« AnteriorContinuar »
is observed? What comparisons does
ANALYSIS. Bishop Lowth make? of most of the
2 or most of the í 1. Introductory remarks,
2. Music and poetry very early cultivated. books of Isaiah, and of Jeremiah and
3. Its construction peculiar to itself. Ezekiel, what is farther observed ? | 4. Its remarkable conciseness and strength. Among the minor poets, who are dis- | A. The boldness of its figures. tinguished for poetical spirit; and in B. Natural objects figuratively used. whose prophecies is there no poetry?
C. Awful and terrible imagery introduced.
D. Religious rights employed. Of what does it still remain for us to
E. Their imagery,expressive and natural. speak? What are the general reinarks F. Their comparisons short and pointed. made upon it? Of the poetry of the | G. Allegory of frequent use. book of Job, what is observed ? How is. H. Personification their boldest figure. this illustrated ? Repeat the passage
15. The different kinds of Hebrew poetiy.
596. Distinguished Hebrew poets. with which these remarks are closed.
A. The book of Job.
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 requires, 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 Æsop'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 Æsop'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 particularizes 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 the 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 enterprise, 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 on 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 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 precision. 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, Camoëns' 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 story, 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 common-place 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 examples 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 cther 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 virtu
ous 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 skeptical 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 pic 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 writings display 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.
The action, or subject of the epic poem, must have three properties; it must be one; it must be great; it must be interesting.
First, it mast be one action, or enterprise, which the poet chooses for his subject. I have frequently had occasion to remark the importance of unity, in many kinds of composition, in order to make a full and strong impression upon the mind. With the highest reason, Aristotle insists upon this, as essential to epic poetry ; and it is, indeed, the most material of all his rules respecting it. For it is certain, that, in the recital of heroic adventures, several scattered and independent facts can never affect a reader so deeply, nor engage his attention so strongly, as a tale that is one and connected, where the several incidents hang upon one another, and are all made to conspire for the accomplishment of one end. In a regular epic, the more sensible this unity is rendered to the imagination, the better will be the effect; and, for this reason, as Aristotle has observed, it is not sufficient for the poet to confine himself to the actions of one man, or to those which happened during a certain period of time; but the unity must lie in the subject itself; and arise from all the parts combining into one whole.
In all the great epic poems, unity of action is sufficiently apparent. Virgil, for instance, has chosen for his subject, the establishment of Æneas in Italy. From the beginning to the end of the poem, this object is ever in our view, and links all the parts of it together with full connexion. The unity of the Odyssey is of the same nature; the return and re-establishment of Ulysses in his own country. The subject of Tasso, is the recovery of Jerusalem from the infidels; that of Milton, the expulsion of our first parents from Paradise; and both of them are unexceptionable in the unity of the story. The professed subjecu of the Iliad, is the anger of Achilles, with the consequences which it produced. The Greeks carry on many unsuccessful engagements against the Trojans, as long as they are deprived of the assistance of Achilles. Upon his being appeased and reconciled to Agamemnon, victory follows, and the poem closes. It must be owned, however, that the unity, or connecting principle, is not quite so sensible to the imagination here as in the Æneid. For, throughout many books of the Iliad, Achilles is out of sight; he is lost in inaction, and the fancy terminates on no other object, than the success of the two armies whom we see contending in war.
The unity of the epic action is not to be so strictly interpreted, as if it excluded all episodes, or subordinate actions. It is necessary to observe here, that the term episode is employed by Aristotle, in a different sense from what we now give to it. It was a term originally applied to dramatic poetry, and thence transferred to epic; and by episodes, in an epic poem, it should seem that Aris. totle understood the extension of the general fable, or plan of the poem, into all its circumstances. What his meaning was, is indeed not very clear; and this obscurity has occasioned much altercation among critical writers. Bossu, in particular, is so perplexed upon this subject, as to be almost unintelligible. But, dismissing so fruitless a controversy, what we now understand by episodes, are certain actions, or incidents, introduced into the narration, connected with the principal action, yet not of such importance as to destroy, if they had been omitted, the main subject of the poem. Of this nature are the interview of Hector with Andromache, in the Iliad; the story of Cacus, and that of Nisus and Euryalus, in the Æneid; the adventures of Tancred with Erminia and Clorinda, in the Jerusalem; and the prospect of his descendants exhibited to Adam, in the last books of Paradise Lost.
Such episodes as these, are not only permitted to an epic poet, but, provided they be properly executed, are great ornaments to his work. The rules regarding them are the following: