——Bonus atque fidus
Judex * * * * per obstantes catervas
Explicuit sua victor arma.
Hor. Lib. iv. Od. ix. 40.
Perpetual magistrate is he
Who keeps strict justice full in sight;
Who bids the crowd at awful distance gaze,
And virtue’s arms victoriously displays.
The resemblance of poetick numbers, to the subject which they mention or describe, may be considered as general or particular; as consisting in the flow and structure of a whole passage taken together, or as comprised in the sound of some emphatical and descriptive words, or in the cadence and harmony of single verses.
The general resemblance of the sound to the sense is to be found in every language which admits of poetry, in every author whose force of fancy enables him to impress images strongly on his own mind, and whose choice and variety of language readily supply him with just representations. To such a writer it is natural to change his measure with his subject, even without any effort of the understanding, or intervention of the judgment. To revolve jollity and mirth necessarily tunes the voice of a poet to gay and sprightly notes, as it fires his eye with vivacity; and reflection on gloomy situations and disastrous events, will sadden his numbers, as it will cloud his countenance. But in such passages there is only the similitude of pleasure to pleasure, and of grief to grief, without any immediate application to particular images. The same flow of joyous versification will celebrate the jollity of marriage, and the exultation of triumph; and the same languor of melody will suit the complaints of an absent lover, as of a conquered king.
It is scarcely to be doubted, that on many occasions we make the musick which we imagine ourselves to hear, that we modulate the poem by our own disposition, and ascribe to the numbers the effects of the sense. We may observe in life, that it is not easy to deliver a pleasing message in an unpleasing manner, and that we readily associate beauty and deformity with those whom for any reason we love or hate. Yet it would be too daring to declare that all the celebrated adaptations of harmony are chimerical; that Homer had no extraordinary attention to the melody of his verse when he described a nuptial festivity;
Νυμφας δ’ εκ θαλαμων, δαιδων ὑπολαμπομεναων,
Ηγινεον ανα αστυ, πολυς δ’ ὑμεναιος ορωρει.
Here sacred pomp and genial feast delight,
And solemn dance, and hymeneal rite;
Along the street the new-made brides are led,
With torches flaming, to the nuptial bed;
The youthful dancers, in a circle, bound
To the soft flute, and cittern’s silver sound.
That Vida was merely fanciful, when he supposed Virgil endeavouring to represent, by uncommon sweetness of numbers, the adventitious beauty of Æneas;
Os, humerosque Deo similis: namque ipse decoram
Cæsariem nato genetrix, lumenque juventæ
Purpureum, et lætos oculis afflârat honores.
The Trojan chief appeared in open sight,
August in visage, and serenely bright.
His mother goddess, with her hands divine,
Had form’d his curling locks, and made his temples shine;
And giv’n his rolling eyes a sparkling grace,
And breath’d a youthful vigour on his face.
Or that Milton did not intend to exemplify the harmony which he mentions:
Fountains! and ye that warble as ye flow,
Melodious murmurs! warbling tune his praise.
That Milton understood the force of sounds well adjusted, and knew the compass and variety of the ancient measures, cannot be doubted; since he was both a musician and a critick; but he seems to have considered these conformities of cadence, as either not often attainable in our language, or as petty excellencies unworthy of his ambition: for it will not be found that he has always assigned the same cast of numbers to the same objects. He has given in two passages very minute descriptions of angelic beauty; but though the images are nearly the same, the numbers will be found, upon comparison, very different:
And now a stripling cherub he appears,
Not of the prime, yet such as in his face
Youth smil’d celestial, and to every limb
Suitable grace diffus’d, so well he feign’d;
Under a coronet his flowing hair
In curls on either cheek play’d: wings he wore
Of many a coloured plume, sprinkled with gold.
Some of the lines of this description are remarkably defective in harmony, and therefore by no means correspondent with that symmetrical elegance and easy grace, which they are intended to exhibit. The failure, however, is fully compensated by the representation of Raphael, which equally delights the ear and imagination:
A seraph wing’d: six wings he wore to shade
His lineaments divine; the pair that clad
Each shoulder broad, came mantling o’er his breast
With regal ornament: the middle pair
Girt like a starry zone his waist, and round
Skirted his loins and thighs, with downy gold,
And colours dipp’d in heav’n; the third his feet
Shadow’d from either heel with feather’d mail,
Sky-tinctur’d grain! like Maia’s son he stood,
And shook his plumes, that heav’nly fragrance fill’d
The circuit wide.——
The adumbration of particular and distinct images by an exact and perceptible resemblance of sound, is sometimes studied, and sometimes casual. Every language has many words formed in imitation of the noises which they signify. Such are stridor, balo, and beatus, in Latin; and in English to growl, to buzz, to hiss, and to jarr. Words of this kind give to a verse the proper similitude of sound, without much labour of the writer, and such happiness is therefore to be attributed rather to fortune than skill; yet they are sometimes combined with great propriety, and undeniably contribute to enforce the impression of the idea. We hear the passing arrow in this line of Virgil;
Et fugit horrendum stridens elapsa sagitta;
Th’ impetuous arrow whizzes on the wing.
And the creaking of hell-gates, in the description by Milton;
With impetuous recoil and jarring sound
Th’ infernal doors: and on their hinges grate
But many beauties of this kind, which the moderns, and perhaps the ancients, have observed, seem to be the product of blind reverence acting upon fancy. Dionysius himself tells us, that the sound of Homer’s verses sometimes exhibits the idea of corporeal bulk. Is not this a discovery nearly approaching to that of the blind man, who, after long inquiry into the nature of the scarlet colour, found that it represented nothing so much as the clangour of a trumpet? The representative power of poetick harmony consists of sound and measure; of the force of the syllables singly considered, and of the time in which they are pronounced. Sound can resemble nothing but sound, and time can measure nothing but motion and duration.
The criticks, however, have struck out other similitudes; nor is there any irregularity of numbers which credulous admiration cannot discover to be eminently beautiful. Thus the propriety of each of these lines has been celebrated by writers whose opinion the world has reason to regard:
Vertitur interea cœlum, et ruit oceano nox.
Meantime the rapid heav’us rowl’d down the light,
And on the shaded ocean rush’d the night.
Sternitur, exanimisque tremens procumbit humi bos.
Down drops the beast, nor needs a second wound;
But sprawls in pangs of death, and spurns the ground.
Parturiunt montes, nascitur ridiculus mus.
The mountains labour, and a mouse is born.
If all these observations are just, there must be some remarkable conformity between the sudden succession of night to day, the fall of an ox under a blow, and the birth of a mouse from a mountain; since we are told of all these images, that they are very strongly impressed by the same form and termination of the verse.
We may, however, without giving way to enthusiasm, admit that some beauties of this kind may be produced. A sudden stop at an unusual syllable may image the cessation of action, or the pause of discourse; and Milton has very happily imitated the repetitions of an echo:
————I fled, and cried out death:
Hell trembled at the hedious name, and sigh’d
From all her caves, and back resounded death.
The measure of time in pronouncing may be varied so as very strongly to represent, not only the modes of external motion, but the quick or slow succession of ideas, and consequently the passions of the mind. This at least was the power of the spondaick and dactylick harmony, but our language can reach no eminent diversities of sound. We can indeed sometimes, by encumbering and retarding the line, show the difficulty of a progress made by strong efforts and with frequent interruptions, or mark a slow and heavy motion. Thus Milton has imaged the toil of Satan struggling through chaos;
So he with difficulty and labour hard
Mov’d on: with difficulty and labour he—
Thus he has described the leviathans or whales;
Wallowing unwieldy, enormous in their gait.
But he has at other times neglected such representations, as may be observed in the volubility and levity of these lines, which express an action tardy and reluctant.
————Descent and fall
To us is adverse. Who but felt of late,
When the fierce foe hung on our broken rear
Insulting, and pursu’d us through the deep,
With what confusion and laborious flight
We sunk thus low! Th’ ascent is easy then.
In another place, he describes the gentle glide of ebbing waters in a line remarkably rough and halting;
————Tripping ebb; that stole
With soft foot tow’rds the deep who now had stopp’d
It is not, indeed, to be expected, that the sound should always assist the meaning, but it ought never to counteract it; and therefore Milton has here certainly committed a fault like that of a player, who looked on the earth when he implored the heavens, and to the heavens when he addressed the earth.
Those who are determined to find in Milton an assemblage of all the excellencies which have ennobled all other poets, will perhaps be offended that I do not celebrate his versification in higher terms; for there are readers who discover that in this passage,
So stretch’d out huge in length the arch-fiend lay,
a long form is described in a long line; but the truth is, that length of body is only mentioned in a slow line, to which it has only the resemblance of time to space, of an hour to a maypole.
The same turn of ingenuity might perform wonders upon the description of the ark:
Then from the mountains hewing timber tall,
Began to build a vessel of huge bulk;
Measur’d by cubit, length, and breadth, and height.
In these lines the poet apparently designs to fix the attention upon bulk; but this is effected by the enumeration, not by the measure; for what analogy can there be between modulations of sound, and corporeal dimensions?
Milton indeed seems only to have regarded this species of embellishment so far as not to reject it when it came unsought; which would often happen to a mind so vigorous, employed upon a subject so various and extensive. He had, indeed, a greater and nobler work to perform; a single sentiment of moral or religious truth, a single image of life or nature, would have been cheaply lost for a thousand echoes of the cadence of the sense; and he who had undertaken to vindicate the ways of God to man, might have been accused of neglecting his cause, had he lavished much of his attention upon syllables and sounds.