A word may be said finally as to the quality of the verse. I need not repeat that it is exquisite, that the music of it is like a full stream overflowing the rich pastures; what I am concerned to maintain is, that it is not for the most part of Milton’s best. In the first place, what, for want of a better name, I have called Milton’s moralizing is a blemish upon the poetic as it is upon the dramatic merits of the piece. The muse of poetry, like all her sisters, is not slow in avenging herself of a divided allegiance. By the cynical irony of fortune already noticed, where Milton would most impress us with his moral he becomes least poetical. There is, it is true, hardly a speech or a song which does not contain lines worthy to rank with any in the language, from the opening words:
Before the starry threshold of Joves Court,
to the final couplet:
Or if Virtue feeble were,
Heav’n it self would stoop to her.
But there are passages in which these memorable lines appear as so much rich embroidery superimposed upon the baser fabric of the verse, not woven of the woof. They are in their nature more easily detached, and often form the best known and most often quoted passages of the work. Take the first speech of the Lady, concerning which something has already been said. Here we find the lines:
They left me then, when the gray-hooded
Like a sad Votarist in Palmer’s weed
Rose from the hindmost wheels of Phoebus wain;
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes, and beckning shadows dire,
And airy tongues, that syllable mens names
On Sands, and Shoars, and desert Wildernesses;
or yet again:
Was I deceiv’d, or did a
Turn forth her silver lining on the night?
We have the song:
Sweet Echo, sweetest Nymph
that liv’st unseen
Within thy airy shell
By slow Meander’s margent green,
And in the violet imbroider’d vale
Where the love-lorn Nightingale
Nightly to thee her sad Song mourneth well.
Such lines would justly render famous any passage in any poem in which they occurred. Nevertheless, remove them, which can be done without material injury to the sequence of the thought, and see whether in its warp and web the speech can for a moment stand comparison with that of Comus, to which it stands in direct and dramatic contraposition.
But this drawback is only incidental; through nine-tenths of the piece, perhaps, there is little or no moral preoccupation to disturb us. And here, though no doubt the poetic beauty reaches a climax in the song to Sabrina—a song for pure music certainly unsurpassed and probably unequalled by anything else that Milton ever wrote—there are others, such as ‘By the rushy-fringed bank,’ as