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Hainault, and they lost their way; and one of his lordship’s cottagers brought the children home :now there is the history of Comus. Milton applied his gigantic intellect to that incident, well remembering and exemplifying the lesson of his greater predecessor, for yet greater he was in regard to genius-remembering those everlastingly quoted words, but yet so beautiful, though it be the fifty thousandth repetition, they will bear a fifty thousandth and one-I mean that noble passage in Midsummer Night's Dream
“The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
Now the “local habitation and a name” is what Milton imparted to this trifling story, foolish you might consider it, of these children. The story in the hands of Milton is this :—There dwelt in ancient times, in one of the islands of the Ægean sea, a great sorceress named Circe, and she sang melo. dious music, by which she attracted to her island all the passers by, and induced them to land. When they had landed, she presented to them a cup of sorcery, of which they drank, and assumed a bestial form, wallowing in a certain sensual sty for the rest of their existence. So far is the tale of Homer, to which Milton makes this addition. Circe gave birth to a son named Comus, of whom the wild god Bacchus was the father, and Comus inherited the qualities of both his parents, the lasciviousness of the mother, and the intemperance of the father, together with his prodigious fondness for travelling: So it
to pass that in the year 1634 this son of Bacchus found his way to Hainault forest, where, like his mother, he presented
one of these cups to every person passing through the forest. Those who drank of the cup did not fall into quite such a wretched plight as in Circe's island, but they lived in happy ignorance of their fate. Well, it so happened that one day the three child. ren of Lord Bridgewater were wandering in this forest. The lady being fatigued, reposed herself on a mossy bank. Her brothers went to seek straw. berries for her, and they could not find their way back; whereupon she sang a very charming song that they might hear it and return to her. Comus hears this song, and presents himself in the shape of a shepherd, which he had assumed for the purposes of the delusion. He tells the lady that he has an old mother, an estimable personage, living in a cottage in the neighbourhood, and if the lady will have the kindness to follow him, that the old woman will conduct her home to her father's house. In her strong courage of innocence she follows him. Then appears on the scene a good spirit, whose earthly name is Thirsis, who, having ascertained that Čomus is in the wood, has provided himself with an antidote to his charms, as far as regarded this lady. The brothers are in great distress, and Thirsis offers to conduct them to their sister, "only," he says, "when you get to Comus, mind you take his wand, if you do not, the lady will not be disenchanted." They find the lady in a magnificent palace, seated on a throne, from whence she cannot move. She is ably debating with Comus against his proposal that she should taste of his cup. The brothers rush on in such a great hurry that unfortunately the direction about the wand is forgotten, and though Comus is driven away, the lady remains absolutely motionless on the throne. Whereupon Thirsis raises a most beautiful song, by which he summons to his aid Sabrina, the water nymph, who gives name to the Severn,—and she delivers the lady. Then Thirsis, and the brothers, and the lady, all repair to the castle; and when the children are under the care of their parents, Thirsis lays aside the appearance of humanity he had assumed, and floats away into his native sphere with the most charming carol of delight and joy imaginable.
That is something like an outline of the story. You will say—“All this is very fanciful, but not the least in the world dramatic.” You may read the same objection in Dr. Johnson's “Life of Milton." Most assuredly I am not going to obtrude upon you a dissertation on Milton's poetry, it is vastly too large a subject. I will only touch upon this one point, “What is the essential characteristic of Milton's poetry?" The Greeks, who we know were, of all people upon earth, the most fastidious, refined, and delicate in their use of words, called a bard, that is, a poet, a "creator;" and they called his song a
that is, a "creation, without the slightest consciousness that they were making use of any expressions which were in their nature audacious or profane. Why not? Because the Greeks had not our notions at all touching the creative power. When they conceived of the Supreme Mind giving existence to subordinate minds, they considered him as detaching from himself a part of his own essence. The Greek notion was that the Divine Mind was a sort of fathomless abyss of what they called ideas, images, forms, shapes, of all things existing, or which by possibility could exist, in the universe; and the subordinate minds thrown off by the Divine Mind were also depositories of ideas and images, but very often lying dormant, to be awakened by the force of events, and the progress of life. The essence of a great poem in the Greek mind was, that it should be replete, thickly sown with ideas; that the poet throwing off from his mind the poem, he was to engendler into that poem a sort of treasury of ideas, the great mass of them latent and dormant, to be disinterred. Now I say, in that sense, beyond all men who have ever written in our tongue, and I believe in any other, Milton stands pre-eminent.
What is it that distinguishes the Hebrew poetry of Jeremiah, Moses, and David, from all other poetry -leaving out of the question for the moment its Divine inspiration? It is its suggestiveness—you never get to an end of it; you cannot by any possibility exhaust the depths of meaning in those sentences. You may translate this Hebrew poetry in the most barbarous way possible, if only you make it an exact translation; you may be as prosaic as you will, but you cannot bring it down to prose; it remains immutable poetry. Of all the poetry in our tongue, incomparably the greatest is that which we read in our Bibles. It retains some noble flower which preserves all its beauty after it has lost its
I do not read very much of the poetry that is published in these times; old men I don't think do; but all I have read of it seems to be of this kind-take away the aroma, and the whole thing is gone! I think most men will agree with me that the poet-laureate himself-(I never met a lady in my life who was not somewhat idolatrous of the poetlaureate)—but even the poet-laureate himself depends so very much upon phrases and style as to be untranslateable. The poetry of the Scriptures may be said to bear some sort of analogy to the great works of Michael Angelo and Raffaelle, which in the coarsest and most colourless print that can be laid before you, are still full of sublimity. So, I say, Milton eminently possessed that ability. By Milton the wisest amongst us, the most learned, may measure himself; and in proportion as you find your appreciation of Milton increasing, and your perception of the gigantic mass of thought and knowledge there rising, so that the book becomes more and more intelligible, you are yourself rising; and in proportion as you feel yourself unable to make that discovery, depend upon it-I say it with a dogmatic confidence which I cannot now stop to apologise for -but depend upon it you are yourself sinking.
I will now venture to read some few of the passages which I conceive may give you some sort of notion of what is that poetry of which I have been speaking. The masque is thus opened by the attendant spirit :
“Before the starry threshold of Jove's court
opes the palace of eternity : To such my errand is. Comas enters with his mad rout, and delivers himself after the fashion of this short and merry measure :
“ The star, that bids the shepherd fold,
Now the top of heaven doth hold;