No. 339 [from The Spectator] by Joseph Addison

Story type: Essay

No. 339
Saturday, March 29, 1712. Addison
[–Ut his exordia primis
Omnia, et ipse tener Mundi concreverit orbis.
Tum durare solum et discludere Nerea ponto
Coeperit, et rerum pauliatim sumere formas.

Virg. [1]]

Longinus has observed, [2] that there may be a Loftiness in Sentiments, where there is no Passion, and brings Instances out of ancient Authors to support this his Opinion. The Pathetick, as that great Critick observes, may animate and inflame the Sublime, but is not essential to it. Accordingly, as he further remarks, we very often find that those who excel most in stirring up the Passions, very often want the Talent of writing in the great and sublime manner, and so on the contrary. Milton has shewn himself a Master in both these ways of Writing. The Seventh Book, which we are now entring upon, is an Instance of that Sublime which is not mixed and worked up with Passion. The Author appears in a kind of composed and sedate Majesty; and tho the Sentiments do not give so great an Emotion as those in the former Book, they abound with as magnificent Ideas. The Sixth Book, like a troubled Ocean, represents Greatness in Confusion; the seventh Affects the Imagination like the Ocean in a Calm, and fills the Mind of the Reader, without producing in it any thing like Tumult or Agitation.

The Critick above mentioned, among the Rules which he lays down for succeeding in the sublime way of writing, proposes to his Reader, that he should imitate the most celebrated Authors who have gone before him, and been engaged in Works of the same nature; [3] as in particular, that if he writes on a poetical Subject, he should consider how Homer would have spoken on such an Occasion. By this means one great Genius often catches the Flame from another, and writes in his Spirit, without copying servilely after him. There are a thousand shining Passages in Virgil, which have been lighted up by Homer.

Milton, tho his own natural Strength of Genius was capable of furnishing out a perfect Work, has doubtless very much raised and ennobled his Conceptions, by such an Imitation as that which Longinus has recommended.

In this Book, which gives us an Account of the six Days Works, the Poet received but very few Assistances from Heathen Writers, who were Strangers to the Wonders of Creation. But as there are many glorious strokes of Poetry upon this Subject in Holy Writ, the Author has numberless Allusions to them through the whole course of this Book. The great Critick I have before mentioned, though an Heathen, has taken notice of the sublime Manner in which the Lawgiver of the Jews has describ’d the Creation in the first Chapter of Genesis; [4] and there are many other Passages in Scripture, which rise up to the same Majesty, where this Subject is touched upon. Milton has shewn his Judgment very remarkably, in making use of such of these as were proper for his Poem, and in duly qualifying those high Strains of Eastern Poetry, which were suited to Readers whose Imaginations were set to an higher pitch than those of colder Climates.

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Adams Speech to the Angel, wherein he desires an Account of what had passed within the Regions of Nature before the Creation, is very great and solemn. The following Lines, in which he tells him, that the Day is not too far spent for him to enter upon such a subject, are exquisite in their kind.

And the great Light of Day yet wants to run
Much of his Race, though steep, suspense in Heavn
Held by thy Voice; thy potent Voice he hears,
And longer will delay, to hear thee tell
His Generation, etc.

The Angels encouraging our first Parent[s] in a modest pursuit after Knowledge, with the Causes which he assigns for the Creation of the World, are very just and beautiful. The Messiah, by whom, as we are told in Scripture, the Worlds were made, comes forth in the Power of his Father, surrounded with an Host of Angels, and cloathed with such a Majesty as becomes his entring upon a Work, which, according to our Conceptions, [appears [5]] the utmost Exertion of Omnipotence. What a beautiful Description has our Author raised upon that Hint in one of the Prophets. And behold there came four Chariots out from between two Mountains, and the Mountains were Mountains of Brass. [6]

About his Chariot numberless were pour
Cherub and Seraph, Potentates and Thrones,
And Virtues, winged Spirits, and Chariots wing’d,
From th’ Armoury of Gold, where stand of old
Myriads between two brazen Mountains lodg’d
Against a solemn Day, harness’d at hand;
Celestial Equipage! and now came forth
Spontaneous, for within them Spirit liv’d,
Attendant on their Lord: Heavn open’d wide
Her ever-during Gates, Harmonious Sound!
On golden Hinges moving–

I have before taken notice of these Chariots of God, and of these Gates of Heaven; and shall here only add, that Homer gives us the same Idea of the latter, as opening of themselves; tho he afterwards takes off from it, by telling us, that the Hours first of all removed those prodigious Heaps of Clouds which lay as a Barrier before them.

I do not know any thing in the whole Poem more sublime than the Description which follows, where the Messiah is represented at the head of his Angels, as looking down into the Chaos, calming its Confusion, riding into the midst of it, and drawing the first Out-Line of the Creation.

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On Heavenly Ground they stood, and from the Shore
They view’d the vast immeasurable Abyss,
Outrageous as a Sea, dark, wasteful, wild;
Up from the bottom turned by furious Winds
And surging Waves, as Mountains to assault
Heavens height, and with the Center mix the Pole.

Silence, ye troubled Waves, and thou Deep, Peace!
Said then th’ Omnific Word, your Discord end:

Nor staid; but, on the Wings of Cherubim
Up-lifted, in Paternal Glory rode
Far into Chaos, and the World unborn;
For Chaos heard his Voice. Him all His Train
Follow’d in bright Procession, to behold
Creation, and the Wonders, of his Might.
Then staid the fervid Wheels, and in his Hand
He took the Golden Compasses, prepar’d
In Gods eternal Store, to circumscribe
This Universe, and all created Things:
One Foot he center’d, and the other turn’d
Round, through the vast Profundity obscure;
And said, Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds,
This be thy just Circumference, O World!

The Thought of the Golden Compasses is conceived altogether in Homers Spirit, and is a very noble Incident in this wonderful Description. Homer, when he speaks of the Gods, ascribes to them several Arms and Instruments with the same greatness of Imagination. Let the Reader only peruse the Description of Minerva’s AEgis, or Buckler, in the Fifth Book, with her Spear, which would overturn whole Squadrons, and her Helmet, that was sufficient to cover an Army drawn out of an hundred Cities: The Golden Compasses in the above-mentioned Passage appear a very natural Instrument in the Hand of him, whom Plato somewhere calls the Divine Geometrician. As Poetry delights in cloathing abstracted Ideas in Allegories and sensible Images, we find a magnificent Description of the Creation form’d after the same manner in one of the Prophets, wherein he describes the Almighty Architect as measuring the Waters in the Hollow of his Hand, meting out the Heavens with his Span, comprehending the Dust of the Earth in a Measure, weighing the Mountains in Scales, and the Hills in a Balance. Another of them describing the Supreme Being in this great Work of Creation, represents him as laying the Foundations of the Earth, and stretching a Line upon it: And in another place as garnishing the Heavens, stretching out the North over the empty Place, and hanging the Earth upon nothing. This last noble Thought Milton has express’d in the following Verse:

And Earth self-ballanc’d on her Center hung.

The Beauties of Description in this Book lie so very thick, that it is impossible to enumerate them in this Paper. The Poet has employ’d on them the whole Energy of our Tongue. The several great Scenes of the Creation rise up to view one after another, in such a manner, that the Reader seems present at this wonderful Work, and to assist among the Choirs of Angels, who are the Spectators of it. How glorious is the Conclusion of the first Day.

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–Thus was the first Day Ev’n and Morn
Nor past uncelebrated nor unsung
By the Celestial Quires, when Orient Light
Exhaling first from Darkness they beheld;
Birth-day of Heavn and Earth! with Joy and Shout
The hollow universal Orb they fill’d.

We have the same elevation of Thought in the third Day, when the Mountains were brought forth, and the Deep was made.

Immediately the Mountains huge appear
Emergent, and their broad bare Backs up-heave
Into the Clouds, their Tops ascend the Sky:
So high as heav’d the tumid Hills, so low
Down sunk a hollow Bottom, broad and deep,
Capacious Bed of Waters–

We have also the rising of the whole vegetable World described in this Days Work, which is filled with all the Graces that other Poets have lavish’d on their Descriptions of the Spring, and leads the Readers Imagination into a Theatre equally surprising and beautiful.

The several Glories of the Heavns make their Appearance on the Fourth Day.

First in his East the glorious Lamp was seen,
Regent of Day; and all th’ Horizon round
Invested with bright Rays, jocund to round
His Longitude through Heavns high Road: the gray
Dawn, and the Pleiades before him danced,
Shedding sweet Influence. Less bright the Moon,
But opposite in level’d West was set,
His Mirror, with full face borrowing her Light
From him, for other Lights she needed none
In that aspect, and still that distance keeps
Till Night; then in the East her turn she shines,
Revolv’d on Heavns great Axle, and her Reign
With thousand lesser Lights dividual holds,
With thousand thousand Stars! that then appear’d
Spangling the Hemisphere–

One would wonder how the Poet could be so concise in his Description of the six Days Works, as to comprehend them within the bounds of an Episode, and at the same time so particular, as to give us a lively Idea of them. This is still more remarkable in his Account of the Fifth and Sixth Days, in which he has drawn out to our View the whole Animal Creation, from the Reptil to the Behemoth. As the Lion and the Leviathan are two of the noblest Productions in [the [7]] World of living Creatures, the Reader will find a most exquisite Spirit of Poetry in the Account which our Author gives us of them. The Sixth Day concludes with the Formation of Man, upon which the Angel takes occasion, as he did after the Battel in Heaven, to remind Adam of his Obedience, which was the principal Design of this his Visit.

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The Poet afterwards represents the Messiah returning into Heaven, and taking a Survey of his great Work. There is something inexpressibly Sublime in this part of the Poem, where the Author describes that great Period of Time, filled with so many Glorious Circumstances; when the Heavens and Earth were finished; when the Messiah ascended up in triumph thro the Everlasting Gates; when he looked down with pleasure upon his new Creation; when every Part of Nature seem’d to rejoice in its Existence; when the Morning-Stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.

So Ev’n and Morn accomplished the sixth Day:
Yet not till the Creator from his Work
Desisting, tho unwearied, up return’d,
Up to the Heavn of Heavns, his high Abode;
Thence to behold this new created World,
Th’ Addition of his Empire, how it shewed
In prospect from his Throne, how good, how fair,
Answering his great Idea: Up he rode,
Follow’d with Acclamation, and the Sound
Symphonious of ten thousand Harps, that tuned
Angelick Harmonies; the Earth, the Air
Resounding (thou rememberst, for thou heardst)
The Heavens and all the Constellations rung;
The Planets in their Station listning stood,
While the bright Pomp ascended jubilant.
Open, ye everlasting Gates, they sung,
Open, ye Heavens, your living Doors; let in
The great Creator from his Work return’d
Magnificent, his six Days Work, a World!

I cannot conclude this Book upon the Creation, without mentioning a Poem which has lately appeared under that Title. [8] The Work was undertaken with so good an Intention, and is executed with so great a Mastery, that it deserves to be looked upon as one of the most useful and noble Productions in our English Verse. The Reader cannot but be pleased to find the Depths of Philosophy enlivened with all the Charms of Poetry, and to see so great a Strength of Reason, amidst so beautiful a Redundancy of the Imagination. The Author has shewn us that Design in all the Works of Nature, which necessarily leads us to the Knowledge of its first Cause. In short, he has illustrated, by numberless and incontestable Instances, that Divine Wisdom, which the Son of Sirach has so nobly ascribed to the Supreme Being in his Formation of the World, when he tells us, that He created her, and saw her, and numbered her, and poured her out upon all his Works.


[Footnote 1: [Ovid.]]

[Footnote 2: On the Sublime, Sec. 8.]

[Footnote 3: Sec.14.]

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[Footnote 4: Longinus, Sec. 9:

“So likewise the Jewish legislator, no ordinary person, having conceived a just idea of the power of God, has nobly expressed it in the beginning of his law. And God said,–What? Let there be Light, and there was Light. Let the Earth be, and the Earth was.” ]

[Footnote 5: [looks like]:–]

[Footnote 6: Zechariah vi. i. ]

[Footnote 7: this]

[Footnote 8: Sir Richard Blackmore’s Creation appeared in 1712. Besides this praise of it from Addison, its religious character caused Dr. Johnson to say that if Blackmore

had written nothing else it would have transmitted him to posterity among the first favourites of the English muse.

But even with the help of all his epics it has failed to secure him any such place in the estimation of posterity. This work is not an epic, but described on its title page as a Philosophical Poem, Demonstrating the Existence and Providence of a God. It argues in blank verse, in the first two of its seven books, the existence of a Deity from evidences of design in the structure and qualities of earth and sea, in the celestial bodies and the air; in the next three books it argues against objections raised by Atheists, Atomists, and Fatalists; in the sixth book proceeds with evidences of design, taking the structure of man’s body for its theme; and in the next, which is the last book, treats in the same way of the Instincts of Animals and of the Faculties and Operations of the Soul. This is the manner of the Poem:

The Sea does next demand our View; and there
No less the Marks of perfect skill appear.
When first the Atoms to the Congress came,
And by their Concourse form’d the mighty Frame,
What did the Liquid to th’ Assembly call
To give their Aid to form the ponderous Ball?
First, tell us, why did any come? next, why
In such a disproportion to the Dry!
Why were the Moist in Number so outdone,
That to a Thousand Dry, they are but one,

It is hardly a mark of perfect skill that there are five or six thousand of such dry lines in Blackmore’s poem, and not even one that should lead a critic to speak in the same breath of Blackmore and Milton.]

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