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CHAPTER VII

EPIC AND HISTORY-LAYAMON-BARBOUR

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EPIC, it has been said, " is a compromise between poetry and history."1 Perhaps, but in what sense a compromise? Is a portion of historical truth sacrificed, or are the graces of poetry limited? Which gives way to the other? Or are there mutual concessions? And when history has become a science is epic no longer possible? The poet and the historian differ," says Aristotle in the Poetics, not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with metre no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history, for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.There is nothing to exclude, as Aristotle expressly allows, from the epic category the poem which has an historical theme, for what has actually happened may well "conform to the law of the probable," and in virtue of that quality prove suitable poetic material. The poem which takes its hero from authentic history, and describes again, in the manner proper to poetry, events which are known to have taken place, may be legitimate epic, epic of the secondary type, like that of Tasso. Yet, not by reason of its metre, but as a result of its method, it will still differ from history. For the poet, in one way freer than the historian since he is not bound within the circle of fact, is in another way subject to a stricter law. He must conform to a principle by which the historian is not and cannot be bound, the principle of rigid unity. Historical compositions, as Aristotle is careful to explain, survey a wide region,

1 F. W. Newman, Miscellanies, p. 8.

3“What has not happened we do not at once feel sure to be possible; but what has happened is manifestly possible; otherwise it would not have happened.”—Butcher, Aristotle's Poetics, ix. 6.

"of necessity present not a single action, but a single period, and all that happened within that period to one person or to many, little connected together as the events may be.Thus the poet may be an historian, but he will be a selective historian, whose method involves excision of all matters which cannot be closely knit into relation with his main action, whose contact with his hero and hero's doings cannot somehow be preserved. Clear and close must be the bond between the events narrated, tend they must to one result, march together to one end. No mere loose alliance in time will suffice; a connection far closer must hold together all the parts, as constituents of a single body, in itself complete, intelligible, significant.

Though free of the historical province, therefore, the poet in a cultivated age never in any way or measure encroaches upon the historian. Their paths in advanced society lie far apart, for the one will sacrifice to the truth of fact, as he believes it, the dearest wishes of his readers; the other, as minister to their pleasure, will be tempted "for the sake of the turn of phrase," as was said of Plutarch, “ to make Pompey win the battle of Pharsalia." Not until late, however, in national development was this separation possible between the epic and history, between the functions of poet and chronicler. Their aims in the infancy of society are undivided, their parts are one. The poet is the historian of the heroic age. For long the Greeks looked upon Homer as essentially a narrator of historical facts, the Iliad was often quoted as an authoritative document, a kind of scripture.” The island of Salamis was on the authority of a single passage assigned to Athens-Thucydides, himself an historian, writing at the zenith of Greek culture, cited the Homeric catalogue of the ships as authentic. While no written records exist, it would not manifestly be easy for a sceptical spirit of discrimination between fact and fiction to assert itself. Credible” and “ incredible " are words of an advanced and sceptical age. The world is full of wonders, and the past may well have been believed more wonderful than the present to men in heroic times. Where scientific doubt was impossible the field of belief was wide, and the singer when he clothed tradition

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—that which was in fact universally believed—in new and striking phrases, amplified and decorated it, was himself, doubtless, convinced of the truth of his own tale. Nothing suggested, nothing was to be gained by reluctance in belief. Commonly he sang of his own kin and that of his hearers, and to make their achievements magnificent, magnificent even beyond the mortal prowess of his own day, what hindered? Poetic enthusiasm served its true end when it kindled a passion of pride and desire to emulate the glory of so famous an ancestry. With the progress of civilisation, the growth of cities, the increase of travel, and the interchange of ideas with men of other races a frigid spirit of inquiry arises—like that of Froissart, who made journeys to obtain exact information about men and eventsa spirit half-sister to distrust. Hunger for the fact, a huntsman's eagerness after new quarry seizes upon less imaginative men, and the historian, a shrewd brain, presents himself as rival of the poet at the Court of Letters. "I write what I believe true," proudly announced Hecatæus of Miletus, " for the traditions of the Greeks seem to me many and ridiculous.It is the historian's hour when the prosaic present throws its shadow upon the poetic past; when in his attempt to understand the past, he reads the record by the light of his own experience, and reduces that record to the level of his daily life. For long, nevertheless, he remained in some measure a poet still, not wholly scientific, not wholly unwilling to believe in things more wonderful than he himself had seen. Herodotus, says Gibbon—the fully emancipated of the half emancipated historian—"sometimes writes for children, sometimes for philosophers." Herodotus is as much a poet in relation to Thucydides," wrote Peacock, “as Homer in relation to Herodotus. The history of Herodotus is half a poem, it was written when the whole field of literature yet belonged to the Muses, and the nine books of which it was composed were therefore of right, as well as of courtesy, superinscribed with their nine names.

"I One may imagine that physical improbabilities would first arouse the spirit of scepticism, but it is not easy to fix the limits of the credible. If the intervention of the gods must be abandoned, men like gods may without so great difficulty be imagined, and feats almost divine substituted for those altogether beyond the limits of belief. The myth gives way to the "historische Novelle," and for a time the historian, though inspired by different emotions, carries on the work of the maker. Herodotus wrote history in prose, but published his work as a minstrel might have done, by reading it aloud to an audience. He adopted, too, the devices of the epic. Herodotus knew that every narrative of great length wearies the ears of the hearer, if it dwell without a break on the subject; but if pauses are introduced at intervals, it affects the mind agreeably. And so he desired to lend variety to his work and imitated Homer.1 Our own early chroniclers employed verse, yet they too chanted their poetic history when chance or occasion offered. Writing and printing deprived the minstrel, or the scôp, of his vocation, but his immediate successors, half poets, half historians, belong to the age of transition, since they had in mind not one, but two, types of audience, the listeners and the readers. How slowly and reluctantly imagination withdraws from the province in which it had been so long supreme! So slowly and reluctantly that the chroniclers of the Middle Ages display it not seldom in a more eminent degree, as they not seldom display a more marked individuality, than the professed poets themselves.

1 The Four Ages of Poetry.

For two centuries after the Norman Conquest it went hard with English literature, Latin, in the work of the ecclesiastics, overshadows the native tongue. The tales and ballads of the people received no favour from the new aristocracy. The literature of the Norman nobles made no immediate appeal to the English. Nor could any revival of English letters take place till the Norman had ceased to be a Frenchman, and made the language of the new home-land his own. Side by side with the monkish scholars and chroniclers lived the men who fashioned the romances, like Horn and Havelok, translated though they were from the French, in which the national spirit still lived, but Christianity and the foreign conquest had tamed the rude strength of our early literature without adding to it a new distinction. The native race, however, in numbers far exceeding the newcomers, gradually took captive their victors, their language, enriched by a fresh current of ideas and an extended vocabulary, imposed itself upon court and legal tribunal, and a new English literature challenges the attention of the historian. One of the earliest, and by far the most noble of English poems after the Conquest is Layamon's Brut, the work of a priest of Arley, near the Severn, on the Welsh border. It is a poem of colossal length, more than thirty thousand lines; 1 it is wholly lacking in unity, ranging over far too vast a field and descriptive of events which cover centuries of time; it is without a central theme; it heaps together matters the most incongruous, and bewilders the reader by the multitude of its persons; as a poem it is alive only in parts, as a chronicle it abounds in anachronisms and is wholly untrustworthy; yet Layamon's Brut is not merely impressive from its length. Neither garrulous nor puerile, so sincere is the poem, so ample in range, so informed by imaginative vigour that one is surprised into admiration. Of all rhymed chronicles in English the Brut has the foremost claim to represent the type. We may indeed reject the type and demand its exclusion from the epic register, but an examination of Layamon's poem must precede the judgment.

1 Dionysius quoted by Professor Bury in The Ancient Greek Historians, p. 42.

The rhymed chronicle, like the early heroic lays, designed to give currency to the facts of national life and history, preserved the memory of memorable things, of great doings and the men who did them. It took up the task which the scôp could no longer accomplish. Layamon's were epic intentions. " It came to him in mind," he wrote, in words that a scôp might have uttered, “ that he would tell the noble deeds of England, what the men were named, and whence they came.' He resembles the scôp in this, too, that he makes no attempt to distinguish myth and authentic record, but is everywhere roused to admiration

1 Antimachus of Claros or Colophon, it may be mentioned, wrote a Thebais, now lost, which though it ran to twenty-four books had not reached the central point of its narrative. Yet he was assigned by Alexandrian critics the second place among epic poets, was preferred by Hadrian to Homer, and enthusiastically admired by Plato, so it is said, who at least remained to listen when all others had left.

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