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Ir 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 Esop, 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 groundwork 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, whcih, 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 natu
rally, 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,