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AN EPIC REVIVAL
To seek inspiration in a past age, to essay a revival of life that is gone, is admittedly an almost hopeless poetic task. The mental environment of the present accompanies every man as closely as his shadow in the sun. It seems, too, as if the poetic forms of each age are vitally suitable only to the points of view that were exclusively its own, that to attempt a resuscitation of distinctive poetic forms is to court as certain failure as to attempt a revival of the body of thought to which they served as appropriate garment. The form of the Elizabethan drama is as unsustainable by a poet to-day as is that of Attic tragedy. The epic manner of Homer died with his heroic age, the ballad or the chaunt of the Trouvère, the refrains of early English songs are no longer producible though they may be imitated. But a careful survey of the world's literature makes this manifest, that while no period of history can ever have its exact counterpart, epochs which display similar habits of mind, whose environment approximates in some or in many respects to that of former epochs, produce a like literature, a literature approximating in tone and in external feature to that of the former epochs which they resemble.
A scrupulous regard to form, for example, is an unfailing sign of a weakness in substance-of a Neo-Alexandrian epoch, like that of Pope, or of the successors of Tennyson. A seeking abroad for an inspiration which the present time and place fail to afford is equally significant of an era of decadence. He who runs may read such marks as these which connect every wave of literature with some predecessor, which betray the same impulse as it rises and gathers strength and volume, or as it breaks and is finally lost in feathery froth and spray.
To speak of an epic revival is to speak of what is only possible with serious limitations, and even then only possible under conditions approximating to those under which the great epics of the world were composed. Epic poetry is the product of primitive civilisations, unable or unaccustomed to express their thoughts in writing. The traditions of a race preserved in song and ballad, and handed down from father to son, are the material upon which the epic poet works. Usually the greatest national event, the subject of numberless short poems, is appropriated and shaped into a consecutive narrative, which thus becomes the record, the only possible record when writing is unknown, of a nation's early history. Of this kind of national epic, the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' of Homer, and the 'Niebelungenlied' are examples. Such poetry, true national epic poetry, giving a picture of primitive society as it appeared to the generation, which, just about to cross the threshold of what we call civilisation, looked back upon the early history of the race—this true national epic poetry is not to be confused with the poetry written in the epic manner by poets in an age of learning and culture, who, by an effort of imagination, transfer themselves to times long
past, or build up a structure wholly imaginary. Such poetry is only successful when it is written by an imaginative artist of the very first order. The literature of the world affords two instances of supremely successful accomplishments in the epic manner. The stately barks launched by Virgil and by Milton still float upon the great waters of Time; but the shipwrecked epics, who can number? From poems like the Iliad,' the 'Odyssey,' and the 'Niebelungenlied' may be gleaned much important knowledge of the customs and history of the peoples among whom they were composed; but from poems like the 'Eneid' or 'Paradise Lost' no such knowledge is obtainable. These are not national epics in the same sense as the others, but, however magnificent in conception and treatment, artificial copies of a more natural poetry in which the genius and character of a whole race is mirrored. Looking back upon an heroic age just passing away, the author or authors of the Iliad,' out of the material plentifully supplied in the unwritten traditions, songs and ballads which survived, made a complete and rounded whole. In that poem the art of a dawning culture is at work upon the life of a society and a state of things which that culture has once and for ever overthrown. It marks an era of transition, of transition from primitive to civilised conditions. In it is preserved, and herein lies its incommunicable charm, the innocence of childhood with the adolescence of high artistic power. It tells us much of the politics, of the family life, of the methods of warfare, of the social customs and of the religious beliefs of an early age. With such a work there is no analogy in 'Paradise Lost' or even in the 'Eneid,' each the work of a scholar in an age of culture.
Is there any possible analogy to be found among the long
narrative poems due to the awakened historic sense which the early years of the present century produced in such numbers? In 1805 appeared two long narrative poems, 'Madoc' and 'The Lay of the Last Minstrel,' epical in scope, manner and intention; the former, Southey's work, is an epic of the study, can we say of the latter that it is at all comparable with the authentic heroic poem historically valuable because it is a record of an age known to the author not mediately through writing, but immediately through personal contact with it? The answer cannot be an altogether decisive one; but we may fairly say that if anywhere in the history of our own country conditions were favourable for the production of a poem in any sense parallel to the national epics of other lands, the conditions were found in Scotland at the close of the eighteenth century, and the parallel exists in the case of the poetry of Walter Scott. The writing of an authentic epic is quite as much a matter of conditions and times as of genius. Southey had unquestionably greater difficulty in massing and unifying his material for a poem than had Scott. He gathered his action and details from reading that was far and wide, the imagination did not greatly serve him, it was not set to work until the intellect had collected and chosen the needful bricks or quarried stone out of which the edifice was to be builded. Scott's material lay around him; from the first his imagination was in play. He had no need to wait for facts, they were supplied in the very atmosphere he breathed from childhood; for from childhood ballad poetry, the tales of the Border, the life of the northern clans, were the breath of his intellectual life. Before he could read he
* For an interesting article on this subject see Principal Shairp's 'Homeric Spirit in Walter Scott.'-Aspects of Poetry, p. 377.
had been taught the ballad of 'Hardicanute.' His early and most impressionable years were passed in a district of which it has been said, 'Every field has its battle and every rivulet his song.' And so in a very special sense he stands, as Homer stood, on the verge of an heroic age, looking back upon it, feeling its reality, and stirred to the innermost depths of his spirit by its own peculiar influences. Just as Homer was the last of the rhapsodists, the last as well as the greatest minstrel of the heroic age in Greece, Scott feigned himself, and was indeed, as he has been called, 'the last and greatest of the Border minstrels.' The man and the circumstances met. A new interest in the old romances had been awakened by the medieval revival, by the ballads of Bürger and other German poets, and by the publication of Percy's 'Reliques of Ancient Poetry' in 1765. 'I do not think,' said Wordsworth, 'that there is an able writer in verse of the present day who would not be proud to acknowledge his obligation to the Reliques.' The day on which Scott first opened that book he forgot dinner, he tells us, despite the sharp appetite of thirteen. The legends and tales of romance became his passion. He rapidly filled his mind with all that the poets and historians had written on these subjects, and dived deep into the forgotten antiquarian lore of charters and registers. But what was more important, he made, we may almost say more Homerico, raid after raid into Liddesdale, and from the lips of the country folk gathered the stories familiar to them from birth. These had for him a fascination and a truth no less keen or real than for the people to whom they were history and literature in one. 'Show me an old castle or a field of battle, and I was at home at once, filled it with its combatants in their proper costume, and overwhelmed my