The Notebook of an English Opium-Eater
by Thomas de Quincey
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse

the present would have drunk at no waters at all. Encyclopedias are the growth of the last hundred years; not because those who were formerly students of higher learning have descended, but because those who were below encyclopaedias have ascended. The greatness of the ascent is marked by the style in which the more recent encyclopaedias are executed: at first they were mere abstracts of existing books—well or ill executed: at present they contain many original articles of great merit. As in the periodical literature of the age, so in the encyclopaedias it has become a matter of ambition with the publishers to retain the most eminent writers in each several department. And hence it is that our encyclopaedias now display one characteristic of this age—the very opposite of superficiality (and which on other grounds we are well assured of)—viz. its tendency in science, no less than in other applications of industry, to extreme subdivision. In all the employments which are dependent in any degree upon the political economy of nations, this tendency is too obvious to have been overlooked. Accordingly it has long been noticed for congratulation in manufactures and the useful arts— and for censure in the learned professions. We have now, it is alleged, no great and comprehensive lawyers like Coke: and the study of medicine is subdividing itself into a distinct ministry (as it were) not merely upon the several organs of the body (oculists, aurists, dentists, cheiropodists, &c.) but almost upon the several diseases of the same organ: one man is distinguished for the treatment of liver complaints of one class—a second for those of another class; one man for asthma— another for phthisis; and so on. As to the law, the evil (if it be one) lies in the complex state of society which of necessity makes the laws complex: law itself is become unwieldy and beyond the grasp of one man's term of life and possible range of experience: and will never again come within them. With respect to medicine, the case is no evil but a great benefit—so long as the subdividing principle does not descend too low to allow of a perpetual re-ascent into the generalizing principle (the [Greek: to] commune) which secures the unity of the science. In ancient times all the evil of such a subdivision was no doubt realized in Egypt: for there a distinct body of professors took charge of each organ of the body, not (as we may be assured) from any progress of the science outgrowing the time and attention of the general professor, but simply from an ignorance of the organic structure of the human body and the reciprocal action of the whole upon each part and the parts upon the whole; an ignorance of the same kind which has led sailors seriously (and not merely, as may sometimes have happened, by way of joke) to reserve one ulcerated leg to their own management, whilst the other was given up to the management of the surgeon. With respect to law and medicine then, the difference between ourselves and our ancestors is not subjective but objective; not, i.e. in our faculties who study them, but in the things themselves which are the objects of study: not we (the students) are grown less, but they (the studies) are grown bigger;—and that our ancestors did not subdivide as much as we do—was something of their luck, but no part of their merit. Simply as subdividers therefore to the extent which now prevails, we are less superficial than any former age. In all parts of science the same principle of subdivision holds: here therefore, no less than in those parts of knowledge which are the subjects of distinct civil professions, we are of necessity more profound than our ancestors; but, for the same reason, less comprehensive than they. Is it better to be a profound student, or a comprehensive one? In some degree this must depend upon the direction of the studies: but generally, I think, it is better for the interests of knowledge that the scholar should aim at profundity, and better for the interests of the individual that he should aim at comprehensiveness. A due balance and equilibrium of the mind is but preserved by a large and multiform knowledge: but knowledge itself is but served by an exclusive (or at least paramount) dedication of one mind to one science. The first proposition is perhaps unconditionally true: but the second with some limitations. There are such people as Leibnitzes on this earth; and their office seems not that of planets—to revolve within the limits of one system, but that of comets (according to the theory of some speculators)—to connect different systems together. No doubt there is much truth in this: a few Leibnitzes in every age would be of much use: but neither are many men fitted by nature for the part of Leibnitz; nor would the aspect of knowledge be better, if they were. We should then have a state of Grecian life amongst us in which every man individually would attain in a moderate degree all the purposes of the sane understanding,—but in which all the purposes of the sane understanding would be but moderately attained. What I mean is this:—let all the objects of the understanding in civil life or in science be represented by the letters of the alphabet; in Grecian life each man would separately go through all the letters in a tolerable way; whereas at present each letter is served by a distinct body of men. Consequently the Grecian individual is superior to the modern; but the Grecian whole is inferior: for the whole is made up of the individuals; and the Grecian individual repeats himself. Whereas in modern life the whole derives its superiority from the very circumstances which constitute the inferiority of the parts; for modern life is cast dramatically: and the difference is as between an army consisting of soldiers who should each individually be competent to go through the duties of a dragoon—of a hussar—of a sharp-shooter—of an artillery-man—of a pioneer, &c. and an army on its present composition, where the very inferiority of the soldier as an individual—his inferiority in compass and versatility of power and knowledge—is the very ground from which the army derives its superiority as a whole, viz. because it is the condition of the possibility of a total surrender of the individual to one exclusive pursuit. In science therefore, and (to speak more generally) in the whole evolution of the human faculties, no less than in Political Economy, the progress of society brings with it a necessity of sacrificing the ideal of what is excellent for the individual, to the ideal of what is excellent for the whole. We need therefore not trouble ourselves (except as a speculative question) with the comparison of the two states; because, as a practical question, it is precluded by the overruling tendencies of the age—which no man could counteract except in his own single case, i.e. by refusing to adapt himself as a part to the whole, and thus foregoing the advantages of either one state or the other. [1]


[1] The latter part of what is here said coincides, in a way which is rather remarkable, with a passage in an interesting work of Schiller's which I have since read, (on the Aesthetic Education of Men, in a series of letters: vid. letter the 6th.) 'With us in order to obtain the representative word (as it were) of the total species, we must spell it out by the help of a series of individuals. So that on a survey of society as it actually exists, one might suppose that the faculties of the mind do really in actual experience show themselves in as separate a form, and in as much insulation, as psychology is forced to exhibit them in its analysis. And thus we see not only individuals, but whole classes of men, unfolding only one part of the germs which are laid in them by the hand of nature. In saying this I am fully aware of the advantages which the human species of modern ages has, when considered as a unity, over the best of antiquity: but the comparison should begin with the individuals: and then let me ask where is the modern individual that would have the presumption to step forward against the Athenian individual—man to man, and to contend for the prize of human excellence? The polypus nature of the Grecian republics, in which every individual enjoyed a separate life, and if it were necessary could become a whole, has now given place to an artificial watch-work, where many lifeless parts combine to form a mechanic whole. The state and the church, laws and manners, are now torn asunder: labor is divided from enjoyment, the means from the end, the exertion from the reward. Chained for ever to a little individual fraction of the whole, man himself is moulded into a fraction; and, with the monotonous whirling of the wheel which he turns everlastingly in his ear, he never develops the harmony of his being; and, instead of imaging the totality of human nature, becomes a bare abstract of his business or the science which he cultivates. The dead letter takes the place of the living understanding; and a practised memory becomes a surer guide than genius and sensibility. Doubtless the power of genius, as we all know, will not fetter itself within the limits of its occupation; but talents of mediocrity are all exhausted in the monotony of the employment allotted to them; and that man must have no common head who brings with him the geniality of his powers unstripped of their freshness by the ungenial labors of life to the cultivation of the genial.' After insisting at some length on this wise, Schiller passes to the other side of the contemplation, and proceeds thus:—'It suited my immediate purpose to point out the injuries of this condition of the species, without displaying the compensations by which nature has balanced them. But I will now readily acknowledge—that, little as this practical condition may suit the interests of the individual, yet the species could in no other way have been progressive. Partial exercise of the faculties (literally "one-sidedness in the exercise of the faculties") leads the individual undoubtedly into error, but the species into truth. In no other way than by concentrating the whole energy of our spirit, and by converging our whole being, so to speak, into a single faculty, can we put wings as it were to the individual faculty and carry it by this artificial flight far beyond the limits within which nature has else doomed it to walk. Just as certain as it is that all human beings could never, by clubbing their visual powers together, have arrived at the power of seeing what the telescope discovers to the astronomer; just so certain it is that the human intellect would never have arrived at an analysis of the infinite or a Critical Analysis of the Pure Reason (the principal work of Kant), unless individuals had dismembered (as it were) and insulated this or that specific faculty, and had thus armed their intellectual sight by the keenest abstraction and by the submersion of the other powers of their nature. Extraordinary men are formed then by energetic and over-excited spasms as it were in the individual faculties; though it is true that the equable exercise of all the faculties in harmony with each other can alone make happy and perfect men.' After this statement, from which it should seem that in the progress of society nature has made it necessary for man to sacrifice his own happiness to the attainment of her ends in the development of his species, Schiller goes on to inquire whether this evil result cannot be remedied; and whether 'the totality of our nature, which art has destroyed, might not be re-established by a higher art,'—but this, as leading to a discussion beyond the limits of my own, I omit.


It has already, I believe, been said more than once in print that one condition of a good dictionary would be to exhibit the history of each word; that is, to record the exact succession of its meanings. But the philosophic reason for this has not been given; which reason, by the way, settles a question often agitated, viz. whether the true meaning of a word be best ascertained from its etymology, or from its present use and acceptation. Mr. Coleridge says, 'the best explanation of a word is often that which is suggested by its derivation' (I give the substance of his words from memory). Others allege that we have nothing to do with the primitive meaning of the word; that the question is—what does it mean now? and they appeal, as the sole authority they acknowledge, to the received—

Usus, penes quem est jus et norma loquendi.

In what degree each party is right, may be judged from this consideration —that no word can ever deviate from its first meaning per saltum: each successive stage of meaning must always have been determined by that which preceded. And on this one law depends the whole philosophy of the case: for it thus appears that the original and primitive sense of the word will contain virtually all which can ever afterwards arise: as in the evolution-theory of generation, the whole series of births is represented as involved in the first parent. Now, if the evolution of successive meanings has gone on rightly, i.e. by simply lapsing through a series of close affinities, there can be no reason for recurring to the primitive meaning of the word: but, if it can be shown that the evolution has been faulty, i.e. that the chain of true affinities has ever been broken through ignorance, then we have a right to reform the word, and to appeal from the usage ill-instructed to a usage better- instructed. Whether we ought to exercise this right, will depend on a consideration which I will afterwards notice. Meantime I will first give a few instances of faulty evolution.

1. Implicit. This word is now used in a most ignorant way; and from its misuse it has come to be a word wholly useless: for it is now never coupled, I think, with any other substantive than these two—faith and confidence: a poor domain indeed to have sunk to from its original wide range of territory. Moreover, when we say, implicit faith, or implicit confidence, we do not thereby indicate any specific kind of faith and confidence differing from other faith or other confidence: but it is a vague rhetorical word which expresses a great degree of faith and confidence; a faith that is unquestioning, a confidence that is unlimited; i.e. in fact, a faith that is a faith, a confidence that is a confidence. Such a use of the word ought to be abandoned to women: doubtless, when sitting in a bower in the month of May, it is pleasant to hear from a lovely mouth—'I put implicit confidence in your honor:' but, though pretty and becoming to such a mouth, it is very unfitting to the mouth of a scholar: and I will be bold to affirm that no man, who had ever acquired a scholar's knowledge of the English language, has used the word in that lax and unmeaning way. The history of the word is this.— Implicit (from the Latin implicitus, involved in, folded up) was always used originally, and still is so by scholars, as the direct antithete of explicit (from the Latin explicitus, evolved, unfolded): and the use of both may be thus illustrated.

Q. 'Did Mr. A. ever say that he would marry Miss B.?'—A. 'No; not explicitly (i.e. in so many words); but he did implicitly—by showing great displeasure if she received attentions from any other man; by asking her repeatedly to select furniture for his house; by consulting her on his own plans of life.'

Q. 'Did Epicurus maintain any doctrines such as are here ascribed to him?'—A. 'Perhaps not explicitly, either in words or by any other mode of direct sanction: on the contrary, I believe he denied them— and disclaimed them with vehemence: but he maintained them implicitly: for they are involved in other acknowledged doctrines of his, and may be deduced from them by the fairest and most irresistible logic.'

Q. 'Why did you complain of the man? Had he expressed any contempt for your opinion?'—A. 'Yes, he had: not explicit contempt, I admit; for he never opened his stupid mouth; but implicitly he expressed the utmost that he could: for, when I had spoken two hours against the old newspaper, and in favor of the new one, he went instantly and put his name down as a subscriber to the old one.'

Q. 'Did Mr.—— approve of that gentleman's conduct and way of life?'— A. 'I don't know that I ever heard him speak about it: but he seemed to give it his implicit approbation by allowing both his sons to associate with him when the complaints ran highest against him.'

These instances may serve to illustrate the original use of the word; which use has been retained from the sixteenth century down to our own days by an uninterrupted chain of writers. In the eighteenth century this use was indeed nearly effaced but still in the first half of that century it was retained by Saunderson the Cambridge professor of mathematics (see his Algebra, &c.), with three or four others, and in the latter half by a man to whom Saunderson had some resemblance in spring and elasticity of understanding, viz. by Edmund Burke. Since his day I know of no writers who have avoided the slang and unmeaning use of the word, excepting Messrs. Coleridge and Wordsworth; both of whom (but especially the last) have been remarkably attentive to the scholar-like [1] use of words, and to the history of their own language.

Thus much for the primitive use of the word implicit. Now, with regard to the history of its transition into its present use, it is briefly this; and it will appear at once, that it has arisen through ignorance. When it was objected to a papist that his church exacted an assent to a great body of traditions and doctrines to which it was impossible that the great majority could be qualified, either as respected time—or knowledge—or culture of the understanding, to give any reasonable assent,—the answer was: 'Yes; but that sort of assent is not required of a poor uneducated man; all that he has to do—is to believe in the church: he is to have faith in her faith: by that act he adopts for his own whatsoever the church believes, though he may never have hoard of it even: his faith is implicit, i.e. involved and wrapped up in the faith of the church, which faith he firmly believes to be the true faith upon the conviction he has that the church is preserved from all possibility of erring by the spirit of God.' [2] Now, as this sort of believing by proxy or implicit belief (in which the belief was not immediate in the thing proposed to the belief, but in the authority of another person who believed in that thing and thus mediately in the thing itself) was constantly attacked by the learned assailants of popery,—it naturally happened that many unlearned readers of these protestant polemics caught at a phrase which was so much bandied between the two parties: the spirit of the context sufficiently explained to them that it was used by protestants as a term of reproach, and indicated a faith that was an erroneous faith by being too easy—too submissive—and too passive: but the particular mode of this erroneousness they seldom came to understand, as learned writers naturally employed the term without explanation, presuming it to be known to those whom they addressed. Hence these ignorant readers caught at the last result of the phrase 'implicit faith' rightly, truly supposing it to imply a resigned and unquestioning faith; but they missed the whole immediate cause of meaning by which only the word 'implicit' could ever have been entitled to express that result.

I have allowed myself to say so much on this word 'implicit,' because the history of the mode by which its true meaning was lost applies almost to all other corrupted words—mutatis mutandis: and the amount of it may be collected into this formula,—that the result of the word is apprehended and retained, but the schematismus by which that result was ever reached is lost. This is the brief theory of all corruption of words. The word schematismus I have unwillingly used, because no other expresses my meaning. So great and extensive a doctrine however lurks in this word, that I defer the explanation of it to a separate article. Meantime a passable sense of the word will occur to every body who reads Greek. I now go on to a few more instances of words that have forfeited their original meaning through the ignorance of those who used them.

'Punctual.' This word is now confined to the meagre denoting of accuracy in respect to time—fidelity to the precise moment of an appointment. But originally it was just as often, and just as reasonably, applied to space as to time; 'I cannot punctually determine the origin of the Danube; but I know in general the district in which it rises, and that its fountain is near that of the Rhine.' Not only, however, was it applied to time and space, but it had a large and very elegant figurative use. Thus in the History of the Royal Society by Sprat (an author who was finical and nice in his use of words)—I remember a sentence to this effect: 'the Society gave punctual directions for the conducting of experiments;' i.e. directions which descended to the minutiae and lowest details. Again in the once popular romance of Parismus Prince of Bohemia—'She' (I forget who) 'made a punctual relation of the whole matter;' i.e. a relation which was perfectly circumstantial and true to the minutest features of the case.


[1] Among the most shocking of the unscholarlike barbarisms, now prevalent, I must notice the use of the word 'nice' in an objective instead of a subjective sense: 'nice' does not and cannot express a quality of the object, but merely a quality of the subject: yet we hear daily of 'a very nice letter'—'a nice young lady,' &c., meaning a letter or a young lady that it is pleasant to contemplate: but 'a nice young lady'—means a fastidious young lady; and 'a nice letter' ought to mean a letter that is very delicate in its rating and in the choice of its company.

[2] Thus Milton, who (in common with his contemporaries) always uses the word accurately, speaks of Ezekiel 'swallowing his implicit roll of knowledge'—i.e. coming to the knowledge of many truths not separately and in detail, but by the act of arriving at some one master truth which involved all the rest.—So again, if any man or government were to suppress a book, that man or government might justly be reproached as the implicit destroyer of all the wisdom and virtue that might have been the remote products of that book.


It is a remarkable fact, that the very finest epigram in the English language happens also to be the worst. Epigram I call it in the austere Greek sense; which thus far resembled our modern idea of an epigram, that something pointed and allied to wit was demanded in the management of the leading thought at its close, but otherwise nothing tending towards the comic or the ludicrous. The epigram I speak of is the well-known one of Dryden dedicated to the glorification of Milton. It is irreproachable as regards its severe brevity. Not one word is there that could be spared; nor could the wit of man have cast the movement of the thought into a better mould. There are three couplets. In the first couplet we are reminded of the fact that this earth had, in three different stages of its development, given birth to a trinity of transcendent poets; meaning narrative poets, or, even more narrowly, epic poets. The duty thrown upon the second couplet is to characterize these three poets, and to value them against each other, but in such terms as that, whilst nothing less than the very highest praise should be assigned to the two elder poets in this trinity—the Greek and the Roman— nevertheless, by some dexterous artifice, a higher praise than the highest should suddenly unmask itself, and drop, as it were, like a diadem from the clouds upon the brows of their English competitor. In the kind of expectation raised, and in the extreme difficulty of adequately meeting this expectation, there was pretty much the same challenge offered to Dryden as was offered, somewhere about the same time, to a British ambassador when dining with his political antagonists. One of these—the ambassador of France—had proposed to drink his master, Louis XIV., under the character of the sun, who dispensed life and light to the whole political system. To this there was no objection; and immediately, by way of intercepting any further draughts upon the rest of the solar system, the Dutch ambassador rose, and proposed the health of their high mightinesses the Seven United States, as the moon and six [1] planets, who gave light in the absence of the sun. The two foreign ambassadors, Monsieur and Mynheer, secretly enjoyed the mortification of their English brother, who seemed to be thus left in a state of bankruptcy, 'no funds' being available for retaliation, or so they fancied. But suddenly our British representative toasted his master as Joshua, the son of Nun, that made the sun and moon stand still. All had seemed lost for England, when in an instant of time both her antagonists were checkmated. Dryden assumed something of the same position. He gave away the supreme jewels in his exchequer; apparently nothing remained behind; all was exhausted. To Homer he gave A; to Virgil he gave B; and, behold! after these were given away, there remained nothing at all that would not have been a secondary praise. But, in a moment of time, by giving A and B to Milton, at one sling of his victorious arm he raised him above Homer by the whole extent of B, and above Virgil by the whole extent of A. This felicitous evasion of the embarrassment is accomplished in the second couplet; and, finally, the third couplet winds up with graceful effect, by making a resume, or recapitulation of the logic concerned in the distribution of prizes just announced. Nature, he says, had it not in her power to provide a third prize separate from the first and second; her resource was, to join the first and second in combination: 'To make a third, she joined the former two.'

Such is the abstract of this famous epigram; and, judged simply by the outline and tendency of the thought, it merits all the vast popularity which it has earned. But in the meantime, it is radically vicious as regards the filling in of this outline; for the particular quality in which Homer is accredited with the pre-eminence, viz., loftiness of thought, happens to be a mere variety of expression for that quality, viz. majesty, in which the pre-eminence is awarded to Virgil. Homer excels Virgil in the very point in which lies Virgil's superiority to Homer; and that synthesis, by means of which a great triumph is reserved to Milton, becomes obviously impossible, when it is perceived that the supposed analytic elements of this synthesis are blank reiterations of each other.

Exceedingly striking it is, that a thought should have prospered for one hundred and seventy years, which, on the slightest steadiness of examination, turns out to be no thought at all, but mere blank vacuity. There is, however, this justification of the case, that the mould, the set of channels, into which the metal of the thought is meant to run, really has the felicity which it appears to have: the form is perfect; and it is merely in the matter, in the accidental filling up of the mould, that a fault has been committed. Had the Virgilian point of excellence been loveliness instead of majesty, or any word whatever suggesting the common antithesis of sublimity and beauty; or had it been power on the one side, matched against grace on the other, the true lurking tendency of the thought would have been developed, and the sub-conscious purpose of the epigram would have fulfilled itself to the letter.

N.B.—It is not meant that loftiness of thought and majesty are expressions so entirely interchangeable, as that no shades of difference could be suggested; it is enough that these 'shades' are not substantial enough, or broad enough, to support the weight of opposition which the epigram assigns to them. Grace and elegance, for instance, are far from being in all relations synonymous; but they are so to the full extent of any purposes concerned in this epigram. Nevertheless, it is probable enough that Dryden had moving in his thoughts a relation of the word majesty, which, if developed, would have done justice to his meaning. It was, perhaps, the decorum and sustained dignity of the composition—the workmanship apart from the native grandeur of the materials—the majestic style of the artistic treatment as distinguished from the original creative power—which Dryden, the translator of the Roman poet, familiar therefore with his weakness and with his strength, meant in this place to predicate as characteristically observable in Virgil.


[1] 'Six planets;'—No more had then been discovered.


There is nothing extraordinary, or that could merit a special notice, in a simple case of oversight, or in a blunder, though emanating from the greatest of poets. But such a case challenges and forces our attention, when we know that the particular passage in which it occurs was wrought and burnished with excessive pains; or (which in this case is also known) when that particular passage is pushed into singular prominence as having obtained a singular success. In no part of his poetic mission did Pope so fascinate the gaze of his contemporaries as in his functions of satirist; which functions, in his latter years, absorbed all other functions. And one reason, I believe, why it was that the interest about Pope decayed so rapidly after his death (an accident somewhere noticed by Wordsworth), must be sought in the fact, that the most stinging of his personal allusions, by which he had given salt to his later writings, were continually losing their edge, and sometimes their intelligibility, as Pope's own contemporary generation was dying off. Pope alleges it as a palliation of his satiric malice, that it had been forced from him in the way of retaliation; forgetting that such a plea wilfully abjures the grandest justification of a satirist, viz., the deliberate assumption of the character as something corresponding to the prophet's mission amongst the Hebrews. It is no longer the facit indignatio versum. Pope's satire, where even it was most effective, was personal and vindictive, and upon that argument alone could not he philosophic. Foremost in the order of his fulminations stood, and yet stands, the bloody castigation by which, according to his own pretence, he warned and menaced (but by which, in simple truth, he executed judgment upon) his false friend, Addison.

To say that this drew vast rounds of applause upon its author, and frightened its object into deep silence for the rest of his life, like the Quos ego of angry Neptune, sufficiently argues that the verses must have ploughed as deeply as the Russian knout. Vitriol could not scorch more fiercely. And yet the whole passage rests upon a blunder; and the blunder is so broad and palpable, that it implies instant forgetfulness both in the writer and the reader. The idea which furnishes the basis of the passage is this: that the conduct ascribed to Addison is in its own nature so despicable, as to extort laughter by its primary impulse; but that this laughter changes into weeping, when we come to understand that the person concerned in this delinquency is Addison. The change, the transfiguration, in our mood of contemplating the offence, is charged upon the discovery which we are supposed to make as to the person of the offender; that which by its baseness had been simply comic when imputed to some corresponding author, passes into a tragic coup-de-theatre, when it is suddenly traced back to a man of original genius. The whole, therefore, of this effect is made to depend upon the sudden scenical transition from a supposed petty criminal to one of high distinction. And, meantime, no such stage effect had been possible, since the knowledge that a man of genius was the offender had been what we started with from the beginning. 'Our laughter is changed to tears,' says Pope, 'as soon as we discover that the base act had a noble author.' And, behold! the initial feature in the whole description of the case is, that the libeller was one whom 'true genius fired:'

'Peace to all such! But were there one whose mind True genius fires,' &c.

Before the offence is described, the perpetrator is already characterized as a man of genius: and, in spite of that knowledge, we laugh. But suddenly our mood changes, and we weep, but why? I beseech you. Simply because we have ascertained the author to be a man of genius.

'Who would not laugh, if such a man there be? Who would not weep, if Atticus were he?'

The sole reason for weeping is something that we knew already before we began to laugh.

It would not be right in logic, in fact, it would be a mis-classification, if I should cite as at all belonging to the same group several passages in Milton that come very near to Irish bulls, by virtue of distorted language. One reason against such a classification would lie precisely in that fact—viz., that the assimilation to the category of bulls lurks in the verbal expression, and not (as in Pope's case) amongst the conditions of the thought. And a second reason would lie in the strange circumstance, that Milton had not fallen into this snare of diction through any carelessness or oversight, but with his eyes wide open, deliberately avowing his error as a special elegance; repeating it; and well aware of splendid Grecian authority for his error, if anybody should be bold enough to call it an error. Every reader must be aware of the case—

'Adam the goodliest man of men since born His sons; the fairest of her daughters Eve'—

which makes Adam one of his own sons, Eve one of her own daughters. This, however, is authorized by Grecian usage in the severest writers. Neither can it be alleged that these might be bold poetic expressions, harmonizing with the Grecian idiom; for Poppo has illustrated this singular form of expression in a prose-writer, as philosophic and austere as Thucydides; a form which (as it offends against logic) must offend equally in all languages. Some beauty must have been described in the idiom, such as atoned for its solecism: for Milton recurs to the same idiom, and under the same entire freedom of choice, elsewhere; particularly in this instance, which has not been pointed out: 'And never,' says Satan to the abhorred phantoms of Sin and Death, when crossing his path,

'And never saw till now Sight more detestable than him and thee.'

Now, therefore, it seems, he had seen a sight more detestable than this very sight. He now looked upon something more hateful than X Y Z. What was it? It was X Y Z.

But the authority of Milton, backed by that of insolent Greece, would prove an overmatch for the logic of centuries. And I withdraw, therefore, from the rash attempt to quarrel with this sort of bull, involving itself in the verbal expression. But the following, which lies rooted in the mere facts and incidents, is certainly the most extraordinary practical bull [1] that all literature can furnish. And a stranger thing, perhaps, than the oversight itself lies in this—that not any critic throughout Europe, two only excepted, but has failed to detect a blunder so memorable. All the rampant audacity of Bentley—'slashing Bentley'—all the jealous malignity of Dr. Johnson—who hated Milton without disguise as a republican, but secretly and under a mask would at any rate have hated him from jealousy of his scholarship—had not availed to sharpen these practised and these interested eyes into the detection of an oversight which argues a sudden Lethean forgetfulness on the part of Milton; and in many generations of readers, however alive and awake with malice, a corresponding forgetfulness not less astonishing. Two readers only I have ever heard of that escaped this lethargic inattention; one of which two is myself; and I ascribe my success partly to good luck, but partly to some merit on my own part in having cultivated a habit of systematically accurate reading. If I read at all, I make it a duty to read truly and faithfully. I profess allegiance for the time to the man whom I undertake to study; and I am as loyal to all the engagements involved in such a contract, as if I had come under a sacramentum militare. So it was that, whilst yet a boy, I came to perceive, with a wonder not yet exhausted, that unaccountable blunder which Milton has committed in the main narrative on which the epic fable of the 'Paradise Lost' turns as its hinges. And many a year afterwards I found that Paul Richter, whose vigilance nothing escaped, who carried with him through life 'the eye of the hawk, and the fire therein,' had not failed to make the same discovery. It is this: The archangel Satan has designs upon man; he meditates his ruin; and it is known that he does. Specially to counteract these designs, and for no other purpose whatever, a choir of angelic police is stationed at the gates of Paradise, having (I repeat) one sole commission, viz., to keep watch and ward over the threatened safety of the newly created human pair. Even at the very first this duty is neglected so thoroughly, that Satan gains access without challenge or suspicion. That is awful: for, ask yourself, reader, how a constable or an inspector of police would be received who had been stationed at No. 6, on a secret information, and spent the night in making love at No. 15. Through the regular surveillance at the gates, Satan passes without objection; and he is first of all detected by a purely accidental collision during the rounds of the junior angels. The result of this collision, and of the examination which follows, is what no reader can ever forget—so unspeakable is the grandeur of that scene between the two hostile archangels, when the Fiend (so named at the moment under the fine machinery used by Milton for exalting or depressing the ideas of his nature) finally takes his flight as an incarnation of darkness,

'And fled Murmuring; and with him fled the shades of night.

The darkness flying with him, naturally we have the feeling that he is the darkness, and that all darkness has some essential relation to Satan.

But now, having thus witnessed his terrific expulsion, naturally we ask what was the sequel. Four books, however, are interposed before we reach the answer to that question. This is the reason that we fail to remark the extraordinary oversight of Milton. Dislocated from its immediate plan in the succession of incidents, that sequel eludes our notice, which else and in its natural place would have shocked us beyond measure. The simple abstract of the whole story is, that Satan, being ejected, and sternly charged under Almighty menaces not to intrude upon the young Paradise of God, 'rides with darkness' for exactly one week, and, having digested his wrath rather than his fears on the octave of his solemn banishment, without demur, or doubt, or tremor, back he plunges into the very centre of Eden. On a Friday, suppose, he is expelled through the main entrance: on the Friday following he re-enters upon the forbidden premises through a clandestine entrance. The upshot is, that the heavenly police suffer, in the first place, the one sole enemy, who was or could be the object of their vigilance, to pass without inquest or suspicion; thus they inaugurate their task; secondly, by the merest accident (no thanks to their fidelity) they detect him, and with awful adjurations sentence him to perpetual banishment; but, thirdly, on his immediate return, in utter contempt of their sentence, they ignore him altogether, and apparently act upon Dogberry's direction, that, upon meeting a thief, the police may suspect him to be no true man; and, with such manner of men, the less they meddle or make, the more it will be for their honesty.


[1] It is strange, or rather it is not strange, considering the feebleness of that lady in such a field, that Miss Edgeworth always fancied herself to have caught Milton in a bull, under circumstances which, whilst leaving the shadow of a bull, effectually disown the substance. 'And in the lowest deep a lower deep still opens to devour me.' This is the passage denounced by Miss Edgeworth. 'If it was already the lowest deep,' said the fair lady, 'how the deuce (no, perhaps it might be I that said 'how the deuce') could it open into a lower deep?' Yes, how could it? In carpentry, it is clear to my mind that it could not. But, in cases of deep imaginative feeling, no phenomenon is more natural than precisely this never-ending growth of one colossal grandeur chasing and surmounting another, or of abysses that swallowed up abysses. Persecutions of this class oftentimes are amongst the symptoms of fever, and amongst the inevitable spontaneities of nature. Other people I have known who were inclined to class amongst bulls Milton's all-famous expression of 'darkness visible,' whereas it is not even a bold or daring expression; it describes a pure optical experience of very common occurrence. There are two separate darknesses or obscurities: first, that obscurity by which you see dimly; and secondly, that obscurity which you see. The first is the atmosphere through which vision is performed, and, therefore, part of the subjective conditions essential to the act of seeing. The second is the object of your sight. In a glass-house at night illuminated by a sullen fire in one corner, but else dark, you see the darkness massed in the rear as a black object. That is the 'visible darkness.' And on the other hand, the murky atmosphere between you and the distant rear is not the object, but the medium, through or athwart which you descry the black masses. The first darkness is subjective darkness; that is, a darkness in your own eye, and entangled with your very faculty of vision. The second darkness is perfectly different: it is objective darkness; that is to say, not any darkness which affects or modifies your faculty of seeing either for better or worse; but a darkness which is the object of your vision; a darkness which you see projected from yourself as a massy volume of blackness, and projected, possibly, to a vast distance.


Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6
Home - Random Browse