Table Talk : Essays on Men and Manners, by William Hazlitt

Essay ii.

On Milton’s Sonnets

The great object of the Sonnet seems to be, to express in musical numbers, and as it were with undivided breath, some occasional thought or personal feeling, ‘some fee-grief due to the poet’s breast.’ It is a sigh uttered from the fulness of the heart, an involuntary aspiration born and dying in the same moment. I have always been fond of Milton’s Sonnets for this reason, that they have more of this personal and internal character than any others; and they acquire a double value when we consider that they come from the pen of the loftiest of our poets. Compared with Paradise Lost, they are like tender flowers that adorn the base of some proud column or stately temple. The author in the one could work himself up with unabated fortitude ‘to the height of his great argument’; but in the other he has shown that he could condescend to men of low estate, and after the lightning and the thunderbolt of his pen, lets fall some drops of natural pity over hapless infirmity, mingling strains with the nightingale’s, ‘most musical, most melancholy.’ The immortal poet pours his mortal sorrows into our breasts, and a tear falls from his sightless orbs on the friendly hand he presses. The Sonnets are a kind of pensive record of past achievements, loves, and friendships, and a noble exhortation to himself to bear up with cheerful hope and confidence to the last. Some of them are of a more quaint and humorous character; but I speak of those only which are intended to be serious and pathetical. — I do not know indeed but they may be said to be almost the first effusions of this sort of natural and personal sentiment in the language. Drummond’s ought perhaps to be excepted, were they formed less closely on the model of Petrarch’s, so as to be often little more than translations of the Italian poet. But Milton’s Sonnets are truly his own in allusion, thought, and versification. Those of Sir Philip Sydney, who was a great transgressor in his way, turn sufficiently on himself and his own adventures; but they are elaborately quaint and intricate, and more like riddles than sonnets. They are ‘very tolerable and not to be endured.’ Shakespear’s, which some persons better informed in such matters than I can pretend to be, profess to cry up as ‘the divine, the matchless, what you will,’— to say nothing of the want of point or a leading, prominent idea in most of them, are I think overcharged and monotonous, and as to their ultimate drift, as for myself, I can make neither head nor tail of it. Yet some of them, I own, are sweet even to a sense of faintness, luscious as the woodbine, and graceful and luxuriant like it. Here is one:

From you have I been absent in the spring,

When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,

Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing;

That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.

Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell

Of different flowers in odour and in hue,

Could make me any summer’s story tell,

Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:

Nor did I wonder at the lilies white,

Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;

They were but sweet, but figures of delight,

Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

Yet seem’d it winter still, and you away,

As with your shadow, I with these did play.

I am not aware of any writer of Sonnets worth mentioning here till long after Milton, that is, till the time of Warton and the revival of a taste for Italian and for our own early literature. During the rage for French models the Sonnet had not been much studied. It is a mode of composition that depends entirely on expression, and this the French and artificial style gladly dispenses with, as it lays no particular stress on anything — except vague, general common-places. Warton’s Sonnets are undoubtedly exquisite, both in style and matter; they are poetical and philosophical effusions of very delightful sentiment; but the thoughts, though fine and deeply felt, are not, like Milton’s subjects, identified completely with the writer, and so far want a more individual interest. Mr. Wordsworth’s are also finely conceived and high-sounding Sonnets. They mouth it well, and are said to be sacred to Liberty. Brutus’s exclamation, ‘Oh Virtue, I thought thee a substance, but I find thee a shadow,’ was not considered as a compliment, but as a bitter sarcasm. The beauty of Milton’s Sonnets is their sincerity, the spirit of poetical patriotism which they breathe. Either Milton’s or the living bard’s are defective in this respect. There is no Sonnet of Milton’s on the Restoration of Charles II. There is no Sonnet of Mr. Wordsworth’s corresponding to that of ‘the poet blind and bold’ ‘On the late Massacre in Piedmont.’ It would be no niggard praise to Mr. Wordsworth to grant that he was either half the man or half the poet that Milton was. He has not his high and various imagination, nor his deep and fixed principle. Milton did not worship the rising sun, nor turn his back on a losing and fallen cause.

Such recantation had no charms for him!

Mr. Southey has thought proper to put the author of Paradise Lost into his late Heaven, on the understood condition that he is ‘no longer to kings and to hierarchs hostile.’ In his lifetime he gave no sign of such an alteration; and it is rather presumptuous in the poet-laureate to pursue the deceased antagonist of Salmasius into the other world to compliment him with his own infirmity of purpose. It is a wonder he did not add in a note that Milton called him aside to whisper in his ear that he preferred the new English hexameters to his own blank verse!

Our first of poets was one of our first of men. He was an eminent instance to prove that a poet is not another name for the slave of power and fashion, as is the case with painters and musicians — things without an opinion — and who merely aspire to make up the pageant and show of the day. There are persons in common life who have that eager curiosity and restless admiration of bustle and splendour, that sooner than not be admitted on great occasions of feasting and luxurious display, they will go in the character of livery-servants to stand behind the chairs of the great. There are others who can so little bear to be left for any length of time out of the grand carnival and masquerade of pride and folly, that they will gain admittance to it at the expense of their characters as well as of a change of dress. Milton was not one of these. He had too much of the ideal faculty in his composition, a lofty contemplative principle, and consciousness of inward power and worth, to be tempted by such idle baits. We have plenty of chanting and chiming in among some modern writers with the triumphs over their own views and principles; but none of a patient resignation to defeat, sustaining and nourishing itself with the thought of the justice of their cause, and with firm-fixed rectitude. I do not pretend to defend the tone of Milton’s political writings (which was borrowed from the style of controversial divinity), or to say that he was right in the part he took — I say that he was consistent in it, and did not convict himself of error: he was consistent in it in spite of danger and obloquy, ‘on evil days though fallen, and evil tongues,’ and therefore his character has the salt of honesty about it. It does not offend in the nostrils of posterity. He had taken his part boldly and stood to it manfully, and submitted to the change of times with pious fortitude, building his consolations on the resources of his own mind and the recollection of the past, instead of endeavouring to make himself a retreat for the time to come. As an instance of this we may take one of the best and most admired of these Sonnets, that addressed to Cyriac Skinner, on his own blindness:—

Cyriac, this three years’ day, these eyes, though clear,

To outward view, of blemish or of spot,

Bereft of light their seeing have forgot,

Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear

Of sun or moon or stars throughout the year,

Or man or woman. Yet I argue not

Against Heav’n’s hand or will, nor bate a jot

Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer

Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?

The conscience, Friend, to have lost them overply’d

In liberty’s defence, my noble task,

Of which all Europe talks from side to side.

This thought might lead me through the world’s vain mask,

Content though blind, had I no better guide.

Nothing can exceed the mild, subdued tone of this Sonnet, nor the striking grandeur of the concluding thought. It is curious to remark what seems to be a trait of character in the two first lines. From Milton’s care to inform the reader that ‘his eyes wore still clear, to outward view, of spot or blemish,’ it would be thought that he had not yet given up all regard to personal appearance; a feeling to which his singular beauty at an earlier age might be supposed naturally enough to lead. Of the political or (what may be called) his State–Sonnets, those to Cromwell, to Fairfax, and to the younger Vane are full of exalted praise and dignified advice. They are neither familiar nor servile. The writer knows what is due to power and to fame. He feels the true, unassumed equality of greatness. He pays the full tribute of admiration for great acts achieved, and suggests becoming occasion to deserve higher praise. That to Cromwell is a proof how completely our poet maintained the erectness of his understanding and spirit in his intercourse with men in power. It is such a compliment as a poet might pay to a conqueror and head of the state without the possibility of self-degradation:

Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud,

Not of war only, but detractions rude,

Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,

To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough’d,

And on the neck of crowned fortune proud

Hast rear’d God’s trophies and his work pursued

While Darwen stream with blood of Scots imbrued,

And Dunbar field resounds thy praises loud,

And Worcester’s laureat wreath. Yet much remains

To conquer still; peace hath her victories

No less renown’d than war: new foes arise

Threatening to bind our souls with secular chains;

Help us to save free conscience from the paw

Of hireling wolves, whose gospel is their maw.

The most spirited and impassioned of them all, and the most inspired with a sort of prophetic fury, is the one entitled, ‘On the late Massacre in Piedmont.’

Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones

Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold;

Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,

When all our fathers worshipp’d stocks and stones,

Forgot not: in thy book record their groans

Who were thy sheep, and in their ancient fold

Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that roll’d

Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans

The vales redoubled to the hills, and they

To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow

O’er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway

The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow

A hundred fold, who having learn’d thy way

Early may fly the Babylonian woe.

In the Nineteenth Sonnet, which is also ‘On his blindness,’ we see the jealous watchfulness of his mind over the use of his high gifts, and the beautiful manner in which he satisfies himself that virtuous thoughts and intentions are not the least acceptable offering to the Almighty:

When I consider how my light is spent

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,

And that one talent which is death to hide,

Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent,

To serve therewith my Maker, and present

My true account, lest he returning chide;

Doth God exact day-labour, light denied,

I fondly ask: But patience to prevent

That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need

Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best

Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his state

Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,

And post o’er land and ocean without rest;

They also serve who only stand and wait.

Those to Mr. Henry Lawes on his Airs, and to Mr. Lawrence, can never be enough admired. They breathe the very soul of music and friendship. Both have a tender, thoughtful grace; and for their lightness, with a certain melancholy complaining intermixed, might be stolen from the harp of Aeolus. The last is the picture of a day spent in social retirement and elegant relaxation from severer studies. We sit with the poet at table and hear his familiar sentiments from his own lips afterwards:—

Lawrence, of virtuous father virtuous son,

Now that the fields are dank and ways are mire,

Where shall we sometimes meet, and by the fire

Help waste a sullen day, what may be won

From the hard season gaining? Time will run

On smoother, till Favonius reinspire

The frozen earth, and clothe in fresh attire

The lily and rose, that neither sow’d nor spun.

What neat repast shall feast us, light and choice,

Of Attic taste, with wine, whence we may rise

To hear the lute well-touched, or artful voice

Warble immortal notes and Tuscan air?

He who of these delights can judge, and spare

To interpose them oft, is not unwise.

In the last, ‘On his deceased Wife,’ the allusion to Alcestis is beautiful, and shows how the poet’s mind raised and refined his thoughts by exquisite classical conceptions, and how these again were enriched by a passionate reference to actual feelings and images. It is this rare union that gives such voluptuous dignity and touching purity to Milton’s delineation of the female character:—

Methought I saw my late espoused saint

Brought to me like Alcestis from the grave,

Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,

Rescued from death by force, though pale and faint.

Mine, as whom wash’d from spot of child-bed taint

Purification in the old law did save,

And such, as yet once more I trust to have

Full sight of her in Heav’n without restraint,

Came vested all in white, pure as her mind:

Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight

Love, sweetness, goodness in her person shined

So clear, as in no face with more delight:

But O as to embrace me she inclined,

I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night.

There could not have been a greater mistake or a more unjust piece of criticism than to suppose that Milton only shone on great subjects, and that on ordinary occasions and in familiar life his mind was unwieldy, averse to the cultivation of grace and elegance, and unsusceptible of harmless pleasures. The whole tenor of his smaller compositions contradicts this opinion, which, however, they have been cited to confirm. The notion first got abroad from the bitterness (or vehemence) of his controversial writings, and has been kept up since with little meaning and with less truth. His Letters to Donatus and others are not more remarkable for the display of a scholastic enthusiasm than for that of the most amiable dispositions. They are ‘severe in youthful virtue unreproved.’ There is a passage in his prose-works (the Treatise on Education) which shows, I think, his extreme openness and proneness to pleasing outward impressions in a striking point of view. ‘But to return to our own institute,’ he says, ‘besides these constant exercises at home, there is another opportunity of gaining experience to be won from pleasure itself abroad. In those vernal seasons of the year, when the air is calm and pleasant, it were an injury and sullenness against Nature not to go out and see her riches, and partake in her rejoicing with Heaven and earth. I should not therefore be a persuader to them of studying much then, but to ride out in companies with prudent and well-staid guides, to all quarters of the land,’ etc. Many other passages might be quoted, in which the poet breaks through the groundwork of prose, as it were, by natural fecundity and a genial, unrestrained sense of delight. To suppose that a poet is not easily accessible to pleasure, or that he does not take an interest in individual objects and feelings, is to suppose that he is no poet; and proceeds on the false theory, which has been so often applied to poetry and the Fine Arts, that the whole is not made up of the particulars. If our author, according to Dr. Johnson s account of him, could only have treated epic, high-sounding subjects, he would not have been what he was, but another Sir Richard Blackmore. — I may conclude with observing, that I have often wished that Milton had lived to see the Revolution of 1688. This would have been a triumph worthy of him, and which he would have earned by faith and hope. He would then have been old, but would not have lived in vain to see it, and might have celebrated the event in one more undying strain!

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