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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Edward Copleston (1776–1849)

How to Review Milton’s L’Allegro

From “Advice to a Young Reviewer”

IT has become a practice of late, with a certain description of people who have no visible means of subsistence, to string together a few trite images of rural scenery, interspersed with vulgarisms in dialect and traits of vulgar manners; to dress up these materials in a sing-song jingle, and to offer them for sale as a poem. According to the most approved recipes, something about the heathen gods and goddesses, and the schoolboy topics of Styx, and Cerberus, and Elysium, is occasionally thrown in, and the composition is complete. The stock-in-trade of these adventurers is in general scanty enough, and their art therefore consists in disposing of it to the best advantage. But if such be the aim of the writer, it is the critic’s business to detect and defeat the imposture; to warn the public against the purchase of shop-worn goods and tinsel wares; to protect the fair trader by exposing the tricks of needy quacks and mountebanks; and to chastise that forward and noisy importunity with which they present themselves to the public notice.

How far Mr. Milton is amenable to this discipline will best appear from a brief analysis of the poem before us. In the very opening he assumes a tone of authority which might better suit some veteran bard than a raw candidate for the Delphic bays. Before he proceeds to the regular process of invocation, he clears the way by driving from his presence, with sundry hard names and bitter reproaches on her father, mother, and all the family, a venerable personage, whose age at least, and staid, matron-like appearance, might have entitled her to more civil language:

  • Hence, loathéd Melancholy;
  • Of Cerberus and blackest midnight born,
  • In Stygian cave forlorn, etc.”
  • There is no giving rules, however, in these matters, without a knowledge of the case. Perhaps the old lady had been frequently warned off before, and provoked this violence by continuing still to lurk about the poet’s dwelling. And, to say the truth, the reader will have but too good reason to remark, before he gets through the poem, that it is one thing to tell the spirit of dulness to depart, and another to get rid of her in reality. Like Glendower’s spirits, any one may order them away, “but will they go when you do order them?”

    But let us suppose for a moment that the Parnassian decree is obeyed, and according to the letter of the order, which is as precise and wordy as if Justice Shallow himself had drawn it, that the obnoxious female is sent back to the place of her birth,

  • “’Mongst horrid shapes, shrieks, sights, etc.,”
  • at which we beg our fair readers not to be alarmed, for we can assure them they are only words of course in all poetical instruments of this nature, and mean no more than the “force and arms,” and “instigation of the devil” in a common indictment. This nuisance then being abated, we are left at liberty to contemplate a character of a different complexion, “buxom, blithe, and debonair;” one who, although evidently a great favourite of the poet’s, and therefore to be received with all due courtesy, is, notwithstanding, introduced under the suspicious description of an alias:
  • “In heaven ycleped Euphrosyne,
  • And by men, heart-easing Mirth.”
  • Judging indeed from the light and easy deportment of this gay nymph, one might guess there were good reasons for a change of name as she changed her residence.

    But of all vices, there is none we abhor more than that of slanderous insinuation; we shall therefore confine our moral strictures to the nymph’s mother, in whose defence the poet has little to say himself. Here, too, as in the case of the name, there is some doubt; for the uncertainty of descent on the father’s side having become trite to a proverb, the author, scorning that beaten track, has left us to choose between two mothers for his favourite, and without much to guide our choice; whichever we fix upon, it is plain she was no better than she should be. As he seems, however, himself inclined to the latter of the two, we will even suppose it so to be:

  • “Or whether (as some sages sing)
  • The frolic wind that breathes the spring,
  • Zephyr with Aurora playing,
  • As he met her once a-Maying,
  • There on beds of violets blue,
  • And fresh-blown roses washed in dew, etc.”
  • Some dull people might imagine that the wind was more like the breath of spring, than spring the breath of the wind; but we are more disposed to question the author’s ethics than his physics, and accordingly cannot dismiss these May gambols without some observations.

    In the first place, Mr. M. seems to have higher notions of the antiquity of the Maypole than we have been accustomed to attach to it. Or perhaps he thought to shelter the equivocal nature of this affair under that sanction. To us, however, who can hardly subscribe to the doctrine that “vice loses half its evil by losing all its grossness,” neither the remoteness of time nor the gaiety of the season furnishes a sufficient palliation. “Violets blue” and “fresh-blown roses” are, to be sure, more agreeable objects of the imagination than a gin-shop in Wapping or a booth in Bartholomew Fair; but in point of morality these are distinctions without a difference; or, it may be, the cultivation of mind, which teaches us to reject and nauseate these latter objects, aggravates the case if our improvement in taste be not accompanied by a proportionate improvement of morals.

    If the reader can reconcile himself to this latitude of principle, the anachronism will not long stand in his way. Much, indeed, may be said in favour of this union of ancient mythology with modern notions and manners. It is a sort of chronological metaphor—an artificial analogy, by which ideas, widely remote and heterogeneous, are brought into contact, and the mind is delighted by this unexpected assemblage, as it is by the combinations of figurative language.

    Thus in that elegant interlude, which the pen of Ben Jonson has transmitted to us, of the loves of Hero and Leander:

  • “Gentles, that no longer your expectations may wander,
  • Behold our chief actor, amorous Leander,
  • With a great deal of cloth, lapped about him like a scarf,
  • For he yet serves his father, a dyer in Puddle Wharf;
  • Which place we’ll make bold with, to call it our Abydus,
  • As the Bank side is our Sestos, and let it not be denied us.”
  • Far be it from us to deny the use of so reasonable a liberty; especially if the request be backed (as it is in the case of Mr. M.) by the craving and imperious necessities of rhyme. What man who has ever bestrode Pegasus but for an hour will be insensible to such a claim?

    We are next favoured with an enumeration of the attendants of this “debonair” nymph, in all the minuteness of a German dramatis persona, or a rope-dancer’s handbill:

  • “Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
  • Jest, and youthful Jollity;
  • Quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles,
  • Nods, and becks, and wreathéd smiles,
  • Such as hang on Hebe’s cheek,
  • And love to live in dimple sleek;
  • Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
  • And Laughter, holding both his sides.”
  • The author, to prove himself worthy of being admitted of the crew, skips and capers about upon “the light fantastic toe,” that there is no following him. He scampers through all the categories, in search of his imaginary beings, from substance to quality, and back again; from thence to action, passion, habit, etc., with incredible celerity. Who, for instance, would have expected cranks, nods, becks, and wreathéd smiles as part of a group in which Jest, Jollity, Sport and Laughter figure away as full-formed entire personages? The family likeness is certainly very strong in the last two, and if we had not been told we should perhaps have thought the act of deriding as appropriate to laughter as to sport.

    But how are we to understand the stage directions?

  • “Come, and trip it as you go.”
  • Are the words used synonymously? Or is it meant that this airy gentry shall come in at a minuet step, and go off in a jig? The phenomenon of a tripping crank is indeed novel, and would doubtless attract numerous spectators. But it is difficult to guess to whom among this jolly company the poet addresses himself, for immediately after the plural appellative (you), he proceeds:
  • “And in thy right hand lead with thee
  • The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty.”
  • No sooner is this fair damsel introduced, but Mr. M., with most unbecoming levity, falls in love with her, and makes a request of her companion, which is rather greedy, that he may live with both of them:

  • “To live with her, and live with thee.”
  • Even the gay libertine who sung, “How happy could I be with either,” did not go so far as this. But we have already had occasion to remark on the laxity of Mr. M.’s amatory notions.

    The poet, intoxicated with the charms of his mistress, now rapidly runs over the pleasures which he proposes to himself in the enjoyment of her society. But though he has the advantage of being his own caterer, either his palate is of a peculiar structure, or he has not made the most judicious selection. To begin the day well, he will have the skylark

  • “to come in spite of sorrow,
  • And at his window bid good morrow.”
  • The skylark, if we know anything of the nature of that bird, must come in spite of something else as well as of sorrow, to the performance of this office. In his next image the natural history is better preserved, and as the thoughts are appropriate to the time of the day, we will venture to transcribe the passage, as a favourable specimen of the author’s manner:
  • “While the cock with lively din
  • Scatters the rear of darkness thin,
  • And to the stack, or the barn-door,
  • Stoutly struts his dames before;
  • Oft listening how the hounds and horn
  • Cheerly rouse the slumbering morn,
  • From the side of some hoar hill,
  • Through the high wood echoing shrill.”
  • Is it not lamentable that, after all, whether it is the cock or the poet that listens, should be left entirely to the reader’s conjecture? Perhaps also his embarrassment may be increased by a slight resemblance of character in these two illustrious personages, at least as far as relates to the extent and numbers of their seraglio.

    After a flaming description of sunrise, on which occasion the clouds attend in their very best liveries, the bill of fare for the day proceeds in the usual manner. Whistling ploughmen, singing milkmaids, and sentimental shepherds are always to be had at a moment’s notice, and, if well grouped, serve to fill up the landscape agreeably enough. On this part of the poem we have only to remark, that if Mr. John Milton proposes to make himself merry with

  • “Russet lawns, and fallows gray,
  • Where the nibbling flocks do stray;
  • Mountains on whose barren breast
  • The labouring clouds do often rest;
  • Meadows trim with daisies pied,
  • Shallow brooks, and rivers wide,
  • Towers and battlements, etc.,”
  • he will either find himself egregiously disappointed, or he must possess a disposition to merriment which even Democritus himself might envy. To such a pitch indeed does this solemn indication of joy sometimes rise, that we are inclined to give him credit for a literal adherence to the apostolic precept, “Is any merry, let him sing psalms.”

    At length, however, he hies away at the sound of bell-ringing, and seems for some time to enjoy the tippling and fiddling and dancing of a village wake. But his fancy is soon haunted again by spectres and goblins, a set of beings not in general esteemed the companions or inspirers of mirth:

  • “With stories told of many a feat,
  • How fairy Mab the junkets eat;
  • She was pinched, and pulled, she said;
  • And he, by friar’s lanthorn led,
  • Tells how the drudging goblin sweat
  • To earn his cream-bowl duly set;
  • When in one night, ere glimpse of morn,
  • His shadowy flail hath threshed the corn,
  • That ten day-labourers could not end;
  • Then lies him down the lubbar fiend,
  • And, stretched out all the chimney’s length,
  • Basks at the fire his hairy strength;
  • And crop-full out of door he flings,
  • Ere the first cock his matin rings.”
  • Mr. M. seems indeed to have a turn for this species of nursery tales and prattling lullabies; and if he will studiously cultivate his talent he need not despair of figuring in a conspicuous corner of Mr. Newbury’s shop-window; unless, indeed, Mrs. Trimmer should think fit to proscribe those empty levities and idle superstitions by which the world has been too long abused.

    From these rustic fictions we are transported to another species of hum:

  • “Towered cities please us then,
  • And the busy hum of men,
  • Where throngs of knights and barons bold
  • In weeds of peace high triumphs hold,
  • With store of ladies, whose bright eyes
  • Rain influence, and judge the prize
  • Of wit or arms, while both contend
  • To win her grace, whom all commend.”
  • To talk of the bright eyes of ladies judging the prize of wit is indeed with the poets a legitimate species of humming. But would not, we may ask, the rain from these ladies’ bright eyes rather tend to dim their lustre? Or is there any quality in a shower of influence, which, instead of deadening, serves only to brighten and exhilarate? Whatever the case may be, we would advise Mr. M. by all means to keep out of the way of these knights and barons bold; for if he has nothing but his wit to trust to, we will venture to predict that, without a large share of most undue influence, he must be content to see the prize adjudged to his competitors.

    Of the latter part of the poem little need be said. The author does seem somewhat more at home when he gets among the actors and musicians, though his head is still running upon Orpheus and Eurydice, and Pluto, and other sombre gentry, who are ever thrusting themselves in where we least expect them, and who chill every rising emotion of mirth and gaiety.

    Upon the whole, Mr. Milton seems to be possessed of some fancy and talent for rhyming; two most dangerous endowments, which often unfit men for acting a useful part in life, without qualifying them for that which is great and brilliant. If it be true, as we have heard, that he has declined advantageous prospects in business for the sake of indulging his poetical humour, we hope it is not yet too late to prevail upon him to retract his resolution. With the help of Cocker and common industry he may become a respectable scrivener; but it is not all the Zephyrs, and Auroras, and Corydons, and Thyrsises, aye, nor his junketing Queen Mab and drudging goblins, that will ever make him a poet.