—Quis tam Lucili fautor inepte est,
Ut non hoc fateatur? HOR. Lib. i. Sat. x. 2.
What doating bigot, to his faults so blind,
As not to grant me this, can Milton find?
It is common, says Bacon, to desire the end without enduring the means. Every member of society feels and acknowledges the necessity of detecting crimes, yet scarce any degree of virtue or reputation is able to secure an informer from publick hatred. The learned world has always admitted the usefulness of critical disquisitions, yet he that attempts to show, however modestly, the failures of a celebrated writer, shall surely irritate his admirers, and incur the imputation of envy, captiousness, and malignity.
With this danger full in my view, I shall proceed to examine the sentiments of Milton’s tragedy, which, though much less liable to censure than the disposition of his plan, are, like those of other writers, sometimes exposed to just exceptions for want of care, or want of discernment.
Sentiments are proper and improper as they consist more or less with the character and circumstances of the person to whom they are attributed, with the rules of the composition in which they are found, or with the settled and unalterable nature of things.
It is common among the tragick poets to introduce their persons alluding to events or opinions, of which they could not possibly have any knowledge. The barbarians of remote or newly discovered regions often display their skill in European learning. The god of love is mentioned in Tamerlane with all the familiarity of a Roman epigrammatist; and a late writer has put Harvey’s doctrine of the circulation of the blood into the mouth of a Turkish statesman, who lived near two centuries before it was known even to philosophers or anatomists.
Milton’s learning, which acquainted him with the manners of the ancient eastern nations, and his invention, which required no assistance from the common cant of poetry, have preserved him from frequent outrages of local or chronological propriety. Yet he has mentioned Chalybean steel, of which it is not very likely that his chorus should have heard, and has made Alp the general name of a mountain, in a region where the Alps could scarcely be known:
No medicinal liquor can assuage,
Nor breath of cooling air from snowy Alp.
He has taught Samson the tales of Circe, and the Syrens, at which he apparently hints in his colloquy with Dalila:
—I know thy trains,
Though dearly to my cost, thy gins, and toils;
Thy fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms
No more on me have pow’r.
But the grossest errour of this kind is the solemn introduction of the Phoenix in the last scene; which is faulty, not only as it is incongruous to the personage to whom it is ascribed, but as it is so evidently contrary to reason and nature, that it ought never to be mentioned but as a fable in any serious poem:
—Virtue giv’n for lost,
Deprest, and overthrown, as seem’d,
Like that self-begotten bird
In the Arabian woods embost,
That no second knows nor third,
And lay ere while a holocaust,
From out her ashy womb now teem’d,
Revives, reflourishes, then vigorous most
When most unactive deem’d,
And though her body die, her fame survives
A secular bird, ages of lives.
Another species of impropriety is the unsuitableness of thoughts to the general character of the poem. The seriousness and solemnity of tragedy necessarily reject all pointed or epigrammatical expressions, all remote conceits and opposition of ideas. Samson’s complaint is therefore too elaborate to be natural:
As in the land of darkness, yet in light,
To live a life half dead, a living death,
And bury’d; but, O yet more miserable!
Myself, my sepulchre, a moving grave,
Buried, yet not exempt,
By privilege of death and burial,
From worst of other evils, pains and wrongs.
All allusions to low and trivial objects, with which contempt is usually associated, are doubtless unsuitable to a species of composition which ought to be always awful, though not always magnificent. The remark therefore of the chorus on good or bad news seems to want elevation:
Manoah. A little stay will bring some notice hither. Chor. Of good or bad so great, of bad the sooner; For evil news rides post, while good news baits.
But of all meanness that has least to plead which is produced by mere verbal conceits, which, depending only upon sounds, lose their existence by the change of a syllable. Of this kind is the following dialogue:
Chor. But had we best retire? I see a storm.
Sams. Fair days have oft contracted wind and rain.
Chor. But this another kind of tempest brings.
Sams. Be less abstruse, my riddling days are past.
Chor. Look now for no enchanting voice, nor fear
The bait of honied words; a rougher tongue
Draws hitherward; I know him by his stride,
The giant Harapha.—
And yet more despicable are the lines in which Manoah’s paternal kindness is commended by the chorus:
Fathers are wont to lay up for their sons,
Thou for thy son art bent to lay out all.
Samson’s complaint of the inconveniencies of imprisonment is not wholly without verbal quaintness:
—I, a prisoner chain’d, scarce freely draw
The air, imprison’d also, close and damp.
From the sentiments we may properly descend to the consideration of the language, which, in imitation of the ancients, is through the whole dialogue remarkably simple and unadorned, seldom heightened by epithets, or varied by figures; yet sometimes metaphors find admission, even where their consistency is not accurately preserved. Thus Samson confounds loquacity with a shipwreck:
How could I once look up, or heave the head,
Who, like a foolish pilot, have shipwreck’d
My vessel trusted to me from above,
Gloriously rigg’d; and for a word, a tear,
Fool! have divulg’d the secret gift of God
To a deceitful woman?—
And the chorus talks of adding fuel to flame in a report:
He’s gone, and who knows how he may report
Thy words, by adding fuel to the flame?
The versification is in the dialogue much more smooth and harmonious, than in the parts allotted to the chorus, which are often so harsh and dissonant, as scarce to preserve, whether the lines end with or without rhymes, any appearance of metrical regularity:
Or do my eyes misrepresent? Can this be he,
That heroic, that renown’d,
Irresistible Samson? whom unarm’d
No strength of man, or fiercest wild beast, could withstand;
Who tore the lion, as the lion tears the kid.
Since I have thus pointed out the faults of Milton, critical integrity requires that I should endeavour to display his excellencies, though they will not easily be discovered in short quotations, because they consist in the justness of diffuse reasonings, or in the contexture and method of continued dialogues; this play having none of those descriptions, similies, or splendid sentences, with which other tragedies are so lavishly adorned. Yet some passages may be selected which seem to deserve particular notice, either as containing sentiments of passion, representations of life, precepts of conduct, or sallies of imagination. It is not easy to give a stronger representation of the weariness of despondency, than in the words of Samson to his father:
—I feel my genial spirits droop,
My hopes all flat, Nature within me seems
In all her functions weary of herself,
My race of glory run, and race of shame,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest.
The reply of Samson to the flattering Dalila affords a just and striking description of the stratagems and allurements of feminine hypocrisy:
—These are thy wonted arts,
And arts of every woman false like thee,
To break all faith, all vows, deceive, betray,
Then as repentant to submit, beseech,
And reconcilement move with feign’d remorse,
Confess and promise wonders in her change;
Not truly penitent, but chief to try
Her husband, how far urg’d his patience bears,
His virtue or weakness which way to assail:
Then with more cautious and instructed skill
Again transgresses, and again submits.
When Samson has refused to make himself a spectacle at the feast of Dagon, he first justifies his behaviour to the chorus, who charge him with having served the Philistines, by a very just distinction: and then destroys the common excuse of cowardice and servility, which always confound temptation with compulsion:
Chor. Yet with thy strength thou serv’st the Philistines.
Sams. Not in their idol worship, but by labour Honest and lawful to deserve my food Of those, who have me in their civil power.
Chor. Where the heart joins not, outward acts defile not.
Sams. Where outward force constrains, the sentence holds.
But who constrains me to the temple of Dagon,
Not dragging? The Philistine lords command.
Commands are no constraints. If I obey them,
I do it freely, venturing to displease
God for the fear of Man, and Man prefer,
Set God behind.
The complaint of blindness which Samson pours out at the beginning of the tragedy is equally addressed to the passions and the fancy. The enumeration of his miseries is succeeded by a very pleasing train of poetical images, and concluded by such expostulation and wishes, as reason too often submits to learn from despair:
O first created Beam, and thou great Word
“Let there be light, and light was over all;”
Why am I thus bereav’d thy prime decree?
The sun to me is dark
And silent as the moon,
When she deserts the night
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Since light so necessary is to life,
And almost life itself, if it be true
That light is in the soul,
She all in every part; why was the sight
To such a tender hall as the eye confin’d,
So obvious and so easy to be quench’d?
And not, as feeling, through all parts diffus’d,
That she may look at will through every pore?
Such are the faults and such the beauties of Samson Agonistes, which I have shown with no other purpose than to promote the knowledge of true criticism. The everlasting verdure of Milton’s laurels has nothing to fear from the blasts of malignity; nor can my attempt produce any other effect, than to strengthen their shoots by lopping their luxuriance.