The Spectator, Volume 2. eBook

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  Francis Sternhold.


[Footnote 1:  [Strenua nos exercet inertia.—–­HOR.]

[Footnote 2:  [but]]

* * * * *

No. 285.  Saturday, January 26, 1712.  Addison.

  Ne, quicunque Deus, quicunque adhibebitur heros,
  Regali conspectus in auro nuper et ostro,
  Migret in Obscuras humili sermone tabernas: 
  Aut, dum vitat humum, nubes et inania captet.


Having already treated of the Fable, the Characters, and Sentiments in the Paradise Lost, we are in the last Place to consider the Language; and as the Learned World is very much divided upon Milton as to this Point, I hope they will excuse me if I appear particular in any of my Opinions, and encline to those who judge the most advantageously of the Author.

It is requisite that the Language of an Heroic Poem should be both Perspicuous and Sublime. [1] In proportion as either of these two Qualities are wanting, the Language is imperfect.  Perspicuity is the first and most necessary Qualification; insomuch that a good-natur’d Reader sometimes overlooks a little Slip even in the Grammar or Syntax, where it is impossible for him to mistake the Poets Sense.  Of this Kind is that Passage in Milton, wherein he speaks of Satan.

 —­God and his Son except,
  Created thing nought valu’d he nor shunn’d.

And that in which he describes Adam and Eve.

  Adam the goodliest Man of Men since born
  His Sons, the fairest of her Daughters Eve.

It is plain, that in the former of these Passages according to the natural Syntax, the Divine Persons mentioned in the first Line are represented as created Beings; and that, in the other, Adam and Eve are confounded with their Sons and Daughters.  Such little Blemishes as these, when the Thought is great and natural, we should, with Horace [2] impute to a pardonable Inadvertency, or to the Weakness of human Nature, which cannot attend to each minute Particular, and give the last Finishing to every Circumstance in so long a Work.  The Ancient Criticks therefore, who were acted by a Spirit of Candour, rather than that of Cavilling, invented certain Figures of Speech, on purpose to palliate little Errors of this nature in the Writings of those Authors who had so many greater Beauties to attone for them.

If Clearness and Perspicuity were only to be consulted, the Poet would have nothing else to do but to cloath his Thoughts in the most plain and natural Expressions.  But since it often happens that the most obvious Phrases, and those which are used in ordinary Conversation, become too familiar to the Ear, and contract a kind of Meanness by passing through the Mouths of the Vulgar, a Poet should take particular Care to guard himself against Idiomatick Ways of Speaking.  Ovid and Lucan have many Poornesses of Expression upon this Account, as taking up with the first Phrases that offered, without putting themselves to the Trouble of looking after such as would not only have been natural, but also elevated and sublime.  Milton has but few Failings in this Kind, of which, however, you may [meet with some Instances, as [3] in the following Passages.

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