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(a) IT is required by Aristotle to the perfection of a tragedy, and is equally necessary to every other species of regular composition, that it should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. "The beginning," says he, " is that which has nothing necessarily previous, but to which that which follows is naturally consequent; the end, on the contrary, is that which by necessity, or at least according to the common course of things, succeeds something else, but which implies nothing consequent to itself; the middle is connected on one side to something that naturally goes before, and on the other to something that naturally follows it."
Such is the rule, laid down by this great critick, for the disposition of the different parts of a well constituted fable. It must begin, where it may be made intelligible without introduction; and end, where the mind is left in repose, without expectation of any further event. The intermediate passages must join the last effect to the first cause, by a regular and unbroken concatenation; nothing must be therefore inserted which does not apparently arise from something foregoing, and properly make way for something that succeeds it.
This precept is to be understood in its rigour, only with respect to great and essential events, and cannot be extended in the same force to minuter circumstances and arbitrary decorations, which yet are more happy as they contribute more to the main design; for it is always a proof of extensive thought and accurate circum
(a) From Dr. Johnson's Rambler, vol. iii. No. 139, and No. 140.
spection, to promote various purposes by the same act; and the idea of an ornament admits use, though it seems to exclude necessity.
Whoever purposes, as it is expressed by Milton, " to build the lofty rhyme," must acquaint himself with this law of poetical architecture, and take care that his edifice be solid as well as beautiful; that nothing stand single or independent, so as that it
may be taken away without injuring the rest; but that from the foundation to the pinnacles one part rest firm upon another.
This regular and consequential distribution is among common authors frequently neglected; but the failures of those, whose example can have no influence, may be safely overlooked, nor is it of much use to recall obscure and unregarded names to memory, for the sake of sporting with their infamy. But if there is any writer whose genius can embellish impropriety, and whose authority can make errour venerable, his works are the proper objects of critical inquisition. To expunge faults where there are no excellencies, is a task equally useless with that of the chemist, who employs the arts of separation and refinement upon ore, in which no precious metal is contained to reward his operations.
The tragedy of Samson Agonistes has been celebrated as the second work of the great author of Paradise Lost, and opposed with all the confidence of triumph to the dramatick performances of other nations. It contains indeed just sentiments, maxims of wisdom, and oracles of piety, and many passages written with the ancient spirit of choral poetry, in which there is a just and pleasing mixture of Seneca's moral declamation with the wild enthusiasm of the Greek writers. It is therefore worthy of examination, whether a performance thus illuminated with genius, and enriched with learning, is composed according to the indispensable laws of Aristotelian criticism; and, omitting at present all other considerations, whether it exhibits a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The (b) beginning is undoubtedly beautiful and proper, open
(b) As this work, says doctor Newton, was not intended for the stage, it is not divided into acts; but if any critick should be disposed so to divide it, he may easily do it, by beginning the second act at the entrance of Manoah; the third at the entrance of Dalila; the fourth at the entrance of Harapha; and the
ing with a graceful abruptness, and proceeding naturally to a mournful recital of facts necessary to be known. The soliloquy of Samson is interrupted by a Chorus, or company of men of his own tribe, who condole his miseries, extenuate his fault, and conclude with a solemn vindication of Divine Justice. So that, at the conclusion of the first act, there is no design laid, no discovery made, nor any disposition formed towards the subsequent
In the second act, Manoah, the father of Samson, comes to seek his son; and, being shown him by the Chorus, breaks out into lamentations of his misery, and comparisons of his present with his former state; representing to him the ignominy which his religion suffers, by the festival this day celebrated in honour of Dagon, to whom the idolaters ascribed his overthrow. Samson, touched with the reproach, makes a reply equally penitential and pious, which his father considers as the effusion of prophetick confidence.
God, be sure,
Manoah." With cause this hope relieves thee, and these words "I as a prophecy receive; for God,
"Nothing more certain, will not long defer
This part of the dialogue, as it might tend to animate or exasperate Samson, cannot, I think, be censured as wholly superfluous; but the succeeding dispute, in which Samson contends to die, and which his father breaks off, that he may go to solicit his release, is only valuable for its own beauties, and has no tendency to introduce any thing that follows it.
The next event of the drama is the arrival of Dalila, with all her graces, artifices, and allurements. This produces a dialogue,
fifth at the entrance of the Publick Officer: But the Stage is never empty or without persons, according to the model of the best written tragedies among the ancients.
in a very high degree elegant and instructive, from which she retires, after she has exhausted her persuasions, and is no more seen or heard of; nor has her visit any effect but that of raising the character of Samson.
In the fourth act enters Harapha, the giant of Gath, whose name had never been mentioned before, and who has now no other motive of coming than to see the man whose strength and actions are so loudly celebrated. Samson challenges him to the combat; and, after an interchange of reproaches, elevated by repeated defiance on one side, and embittered by contemptuous insults on the other, Harapha retires; we then hear it determined, by Samson and the Chorus, that no consequence good or bad will proceed from their interview.
At last, in the fifth act, appears a Messenger from the lords assembled at the festival of Dagon, with a summons, by which Samson is required to come and entertain them with some proof of his strength. Samson, after a short expostulation, dismisses him with a firm and absolute refusal; but during the absence of the Messenger, having a while defended the propriety of his conduct, he at last declares himself moved by a secret impulse to comply, and utters some dark presages of a great event to be brought to pass by his agency, under the direction of Providence. While Samson is conducted off by the Messenger, his father returns with hopes of success in his solicitation, upon which he confers with the Chorus till their dialogue is interrupted, first by a shout of triumph, and afterwards by screams of horrour and agony. As they stand deliberating where they shall be secure, a man, who had been present at the show, enters; and relates how Samson, having prevailed on his guide to suffer him to lean against the main pillars of the theatrical edifice, tore down the roof upon the spectators and himself. This is undoubtedly a just and regular catastrophe; and the poem, therefore, has a beginning and ́an end which Aristotle himself could not have disapproved; but it must be allowed to want a middle, since nothing passes between the first act and the last, that either hastens or delays the death of Samson. The whole drama, if its superfluities were cut off, would scarcely fill a single act; yet this is the tragedy which ignorance has admired, and bigotry applauded.
It is common, says Bacon, to desire the end without enduring
the means. Every member of society feels, and acknowledges, the necessity of detecting crimes; yet scarce any degree of virtue or reputation is able to secure an informer from publick hatred. The learned world has always admitted the usefulness of critical disquisitions; yet he that attempts to show, however modestly, the failures of a celebrated writer, shall surely irritate his admirers, and incur the imputation of envy, captiousness, and malignity.
With this danger full in my view, I shall proceed to examine the sentiments of Milton's tragedy, which, though much less liable to censure than the disposition of his plan, are, like those of other writers, sometimes exposed to just exception for want of care, or want of discernment.
Sentiments are proper and improper as they consist more or less with the character and circumstances of the person to whom they are attributed, with the rules of the composition in which they are found, or with the settled and unalterable nature of things.
It is common among the tragick poets to introduce their persons alluding to events or opinions, of which they could not possibly have any knowledge. The barbarians of remote or newly discovered regions often display their skill in European learning. The god of love is mentioned in Tamerlane with all the familiarity of a Roman epigrammist; and a late writer has put Harvey's doctrine of the circulation of the blood into the mouth of a Turkish statesman, who lived near two centuries before it was known even to philosophers or anatomists.
Milton's learning, which acquainted him with the manners of the ancient eastern nations; and his invention, which required no assistance from the common cant of poetry; have preserved him from frequent outrages of local or chronological propriety. Yet he has mentioned Chalybean steel (ver. 133), of which it is not very likely that his Chorus should have heard ; and has made Alp the general name of a mountain (ver. 628.), in a region where the Alps could scarcely be known. He has taught Samson the tales of Circe and the Syrens, at which he apparently hints in his colloquy with Dalila :
"Thy fair enchanted cup, and warbling charms,
"No more on me have power."
But the grossest errour of this kind is the solemn introduction of