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speaks or acts, without seeing his name at the head of it.
Homer does not only outshine all other poets in the variety, but also in the novelty of his characters. He has introduced among his Grecian princes a person who had lived thrice the
and conversed with Theseus, Hercules, Polyphemus,and the first race of heroes. His principal actor is the son of a goddess, not to mention the offspring of other deities, who have likewise a place in his poem, and the venerable Trojan prince, who was the father of so many kings and heroes. There is in these several characters of Homer, a certain dignity as well as novelty, which adapts them in a more peculiar manner to the nature of an heroic
poem. Though, at the same time, to give them the greater variety, he has described a Vulcan, that, is a buffoon,among his gods, and a Thersites among his mortals.
Virgil falls infinitely short of Homer in the characters of his poem, both as to their variety and novelty. Æneas is indeed a perfect character; but as for Achates, though he is styled the hero's friend, he does nothing in the whole poem
de serve that title. Gyas, Mnestheus, Sergestus, and Cloanthes, are all of them men of the same stamp and character:
Fortemque Gyan, fortemque Cloanthum.
There are, indeed, several natural incidents in the part of Ascanius; and that of Dido cannot be sufficiently admired. I do not see any thing new or particular in Turnus. Pallas and Evander are remote copies of Hector and Priam, as Lausus and Mezentius are almost parallels to Pallas and Evander. The characters of Nisus and Euryalus are beautiful, but
common. We must not forget the parts of Simon, Camilla, and some few others, which are fine improvements on the Greek poet. In short, there is neither that variety nor novelty in the persons of the Æneid, which we meet with in those of the Iliad.
If we look into the characters of Milton, we shall find that he has introduced all the variety his fable was capable of receiving. The whole species of mankind was in two persons at the time to which the subject of his poem is confined. We have, however, four distinct characters in these two persons. We see man and woman in the highest innocence and perfection, and in the most abject state of guilt and infirmity. The two last characters are, indeed, very common and obvious, but the two first are not only more magnificent, but more new than any
characters either in Virgil or Homer, or indeed in the whole circle of nature.
Milton was so sensible of this defectin the subject of his poem, and of the few characters it would afford him, that he has brought into it two actors of a shadowy and fictitious nature, in the persons of Sin and Death, by which means he has wrought into the body of his fable a very beautiful and well-invented allegory. But notwithstanding the fineness of this allegory may atone for it in some measure, I cannot think that persons of such a chimerical existence are proper actors in an epic poem; because there is not that measure of probability annexed to them, which is requisite in writings of this kind, as I shall show more at large hereafter.
Virgil has indeed admitted Fame as an actress in the Æneid, but the part she acts is very short, and none of the most admired circumstances in that divine work. We find in mock-heroic poems, particularly in the Dispensary, and the Lutrin, several allegorical
persons of this nature, which are very beautiful in those compositions, and may perhaps be used as an argument, that the authors of them were of opinion such characters might have a place in an epic work. For my own part I should be glad the reader would think so, for the sake of the poem I am now examining; and must further add, that if such empty unsubstantial beings may be ever made use of on this occasion, never were any more nicely imagined, and employed in more proper actions, than those of which I am now speaking.
Another principal actor in this poem is the great enemy of mankind. The part of Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey is very much admired by Aristotle, as perplexing that fable with very agreeable plots and intricacies, not only by the many adventures in his voyage, and the subtilty of his behaviour, but by the various concealments and discoveries of his person in several parts of that poem. But the crafty being I have now mentioned makes a much longer voyage than Ulysses, puts in practice many more wiles and stratagems, and hides himself under a greater variety of shapes and appearances, all of which are severally detected, to the great delight and surprise of the reader. We may
likewise observe with how much art the poet has varied several characters of the persons that speak in his infernal assembly. On the contrary, how has he represented the whole Goodhead exerting itself towards man in its full benevolence under the threefold distinction of a Creator, a Redeemer, and a Comforter!
Nor must we omit the person of Raphael, who, amidst his tenderness and friendship for man, shews such a dignity and condescension in all his speech and behaviour, as are suitable to a superior nature.
The angels are indeed as much diversified in Milton, and distinguished by their proper parts, as the gods are in Homer and Virgil. The reader will find nothing ascribed to Uriel, Gabriel, Michael, or Raphael, which is not in a particular manner suitable to their respective characters.*
There is another circumstance in the principal actors of the Iliad and Æneid, which gives a peculiar beauty to those two poems, and was therefore contrived with very great judgment. I mean the authors having chosen for their heroes, persons who were so nearly related to the people for whom they wrote. Achilles was a Greek, and Æneas the remote founder of Rome. By this means their countrymen (whom they principally propose to themselves for their readers) were particularly attentive to all the parts of their story, and sympathised with their heroes in all their adventures. A Roman could not but rejoice in the escapes, successes, and victories of Æneas, and be grieved at any defeats, misfortunes, 'or disappointments that befel him; as a Greek must have had the same regard for Achilles.
And it is plain, that each of those poems have lost this great advantage, among those readers to whom their heroes are as strangers, or indifferent persons. Milton's poem is admirable in this respect
, since it is impossible for any of its readers, whatever nation, country, or people he may belong to, not to be related to the persons who are the principal actors in it; but what is still infinitely more to its advantage, the principal actors in this poem are not only our progenitors, but our representatives. We have an actual interest in every thing they do, and no less
* These two last sentences were not in the original
paper in folio.
than our utmost happiness is concerned, and lies at stake in all their behaviour.
I shall subjoin, as a corollary to the foregoing remark, an admirable observation out of Aristotle, which has been very much misrepresented in the quotations of some modern critics; - If a man of perfect and consummate virtue falls into a misfortune, it raises our pity, but not our terror, because we do not fear that it may be our own case, who do not resemble the suffering person.' But, as that great philosopher adds, “if we see a man of virtue mixt with infirmities fall into any misfortune, it does not only raise our pity but our terror; because we are afraid that the like misfortunes may happen to ourselves, who resemble the character of the suffering person.'
I shall take another opportunity to observe, that a person of an absolute and consummate virtue should never be introduced in tragedy, and shall only remark in this place, that the foregoing observation of Aristotle, though it may be true in other occasions, does not hold in this; because in the present case, though the persons who fall into misfortune are of the most perfect and consummate virtue, it is not to be considered as what may possibly be, but what actually is our own case; since we are embarked with them on the same bottom, and must be partakers of their happiness or misery.
In this, and some other very few instances, Aristotle's rules for epic poetry (which he had drawn from his reflections upon Homer) cannot be supposed to quadrate exactly with the heroic poems which have been made since his time; since it is plain his rules would still have been more perfect, could he have perused the Æneid, which was made some hundred years after his death.
In my next, I shall go through other parts of Milton's poem; and hope that what I shall there ad