We are now entering upon the Sixth Book of Paradise Lost, in which the Poet describes the Battel of Angels; having raised his Readers Expectation, and prepared him for it by several Passages in the preceding Books. I omitted quoting these Passages in my Observations on the former Books, having purposely reserved them for the opening of this, the Subject of which gave occasion to them. The Authors Imagination was so inflam'd with this great Scene of Action, that wherever he speaks of it, he rises, if possible, above himself. Thus where he mentions Satan in the Beginning of his Poem:
--Him the Almighty Power Hurl'd headlong flaming from th' Ethereal Sky, With hideous ruin and combustion, down To bottomless Perdition, there to dwell In Adamantine Chains and penal Fire, Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to Arms.
We have likewise several noble Hints of it in the Infernal Conference.
O Prince! O Chief of many throned Powers, That led th' imbattel'd Seraphim to War, Too well I see and rue the dire Event, That with sad Overthrow and foul Defeat Hath lost us Heavn, and all this mighty Host In horrible Destruction laid thus low. But see I the angry Victor has recalled His Ministers of Vengeance and Pursuit, Back to the Gates of Heavn: The sulphurous Hail Shot after us in Storm, overblown, hath laid The fiery Surge, that from the Precipice Of Heaven receiv'd us falling: and the Thunder, Winged with red Lightning and impetuous Rage, Perhaps hath spent his Shafts, and ceases now To bellow through the vast and boundless Deep.
There are several other very sublime Images on the same Subject in the First Book, as also in the Second.
What when we fled amain, pursued and strook With Heavns afflicting Thunder, and besought The Deep to shelter us; this Hell then seem'd A Refuge from those Wounds--
In short, the Poet never mentions anything of this Battel but in such Images of Greatness and Terror as are suitable to the Subject. Among several others I cannot forbear quoting that Passage, where the Power, who is described as presiding over the Chaos, speaks in the Third Book.
Thus Satan; and him thus the Anarch old With faultring Speech, and Visage incompos'd, Answer'd, I know thee, Stranger, who thou art, That mighty leading Angel, who of late Made Head against Heavens King, tho overthrown. I saw and heard, for such a numerous Host Fled not in silence through the frighted Deep With Ruin upon Ruin, Rout on Rout, Confusion worse confounded; and Heavns Gates Pour'd out by Millions her victorious Bands Pursuing--
It requir'd great Pregnancy of Invention, and Strength of Imagination, to fill this Battel with such Circumstances as should raise and astonish the Mind of the Reader; and at the same time an Exactness of Judgment, to avoid every thing that might appear light or trivial. Those who look into Homer, are surprized to find his Battels still rising one above another, and improving in Horrour, to the Conclusion of the Iliad. Milton's Fight of Angels is wrought up with the same Beauty. It is usher'd in with such Signs of Wrath as are suitable to Omnipotence incensed. The first Engagement is carry'd on under a Cope of Fire, occasion'd by the Flights of innumerable burning Darts and Arrows, which are discharged from either Host. The second Onset is still more terrible, as it is filled with those artificial Thunders, which seem to make the Victory doubtful, and produce a kind of Consternation even in the good Angels. This is follow'd by the tearing up of Mountains and Promontories; till, in the last place, the Messiah comes forth in the Fulness of Majesty and Terror, The Pomp of his Appearance amidst the Roarings of his Thunders, the Flashes of his Lightnings, and the Noise of his Chariot-Wheels, is described with the utmost Flights of Human Imagination.
There is nothing in the first and last Days Engagement which does not appear natural, and agreeable enough to the Ideas most Readers would conceive of a Fight between two Armies of Angels.
The second Days Engagement is apt to startle an Imagination, which has not been raised and qualify'd for such a Description, by the reading of the ancient Poets, and of Homer in particular. It was certainly a very bold Thought in our Author, to ascribe the first Use of Artillery to the Rebel Angels. But as such a pernicious Invention may be well supposed to have proceeded from such Authors, so it entered very properly into the Thoughts of that Being, who is all along describ'd as aspiring to the Majesty of his Maker. Such Engines were the only Instruments he could have made use of to imitate those Thunders, that in all Poetry, both sacred and profane, are represented as the Arms of the Almighty. The tearing up the Hills, was not altogether so daring a Thought as the former. We are, in some measure, prepared for such an Incident by the Description of the Giants War, which we meet with among the Ancient Poets. What still made this Circumstance the more proper for the Poets Use, is the Opinion of many learned Men, that the Fable of the Giants War, which makes so great a noise in Antiquity, [and gave birth to the sublimest Description in Hesiod's Works was [l]] an Allegory founded upon this very Tradition of a Fight between the good and bad Angels.
It may, perhaps, be worth while to consider with what Judgment Milton, in this Narration, has avoided every thing that is mean and trivial in the Descriptions of the Latin and Greek Poets; and at the same time improved every great Hint which he met with in their Works upon this Subject. Homer in that Passage, which Longinus has celebrated for its Sublimeness, and which Virgil and Ovid have copy'd after him, tells us, that the Giants threw Ossa upon Olympus, and Pelion upon Ossa. He adds an Epithet to Pelion ([Greek: einosíphullon]) which very much swells the Idea, by bringing up to the Readers Imagination all the Woods that grew upon it. There is further a great Beauty in his singling out by Name these three remarkable Mountains, so well known to the Greeks. This last is such a Beauty as the Scene of Milton's War could not possibly furnish him with. Claudian, in his Fragment upon the Giants War, has given full scope to that Wildness of Imagination which was natural to him. He tells us, that the Giants tore up whole Islands by the Roots, and threw them at the Gods. He describes one of them in particular taking up Lemnos in his Arms, and whirling it to the Skies, with all Vulcan's Shop in the midst of it. Another tears up Mount Ida, with the River Enipeus, which ran down the Sides of it; but the Poet, not content to describe him with this Mountain upon his Shoulders, tells us that the River flow'd down his Back, as he held it up in that Posture. It is visible to every judicious Reader, that such Ideas savour more of Burlesque, than of the Sublime. They proceed from a Wantonness of Imagination, and rather divert the Mind than astonish it. Milton has taken every thing that is sublime in these several Passages, and composes out of them the following great Image.
From their Foundations loosning to and fro, They pluck'd the seated Hills, with all their Land, Rocks, Waters, Woods; and by the shaggy Tops Up-lifting bore them in their Hands--
We have the full Majesty of Homer in this short Description, improv'd by the Imagination of Claudian, without its Puerilities. I need not point out the Description of the fallen Angels seeing the Promontories hanging over their Heads in such a dreadful manner, with the other numberless Beauties in this Book, which are so conspicuous, that they cannot escape the Notice of the most ordinary Reader.
There are indeed so many wonderful Strokes of Poetry in this Book, and such a variety of Sublime Ideas, that it would have been impossible to have given them a place within the bounds of this Paper. Besides that, I find it in a great measure done to my hand at the End of my Lord Roscommon's Essay on Translated Poetry. I shall refer my Reader thither for some of the Master Strokes in the Sixth Book of Paradise Lost, tho at the same time there are many others which that noble Author has not taken notice of.
Milton, notwithstanding the sublime Genius he was Master of, has in this Book drawn to his Assistance all the Helps he could meet with among the Ancient Poets. The Sword of Michael, which makes so great [a ] havock among the bad Angels, was given him, we are told, out of the Armory of God.
--But the Sword Of Michael from the Armory of God Was given him tempered so, that neither keen Nor solid might resist that Edge: It met The Sword of Satan, with steep Force to smite Descending, and in half cut sheer--
This Passage is a Copy of that in Virgil, wherein the Poet tells us, that the Sword of Æneas, which was given him by a Deity, broke into Pieces the Sword of Turnus, which came from a mortal Forge. As the Moral in this Place is divine, so by the way we may observe, that the bestowing on a Man who is favoured by Heaven such an allegorical Weapon, is very conformable to the old Eastern way of Thinking. Not only Homer has made use of it, but we find the Jewish Hero in the Book of Maccabees, who had fought the Battels of the chosen People with so much Glory and Success, receiving in his Dream a Sword from the Hand of the Prophet Jeremiah. The following Passage, wherein Satan is described as wounded by the Sword of Michael, is in imitation of Homer.
The griding Sword with discontinuous Wound Passed through him; butt the Ethereal Substance closed Not long divisible; and from the Gash A Stream of Nectarous Humour issuing flowed Sanguine, (such as celestial Spirits may bleed) And all his Armour stained--
Homer tells us in the same manner, that upon Diomedes wounding the Gods, there flow'd from the Wound an Ichor, or pure kind of Blood, which was not bred from mortal Viands; and that tho the Pain was exquisitely great, the Wound soon closed up and healed in those Beings who are vested with Immortality.
I question not but Milton in his Description of his furious Moloch flying from the Battel, and bellowing with the Wound he had received, had his Eye on Mars in the Iliad; who, upon his being wounded, is represented as retiring out of the Fight, and making an Outcry louder than that of a whole Army when it begins the Charge. Homer adds, that the Greeks and Trojans, who were engaged in a general Battel, were terrify'd on each side with the bellowing of this wounded Deity. The Reader will easily observe how Milton has kept all the Horrour of this Image, without running into the Ridicule of it.
--Where the Might of Gabriel fought, And with fierce Ensigns pierc'd the deep Array Of Moloch, furious King! who him defy'd, And at his Chariot-wheels to drag him bound Threaten'd, nor from the Holy One of Heavn Refrained his Tongue blasphemous: but anon Down cloven to the Waste, with shattered Arms And uncouth Pain fled bellowing.--
Milton has likewise raised his Description in this Book with many Images taken out of the poetical Parts of Scripture. The Messiahs Chariot, as I have before taken notice, is formed upon a Vision of Ezekiel, who, as Grotius observes, has very much in him of Homers Spirit in the Poetical Parts of his Prophecy.
The following Lines in that glorious Commission which is given the Messiah to extirpate the Host of Rebel Angels, is drawn from a Sublime Passage in the Psalms.
Go then thou Mightiest in thy Fathers Might! Ascend my Chariot, guide the rapid Wheels That shake Heavns Basis; bring forth all my War, My Bow, my Thunder, my Almighty Arms, Gird on thy Sword on thy puissant Thigh.
The Reader will easily discover many other Strokes of the same nature.
There is no question but Milton had heated his Imagination with the Fight of the Gods in Homer, before he enter'd upon this Engagement of the Angels. Homer there gives us a Scene of Men, Heroes, and Gods, mix'd together in Battel. Mars animates the contending Armies, and lifts up his Voice in such a manner, that it is heard distinctly amidst all the Shouts and Confusion of the Fight. Jupiter at the same time Thunders over their Heads; while Neptune raises such a Tempest, that the whole Field of Battel and all the Tops of the Mountains shake about them. The Poet tells us, that Pluto himself, whose Habitation was in the very Center of the Earth, was so affrighted at the Shock, that he leapt from his Throne. Homer afterwards describes Vulcan as pouring down a Storm of Fire upon the River Xanthus, and Minerva as throwing a Rock at Mars; who, he tells us, cover'd seven Acres in his Fall.
As Homer has introduced into his Battel of the Gods every thing that is great and terrible in Nature, Milton has filled his Fight of good and bad Angels with all the like Circumstances of Horrour. The Shout of Armies, the Rattling of Brazen Chariots, the Hurling of Rocks and Mountains, the Earthquake, the Fire, the Thunder, are all of them employ'd to lift up the Readers Imagination, and give him a suitable Idea of so great an Action. With what Art has the Poet represented the whole Body of the Earth trembling, even before it was created.
All Heaven resounded, and had Earth been then, All Earth had to its Center shook--
In how sublime and just a manner does he afterwards describe the whole Heaven shaking under the Wheels of the Messiahs Chariot, with that Exception to the Throne of God?
--Under his burning Wheels The stedfast Empyrean shook throughout, All but the Throne it self of God--
Notwithstanding the Messiah appears clothed with so much Terrour and Majesty, the Poet has still found means to make his Readers conceive an Idea of him, beyond what he himself was able to describe.
Yet half his Strength he put not forth, but checkt His Thunder in mid Volley; for he meant Not to destroy, but root them out of Heaven.
In a Word, Milton's Genius, which was so great in it self, and so strengthened by all the helps of Learning, appears in this Book every way equal to his Subject, which was the most Sublime that could enter into the Thoughts of a Poet. As he knew all the Arts of affecting the Mind, [he knew it was necessary to give ] it certain Resting-places and Opportunities of recovering it self from time to time: He has [therefore] with great Address interspersed several Speeches, Reflections, Similitudes, and the like Reliefs to diversify his Narration, and ease the Attention of [the ] Reader, that he might come fresh to his great Action, and by such a Contrast of Ideas, have a more lively taste of the nobler Parts of his Description.
[Footnote 1: [is]]
[Footnote 2: [an]]
[Footnote 3: had he not given]
[Footnote 4: his]Translation of motto: