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THE REV. SAMUEL HAYMAN, B.A.,
OF TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN,
ONE OF THE ABLEST CONTRIBUTORS TO THE PAGES OF THE PATRICIAN,
A CONSTANT COADJUTOR IN THE AUTHOR'S GENEALOGICAL WORKS,
WITH FEELINGS OF THE TRUEST ESTEEM AND REGARD.
THE FIENDS OF POETRY:
OF POETRY: - MILTON'S SATAN, SHAKESPEARE'S IAGO, GOETIIE'S MEPHISTOPHELES, AND LORD BYRON'S LUCIFER.
The idea of that terrible portion of Revelation-the existence of an eternal fiend, the 'tempter and destroyer of mankind, does not occur in the mythology of the ancients. We look in vain among the poets of classic Greece and Rome for the description of a devil similar to the fearfully impressive portraits given in the Old and New Testament. Homer and Virgil, it is true, depicted a hell in glowing colours, and peopled it with dark rulers, judges, furies, and tormentors; with cruel guardians, and sinners in perpetual agony. But the demon of the Christians was not there—that demon, bent for ever on the ruin of man, -coming majestic in awful truth to the conscience-stricken imagination of the wicked. The book of Genesis, narrating the fall, and the Evangelists, relating the temptation in the desert, present the fiend to us
with a power of language far beyond the flights of uninspired poetry. The impression made by the sacred writings is unalterable, indelible. Through ages and ages, from generation to generation, the notion of the fiend is ever vividly before the human intellect. The wretch in his sin may daringly rebel against a Divinity of mercy; he may deny his God, but Revelation holds him still. The avenging fiend haunts him to the death, and the greater his perverseness, so the greater is his agony. No wonder, when it is thus, that in all Christian nations the Tempter should have formed the subject of thousands of legends and stories that clergy and laity should alike dwell upon the theme-and that poet and painter should have continually strove to represent the fiend effectively. Many a monkish and antiquarian tale depict the Spirit of Evil with strange yet pious simplicity ; but it belonged to the later poetry of the Christian era to attempt to re-produce the demon with a force approaching that of Scripture. Four poets, in particular, have laboured with all the energies of their gifted minds to lay before us the devil, as he has appeared to their brilliant conceptions. These poets were Milton, Shakespeare, Goethe, and Byron ; and the comparative merits of their diabolical delineations seem to us a subject of interesting and curious discussion. To take them in the order of time.
First comes Milton with his Satan, pourtrayed in verse of surpassing magnificence and energy. His whole description of the abasement of the angels, and of the infernal abyss, is conceived in the noblest style of
VOL, V., NO XXI.
poetry; the flaming, rushing fall of the apostate angels, and the dark but fiery prison which received them, are perhaps the most sublime pictures which the human imagination ever produced. Dr. Channing, in his able Essay on the Poetical Genius of Milton, thus treats the author's character of Satan :
Hell and Hell's King have a terrible harmony, and dilate into new grandeur and awfulness, the longer we contemplate them. From one element, solid and liquid fire,' the poet has framed a world of horror and suffering, such as imagination had never traversed. But fiercer flames, than those which encompass Satan, burn in his own soul. Revenge, exasperated pride, consuming wrath, ambition though fallen, yet unconquered by the thunders of the Omnipotent, and grasping still at the empire of the universe,—these form a picture more sublime and terrible than Hell. Hell yields to the spirit which it imprisons. The intensity of its fires reveals the intenser passions and more vehement will of Satan; and the ruined Archangel gathers into himself the sublimily of the scene which surrounds him. This forms the tremendous interest of these wonderful books. We see mind triumphant over the most terrible powers of nature. We see unutterable agony subdued by energy of soul. We have not, indeed, in Satan those bursts of passion, which rive the soul as well as shatter the outward frame of Lear. But we have a depth of passion which only an archangel could manifest. The all-enduring, all-defying pride of Satan, assuming so majestically Hell's burning throne, and coveting the diadem, which scorches his thunderblasted brow, is a creation requiring in its author almost the spiritual energy with which he invests the fallen seraph. Some have doubted whether the moral effect of such delineations of the storms and terrible workings of the soul is good; whether the interest felt in a spirit so transcendently evil as Satan, favours our sympathies with virtue. But our interest fastens, in this and like cases, on what is not evil. We gaze on Satan with an awe not unmixed with mysterious pleasure, as on a miraculous manifestation of the power of mind. What chains us, as with a resistless spell, in such a character, is spiritual might made visible by the racking pains which it overpowers. There is something kindling and ennobling in the consciousness, however awakened, of the energy which resides in mind; and many a virtuous man has borrowed new strength from the force, constancy, and dauntless courage of evil agents.
Milton's description of Satan attests in various ways the power of his genius. Critics have often observed, that the great difficulty of his work was to reconcile the spiritual properties of his supernatural beings with the human modes of existence, which he was obliged to ascribe to them; and the difficulty is too great for any genius wholly to overcome, and we must acknowledge that our enthusiasm is in some parts of the poem checked by a feeling of incongruity between the spiritual agent, and his sphere and mode of agency. But we are visited with no such chilling doubts and misgivings in the description of Satan in Hell. Imagination has here achieved its highest triumph, in imparting a character of reality and truth to its most daring creations. That world of horrors, though material, is yet so remote from our ordinary nature, that a spiritual being, exiled from heaven, finds there an appropriate home. There is, toy, an indefiniteness in the description of Satan's person, which incites without shocking tbe imagination, and aids us to combine in our conception of him, the massiness of a real form with the vagueness of spiritual existence. To the production of this effect, much depends on the first impression given by the poet ; for this is apt to follow us through the whole work; and here we think Milton eminently successful. The first glimpse of Satan is given us in the following lines, which, whilst too indefinite to provoke the scrutiny of the reason, fill the imagination of the reader with a form which can hardly be effaced.
Thus Satan, talking to his nearest mate