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Striking points of difference between the Poets of
the present age and those of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries— Wish expressed for the union of the characteristic merits of both.
HRISTENDOM, from its first settlement on feudal rights, has been so far one, great body, however imperfectly organized, that a similar spirit will be found in
each period to have been acting in all its members. The study of Shakespeare's poems-(I do
could pay to another. (See also his three fine sonnets relating to Milton, Poet. Works. iii, pp. 188-9-90.) It would have been out of his way to speak of Milton's prose-though such prose as none but the author of Paradise Lost could have written. If matter is spiritus in cougulo, * as some philosophers aver, this grand Miltonic prose may fancifully be called poësis in cougulo. Yet I think it is more truly and properly prose than the highstrained passages of Jeremy Taylor.
Dante is by some accounted a greater poet than Milton, as being a greater philosopher; I think that he shewed the philosopher in his poetry too much to be the best of poets, especially in the Paradiso. A poet should avoid science, which is ever in a process of change and development, and abide by the fixed and eternal; great part of that thirteenth century lore contained in Dante's poem is dead, and but for the poetic spices with which it is embalmed, and the swathe-bands of the poetic form in which it is preserved, would long since bave been scattered
*“When Leibnitz calls matter the sleep-state of the monads, or when Hemsterhuis names it-den geronnenen Geist -curdled spirit,- there lies a meaning in these expressions, &c.” Trunssc. Id. p. 190. See also Lit. Remains, iii. p. 339.
not include his dramatic works, eminently as they too
abroad, like any unsepulchred dust and ashes. I am here speaking of physics and metaphysics : if wise reflections, just sentiments and deep moral and spiritual maxims are referred to in this comparison, then surely the English poet has greatly the advantage in thought and still more in expression. Philosophy in the song of Milton is better harmonized with poetry than in that of Dante ; it is fused into the poetic mass by something accompanying it which appeals to the heart and moral being; or it is introduced obliquely, with a touch of tenderness, which brings it into unison with the human actions and passions of the poem, as in that beautiful passage,
Others apart sate on a hill retired-* which seems so like a new voice of The Preacher, pathetically satirizing the efforts of man after speculative knowledge and insight. There is to be sure some fictitious or defunct astronomy and spherology in the great poem of Milton ;t but it is lightly touched on and imaginatively presented ; compare the passages that treat of these subjects in the Paradise Lost, especially that noble speech of the Angelf in the eighth book, with the first and second cantos of the Puradiso ; surely the later poetry is to the earlier as“ Hyperion to a Satyr,” so far does it exceed in richness and poetic grace. Bizzarra Teologia ! says a Commentator on a passage in the Purgatorio (C. iii. 1. 18). Bizzarra Filosofia may we say of that in the Paradiso (C. I. at the end), which begins finely, but ends with making specific gravity depend upon original sin; unless nothing but a fanciful flight is intended. What a pomp of philosophy, exclaims M. Merian, speaking of this passage,—and all to usher in a foolery! “ Every great poet is a profound philosopher:" that is, he sees deep into the life and soul of the things which are already known—and has a special mastery over them; but is not necessarily beyond his age in speculative science. Certainly this cannot be predicated either of Dante or of Milton.
I own myself of the vulgar herd in greatly preferring the first to the other sections of Dante's Poem-nay even venture to
+ Ib. b. ii. 1. 481, et seq.
* Par. Lost, b. ii. 1. 555-61. # Lines 39-178.
deserve that title)-led me to a more careful exam
think, that if it had not been both more striking than those two other parts in its general structure and more abundant in passages of power and of beauty, the Divina Commedia would never have been a famous poem at all. The mere plan of describing the unseen world in three divisions would not have made it so; there were Paradise Losts before Milton's which it would be time lost to read. Milton is finer in Hell than in Heaven, finest of all in his earthly Paradise, and Dante's Inferno is better than his Purgatorio or Paradiso, because he could put more of this earth into it,-conform it more to the only world the form of which he was acquainted with, Men cannot make bricks without straw por fine houses without bricks or stones, nor fine poems without sensuous material.
The Divina Commedia is more considerable in religion and ecclesiastical politics, I think,—on which last head there was some accordance betwixt its author and Milton,—than for its philosophy; the highest conception of it that of Mr. Carlyle, that it is “the soul of the Middle Ages rendered rhythmically visible”-the voice of“ ten Christian centuries;"-"the Thought they lived by bodied forth everlasting music.” Its author is great, as Mr. C. observes, from “ fiery emphasis,” and intensity rather than from comprehensiveness or catholicity of spirit. His was “not a great Catholic-was even a narrow sectarian mind.” If Mediævalism in Dante's day was a sectarian thing, cut off from thought expanding beyond it—then, when the torch had not been kindled in the hand of Des Cartes, and the revolt against the dominant Aristotelianism was yet to begin, what must it be now, when thought has been expanding during six more centuries, whilst It remains fixed, rigid—not lifeless as a mummy-butimprisoning the life it has with bands and cerements in a body of death!
But Dante's imagination was as mediæval as his theology and philosophy; hovering continually between the horrible sublime and the hideous grotesque, and sometimes saved only from theridiculous by the chaste severity of a style which is the very Diana of poetical composition. Witness, amongst a cloud of witnesses, his Minos, whom he has equipped wita, a tail long and lithe enough to gonine times round his body!—the wise conqueror and righteous judge is degraded into a worse monster than the Minotaur, in
ination of the contemporary poets both in England and in other countries. But my attention was especially fixed on those of Italy, from the birth to the death of Shakespeare; that being the country in which the fine arts had been most sedulously, and hitherto most successfully cultivated. Abstracted from the degrees and peculiarities of individual genius, the properties common to the good writers of each period seem to establish one striking point of difference between the poetry of the fifteenth and sixteenth centu
order that he may indicate every circle in a fantastic hell down to the ninth and last. How would Pindar have been horrorstricken to see the Hero thus turned into a hideous automaton sign.post! In Dante's hands the demigod sinks into the beastman, while in those of Milton devils appear as deities, fit indeed to obtain adoration from the dazzled mind, -not frightful fiends but wicked angels-specious and seductive as they actually are to the buman heart and imagination. Milton has borrowed from Dante, but how has he multiplied his splendours, how nobly exchanged his“ detestable horrors”'* for a pageantry of Hell that far exceeds the luminous pomp of his Paradise in sublimity and beauty!
We, who feel thus can enter into Mr. Carlyle's high notion of Dante's genius, yet own the justice of Mr. Landor's searching and severe criticism upon the products of it, though the two views appear dissimilar as day and night. The one displays the D. C. under a rich moonlight, which clothes its dreary flats and rugged hollows with sublime shadow; the other under a cold keen dawning daylight, which shows the whole landscape, but not its noblest countenance. Mr. C. so far idealizes his Hero Poet, that without keeping out of view his characteristic faults he, with a far finer economy, converts them into cognate virtues ; the poet's stern, angry temper, for instance, appears through Mr. C.'s glorifying medium like earnest sincerity, religious severity,
* For a striking account of these “detestable horrors” see Mr. Leigh Hunt's Fancy and Imagination.
ries, and that of the present age. The remark may perhaps be extended to the sister art of painting. At least the latter will serve to illustrate the former. In the present age the poet—(I would wish to be understood as speaking generally, and without allusion to individual names)-seems to propose to himself as his main object, and as that which is the most characteristic of his art, new and striking images ; with incidents that interest the affections or excite the curiosity. Both his characters and his descriptions he
a spiritual sadness; and he contrasts his “implacable, grimtrenchant face” with his “soft ethereal soul" more beautifully perhaps than quite truthfully ; for Dante's soul was not all softness. Indeed it escapes this powerful advocate that the heroic poet was bitter. Are the noblest minds embittered then by evil and calamity? Do they clothe themselves with cursing as with a garment, and forget that judgment as well as vengeance belongs to God ? Dante's soul was full of pity, say other apologists, but he deemed it sinful to commiserate those whom God's justice had condemned. Justice forsooth !-and how knew he whom God had condemned—that He had sunk Brutus and Cassius into the nethermost pit, and doomed poor Pope Celestine to be wasp-stung to all eternity on the banks of Acheron? I deny not his pity or his piety; yet I say that thus to fabricate visions of divine wrath upon individuals was a bad sign both of his age and of himself-the sign of a violent and presumptuous spirit. Again, are the noblest minds moody and mournful as Dante is described to have been? Rather they
bate no jot
Rigbt onward. Thus did John Milton, whom with Mr. Landor I cannot help honouring and admiring above any other poet of
past times except Shakespeare. His indeed was what Mr. Carlyle ascribes to Johnson, “a gigantic calmness”-nay more, an almost angelic serenity and cheerfulness; to judge from the tone of his writings with which the tenour of life seems to agree. S. C.]