Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

style, from the use of Latin and Greek forms of expression; from peculiar modes of spelling; from references to exploded and unphilosophical notions in astronomy, chemistry, geology, and philosophy, with which but few persons are familiar.

Besides all this, it has been truly observed by the writer before quoted, that " Milton has a language of his own; I may say invented by himself. It is somewhat hard but it is all sincere : it is not vernacular, but has a latinised cast, which requires a little time to reconcile a reader to it. It is best fitted to convey his own magnificent ideas; its very learnedness impresses us with respect. It moves with a gigantic step : it does not flow like Shakspeare's style, nor dance like Spenser's. Now and then there are transpositions somewhat alien to the character of the English language, which is not well calculated for transposition ; but in Milton this is perhaps a merit, because his lines are pregnant with deep thought and sublime imagery which requires us to dwell upon them, and contemplate them over and over. He ought never to be read rapidly."

Such being some of the characteristics of Paradise Lost, it is not difficult to account for its general neglect, and for the scanty satisfaction experienced by most persons in the attempt to read it. Much of it, as we have remarked, cannot be understood; it abounds in ing many passages that convey to none but the learned any clear idea : thus the common reader is repelled, and the sublimities and beauties of this incomparable poem are known only as echoes from the pages of criticism, of course inadequately.

Not long since even a well-educated and popular preacher was asked how he managed in reading Paradise Lost? His honest and truthful answer was, that he skipped over the hard places, and read the easier ; that he did not pretend fully to understand, or to appreciate, the entire poem; but admitted that not a few passages were not far from being a dead letter to him, requiring for their just interpretation more research and study than he was willing or able to bestow. The fact undoubtedly is, that since a poem is addressed chiefly to the imagination and the sensibilities; since it is read with a view to pleasurable excitement, and not taken up as a production to be severely

studied; since a demand for mental labor and research interferes with the entertainment anticipated, in most cases the Paradise Lost is, on this account, laid aside, though possessing the highest literary merit, for poems of an inferior cast, but of easier interpretation.

It is possible also that the pious spirit which animates the entire poem, and the theological descriptions which abound in several of the Books, may, to the mass of readers, give it a repulsive aspect, and cause them, though unwisely, to prefer other productions in which these elements are not found.

To the causes now enumerated, rather than to those assigned by Dr. Johnson may be referred the result which he thus describes :-“ Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harrassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation : we desert our master, and seek for companions."

But is there no remedy for this neglectful treatment of the finest poetical composition in our language? May not something be done to prepare American readers generally to appreciate it, and, in the perusal, to gratify their intellects and regale their fancy, among its grandeurs and beauties, and also among its learned allusions, and scientific informations ?

The attainment of this important end is the design of the present edition : it is therefore furnished with a large body of notes; with notes suficiently numerous and full, it is presumed, to clear up the obscurities to which we have referred; to place the unlearned reader, so far as the possession of the information requisite 10 understand the poem is concerned, on the same level with the learned; and to direct attention to the parts most deserving of admiration, and to the grounds upon which they should be admired. The editions hitherto published in this country, it is believed, are either destitute of notes, or the notes are altogether too few and too brief to afford the aid which is generally required.

About half a cen:ury after the publication of the Paradise Lost, its reputation was much advanced by a series of papers which came

out weekly in the celebrated Spectator, from the graceful pen of Addison. " These,” as Hallam justly remarks, “were perhaps superior to any criticisms that had been written in our language, and we must always acknowledge their good sense, their judiciousness, and the vast service they did to our literature, in setting the Paradise Lost on its proper level.” But modern periodicals, and modern essays are fast crowding out the once familiar volumes of that excel. lent British classic; and those once famous criticisms are now seldom met with, so that modern readers, with rare exceptions, derive from them no benefit in the reading of the Paradise Lost.

The Editor has evinced his own high sense of their value, and has, moreover, rendered them far more available to the illustration of the poem, than they are, as found in the Spectator, by selecting such criti. cisms as appeared to him to possess the highest merit, and distributing them in the form of notes, to the several parts of the poem which they serve to illustrate and adorn. After this labor had been performed, however, and a principal part of the other notes had been prepared, it was ascertained with some surprise, on procuring a London copy of Bp. Newton's edition of Milton, now quite scarce, that the same course had a century ago been pursued by him; though the same pains had not been taken by Newton to distribute in detail to every part of the poem the criticisms of Addison. Besides this, he introduced them entire, and thus occupied his pages with much matter quite inferior to that which has been provided, in this edition, from recent sources.

The notes of the present edition will be found to embrace, besides much other matter, all that is excellent and worth preservation in those of Newton, Todd, Bryuges, and Stebbing; comprehending also some of the richest treasures of learned and ingenious criticism which the Paradise Lost has called into existence, and which have hitherto been scattered through the pages of many volumes of Reviews and miscellaneous literature : and these have been so arranged as to illustrate the several parts of the poem to which they retate.

It was not deemed important to occupy space in the discussion of certain questions, more curious than useful or generally interesting, relating to some earlier authors, to whom it has been alleged that Mil

ton was greatly indebted for the plan and some prominent features of the Paradise Lost. Yet it has been a pleasant, and more prontable task, to discover by personal research, and by aid of the research of others, those parts of classical authors a familiar acquaintance with which has enabled the learned poet so wonderfully to enrich and adorn his beautiful production. These classic gems of thought and expres. sion have been introduced in the notes, only for the gratification of those persons who are able to appreciate the language of the Roman and Grecian poets; and who may have a taste for observing the coincidences between their language and that of the great master of Eng. lish verse.

Not long before the composition of Paradise Lost, Milton thus speaks of the qualifications which he regarded as requisite and which he hoped to employ in preparing it: "A work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapors of wine; nor to be obtained of dame Memory and her siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that Eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added industrious and select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs."

• This, I am convinced,' says Sir E. B. already quoted, is the true origin of Paradise Lost. Shakspeare's originality might be still more impugned, if an anticipation of hints and similar stories were to be taken as proof of plagiarism. In many of the dramatist's most beautiful plays the whole tale is borrowed; but Shakspeare and Milton turn brass into gold. This sort of passage hunting has been carried a great deal too far, and has disgusted and repelled the reader of feeling and taste. The novelty is in the raciness, the life, the force, the just association, the probability, the truth; that which is striking because it is extravagant is a false novelty. He who borrows to make patches is a plagiarist ; but what patch is there in Milton ? All is interwoven and forms part of one web. No doubt the holy bard was al. ways intent upon sacred poetry, and drew his principal inspirations from Scripture. This distinguishes his siyle and spirit from all other

poets; and gives him a solemnity which has not been surpassed, save in the book whence welled that inspiration.'

The Editor is fully aware of the boldness of the attempt to furnish a full commentary on such a poem as this: he also painfully sensible that much higher qualifications than he possesses could profitably and houorably be laid out in the undertaking. He has long wondered, and regretted, that such an edition of Paradise Lost, as the American public needs, has not been furnished; and in the absence of a better, he offers this edition, as adapted, in his humble opinion, to render a most desirable and profitable service to the reading community, while it may contribute, as he hopes, to bring this poem from the state of unmerited neglect into which it has fallen, and cause it to be more generally read and studied, for the cultivation of a literary taste and for the expansion of the intellectual and moral powers.

Ours is an age in which the best writings of the seventeenth century have been generally republished, and thus have been put upon a new career of fame and usefulness. Shakspeare has had, for more than half a century, his learned annotators, without whose aid large portions of his plays would be nearly unintelligible. He has been honored with public lectures also, to illustrate his genius, and to bring to view his masterly sketches of the human heart and manners. There have recently started up public readers also, by whose popular exertions he has been brought into more general admiration. It seems to be full time that a higher appreciation of the great epic of Milton than has hitherto prevailed among us, and that a more extended usefulness also, should be secured to it, by the publication of critical and explanatory notes, such as the circumstances of the reading class oh. viously require.

Ever valuable will it be, for its varied learning, for its exquisite beauties of poetic diction and measure ; for its classical, scientific and scriptural allusions; for its graphic delineations of the domestic state and its duties; for its adaptation, when duly explained and understood, to enlarge the intellect, to entertain the imagination, to improve literary taste, and cultivate the social and the devout affections ; for its grand account of creation, providence, and redemption, embracing a

« ZurückWeiter »