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be as well written now, as it was of old by the heathens; provided the poet be endued with the same talents; and the language, though not of equal dignity, yet as near approaching to it, as our modern barbarism will allow; which is all that can be expected from our own, or any other now extant, though more refined ; and therefore we are to rest contented with that only inferiority, which is not possibly to be remedied.
I wish I could as easily remove that other difficulty which yet remains. It is objected by a great French critic, as well as an admirable poet, yet living, and whom I have mentioned with that honour which his merit exacts from me, I mean Boileau, that the machines of our Christian religion, in heroic poetry, are much more feeble to support that weight than those of heathenism. Their doctrine, grounded as it was on ridiculous fables, was yet the belief of the two victorious monarchies, the Grecian and Roman. Their gods did not only interest themselves in the event of wars, (which is the effect of a superior providence,) but also espoused the several parties, in a visible corporeal descent, managed their intrigues, and fought their battles sometimes in opposition to each other : though Virgil (more discreet than Homer in that last particular) has contented himself with the partiality of his deities, their favours, their counsels or commands, to those whose cause they had espoused, without bringing them to the outrageousness of blows. Now, our religion (says he) is deprived of the greatest part of those machines; at least the most shining in epic poetry. Though St Michael, in Ariosto, seeks out Discord, to send her among the Pagans, and finds her in a convent of friars, where peace should reign, which indeed is fine satire ; and Satan, in Tasso, excites Solyman to an attempt by night on the Chris tian camp, and brings an host of devils to his assistance; yet the archangel, in the former example, when Discord was restive, and would not be drawn from her beloved monastery with fair words, has the whip-hand of her, drags her out with many stripes, sets her, on God's name, about her business, and makes her know the difference of strength betwixt a nuncio of heaven, and a minister of hell. The same angel, in the latter instance from Tasso, (as if God had never another messenger belonging to the court, but was confined like Jupiter to Mercury, and Juno to Iris,) when he sees his time, that is, when half of the Christians are already killed, and all the rest are in a fair way to be routed, stickles betwixt the remainders of God's host, and the race of fiends; pulls the devils backward by the tails, and drives them from their quarry; or otherwise the whole business had miscarried, and Jerusalem remained untaken. This, says Boileau, is a very unequal match for the poor devils, who are sure to come by the worst of it in the combat; for nothing is more easy, than for an Almighty Power to bring his old rebels to reason, when he pleases. Consequently, what pleasure, what entertainment, can be raised from so pitiful a machine, where we see the success of the battle from the very beginning of it; unless that, as we are Christians, we are glad that we have gotten God on our side, to maul our enemies, when we cannot do the work ourselves ? For, if the poet had given the faithful more courage, which had cost him nothing, or at least have made them exceed the Turks in number, he might have gained the victory for us Christians, without interesting heaven in the quarrel ; and that with as much ease, and as little credit to the conqueror, as when a party of a hundred soldiers defeats another which consists only of fifty.
This, my lord, I confess, is such an argument against our modern poetry, as cannot be answered by those mediums which have been used. We cannot hitherto boast, that our religion has furnished us with any such machines, as have made the strength and beauty of the ancient buildings.
But what if I venture to advance an invention of my own, to supply the manifest defect of our new writers ? I am sufficiently sensible of my weakness; and it is not very probable that I should succeed in such a project, whereof I have not had the least hint from any of my predecessors, the poets, or any of their seconds and coadjutors, the critics. Yet we see the art of war is improved in sieges, and new instruments of death are invented daily ; something new in philosophy, and the mechanics, is discovered almost every year; and the science of former ages is improved by the succeeding. I will not detain you with a long preamble to that, which better judges will, perhaps, conclude to be little worth.
It is this, in short—that Christian poets have not hitherto been acquainted with their own strength. If they had searched the Old Testament as they ought, they might there have found the machines which are proper for their work; and those more certain in their effect, than it may be the New Testament is, in the rules sufficient for salvation. The perusing of one chapter in the prophecy of Daniel, and accommodating what there they find with the principles of Platonic philosophy, as it is now christianized, would have made the ministry of angels as strong an engine, for the working up heroic poetry, in our religion, as that of the ancients has been to raise theirs by all the fables of their gods, which were only received for truths by the most ignorant and weakest of the people.
* The passages of Scripture, on which Dryden founds his idea of the machinery of guardian angels, are the following, which I insert for the benefit of such readers as may not have at hand the old-fashioned book in which they occur.
“ Then I lifted up mine eyes, and looked, and, behold, a certain man clothed in linen, whose loins were girded with fine gold of Uphaz: His body also was like the beryl, and his face as the appearance of lightning, and his eyes as lamps of fire, and his arms and his feet like in colour to polished brass, and the voice of his words like the voice of a multitude. And I Daniel alone saw the vision ; for the men that were with me saw not the vision; but a great quaking fell upon them, so that they fled to hide themselves. Therefore I was left alone, and saw this great vision, and there remained no strength in me: for my comeliness was turned in me into corruption, and I retained no strength. Yet heard I the voice of his words: and when I heard the voice of his words, then was I in a deep sleep on my face, and my face towards the ground.
“ And, behold, an hand touched me, which set me upon my knees and upon the palms of my hands : And he said unto me, O Daniel, a man greatly beloved, understand the words that I speak unto thee, and stand upright : for unto thee am I now sent. And, when he had spoken this word unto me, I stood trembling. Then said he unto me, Fear not, Daniel : for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand, and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard, and I am come for thy words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days : but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me ; and I remained there with the kings of Persia. Now I am come to make thee understand what shall betall thy people in the latter days : for yet the vision is for many days. And when he had spoken such words unto me, I set my face toward the ground, and I became dumb. And, behold, one like the similitude of the sons of men touched my lips: then I opened my mouth, and spake, and said unto him that stood before me,
lord, by the vision my sorrows are turned upon me, and I have retained no strength. For how can the servant of this my lord talk with this my lord ? for, as for me, straightway there remained no
It is a doctrine almost universally received by Christians, as well Protestants as Catholics, that there are guardian angels, appointed by God Almighty, as his vicegerents, for the protection and government of cities, provinces, kingdoms, and monarchies; and those as well of heathens, as of true believers. All this is so plainly proved from those texts of Daniel, that it admits of no farther controversy. The prince of the Persians, and that other of the Grecians, are granted to be the guardians and protecting ministers of those empires. It cannot be denied, that they were opposite, and resisted one another. St Michael is mentioned by his name as the patron of the Jews,* and is now taken by the Christians, as the protector-general of our religion. These tutelar genii
, who presided over the several people and regions committed to their charge, were, watchful over them for good, as far as their commissions could possibly extend. The general purpose, and design of all, was certainly the service of
strength in me, neither is there breath left in me. Then there came again and touched me one like the appearance of a man, and he strengthened me. And said, O man greatly beloved, fear not; peace be unto thee, be strong, yea, be strong. And, when he had spoken unto me, I was strengthened, and said, Let my lord speak; for thou hast strengthened me. Then said he, knowest thou wherefore I come unto thee? and now will I return to fight with the prince of Persia : and when I am gone forth, lo, the prince of Grecia shall come. But I will shew thee that which is noted in the scripture of truth : and there is none that holdeth with me in these things, but Michael your prince."-Dan. X. 5—21.
It may, however, be doubted, whether any poetical use could be made of the guardian angels here mentioned; since our ideas of their powers are too obscure and indefinite to afford any scope for description.
* In the beginning of the 12th chapter, as well as in the passage quoted, Michael is distinguished as “ the great prince which standeth up for the children of Daniel's people.”