« AnteriorContinuar »
in fact, of a philosophic mind; and if he had understood the exact meaning of Penseroso, which he most incorrectly renders by Pensive, * he would have seen that though Melancholy (la douce Mélancolie)t is invoked, Il Penseroso is not by any means what we term a pensive or melancholy man.
Warton, too, commits an error, when he says that “No man was ever so disqualifed to turn Puritan as Milton. In both these poems he professes himself to be highly pleased with the choral church-music, with Gothic cloisters, the painted windows and vaulted aisles of a venerable cathedral, with tilts and tournaments, and with masks and pageantries.” Whatever Milton's real feelings may have been respecting these objects—and he surely was not insensible to the charms of cathedral music or Gothic architecture—we are not justified in deducing any such inferences from the poems. There is, as we have just observed, no greater, though no more common, error, than that of finding the real sentiments and feelings of a poet in his verses. Every good poet is more or less of a dramatist; he assumes a particular character, or places himself in a peculiar situation, and then thinks and expresses himself as he supposes he should if he were such a person, or so situated. So Milton, conceiving himself to be a man of a cheerful or of a serious mood, looks round him and selects the objects most likely to interest such a person.
Though loath to venture to find a fault in such perfect
* The Italian word is pensieroso, not penseroso, from pensiero, and its proper sense is thoughtful, never pensive, which is pensoso.
十 There is a joy in grief when peace dwells in the bosom of the sad,” is the beautiful Ossianic expression. Another, equally beautiful, is, “ Like the memory of joys that are past, pleasant and mournful to the soul.”
works of so great a poet, we must say that the origin assigned to Melancholy, however philosophically just it may be, has always grated on our feelings. The species of incest there described is such as no ideas of a Golden Age, or any particular state of society, can make accord with our moral instincts, and we must confess that we wish the poet had assigned her different parents. Possibly Milton's mind was influenced by the chorus respecting the Golden Age in Tasso's Aminta, where the morality is certainly not of the finest.
The sequence of ideas in these, the first descriptive poems in our language, is as follows.
The Cheerful Man, after driving away Melancholy, whom he portrays in the darkest colours, invokes Euphrosyne or Mirth, one of the Graces whom Venus bore to Bacchus, or, as he rather chooses to believe, the offspring of Zephyrus and Flora. He invites her to come with all her train, and to “admit him of her crew," and then proceeds to enumerate the circumstances and objects which will yield him pleasure. He commences at daybreak with the song of the lark, then he hears and sees the cock among his dames, and next listens to the hound
, and horn echoing from the hill-side and through the woods. He walks at this hour of prime over hillocks and among hedgerows toward the cast, where the sun is now rising, amid the clouds of various hues. He hears the ploughman, the milkmaid, the mower, and the shepherd, at their various occupations. His eye surveys the landscape round, the lawns and fallows, mountains, meads, brooks and rivers. At a distance is a castellated edifice embosomed in trees, the abode, it may be, of some high-born beauty; at hand, rises from between two aged oaks, the smoke from the chimney of a cottage, where a country lass has prepared the meal at which two peasants are seated, and she then goes out to help to bind the sheaves, or to make the hay. At other times he will repair to the hamlets, which lie on higher grounds, where he will listen to the merry peals of the church-bells, and the jocund sound of the rebeck, to which the village lads and lasses are dancing, while the old people and the children also are enjoying the holiday. When daylight fails, all retire to drink the spicy nut-brown ale, and, after telling stories of fairies and goblins, they go to rest.
Having thus gone through the pleasures of the country he repairs to the city. Here he witnesses tilts, weddings, masks and pageants, and then goes to the theatre to see the comedies of Ben Jonson or Shakespeare. Above all delights, he desires that arising from the union of vocal and instrumental music, and concludes by assuring Mirth that if she yields him these he will live with her
The Serious Man after having in a mild tone warned off“ vain deluding joys,” invokes the presence of the sage and holy goddess, divinest Melancholy, of whose
appearance and dress he gives a most fascinating description. He prays her not to change her usual mien and gait, and enumerates the members of the train which was to attend her state. The only sound to be heard should be the song of the nightingale, and that “ in her sweetest, saddest plight,” while the moon would check her
” car over an oak-tree to listen to the lay.
While, as we have seen, the Cheerful Man commences with the song of the lark and the rising of the sun, the Serious Man selects for the same purpose the song of the nightingale and the light of the moon. Should he miss
the former, he walks, unseen by the peasants, who were retired to rest, on the village-green, to observe the latter making her way in heaven through the clouds; or ascending some rising ground, he listens to the sound of the curfew-bell, as it comes mellowed over the waters of a lake. If the state of the weather were such that he could not have these out-of-door enjoyments, he would sit alone in a room with no light but that proceeding from the "glowing embers,” and hearing no sounds but the chirrup of the cricket on the hearth, or the voice of the bellman blessing the house from evil. Or he would sit at midnight by his lamp, in some “high lonely tower,” studying the works of Hermes Trismegistus, or Plato, to learn their ideas of the future abode of the soul, and of the various kinds of dæmons. At times, the subject of his studies would be the tragedies of ancient Greece, or those few (namely, Shakespeare's) with which modern times had ennobled the “ buskined stage.” Epic and romantic poetry would also form part of his studies ; for he wishes that Melancholy had the power to awake Musæus and Orpheus, to sing their lost strains to him, or Chaucer to finish his Squire's Tale; and he appears to intimate that Spenser, and other romantic poets, would engage his attention.*
Thus should morn oft find him, not however in his gay, brilliant garb, but wrapt in clouds, attended by piping winds, followed by a shower, whose drops would fall every
minute from the eaves when the day began to clear. At noon, when the sun was high and strong, he would retire to the recesses of some dense wood, and there, lulled by the humming of the bees and the murmuring of the waters, he would fall asleep, and in his sleep be visited by dreams of delicious mystery. But his favourite haunt would be the cathedral with its cloisters, its pillars, its painted windows, and its choral music, which would
* It is rather remarkable that the Scriptures do not form a part of the studies of the Serious Man.
Dissolve him into ecstasies,
And bring all heaven before his eyes. He finally would seek out a hermitage for the abode of his latter days, and advance in wisdom as he advanced in
Exquisitely beautiful as these poems are, they still furnish a proof that Milton“ read Nature through the spectacles of books,"'* for we nowhere meet with that accurate description of natural objects, indicative of actual observation, which we find in Homer, Dante, and Thomson. Some too are inaccurate, as the sky-lark coming to his window, and the bee with honeyed thigh (crura thymo plena).
Mountains, on whose barren breast
The labouring clouds do often rest, is a kind of guess at Nature ; for we know not where he might have read of it, and are certain that he could not have seen it when he wrote these poems.t
As we have stated in the Life of Miltons, the Countess Dowager of Derby resided at Harefield, near Ux
* See above, page 103, how his friend Diodati rallies him on this habit.
† “ After a certain point of elevation, the effect of mountains depends much more upon their form, than upon their absolute height. This point is the one to which fleecy clouds (not thin watery vapours) are accustomed to descend.”— Wordsworth, Life, ii. 157.
See above, p. 119.