« PreviousContinue »
would be produced by fo many piercing eyes and vivid understandings, turned loofe at once upon mankind, with no other business than to sparkle and intrigue, to perplex and to destroy.
For my part, whenever chance brings within my obfervation a knot of miffes bufy at their needles, I confider myself as in the school of virtue; and though I have no extraordinary skill in plain work or embroidery, look upon their operations with as much fatisfaction as their governess, because I regard them as providing a fecurity against the most dangerous enfnarers of the foul, by enabling themselves to exclude idleness from their folitary moments, and with idleness her attendant train of paffions, fancies, and chimeras, fears, forrows, and defires. Ovid and Cervantes will inform them that love has no power but over those whom he catches unemployed; and Hector, in the Iliad, when he fees Andromache overwhelmed with terrors, fends her for confolation to the loom and the distaff.
It is certain that any wild wifh or vain imagination never takes such firm poffeffion of the mind, as when it is found empty and unoccupied. The old peripatetick principle, that Nature abhors a vacuum, may be properly applied to the intellect, which will embrace any thing, however abfurd or criminal, rather than be wholly without an object. Perhaps every man may date the predominance of thofe defires that disturb his life and contaminate his confcience, from fome unhappy hour when too much leifure exposed him to their incurfions; for he has lived with little observation either on himself or others, who does not know that to be idle is to be vicious.
NUMB. 86. SATURDAY, January 12, 1751.
Legitimumque fonum digitis callemus et aure.
By fingers, or by ear, we numbers fcan.
NE of the ancients has obferved, that the burthen of government is increafed upon princes by the virtues of their immediate predeceffors. is, indeed, always dangerous to be placed in a ftate of unavoidable comparison with excellence, and the danger is ftill greater when that excellence is confecrated by death; when envy and interest cease to act against it, and those paffions by which it was at first vilified and oppofed, now ftand in its defence, and turn their vehemence against honest emulation,
He that fucceeds a celebrated writer, has the fame difficulties to encounter; he stands under the fhade of exalted merit, and is hindered from rifing to his natural height, by the interception of those beams which fhould invigorate and quicken him. He applies to that attention which is already engaged, and unwilling to be drawn off from certain fatisfaction; or perhaps to an attention already wearied, and not to be recalled to the fame object.
One of the old poets congratulates himself that he has the untrodden regions of Parnaffus before him, and that his garland will be gathered from planta. tions which no writer had yet culled. But the imitator treads a beaten walk, and with all his diligence can only hope to find a few flowers or branches un
touched by his predeceffor, the refufe of contempt, or the omiffions of negligence. The Macedonian conqueror, when he was once invited to hear a man that fung like a nightingale, replied with contempt, "that he had heard the nightingale herfelf;" and the fame treatment must every man expect, whofe praise is that he imitates another.
Yet, in the midst of these discouraging reflections, I am about to offer to my reader fome obfervations upon Paradife Loft, and hope, that, however I may fall below the illuftrious writer who has fo long dictated to the commonwealth of learning, my attempt may not be wholly useless. There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. False taste is always busy to mislead those that are entering upon the regions of learning; and the traveller, uncertain of his way, and forfaken by the fun, will be pleafed to fee a fainter orb arise on the horizon, that may refcue him from total darknefs, though with weak and borrowed luftre.
Addifon, though he has confidered this poem under most of the general topicks of criticism, has barely touched upon the versification; not probably because he thought the art of numbers unworthy of his notice, for he knew with how minute attention the ancient criticks confidered the difpofition of fyllables, and had himself given hopes of fome metrical obfervations upon the great Roman poet; but being the first who undertook to display the beauties, and point out the defects of Milton, he had many objects at once before him, and paffed willingly over those which were most barren of ideas, and required labour, rather than genius,
Yet verfification, or the art of modulating his numbers, is indifpenfably neceffary to a poet. Every other power by which the understanding is enlightened, or the imagination enchanted, may be exercised in profe. But the poet has this peculiar fuperiority, that to all the powers which the perfection of every other compofition can require, he adds the faculty of joining mufick with reafon, and of acting at once upon the fenfes and the paffions. I fuppofe there are few who do not feel themselves touched by poetical melody, and who will not confess that they are more or less moved by the fame thoughts, as they are conveyed by different founds, and more affected by the fame words in one order than in another. The perception of harmony is indeed conferred upon men in degrees very unequal; but there are none who do not perceive it, or to whom a regular feries of proportionate founds cannot give delight.
In treating on the verfification of Milton I am defirous to be generally understood, and fhall therefore ftudiously decline the dialect of grammarians ; though, indeed, it is always difficult, and fometimes fcarcely poffible, to deliver the precepts of an art, without the terms by which the peculiar ideas of that art are expreffed, and which had not been invented but because the language already in use was infufficient. If, therefore, I fhall fometimes feem obfcure, it may be imputed to this voluntary interdiction, and to a defire of avoiding that offence which is always given by unusual words.
The heroick meafure of the English language may be properly confidered as pure or mixed. It is pure
when the accent refts upon every fecond fyllable through the whole line.
Courage uncertain dangers may abate,
Here love his golden fhafts employs, here lights
The accent may be obferved, in the fecond line of Dryden, and the fecond and fourth of Milton, to repose upon every second syllable.
The repetition of this found or percuffion at equal times, is the most complete harmony of which a fingle verfe is capable, and fhould therefore be exactly kept in diftichs, and generally in the laft line of a paragraph, that the ear may reft without any fense of imperfection.
But, to preserve the feries of founds untranfpofed in a long compofition, is not only very difficult but tirefome and difgufting; for we are foon wearied with the perpetual recurrence of the fame cadence. Neceffity has therefore enforced the mixed measure, in which fome variation of the accents is allowed; this, though it always injures the harmony of the line, confidered by itfelf, yet compenfates the lofs by relieving us from the continual tyranny of the fame found, and makes us more fenfible of the harmony of the pure measure.
Of these mixed numbers every poet affords us innumerable inftances, and Milton feldom has two pure lines together, as will appear if of his paraany graphs be read with attention merely to the mufick,