« PreviousContinue »
From a passage in this poem, we may discover that the project of some great poetic work, which Milton had formerly intimated to his friend, Deodati, as existing then only in distant and indistinct prospect, was now brought closer, and in a more specific form to the poet's sight. The expanding consciousness of his own powers, the commendations of the Italian literati, and, above all, perhaps, the conversation, and encouraging judgment of the friend of Tasso scem now to have rendered him more resolute in his pursuit of the epic palm, and more confident of his success. “ I began thus far, (he tells us,) to assent to them,” (his Italian friends,) "and divers of my friends at home, and not less to an inward prompting, which grew daily upon me, that by labour and intent study, (which I take to be my portion in this life,) joined with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let it die.
Although, from the example of the Italian poets, and from the difficulty of asserting a place even in the second class among those of Rome, he was now determined to em
f Reasons of C. Govern. P.W. vol. i. 120.
ploy his native language as the tongue of his poetry, he was not yet decided with respect to its subject, or even to its form.
“ Time serves not,” (he says,)“ and perhaps I might seem too profuse to give any certain account of what the mind at home, in the spacious circuits of her musing, hath liberty to propose to herself, though of highest hope and hardest attempting: whether that epic form, whereof the two poems of Homer, and those other two of Virgil and Tasso are a diffuse, and the book of Job a brief model; or whether the rules of Aristotle herein are strictly to be kept, or nature to be followed, which in them, that know art and use judgment, is no transgression, but an enriching of art; and lastly, what king or knight before the conquest might be chosen, in whom to lay the pattern of a Christian hero. And as Tasso gave to a prince of Italy his choice, whether he would command him to write of Godfrey's espeilition against the infidels, or Belisarius against the Gaths, or Charlemain against the Loraris it to the instinct of nature and many of art aught may
be tudi ni were be nothing adverse a vide date of this age, it haply womes from an equal dili
gence and inclination, to present the like offer to our own ancient stories."
The length of time, for which his mind had entertained this object, with the difficulty, and the reasons which urged him to be sanguine though not assured of its accomplishment, are subsequently stated. thing, which I had to say, and those intentions, which have lived within me ever since I could conceive myself any thing worth to my country, I return to crave excuse that urgent reason hath pluckt from me by an abortive and foredated discovery: and the accomplishment of them lies not but in a power above man's to promise: but that none hath by more studious ways endeavoured; and with more unwearied spirit that none shallo-that I dare almost aver of
, as far as life and free leisure will ex, tend," &c. &c. “ Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now endebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth, or the vapours of wine, like that, which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amourist, or the trencher fury of a rhyming parasite; nor to be obtained by the invocation of dame Memory and her siren daughters; but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge; and sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases,"? &c.
We must surely be struck with that noble and sublime spirit, which pervades these passages, and admire that conscious force, with that devout diffidence, which they exhibit. It may entertain us also to discover from them the
different sensations with which Milton, and some of our more modern poets seem to have contemplated the arduous labour of constructing an epic poem. But all the parties on this occasion may be right, with reference to their own particular object. After intimating the toils by sea and land, by opposition from earth and heaven, which his hero was to sustain, and finally, by the assistance of the fates and of Jupiter, to overcome, the poet closes the awful recital, with this majestic line
Tantæ molis erat Romanam condere gentem.
This was spoken of a mighty empire, which was to extend over the world, and to endure
2 Reas, of C. Govern, vol. i, 123,
for a succession of ages: but an Arab camp may be planted in one day, and its vestiges may be effaced by the wind of the desert in another.
Having completed his intended residence at Naples, he addressed himself to the execution of the remaining part of his plan of travel, which extended to Sicily and Greece; those regions on which the classic imagination loves to dwell, which it invests with unfading green, and brightens with perpetual sunshine. The fancy of Milton was, no doubt, strongly excited by the approach of that time, when he was to tread the vales of Enna and of Tempe; the plains, on which Gelon and Miltiades had triumphed for the liberty of Greece over Carthage and Persia; the favoured spot, where Theocrites had charmed the ear with his Doric melodies, and Euripides had drawn tears with his
paBut the dream of fancy was soon to be interrupted, and duty required a privation, to which our traveller did not hesitate to submit. As he was preparing for his passage to Sicily, he received letters from England, acquainting him with the distracted state of his country, and with the near prospect, which affrighted it, of a civil war. His own account on this occasion is concise and