Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Macaulay on John Milton and on the Nature of Poetry

The following is all a long quote from an essay by Macauley on Milton that appears in the first volume of his Critical and Historical Essays. This work can be found at Project Gutenburg.

We venture to say, on the contrary, paradoxical as the remark may
appear, that no poet has ever had to struggle with more
unfavourable circumstances than Milton. He doubted, as he has
himself owned, whether he had not been born "an age too late."
For this notion Johnson has thought fit to make him the butt of
much clumsy ridicule. The poet, we believe, understood the nature
of his art better than the critic. He knew that his poetical
genius derived no advantage from the civilisation which
surrounded him, or from the learning which he had acquired; and
he looked back with something like regret to the ruder age of
simple words and vivid impressions.

We think that, as civilisation advances, poetry almost
necessarily declines. Therefore, though we fervently admire those
great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we
do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark
ages. On the contrary, we hold that the most wonderful and
splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilised
age. We cannot understand why those who believe in that most
orthodox article of literary faith, that the earliest poets are
generally the best, should wonder at the rule as if it were the
exception. Surely the uniformity of the phaenomenon indicates a
corresponding uniformity in the cause.

The fact is, that common observers reason from the progress of
the experimental sciences to that of imitative arts. The
improvement of the former is gradual and slow. Ages are spent in
collecting materials, ages more in separating and combining them.
Even when a system has been formed, there is still something to
add, to alter, or to reject. Every generation enjoys the use of a
vast hoard bequeathed to it by antiquity, and transmits that
hoard, augmented by fresh acquisitions, to future ages. In these
pursuits, therefore, the first speculators lie under great
disadvantages, and, even when they fail, are entitled to praise.
Their pupils, with far inferior intellectual powers, speedily
surpass them in actual attainments. Every girl who has read Mrs.
Marcet's little dialogues on Political Economy could teach
Montague or Walpole many lessons in finance. Any intelligent man
may now, by resolutely applying himself for a few years to
mathematics, learn more than the great Newton knew after half a
century of study and meditation.

But it is not thus with music, with painting, or with sculpture.
Still less is it thus with poetry. The progress of refinement
rarely supplies these arts with better objects of imitation. It
may indeed improve the instruments which are necessary to the
mechanical operations of the musician, the sculptor, and the
painter. But language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted
for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals,
first perceive, and then abstract. They advance from particular
images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened
society is philosophical, that of a half-civilised people is

This change in the language of men is partly the cause and partly
the effect of a corresponding change in the nature of their
intellectual operations, of a change by which science gains and
poetry loses. Generalisation is necessary to the advancement of
knowledge; but particularity is indispensable to the creations of
the imagination. In proportion as men know more and think more,
they look less at individuals and more at classes. They therefore
make better theories and worse poems. They give us vague phrases
instead of images, and personified qualities instead of men. They
may be better able to analyse human nature than their
predecessors. But analysis is not the business of the poet. His
office is to portray, not to dissect. He may believe in a moral
sense, like Shaftesbury; he may refer all human actions to self-
interest, like Helvetius; or he may never think about the matter
at all. His creed on such subjects will no more influence his
poetry, properly so called, than the notions which a painter may
have conceived respecting the lacrymal glands, or the circulation
of the blood will affect the tears of his Niobe, or the blushes
of his Aurora. If Shakespeare had written a book on the motives
of human actions, it is by no means certain that it would have
been a good one. It is extremely improbable that it would have
contained half so much able reasoning on the subject as is to be
found in the Fable of the Bees. But could Mandeville have created
an Iago? Well as he knew how to resolve characters into their
elements, would he have been able to combine those elements in
such a manner as to make up a man, a real, living, individual

Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry,
without a certain unsoundness of mind, if anything which gives so
much pleasure ought to be called unsoundness. By poetry we mean
not all writing in verse, nor even all good writing in verse. Our
definition excludes many metrical compositions which, on other
grounds, deserve the highest praise. By poetry we mean the art of
employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the
imagination, the art of doing by means of words what the painter
does by means of colours. Thus the greatest of poets has
described it, in lines universally admired for the vigour and
felicity of their diction, and still more valuable on account of
the just notion which they convey of the art in which he

"As the imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."

These are the fruits of the "fine frenzy" which he ascribes to
the poet--a fine frenzy doubtless, but still a frenzy. Truth,
indeed, is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness.
The reasonings are just; but the premises are false. After the
first suppositions have been made, everything ought to be
consistent; but those first suppositions require a degree of
credulity which almost amounts to a partial and temporary
derangement of the intellect. Hence of all people children are
the most imaginative. They abandon themselves without reserve to
every illusion. Every image which is strongly presented to their
mental eye produces on them the effect of reality. No man,
whatever his sensibility may be, is ever affected by Hamlet or
Lear, as a little girl is affected by the story of poor Red
Riding-hood. She knows that it is all false, that wolves cannot
speak, that there are no wolves in England. Yet in spite of her
knowledge she believes; she weeps; she trembles; she dares not go
into a dark room lest she should feel the teeth of the monster at
her throat. Such is the despotism of the imagination over
uncultivated minds.

In a rude state of society men are children with a greater
variety of ideas. It is therefore in such a state of society that
we may expect to find the poetical temperament in its highest
perfection. In an enlightened age there will be much
intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just
classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and
eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of good ones; but little
poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create.
They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a
certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to
conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder
ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief. The
Greek Rhapsodists, according to Plato, could scarce recite Homer
without falling into convulsions. The Mohawk hardly feels the
scalping knife while he shouts his death-song. The power which
the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exercised over their
auditors seems to modern readers almost miraculous. Such feelings
are very rare in a civilised community, and most rare among those
who participate most in its improvements. They linger longest
amongst the peasantry.

Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic
lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the
magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its
purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge
breaks in upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty
become more and more definite, and the shades of probability more
and more distinct, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which
the poet calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the
incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear
discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction.

He who, in an enlightened and literary society, aspires to be a
great poet must first become a little child, he must take to
pieces the whole web of his mind. He must unlearn much of that
knowledge which has perhaps constituted hitherto his chief title
to superiority. His very talents will be a hindrance to him. His
difficulties will be proportioned to his proficiency in the
pursuits which are fashionable among his contemporaries; and that
proficiency will in general be proportioned to the vigour and
activity of his mind. And it is well if, after all his sacrifices
and exertions, his works do not resemble a lisping man or a
modern ruin. We have seen in our own time great talents, intense
labour, and long meditation, employed in this struggle against
the spirit of the age, and employed, we will not say absolutely
in vain, but with dubious success and feeble applause.

If these reasonings be just, no poet has ever triumphed over
greater difficulties than Milton. He received a learned
education: he was a profound and elegant classical scholar: he
had studied all the mysteries of Rabbinical literature: he was
intimately acquainted with every language of modern Europe, from
which either pleasure or information was then to be derived. He
was perhaps the only great poet of later times who has been
distinguished by the excellence of his Latin verse. The genius of
Petrarch was scarcely of the first order; and his poems in the
ancient language, though much praised by those who have never
read them, are wretched compositions. Cowley, with all his
admirable wit and ingenuity, had little imagination: nor indeed
do we think his classical diction comparable to that of Milton.
The authority of Johnson is against us on this point. But Johnson
had studied the bad writers of the middle ages till he had become
utterly insensible to the Augustan elegance, and was as ill
qualified to judge between two Latin styles as a habitual
drunkard to set up for a wine-taster.

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