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On Milton’s Sonnets
by [?]

The great object of the Sonnet seems to be, to express in musical numbers, and as it were with undivided breath, some occasional thought or personal feeling, ‘some fee-grief due to the poet’s breast.’ It is a sigh uttered from the fulness of the heart, an involuntary aspiration born and dying in the same moment. I have always been fond of Milton’s Sonnets for this reason, that they have more of this personal and internal character than any others; and they acquire a double value when we consider that they come from the pen of the loftiest of our poets. Compared with Paradise Lost, they are like tender flowers that adorn the base of some proud column or stately temple. The author in the one could work himself up with unabated fortitude ‘to the height of his great argument’; but in the other he has shown that he could condescend to men of low estate, and after the lightning and the thunderbolt of his pen, lets fall some drops of natural pity over hapless infirmity, mingling strains with the nightingale’s, ‘most musical, most melancholy.’ The immortal poet pours his mortal sorrows into our breasts, and a tear falls from his sightless orbs on the friendly hand he presses. The Sonnets are a kind of pensive record of past achievements, loves, and friendships, and a noble exhortation to himself to bear up with cheerful hope and confidence to the last. Some of them are of a more quaint and humorous character; but I speak of those only which are intended to be serious and pathetical.–I do not know indeed but they may be said to be almost the first effusions of this sort of natural and personal sentiment in the language. Drummond’s ought perhaps to be excepted, were they formed less closely on the model of Petrarch’s, so as to be often little more than translations of the Italian poet. But Milton’s Sonnets are truly his own in allusion, thought, and versification. Those of Sir Philip Sydney, who was a great transgressor in his way, turn sufficiently on himself and his own adventures; but they are elaborately quaint and intricate, and more like riddles than sonnets. They are ‘very tolerable and not to be endured.’ Shakespear’s, which some persons better informed in such matters than I can pretend to be, profess to cry up as ‘the divine, the matchless, what you will,’–to say nothing of the want of point or a leading, prominent idea in most of them, are I think overcharged and monotonous, and as to their ultimate drift, as for myself, I can make neither head nor tail of it. Yet some of them, I own, are sweet even to a sense of faintness, luscious as the woodbine, and graceful and luxuriant like it. Here is one:

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dress’d in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing;
That heavy Saturn laugh’d and leap’d with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lilies white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and you away,
As with your shadow, I with these did play.

I am not aware of any writer of Sonnets worth mentioning here till long after Milton, that is, till the time of Warton and the revival of a taste for Italian and for our own early literature. During the rage for French models the Sonnet had not been much studied. It is a mode of composition that depends entirely on expression, and this the French and artificial style gladly dispenses with, as it lays no particular stress on anything–except vague, general common-places. Warton’s Sonnets are undoubtedly exquisite, both in style and matter; they are poetical and philosophical effusions of very delightful sentiment; but the thoughts, though fine and deeply felt, are not, like Milton’s subjects, identified completely with the writer, and so far want a more individual interest. Mr. Wordsworth’s are also finely conceived and high-sounding Sonnets. They mouth it well, and are said to be sacred to Liberty. Brutus’s exclamation, ‘Oh Virtue, I thought thee a substance, but I find thee a shadow,’ was not considered as a compliment, but as a bitter sarcasm. The beauty of Milton’s Sonnets is their sincerity, the spirit of poetical patriotism which they breathe. Either Milton’s or the living bard’s are defective in this respect. There is no Sonnet of Milton’s on the Restoration of Charles II. There is no Sonnet of Mr. Wordsworth’s corresponding to that of ‘the poet blind and bold’ ‘On the late Massacre in Piedmont.’ It would be no niggard praise to Mr. Wordsworth to grant that he was either half the man or half the poet that Milton was. He has not his high and various imagination, nor his deep and fixed principle. Milton did not worship the rising sun, nor turn his back on a losing and fallen cause.