Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

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 predeterinined 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 actions ; they love and hate, appiove 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 disapprubation 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 mezns interferes with the display of character, but rather favours it; 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 happeus 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 olsserves, that of all the virtues it exerts itself most irregularly, and rises by fits like a divine inspiration. 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 employed 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 Hearen alone to deterinine events. Though a poet, therefore, should represent an army weaker and worse conducted, prevailing, in consequence of that kind of interposition which has been thentioned, over another, evidently better and stronger; there would be nothing unnatural in such an aecount, or contrary to what is often experienced in real affairs.

After all that has been said, it must be owned, that if gods are brought in upon slight occasions, and for triling 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

[ocr errors][merged small][ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

I the

irudies

god would always be at hand in time of need to manage every thing as the poet would have it, ánd put all to rights by the shortest and most effectual methods. I have considered this objection at greater length, because at first view it appears very plausible; and shall proceed to what remains, after 1 have taken notice of another, which has likewise some appearance of force. It will be thought inconvenient, as it is the design of epic poetry to raise and dignify human characters, that gods should appear with men in the same scenes of action. It will be alleged, that in this case the divine persons will necessarily overshadow the human, lessen them by a comparison, and consequentlý produce an effect directly opposite to what is intended. This objection, however plausible, does not seem to be supported by experience; at least I never found in any instance, that the splendour of the divine characters in a poem cclipsed the human. Besides, this is what camiot easily happen ; for, let us sup pose two parties of boys engaged in some trial, either of force or skill, and that a few men take part in the debate, dividing themselves between the opposite sides, and assisting them against each other, would the exploits of the full-grown men, however remarkable, lessen those of the boys ? by no means; for things that are confessedly unequal, never come into competition, and therefore cannot be either lessened or magnified by appearing together. Are we less disposed to admire the valour of Achilles, because it is understood he was not a match for Jupiter? or the sagacity of Ulysses, because bis penetration was not equal to that of Minerva ? But there is one circumstance which renders it absolutely impossible for the gods in epic poetry to eclipse the men in point of heroism ; and it is this, that the gods are immortal, and consequently cannot exert that in which heroism chiefly consists, viz. the contempt of death. Homer, in order to give his deities as much of that quality as possible, has made them vulnerable and susceptible of pain ; a freedom which has shocked some of the critics, who did not attend to the reason of his doing so. But Homer was too good a judge of propriety, not to be sensible that no person could appear with advantage in military actions, who ventur'd nothing in point of personal safety; and that stature, force, magnificent armour, and even the highest achievements, will never constitute the heroic character, where patience and a contempt of danger have no opportunity of appearing. It is this circumstance which gives the mortals in epic poetry a manifest advantage over the immortals ; and Mars, when ushered into the field with all the pomp and magnificence of Homeric description, is an object less to be admired than Diorned, Ajax, and many others who combat bravely, though conscious of mortality. Homer, who has managed his great characters with the truest judgment and strictest attention to circumstances, takes care to have Achilles early informed that he was to perish at Troy, else he might seem too conscious of safety, from his matchless valour and the armour which he wore, to be great in that which is most to be admired, the contempt of death; wherr the danger of it is imminent. It must be acknowledged, that in Milton's Paradise Lost, the persons in machinery over-shadow the human characters, and that the heroes of the poem are all of them immortals: but then it is to be remembered, that Paradise Lost is a work altogether irregular; that the subject of it is not epic, but tragic; and that Adam and Eve are not designed to be objects of admiration, but of pity: it is tragic in its plot, and epic in its dress and machinery: as a tragedy, it does not fall under the present question; and as an epic poem, it evades it likewise, by a circumstance very uncommon, viz. that in the part of it which is properly epic, there are no human persons at all.

I have in this manner endeavoured to prove that mythology is necessary to an epic poem, and that the chief objections to the use of it are of little consequence. I proceed to establish the other proposition which I mentioned, and show, that the true God onght not to be brought into a work of that nature. And if this proposition can be made out, it will easily appear from it and the preceding one taken together, that poets are under a necessity of having recourse to a false theology, and that they are not to be blamed for doing what the nature of epic poetry on the one hand, and respect to the true religion on the other, render necessary and unavoidable. For proving the point in question, E need only observe, that no person can appear with advantage in poetry, who is not represented according to the form and condition of a man. This art addresses itself chiefly to the imagination, a faculty which apprehends nothing in the way of character that is not human, and according to the analogy of that nature of which we ourselves are conscious. But it would be equally impious and absurd to represent the deity in this manner, and to contrive for him a particular character, and method of acting, agreeable to the prejudices of weak and ignorant mortals. In the early ages of the church, he thought fit to accommodate himself, by such a piece of condescension, to the notions and apprehensions of his creatures : but it would be indecent in any man to use the same freedom, and do that for God, which he only has a right to do for himself. The author of Paradise Lost bas offended nota

1

$

Tiously in this respect; and, though no encomiums are too great for him as a poet, he is justly chargeable with impiety, for presuming to represent the Divine Nature, and the mysteries of religion, accurding to the narrowness of human prejudice: his dialogues between the Father and the Son ; his employing a Being of infinite wisdom in discussing the subtleties of school divinity; the sensual views which he gives of the happiness of Heaven, admitting into it, as a part, not only real eating and drinking, but another kind of animal pleasure too by no means more refined : these, and such like circumstances, though perfectly poetical, and agreeable to the genius of an art which adapts every thing to the human mode, are, at the same time, so inconsistent with truth, and the exalted ideas which we ought to entertain of divine things, that they must be highly offensive to all such as have just impressions of religion, and would not choose to see a system of doctrine revealed from Heaven, reduced to a state of conformity with heathen superstition. True theology ought not to be used in an epic poem, for another reason, of no less weight than that which has been mentioned, viz. That the human characters which it represents should never be formed upon a perfect moral plan, but have their piety (for instance) tinctured with superstition, and their general behaviour influenced by affection, passion, and prejudice. This will be thought a violent paradox, by such as do not know that imperfect characters interest us more than perfect ones, and that we are doubly instructed when we see, in one and the same example, both what we ought to follow and what we ought to avoid. Accordingly Horace, in his Epistle to Lollius, where he bestows the highest encomiums upon thc Iliad, as a work which delineated vice and virtue better than the writings of the most celebrated philosophers, says of it, notwithstanding, that it is taken up in describing the animosities of foolish kings and infatuated nations. To go to the bottom of this matter, it will be proper to observe, that men are capable of two sorts of character, which may be distinguisbed by the names of natural and artificial. The natural character implies all those feelings, passions, desires, and opinions, which men have from nature and common experience, independent of speculation and moral refinement. A person of this character looks upon outward prosperity as a real good, and considers the calamities of life as real evils ; loves his friends, hates his enemies, admires his superiors, is assuming with respect to his inferiors, and stands upon terms of rivalship with his equals; in short, is governed by all those passions and opinions that possess the hearts and determine the actions of ordinary men. The force and magnitude of this character is in proportion to the strength of these natural dispositions; and its virtue consists in having the generous and beneficent ones predominant. As to that sort of character, again, which I distinguished by the name of artificial; it consists in a habit of mind formed by discipline, according to the cool and dispassionate dictates of reason. This character is highly maral, but, in my opinion, far less poetical than the other, by being less fit for interesting our affections, which are formed by the wise Author of our nature for embracing such beings as are of the same temper and comp!exion with ourselves, and are marked with the common infirmities of human nature. Persons of the high philosophic character, are too firm and unmoved, amidst the calamities they meet with, to excite much sympathy, and are too much superior to the sallies of passion and partial affection, the popular marks of generosity and greatness of mind, ever to be much admired by the bulk of mankind. If the most accomplished poet in the world should take a rigid philosopher for the chief character either of an epic poem or a tragedy, it is easy to conjecture what would be the success of such an attempt; the work would assume the character of its hero, and be culd, dispassionate, and uninteresting. There is, however, a species of panegyric proper for such sort of perfection, and it may be represented to advantage, either in history or prose dialogue, but it will nerer strike the bulk of mankind. Platn, in bis apology of Socrates, deceives us; as Mr. Addison likewise dues in bis tragedy of Cato: for both of them attempt to persuade us, that we are affected with the contemplation of unshaken fortitude, while we are only sympathizing with suffering innocence. The tenderness of humanity appearing through the hardness of the philosophic character, is that which affects us in both instances, and not that unconquered greatness of mind, which occasions rather wonder and astonishment than genuine aflection.

From what has been said, it is easy to infer, that the great characters, both in epic poetry and tragedy, ought not to be formed upor. a perfect moral plan; and therefore heroes themselves must often be represented as acting from such motives, and governed by such affections, as impartial reason can. Dot approre of: but it would be highly indecent to make a being, whoin religion teaches us to consi. der as perfect, enter into the views of such persons, and exert bimself in order to promote their extra, cagant enterprizes. This would be to bring down the infinite wisdom of God to the level of human fully, and to make hiin altogether such an one as ourselves.

к

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

TOL. XSI.

A false theology, therefore, ought rather to be employed in poetical compositions than the true; for, as the superior beings which are introduced must of necessity be represented as assuming the passions and opinions of those whom they favour, it is surely much safer to employ a set of imaginary beings for this purpose, than God himself, and the blessed angels, who ought always to be objects of

our reverence.

The same reasoning which leads to this conclusion, will likewise make us sensible, that among false religions, those ought to be preferred which are least connected with the true; for the superstitions which priests and poets have built upon the Christian faith, dishonour it, and therefore should, if pos. sible; be buried in oblivion. The ancient Greek thcology seems upon all accounts the fitlest. It has no connection with the true system, and therefore may be treated with the greatest freedom, without indecency or ground of offence. It consists of a number of beautiful fables, suited to the taste of the most lively and ingenious people that ever existed, and so much calculated to ravish and transport a warm imagination, that many poets in modern times, who proceeded upon a different theology, have notwithstanding been so bewitched with its charms, as to adınit it into their works, though it clashed violently with the system wbich they had adopted. Milton is remarkable in this respect; and the more so, as his poem is altogether of a religious nature, and the subject of it taken from holy writ.

Some may possibly imagine, that the following work would have had greater merit, if it had offered to the world a set of characters entirely new, and a story no ways connected with any thing that is already known. I am not of this opinion, but persuaded, on the contrary, that, to invent a story quite new, with a catalogue of names never before heard of, would be an attempt of such a nature, as could not be made with tolerable success; for every man must be sensible, that the wonders which epic poetry relates, will shock even the ignorant vulgar, and appear altogether ridiculous, if they are not founded upon something which has already gained a degree of credit. Our first ideas are taken from experience; and, though we may be brought to receive notions, not only very different from those which experience suggests; but even directly contrary to them, yet this is not to be done sud, denly and at one attempt: such, therefore, as would have their fictions favorably received, must lay it down as a rule, to accommodate what they feign to established prejudices, and build upon stories which are already in some measure believed. With this precaution, they may go great lengths without appearing absurd, but will soon shock the meanest understandings,- if they neglect it. Had there been no fabulous accounts concerning the Trojan expedition current in Greece and Asia, at the time when Homer wrote, the stories which he tells, though the most beautiful that ever were invented, would have appeared to his cotemporaries altogether ridiculous, and never been admired, tili antiquity had procured them credit, or a tradition been formed afterwards to vouch for them to the world; for, in matters of an extraordinary kind, not only reason, but even imagination, requires more than a single testimony to ground its assent upon; and therefore, though I should have invented a set of characters entirely new, and framed a story for the subject of my puem no ways connected with any thing that has yet been heard of, and been so happy in this attempt as to produce what might equal, in point of perfection, any of the most beautiful fables of antiquity; it would have wanted, notwithstanding, what is absolutely necessary in order to success, viz. that credit which new invented fictions derive from their connection with such as are already become familiar to men's imaginations.

Tradition is the best ground upon which fable can be built, not only because it gives the appearance of reality to things that are merely fictitious, but likewise because it supplies a poet with the must proper materials for his invention to work upon. There are some fabulous stories that please more uni. versally than others; and of this kind are the wonders which tradition reports; for they are accommodated to the affections and passions of the bulk of mankind, in the same manner as national proverbs are to their understandings. The strict accommodation in both instances proceeds from the saine cause, viz. that nothing of either sort is the work of one man, or of one age, hut of many. Traditions are not perfected by their first inventors, nor proverbs established upon a single authority. Proverbs derive their credit from the general consent of mankind; and tradition is gradually corrected and im, proved in the hands of such as transmit it to each other through a succession of ages.

In its first periods, it is a narrow thing, but extends itself afterwards, and, with the advantage of time and experiments often repeated, adapts itself so precisely to the affections, passions, and prejudices, natural to the human species, that it becomes at last perfectly agreeable to the sentiments of every heart. Na oge man, therefore, can pretend to invent fables that will please so universally as those which are

formed by the progress of popular tradition. The faculties of any individual must be too parrow for that purpose, and have too much of a peculiar cast to be capable of producing what will be so strictly adapted to the common feelings and sentiments of all. It is this sort of perfection which pleases us in archaiology, or the traditional accounts which we hare of the origins of nations ; for we are often more agreeably entertained with stories of that kind, though we know them to be abso'utely false, than with the justest representations of real events. But as tradition, while it continues in the hands of the people, must be but rude and disagreeable in respect of its form, and have many things low and absurd in it, necessary to be palliated or suppressed, it does not arrive at that perfection of which it is capable, till it comes nnder the management of the poets, and from them receives its last improvement. By means of this progress, tales that, in the mouths of their first inventors, were the most absurd that can be imagined, the effects of mere superstition, ignorance, and national prejudice, rise up at last to astonish the world, and draw the admiration of all ages, in the form of an Iliad or Odyssey. It is not the business of a poet, then, to make fable, but to form, correct, and improre tradition : and it is to his following this method, that Homer undoubtedly owes his success; for it is obvious to any one who considers his works with attention, that he only collected the various traditions that were current in his days, and reduced them to a system. That infinite variety of independent stories which occur in his works, is a proof of this: these are told with so minute, and of en su unnecessary a detail of circumstances, that it is easy to see that he followed accounts alrcady current, and did not invent what he has recorded. I could as easily believe that Prometheus made a man of clay, and put life into him, or assent to any other of the most absurd fictions of antiquity; I could even as soon be persuaded that all that Homer has written is strict matter of fact, as believe that any one mortal man was capable of inventing that infinite variety of historical circumstances which occar in the works of that celebrated poet : for invention is by no means an easy thing; and to contrive a tale that will please universally is certainly one of the most difficult undertakings that can be imagined. Poets, therefore, have found themselves under a necessity of trusting to something more powerful than their own invention in this important article, vix, the joint endeavours of many, regulated and directed by the censure of ages.

What has been said, is not only sufficient to justify me in forming my poem upon historical cir. cumstances already known, and introducing characters which the reader is before acquainted with; but shows the necessity likewise of taking many of the historical circumstances from the antient poets. For tradition, the proper foundation of epic poetry, is now to be found only in their writings; and therefore must be used like a common stock, and not considered as the property of individuals.

For the immoderate length of the two episodes, viz. those in the fourth and seventh books, all that I can say, is, that they are both brought in for very important purposes, and therefore may be permitted to take up more room than is ordinarily allowed to things of that sort. Besides, the first of them is intended as an experiment in that kind of fiction which distinguishes Homer' sOdyssey, and the other as an attempt to hervic tragedy, after the manner of Sophocles.

The language is simple and artless. This I take to be an advantage, rather than a defect; for it gives an air of antiquity to the work, and makes the style more suitable to the subject.

My learned readers will be surprised to find Agamemnon and Menelaus at the siege of Thebes, sben, according to Homer, they were not there : and, at the same timno, no notice taken of Sthe. Delus, the friend and companion of Diomed, whom the same author mentions as present in that expulition.

With respect to the first circumstance; I did not choose, for the sake of a fact of so little consequence, and that too depending only upon poetical anthority, to deprive myself of two illustrious names very proper for adorning my catalogue of heroes. And as to the second ; it will be easily allowed, that I could not have made sthenelus appear, without assigning him that place in Diomed's friendship, and consequently in the action of the porm, which Ulysses now possesses; and which is the only ja t in the whole suited to his peculiar character. I must have put a second-rate hero in the place of a first-rate one; and a name little known in the place of one which every body is acquainted with. Teides, I must have transferred to Sthenelus, the valour, firmness, and address of Ulysses; because the part he was to act would have requ red these, and must, at the saine time, have sunk Ulysses into the character of Sthenelus, for want of a proper opportunity of displaying him in his own. These are inconveniences too great to be incurred for the sake of a scrupulous agreement with Homer in point of fact, and are therefore, in my opinion, better avoidede

« EelmineJätka »