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No. 315 [from The Spectator]
by [?]

Satan’s Approach to the Confines of the Creation, is finely imaged in the beginning of the Speech, which immediately follows. The Effects of this Speech in the blessed Spirits, and in the Divine Person to whom it was addressed, cannot but fill the Mind of the Reader with a secret Pleasure and Complacency.

Thus while God spake, ambrosial fragrance fill’d
All Heavn, and in the blessed Spirits elect
Sense of new Joy ineffable diffus’d.
Beyond compare the Son of God was seen
Most glorious, in him all his Father shone
Substantially expressed, and in his face
Divine Compassion visibly appeared,
Love without end, and without measure Grace.

I need not point out the Beauty of that Circumstance, wherein the whole Host of Angels are represented as standing Mute; nor shew how proper the Occasion was to produce such a Silence in Heaven. The Close of this Divine Colloquy, with the Hymn of Angels that follows upon it, are so wonderfully Beautiful and Poetical, that I should not forbear inserting the whole Passage, if the Bounds of my Paper would give me leave.

No sooner had th’ Almighty ceas’d, but all
The multitudes of Angels with a shout
(Loud as from numbers without number, sweet
As from blest Voices) uttring Joy, Heavn rung
With Jubilee, and loud Hosannas fill’d
Th’ eternal regions; etc. &c.–;

Satan’s Walk upon the Outside of the Universe, which, at a Distance, appeared to him of a globular Form, but, upon his nearer Approach, looked like an unbounded Plain, is natural and noble: As his Roaming upon the Frontiers of the Creation between that Mass of Matter, which was wrought into a World, and that shapeless unformed Heap of Materials, which still lay in Chaos and Confusion, strikes the Imagination with something astonishingly great and wild. I have before spoken of the Limbo of Vanity, which the Poet places upon this outermost Surface of the Universe, and shall here explain my self more at large on that, and other Parts of the Poem, which are of the same Shadowy Nature.

Aristotle observes[1], that the Fable of an Epic Poem should abound in Circumstances that are both credible and astonishing; or as the French Criticks chuse to phrase it, the Fable should be filled with the Probable and the Marvellous. This Rule is as fine and just as any in Aristotle’s whole Art of Poetry.

If the Fable is only Probable, it differs nothing from a true History; if it is only Marvellous, it is no better than a Romance. The great Secret therefore of Heroic Poetry is to relate such Circumstances, as may produce in the Reader at the same time both Belief and Astonishment. This is brought to pass in a well-chosen Fable, by the Account of such things as have really happened, or at least of such things as have happened according to the received Opinions of Mankind. Milton’s Fable is a Masterpiece of this Nature; as the War in Heaven, the Condition of the fallen Angels, the State of Innocence, and Temptation of the Serpent, and the Fall of Man, though they are very astonishing in themselves, are not only credible, but actual Points of Faith.

The next Method of reconciling Miracles with Credibility, is by a happy Invention of the Poet; as in particular, when he introduces Agents of a superior Nature, who are capable of effecting what is wonderful, and what is not to be met with in the ordinary course of things. Ulysses’s Ship being turned into a Rock, and AEneas’s Fleet into a Shoal of Water Nymphs; though they are very surprising Accidents, are nevertheless probable, when we are told that they were the Gods who thus transformed them. It is this kind of Machinery which fills the Poems both of Homer and Virgil with such Circumstances as are wonderful, but not impossible, and so frequently produce in the Reader the most pleasing Passion that can rise in the Mind of Man, which is Admiration. If there be any Instance in the AEneid liable to Exception upon this Account, it is in the Beginning of the Third Book, where AEneas is represented as tearing up the Myrtle that dropped Blood. To qualifie this wonderful Circumstance, Polydorus tells a Story from the Root of the Myrtle, that the barbarous Inhabitants of the Country having pierced him with Spears and Arrows, the Wood which was left in his Body took Root in his Wounds, and gave Birth to that bleeding Tree. This Circumstance seems to have the Marvellous without the Probable, because it is represented as proceeding from Natural Causes, without the Interposition of any God, or other Supernatural Power capable of producing it. The Spears and Arrows grow of themselves, without so much as the Modern Help of an Enchantment. If we look into the Fiction of Milton’s Fable, though we find it full of surprizing Incidents, they are generally suited to our Notions of the Things and Persons described, and tempered with a due Measure of Probability. I must only make an Exception to the Limbo of Vanity, with his Episode of Sin and Death, and some of the imaginary Persons in his Chaos. These Passages are astonishing, but not credible; the Reader cannot so far impose upon himself as to see a Possibility in them; they are the Description of Dreams and Shadows, not of Things or Persons. I know that many Criticks look upon the Stories of Circe, Polypheme, the Sirens, nay the whole Odyssey and Iliad, to be Allegories; but allowing this to be true, they are Fables, which considering the Opinions of Mankind that prevailed in the Age of the Poet, might possibly have been according to the Letter. The Persons are such as might have acted what is ascribed to them, as the Circumstances in which they are represented, might possibly have been Truths and Realities. This Appearance of Probability is so absolutely requisite in the greater kinds of Poetry, that Aristotle observes the Ancient Tragick Writers made use of the Names of such great Men as had actually lived in the World, tho the Tragedy proceeded upon Adventures they were never engaged in, on purpose to make the Subject more Credible. In a Word, besides the hidden Meaning of an Epic Allegory, the plain litteral Sense ought to appear Probable. The Story should be such as an ordinary Reader may acquiesce in, whatever Natural, Moral, or Political Truth may be discovered in it by Men of greater Penetration.