was too magnanimous and open an antagonist
to support his argument by the bye-tricks of a hump and cloven toot ;
to bring into the fair field of controversy the good old catholic
prejudices of which Tasso and Dante have availed themselves, and
which the mystic German critics would restore. He relied on the
justice of his cause, and did not scruple to give the devil his due.
Some persons may think that he has carried his liberality too far,
and injured the cause he professed to espouse by making him the
chief person in his poem. Considering the nature of his subject, he
would be equally in danger of running into this fault, from his faith
in religion, and his love of rebellion ; and perhaps each of these
motives had its full share in determining the choice of his subject.

Not only the figure of Satan, but his speeches in council, his
soliloquies, his address to Eve, his share in the war in heaven, or in
the fall of man, shew the same decided superiority of character. To
give only one instance, almost the first speech he makes :

' Is this the region, this the soil, the clime,
Said then the lost archangel, this the seat
That we must change for Heaven ; this mournful gloom
For that celestial light ? Be it so, since he
Who now is sovVain can dispose and bid
What shall be right : farthest from him is best,
Whom reason hath equal'd, force hath made supreme
Above his equals. Farewel happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells : Hail horrors, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor : one who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater ? Here at least
We shall be free ; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence :
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.'

The whole of the speeches and debates in Pandemonium are well
worthy of the place and the occasion — with Gods for speakers, and
C 6 5



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

angels and archangels for hearers. There is a decided manly tone in
the arguments and sentiments, an eloquent dogmatism, as if each
person spoke from thorough conviction ; an excellence which Milton
probably borrowed from his spirit of partisanship, or else his spirit of
partisanship from the natural firmness and vigour of his mind. In
this respect Milton resembles Dante, (the only modern writer with
whom he has any thing in common) and it is remarkable that Dante,
as well as Milton, was a political partisan. That approximation to
the severity of impassioned prose which has been made an objection
to Milton's poetry, and which is chiefly to be met with in these bitter
invectives, is one of its great excellences. The author might here
turn his philippics against Salmasius to good account. The rout in
Heaven is like the fall of some mighty structure, nodding to its base,
'with hideous ruin and combustion down.' But, perhaps, of all the
passages in Paradise Lost, the description of the employments of the
angels during the absence of Satan, some of whom ' retreated in a
silent valley, sing with notes angelical to many a harp their own
heroic deeds and hapless fall by doom of battle,' is the most perfect
example of mingled pathos and sublimity. — What proves the truth of
this noble picture in every part, and that the frequent complaint of
want of interest in it is the fault of the reader, not of the poet, is that
when any interest of a practical kind takes a shape that can be at all
turned into this, (and there is little doubt that Milton had some such
in his eye in writing it,) each party converts it to its own purposes,
feels the absolute identity of these abstracted and high speculations ;
and that, in fact, a noted political writer of the present day has
exhausted nearly the whole account of Satan in the Paradise Lost,
by applying it to a character whom he considered as after the devil,
(though I do not know whether he would make even that exception)
the greatest enemy of the human race. This may serve to shew that
Milton's Satan is not a very insipid personage.

Cf Adam and Eve it has been said, that the ordinary reader can
teel little interest in them, because they have none of the passions,
pursuit!, or even relations of human life, except that of man and wife,
the least interesting of all others, if not to the parties concerned, at
least to the by-standers. The preference has on this account been
given to Homer, who, it is said, has left very vivid and infinitely
diversified pictures of all the passions and affections, public and
private, incident to human nature — the relations of son, of brother,
parent, friend, citizen, and many others. Longinus preferred the
Ilia 1 to the Odyssey, on account of the greater number of battles it
contains ; but I can neither agree to his criticism, nor assent to the
pre ent objection. It is true, there is little action in this part of

6fi



ON SHAKSPEARE AND MILTON

Milton's poem ; but there is much repose, and more enjoyment.
There are none of the every-day occurrences, contentions, disputes,
wars, fightings, feuds, jealousies, trades, professions, liveries, and
common handicrafts of life ; ' no kind of traffic ; letters are not
known ; no use of service, of riches, poverty, contract, succession,
bourne, bound of land, tilth, vineyard none ; no occupation, no
treason, felony, sword, pike, knife, gun, nor need of any engine.'
So much the better ; thank Heaven, all these were yet to come.
But still the die was cast, and in them our doom was sealed. In
them

* The generations were prepared • the pangs,
The interna] pangs, were ready, the dread strife
Of" poor humanity's afflicted will,
Struggling in vain with ruthless destiny/

In their first false step we trace all our future woe, with loss of
Eden. But there was a short and precious interval between, like the
first blush of morning before the day is overcast with tempest, the
dawn of the world, the birth of nature from ' the unapparent deep,'
with its first dews and freshness on its cheek, breathing odours.
Theirs was the first delicious taste of life, and on them depended all
that was to come of it. In them hung trembling all our hopes and
fears. They were as yet alone in the world, in the eye of nature,
wondering at their new being, full of enjoyment and enraptured with
one another, with the voice of their Maker walking in the garden,
and ministering angels attendant on their steps, winged messengers
from heaven like rosy clouds descending in their sight. Nature
played around them her virgin fancies wild ; and spread for them a
repast where no crude surfeit reigned. Was there nothing in this
scene, which God and nature alone witnessed, to interest a modern
critic ? What need was there of action, where the heart was full of
bliss and innocence without it ! They had nothing to do but feel
their own happiness, and ' know to know no more.' ' They toiled
not, neither did they spin ; yet Solomon in all his glory was not
arrayed like one of these.' All things seem to acquire fresh sweet-
ness, and to be clothed with fresh beauty in their sight. They tasted
as it were for themselves and us, of all that there ever was pure in
human bliss. ' In them the burthen of the mystery, the heavy and
the weary weight of all this unintelligible world, is lightened.' They
stood awhile perfect, but they afterwards fell, and were driven out of
Paradise, tasting the first fruits of bitterness as they had done of bliss.
But their pangs were such as a pure spirit might feel at the sight
— their tears 'such as angels weep.' The pathos is of that mild

67



LECTURES ON THE ENGLISH POETS

contemplative kind which arises from regret for the loss of unspeakable
nappiness, and resignation to inevitable fate. There is none of the
fierceness of intemperate passion, none of the agony of mind and
turbulence of action, which is the result of the habitual struggles of
the will with circumstances, irritated by repeated disappointment, and
constantly setting its desires most eagerly on that which there is an
impossibility of attaining. This would have destroyed the beauty of
the whole picture. Thev had received their unlooked-for ha] piness
as a free gift from their Creator's hands, and they submitted to its
los>, not without sorrow, but without impious and stubborn repining.

' In either hand the hast'ning angel caught
Our lingering parents, and to th' eastern gate
Led them direct, and down the cliff as fast
To the subjected plain ; then disappear'd.
Thev looking back, all th' eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Wav'd over by that flaming brand, the gate
With dreadful faces throng'd, and fiery arms:
Some natural tears they dropt, but wip'd them soon ;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide.'



LECTURE IV

ON DRYDEN AND POPE

Dryden and Pope are the great masters of the artificial style of
poetry in our language, as the poets of whom I have already treated,



Online LibraryWilliam HazlittLectures on the English poets : [and] The spirit of the age; or contemporary portraits. → online text (page 7 of 38)