Billeder på siden

within which we look for every thing that is sublime in description, tender in sentiment, and bold and lively in expression; and, therefore, though an author's plan should be faultless, and his story ever so well conducted, yet if he be feeble, or flat in style, destitute of affecting scenes, and deficient in poetical colouring, he can have no success. The ornaments which epic poetry admits, must all be of the grave and chaste kind. Nothing that is loose, ludicrous, or affected, finds any place there. All the objects which it presents ought to be either great, or tender, or pleasing. Descriptions of disgusting or shocking objects should as much as possible be avoided; and therefore the fable of the Harpies, in the third book of the Æneid, and the allegory of Sin and Death, in the second book of Paradise Lost, had been better omitted in these celebrated poems.

[ocr errors]



As the epic poem is universally allowed to possess the highest rank among poetical works, it merits a particular discussion. Having treated of the nature of this composition, and the principal rules relating to it, I proceed to make some observations on the most distinguished epic poems, ancient and modern.

Homer claims, on every account, our first attention, as the father, not only of epic poetry, but, in some measure, of poetry in general. Whoever sits down to read Homer, must consider that he is going to read the most ancient book in the world, next to the Bible. Without making this reflection, he cannot enter into the spirit, nor relish the composition of the author. He is not to look for the correctness and elegance of the Augustan age. He must divest himself of our modern ideas of dignity and refinement, and transport his imagination almost three thousand

years back in the history of mankind. What he is to expect is, a picture of the ancient world. He must reckon upon finding characters and manners, that retain a considerable tincture of the savage state; moral ideas, as yet imperfectly formed; and the appetites and passions of men brought under none of those restraints, to which, in a more advanced state of society, they are accustomed; but bodily strength, prized as one of the chief heroic endowments; the preparing of a meal, and the appeasing of hunger, described as very interesting objects; and the heroes boasting of themselves openly, scolding one another outrageously, and glorying, as we should now think very indecently, over their fallen enemies.

The opening of the Iliad possesses none of that sort of dignity which a modern looks for in a great epic poem. It turns on no higher subject than the quarrel of two chieftains about a female slave. The priest of Apollo beseeches Agamemnon to restore his daughter, who, in the plunder of a city, had fallen to Agamemnon's share of booty. He refuses. Apollo, at the prayer of his priest, sends a plague into the Grecian camp. The augur, when consulted, declares that there is no way of appeasing Apollo, but by restoring the daughter of his priest. Agamemnon is enraged at the augur; professes that he likes this slave better than his wife Clytemnestra; but since he must restore her in order to save the army,

insists to have another in her place; and pitches upon Briseis, the slave of Achilles. Achilles, as was to be expected, kindles into rage at this demand; reproaches him for his rapacity and insolence; and, after giving him many hard names, solemnly swears, that, if he is to be thus treated by the general, he will withdraw his troops, and assist the Grecians no more against the Trojans. He withdraws accordingly. His mother, the goddess Thetis, interests Jupiter in his cause; who, to revenge the wrong which Achilles had suffered, takes part against the Greeks, and suffers them to fall into great and long distress; until Achilles is pacified, and reconciliation brought about between him and Agamemnon.

Such is the basis of the whole action of the Iliad. Hence rise all those "speciosa miracula," as Horace terms them, which fill that extraordinary poem; and which have had the power of interesting almost all the nations of Europe during every age, since the days of Homer. The general admiration commanded by a poetical plan, so very different from what any one would have formed in our times, ought not, upon reflection, to be matter of surprise. For, besides that a fertile genius can enrich and beautify any subject on which it is employed, it is to be observed, that ancient manners, how much soever they contradict our present notions of dignity and refinement, afford, nevertheless, materials for poetry, superior

in some respects to those which are furnished by a more polished state of society. They discover human nature more open and undisguised, without any of those studied forms of behaviour which now conceal men from one another. They give free scope to the strongest and most impetuous emotions of the mind, which make a better figure in description than calm and temperate feelings. They shew us our native prejudices, appetites, and desires, exerting themselves without controul. From this state of manners, joined with the advantage of that strong and expressive style, which, as I formerly observed, commonly distinguishes the compositions of early ages, we have ground to look for more of the boldness, ease, and freedom of native genius, in compositions of such a period, than in those of more civilized times. And accordingly the two great characters of the Homeric poetry are, fire and simplicity. Let us now proceed to make some more particular observations on the Iliad, under the three heads of the subject and action, the characters, and narration of the poet.

The subject of the Iliad must unquestionably be admitted to be, in the main, happily chosen. In the days of Homer, no object could be more splendid and dignified than the Trojan war. So great a confederacy of the Grecian states, under one leader; and the ten years' siege which they carried on against Troy, must have spread far abroad the renown of many military exploits, and

[ocr errors]
« ForrigeFortsæt »