October 23, 1754
My Dear Mr. Avenger,
In my last I took an Opportunity of imparting some of my Thoughts upon the Topick of Vice as it hath been delineated by means of Verse; call this Theme the Poetry of Vice, if you will. I now wish to give you some of my Reflections upon a quite different Theme, one I wou’d call the Vices of Poetry. I wish to do this, by means of Illustrations drawn from one of your favourite Poets and mine — I refer to Mr. MILTON.
Of late, in this declining Season, I have been spending an Hour or two each Day with a Friend, a Gentleman in my Neighbourhood, who shares my high Regard for Paradise Lost. As I know from an ingenious little Piece writ by you some time ago, on SPENSER’s “Art of Sinking” as you call’d it, you are an admirer of this inimitable effort in the epick Kind, I mean Paradise Lost. Shou’d you have the Patience, I wou’d therefore trouble you with a few Words, the Fruits of the pleasurable Labours of my Neighbour and I, presuming therefore upon our Friendship that you will do me the Honour of reading them.
‘Tis the mark of your minute Criticks to pride themselves on discovering Flaws in an Author. Each little Blemish or Slip discover’d, no matter how slight, adds a supposed Merit to the Critick’s Skill in the Eyes of an unthinking Audience; a Merit inflated in Proportion as the Stature of the Author is greater. These Giant-Killers make a name for themselves by slaying over again great Authors long dead.
In truth, no work is without its Faults,
“Whoever thinks a faultless Piece to see,
Thinks what ne’er was, nor is, nor e’er shall be.”
[Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711), ll. 253-254 — Ed.]
Indeed, if one were to be strictly critical, one must notice that even these two Lines of Mr. POPE’s are not without Fault, the second being an Heroick done all in tedious monosyllables, a violation of the Author’s own Precepts.
Since therefore ‘tis no such great Atchievement to find such a Failing in a single Couplet by one in the very first Rank of Poets, how numerous must be the Opportunities, then, for erecting a critical Character for oneself upon the Foundations of Works of much greater Length? HORACE once chided those Criticks who wou’d praise to the Skies a Poet of such mediocre Worth as his Choerilus for stumbling upon a Line or two worth remembering, whilst convicting honest HOMER without Mercy for the odd Line worth forgetting:
sic mihi, qui multum cessat, fit Choerilus ille,
quem bis terque bonum cum risu miror; et idem
indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus;
verum operi longo fas est obrepere somnum.
“So, if strange Chance a Choerilus inspire
With some good Lines, I laugh, while I admire;
Yet hold it for a Fault I can't excuse,
If honest Homer slumber o'er his Muse;
Although, perhaps, a kind indulgent Sleep
O’er Works of length allowably may creep.”
[Horace, Ars Poetica, ll. 357-360, Philip Francis, trans. — Ed.]
But what mere Mortal can be always at his best in a Work the length of an Iliad or an Odyssey? Let a Choerilus write such an Epick Piece, and then we may compare the two Talents upon an even Ground. Indeed, Mr. Pope wou’d be more generous still, and have us first question ourselves before we question the Judgment or Skill of an Homer:
“Those oft are Stratagems which Errors seem,
Nor is it Homer nods, but we that dream.”
[Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711), ll. 179-180]
Pope was that rare Bird of Paradise who is both a great Critick, and a great Poet. And yet, small Critick that I am (and certainly no Poet), I must differ with him on this Score: Homer does slumber occasionally; it is not always the Critick who errs, nor are the Errors always Strategies. Nevertheless, the real Value of an Author’s work – or lack of it – lies not in a single Entry in the Ledger, but in the Sum of all the Entries, in the final casting of Accounts, as it were:
Verum ubi plura nitent in carmine, non ego paucis
offendar maculis, quas aut incuria fudit,
aut humana parum cauit natura.
“But when the Beauties more in Numbers shine,
I am not angry when a casual Line
(That with some trivial Faults unequal flows)
A careless Hand, or human Frailty shows.”
[Horace, Ars Poetica, ll. 351-353, Francis, trans. — Ed.]
It is with these Reflections in Mind that I wish to draw your Attention to what I take to be some Flaws or Examples of Sinking in Paradise Lost. These fall into three Kinds, the first of which you remark’d upon in your Thoughts on Spenser’s Art of Sinking, namely, Heroicks composed of naught but monosyllabic Words. Unfortunately, there are many of these in Paradise Lost, too many to set down all of them in a Letter such as this. Here is a characteristical one:
“Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death,”
Indeed, Milton’s fondness for little Lists of such Features (Rocks, Bogs, etc.) seems limitless:
“Ore bog or steep, through strait, rough, dense, or rare,” (II.948)
“Rocks, Dens, and Caves; but I am none of these” (IX.118)
“To Boggs and Mires, & oft through Pond or Poole,” (IX.641)
As you so justly pointed out, these long strings of low Words cause the Wheels of a Line to “grind together”, if you will pardon my Expression. This Example in particular tripp’d up my poor reading Companion:
“From whom I have that thus I move and live,” (VIII.281)
And finally, there is this one, which I defy the honest Reader to read aloud to himself without stumbling:
“His full wrauth whose thou feelst as yet less part,” (X.951)
The second Kind of Sinking in Milton is that which Mr. ADDISON in one of his Spectators characterized as an affected Jingle in his Words [Joseph Addison, Spectator No. 297 (9 February 1712) — Ed.]. He gave, as an Example, Book IX, line 11:
“That brought into the World a World of woe”
Sadly, there are to be found too many other conceited Phrases of this Nature:
“Thy face, and Morn return’d, for I this Night,
Such night till this I never pass’d, have dream’d,
If dream’d, not as I oft am wont, of thee,” (V.30-32)
This Repetition of “Night” and “dream’d” imports nothing to the Thought but an unnecessary Ponderousness. Such repetition is the small change of literature, making a loud Jingling and weighing down one’s Pockets, while purchasing little of Value. This Kind of affected Cleverness give the very opposite Impression from what it intends.
A similar Effect in another Passage is wrought by the repetition of “givers/gifts” and “large/bestow”:
“well we may afford
Our givers thir own gifts, and large bestow
From large bestowd, where Nature multiplies” (V.316-318)
However, worst of all, in my Opinion, is this wretched Piece of broadside Doggerel, utterly unworthy of a Poet of Milton’s Abilities:
“So he with difficulty and labour hard
Mov'd on, with difficulty and labour hee;” (II.1021-1022)
These Lines have both too much and too many: too much Repetition (“difficulty/labour”), and too many Syllables, each being compos’d of eleven instead of the requisite ten. One lacks a Word to describe such low Stuff; sinking does not convey adequately the depths to which the Poet has plumbed here. Plummeting methinks is the better Verb. Another Example of too many Syllables in a Line appears at Book IX, l. 570:
“What thou commandst and right though shouldst be obeyd”
The third and final Kind of Sinking in Milton that I wish to remark upon is that Sin of the Age in which Milton liv’d, I mean Punning. As my Lord SHAFTESBURY noted of the British Muses in earlier Times, they “lisp’d as in their Cradles: and their stammering Tongues, which nothing besides their Youth and Rawness can excuse, have hitherto spoken in wretched Pun and Quibble. Our Dramatick SHAKESPEAR, our FLETCHER, JOHNSON, and our Epick MILTON preserve this Style” [Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), Vol. I, p. 217 — Ed.]. Thankfully, this false Taste is in its Declination. However, it is all too common in Paradise Lost. Take, as an example of this false sort of Wit, the following, which equivocates between two Senses of “light”:
“On mee as on thir natural center light
Heavie, though in thir place.” (X. 740-741)
The next Example is doubly Faulty, first by mere Virtue of its being a Pun, but more, using such a Pun as an Occasion of scoring points against a theological Adversary, in this Instance the Romish Church. Sin and Death build a bridge between Earth and Hell:
“Now had they brought the work by wondrous Art
Pontifical, a ridge of pendent Rock” (X.312-313)
Here Milton equivocates between the Latin pontis (“Bridge”) and “Pontiff”, implying that Popery is the surest way to Hell. However, in speaking of a Time before there was any such Thing as a Reform’d or a Roman Catholick Church, such a Reference is anachronistick, breaking the Spell which has hitherto transported the reader from the sublime beginning of the World and our first Progenitors, to the present fallen World of unseemly religious Polemick. Even worse, as if afraid the Pun had passed by the Reader insufficiently admir’d, he has another try at the same Piece of low Raillery a mere few Lines on, where he again equivocates between pontis and pontifex:
“And at the brink of Chaos, neer the foot
Of this new wondrous Pontifice…” (X.348)
But perhaps I am being too nice, too finical in my Criticism, since for even all these Blemishes are in the Balance found as nothing when compar’d to the innumerable lofty and sublime Thoughts and Sentiments express’d in Paradise Lost. If there be any excuse for my presuming to point out this great Poet’s little Vices, it is that Mr. Addison in his Spectators hath already done admirably in instructing us as to his many great Virtues.
I am, Sir,
Ever your Friend and Admirer,
Jos. Darling, Esq.