« ForrigeFortsæt »
there is no class of writers more freely censured than poets, and that by judges of all sorts, competent and incompetent; I shall attempt to answer some objections that may be made to the following performance, by persons not sufficiently acquainted with epic poetry, and the rules upon which it ought to be formed.
The beauties of the piece, if it has any, shall be left to be discovered by the reader for himself. This is his undoubted privilege; and I have no intention to break in upon it: neither would it be of any adrantage to do so; for poetical beauties, if they are real, will make themselves observed, and hare their full effect without a comment.
Some will object to the choice of the subject, That it is taken from the history of an age and nation, the particular manners of which are not now well known, and therefore incapable of being justly represented by any modern author. This objection will appear to be of little consequence, when we consider that the fact upon which it proceeds is so far from being strictly true, that there are none who have any tolerable share of classical learning, that are not better acquainted with the manners and customs of the heroic ages, than with those of their own country, at the distance of a few centuries. Neither is this knowledge of ancient manners confined to the learned ; the vulgar themselves, from the books of Moses, and other accounts of the first periods of the Jewish state, are sufficiently instructed in the customs of the earliest times, to be able to relish any work where these are justly represented. With what favour, for instance, has Mr. Pope's translation of the Iliad been received by persons of all conditions ? and how much is it commonly preferred to the Fairy Queen, a poem formed upon manners of a much more modern cast. But supposing the fact upon which the objection proceeds to be true, and that the customs and manners peculiar to the times from which the subject of the poem is taken are not now well understood, I do not apprehend that, even with this concession, the objection amounts to any thing considerable ; for manners are to be distinguished into two kinds, universal and particular. Universal manners, are those which arise from the original frame and constitution of the baman nature, and which consequently are the same in all nations and periods of the world. Particular manners, on the other hand, consist of such customs and modes of behaviour as proceed from the influence of partial causes, and that shift and vary as those causes do upon which they depend. To make myself understood by an example: it is agreeable to common or universal manners, to be angry and resent an injury; but particular manners, in ordinary cases, determine the methods of reFenge. For great offences, an Italian poisons his enemy; a Spaniard stabs him over the shoulder ; and a Frenchman seeks satisfaction in a duel. From this example, it will be ensy to see that particolar manners ought to appear but very little, either in epic poetry, tragedy, or any other of the higher kinds of poetical composition ; for they are vulgar and depend upon custom : but great passions and bigh characters reject ordinary forms; and therefore must, upon every occasion, break through all the common modes both of speech and behaviour. Though ancient manners, therefore, were not so precisely known as they are, I should imagine, that a story taken from the accounts which we have of the heroic ages, might very well serve for the subject of an epic poem, and have all the advantages necessary in respect of that species of composition,
It may likewise be alleged, that I have done wrong in choosing for my subject a piece of history which has no connection with present affairs; and that, if I had done otherwise, my work would have been more interesting and useful.
This objection, seemingly a very material one, admits, notwithstanding, of an easy answer, viz. that subjects for epic poetry ought always to be taken from periods too early to fall within the reach of true history. And, if this rule is shown to be essential, which I shall attempt to do in what follows, it will be found to be impossible that any subject proper for that kind of writing should have a connection with present affairs. The proper business of epic poetry is to extend our ideas of human perfection, or, as the critics express it, to excite admiration. In order to do this in any tolerable degree, characters must be magnified, and accommodated rather to our notions of heroic greatness,than to the real state of human pature. There appears a certain littleness in all men, when traly known, which checks admiration, and confines it to very narrow limits; heroes, themselves, though possessed of the greatest qualities, are, in most circumstances of their condition, so much upon a level with the ordinary run of mankind, that such as bave an opportunity of being intimately acquainted with them, do not admire them at the same rate that others do, who view them only at a distance. The common conditions of humanity lessen every man; anıl there are inany little circumstances inseparably connected with our state of being, which we cannot easily reconcile with our idea of Epaminondas, Plato, Scipio, or Cæsar. From all this it plainly appears, that admiration claims for its object something superior to mere humanity; and therefore such poems as have it for their end to excite admiration, ought to celebrate those persons only that never have been treated of by regular historians. For history gives to all things their just and natural dimensions; and, if it should interfere with poetical fiction, would effectually confute those beautiful legends which are invented to raise our ideas of character and action, above the standard at which experience bas fixed them.
Let it be observed, as a further confirmation of the maxim which I am establishing, that there is in our minds a principle which leads us to admire past tiines, especially those which are most remote from our own. This prejudice is strong in us; and, without being directed or assisted by art, forms in the mere vulgar of all countries, the most extravagant notions of the stature, strength, and other heroic qualities of their remote ancestors. This prejudice, so favourable to poetical fiction, true bistory effectually destroys ; and therefore poets, that they may have the advantage of it, ought to celebrate those persons and events only that are of so great antiquity, as not to be remembered with any degree of certainty and exactness,
But, instead of a thousand arguments to this purpose, let us only consider the machinery which must be employed in an epic poem : how Heaven and Hell must both be put in motion, and brought into the action, how events altogether out of the common road of human affairs, and no ways countenanced either by reason or by experience, must be offered to men's imagination, so as to be admitted for true. Let us consider all this, and it will appear, that there is nothing which poets ought more carefully to, avoid, than interfering with such regular and well vouched accounts of things as would effectually confute their fable, and make the meanest reader reject it with contempt. This is a point of prudence which no poet has yet neglected with impunity. Lucan, according to his usual rashness, has taken for the subject of an epic poem, one of the best known events which he could have pitched upon in the whole series of human affairs; and in order to distinguish himself from a mere historian, is often wwder a necessity of starting from his subject, and employing the whole force of a very lively and fruitful invention, in unnecessary descriptions and trifling digressions. This, besides other inconveniences of greater importance, gives such an appearance of labour and straining to his whole performance, as takes much from the merit of it, with all who have any notion of ease, majesty, and simplicity in writing. He, and all other poets who bave fallen into the same errour, find always this disadvantage attending it, that the true and fictitious parts of their work refuse to unite, and standing as it were at a distance, upon terms of mutual aversion, reproach each other with their peculiar defects. Fiction accuses truth of narrowness and want of dignity; and this again represents the other as vain and extravagant. Spenser, who, in bis Fairy Queen, not only treats of matters within the sphere of regular bistory, but describes even the transactions of his own time, in order to avoid the inconveniences which he knew to be almost inseparable from such an attempt, covers his story with a veil of allegory, that few of his readers are able to penetrate. This stratagem leaves him at full liberty in the exercise of his invention ; but he pays, in my opinion, too dear for that privilege, by sacrificing to it all the weight and authority which a mixture of received tradition and real geography would have given to his
fable. Milton takes the subjects of both his great poems from true history, yet does not succeed the worse upon that account. But it is to be remembered, that his chief actors are not men, but divine and angelical beings; and that it is the human nature only which suffers by a just representation, and loses in point of dignity, when truly known. Besides, the historical circumstances upon which he builds are so few, and of so extraordinary a nature, that they are easily accommodated to poetical fiction ; and therefore, instead of limiting him, and setting bounds to his invention, they serve only to countenance and give a degree of credibility to whatever he pleases to feigne Shakespeare may likewise be quoted as an exception to the general rule, who takes the subjects of many of his pieces from periods of the English history not very remote, and, notwithstanding, succeeds remarkably in exciting the heroic passion. That Shakespeare makes us admire his heroes is undeniable; and no man of common sense will ever pretend to assert, that real characters of great men, touched up and heightened by a poetical fancy, will not very naturally excite admiration. But there are different degrees of this passion, as well as of all others: and it is evident, that the degree of it which Shakespeare intends to raise, is not equal to that which Homer aims at, and the other writers of the epic tribe. We admire Do character in Shakespeare's works more than that of Henry V. but the idea which Homer gives us of Achilles is still more noble and august. · The tragedian mixes so much of the ordinary man in the character of his hero, that we become too familiar with him to admire him in a high degree : for in those very pieces in which he is represented as performing his most remarkable exploits, he is often found at his leisure hours amusing himself with a knot of humourists, pickpockets, and buffoons. I do not pretend to censure Shakespeare for this conduct; because it is not the business of a tragedian to make us admire, but to interest our other affections: and, to make his heroes very much objects of admiration, would possibly be one of the greatest errours that an author of that kind could fall into : for the principle of compassion, to which tragedy is peculiarly addressed, is incompatible with high admiration ; and a man, in order either to be loved or pitiedl, must appear with evident symptoms of the weaknesses common to the rest of the human kind. It is our own image in distress which afflicts us; and we never pity one under calamities, who is not weak enough to be mored by them. Homer, upon this account, never attempts to excite pity, but from such private and domestic distresses as show his heroes in the light of ordinary men. Sophocles likewise, from a just apprehension that the heroic passion interferes with the proper spirit of tragedy, lessens on purpose the great characters which he introduces, and strips them of more than half their dignity. Though therefore Shakespeare makes us admire his heroes as much as a tragedian ought to do, and even more, in some instances, than the rules of art would justify; yet, as the degree of admiration which he excites is less by far than that which epic poetry aims at, it may well be raised from subjects that are strictly historical, though the higher degrees of that passion cannot. Were my judgma of sufficient authority in matters of criticism, I would bare it understood as a rule, that the subjects of epic poetry should be taken from tradition only; that tragedy should keep within the limits of true history; and that comedy, without meddling at all with historical facts, should expose vice and folly in recent instances, and from living examples. That part of the rule which regards epic poetry, is sufficiently justified from what has been already said; and, concerning tragedy, I have likewise observed, that it ought not to exalt its greatest characters above the standard of real life. From this it will follow, that it may be strictly historical without losing any real advantage, and attain its full perfection without the assistance of table. I believe it will be easily allowed, that where truth and fiction are equally subservient to the purposes of poetry, the first onght'always to be preferred ; for true history carries a weight and authority with it, which seldom attend stories that are merely fictitious, and has many other adrantages for interesting our affections above the legends of remote antiquity. But as tragedy should never go so far back as the fabulous ages, neither should it, in my opinion, approach too near to the present times; for though it does not aim at raising and gratifying the passion of admiration, yet it bas a degree of dignity to maintain, which it would endanger by treating of events too recent, and characters too particularly remembered. Comedy, on the other hand, and indeed every species of satire whatsoever, ought to attack living charac ars only, and the vices and follies of present times, That imperfection which appears in every thing when viewed near, a circumstance so unfavourable to the genius of epic poetry and tragedy, falls in precisely with that of comedy, a kind of writing which has no dignity to support, points always at what is ridiculous, and marks its objects with characters of littleness and contempt. We naturally admire past times, and reference the dead; and consequently are not so much disposed to laugh at fools, who have already imished their parts, and retired, as at
fools who are yet upon the stage. The ancient comedy of the Greeks, which proceeded upon this maxim, was certainly, upon that account, the most perfect species of satire that ever was invented. Homer, as he exceeds all other poets in merit, has likewise the advantage of them in point of good fortune; the condition of the age in which he wrote gave him an opportunity of celebrating, in his poems, events, which though they were in his days of no great antiquity, and consequently the more interesting, yet had fallen, through the want of authentic records, into so happy a degree of obscurity, that he was at full liberty to feign concerning them what he pleased without any danger of confutation. This is an advantage wbich succeeding poets could not boast of; and therefore have found themselves under a necessity, either of taking their subjects from remote antiquity, as I have done, or, (which, in my opinion, is worse) of attempting to mix fable with true history, which never can be done with success.
The mythology in the following poem will probably give offence to some readers, who will think it indecent for a Christian to write in such a manner as to suppose the truth of a Heathen religion. They will be of opinion, that it would have been better, either to have introduced no religious system at all, or to bave chosen such a subject as would have admitted of the true system. I shall endeavour to answer this objection, by establishing two maxims directly opposite to what is proposed in the preceding alternative, and show not only that divine beings are necessary characters in an epic poem, but likewise that it is highly improper to introduce the true God into a work of that nature. If these two points are fully made out, the force of the objection will be taken away. As to the first of them, let us again consider the end which epic poetry proposes to itself: it aims at exciting admiration, by setting before us images of whatever is great and noble in the human character : it is necessary for this purpose that a poet should give his heroes, not only all those intrinsic qualities which make men admired, but that he should magnify them likewise by a skilful management of outward circumstances. We do not form our notions either of persons or things from their real qualities only; circumstances of a foreign nature, and merely accessory, have as great an influence as these in determining our approbation and dislike. This observation shows the importance of mythology to epic poetry; for nothing can render a person of greater consequence in the eye of the world, than an opinion that the gods regard him with a peculiar degree of attention, and are unuch interested in all that relates to him. If people are once considered as the favourites of Heaven, or instruments chosen for the accomplishment of its important purposes ; poets may tell of them what great things they please, without seeming to exaggerate, or say any thing that exceeds the bounds of probability. Homer was certainly of this opinion, when he ascribed, to his heroes, valour and other great qualities in so immoderate a degree; for, had the gods never interposed in any of the events which he celebrates ; had his chief actors been no ways connected with them, either in point of favour or consanguinity, and represented, at the same time, as performing the high exploits which he ascribes to them, instead of being applauded as the first of poets, he would have been censured as the most false and most credulous of historians. This argument in favour of poetical mythology, with another which might be taken from the advantage it is of in point of ornament, and a third from its use in allegory, has determined almost all the writers who have followed the epic or heroic style, to allow it a place in their compositions : such of them as have taken their subject from Greek or Roman story, have adopted the mythology of Homer; and the rest, in celebrating more modern heroes, have, instead of that, made use of the true religion, corrupted by an unnatural mixture of northern superstition and Grecian fable. From a practice therefore so universal, we may justly infer, that poets have looked upon mythology as a thing of great use in their compositions, and almost essential to the art.
It may be alleged, after all that has been said, that, to bring gods into epic poetry, is inconvenient ou many accounts; that it prevents a proper display of character in the human actors, turning them all into so many machines, to be mored and guided by the immediate impulses of deity ; that it breaks in upon the order of natural causes, and renders all art, either in the plan or conduct of a work, superfluous and unnecessary. If what this objeztion supposes were true, and that the mixing of gods with men in the action of an epic poem, necessarily turned the whole into miracle ; if it were an unavoidable consequence of this method, that the human actors should be governed in all they do by divine impulse determining them, without regard to their natural characters, and the probable motives which ought to influence them: in short, if mythology could have no place in a poem, but at the expense of manners, order, connection, and every other thing that can render a work either beautiful or instructive, it would be an argument against it of such weight, as nothing alleged in its favour would
be able to counterbalance. But the objection is by no means well founded; for, though there may be an indiscreet application of mythology, productive of all those ill effects which have been mentioned ; yet it is obvious, both from reason and experience, that mythology may be managed in such a manner as to be attended with none of them. And this will appear from a very obvious example : the greatest part of mankind, in every age, have believed that gods and superior beings govern and direct the course of human affairs. Many individuals, and even whole nations, have thought that all the actions and events of our lives are predetermined by an over-ruling power, and that we suffer the control of an irresistible necessity in all we do : yet this opinion never changes the moral feelings of such as entertain it, and their judgment of characters and actious ; they love and hate, approve and disapprove, admire and despise, in the same manner as others do who believe that men are absolutely free, and that their final determinations proceed only from themselves. But when it is understood, that people act without consciousness, or that the organs of their bodies are not under the dominion of their own wills, but actuated by some other being without their consent; in short, when mere physical necessity is substituted in place of moral, all idea of character, all sense of approbation and disapproba tion immediately ceases. From this fact, the truth of which nobody will dispute, it is easy to judge in what cases the interposition of gods in the action of a poem will prevent a proper display of the human characters, and when not. Volition, as appears by the example now given, is that upon which all our moral ideas are founded : so long then as volition is exerted, there is a character, and, when that ceases, the character is lost. If therefore the deities in a poem are employed in animating and deterring the heroes, only by suggesting such motives as are proper to influence their wills; such interposition by no means interferes with the display of character, but rather favours ít; for the quality of every mind may be known from the motives by which it is determined ; and Minerva's prevailing with Pandarus to be guilty of a piece of treachery, by suggesting that Paris would reward him for it, discovered the venality of his temper as much as if he had done the same action from a like motive occurring to himself.
. Poets often make the gods infuse an uncommon degree of vigour into their heroes, for answering some great occasion, and add to the grace and dignity of their figure. Sometimes they make a secondrate hero the first in a particular action, and, with their assistance, he distinguishes himself above such as are at other times more remarkable for valour and success; all this is so agreeable to what happens naturally, and from mere mechanical causes, that we forget the gods, and interpret what happens as if they had not interposed at all. For every body knows, that when people are roused to any remarkable exertion of force, they become stronger than they are at other times; and that, when in this manner the spirits rise to an uncommon height, the whole body acquires new graces. Valour is not a fixed and permanent quality, nor is it found in any one always in the same degree. Plutarch observes, that of all the virtues it exerts itself most irregularly, and rises by fits like a divine inspira. tion. The sense which every man has of these things, makes him look upon the interposition of gods in such cases as a mythological way of expressing what is merely natural, and allow such as perform the great actions in a poem to possess the whole merit of them. It never lessens our opinion of Hector's valour, for instance, that Apollo often assists him; nor do we think Ulysses less prudent, because he is guided by the influence of Minerva. We have as clear impressions of those, and the other Homeric characters, as we have of any characters whatsoever, and discern their limits and distinguishing marks as clearly, as if they had acted altogether of themselves. That superior beings should be einployed in governing the events of things, and interposing by thunder, earthquakes, inundations, pestilences, and the like, can never be thought unnatural in poetry, by any one who believes that Providence actually manages the affairs of the world by such means. It belongs to men to design and act, but to Heaven alone to determine events. Though a poet, therefore, should represent an army Keaker and worse conducted, prevailing, in consequence of that kind of interposition which has been mentioned, over another, evidently better and stronger; there would be nothing unnatural in such an account, or contrary to what is often experienced in real affairs.
After all that bas been said, it must be owned, that if gods are brought in upon slight occasions, and for trifling purposes ; if they are put upon working miracles in order to cover blunders either in the plan or execution of a poem, and employed in cutting such knots as the author himself has not the skill or patience to untie; it must be owned, I say, that this is a very wrong application of mythology, and attended with all the disadvantages which the objection mentions. It is a stratagem, which, if often practised, would teach the reader at last to disregard all appearances, and, when the most important periods of affairs were approaching, to remain quite secure and uninterested, trusting that a