“Critical Sagacity,” And “Happy Conjecture;” Or, Bentley’s Milton by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

—-BENTLEY, long to wrangling schools confined,
And but by books acquainted with mankind—-
To MILTON lending sense, to HORACE wit,
He makes them write, what never poet writ.

DR. BENTLEY’S edition of our English Homer is sufficiently known by name. As it stands a terrifying beacon to conjectural criticism, I shall just notice some of those violations which the learned critic ventured to commit, with all the arrogance of a Scaliger. This man, so deeply versed in ancient learning, it will appear, was destitute of taste and genius in his native language.

Our critic, to persuade the world of the necessity of his edition, imagined a fictitious editor of Milton’s Poems: and it was this ingenuity which produced all his absurdities. As it is certain that the blind bard employed an amanuensis, it was not improbable that many words of similar sound, but very different signification, might have disfigured the poem; but our Doctor was bold enough to conjecture that this amanuensis interpolated whole verses of his own composition in the “Paradise Lost!” Having laid down this fatal position, all the consequences of his folly naturally followed it. Yet if there needs any conjecture, the more probable one will be, that Milton, who was never careless of his future fame, had his poem read to him after it had been published. The first edition appeared in 1667, and the second in 1674, in which all the faults of the former edition are continued. By these faults, the Doctor means what he considers to be such: for we shall soon see that his “Canons of Criticism” are apocryphal.

Bentley says that he will supply the want of manuscripts to collate (to use his own words) by his own “SAGACITY,” and “HAPPY CONJECTURE.”

Milton, after the conclusion of Satan’s speech to the fallen angels, proceeds thus:–

1. He spake: and to confirm his words out flew
2. Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
3. Of mighty cherubim: the sudden blaze
4. Far round illumin’d hell; highly they rag’d
5. Against the Highest; and fierce with grasped arms
6. Clash’d on their sounding shields the din of war,
7. Hurling defiance tow’rd the Vault of heaven.

In this passage, which is as perfect as human wit can make, the Doctor alters three words. In the second line he puts blades instead of swords; in the fifth he puts swords instead of arms; and in the last line he prefers walls to vault. All these changes are so many defoedations of the poem. The word swords is far more poetical than blades, which may as well be understood of knives as swords. The word arms, the generic for the specific term, is still stronger and nobler than swords; and the beautiful conception of vault, which is always indefinite to the eye, while the solidity of walls would but meanly describe the highest Heaven, gives an idea of grandeur and modesty.

Milton writes, book i. v. 63–

No light, but rather DARKNESS VISIBLE
Served only to discover sights of woe.

Perhaps borrowed from Spenser:–

A little glooming light, much like a shade.
Faery Queene, b. i. c. 2. st. 14.

This fine expression of “DARKNESS VISIBLE” the Doctor’s critical sagacity has thus rendered clearer:–

No light, but rather A TRANSPICIUOUS GLOOM.

Again, our learned critic distinguishes the 74th line of the first book–

As from the centre thrice to the utmost pole,

as “a vicious verse,” and therefore with “happy conjecture,” and no taste, thrusts in an entire verse of his own composition–


Milton writes,

Our torments, also, may in length of time
Become our elements. B. ii. ver. 274.

Bentley corrects

Then, AS WAS WELL OBSERV’D our torments may
Become our elements.

A curious instance how the insertion of a single prosaic expression turns a fine verse into something worse than the vilest prose.

To conclude with one more instance of critical emendation: Milton says, with an agreeable turn of expression–

So parted they; the angel up to heaven,
From the thick shade; and Adam to his bower.

Bentley “conjectures” these two verses to be inaccurate, and in lieu of the last writes–


And then our erudite critic reasons! as thus:–

After the conversation between the Angel and Adam in the bower, it may be well presumed that our first parent waited on his heavenly guest at his departure to some little distance from it, till he began to take his flight towards heaven; and therefore “sagaciously” thinks that the poet could not with propriety say that the angel parted from the thick shade, that is, the bower, to go to heaven. But if Adam attended the Angel no farther than the door or entrance of the bower, then he shrewdly asks, “How Adam could return to his bower if he was never out of it?”

Our editor has made a thousand similar corrections in his edition of Milton! Some have suspected that the same kind intention which prompted Dryden to persuade Creech to undertake a translation of Horace influenced those who encouraged our Doctor, in thus exercising his “sagacity” and “happy conjecture” on the epic of Milton. He is one of those learned critics who have happily “elucidated their author into obscurity,” and comes nearest to that “true conjectural critic” whose practice a Portuguese satirist so greatly admired: by which means, if he be only followed up by future editors, we might have that immaculate edition, in which little or nothing should be found of the original!

I have collected these few instances as not uninteresting to men of taste; they may convince us that a scholar may be familiarized to Greek and Latin, though a stranger to his vernacular literature; and that a verbal critic may sometimes be successful in his attempts on a single word, though he may be incapable of tasting an entire sentence. Let it also remain as a gibbet on the high roads of literature; that “conjectural critics” as they pass may not forget the unhappy fate of Bentley.

The following epigram appeared on this occasion:–


Did MILTON’S PROSE, O CHARLES! thy death defend?
A furious foe, unconscious, proves a friend;
On MILTON’S VERSE does BENTLEY comment? know,
A weak officious friend becomes a foe.
While he would seem his author’s fame to farther,
The MURTHEROUS critic has avenged thy MURTHER.

The classical learning of Bentley was singular and acute; but the erudition of words is frequently found not to be allied to the sensibility of taste.[100]


[Footnote 100: An amusing instance of his classical emendations occurs in the text of Shakspeare. [King Henry IV. pt. 2, act 1, sc. 1.] The poet speaks of one who

Drew Priam’s curtain in the dead of night,
And would have told him half his Troy was burn’d.”

Bentley alters the first word of the sentence to a proper name, which is given in the third book of the Iliad, and the second of the AEneid; and reads the passage thus:–

Drew Priam’s curtain”]

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