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This Book on the whole is so perfect from beginning to end, that it would be difficult to find a single superfluous passage. Milton's poetical style is more serried than any other : rhymed metre leads to empty words, involutions, and circumlocutions; but it is in the thought, still more than in the language, that this closeness is apparent. The matter, the illustrations, and the allusions, are historically, naturally, or philosophically true. The learning is of every extent and diversity ;- recondite, classical, scientific, antiquarian. But the most surprising thing is how he vivifies every topic he touches by poetry: he gives life and picturesqueness to the driest catalogue of buried names, personal or geographical. They, who bring no learning, yet feel themselves charmed by sounds and epithets which give a vague pleasure to the mind, and stir up the imagination into an indistinct emotion.
Notwithstanding all that has been said so copiously about poetical imagination by critics ancient and modern, I still think that the generality of authors and readers have a very confused idea of it. It is the power, not only of conceiving, but creating embodied illustrations of abstract truths, which are sublime, or pathetic, or beautiful.
But those ideas, which Milton has embodied, no imagination would have dared to attempt but his own : none else would have risen “to the highth of this great argument.” Every one else would have fallen short of it, and degraded it. Johnson
says, that an “inconvenience of Milton's design is, that it requires the description of what cannot be described,—the agency of Spirits. He saw that immateriality supplied no images, and that he could not show angels acting but by instruments of action; he therefore invested them with form and matter. This being necessary, was therefore defensible, and he should have secured the consistency of his system by keeping immateriality out of sight, and enticing his reader to drop it from his thoughts.” Surely this was quite impossible for the reason Johnson himself has given. The imagination, by its natural tendencies, always embodies Spirit. Poetry deals in pictures, though not exclusively in pictures.
In this respect Milton's poetry is different from almost all other; that it is always founded on our belief, and a belief, which we consider a matter of duty and religion. Milton's imagination is always conscientious : and here again is his peculiarity. Almost every imaginative poet, except Milton, falls occasionally into fantasticality :-perhaps I ought to except also Shakspeare. This is the vice of poetry, where there is not the severest judgment, and the most profound control; and it is a vice, which the bad taste of the public encourages. The flowers, as they are called,--the corrupt ornaments of poetry, please vulgar apprehensions and feelings. Glaring colours, exaggerated forms, rouse ordinary eyes and intellects.
The classical taste, the sober grace of ideal majesty or beauty, appears tame to a mind vitiated with all the extravagances and fooleries of insane romance. The Gothic ages introduced numerous ignorant superstitions and absurd
opinions, which in more enlightened times revolt a strict or sober understanding. Fictions founded on such systems, or interwoven with them, except so far as they are merely illustrative, may amuse as momentary sports of wanton or forced invention; but the sound intellect rejects them in its moments of seriousness,
Among the miraculous acquirements of Milton, was his deep and familiar intimacy with all classical and all chivalrous literature,—the amalgamation in his mind of all the philosophy and all the sublime and ornamental literature of the ancients, and all the abstruse, the laborious, the immature learning of those who again drew off the mantle of Time from the ancient treasures of genius, and mingled with them their own crude conceptions and fantastic theories. He extracted from this mine all that would aid the imagination without shocking the reason. He never rejected philosophy ;—but where it was fabulous, only offered it as ornament.
It will not be too much to say, that of all uninspired writings (if these be uninspired,) Milton's are the most worthy of profound study by all minds which would know the creativeness, the splendour, the learning, the eloquence, the wisdom, to which the human intellect can reach.
So far as poetry is made by mere figures of speech, it is a miserable art, which has nothing of invention or thought.
As to material pictures of spiritual existences, they always take such appearances when they visit us, though they can resolve themselves back into air. It is not inconsistent, therefore, or contrary to what we suppose to be the system of the creation, so to represent them. Animation is the soul of fiction ; but it is true, that there may be animation without body.
Milton's force and sublimity of fable is especially attested