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"Critical Sagacity," And "Happy Conjecture;" Or, Bentley’s Milton
by [?]

A curious instance how the insertion of a single prosaic expression turns a fine verse into something worse than the vilest prose.

To conclude with one more instance of critical emendation: Milton says, with an agreeable turn of expression–

So parted they; the angel up to heaven,
From the thick shade; and Adam to his bower.

Bentley “conjectures” these two verses to be inaccurate, and in lieu of the last writes–


And then our erudite critic reasons! as thus:–

After the conversation between the Angel and Adam in the bower, it may be well presumed that our first parent waited on his heavenly guest at his departure to some little distance from it, till he began to take his flight towards heaven; and therefore “sagaciously” thinks that the poet could not with propriety say that the angel parted from the thick shade, that is, the bower, to go to heaven. But if Adam attended the Angel no farther than the door or entrance of the bower, then he shrewdly asks, “How Adam could return to his bower if he was never out of it?”

Our editor has made a thousand similar corrections in his edition of Milton! Some have suspected that the same kind intention which prompted Dryden to persuade Creech to undertake a translation of Horace influenced those who encouraged our Doctor, in thus exercising his “sagacity” and “happy conjecture” on the epic of Milton. He is one of those learned critics who have happily “elucidated their author into obscurity,” and comes nearest to that “true conjectural critic” whose practice a Portuguese satirist so greatly admired: by which means, if he be only followed up by future editors, we might have that immaculate edition, in which little or nothing should be found of the original!

I have collected these few instances as not uninteresting to men of taste; they may convince us that a scholar may be familiarized to Greek and Latin, though a stranger to his vernacular literature; and that a verbal critic may sometimes be successful in his attempts on a single word, though he may be incapable of tasting an entire sentence. Let it also remain as a gibbet on the high roads of literature; that “conjectural critics” as they pass may not forget the unhappy fate of Bentley.

The following epigram appeared on this occasion:–


Did MILTON’S PROSE, O CHARLES! thy death defend?
A furious foe, unconscious, proves a friend;
On MILTON’S VERSE does BENTLEY comment? know,
A weak officious friend becomes a foe.
While he would seem his author’s fame to farther,
The MURTHEROUS critic has avenged thy MURTHER.

The classical learning of Bentley was singular and acute; but the erudition of words is frequently found not to be allied to the sensibility of taste.[100]


[Footnote 100: An amusing instance of his classical emendations occurs in the text of Shakspeare. [King Henry IV. pt. 2, act 1, sc. 1.] The poet speaks of one who

Drew Priam’s curtain in the dead of night,
And would have told him half his Troy was burn’d.”

Bentley alters the first word of the sentence to a proper name, which is given in the third book of the Iliad, and the second of the AEneid; and reads the passage thus:–

Drew Priam’s curtain”]