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Copyright, 1868, 1869, 1876, 1888, 1890,
BY JAMES RUSSELL LOWELL.
All rights reserved.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.
In 1675 Edward Phillips, the elder of Milton's nephews, published his Theatrum Poetarum. In his Preface and elsewhere there can be little doubt that he reflected the æsthetic principles and literary judgments of his now illustrious uncle, who had died in obscurity the year before. The great poet who gave to English blank verse the grandeur and compass of organ-music, and who in his minor poems kept alive the traditions of Fletcher and Shakespeare, died with no foretaste, and yet we may believe as confident as ever, of that “immortality of fame” which he tells his friend Diodati he was “meditating with the help of Heaven” in his youth. He who may have seen Shakespeare, who doubtless had seen Fletcher, and who perhaps personally knew Jonson,lived to see that false school of writers whom he qualified as “good rhymists, but no poets," at once the idols and the victims of the taste they had corrupted. As he saw, not without scorn, how they found universal hearing, while he slowly won his audience fit though few, did he ever think of the hero of his own epic at the ear of Eve? It is not impossible ; but however that may be, he sowed in his nephew's book the dragon's teeth of that long war which, after the lapse of a century and a half, was to end in the expulsion of the usurping dynasty and the restoration of the ancient and legitimate race whose claim rested on the grace of God. In the following passage surely the voice is Milton's, though the hand be that of Phillips: “ Wit, ingenuity, and learning in verse, even elegancy itself, though that comes nearest, are one thing ; true native poetry is another, in which there is a certain air and spirit, which, perhaps, the most learned and judicious in other arts do not perfectly apprehend; much less is it attainable by any art or study.” The man who speaks of elegancy as coming nearest, certainly shared, if he was not repeating, the opinions of him who thirty years before had said that “decorum ” (meaning a higher or organic unity) was “ the grand masterpiece to observe" in poetry.1
1 This was Thomas Warton's opinion.
2 Milton, a London boy, was in his eighth, seventeenth, and twenty-ninth years, respectively, when Shakespeare (1616), Fletcher (1625), and B. Jonson (1637) died.
It is upon this text of Phillips (as Chalmers has remarked) that Joseph Warton bases his classification of poets in the dedication to Young of the first volume of his essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, published in 1756. That was the earliest public and official declaration of war against the reigning mode, though private hostilities and reprisals had been going on for some time. Addison's panegyric
1 In his Tractate on Education.