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Epic Poetry.-Homer.-Apollonius Rhodius. Virgil.-Lucan.-Tasso.-Camoens.-Ere
MY DEAR JOHN,
THE day of epic poetry seems in a great measure to be passed by; and it is to be apprehended that no modern epic poem will have any permanent success; the rules, therefore, which I have to lay down, and the criticisms I shall have to advance, will rather respect the past than either the present or the future. In what has been done however, there is an immense field opened for admiration, and it is ever a most pleasing exercise of the mind to review the highest exertions of the human imagination, and to enumerate the triumphs of human genius.
Men destitute of taste may pass by with a supercilious contempt the petty wars between. a few piratical states of Greece, and a town (so
contemptible that the ruins are not even extant) on the opposite shore. But the work of Homer, which could make great things out of small, must still be contemplated, like the pyramids of Egypt, as an object which, being the work of man, cannot fail to interest us, while we feel we are men. No person in his senses believes the fabulous voyage of Æneas from Troy to Italy, much less the descent of the Cæsars from Ascanius; but every line of the poem which celebrates these imaginary topics contains fine poetical beauty; and while we read, in opposition to conviction, we involuntarily
"Hold each strange tale devoutly true."
Such is the charm of real poetry, and may I ever be such an intellectual epicure as to relish heartily these mental illusions!
"Perish that critic pride, which oft has hurl'd
To be diffuse in precepts for what I deem
almost impracticable, you must perceive would be absurd. Or if we admit that some genius of a superior cast should hereafter appear, he will be able to make laws for himself. A second Bonaparte, he will establish a new code of legislation for other nations of the world.
An epic poem is a representation, and in part a dramatic representation, of some important action.* Yet it essentially differs from all pieces composed for scenic exhibition. Dramatic compositions distinguish characters by the passions, epic poems by the actions. In an epic poem, however, there are three objects to be considered, the action, actors, and narrative. First, it is necessary that the ACTION should be one. I have had occasion often to shew the necessity of unity of action in every composition; and I may add, that this makes a fuller impression on the hearers than a number of incidents which have no connexion with one another. The unity of action has particularly been expected in this kind of composition, even since Aristotle's time, who first took particular
* Ότι δει τις μύθος καθαπερ εν ταις τραγωδίας συνιςαναι δραμα Tikus. Aristo Nepi moinriuns, c. 3. TRAPP, Prelect. Lec. xxix.
notice of it; but it must not be a slight unity, as the action of one man, but a strict connection, a train of means pointing to some end; so the main end of the Æneid is the establishment of Æneas in Italy. In the Odyssey, it is the return of Ulysses to Ithaca; and in the Iliad, the effects of the resentment of Achilles. Though it is not so sensible in the Odyssey, as the poet begins in the middle of the subject, yet it is more pleasant than in the Iliad, where we must always look back for the causes of the action to the commencement of the poem. Milton is very accurate as to unity. By closely adhering to unity, I do not however mean that every event should be exactly narrated according to the order of time, or that the poet should be always confined to one single action; he may, consistently with unity, introduce several episodes into his poem, but these must not be digressions from the main end and action, but lesser acts or inferior incidents. The word episode is derived from tragedy; the song of the chorus was the original part of that performance, and all the speeches which are introduced to give some respite to the chorus, were called episodes. The word, however, is employed in
a different sense by the moderns; for by them it is something not essential to the main action, but related or connected with it. Thus the adventures of Ulysses with Polyphemus, Circe, the Syrens, &c. are episodes. They have all some tendency to carry on the chief design; yet they are not so essentially necessary, but that any of them might be taken away without breaking in upon the chief action. Such are the adventures of Nisus and Euryalus, and the funeral games in Virgil. The descent of Æneas into hell is one part of the main action; but all things which happen there, except consulting his father, are episodes. It has been established as a general rule, that episodes ought never to be foreign to the main design, and that they ought not to be too long. As they are intended to diversify the poem, their chief design is ornament, and therefore they should be particularly elegant and finished. An epic poem on the whole should be entire or complete, according to Aristotle, and should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, which certainly is nonsense when applied to epic poetry exclusively, as it may serve for every composition which is not the raving of a madman. Again,