« PreviousContinue »
rality in her embrace, and solicitous, not to agitate but, to amuse, exalt, and refine. He has observed, however, with considerable fidelity the practice of the Grecian dramatists; and when he unfolds the story of his scene in a speech delivered in the solitude of a wild wood, (and this certainly is the most reprehensible circumstance in the conduct of his fable,) he is only guilty of the same trespass against common sense, which his favourite Euripides has frequently committed. The length and even poise of the speeches in Comus are also formed on the same model; and, when we recollect how often the dialogue on the Athenian stage is conducted through an entire scene in replies and retorts consisting each of a single line, we shall not be surprised at the same short and equally measured conversation when it occurs between Comus and the Lady.
It seems impossible for poetry to go beyond her excursions in “ this wilderness of sweets." She treads sometimes on the
very fearful and giddy edge of a precipice, and, while we admire her boldness, we are doubtful of her safety. In that exquisite passage
How sweetly did they float upon the wings
if our rapture would suffer us to be sufficiently composed to consult our reason, we might, perhaps, juştly question the propriety of the length to which the poet's fancy has carried him. Darkness may aptly be represented by the blackness of the raven, and the stillness of that darkness may be par ralleled by an image borrowed from the object of another sense-by the softness of down; but it is surely a transgression, which stands in need of pardon, when, proceeding a step further, and accumulating personifications, we invest this raven-down with life and make it to smile. Another passage, which represents the effect of the Lady's singing with a different allusion, is not liable to any öbjection, and is altogether admirable:
At last a soft and solemn-breathing sound
And stole upon the air. Henry Lawes the musician, who composed the music for this poem, and who was himself no indifferent poet, acted the part of the attendant Spirit, and was designed, in that piece, under the character of Thyrsis
Whose ariful strains have oft delay'd
He was retained as a domestic in the earl of
Bridgewater's family, where he was the musical instructor of the lady Alice. He was the friend of Waller, and the theme of his muse; but his most distinguishing honours are derived from his connexion with Comus, and its author. Of the former of these he was the first publisher;' and by the latter he was made an object of particular regard, of high and specific panegyric. In his dedication of this first edition of Comus, to the lord Brackley who had represented the elder brother, Lawes speaks of the work as not openly acknowledged by its author; and the motto, undoubtedly prefixed to it by Milton himself,
Eheu! quid volui misero mihi! foribus Austrum
elegantly and happily intimates the sensibility of a young writer trembling on the edge of the press, and fearful lest the tenderness of his blossoms should be blighted by the breath of the public.'
1 In 1637.
s See Milton's xiii Sonnet. ** From a letter of our author's to his friend, Alex. Gill, dated dec. 4, 1634, we find that in the same year in which the poet finished Comus, he made that version of the 114th Psalm into
TheLycidas was written, as there is reason to believe, at the solicitation of the author's oldcollege, to commemorate the death of Mr. Edward King, one of its fellows, and a son of sir John King, Knt. secretary for Ireland in the reigns of Elizabeth, James and Charles. This
young man, whose vessel "foundered, as she was sailing from Chester to Ireland, in a calm sea and not far from land, was so highly esteemed by the whole University for his learning, piety, and talents, that his death was deplored as a public loss, and Cambridge invited her muses to celebrate and lament him. In the collection of poems, which was published on this occasion in 1638, Milton's Lycidas occupies the last, and, as it was no doubt intended to be, the most honourable place. Every honour which could be paid to its poetic excellence was inferior to its just demand: but we may reasonably wonder that a poem, breathing such hostility to the
Greek hexameters; which he afterwards published with his other poems. It was thrown off, as he tells his correspondent, without any thought, or intension of mind, and, as it were, with some sudden and strange impulse before day-light in his bed.: “Nullo certè animi proposito, sed subito nescio quo impetu, ante lucis exortum, ad Græci carminis heroici legem, in lectulo ferè concinpabam.” Epis, fam. 5.
* On August 10, 1637.
poem would extend our digression beyond its just length, and would not be consistent with our plan. We have observed that the Comus came into the world unacknowledged by its author, and it is remarkable that the writer of the Lycidas was intimated only by the initials J. M. This great man seems to have felt an awe of the public, by which the herd of small writers are seldom depressed
For fools rush in, where Angels fear to tread.
But if he published with diffidence, he wrote ivith boldness, and with the persuasion, resulting from the consciousness of power, of literary immortality. “ After I had (he tells
years, by the ceaseless diligence of my father, (whom God recompense!) been exercised in the tongues, and some sciences as my age would suffer, by sundry masters and teachers, both at home and at the schools, it was found that whether ought was imposed on me by them, that had the overlooking, or betaken to of my own choice, in English or other tongue, prosing or versing, but chiefly this latter, the style by certain vital symptoms it had, was likely to lire." In a letter, which from its date was
* Reasons of Cr Govern. Bi 2d. P.W. vol. i. 118.