« ForrigeFortsæt »
of vigour. The chief objection against this work being classed with epic poems, arises from the minute details of virtuous policy, into which the author in some places enters; and from the discourses and instructions of Mentor, which recur upon us too often, and too much in the strain of common-place morality. Though these were well suited to the main design of the author, which was to form the mind of a young prince, yet they seem not congruous to the nature of epic poetry; the object of which is to improve us by means of actions, characters, and sentiments, rather than by delivering professed and formal instruction.
Several of the epic poets have described a descent into hell; and in the prospects they have given us of the invisible world, we may observe the gradual refinement of men's notions concerning a state of future rewards and punishments. The descent of Ulysses into hell, in Homer's Odyssey, presents to us a very indistinct and dreary sort of object. The scene is laid in the country of the Cimmerians, which is always covered with clouds and darkness, at the extremity of the ocean. When the spirits of the dead begin to appear, we scarcely know whether Ulysses is above ground or below it. None of the ghosts, even of the heroes, appear satisfied with their condition in the other world; and when Ulysses endeavours to comfort Achilles, by reminding him of the illustrious figure which he must make in those regions, Achilles
roundly tells him, that all such speeches are idle ; for he would rather be a day-labourer on earth, than have the command of all the dead.
In the sixth book of the Eneid, we discern a much greater refinement of ideas, corresponding to the progress which the world had then made in philosophy: The objects there delineated are both more clear and distinct, and more grand and awful. The separate mansions of good and of bad spirits, with the punishments of the one, and the employments and happiness of the other, are finely described, and in consistency with the most pure morality. But the visit which Fenelon makes Telemachus pay to the shades, is much more philosophical still than Virgil's. He employs the same fables and the same mythology; but we find the ancient mythology refined by the knowledge of the true religion, and adorned with that beautiful enthusiasm for which Fenelon was so distinguished. His account of the happiness of the just is an excellent description in the mystic strain; and very expressive of the genius and spirit of the author.
Voltaire has given us, in his Henriade, a regular epic poem, in French verse. In every performance of that celebrated writer, we may expect to find marks of genius; and, accordingly, that work discovers, in several places, that boldness in the conceptions, and that liveliness and felicity in
the expression, for which the author is so remarkably distinguished. Several of the comparisons, in particular, which occur in it, are both new and happy. But, considered upon the whole, I cannot esteem it one of his chief productions; and am of opinion, that he has succeeded infinitely better in tragic than in epic composition. French versification seems ill adapted to epic poetry. Besides its being always fettered by rhyme, the language never assumes a sufficient degree of elevation or majesty; and appears to be more capable of expressing the tender in tragedy, than of supporting the sublime in epic. Hence a feebleness, and sometimes a prosaic flatness, in the style of the Henriade; and whether from this, or from some other cause, the poem often languishes. It does not seize the imagination, nor interest and carry the reader along, with that ardour which ought to be inspired by a sublime and spirited epic poem.
The subject of the Henriade is the triumph of Henry the Fourth over the arms of the League. The action of the poem, properly, includes only the siege of Paris. It is an action perfectly epic in its nature; great, interesting, and conducted with a sufficient regard to unity, and all the other critical rules. But it is liable to both the defects which I before remarked in Lucan's Pharsalia. It is founded wholly on civil wars, and presents to us those odious and detestable objects of massacres and assassinations, which throw a gloom over the
poem. It is also, like Lucan's, of too recent a date, and comes too much within the bounds of well-known history. To remedy this last defect, and to remove the appearance of being a mere historian, Voltaire has chosen to mix fiction with truth. The poem, for instance, opens with a voyage of Henry's to England, and an interview between him and Queen Elizabeth; though every one knows that Henry never was in England, and that these two illustrious personages never met. In facts of such public notoriety, a fiction like this shocks the reader, and forms an unnatural and ill-sorted mixture with historical truth. The episode was contrived, in order to give Henry an opportunity of recounting the former transactions of the civil wars, in imitation of the recital which Æneas makes to Dido in the Eneid. But the imitation was injudicious. Æneas might, with propriety, relate to Dido transactions of which she was either entirely ignorant, or had acquired only an imperfect knowledge by flying reports; but Queen Elizabeth could not but be supposed to be perfectly apprised of all the facts which the poet makes Henry recite to her.
In order to embellish his subject, Voltaire has chosen to employ a great deal of machinery. But here, also, I am obliged to censure his conduct; for the machinery which he chiefly employs is of the worst kind, and the least suited to an epic poem-that of allegorical beings. Discord, cun
ning, and love, appear as personages, mix with the human actors, and make a considerable figure in the intrigue of the poem. This is contrary to every rule of rational criticism. Ghosts, angels, and devils, have popular belief on their side, and may be conceived as existing. But every one knows, that allegorical beings are no more than representations of human dispositions and passions. They may be employed like other personifications and figures of speech; or, in a poem that is wholly allegorical, they may occupy the chief place. They are there in their native and proper region; but in a poem which relates to human transactions, as I had occasion before to remark, when such beings are described as acting along with men, the imagination is confounded; it is divided between phantasms and realities, and knows not on what to rest.
In justice, however, to our author, I must observe, that the machinery of St Louis, which he also employs, is of a better kind, and possesses real dignity. The finest passage in the Henriade, indeed one of the finest that occurs in any poem, is the prospect of the invisible world which St Louis gives to Henry in a dream, in the seventh canto. Death bringing the souls of the departed in succession before God; their astonishment when, arriving from all different countries and religious sects, they are brought into the Divine presence when they find their superstitions to be false,