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Sift from the Odyssey the romantic fables brought from far, omit from Virgil the battles and episodes, the decorative and picturesque literary additions, and they still exhibit national attachments; there is still left something to remind us of the birthplace of this poetry, a solid substratum of life and character, as it was lived in Greece or exhibited in Rome.
The secondary type of epic, the poems of the bookmenand Virgil may be placed in this category also like Jerusalem Delivered or Paradise Lost, have established their own claim to be included upon the epic roll. Their claim consists in this, that they follow deliberately the epic tradition, their authors chose to imitate the manner of the authentic epic. True, they are not epic in the way that Homer is epic or Beowulf, but in a derived and cultivated manner of their own, yet by virtue of their discipleship they have made good—it is a matter of common consent—their right to the great title. The chief business of heroic poetry is war, the martial deeds of heroes, and war of a kind with which its authors had commonly some real knowledge. Virgil had no such knowledge, nor Milton, but they chose to keep within the tradition. Virgil
Sang of battles and the breath
Of stormy war and violent death," though the rift between his own and the heroic world is visible. He had, it is clear, no Homeric pleasure in battle, the desire of it he describes as an insane lust.' The painful incidents of war he touches with a pathos altogether un-Homeric; he dwells by preference on its picturesque splendours, its stern array; he pities the fallen warrior and forgets to exult with the victor.1 With Virgil we are already passing away from the heroic strain, he knows nothing of the passionate Berserker fury, “ the eaglebark for blood.” Virgil was not himself a fighting man, but a court poet, and he delightfully covers his deficiency in martial ardour by episodes like that of Dido, exquisite, admired in every age, by appeals to Roman pride and patriotism, by noble sentiment, and by the exercise of his consummate art. Yet we cannot exclude Virgil or Milton from the epic company though
1 Æneid, xii. 544-7.
they are themselves remote in experience and feeling from the heroic world-they preserve the epic tradition. With the romantic poets it is otherwise. Medieval romance neither knew nor cared for the tradition. Pursuing a new avenue to poetic delight, it makes the introduction of surprising unfamiliar things its chief end; it departs wherever possible from the positive ground of human experience. It provides a second distinction between its aim and the prouder design of heroic poetry-entertainment and provokes vulgar curiosity, not a curiosity about the historical foundation of the tale, nor the characters, but about the mere happenings, the incidents, and occurrences. Abundat dulcibus vitiis, it abounds in pleasant faults. Where epic poetry, like Beowulf, is based upon a life actually lived, a life familiar to the poet who speaks of what he knows, romantic poetry sets the imagination wholly free and trusts to its novelty, its introduction of magic and marvels, its sentimental subtleties, its extravagances of rhetoric and chivalric idealism. It addresses itself deliberately to the age in which it is produced, presents a past that never was present," a past imagined as the audience for whom it was provided desired to imagine it. Can it be accepted, or any part of it, as falling within the epic field?
With the passing of the heroic age one type of epic becomes impossible, the type which, its literary values apart, possesses interest and worth as an historical document. A new order of literature takes its place, dealing sometimes with new, sometimes with the old themes. Yet though the themes may be preserved the fashion of the handling must alter. The business of the heroic world and of its poetry, for example, is war. In romantic literature the theme remains, war is still one of the major interests. But it is a changed type of war. Battle tends to pass from the foreground into the background as an interest fading, to become unreal, not practically necessary, not every one's and a daily affair, not so much a way of life as a way of amusement or adventure, like hunting or hawking. Men now sometimes doff their armour, cease to be continually on guard, have leisure for other entertainment. The interest of love, hardly
visible in the heroic poetry, springs into triumphant prominence. It is treated as a complicated science-there is leisure for thatwith intricate problems and logical subtleties which demand constituted courts and parliaments of love for their elucidation. How far can compositions in a world so changed, conceived in so different a spirit, and addressing themselves to so altered an audience be described as epic poetry? To determine the rank of this new romantic poetry we must question its breadth, its elevation, its power of depicting great characters and great situations, in a word its nobility. We must ask how it will bear comparison with the poetry of acknowledged greatness in earlier ages. We must apply to it the test by which all great art must finally be judged, the quality of impressiveness. The critic is not here concerned with the application of a single rule of classification, but with the effort to distinguish greatness from that which is less great, achievement of rare eminence from elevations not infrequently attained. The truth might be conveyed in a sentence: any narrative poetry if it be sufficiently impressive is epic. To say so may appear a cutting rather than a loosing of the Gordian knot. There is, however, but one alternative. With the progress of the world we must invent new terms of description and criticism for all new forms of art. We must decline to apply the old designations to the later works of a later time. Retain them-the simpler expedient—and they ask from us continual expansion, continual readjustment to the growing needs of a civilisation ever increasing in complexity.
Call to mind then the names of Ariosto and Spenser, universally allowed a place beside that of Virgil, and we admit the romantic epic as a legitimate species. And the task of criticism is to discover, after the passing away of the heroic world, after the victory of romance, what narrative poetry in the new mode is of supreme excellence, of a dignity that challenges comparison with the best produced by the ancient races. Criticism may go further. It may seek to determine what epic qualities are to be found in compositions which on the whole fall short of the required dignity or worth, and the causes of their failure. Throughout it will apply the touchstone of absolute merit.
With poetry not in the romantic mode, poetry, that is, which follows and frankly follows the ancient tradition, the task is easier. Even when not highly, nor, it may be, at all successful, such poetry, like Wilkie's or Glover's, for example, puts forward a special and legitimate claim to attention, because it is an attempt, though uninspired, to imitate the recognised and
The passing away of the heroic world, the triumph of romance may in our history be associated with the eleventh century. “ The difference of the two orders of literature," as Professor Ker says,1 " is as plain as the difference in the art of war between the two sides of the Battle of Hastings, which indeed is another form of the same thing; for the victory of the Norman knights over the English axemen has more than a fanciful or superficial analogy to the victory of the new literature of chivalry over the older forms of heroic narrative.” Nor is it without significance that, as the chronicler tells us, a certain minstrel, Taillefer, rode out before the Norman host, singing of Roland and of Oliver and the knights who died at Roncevaux. Romance proper
then said to enter European literature in triumphant and conquering guise late in the eleventh century. As Mr. Wyndham has shown six centuries prepared for its coming—the centuries which followed the overthrow of the Western Empire. It had to wait for a universal language, Northern French, which superseded the unromantic Latin, it had to wait for the meeting of East and West, of Celtic and Saracenic influences, it had to wait for the great feudal and literary court of Henry II. of England and Eleanor of Poitou and Aquitaine. “Romance is a tissue. In the twelfth century, when it took hold of the middle ages, romance displays a deliberate weaving together of manycoloured strands. Celtic glamour, the uncouth strength of the North, and marvels from the fabulous East, are interlaced in one woof which unfolds a continuous story of Europe, from the Argonauts' quest of the Golden Fleece, by way of the fall of Troy and the foundation of Rome, to the conquest of Jeru
1 Epic and Romance. 2 The Springs of Romance in the Literature of Europe.
salem by Crusaders. An examination of these strands reveals that the earliest and most alien are largely mythological. They consist of many attempts made by many races, in different ages and distant countries, to express in symbols their guesses at the origin and destiny, the hopes and fears, of man.
No single poem reduced this vast and tangled growth of ideas to unity, as in the Odyssey," a tissue of 'old Märchen!” many strands were woven into a single whole. No poet of supreme genius took possession of this imperial estate. The body of matter was far larger, it was less homogeneous, the ideas abroad in it were more numerous, less in harmony with each other than those which were taken up into the Odyssey. Instead of a romantic epic therefore, a modern Odyssey, instead of a perfect work of art, comprehending the accumulated imaginative wealth of many tribes and lands, we have cycles of stories, told by innumerable singers of the Chansons de Geste alone a list of more than a hundred has been published-a collection so vast, a treasure-heap of such bewildering extent that no single mind could make itself master of it, or employ all its resources. Barely conceivable is it that any one poem could have caught and presented the spirit of it all, this world within world of human imagining, and the modern epic to match the Odyssey remained unwritten, beyond the reach of human wit. France had its Song of Roland, Italy its Ariosto and Tasso, England its Spenser, yet these are fragments, and fragments only of the great book of Romance; these are but the " peaks of a submerged continent," conspicuous elevations to one who looks back from afar, who misses the minor heights and is hardly aware of the once fertile plains now covered by the waters of forgetfulness. Not that this shipwreck of all but the best is without previous parallel in literary history. "At Rome it seemed," says Professor Tyrrell, “ as if the stream of epic poetry would never run dry. On it rolled, carrying on its unrippled surface to the gulf of oblivion Memnonids, Perseids, Heracleids, Theseids, Thebaids, Achilleids, Amazonids, Phæacids, without number. The river of time has happened to throw up a few spars from the wreckage, a few poets, not, perhaps, much better than