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ENGLISH EPIC AND
EPIC AND HEROIC
THE IDEA OF EPIC
If we ask what is an epic ? a hundred critics hasten across the centuries to our assistance. Not alone Aristotle, a fixed star in any region of philosophical inquiry, who, as Roger Bacon said, had “ the same authority in philosophy that the Apostle Paul had in divinity,” but longo intervallo writers like Longinus, Horace, and Petronius may be consulted, all curious in the matter, and later, learned and very numerous, a great army of eager law-givers, the Humanists of Italy and their successors in France and England. One might well anticipate illumination from so noble a company in the obscurest field. Yet since it was from the consideration of one poet alone, although so royal a poet as Homer, that Aristotle derived his light, and since the whole subsequent procession, down to the last of Renaissance critics, leads back, an unbroken chain, to the unerring master, the discussion of epic poetry became in effect the discussion of Homer, “the mighty sea mark” by which not only the critics, but the poets also of former ages, were content to steer, and epic might well have been defined as
a poem written in imitation of the Iliad.” To Homer's indeed was added the sacred name of Virgil, the most faithful disciple, “the moon of Homer," but “ Nature and Homer were, he found, the same, we are told: no type but that of the Greek epic appeared possible.
Thus Renaissance criticism kept its eye steadily fixed upon the Iliad and the Æneid, shining exemplars, and it is the more
surprising that, when questions of interpretation or of imitation arose, we none the less find ourselves embarked upon
a troubled sea of noises and harsh disputes.” True and full appreciation of the matters at issue would be tedious-strange to our manner of thinking-but from selected judgments of the leading commentators the student may gather something to his purpose.
Le Bossu, a great name, convinced himself and not a few others that in the Iliad Homer purposed to illustrate a general truth—“a misunderstanding between princes is the ruin of their states.” Homer, he would have us believe, was a political philosopher, who perceived that petty principalities, like those of Greece, frequently quarrel to their disadvantage. To point his moral the poet, it would seem, invented a story. The names, the exploits, the characters of the heroes, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, were then selected, as was the siege of Troy, to serve the purpose of the general plan, to illustrate the chosen and weighty thesis. Le Bossu defined epic, therefore, as "a composition in verse intended to form the manners by instructions disguised under the allegories of an important action.” It is easy to agree with Lord Kames, however, that the ethical fervour of Le Bossu betrayed him when he demanded that before the story or even the name of the hero the precept must be selected, and that his definition “ excludes every epic poem founded upon real facts, and perhaps includes some of Æsop's fables." Let us consult less exigent moralists. Pressing more directly towards the centre, Davenant, in the preface to Gondibert, supporting his practice by his theory, would have the subject of the epic chosen from ancient times. Thus, he argues, the poet will escape bondage to well-known history, have freedom to expand his wings, and examples of lofty virtue will be more credible, withdrawn into the vaguer realm of the past, than among contemporaries, whom we are slow to believe better than ourselves. Some votes for this contention are given him. Kames is in agreement, "familiarity," he tells us, “ought more especially to be avoided in an epic poem, the peculiar character of which is dignity and elevation : modern manners make no figure in such a poem."
Yet Lucan, to whom Corneille confessed greater indebtedness than to Virgil, preferred themes of recent date, and historical characters whose names were fresh in men's minds, trusting perhaps a safer instinct. Tasso, again, steering a middle course,
, advised a subject neither too old nor too new-readers, he thought, do not bear well with changes introduced by the poet into histories familiar, and are interested but languidly in things far off or foreign manners. Some respect for history, if history is at all to be drawn upon, might, we may allow, be legitimately required, but what respect? Is Virgil to be censured because, in choosing Dido for his heroine, he presumed “to make a lady die for love two hundred years before her birth ? "
Turning from this problem-choice of subject—where no firm principle seems to have been at any time accepted or even outlined, to another—the proper duration of epic action—there is Aristotelian authority for great elasticity. The best examples of tragedy limited the action“ to a single revolution of the sun.” But the scale of epic he saw admitted, nay even demanded, enlarged dimensions, and it was required to submit to the more easily satisfied principle that the beginning and the end must be within the scope of a single view, a phrase perhaps to be interpreted simply—“ of such a length as can be read in a day.” Minturno, however, would restrict the canvas of the epic poet, permitting him only the events of a single year, and Ronsard allows no more. Horace, not venturing himself upon so wide a sea as epic, was prepared nevertheless to legislate for his friends: an episode or episodes in the life of the hero he thought, with his accustomed moderation, should provide sufficient material, but Giraldi held, both in theory and practice, that the whole biography of the hero was indispensable.
The discussion of the hero's character exhibits similar disagreement. Unlike the hero of tragedy, who should not, according to Aristotle, be either faultless or a ruffian, the epic hero should be perfectly virtuous, says Tasso, but, argues Dryden, it is not necessary that the manners of the hero should be immaculate; they are practically good if they are of a piece, and though Achilles is the protagonist of the Iliad we must