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evil hour in which Johnson undertook to write the life of Milton, or to criticise his poems; he could not understand the first, it was a virtue beyond his reach; so “high he could not attain to it,” and no man ever believed in the existence of a virtue in another too lofty for his own attainment; as to poetry he was utterly unfitted to be a critic of it: a large heavy scrofulous body, short-sighted, narrow-minded, without enthusiasim or cheerfulness, what should he know of it? We love the old man in many of his moods, but the position in which we least like to see him, in which indeed we cannot tolerate him, is sitting down to write the Life of Milton.
If we would read the mental and moral life of great poets, we should carefully study the leading character of their writings. We shall be sure to find their history written there. All poets in their writings sketch themselves,-it cannot be otherwise; their mightiest characters do as they would do; of course, it needs not to be said, that the character sketched most entirely, by Milton, is Satan; the power associated with that being is terrible ; he is the prime actor in “ Paradise Lost,” and he moves with fearful energy. Where he moves through the poem, the human characters are passive to his power; the angelic are only foils to set off that power, and there is an indistinctness in the impersonation of the divine beings most grateful to our feelings, but at the same time unfavourable to the due balancing of that tremendous lordship which Satan asserts over our imaginations throughout the whole of the book. But the character of Satan, does this harmonise with our moral feelings of what such a character should be? Our readers will remember a passage in one of Burns's letters: “I have bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me, in order to study the sentiments, the dauntless magnanimity, the intrepid, unyielding independence, the desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship, in that great personage SATAN.” Unquestionably this is the predominant impression produced on the mind; throughout the poem, Satan fascinates us irresistibly; as soon as he speaks, he declares himself ; although struck down, yet unconquered.
“What though the field be lost?
He bears up, although racked with deep despair, and answers the fears of more timid comrades :
“ Fallen cherub, to be weak is miserable
Doing or suffering."
And when the sulphurous hail had laid the fiery surge, and the thunder, winged with red lightning, ceases to bellow through the vast and boundless deep, and the revelation of the world to which he is consigned is made
“ Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell; hope never comes,
while the flames, on each side, slope their pointing spires, and, rolling in billows, leave in the midst a horrid vale. In the midst of this mournful gloom he continues still undaunted, -he casts his last look on heaven and all its happiness,-he exhibits no remorse, but rather exultancy and triumph :
“ Farewell, happy fields,
And when the new creation is won, through that terrible journey he undertook through the realms of chaos and the limbo of vanity; when from regions so dreadful, escaped once more to the strange beauty of the new creation, and the spectacle of the full splendour of the sun beheld for the first time, recalls him to a sense of his own darkness, and long eternity of terror,then gushes forth that terrible and passionate soliloquy:
“ Me miserable! Which way shall I fly.
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair !
Still threatening to devour me, opens wide ;
No, pride, stout, stubborn pride, forbids that submission, and
“ So farewell hope; and with hope, farewell fear;
Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost;
These citations present the portrait of Satan, it is a portrait of evil, which awes us, but does not satisfy us ; it is too fearfully objective. We feel that this nobleness of evil does not belong to it,-it is a colouring caught from the poet's own mind; it illustrates our first thought, that in painting Satan, the poet painted himself: this sublime and daring determination was a portion of his soul,--that sublime resolution, undaunted, defiant of the bellowing thunder, the surging fires, and the swift, fierce lightnings, was but the painting of the reality with which Milton himself went forth to encounter the terrible hurricanes of life. We have had other pictures of the impersonated Evil ;-and amongst them, especially, Goethe's Mephistophiles ;—but in every point, how different! This being excites no sympathy-he