‘What,’ ye will say, `and
thou who at Damascus
Sawest the splendour, answeredst the Voice;
So hast thou suffered and canst dare to ask us,
Paul of the Romans, bidding us rejoice?’
You cannot say I have instanced a passage anything short of fine. But do you not feel that a man who is searching for a rhyme to Damascus has not really the time to cry ‘Abba, father’? Is not your own rapture interrupted by some wonder ’How will he bring it off’? And when he has searched and contrived to `ask us,’ are we responsive to the ecstacy? Has he not—if I may employ an Oriental trope for once—let in the chill breath of cleverness upon the garden of beatitude? No man can be clever and ecstatic at the same moment.
As for triple rhymes—rhymes of the comedian who had a lot o’ news with many curious facts about the square on the hypotenuse, or the cassiowary who ate the missionary on the plains of Timbuctoo, with Bible, prayer-book, hymn-book too—they are for the facetious, and removed, as far as geometrical progression can remove them, from any “Paradise Lost” or “Regained.”
It may sound a genuine note, now and then:
Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
Oh, it was pitiful!
Near a whole city full,
Home she had none!
But not often: and, I think, never but in lyric.
So much, then, for rhyme. We will approach the question of metre, helped or unhelped by rhyme, in another way; and a way yet more practical.
When Milton (determined to write a grand epic) was casting about for his subject, he had a mind for some while to attempt the story of “Job.” You may find evidence for this in a MS preserved here in Trinity College Library.
You will find printed evidence in a passage of his “Reason of Church Government”:
‘Time serves not now,’ he writes, ’and perhaps I might seem too profuse to give any certain account of what the mind at home, in the spacious circuits of her musing, hath liberty to propose to herself, though of highest hope and hardest attempting; whether that epic form whereof the two poems of Homer, and those other two of Virgil and Tasso, are a diffuse, and the book of Job a brief model ...’
Again, we know “Job” to have been one of the three stories meditated by Shelley as themes for great lyrical dramas, the other two being the madness of Tasso and “Prometheus Unbound.” Shelley never abandoned this idea of a lyrical drama on Job; and if Milton abandoned the idea of an epic, there are passages in “Paradise Lost” as there are passages in “Prometheus Unbound” that might well have been written for this other story. Take the lines
Why am I mock’d
with death, and lengthen’d out
To deathless pain? How gladly would I meet
Mortality my sentence, and be earth
Insensible! how glad would lay me down
As in my mother’s lap! There I should rest
And sleep secure;...