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cause of religious, civil, and domestic liberty, against tyranny and superstition. In this cause he had long laboured with energy and with success, and in it he had lost his sight; he had lived to find all his work undone,
civil and religious despotism once more triumphant, and
_ the nation crouching beneath them, and himself in a state
of what might be viewed as bondage, as he could not openly give utterance to his sentiments and feelings. He too had married unadvisedly one of the opposite party, and the ill-assorted union had embittered his life. In the character of Samson therefore he could give vent to his own feelings, and covertly reproach the people for their want of true virtue and energy; the dramatic form also enabled him to deplore the fate of the heroes of the Commonwealth. But the Grecian drama also offered him parallels in the noble-minded Prometheus, the victim of despotism, from his fruitless attempts to serve mankind, and in the unhappy (Edipus, whom Fate had sunk in blindness and in misery. We may observe how he follows the course of these dramas. Thus, in that of ZEschylus, Prometheus, when left to himself, soliloquizes on his unhappy condition; the Chorus then comes in, and joins him. Oceanus next appears, to advise and offer his aid for his liberation; when he is gone, 10 arrives, and her narrative ensues; and then Hermes comes, sent by the despot who had caused him to be chained on the rock, requiring obedience from him, and meets with a resolute refusal. In Milton’s drama Samson is led in, and is then left by himself, to soliloquize on his woes; a Chorus comes to console him; his father Manoah next arrives, and after some time departs, to try to effect his liberation; his wife, Dalila, and the giant Harapha then appear in succession; the first to excuse her treachery, the latter to insult him. They are succeeded by the herald sent by the Philistine lords, requiring him to come and make them sport, and who departs on having received a decided refusal. Here the parallelism with the Prometheus ceases; in what follows we may discern an agreement with the (Edipus at Colonos. CEdipus departs at a divine summons; and Theseus, who had been present at it, relates the catastrophe. In like manner Samson, feeling internally a divine summons, departs, and one who had witnessed his end appears, and narrates it. The visit of Polyneices to his blind father is a parallel to that of Dalila to her husband, whose misery she had caused. The opening lines of the Samson also have a resemblance to those of the (Edipus.
We have always regarded this as a noble poem, the swan-song of a mighty genius. In the eye of criticism, free from pedantry, its defects must, we should think, be hardly appreciable. Throughout it has the force and dignity of Zfilschylus, and at times it exhibits the majesty and sweetness of Sophocles. Had Milton flourished in ancient Attica, he had surely ranked with these mighty poets, milder and sweeter than the former, grander and more elevated than the latter. Yet Johnson says, after some pedantic criticism about the want of a Middle founded on the Aristotelian rules, “this is the tragedy
which ignorance has admired and bigotry applauded !”
As to the Middle, it certainly has it fully as much as the Prometheus, and as several others of the dramas of Greece; and, in fact, the criticism amounts to this, that Milton should not have chosen that subject, for no human genius could have made more of it than he has done.
As Milton adhered closely to the ancient models in this
piece, the versification is of course of a subdued character, and devoid of the brilliant poetry of the Paradise Lost. But it is correct and chaste, dignified and solemn.
The characters are well sustained,—-that of the hero in V
particular; the occasional employment of familiar language, which offended Johnson, is common to him with the Grecian dramatists. The lyric portion, which is monostrophic, instead of being in strophe, antistrophe, and epode, and which only rimes capriciously, has given most offence to critics. Johnson, as might 'be expected, says that it is “often so harsh and dissonant as scarce to preserve, whether the lines end with or without rimes, any appearance of metrical regularity.” Cumberland says, that “in some places it is no measure at all, or such at least as the ear will not patiently endure, nor which any recitation can make harmonious ;” and Hallam, that the metre itself “is infelicitous, the lines being frequently of a number of syllables not recognized in the usage of English poetry, and destitute of rhythmical measure, falls into prose.” Others have expressed themselves in a similar nianner.
Now here are three critics, none perhaps remarkable for a poetic ear, accusing a poet, who had an ear for music and for verse of the utmost delicacy, of writing under the name of lyric poetry lines utterly devoid of melody. Surely then the suspicion must arise that this is but a part of the character of the ordinary English mind, which does not, for example, receive the same enjoyment from the high Italian schools of painting, as from the tamer and more familiar schools of Flanders and Holland. The presumption must be that the fault is in the reader, not in the poet. For our own part we freely own, that we are so convinced that a poet of Milton’s
order could not write inharmoniously, that wherever we seem to detect a want of melody, we feel quite convinced that the fault must be in ourselves ; and, on fiuther consideration, we have always found it to be the case.
We will now examine the lines of the lyric parts which seem most likely to have offended the ear of those nice critics; premising, in opposition to Hallam, that he uses no “ number of syllables not recognized in the usage of English poetry,” for his lines are all of from two to six feet,—all measures in use. We have shown above* that, in lines of three and four feet, the first foot may be monosyllabic ; and we shall show, when treating of the verse of Paradise Lost, that English poetry admitted anapaests among its iambs. We will further observe, that it seems to have been the poet’s intention, that the lyric parts should be read in a grave, solemn, measured tone :
That thou toward him with hand so various,
Like a stately ship. 714.
* See above, page 260.
1' The Oh ! in this verse, and in '0. 1267, is like the qbefi of the Greek drama, which did not count in the iambic line.
Oh! how comely it is and how reviving '
Puts invincible might. 1271.
He all their ammunition. 1277.
With winged expedition. 1283.
Lébouring thy mind. 1298.
O dearly bought revenge, yet glorious. 1660.
We may here perhaps without impropriety offer a few remarks on the subject of reading poetry, as we are confident that most of the complaints of want of harmony which have been made against Milton, and other great poets, have their origin in want of skill in the readerst
The power of reading well, like that of singing well, is the gift of nature, and cannot therefore be communicated by instruction. Like singing, however, it may be greatly improved by diligent culture, and it is therefore much to be regretted that it should be so generally neglected in our systems of education. There are not many persons who might not be taught to read prose tolerably well, and even the verse of Pope and his school, without chanting, or singsong as it is called.1 With
* There may possibly have been a transposition, and the line have
- but there would be a loss of energy.
1' Moore (Diary, April 14, 1819) tells us that himself and Lord Lansdowne found Chaucer “unreadable.” The reason was, they did not know how to read him.
I We quote the following remarks of one who certainly had a musical ear, and both sang and read with feeling and expression :
“ Some discussion with respect to Byron’s method of repeating poetry, which I professed my strong dislike of. Observe in general that it is the men who have the worst ear for music that sing out poetry in this manner, having no nice perception of the difference there ought to be