There is nothing in Nature [more irksome than]  general Discourses, especially when they turn chiefly upon Words. For this Reason I shall wave the Discussion of that Point which was started some Years since, whether Milton's Paradise Lost may be called an Heroick Poem? Those who will not give it that Title, may call it (if they please) a Divine Poem. It will be sufficient to its Perfection, if it has in it all the Beauties of the highest kind of Poetry; and as for those who [alledge ] it is not an Heroick Poem, they advance no more to the Diminution of it, than if they should say Adam is not Æneas, nor Eve Helen.
I shall therefore examine it by the Rules of Epic Poetry, and see whether it falls short of the Iliad or Æneid, in the Beauties which are essential to that kind of Writing. The first thing to be considered in an Epic Poem, is the Fable,  which is perfect or imperfect, according as the Action which it relates is more or less so. This Action should have three Qualifications in it. First, It should be but One Action. Secondly, It should be an entire Action; and, Thirdly, It should be a great Action.  To consider the Action of the Iliad, Æneid, and Paradise Lost, in these three several Lights. Homer to preserve the Unity of his Action hastens into the Midst of Things, as Horace has observed:  Had he gone up to Leda's Egg, or begun much later, even at the Rape of Helen, or the Investing of Troy, it is manifest that the Story of the Poem would have been a Series of several Actions. He therefore opens his Poem with the Discord of his Princes, and [artfully ] interweaves, in the several succeeding Parts of it, an Account of every Thing [material] which relates to [them ] and had passed before that fatal Dissension. After the same manner, Æneas makes his first Appearance in the Tyrrhene Seas, and within Sight of Italy, because the Action proposed to be celebrated was that of his settling himself in Latium. But because it was necessary for the Reader to know what had happened to him in the taking of Troy, and in the preceding Parts of his Voyage, Virgil makes his Hero relate it by way of Episode in the second and third Books of the Æneid. The Contents of both which Books come before those of the first Book in the Thread of the Story, tho for preserving of this Unity of Action they follow them in the Disposition of the Poem. Milton, in imitation of these two great Poets, opens his Paradise Lost with an Infernal Council plotting the Fall of Man, which is the Action he proposed to celebrate; and as for those great Actions, which preceded, in point of Time, the Battle of the Angels, and the Creation of the World, (which would have entirely destroyed the Unity of his principal Action, had he related them in the same Order that they happened) he cast them into the fifth, sixth, and seventh Books, by way of Episode to this noble Poem.
Aristotle himself allows, that Homer has nothing to boast of as to the Unity of his Fable,  tho at the same time that great Critick and Philosopher endeavours to palliate this Imperfection in the Greek Poet, by imputing it in some measure to the very Nature of an Epic Poem. Some have been of opinion, that the Æneid [also labours ] in this Particular, and has Episodes which may be looked upon as Excrescencies rather than as Parts of the Action. On the contrary, the Poem, which we have now under our Consideration, hath no other Episodes than such as naturally arise from the Subject, and yet is filled with such a Multitude of astonishing [Incidents,] that it gives us at the same time a Pleasure of the greatest Variety, and of the greatest [Simplicity; uniform in its Nature, tho diversified in the Execution ].
I must observe also, that as Virgil, in the Poem which was designed to celebrate the Original of the Roman Empire, has described the Birth of its great Rival, the Carthaginian Commonwealth: Milton, with the like Art, in his Poem on the Fall of Man, has related the Fall of those Angels who are his professed Enemies. Besides the many other Beauties in such an Episode, its running parallel with the great Action of the Poem hinders it from breaking the Unity so much as another Episode would have done, that had not so great an Affinity with the principal Subject. In short, this is the same kind of Beauty which the Criticks admire in The Spanish Frier, or The Double Discovery  where the two different Plots look like Counter-parts and Copies of one another.
The second Qualification required in the Action of an Epic Poem, is, that it should be an entire Action: An Action is entire when it is complete in all its Parts; or, as Aristotle describes it, when it consists of a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. Nothing should go before it, be intermixed with it, or follow after it, that is not related to it. As on the contrary, no single Step should be omitted in that just and regular Progress which it must be supposed to take from its Original to its Consummation. Thus we see the Anger of Achilles in its Birth, its Continuance and Effects; and Æneas's Settlement in Italy, carried on thro all the Oppositions in his Way to it both by Sea and Land. The Action in Milton excels (I think) both the former in this Particular; we see it contrived in Hell, executed upon Earth, and punished by Heaven. The Parts of it are told in the most distinct Manner, and grow out of one another in the most natural [Order ].
The third Qualification of an Epic Poem is its Greatness. The Anger of Achilles was of such Consequence, that it embroiled the Kings of Greece, destroyed the Heroes of Troy, and engaged all the Gods in Factions. Æneas's Settlement in Italy produced the Cæsars, and gave Birth to the Roman Empire. Milton's Subject was still greater than either of the former; it does not determine the Fate of single Persons or Nations, but of a whole Species. The united Powers of Hell are joined together for the Destruction of Mankind, which they affected in part, and would have completed, had not Omnipotence it self interposed. The principal Actors are Man in his greatest Perfection, and Woman in her highest Beauty. Their Enemies are the fallen Angels: The Messiah their Friend, and the Almighty their Protector. In short, every thing that is great in the whole Circle of Being, whether within the Verge of Nature, or out of it, has a proper Part assigned it in this noble Poem.
In Poetry, as in Architecture, not only the Whole, but the principal Members, and every Part of them, should be Great. I will not presume to say, that the Book of Games in the Æneid, or that in the Iliad, are not of this Nature, nor to reprehend Virgil's Simile of the Top , and many other of the same [kind ] in the Iliad, as liable to any Censure in this Particular; but I think we may say, without [derogating from ] those wonderful Performances, that there is an unquestionable Magnificence in every Part of Paradise Lost, and indeed a much greater than could have been formed upon any Pagan System.
But Aristotle, by the Greatness of the Action, does not only mean that it should be great in its Nature, but also in its Duration, or in other Words that it should have a due Length in it, as well as what we properly call Greatness. The just Measure of this kind of Magnitude, he explains by the following Similitude.  An Animal, no bigger than a Mite, cannot appear perfect to the Eye, because the Sight takes it in at once, and has only a confused Idea of the Whole, and not a distinct Idea of all its Parts; if on the contrary you should suppose an Animal of ten thousand Furlongs in length, the Eye would be so filled with a single Part of it, that it could not give the Mind an Idea of the Whole. What these Animals are to the Eye, a very short or a very long Action would be to the Memory. The first would be, as it were, lost and swallowed up by it, and the other difficult to be contained in it. Homer and Virgil have shewn their principal Art in this Particular; the Action of the Iliad, and that of the Æneid, were in themselves exceeding short, but are so beautifully extended and diversified by the [Invention ] of Episodes, and the Machinery of Gods, with the like poetical Ornaments, that they make up an agreeable Story, sufficient to employ the Memory without overcharging it. Milton's Action is enriched with such a Variety of Circumstances, that I have taken as much Pleasure in reading the Contents of his Books, as in the best invented Story I ever met with. It is possible, that the Traditions, on which the Iliad and Æneid were built, had more Circumstances in them than the History of the Fall of Man, as it is related in Scripture. Besides, it was easier for Homer and Virgil to dash the Truth with Fiction, as they were in no danger of offending the Religion of their Country by it. But as for Milton, he had not only a very few Circumstances upon which to raise his Poem, but was also obliged to proceed with the greatest Caution in every thing that he added out of his own Invention. And, indeed, notwithstanding all the Restraints he was under, he has filled his Story with so many surprising Incidents, which bear so close an Analogy with what is delivered in Holy Writ, that it is capable of pleasing the most delicate Reader, without giving Offence to the most scrupulous.
The modern Criticks have collected from several Hints in the Iliad and Æneid the Space of Time, which is taken up by the Action of each of those Poems; but as a great Part of Milton's Story was transacted in Regions that lie out of the Reach of the Sun and the Sphere of Day, it is impossible to gratify the Reader with such a Calculation, which indeed would be more curious than instructive; none of the Criticks, either Ancient or Modern, having laid down Rules to circumscribe the Action of an Epic Poem with any determin'd Number of Years, Days or Hours.
This Piece of Criticism on Milton's Paradise Lost shall be carried on in [the] following [Saturdays] Papers.
[Footnote 1: Give place to him, Writers of Rome and Greece. This application to Milton of a line from the last elegy (25th) in the second book of Propertius is not only an example of Addison's felicity in choice of motto for a paper, but was so bold and well-timed that it must have given a wholesome shock to the minds of many of the Spectators readers. Addison was not before Steele in appreciation of Milton and diffusion of a true sense of his genius. Milton was the subject of the first piece of poetical criticism in the Tatler; where, in his sixth number, Steele, having said that all Milton's thoughts are wonderfully just and natural, dwelt on the passage in which Adam tells his thoughts upon first falling asleep, soon after his creation. This passage he contrasts with the same apprehension of Annihilation ascribed to Eve in a much lower sense by Dryden in his operatic version of Paradise Lost. In Tatlers and Spectators Steele and Addison had been equal contributors to the diffusion of a sense of Milton's genius. In Addison it had been strong, even when, at Oxford, in April, 1694, a young man trained in the taste of the day, he omitted Shakespeare from a rhymed Account of the chief English Poets, but of Milton said:
Whate'er his pen describes I more than see, Whilst evry verse, array'd in majesty, Bold and sublime, my whole attention draws, And seems above the critics nicer laws.
Eighteen years older than he was when he wrote that, Addison now prepares by a series of Saturday Essays,--the Saturday Paper which reached many subscribers only in time for Sunday reading, being always set apart in the Spectator for moral or religious topics, to show that, judged also by Aristotle and the "critics nicer laws," Milton was even technically a greater epic poet than either Homer or Virgil. This nobody had conceded. Dryden, the best critic of the outgoing generation, had said in the Dedication of the Translations of Juvenal and Persius, published in 1692,
"As for Mr. Milton, whom we all admire with so much Justice, his Subject, is not that of an Heroick Poem, properly so call'd: His Design is the Losing of our Happiness; his Event is not prosperous, like that of all other Epique Works" (Dryden's French spelling of the word Epic is suggestive. For this new critical Mode was one of the fashions that had been imported from Paris); "His Heavenly Machines are many, and his Human Persons are but two. But I will not take Mr. Rymer's work out of his Hands: He has promised the World a Critique on that Author; wherein, tho he will not allow his Poem for Heroick, I hope he will grant us, that his Thoughts are elevated, his Words sounding, and that no Man has so happily copy'd the manner of Homer; or so copiously translated his Grecisms and the Latin Elegancies of Virgil. Tis true he runs into a Flat of Thought, sometimes for a Hundred Lines together, but tis when he is got into a Track of Scripture ... Neither will I justify Milton for his Blank Verse, tho I may excuse him, by the Example of Hanabal Caro and other Italians who have used it: For whatever Causes he alledges for the abolishing of Rhime (which I have not now the leisure to examine), his own particular Reason is plainly this, that Rhime was not his Talent; he had neither the Ease of doing it, nor the Graces of it."
So Dryden, who appreciated Milton better than most of his critical neighbours, wrote of him in 1692. The promise of Rymer to discuss Milton was made in 1678, when, on the last page of his little book, The Tragedies of the Last Age consider'd and examined by the Practice of the Ancients and by the Common Sense of all Ages, in a letter to Fleetwold Shepheard, Esq. (father of two ladies who contribute an occasional letter to the Spectator), he said: "With the remaining Tragedies I shall also send you some reflections on that Paradise Lost of Milton's, which some are pleased to call a Poem, and assert Rhime against the slender Sophistry wherewith he attaques it." But two years after the appearance of Dryden's Juvenal and Persius Rymer prefixed to his translation of Réné Rapin's Reflections on Aristotle's Poesie some Reflections of his own on Epic Poets. Herein he speaks under the head Epic Poetry of Chaucer, in whose time language was not capable of heroic character; or Spenser, who "wanted a true Idea, and lost himself by following an unfaithful guide, besides using a stanza which is in no wise proper for our language;" of Sir William Davenant, who, in Gondibert, "has some strokes of an extraordinary judgment," but "is for unbeaten tracks and new ways of thinking;" "his heroes are foreigners;" of Cowley, in whose Davideis "David is the least part of the Poem," and there is want of the "one illustrious and perfect action which properly is the subject of an Epick Poem": all failing through ignorance or negligence of the Fundamental Rules or Laws of Aristotle. But he contemptuously passes over Milton without mention. Réné Rapin, that great French oracle of whom Dryden said, in the Preface to his own conversion of Paradise Lost into an opera, that he was alone sufficient, were all other critics lost, to teach anew the Art of Writing, Réné Rapin in the work translated and introduced by Rymer, worshipped in Aristotle the one God of all orthodox critics. Of his Laws he said,
There is no arriving at Perfection but by these Rules, and they certainly go astray that take a different course.... And if a Poem made by these Rules fails of success, the fault lies not in the Art, but in the Artist; all who have writ of this Art, have followed no other Idea but that of Aristotle.
Again as to Style,
to say the truth, what is good on this subject is all taken from Aristotle, who is the only source whence good sense is to be drawn, when one goes about to write.
This was the critical temper Addison resolved to meet on its own ground and do battle with for the honour of that greatest of all Epic Poets to whom he fearlessly said that all the Greeks and Latins must give place. In so doing he might suggest here and there cautiously, and without bringing upon himself the discredit of much heresy,--indeed, without being much of a heretic,--that even the Divine Aristotle sometimes fell short of perfection. The conventional critics who believed they kept the gates of Fame would neither understand nor credit him. Nine years after these papers appeared, Charles Gildon, who passed for a critic of considerable mark, edited with copious annotation as the Laws of Poetry (1721), the Duke of Buckingham's Essay on Poetry, Roscommon's Essay on Translated Verse, and Lord Lansdowne on Unnatural Flights in Poetry, and in the course of comment Gildon said that
Mr. Addison in the Spectators, in his criticisms upon Milton, seems to have mistaken the matter, in endeavouring to bring that poem to the rules of the epopoeia, which cannot be done ... It is not an Heroic Poem, but a Divine one, and indeed of a new species. It is plain that the proposition of all the heroic poems of the ancients mentions some one person as the subject of their poem... But Milton begins his poem of things, and not of men.
The Gildon are all gone; and when, in the next generation after theirs, national life began, in many parts of Europe, strongly to assert itself in literature against the pedantry of the French critical lawgivers, in Germany Milton's name was inscribed on the foremost standard of the men who represented the new spirit of the age. Gottsched, who dealt French critical law from Leipzig, by passing sentence against Milton in his Art of Poetry in 1737, raised in Bodmer an opponent who led the revolt of all that was most vigorous in German thought, and put an end to French supremacy. Bodmer, in a book published in 1740 Vom Wunderbaren in der Poesie, justified and exalted Milton, and brought Addison to his aid by appending to his own work a translation of these Milton papers out of the Spectator. Gottsched replied; Bodmer retorted. Bodmer translated Paradise Lost; and what was called the English or Milton party (but was, in that form, really a German national party) were at last left masters of the field. It was right that these papers of Addison should be brought in as aids during the contest. Careful as he was to conciliate opposing prejudices, he was yet first in the field, and this motto to the first of his series of Milton papers, Yield place to him, Writers of Greece and Rome, is as the first trumpet note of the one herald on a field from which only a quick ear can yet distinguish among stir of all that is near, the distant tramp of an advancing host.
[Footnote 2: [so irksom as]]
[Footnote 3: say]
[Footnote 4: Aristotle, Poetics, III. § I, after a full discussion of Tragedy, begins by saying,
with respect to that species of Poetry which imitates by Narration ... it is obvious, that the Fable ought to be dramatically constructed, like that of Tragedy, and that it should have for its Subject one entire and perfect action, having a beginning, a middle, and an end;
forming a complete whole, like an animal, and therein differing, Aristotle says, from History, which treats not of one Action, but of one Time, and of all the events, casually connected, which happened to one person or to many during that time.]
[Footnote 5: Poetics, I. § 9.
Epic Poetry agrees so far with Tragic as it is an imitation of great characters and actions.
Aristotle (from whose opinion, in this matter alone, his worshippers departed, right though he was) ranked a perfect tragedy above a perfect epic; for, he said,
all the parts of the Epic poem are to be found in Tragedy, not all those of Tragedy in the Epic poem.]
Nec reditum Diomedis ab interitu Meleagri, Nec gemino bellum Trojanum orditur ab ovo, Semper ad eventum festinat, et in medias res, Non secus ac notas, auditorem rapit--
De Arte Poet. II. 146-9.]
[Footnote 7: with great Art]
[Footnote 8: the Story]
[Footnote 9: Poetics, V. § 3. In arguing the superiority of Tragic to Epic Poetry, Aristotle says,
there is less Unity in all Epic imitation; as appears from this--that any Epic Poem will furnish matter for several Tragedies ... The Iliad, for example, and the Odyssey, contain many such subordinate parts, each of which has a certain Magnitude and Unity of its own; yet is the construction of those Poems as perfect, and as nearly approaching to the imitation of a single action, as possible.]
[Footnote 10: labours also]
[Footnote 11: Circumstances]
[Footnote 12: Simplicity.]
[Footnote 13: Dryden's Spanish Friar has been praised also by Johnson for the happy coincidence and coalition of the tragic and comic plots, and Sir Walter Scott said of it, in his edition of Dryden's Works, that
the felicity does not consist in the ingenuity of his original conception, but in the minutely artificial strokes by which the reader is perpetually reminded of the dependence of the one part of the Play on the other. These are so frequent, and appear so very natural, that the comic plot, instead of diverting our attention from the tragic business, recalls it to our mind by constant and unaffected allusion. No great event happens in the higher region of the camp or court that has not some indirect influence upon the intrigues of Lorenzo and Elvira; and the part which the gallant is called upon to act in the revolution that winds up the tragic interest, while it is highly in character, serves to bring the catastrophe of both parts of the play under the eye of the spectator, at one and the same time.]
[Footnote 14: Method]
[Footnote 15: Æneid, Bk. VII. 11. 378-384, thus translated by Dryden:
And as young striplings whip the top for sport, On the smooth pavement of an empty court, The wooden engine files and whirls about, Admir'd, with clamours, of the beardless rout; They lash aloud, each other they provoke, And lend their little souls at every stroke: Thus fares the Queen, and thus her fury blows Amidst the crowds, and trundles as she goes.]
[Footnote 16: [nature]]
[Footnote 17: [offence to]]
[Footnote 18: Poetics, II. section 4, where it is said of the magnitude of Tragedy.]
[Footnote 19: Intervention]Translation of motto: