« PreviousContinue »
god would always be at hand in time of need to manage every thing as the poet would have it, and 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 I 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 consequently 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 eclipsed the human. Besides, this is what cannot easily happen ; for, let us suppose 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 canot 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 his 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 eten 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 manis est 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 Diomed, Ajax, and many others who combat. bravely, thougb conscious of mortality. Homer, who has managed his great characters with the traest 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, when 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 propo. sition which I mentioned, and show, that the true God ought 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. Por proving the point in question, I 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 cmely 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 apprebensions 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 has offended notu.
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, according 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 whịch 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 the 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 distinguished 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 bis 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 moral, 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 complexion 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 cold, 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 never strike the bulk of mankind. Plato, in his apology of Socrates, deceives us; as Mr. Addison likewise does in his 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 philosopbic character, is that which affects us in both instances, and nut that unconquered greatness of mind, which occasions rather wonder and astonishment than genuine affection.
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 upon 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 cannot approve of: but it would be highly indecent to make a being, whom religion teaches us to consi. der as perfect, enter into the views of such persons, and exert bimself in order to promote their extra, vagant enterprizes. This would be to bring down the infinite wisdom of God to the level of human fully, and to make himn altogether such an one as ourselves. TOL. XII.
A false theology, therefore, ought rather to be employed in poetical compositions than the true; for, as the superior beings which are introduced mast 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 poso sible, be buried in oblivion. The ancient Greek theology seems upon all accounts the fittest. 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
a 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, wha procecded upon a different theology, have notwithstanding been so bewitched with its charms, as to admit it into their works, though it clashed violently with the system which 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 alteady 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 suddenly and at one attempt: such, therefore, as would have their fictious 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 so 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 Homér 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 heen 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 poem 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 npon which fable can be built, not only because it gires the appearance of reality to things that are merely fictitious, but likewise because it supplies a poet with the most proper materials for his invention to work ypon. There are some fabulous stories that please more universally 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 same cause, viz. that pothing of either sort is the work of one man, or of one age, hut of many. Traditions are not perfected by their first inyentors, nor proverbs established upon a single authority. Proverbs derive their credit from the general consent of mankind; and tradition is gradually corrected and improved in the hands of such as transmit it to each other through a succession of ages. In its first periods, it is a parrow 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 w the human species, that it becomes at last perfectly agreeable to the sentiments of every heart. Na upe 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 narrow 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 have of the origins of nations ; for we are often, more agreeably entertained with stories of that kind, though we know them to be absolutely false, tban 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 under 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 adıniration of all ages, in the form of an liad or Odyssey. It is not the business of a poet, then, to make fable, but to form, correct, and improve 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 often so unnecessary a detail of circumstances, that it is easy to see that he followed accounts already cure rent, 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 Hoiner 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 inportant article, viz. the joint endeavours of many, regulated and directed by the censure of ages.
What has been said, is not only sufficient to justify one in forming my poem upon historical circumstances 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's Odyssey, 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 Theber, when, according to Homer, they were not there: and, at the same tiine, no notice taken of Sthes nelus, the friend and companion of Diomed, whom the same author mentions as present in that expedition.
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 authority, to deprive myself of two illustrious Dames very proper for adorning iny 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 poem, which Ulysses now possesses; and which is the only jat 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. l'esides, 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 same time, have sunk Ulysses into the character of Sthenelus, for want of a proper opportunity of displaying him in his own. These
a 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 avoided,
I have explained myself upon the foregoing particulars, for the sake of the learned part of my readers only: and shall now drop a hint for such of them as do not fall under that denomination.
The following poem is called thę Epigoniad, because the heroes, whose actions it celebrates, have, got the name of The Epigoni (or descendants), being the sons of those who attempted the conquest of Thebes in a former expedition.
Thus far I have endeavoured to apologise for the following performance. It may be censured, no doubt, upon many accounts besides those that have been mentioned: but I am persuaded, that what has been said will determine every candid reader, not to be peremptory in condemning what at first view he may dislike; for the specimen of criticism which has been given, will convince him that the real faults of epic poetry are not easily ascertained, and distinguished from those inconveniences that must be allowed to take place, in order to prevent greater faults, and produce, upon the whole, higher degree of perfection.