Story type: Essay
Saturday, May 3, 1712. Addison.
‘Segnius irritant animos demissa per aures
Quam quae sunt oculis subjecta fidelibus–‘
Milton, after having represented in Vision the History of Mankind to the first great Period of Nature, dispatches the remaining part of it in Narration. He has devised a very handsome Reason for the Angels proceeding with Adam after this manner; though doubtless the true Reason was the Difficulty which the Poet would have found to have shadowed out so mixed and complicated a Story in visible Objects. I could wish, however, that the Author had done it, whatever Pains it might have cost him. To give my Opinion freely, I think that the exhibiting part of the History of Mankind in Vision, and part in Narrative, is as if an History-Painter should put in Colours one half of his Subject, and write down the remaining part of it. If Milton’s Poem flags any where, it is in this Narration, where in some places the Author has been so attentive to his Divinity, that he has neglected his Poetry. The Narration, however, rises very happily on several Occasions, where the Subject is capable of Poetical Ornaments, as particularly in the Confusion which he describes among the Builders of Babel, and in his short Sketch of the Plagues of Egypt. The Storm of Hail and Fire, with the Darkness that overspread the Land for three Days, are described with great Strength. The beautiful Passage which follows, is raised upon noble Hints in Scripture:
–Thus with ten Wounds
The River-Dragon tamed at length submits
To let his Sojourners depart, and oft
Humbles his stubborn Heart; but still as Ice
More harden’d after Thaw, till in his Rage
Pursuing whom he late dismissed, the Sea
Swallows him with his Host, but them lets pass
As on dry Land between two Chrystal Walls,
Aw’d by the Rod of Moses so to stand
The River-Dragon is an Allusion to the Crocodile, which inhabits the Nile, from whence Egypt derives her Plenty. This Allusion is taken from that Sublime Passage in Ezekiel, Thus saith the Lord God, behold I am against thee, Pharaoh King of Egypt, the great Dragon that lieth in the midst of his Rivers, which hath said, my River is mine own, and I have made it for my self. Milton has given us another very noble and poetical Image in the same Description, which is copied almost Word for Word out of the History of Moses.
All Night he will pursue, but his Approach
Darkness defends between till morning Watch;
Then through the fiery Pillar and the Cloud
God looking forth, will trouble all his Host,
And craze their Chariot Wheels: when by command
Moses once more his potent Rod extends
Over the Sea: the Sea his Rod obeys:
On their embattell’d Ranks the Waves return
And overwhelm their War–
As the principal Design of this Episode was to give Adam an Idea of the Holy Person, who was to reinstate human Nature in that Happiness and Perfection from which it had fallen, the Poet confines himself to the Line of Abraham, from whence the Messiah was to Descend. The Angel is described as seeing the Patriarch actually travelling towards the Land of Promise, which gives a particular Liveliness to this part of the Narration.
I see him, but thou canst not, with what Faith
He leaves his Gods, his Friends, his Native Soil,
Ur of Chaldaea, passing now the Ford
To Haran, after him a cumbrous Train
Of Herds and Flocks, and numerous Servitude,
Not wand’ring poor, but trusting all his Wealth
With God, who call’d him, in a Land unknown.
Canaan he now attains, I see his Tents
Pitch’d about Sechem, and the neighbouring Plain
Of Moreh, there by Promise he receives
Gifts to his Progeny of all that Land,
From Hamath Northward to the Desart South.
(Things by their Names I call, though yet unnamed.)
As Virgil’s Vision in the sixth AEneid probably gave Milton the Hint of this whole Episode, the last Line is a Translation of that Verse, where Anchises mentions the Names of Places, which they were to bear hereafter.
Haec tum nomina erunt, nunc sunt sine nomine terrae.
The Poet has very finely represented the Joy and Gladness of Heart which rises in Adam upon his discovery of the Messiah. As he sees his Day at a distance through Types and Shadows, he rejoices in it: but when he finds the Redemption of Man compleated, and Paradise again renewed, he breaks forth in Rapture and Transport;
O Goodness infinite, Goodness immense!
That all this Good of Evil shall produce, etc.
I have hinted in my sixth Paper on Milton, that an Heroick Poem, according to the Opinion of the best Criticks, ought to end happily, and leave the Mind of the Reader, after having conducted it through many Doubts and Fears, Sorrows and Disquietudes, in a State of Tranquility and Satisfaction. Milton’s Fable, which had so many other Qualifications to recommend it, was deficient in this Particular. It is here therefore, that the Poet has shewn a most exquisite Judgment, as well as the finest Invention, by finding out a Method to supply this natural Defect in his Subject. Accordingly he leaves the Adversary of Mankind, in the last View which he gives us of him, under the lowest State of Mortification and Disappointment. We see him chewing Ashes, grovelling in the Dust, and loaden with supernumerary Pains and Torments. On the contrary, our two first Parents are comforted by Dreams and Visions, cheared with Promises of Salvation, and, in a manner, raised to a greater Happiness than that which they had forfeited: In short, Satan is represented miserable in the height of his Triumphs, and Adam triumphant in the height of Misery.
Milton’s Poem ends very nobly. The last Speeches of Adam and the Arch-Angel are full of Moral and Instructive Sentiments. The Sleep that fell upon Eve, and the Effects it had in quieting the Disorders of her Mind, produces the same kind of Consolation in the Reader, who cannot peruse the last beautiful Speech which is ascribed to the Mother of Mankind, without a secret Pleasure and Satisfaction.
Whence thou return’st, and whither went’st, I know;
For God is also in Sleep, and Dreams advise,
Which he hath sent propitious, some great Good
Presaging, since with Sorrow and Heart’s Distress
Wearied I fell asleep: but now lead on;
In me is no delay: with thee to go,
Is to stay here; without thee here to stay,
Is to go hence unwilling: thou to me
Art all things under Heav’n, all Places thou,
Who for my wilful Crime art banish’d hence.
This farther Consolation yet secure
I carry hence; though all by me is lost,
Such Favour, I unworthy, am vouchsafed,
By me the promised Seed shall all restore.
The following Lines, which conclude the Poem, rise in a most glorious Blaze of Poetical Images and Expressions.
Heliodorus in his AEthiopicks acquaints us, that the Motion of the Gods differs from that of Mortals, as the former do not stir their Feet, nor proceed Step by Step, but slide o’er the Surface of the Earth by an uniform Swimming of the whole Body. The Reader may observe with how Poetical a Description Milton has attributed the same kind of Motion to the Angels who were to take Possession of Paradise.
So spake our Mother Eve, and Adam heard
Well pleas’d, but answered not; for now too nigh
Th’ Archangel stood, and from the other Hill
To their fix’d Station, all in bright Array
The Cherubim descended; on the Ground
Gliding meteorous, as evening Mist
Ris’n from a River, o’er the Marish glides,
And gathers ground fast at the Lab’rer’s Heel
Homeward returning. High in Front advanced,
The brandishd Sword of God before them blaz’d
Fierce as a Comet–
The Author helped his Invention in the following Passage, by reflecting on the Behaviour of the Angel, who, in Holy Writ, has the Conduct of Lot and his Family. The Circumstances drawn from that Relation are very gracefully made use of on this Occasion.
In either Hand the hast’ning Angel caught
Our ling’ring Parents, and to th’ Eastern Gate
Led them direct; and down the Cliff as fast
To the subjected Plain; then disappear’d.
They looking back, etc.
The Scene  which our first Parents are surprized with, upon their looking back on Paradise, wonderfully strikes the Reader’s Imagination, as nothing can be more natural than the Tears they shed on that Occasion.
They 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 dropped, but wiped them soon;
The World was all before them, where to chuse
Their Place of Rest, and Providence their Guide.
If I might presume to offer at the smallest Alteration in this divine Work, I should think the Poem would end better with the Passage here quoted, than with the two Verses which follow:
They hand in hand, with wandering Steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary Way.
These two Verses, though they have their Beauty, fall very much below the foregoing Passage, and renew in the Mind of the Reader that Anguish which was pretty well laid by that Consideration,
The world was all before them, where to chuse
Their Place of Rest, and Providence their Guide.
The Number of Books in Paradise Lost is equal to those of the AEneid. Our Author in his first Edition had divided his Poem into ten Books, but afterwards broke the seventh and the eleventh each of them into two different Books, by the help of some small Additions. This second Division was made with great Judgment, as any one may see who will be at the pains of examining it. It was not done for the sake of such a Chimerical Beauty as that of resembling Virgil in this particular, but for the more just and regular Disposition of this great Work.
Those who have read Bossu, and many of the Criticks who have written since his Time, will not pardon me if I do not find out the particular Moral which is inculcated in Paradise Lost. Though I can by no means think, with the last mentioned French Author, that an Epick Writer first of all pitches upon a certain Moral, as the Ground-Work and Foundation of his Poem, and afterwards finds out a Story to it: I am, however, of opinion, that no just Heroick Poem ever was or can be made, from whence one great Moral may not be deduced. That which reigns in Milton, is the most universal and most useful that can be imagined; it is in short this, That Obedience to the Will of God makes Men happy, and that Disobedience makes them miserable. This is visibly the Moral of the principal Fable, which turns upon Adam and Eve, who continued in Paradise, while they kept the command that was given them, and were driven out of it as soon as they had transgressed. This is likewise the Moral of the principal Episode, which shews us how an innumerable Multitude of Angels fell from their State of Bliss, and were cast into Hell upon their Disobedience. Besides this great Moral, which may be looked upon as the Soul of the Fable, there are an Infinity of Under-Morals which are to be drawn from the several parts of the Poem, and which makes this Work more useful and Instructive than any other Poem in any Language.
Those who have criticized on the Odyssey, the Iliad, and AEneid, have taken a great deal of Pains to fix the Number of Months and Days contained in the Action of each of those Poems. If any one thinks it worth his while to examine this Particular in Milton, he will find that from Adam’s first Appearance in the fourth Book, to his Expulsion from Paradise in the twelfth, the Author reckons ten Days. As for that part of the Action which is described in the three first Books, as it does not pass within the Regions of Nature, I have before observed that it is not subject to any Calculations of Time.
I have now finished my Observations on a Work which does an Honour to the English Nation. I have taken a general View of it under these four Heads, the Fable, the Characters, the Sentiments, and the Language, and made each of them the Subject of a particular Paper. I have in the next Place spoken of the Censures which our Author may incur under each of these Heads, which I have confined to two Papers, though I might have enlarged the Number, if I had been disposed to dwell on so ungrateful a Subject. I believe, however, that the severest Reader will not find any little Fault in Heroick Poetry, which this Author has fallen into, that does not come under one of those Heads among which I have distributed his several Blemishes. After having thus treated at large of Paradise Lost, I could not think it sufficient to have celebrated this Poem in the whole, without descending to Particulars. I have therefore bestowed a Paper upon each Book, and endeavoured not only to [prove ] that the Poem is beautiful in general, but to point out its Particular Beauties, and to determine wherein they consist. I have endeavoured to shew how some Passages are beautiful by being Sublime, others by being Soft, others by being Natural; which of them are recommended by the Passion, which by the Moral, which by the Sentiment, and which by the Expression. I have likewise endeavoured to shew how the Genius of the Poet shines by a happy Invention, a distant Allusion, or a judicious Imitation; how he has copied or improved Homer or Virgil, and raised his own Imaginations by the Use which he has made of several Poetical Passages in Scripture. I might have inserted also several Passages of Tasso, which our Author [has ] imitated; but as I do not look upon Tasso to be a sufficient Voucher, I would not perplex my Reader with such Quotations, as might do more Honour to the Italian than the English Poet. In short, I have endeavoured to particularize those innumerable kinds of Beauty, which it would be tedious to recapitulate, but which are essential to Poetry, and which may be met with in the Works of this great Author. Had I thought, at my first engaging in this design, that it would have led me to so great a length, I believe I should never have entered upon it; but the kind Reception which it has met with among those whose Judgments I have a value for, as well as the uncommon Demands which my Bookseller tells me have been made for these particular Discourses, give me no reason to repent of the Pains I have been at in composing them.
[Footnote 1: Prospect]
[Footnote 2: shew]
[Footnote 3: has likewise]