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Epic Poetry

piety, and magnanimity, are objects which the epic muse presents to our minds in the most splendid and honourable colours.

Epic composition is distinguished from history by its poetical form, and its liberty of fiction. It is a more calm composition than tragedy. It requires a grave, equal, and supported dignity. On some occasions it demands the pathetic and the violent ; and it embraces a greater compass of time and action than dramatic writing admits.

The action or subject of an epic poem must have three properties. It must be one ; it must be great ; it must be interesting. One action or enterprise must constitute its subject. Aristotle insists on unity as essential to epic poetry ; because independent facts never affect so deeply, as a tale that is one and connected. Virgil has chosen for his subject the establishment of Æneas in Italy; and the anger of Achilles, with its consequences, is the subject of the Iliad.

It is not however to be understood, that epic unity excludes all episodes. On the contrary, critics consider them as great ornaments of epic poetry. They diversify the subject, and relieve the reader by shifting the scene. Thus IIector's visit to Andromache in the Iliad, and Erminia's adventure with the shepherd in the seventh book of the Jerusalem, afford us a well judged and pleasing retreat from camps and battles.

Secondly, the subject of an epic poem must be so great and splendid, as to fix attention, and to justify the magnificent apparatus the poet bestows on it. The subject should also be of ancient date. Both Lucan and Voltaire have transgress


Epic Poetry.

ed this rule. By confining himself too strictly to historical truth, the former does not please ; and the latter has improperly mingled well known events with fictitious. Hence they exhibit not that greatness which the epic requires.

The third requisite in an epic subject is, that it be interesting. This depends in a great measure upon the choice of it. But it depends much more upon the skilful management of the poet. He must so frame his plan as to comprebend many affecting incidents. He must sometimes dazzle with valiant achievements ; sometimes he must be awful and-august ; often tender and pathetic ; and he must soinetimes give us gen. tle and pleasing scenes of love, friendship, and affection.

To render the subject interesting, much also depends upon the dangers and obstacles which must be encountered. It is by the management of these, that the poet must rouse attention, and hold his reader in suspense and agitation.

It is generally supposed by critics, that an epio poem should conclude successfully; as an unhappy conclusion depresses the mind. Indeed it is on the prosperous side, that epic poets generally conclude. But two authors of great name, Milton and Lucan, hold the contrary course.

The one concludes with the subversion of Roman liberty; and the other with the expulsion of inan from Paradise.

No precise boundaries can be fixed for the duration of the epic action. The action of the Iliad lasts, according to Bossu, only forty-seven days. The action of the Odyssey extends to eight years

Epic Poetry.

and a half; and that of the Æneid includes about

six year's.

The personages in an epic poem should be proper and well supported. They should display the features of human nature ;

may admit dif-

. ferent degrees of virtue, and even vicc ; though the principal characters should be such as will raise admiration and love. Poetic characters are of two sorts, general and particular. General characters are such as are wise, brave and virtuous, without any farther distinction. Particular characters express the species of bravery, of wisdom, and of virtue, for which any one is remarkble. In this discrimination of characters, Homer excels. Tasso approaches the nearest to him in this respect; and Virgil is the most deficient.

Among epic poets it is the practice to select some personage as the hero of the tale. This renders the unity of the subject more perfect, and contributes highly to the interest and perfection of this species of writing. It has been asked, Who then is the hero of Paradise Lost? The devil, say some critics, who affect to be pleasant against Milton. But they mistake his intention by supposing that whoever is triumphant 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

Epic Poetry. carried on by the intervention of gods. But there seems to be no solid reason for their opinjon. Lucan las no gods, nor supernatural agents. The author of Leonidas also has no machinery.

Bui, 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 nature.

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 intol. crable confusion of shadows with realities.

In the narration of the poct, it is of little consequence, whether lie 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 it is to be observed however that, if the narralive 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.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

When the subject is of great extent, and comprehends the transactions of several years, as in the Odyssey and Æneid, 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 person.

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, tban 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 poetry 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 Æneid, and the allegory of Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, should have been omitted.


The father of epic poetry is Homer ; and in or der 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 :

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