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THE Writings of Milton are now to come under consideration. These are both in English and in Latin: of the former we will treat in some detail, while on the latter we will content ourselves with making merely a few observations. As we have no English prose of Milton's of so early a date as the greater part of his poetry anterior to Paradise Lost, we will commence with an account of his earlier poems. In treating of Milton's poetry, we will not venture, in imitation of Johnson and others, to erect ourselves into critics and sit in judgement on it, pronouncing authoritatively on the merits and demerits of the pieces that come under consideration. For this purpose a mind nearly equal to the poet's own would be required; and few, we apprehend, can lay claim with justice to a possession of such eminence. For our own part, we frankly declare that, conscious of our immense inferiority to the poet in mental power, we would not presume to sit in judgement on what bears the stamp of his own approval; for it should always be remembered that these poems were not—as is but too much the case nowadays—given to the world immediately after they had been composed, but were, for the most part, retained in the poet's desk for many years, and were not published till the time when his judgement was in its full maturity and vigour. In our eyes they are, we may say, all beauty and perfection, bating that compliance with the false taste of the age, to be discerned in some of the earlier pieces, but from which he speedily emancipated himself. The other apparent faults all vanish when we obey that primary but too often neglected law of criticism, of placing ourselves, as far as possible, in the position of the poet, and bring to our mind the opinions that prevailed, and the meaning that words bore in his time. All then that we propose to do is to offer such illustrations of the various pieces as will enable the reader to enter into their meaning, and enjoy their manifold beauties. The explanation of particular terms and passages must of course be reserved for the annotations on the respective poems. We will here notice them in the order in which they appear to have been written.
PARAPHRASES OF PSALMS CXIV. AND CXXXVI.
These paraphrases, as the poet himself informs us, were executed “at fifteen years old,” i. e. in his sixteenth year, and therefore while he was at St. Paul's School. The versification is vigorous and elegant, and the ideas which he has introduced are correct and poetical. Warton has noticed with praise the expressions, “the goldentressed sun,” “God's thunder-claspiny hand,” and “above the reach of mortal eye.” At a subsequent period, namely while residing at Horton, Milton translated the former of these psalms also into Greek.
ON THE DEATH OF A FAIR INFANT,
This ode, Milton's earliest attempt at original poetic composition, as far as is known to us, was written in the winter of 1625, about the time that he had completed his seventeenth year. The occasion was the death of an infant daughter (see the last stanza) of his sister Mrs. Phillips, born probably in the preceding autumn, and who died, as it would appear, of the hooping cough. It is very remarkable that this beautiful poem was not included in the collection of his verses which he published in 1645. That this was not owing to its want of merit in the eyes of its parent is manifest, for it appeared in the edition of 1673—nearly half a century after it had been composed. We do not suspect that this originated in an over-rigorous adherence to the rule Monumque prematur in annum; the probability is that he had given his sister the only copy he had made of it, and that he did not recollect it when he was preparing his poems for publication.
In this juvenile production, we meet with that mixture of classic mythology with Christian ideas which prevailed all over Europe till late in the eighteenth century, and which is not yet quite gone out of use in the poetry of the South. It probably originated with Dante and his contemporaries in their attacks on the Church of Rome, in symbol and allegory; and as the gods of Greece and Rome came very generally to be regarded as personifications, the practice was far less absurd than it might appear to be on a superficial view. Besides, the constant study of the Classics in those times gave a reality in the minds of readers to everything that they contained, of
which we cannot in these days form an adequate conception; but without which, we must be unable to enter fully into the spirit and enjoy the beauties of those poets who wrote under the influence of such feelings and sentiments. The most remarkable instance, we may here observe, of this confusion of heathen and Christian ideas, is that beautiful poem the Lusiadas, in which, though the author assures us that he uses the deities of classic mythology only in a figurative and allegoric sense, still, when we do our utmost to place ourselves in his condition, and regard them with complacency, we find success almost unattainable. Milton commences by representing the subject of his verse under the figure of a flower, and he supposes that Winter, envious of the success of Aquilo (i. e. Boreas), his charioteer, in carrying off Orithyia, resolved to purvey himself a wife in like fashion. Mounting then his “icypearled ” car, he wandered through the air till he espied this fair one ; but unaware of the effect of his “cold, kind” embrace, he “unhoused her virgin soul from her fair biding-place.” The poet consoles her by recalling to mind the parallel fate of Hyacinthus; but he cannot persuade himself that she is really dead, and he prays her to inform him whether she has become a dweller of the Empyrean or of the Elysian Fields, and what was the cause of her so speedy departure. He asks if she was a star fallen from the sky, which Jove had restored to its place, or a goddess who had fled to conceal herself on earth during a late attack of “Earth's sons” on the “sheeny Heaven;” was she Astraea, or Mercy, “that sweet-smiling youth,” or the matron “white-robed ” Truth, or any other of “that heavenly brood,” or finally, one of the “gold-winged " host of angels come down to