Page images

Paradise Regained to the Paradise Lost. The probability is that, if he asserted the former to be the better poem of the two, it was only in a qualified sense, or with reference to something else than its poetical merits, and in the same feeling with which he explained the general prevalence of the opposite opinion by attributing it to most people having a much stronger feeling of regret for the loss of Paradise than desire for the recovery of it, or at least inclination for the only way in which it was to be recovered. It was very characteristic of him, however, to be best pleased with what he had last produced, as well as to be only confirmed in his partiality by having the general voice against him and by his contempt for what of extravagance and injustice there was in the popular depreciation of the new poem. He was in all things by temper and mental constitution essentially a partisan ; seeing clearly, indeed, all that was to be said on both sides of any question, but never for all that remaining in suspense between them, or hesitating to make up his mind and to take his place distinctly on one side. This is shown by the whole course of his life. Nor is it less expressively proclaimed not only by the whole tone and manner of his poetry, everywhere so ardent, impetuous, and dogmatical, and so free from the faintest breath either of suspicion or of any kind of self-distrust, but even in that argumentative eloquence which is one of its most remarkable characteristics. For one of the chief necessary conditions of the existence of oratorical or debating power, and, indeed, of every kind of fighting ability, is that it should, at one and the same time, both feel passionately in favour of its own side of the question and discern clearly the strength of the adverse position. Whatever may be the fact as to his alleged preference of the Paradise Regained to the Paradise Lost, Milton has, at any rate, pronounced judgment in a sufficiently decisive and uncompromising way upon another point in regard to which both these works stand contrasted with much of his earlier poetry. We refer to his vehement denunciation, in a notice prefixed to the Paradise Lost,* of rhyme as being, in all circumstances, for he makes no exception, “a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, trivial and of no true musical delight,” and as having no claim to be regarded as anything else than the barbarous invention of a barbarous age, and a mere jingle and life-repressing bondage. We certainly rejoice that the Paradise Lost is not written in rhyme; but we are very glad that these strong views were not taken up by the great poet till after he had produced his L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, his Lycidas and his Sonnets.

* This notice, commonly headed The Verse in modern editions of the poem, is found in three of the five various forms of the first edition (1667, 1668, and 1669), and there bears the superscription The Printer to the Reader ; but there can be no doubt that it is Milton's own.


The poetry of Milton, though principally produced after the Restoration, belongs in everything but in date to the preceding age ; and this is also nearly as true of that of Cowley. Abraham Cowley, born in London in 1618, published his first volume of verse, under the title of Poetic Blossoms, in 1633, when he was yet only a boy of fifteen : one piece contained in this publication, indeed–The Tragical History of Pyramus and Thisbe-was written when he was only in his tenth year. The four books of his unfinished epic entitled Davideis were mostly written while he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. His pastoral drama of Love's Riddle, and his Latin comedy called Naufragium Joculare, were both published in 1638. In 1647 appeared his collection of amatory poems entitled The Mistress, and in 1653 his comedy of The Guardian, afterwards altered, and republished as The Cutter of Coleman Street. After the Restoration he collected such of his pieces as he thought worth preserving, and republished them, together with some additional productions, of which the most important were his Davideis, and his Pindarique Odes.

Few poets have been more popular, or more praised, in their own time than Cowley. Milton is said to have declared that the three greatest English poets were Spenser, Shakespeare, and Cowley; though it does not follow that he held all three to be equally great. Sir John Denham, in some verses on Cowley's Death and Burial amongst the Ancient Poets in Westminster Abbey, sets him above all the English poets that had gone before him, and prophesies that posterity will hold him to have been equalled by Virgil alone among those of antiquity. For a long time, too, his works appear to have been more generally read than those of any other English poet, if a judgment may be formed from the frequency with which they were reprinted, and the numerous copies of them in various forms that still exist.* This popular favour they seem to have shared with those of Donne, whose legitimate successor Cowley was considered to be; or rather, when the poetry of Donne became obsolete or unfashionable, that of Cowley took its place in the reading and admiration of the poetical part of the public. Cowley, indeed, is in the main a mere modernization and dilution of Donne. With the same general characteristics of manner, he is somewhat less forced and fantastical, a good deal less daring in every way, but unfortunately also infinitely less poetical. Everything about him, in short, is less deep, strong, and genuine. His imagination is tinsel, or mere surface gilding, compared to Donne's solid gold; his wit little better than word-catching, to the profound meditative quaintness of the elder poet; and of passion, with which all Donne's finest lines are tremulous, Cowley has none. Considerable grace and dignity occasionally distinguish his Pindario Odes (which, however, are Pindaric only in name); and he has shown much elegant playfulness of style and fancy in his translations from and imitations of Anacreon, and in some other verses written in the same manner. As for what he intends for love verses, some of them are pretty enough frost-work; but the only sort of love there is in them is the love of point and sparkle.


This manner of writing is more fitly applied by another celebrated poet of the same date, Samuel Butler, the immortal author of Hudibras. Butler, born in 1612, is said to have written most of his great poem during the interregnum; but the first part of it was not published till 1663. The poetry of Butler has been very happily designated as merely the comedy of that style of composition which Donne and Cowley practised in its more serious form—the difference between the two modes of writing being much the same with that which is presented by a countenance of a peculiar cast of features when solemnized by deep reflection, and the same countenance when lighted up by cheerfulness or distorted by mirth.† And it may be added, that the

* A twelfth edition of the collection formed by Cowley himself was published by Tonson in 1721.

+ Scott, in Life of Dryden.

Aash up of this of the

gayer and more animated expression is here, upon the whole, the more natural. The quantity of explosive matter of all kinds which Butler has contrived to pack up in his verses is amazing , it is crack upon crack, flash upon flash, from the first line of his long poem to the last. Much of this incessant bedazzlement is, of course, merely verbal, or otherwise of the humblest species of wit; but an infinite number of the happiest things are also thrown out. And Hudibras is far from being all mere broad farce. Butler's power of arguing in verse, in his own way, may almost be put on a par with Dryden's in his; and, perseveringly as he devotes himself upon system to the exhibition of the ludicrous and grotesque, he sometimes surprises us with a sudden gleam of the truest beauty of thought and expression breaking out from the midst of the usual rattling fire of smartnesses and conundrumsas when in one place he exclaims of a thin cloud drawn over the moon

Mysterious veil; of brightness made,
At once her lustre and her shade!

He must also be allowed to tell his story and to draw his characters well, independently of his criticisms.


The most celebrated among the minor poets of the period between the Restoration and the Revolution was Waller. Edmund Waller, born in 1605, had, as already noticed, announced himself as a writer of verse before the close of the reign of James I., by his lines on the escape of Prince Charles at the port of San Andero, in the Bay of Biscay, on his return from Spain, in September, 1623; and he continued to write till after the accession of James II., in whose reign he died, in the year 1687. His last production was the little poem concluding with one of his happiest, one of his most characteristic, and one of his bestknown passages :

The soul's dark cottage, battered and decayed,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made :
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become
As they draw near to their cternal home:
Leaving the old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the new.

Fenton, his editor, tells us that a number of poems on religious subjects, to which these verses refer, were mostly written when he was about [above] eighty years old; and he has himself intimated that his bodily faculties were now almost gone :

When we for age could neither read nor write,

The subject made us able to indite. Waller, therefore, as well as Milton, Cowley, and Butler, may be considered to have formed his manner in the last age; but his poetry does not belong to the old English school even so much as that of either Butler or Cowley. The contemporaries of the earlier portion of his long career were Carew and Lovelace; and with them he is properly to be classed in respect of poetical style and manner. Both Lovelace and Carew, however, as has been already intimated, have more passion than Waller, who, with all his taste and elegance, was incapable of either expressing or feeling anything very lofty or generous—being, in truth, poet as he was, a very mean-souled description of person, as his despicable political course sufficiently evinced.* His poetry accordingly is beyond the reach of critical animadversion on the score of such extravagance as is sometimes prompted by strong emotion. Waller is always perfectly master of himself, and idolizes his mistress with quite as much coolness and self-possession as he flatters his prince. But, although cold and unaffecting at all times, he occasionally rises to much dignity of thought and manner. His panegyric on Cromwell, the offering of his gratitude to the Protector for the permission granted to him of returning to England after ten years' exile, is one of the most graceful pieces of adulation ever offered by poetry to power; and the poet is here probably more sincere than in most of his

* The story of what was called Waller's plot, which exploded in May, 1643, is well known. Some of those concerned were executed, and others were punished by long imprisonments; but Waller, who appears to have been the most guilty, is understood to have made his peace by the reckless frankness of his confessions, and was let off with a fine and a licence“ to go travel abroad." He left the country accordingly, “and, travelling into France," says Kennet, “improved himself in good letters; and for the rest of his life, which was very long, he chose rather to be admired for a poet than to be envied for a politician." They print among his works some of his speeches in parliament-among the rest his address on Tuesday, July 4th, 1643, when he “was brought to the bar, and had leave given him by the Speaker to say what he could for himself before they proceeded to expel him the House,” which is throughout one of the most abject prostrations over made by anything in the shape of a man.

« PreviousContinue »