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declares himself moved by a secret impulse to comply, and utters some dark presages of a great event to be brought to pass by his agency, under the direction of Providence:
Samson. Be of good courage; I begin to seel
By some great act, or of my days the last.
the messenger, his father returns with hopes of success in his solicitation, upon
which he confers with the chorus till their dialogue is interrupted, first by a shout of triumph, and afterwards by screams of horrour and agony. As they stand deliberating where they shall be secure, a man who had been present at the show enters, and relates how Samson, having prevailed on his guide to suffer him to lead against the main pillars of the theatrical edifice, tore down the roof upon the spectators and himself:
- Those two massy pillars,
-Samson with these immixt, inevitably,
Pull'd down the same destruction on himself. This is undoubtedly a just and regular catastrophe, and the poem, therefore, has a beginning and an end which Aristotle himself could not have disapproved; but it must be allowed to want a middle, since nothing passes between the first act and the last, that either hastens or delays the death of Samson. The whole drama, if its superfluities were cut off, would scarcely filled a single act; yet this is the tragedy which ignorance has admired, and bigotry applauded.
N° 140. SATURDAY, July 20, 1751.
Quis tam Lucili fautor ineptè est,
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 be that attempts to shew, 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 Delilah:
I know thy trains,
No more on me have pow'r. But the grossest errour of this kind is the solemn introduction of the Phænix 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,
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,
Myself my sepulcbre, a moving grave!
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 aweful, 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 storin.
Chor. Look now for no enchanting voice, nor fear
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 are 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 VOL. II.
My vessel, trusted to me from above,
To a deceitful woman!-
He's gone, and who knows how he may report
Thy words, by adding fuel to the flume? 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,
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,
And I shall shortly be with them that rest. The reply of Samson to the flattering Delilah affords a a just and striking description of the stratagems and allurements of feminine hypocrisy:
- These are thy wonted arts,