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LECTURE XLII.

EPIC POETRY.

IT now remains to treat of the two highest kinds of poetical writing, the epic and the dramatic. I begin with the epic. This Lecture shall be employed upon the general principles of that species of composition: after which, I shall take a view of the character and genius of the most celebrated epic poets.

The epic poem is universally allowed to be, of all poetical works, the most dignified, and, at the same time, the most difficult in execution. To contrive a story which shall please and interest all readers, by being at once entertaining, important, and instructive; to fill it with suitable incidents; to enliven it with a variety of characters, and of descriptions; and, throughout a long work, to maintain that propriety of sentiment, and that elevation of style, which the epic character raquires, is unquestionably the highest effort of poetical genius. Hence so very few have succeeded in the attempt, that strict critics will hardly allow any other poems to bear the name of epic except the Iliad, and the Æneid.

There is no subject, it must be confessed, on which critics have displayed more pedantry, than on this. By tedious disquisitions, founded on a servile submission to authority, they have given such an air of mystery to a plain subject, as to render it difficult for an ordinary reader to conceive, what an epic poem is. By Bossu's definition, it is a discourse invented by art, purely to form the manners of men, by means of instructions disguised under the allegory of some important action, which is related in verse. This definition would suit several of Esop's Fables, if they were

somewhat extended, and put into verse: and, accordingly, to illustrate his definition, the critic draws a parallel, in form, between the construction of one of Esop's Fables, and the plan of Homer's Iliad. The first thing, says he, which either a writer of fables, or of heroic poems, does, is, to choose some maxim or point of morality; to inculcate which, is to be the design of his work. Next, he invents a general story, or a series of facts, without any names, such as he judges will be most proper for illustrating his intended moral. Lastly, he particularises his story; that is, if he be a fabulist, he introduces his dog. his sheep, and his wolf; or if he be an epic poet, he looks out in ancient history for some proper names of heroes to give to his actors; and then his plan is completed.

This is one of the most frigid and absurd ideas that ever entered into the mind of a critic. Homer, he says, saw the Grecians divided into a great number of independent states; but very often obliged to unite into one body against their common enemies. The most useful instruction which he could give them in this situation, was, that a misunderstanding between princes is the ruin of the common cause. In order to enforce this instruction, he contrived, in his own mind, such a general story as this. Several princes join in a confederacy against their enemy. The prince who was chosen as the leader of the rest, affronts one of the most valiant of the confederates, who thereupon withdraws himself, and refuses to take part in the common enterprise. Great misfortunes are the consequence of this division; till, at length, both parties having suffered by the quarrel, the offended prince forgets his displeasure, and is reconciled to the leader; and union being once restored, there ensues complete victory over their enemies. Upon this general plan of his fable, adds Bossu, it was of no great consequence, whether, in filling it up, Homer had employed the names of beasts, like Æsop, or of men. He would have been equally instructive either way. But as he rather fancied to write of heroes, he pitched upon the wall of Troy for the scene of his fable; he feigned such an action to happen there; he gave the name of Agamemnon to the common leader; ́that of Achilles, to the offended prince; and so the Iliad arose.

He that can believe Homer to have proceeded in this manner, may believe any thing. One may pronounce, with great certainty, that an author who should compose according to such a plan; who should arrange all the subject in his own mind, with a view to the moral, before he had ever thought of the personages who were to be his actors, might write, perhaps, useful fables for children; but as to an epic poem, if he adventured to think of one, it would be such as would find few readers. No person of any taste can entertain a doubt, that the first objects which strike an epic poet are, the hero whom he is to celebrate, and the action, or story, which is to be the ground-work of his poem. He does not sit down, like a philosopher, to form the plan of a treatise of morality. His genius is fired by some great enterprize, which, to him, appears noble and interesting; and which, therefore, he pitches upon, as worthy of being celebrated in the highest strain of poetry. There is no subject of this kind, but will always afford some general moral instruction, arising from it naturally. The instruction which Bossu points out, is certainly suggested by the Iliad ; and there is another which arises as naturally, and may just as well be assigned for the moral of that poem ; namely, that Providence avenges those who have suffered injustice; but that when they allow their resentment to carry them too far, it brings misfortunes upon themselves. The subject of the poem is the wrath of Achilles, caused by the injustice of Agamemnon. Jupiter avenges Achilles by giving success to the Trojans against Agamemnon; but by continuing obstinate in his resentment, Achilles loses his beloved friend Patroclus. The plain account of the nature of an epic poem, is, the recital of some illustrious enterprise in a poetical form. This is as exact a definition, as there is any occasion for on this subject. It comprehends several other poems besides the Iliad of Homer, the Æneid of Virgil, and the Jerusalem of Tasso ; which are, perhaps, the three most regular and complete epic works that ever were composed. But to exclude all poems from the epic class, which are not formed exactly upon the same model as these, is the pedantry of criticism. We can give exact definitions and descriptions of minerals, plants, and animals: and can arrange them with precision, under the different classes to VOL. II. Kk

which they belong, because nature affords a visible unvarying standard, to which we refer them. But with regard to works of taste and imagination, where nature has fixed no standard, but leaves scope for beauties of many different kinds, it is absurd to attempt defining, and limiting them, with the same pre cision. Criticism, when employed in such attempts, degenerates into trifling questions about words and names only. I therefore have no scruple to class such poems, as Milton's Paradise Lost, Lucan's Pharsalia, Statius's Thebaid, Ossian's Fingal and Temora, Camoën's Lusiad, Voltaire's Henriade, Cambray's Telemachus, Glover's Leonidas, Wilkie's Epigoniad, under the same species of composition with the Iliad and the Æneid; though some of them approach much nearer than others, to the perfection of these celebrated works. They are, undoubtedly, all epic; that is, poetical recitals of great adventures; which is all that is meant by this denomination of poetry.

Though I cannot, by any means, allow, that it is the essence of an epic poem to be wholly an allegory, or a fable contrived to illustrate some moral truth, yet it is certain, that no poetry is of a more moral nature than this. Its effect in promoting virtue, is not to be measured by any one maxim, or instruction, which results from the whole history, like the moral of one of Æsop's fables. This is a poor and trivial view of the advantage to be derived from perusing a long epic work, that, at the end we shall be able to gather from it some commonplace morality. Its effect arises from the impression which the parts of the poem separately, as well as the whole taken together, make upon the mind of the reader; from the great exam ples which it sets before us, and the high sentiments with which it warms our hearts. The end which it proposes is to extend our ideas of human perfection: or, in other words, to excite admiration. Now this can be accomplished only by proper representations of heroic deeds and virtuous characters. For high virtue is the object, which all mankind are formed to admire; and, therefore, epic poems are, and must be, favourable to the cause of virtue. Valour, truth, justice, fidelity, friendship, piety, magnanimity, are the objects which, in the course of such compositions, are presented to our minds, under the most splendid and honourable colours. In behalf of virtuous,

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personages, our affections are engaged; in their designs, and their distresses, we are interested; the generous and public affections are awakened; the mind is purified from sensual and mean pursuits, and accustomed to take part in great heroic enterprises. It is indeed no small testimony in honour of virtue, that several of the most refined and elegant entertainments of mankind, such as that species of poetical composition which we now consider, must be grounded on moral sentiments and impressions. This is a testimony of such weight, that, were it in the power of sceptical philosophers, to weaken the force of those reasonings which establish the essential distinctions between vice and virtue, the writings of epic poets alone were sufficient to refute their false philosophy; showing by that appeal which they constantly make to the feelings of mankind in favour of virtue, that the foundations of it are laid, deep and strong, in human nature.

The general strain and spirit of epic composition, sufficiently mark its distinction from the other kinds of poetry. In pastoral writing, the reigning idea is, innocence and tranquillity. Compassion, is the great object of tragedy; ridicule, the province of comedy. The predominant character of the epic, is admiration excited by heroic actions. It is sufficiently distinguished from history, both by its poetical form, and the liberty of fiction which it assumes. It is a more calm composition than tragedy. It admits, nay requires, the pathetic and the violent, on particular occasions; but the pathetic is not expected to be its general character. It requires more than any other species of poetry, a grave, equal, and supported dignity. It takes in a greater compass of time and action, than dramatic writing admits; and thereby allows a more full display of characters. Dramatic writing displays characters chiefly by means of sentiments and passions; epic poetry, chiefly by means of actions. The emotions, therefore, which it raises, are not so violent, but they are more prolonged. These are the general characteristics of this species of composition. But, in order to give a more particular and critical view of it, let us consider the epic poem under three heads; first, with respect to the subject, or action; secondly, with respect to the actors or characters; and lastly, with respect to the narration of the poet,

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