—-BENTLEY, long to wrangling schools confined,
And but by books acquainted with mankind—-
To MILTON lending sense, to HORACE wit,
He makes them write, what never poet writ.
DR. BENTLEY’S edition of our English Homer is sufficiently known by name. As it stands a terrifying beacon to conjectural criticism, I shall just notice some of those violations which the learned critic ventured to commit, with all the arrogance of a Scaliger. This man, so deeply versed in ancient learning, it will appear, was destitute of taste and genius in his native language.
Our critic, to persuade the world of the necessity of his edition, imagined a fictitious editor of Milton’s Poems: and it was this ingenuity which produced all his absurdities. As it is certain that the blind bard employed an amanuensis, it was not improbable that many words of similar sound, but very different signification, might have disfigured the poem; but our Doctor was bold enough to conjecture that this amanuensis interpolated whole verses of his own composition in the “Paradise Lost!” Having laid down this fatal position, all the consequences of his folly naturally followed it. Yet if there needs any conjecture, the more probable one will be, that Milton, who was never careless of his future fame, had his poem read to him after it had been published. The first edition appeared in 1667, and the second in 1674, in which all the faults of the former edition are continued. By these faults, the Doctor means what he considers to be such: for we shall soon see that his “Canons of Criticism” are apocryphal.
Bentley says that he will supply the want of manuscripts to collate (to use his own words) by his own “SAGACITY,” and “HAPPY CONJECTURE.”
Milton, after the conclusion of Satan’s speech to the fallen angels, proceeds thus:–
1. He spake: and to confirm his words out flew
2. Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
3. Of mighty cherubim: the sudden blaze
4. Far round illumin’d hell; highly they rag’d
5. Against the Highest; and fierce with grasped arms
6. Clash’d on their sounding shields the din of war,
7. Hurling defiance tow’rd the Vault of heaven.
In this passage, which is as perfect as human wit can make, the Doctor alters three words. In the second line he puts blades instead of swords; in the fifth he puts swords instead of arms; and in the last line he prefers walls to vault. All these changes are so many defoedations of the poem. The word swords is far more poetical than blades, which may as well be understood of knives as swords. The word arms, the generic for the specific term, is still stronger and nobler than swords; and the beautiful conception of vault, which is always indefinite to the eye, while the solidity of walls would but meanly describe the highest Heaven, gives an idea of grandeur and modesty.
Milton writes, book i. v. 63–
No light, but rather DARKNESS VISIBLE
Served only to discover sights of woe.
Perhaps borrowed from Spenser:–
A little glooming light, much like a shade.
Faery Queene, b. i. c. 2. st. 14.
This fine expression of “DARKNESS VISIBLE” the Doctor’s critical sagacity has thus rendered clearer:–
No light, but rather A TRANSPICIUOUS GLOOM.
Again, our learned critic distinguishes the 74th line of the first book–
As from the centre thrice to the utmost pole,
as “a vicious verse,” and therefore with “happy conjecture,” and no taste, thrusts in an entire verse of his own composition–
DISTANCE WHICH TO EXPRESS ALL MEASURE FAILS.
Our torments, also, may in length of time
Become our elements. B. ii. ver. 274.
Then, AS WAS WELL OBSERV’D our torments may
Become our elements.