Page images

in the close, must be the hero of the poem. For Adam is Milton's hero; that is, the capital and most interesting figure in his poem.

In epic poetry there are beside human characters gods and supernatural beings. This forms what is called the machinery of epic poetry; and the French suppose this essential to the nature of an epic poem. They hold that in every epic composition the main action is necessarily carried on by the intervention of gods. But there seems to be no solid reason for their opinion. Lucan has no gods, nor supernatural agents. The author of Leonidas also has no machinery.

But, though machinery is not absolutely necessary to the epic plan, it ought not to be totally excluded from it. The marvellous has a great charm for most readers. It leads to sublime description, and fills the imagination. At the same time it becomes a poet to be temperate in the use of supernatural machinery; and so to employ the religious faith or superstition of his country, as to give an air of probability to events most contrary to the common course of


With regard to the allegorical personages, fame, discord, love, and the like, they form the worst kind of machinery. In description they may sometimes be allowed; but they should never bear any part in the action of the poem. As they are only mere names of

general ideas, they ought not to be considered as persons; and cannot mingle with human actors without an intolerable confusion of shadows with realities.

In the narration of the poet, it is of little consequence, whether he relate the whole story in his own character, or introduce one of his personages to relate a part of the action that passed before the poem opens. Homer follows one method in his Iliad, and the other in his Odyssey. It is, to be observed however that, if the narrative be given by any of the actors, it gives the poet greater liberty of spreading out such parts of the subject as he inclines to dwell upon in person, and of comprising the rest within a short recital. When the subject is of great extant, and comprehends the transactions of several years, as in the Odyssey and Eneid, this method seems preferable. But, when the subject is of smaller compass and shorter duration, as in the Iliad and Jerusalem, the poet may, without disadvantage, relate the whole in his own per


What is of most importance in the narration is, that it be perspicuous, animated, and enriched with every poetic beauty. No sort of composition requires more strength, dignity, and fire, than an epic poem. It is the region in which we look for every thing sublime in description, tender in sentiment, and bold or lively in expression. The ornaments of epic poe

[ocr errors]

try are grave and chaste. Nothing loose, ludicrous, or affected finds place there. All the objects it presents ought to be great, tender, or pleasing. Descriptions: of disgusting or shocking objects are to be avoided. Hence the fable of the Harpies in the Eneid, and the allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, should have been omitted.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]


THE father of epic poetry is. Homer; and in or-. den to relish him, we must divest ourselves of modern ideas of dignity and refinement, and transport our imagination almost three thousand years back in the history of mankind. The reader is to expect a picture of the ancient world. The two great characters of Homer's poetry are fire and simplicity. But, to have a clear idea of his, merit, let us consider the Iliad un-, der the three heads of the subject or action, the characters, and the narration.

[ocr errors]

The subject of the Iliad is happily chosen. For no subject could be more splendid than the Trojan war A great confederacy of the Grecian states and ten, years' siege of Troy must have spread far abroad the, renown of many military exploits, and given an ex. tensive interest to the heroes who were concerned in




them. Upon these traditions, Homer grounded his poem; and, as he lived two or three centuries after the Trojan war, he had full liberty to intermingle fable with history. He chose not, however, the whole Trojan war for his subject; but with great judgment selected the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, which includes the most interesting period of the war. He has thus given greater unity to his poem. He has gained one hero, or principal character, that is, Achilles; and shown the pernicious effects of discord among confederated princes.

The praise of high invention has in every age been justly given to Homer. His incidents, speeches, characters, divine and human; his battles, his little histo ry pieces of the persons slain, discover a boundless invention. Nor is his judgment less worthy of praise. His history is conducted with great art. He rises upon us gradually. His heroes are introduced with exquisite skill to our acquaintance. The distress thickens as the poem advances; every thing serves to aggrandize Achilles, and to make him the capital figure.

In characters, Homer is without a rival. He abounds in dialogue and conversation, and this produces a spirited exhibition of his personages. This dramatic method, however, though more natural, expressive, and animated, is less grave and majestic than narrative. Some of Homer's speeches are unseasonable, and others'


trifling. With the Greek vivacity he has also some of the Greek loquacity.

In no character perhaps does he display greater art, than in that of Helen. Notwithstanding her frailty and crimes, he contrives to make her an interesting object. The admiration with which the old generals behold her, when she is coming toward them; her veiling herself and shedding tears in the presence of Priam; her grief at the sight of Menelaus; her upbraiding of Paris for his cowardice, and her returning fondness for him, are exquisite strokes, and worthy of a great master.

Homer has been accused of making Achilles too brutal a character; and critics seem to have adopted this censure from two lines of Horace:

Impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer,

Jura negat sibi nata; nihil non arrogat armis.

It appears that Horace went beyond the truth. Achil les is passionate; but he is not a contemner of law. He has reason on his side; for, though he discovers too much heat, it must be allowed that he had been notoriously wronged. Beside bravery and contempt of death, he has the qualities of openness and sincerity. He loves his subjects, and respects the gods. He is warm. in his friendships; and throughout he is high-spirited, gallant and honourable.

« EelmineJätka »