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I am far from defending the conception or the execution of this remarkable passage; but I have no doubt that, did I feel it a worthy task to exhibit what are perhaps the blemishes of the noblest poem in any modern language, I could point out in the “ Paradise Lost” a hundred passages as likely as this to offend the taste which declaims against Goethe, for what it pardons — perhaps applauds — in Milton.
How far the purposes of the poet may require or justify that which, considered in itself, may for this argument be regarded as a blemish how far such shading may be necessary to enable him to exhibit in fitting prominence, in effective light and true proportions, objects which could neither be omitted nor otherwise adequately shown I will not now inquire; but once admitting that the highest subjects which can occupy man's thought are within the province of the poet, I have no doubt that any fair criticism on the particular mode in which he has treated his subject must be conducted with exclusive reference to the purposes of his art. If the “ Fallen Angel" is permitted to be the hero of Epic or Dramatic Poetry, we must allow the poet to give him the burning language of hatred, and defiance, and despair; if the “Northern Phantom,” the Gothic conception of the grotesque and half-formed monster, be allowed as a part of his proper machinery to the fabulist; can we, when we have thus far submitted our imagination to this species of willing delusion, at once stop short, and refuse to proceed further under the guidance of the poet ? Shall we allow him to show us in the first scene, the magician or the witch sealing the contract with their blood, and then complain that the last act is an offence against piety, because it exhibits the triumph of the fiend as he carries off his victim in fire, or introduces some casuist more subtle than the Devil detecting a flaw by which he defeats the legal effect of the instrument under which the fiend claims ? If we admit the demoniac character of modern scepticism to be a fitting subject of poetry, we must be prepared to allow great latitude to the poet who undertakes its exhibition.
But justly considered, these passages will be received by all persons who read poetry in a kindred spirit with more than pardon, even where they do not command sympathy or approval. The very caprices in which the poet allows himself to indulge, are evidence at least of the perfect freedom with which his own mind is at work. Could such a mind as Milton's be, when embodying each of its conceptions, regarded as pleading with some captious critic of the hour, instead of obeying in genial
movement the impulses of its own spirit, it is probable that some of the deformities of the poem would be removed ; but I have no doubt that in the same spirit of servile compliance every thing peculiar would have been adjusted by some model of the day – that all would have been rendered uniform, and regular that the poem would have been as much read then, and as little read now, as if it were one of Mr. Waller's. The transcendent beauties of the poem could never have existed, except on the condition of the fearless exercise of the author's own genius. Do I think that he wrote in defiance of rules ? Assuredly not ; but the rules which he did adopt, were not the arbitrary measures accidentally supplied by the vitiated taste of his own day. – Less than the perfect success of the divine poem, could not have saved any statement of its plan in detailed argument from seeming to afford just ground for such criticism as Voltaire's or Waller's. Had no more than the poet's own arguments of the several books remained, there would not have been wanting those who would have charged with irreverence the attempt to describe in man's words the councils of Heaven, and to clothe with material imagery the wars of angels and archangels. I regard the passages to which I allude, as among what I will venture hesitatingly — to call
the less successful parts of the poem ; but I am sure that nothing less than the poet's feeling of full freedom to deal as he would with all parts of his subject would have made the poem - I will not say in its long-sustained elevation, but even in any one of its distinguishing features - what it is ; so that each single passage is, as it were, a symbol * of the whole - each fragment expressive of the author's full mind, and in its degree exhibiting the creative spirit of the same living imagination felt alike through all. Nothing but the success of Goethe's perilous attempt would be felt as justifying it - but of that success I think I have a right to demand, as against the vague prejudices which in one way or another have possessed the English Public, that the admiration - all but unbounded - of his own country should be regarded as evidence. I demand
I use the word “symbol” in the sense in which it has been used by Mr. Coleridge. A symbol “ always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible.”—(First Lay Sermon, p. 37.) The passage from which I quote is one which, with reference to my present subject, I should not be justified in transcribing. Like every passage in the more serious works of that great and good man, it is one which, the more it is dwelt upon and received into the mind, the more important will it appear.
The train of thought, in the passage to which I refer, is more fully exhibited in the “ Aids to Reflection.”
but a hearing for him ; what the decision may be I have no right to predict -- still less to dictate.
It is curious enough, that, in Goethe's case, the offence is increased by that which, fairly considered, should be its apology. The imitation of the old
mystery,” or “ miracle-play,” as Mr. Collier has taught us to call it -- the earliest form of the modern European drama - was felt by the poet as giving him a licence – the privileges of which were more readily permitted in his own country, where representations of the kind were frequent in his childhood
still lingering - and are probably not yet altogether discontinued.
I have, for the purpose of preparing my reader for the licence which the poet claims, ventured to adopt the suggestion given in an article in the Quarterly Review *, and have called the poem a dramatic mystery-extending, perhaps, the meaning of the word beyond its precise limits. In the notes to this volume, the reader will find many instances
Quarterly Review, vol. xxxiv. p. 137. Some extracts from this article are given in the notes to this volume - but the reader who feels at all interested in the subject of Faust, or the more extensive one of the licence which the poet has a right to claim, will have reason to thank me for directing his attention to the article. I differ from the writer in his view of some passages, but the paper is replete with valuable information.