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THERE is less complex fable in the 'Paradise Regained' than in its predecessor: it is chiefly argumentative, while the other is narrative, dramatic, and full of imagery; but it is scarcely less sublime, if we may allow of argumentative sublimity. It has far more of the moral and practical wisdom, which relates to the state of mankind after the Fall, and therefore affords more lessons of instruction. It has less of the blaze of the sun, but more of the mellow mildness of its setting radiance: it has, however, enough of fable in it, in the poetical sense: the characters are few, and the language, for the most part, subdued and plain the sentiments are abundant, wise, elevated, and beautiful. Here the poet is more profuse, and more rich, even than in the Paradise Lost.'
I cannot bring myself to admit that there is less genius or less excellence in this poem than in the other. If fable were the only grand essence of poetry, then I must yield. Imagery implies
materiality and embodiment: so far it is less splendid; but my own taste leads me to the intellectual, the spiritual, the ideal. This may allow of fable, as well as what is more narrative; yet it cannot be denied that there is less invention in the Paradise Regained:' the story being singular, there was less opportunity for it.
Milton had, in the second book of his Reason of Church Government, long before hinted that the rules of Aristotle were not always strictly to be kept; but rather nature to be followed; and that the Book of Job might be considered as a brief model of an epic poem.'
However we may rebel against the principles of Aristotle when they are arbitrary, we must consider the greater part of them to be built on nature and truth; and, so far, not to be departed from. Fiction, therefore, whether imaginative or spiritual, is indispensable to poetry. For this reason, history in metre is not poetry; nor is the narrative of what is drawn from observation poetry.
I am fully aware what will be the result of an adherence to these strict principles: it will exclude a great part of what has taken to itself the name of poetry. When a writer of verses speaks in his own person, and describes, not his visionary, but his actual feelings and opinions, it is not poetry. We cannot lift ourselves up to the height of an invented character, because sad realities intervene to chill us.
Let us take the example of a popular author,
and refer to Cowper's 'Task.' Here is no fable; here are no invented characters; it wants therefore a primary essential of the best poetry. Then why does it please?—because it is the language of poetry; because in his own person the author speaks the sentiments and tone of poetry. Still the one grand requisite is not there.
The same objection applies to the greater part of Cowley's works, except to the language, where there is often beautiful imagery. I believe nobody reads the 'Davideis.' There is no invented fable in Pope's 'Eloisa :'-all that is borrowed either from biography or former fictions. All the charm lies in the animation, passion, and harmonious eloquence of the style and versification.
The true poet surrounds himself with ideal worlds; he lives out of himself; he lives in others, but those others of his own creation. He escapes from realities to possibilities; but how few have strength of wing for this! Scarce any can long support themselves in the air: in those ethereal realms their wings soon droop beneath the heat. They are willing to rest upon the earth, and be content with the solid substances around and before them.
Appeals to the imagination, however, are not the less excellent because they are above the vulgar taste. Because there are those among the people whom something of fact pleases better than exalted fiction, is this fiction to be debased in the scale of excellence?
We know not the mysteries of Providence, nor
why this great poetical genius is so sparingly dispensed we only know that upon this great scale all except four or five are found wanting. Poetical artists, whose skill lies in the mechanical parts, are numerous: the dress is a bauble; the creative thought is the essence. There is not much difficulty in finding language to illustrate a trite truth, and rhymes to give it harmony to the ear; but the combination of incidents, and exhibition of ideal characters, is another affair.
I have already said that we have scarcely any Epics in our language subsequent to Milton's, except the mean and miserable flatnesses of Blackmore perhaps, however, a few modern poems may come under the denomination; as Southey's 'Joan of Arc,' 'Mador,' and 'Roderic,' and some of Scott's and Byron's productions; but Scott's are more lyrical, and many of Byron's Tales incline to this. They want the regularity of the old heroic poem: the characters, too, are not quite natural. Gray's Bard' may be called a fable; but if it be, it is a lyrical fable.
After the choice of subjects executed by Milton, all others fade into littleness. This is one of the difficulties which he has thrown upon his successors. The actors and the machinery from human materials must appear comparatively uninteresting. We may invent some great hero; but how spiritless will he appear before Satan! and how mean, before Adam and Eve, will all other human beings show themselves!
Still something might be done better than has
been done; at once natural, vigorous, and new. We may imagine characters distinctly discriminated, moral, intellectual, generous, bold, enterprising, lofty; and we may put them into a progression of movements, wading through conflicting obstacles, and going forwards to some great end. We may borrow these from no history, nor derive much from observation-the whole may be invention; yet we may keep close to the probabilities of nature, but nature sublimed by virtue, and high inborn endowments.
This will free us from the servile task of copying from actual examples, which freezes the energies of the mind, and binds us down in chains to the earth; because we can always imagine more than we can find, and conceive ideal virtue higher than any which experience justifies. So of ideal beauty :-we can embody visions of fairness and purity, such as no individual ever possessed.
But to invent single characters is not so impracticable, as to make several so invented act their parts in one story, and have their respective qualities drawn out by the conflict. "Hic labor, hoc opus est.' A short poem, delineating a single character, real or imaginary, does but little. Prior's Henry and Emma' goes a little farther, but the fable is not his own: he has merely given a modern versification to the dialogue. As far as it goes, it is very beautiful. Gray's Elegy' is a soliloquy, and not of an ideal person. Not one of Dryden's Fables is original.