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“ Th’ Ethereal mould
" This Desart soile
“ If I that Region lost,
But, though Milton uses her for our its (sometimes with an approach to personification, but not always) in cases where Shakespeare would have used his, Mr. Craik is wrong, I think, in saying that his personifications by his are rare, and still more wrong in saying he “ never uses his in a neuter sense." Surely, the grammatical terms Superlative, Adjective, Verb, and Relative, are neuter enough; and yet to each of these, as we have seen, Milton fits the word his. But take a few examples from his poetry :
" The Thunder,
Perhaps hath spent his shafts.”—P. L., I. 176.
" the neather Flood,
Belch'd fire and rowling smoak; the rest entire
The work of Sulphur.”—P. L., I. 673.
A spatious plain outstretch't in circuit wide
Lay pleasant ; from his side two rivers flow'd.”—P. R., III. 255.
“ Error by his own arms is best evinc't.”—P. R., IV. 235. Here is a passage in which his and her, both in a neuter sense, are companions
" O that torment should not be confin'd
To the bodies wounds and sores
And on her purest spirits prey!”-S. A. 612, 613. This little Essay on the history of the word Its in connexion with Milton may be concluded with a practical application.
In the Library of the British Museum there is a copy of the tiny First (1645) edition of Milton's Minor Poems, on the blank page at the end of which some old possessor of the volume has left written, in minute handwriting, the following piece of verse. We print it in our present spelling :
" AN EPITAPH.
He whom Heaven did call away
Think not, reader, me less blest,
In this little bed my dust
Then pass on gently, ye that mourn ;
Subscribed, immediately under the last line, are two initials, the first unfortunately so blurred by the Museum Library stamp that it cannot be distinctly made out, but the second distinctly “M”; and appended is the date “ Tober 1647," i.e. “ December 1647."
My acquaintance with these lines dates from about 1858, when, having occasion to consult the volume containing them, I read them and took a note of them. Knowing the handwriting not to be Milton's, and seeing no reason otherwise for believing Milton to be the author, I thought nothing more necessary at the time; but in May 1866, recurring to the volume for another purpose, I thought it as well to make a copy of the pretty little curiosity, heading it in my note-book “Copy of MS. lines, in a contemporary hand (not Milton's) on the fly-page at the end of a copy of Milton's Poems, edit. 1645, in Brit. Mus. (press-mark 238 h. 5).” Thinking it not unlikely that the blurred first initial might be “J” I added "J. M.” as the subscribed initials, only attaching a query to the “J” to signify uncertainty.
My friend, Mr. Henry Morley, Professor of English Literature in University College, London, chancing afterwards to consult the same volume, was also attracted by the lines, and, not doubting that the handwriting was Milton's, and that the signature was “J. M.," very naturally concluded that the piece was a hitherto unknown poem by Milton, written by him for preservation, in Dec. 1647, in one of his copies of his volume of Minor Poems printed two years before. He communicated it, therefore, to the Times newspaper, where it was published under the title “An unpublished Poem by Milton,” and with the signature as "J. M.," on the 16th of July 1868. Immediately there arose a controversy on the subject, which lasted some weeks. The controversy took a wide range, and passed at length into a mere cloud of verbal criticism, with illustrative quotations from old poets, only slightly relevant to the real question. Important and relevant evidence on the negative side, however, did come out at once. Mr. Bond and Mr. Rye of the British Museum and Mr. W. Aldis Wright of Cambridge, with other authorities, at once declared the handwriting not to be Milton's,—to be so different from Milton's that it was inconceivable how any one acquainted with Milton's hand could possibly mistake the one for the other. It was found also, on close examination of the dubious initial of the signature, that it was most probably not a “J”; and Mr. Bond made so sure that it was a P that, in sending to the Times (July 30) an
exact transcript of the original, letter for letter, he gave the subscription as positively “P. M., rober. 1647." These items of evidence at once arrested the tendency to agree with Mr. Morley in ascribing the poem to Milton. Nevertheless, as people had taken a liking for the quaint little thing itself, argument for the possibility of its being Milton's did not wholly cease; and I believe there are still some persons who think that, after all, it may be Milton's.
This is not the place for renewing the controversy in its whole extent; and I need only repeat my conviction that the sum of the evidence, external and internal, taken in every possible form of both kinds, is absolutely conclusive against the hypothesis that the poem is Milton's. One item of the internal argument, however, does concern us here. It
may be called the argument from the its test. I proposed this test at the time, and I still rely upon it.
We have seen Milton's habit in respect of the word its. We have seen how wonderfully he eludes the very necessity for using such a word, how the word occurs but three times in all his poetry, and how in every other case, where the necessity for such a word is not eluded, he uses his or her where we should now use its. How stands the Epitaph in this respect? It consists of but fifty-four lines, and yet the word its occurs four times in it :
“ Ere the day
Into its first consistencies.”
In its principles appear.”
In its ashes rest it must
Until sweet Psyche,” etc. Now, if the professed date of the Epitaph had been some date before the end of the sixteenth century, and if the question had been as to the authenticity of the Epitaph as professing to be of such a date, these four occurrences of its in it would have proved it to be a forgery. The Chatterton antiques fell before this test among others. The question, however, is not whether the poem is a genuine production of somebody in 1647. That is not denied. The word its, as we have seen, had crept pretty widely into use by that time, and was favoured in particular districts and by particular writers; and the Epitaph, were it nothing else, would be an interesting additional illustration of the fact. But the its starts into great consequence when it is proposed to attribute the piece to Milton. Can it be supposed that a pronominal form which occurs but three times in the whole body of Milton's poetry, ranging over the entire fifty years of his literary life from 1624 to 1674, should occur four times in a single piece of fifty-four lines written by him some hour in December 1647? Mr. Morley suggests that, whatever was Milton's general habit, the exigencies of the thought and syntax in this particular piece required the four occurrences of the word its. This, however, would but alter the form of the marvel. How was it that the very necessity for the use of the word, though Milton felt it but three times at long intervals through the rest of fifty years, came upon him with such resistless force in one fell hour in December 1647 as to extract from him then four repetitions of the word ? But I deny that there was in fact any such exigency in this piece as to require Milton to depart from his custom of his or her. Take the first occurrence of its in the piece :
“ With whom he sported ere the day
Budded forth its tender ray." Here I do not see that the very slight ambiguity that might arise from the use of his would have prevented Milton from using that form, as he has in Comus, 977-8:
“ And those happy climes that lie
Where day never shuts his eye.'
66 Infant nature cradled here
In its principles appear. Here it would surely have been more natural for Milton to use her. Thus, Par. Lost, II. 911 :
“ The womb of Nature, and perhaps her grave.” For, in this case, in face of the fact that the writer almost personifies “nature" by the epithet “infant” and the image cradled,” how can one find a reason for the use of its in a supposed desire of the writer strongly to indicate lifelessness or sexlessness ?
Such a subtlety might apply better in the other two cases :
". The thread of life untwisted is
Into its first consistencies."
In its ashes rest it must."
I have found no passage in Milton in which “ thread” occurs in a connexion to show whether he would have used his or her with it. Nor for "plant" either have I found any such passage, unless this (Com. 620—623) be one :
In short, the Epitaph must have been written by one of those persons