THIS division, embracing the latter eighty years of the seventeenth century, contains the close of our early poetical style and the commencement of the modern. In Dryden we see the first master of the new; in Milton, whose genius dominates here as Shakespeare's in the former book, the crown and consummation of the early period. Their splendid odes are far in advance of any prior attempts, Spenser's excepted. They exhibit the wider and grander range which years and experience and the struggles of the time conferred on poetry. Our Muses now give expression to political feeling, to religious thought, to a high philosophic statesmanship, in writers such as Marvell, Herbert, and Wotton; whilst in Marvell and Milton, again, we find the first noble attempts at pure description of Nature, destined in our own ages to be continued and equalled. Meanwhile the poetry of simple passion, although before 1660 often deformed by verbal fancies and conceits of thought, and afterwards by levity and an artificial tone, produced in Herrick and Waller some charming pieces of more finished art than the Elizabethan; until, in the courtly compliments of Sedley, it seems to exhaust itself, and lie almost dormant for the hundred years between the days of Wither and Suckling and the days of Burns and Cowper. That the change from our early style to the modern brought with it at first a loss of nature and simplicity is undeniable; yet the far bolder and wider scope which poetry took between 1620 and 1700, and the successful efforts then made to gain greater clearness in expression, in their results have been no slight compensation.
L. 213.Osiris, the Egyptian god of agriculture (here, perhaps by confusion with Apis, figured as a bull), was torn to pieces by Typho, and embalmed after death in a sacred chest. This myth, reproduced in Syria and Greece in the legends of Thammuz, Adonis, and perhaps Absyrtus, represents the annual death of the Sun or the Year under the influences of the winter darkness. Horus, the son of Osiris, as the New Year, in his turn overcomes Typho. It suited the genius of Milton's time to regard this primeval poetry and philosophy of the seasons, which has a further reference to the contest of Good and Evil in creation, as a malignant idolatry. Shelley's chorus in "Hellas," "Worlds on worlds," treats the subject in a larger and sweeter spirit.
L. 215.Unshower'd grass: as watered by the Nile only.
The Late Massacre: the Vaudois persecution, carried on in 1655 by the Duke of Savoy. This "collect in verse," as it has been justly named, is the most mighty sonnet in any language known to the editor. Readers should observe that, unlike our sonnets of the sixteenth century, it is constructed on the original Italian or Provençal model, unquestionably far superior to the imperfect form employed by Shakespeare and Drummond.
Cromwell returned from Ireland in 1650. Hence the prophecies, not strictly fulfilled, of his deference to the Parliament, in stanzas 2124.
This ode, beyond doubt one of the finest in our language, and more in Milton's style than has been reached by any other poet, is occasionally obscure from imitation of the condensed Latin syntax. The meaning of stanza 5 is, "Rivalry or hostility is the same to a lofty spirit, and limitation more hateful than opposition." The allusion in stanza 11 is to the old physical doctrines of the non-existence of a vacuum and the impenetrability of matter; in stanza 17 to the omen traditionally connected with the foundation of the Capitol at Rome. The ancient belief that certain years in life complete natural periods, and are hence peculiarly exposed to death, is introduced in stanza 26 by the word climacteric.
Lycidas. The person lamented is Milton's college friend, Edward King, drowned in 1637 whilst crossing from Chester to Ireland.
Strict pastoral poetry was first written or perfected by the Dorian Greeks settled in Sicily; but the conventional use of it, exhibited more magnificently in "Lycidas" than in any other pastoral, is apparently of Roman origin. Milton, employing the noble freedom of a great artist, has here united ancient mythology with what may be called the modern mythology of Camus and Saint Peterto direct Christian images. The metrical structure of this glorious poem is partly derived from Italian models.
Line 15.Sisters of the sacred well: the Muses, said to frequent the fountain Helicon on Mount Parnassus.
L. 54.Mona: Anglesey, called by the Welsh Inis Dowil, or the Dark Island, from its dense forests.
L. 55.Deva: the Dee, a river which probably derived its magical character from Celtic traditions; it was long the boundary of Briton and Saxon. These places are introduced as being near the scene of the shipwreck.
L. 58.Orpheus: was torn to pieces by Thracian women.
L. 68, 69.Amaryllis and Neæra: names used here for the love-idols of poets, as Damoetas previously for a shepherd.
L. 75.The blind Fury: Atropos, fabled to cut the thread of life.
L. 85, 86.Arethuse and Mincius: Sicilian and Italian waters, here alluded to as synonymous with the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Virgil.
L. 88.Oat: pipe, used here like Collins's oaten stop, line 1, No. cxlvi., for song.
L. 99.Panope: a Nereid. The names of local deities in the Hellenic mythology express generally some feature in the natural landscape, which the Greeks studied and analysed with their usual unequalled insight and feeling. Panope represents the boundlessness of the ocean horizon when seen from a height, as compared with the limited horizon of the land in hilly countries such as Greece or Asia Minor.
L. 103.Camus: the Cam; put for King's University.
L. 106.The sanguine flower: the hyacinth of the ancients, probably our iris.
L. 109.The Pilot: Saint Peter, figuratively introduced as the head of the Church on earth, to foretell "the ruin of our corrupted clergy, then in their heighth" under Laud's primacy.
L. 132.Alpheus: a stream in Southern Greece, supposed to flow underseas to join the Arethuse.
L. 138.Swart star: the Dogstar, called swarthy because its heliacal rising in ancient times occurred soon after midsummer.
L. 159.Moist vows: either tearful prayers, or prayers for one at sea.
L. 160.Bellerus: a giant, apparently created here by Milton to personify Bellerium, the ancient title of the Land's End.
L. 161.The great Vision. The story was that the Archangel Michael had appeared on the rock by Marazion in Mount's Bay which bears his name. Milton calls on him to turn his eyes from the south homeward, and to pity Lycidas, if his body has drifted into the troubled waters off the Land's End. Finisterre being the land due south of Marazion, two places in that district (then by our trade with Corunna probably less unfamiliar to English ears) are namedNamancos, now Mujio in Galicia; and Bayona, north of the Minho, or perhaps a fortified rock (one of the Cies Islands) not unlike Saint Michael's Mount at the entrance of Vigo Bay.
The Assault was an attack on London expected in 1642, when the troops of Charles the First reached Brentford. "Written on his door" was in the original title of this sonnet. Milton was then living in Aldersgate Street.
Line 10.The great Emathian conqueror. When Thebes was destroyed (B.C. 335), and the citizens massacred by thousands, Alexander ordered the house of Pindar to be spared. He was as incapable of appreciating the poet as Louis the Fourteenth was of appreciating Racine; but even the narrow and barbarian mind of Alexander could understand the advantage of a showy act of homage to poetry.
Line 12.The repeated air of sad Electra's poet. Amongst Plutarch's vague stories, he says that when the Spartan confederacy in 404 B.C. took Athens, a proposal to demolish it was rejected through the effect produced on the commanders by hearing part of a chorus from the "Electra" of Euripides sung at a feast. There is, however, no apparent congruity between the lines quoted (167, 168, ed. Dindorf) and the result ascribed to them.
Lady M. Ley was daughter to Sir J. Ley, afterwards Earl of Marlborough, who died March 16289, coincidently with the dissolution of the third Parliament of Charles's reign. Hence Milton poetically compares his death to that of the orator Isocrates of Athens, after Philip's victory in 328 B.C.
The remark quoted in the note to No. xlvii. applies equally to these truly wonderful verses, which, like "Lycidas," may be regarded as a test of any reader's insight into the most poetical aspects of poetry. The general differences between them are vast, but in imaginative intensity Marvell and Shelley are closely related. This poem is printed as a translation in Marvell's works, but the original Latin is obviously his own. The most striking verses in it, here quoted as the book is rare, answer more or less to stanzas 2 and 6:
"Alma Quies, teneo te! et te, germana Quietis,
Simplicitas! vos ergo diu per templa, per urbes
Quæsivi, regum perque alta palatia, frustra:
Sed vos hortorum per opaca silentia, longe
Celarunt plantæ virides, et concolor umbra."
L'Allegro and Il Penseroso. It is a striking proof of Milton's astonishing power that these, the earliest pure descriptive lyrics in our language, should still remain the best in a style which so many great poets have since attempted. The bright and the thoughtful aspects of Nature are their subjects; but each is preceded by a mythological introduction in a mixed Classical and Italian manner. The meaning of the first is that Gaiety is the child of Nature; of the second, that Pensiveness is the daughter of Sorrow and Genius.
Line 2.Perverse ingenuity has conjectured that for Cerberus we should read Erebus, who in the mythology is brother at once and husband of Night. But the issue of that union is not Sadness, but Day and Æthercompleting the circle of primary creation, as the parents are both children of Chaos, the first-begotten of all things. (Hesiod.)
L. 36.The mountain nymph: compare Wordsworth's sonnet, No. ccx. l. 28 is in apposition to the preceding by a grammatical licence not uncommon with Milton.