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Of herbs, and other country messes,
Ther to the well-trod stage anon,
Milton shows his early fondness for the Italian language, by taking from it the titles of these poems. L'Allegro is the mirth- . ful (man), and Il Penseroso the melancholy (pensive rather, or thoughtful). These two poems are supposed, with good reason, to have been written at Horton in Buckinghamshire, where his parents were residing at the time of their composition. I men. tion this circumstance, first because it is pleasant to know when poetry is written in poetical places, and next for the sake of such readers as may happen to know the spot. I“ Some sager sing.”—Ben Jonson, in one of his Masks.
“Because,” says Warburton, “ those who give to Mirth such
gross companions as Eating and Drinking, are the less sage mythologists."
2“ Quips, and Cranks, and wanton Wiles.”—What a Crank is, the commentators are puzzled to say. They guess, from analogy with “ winding turns” (which the world originally appears to signify), that the poet means cross purposes, or some other such pastime. The witty author of Hints to a young Reviewer (afterwards, I believe, no mean reviewer himself), who criticised these
poems upon the pleasant assumption of their having "just come out,” and expressed his astonishment at “Mr. Milton's amatory notions” (I quote from memory), takes occasion, from the obscurity of this word, to observe, that the “phenomenon of a tripping crank” would be very curious, and “doubtless attract nu. merous spectators.' He also, in reference to passages a little further on, wonders how “Mirth can be requested to come and go at the same instant;” and protests at the confident immortal. ity of the "young gentleman who takes himself for a poet," in proposing to live with Mirth and Liberty both together.
To live with her, and live with thee,
How delightful is wit, when bantering in behalf of excellence !
Through the sweet-briar,” &c.—“ Sweet-briar and eglantine,” says Warton, are the same plant: by the twisted eglantine he therefore means the honey-suckle: all three are plants often growing against the side or walls of a house."
This is true; yet the deduction is hardly certain. The same name sometimes means different flowers, in different counties; as may
seen from passages in Shakspeare. Eglantine, however, is the French word for the flower of the sweet-briar (eglantier); and hence it came to mean, in English, the briar itself. Perhaps, if Milton had been asked why he used it in this place, he would have made Johnson's noble answer to the lady, when she inquired why he defined pastern, in his Dictionary, to be a horse's knee ;-"Ignorance, madam, ignorance.” Poets are often fonder of flowers than learned in their names; and Milton, like his illustrious brethren, Chaucer and Spenser, was born within the sound of Bow bell.
4.“ And every shepherd tells his tale.”—It used to be thought, till Mr. Headley informed Warton otherwise, telling his tale meant telling a love-tale, or story. The correction of this fancy is now admitted ; namely, that tale is a technical word for numbering sheep, and is so used by several poets,-Dryden for one. Warton, like a proper Arcadian, was loth to give up the fancy; but he afterwards found the new interpretation to be much the better
Every shepherd telling his story or love-tale, under a hawthorn, at one and the same instant, all over a district, would resemble indeed those pastoral groups upon bed-curtains, in which, and in no other place, such marvels are to be met with. Yet, in common perhaps with most young readers, I remember the time when I believed it, and was as sorry as Warton to be undeceived.
5“ The Cynosure of neighboring eye.”—Cynosure (dog’s-tail) for load-star, must have been a term a little hazardous, as well as over-learned, when it first appeared; though Milton, thinking of the nymph who was changed into the star so called (since known as Ursa minor), was probably of opinion, that it gave his image a peculiar fitness and beauty. That enjoying and truly poetical commentator, Thomas Warton, quotes a passage from Browne's Britannia's Pastorals, that may have been in Milton's recol. lection :
Yond palace, whose pale turret tops
and then he indulges in pleasing memories of the old style of building, and in regrets for the new, which was less picturesque and less given to concealment. “ This was the great mansionhouse,” says he, “in Milton's early days. With respect to their rural residences, there was a coyness in our Gothic ancestors.
Modern seats are seldom so deeply ambushed.” Warton would have been pleased at the present revival of the old taste, which indeed is far superior to the bald and barrack-like insipi. dities of his day; though as to the leafy accessories, I am afraid the poetic pleasure of living “embosom’d” in trees is not thought the most conducive to health.
6“ Rain influence.”—Da begli occhi un piacer si caldo piove.
Petrarch, Son. cxxxi.
7 “ Jonson's learned sock.”—“ Milton has more frequently and openly copied the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher than of Shakspeare. One is therefore surprised, that in his panegyric on the stage he did not mention the twin-bards, when he celebrated the learned sock of Jonson, and the wood-notes wild of Shakspeare. But he concealed his love."—Warton.
Perhaps he was afraid of avowing it, on account of the licence of their muse.
Hence, vain deluding Joys,
But hail, thou Goddess, sage and holy,