« ПредыдущаяПродолжить »
abhor his cruelty to a dead enemy, and the sale of that enemy's body, Hector's, to his father Priam. That the hero of epic should be pre-eminent in war was, however, generally conceded, and some critics charge Virgil, the supreme master, with a grievous fault, that he made Æneas " fitter to be the founder of an order of monks than of an empire," and chiefly pre-eminent in tears. “The praise of an epic poem is to feign a person exceeding Nature,” argues Alexander in his pleasant Anacrisis, " with all the perfections whereof a man can be capable, every deficiency in that imaginary man being really the author's own.” Alexander is all for “ soaring above the course of Nature" in epic, though it be
agreeable with the gravity of tragedy that it be grounded upon a true history," and of Virgil he complains that by attenuating the courage of Turnus, who dies like a dastard, Æneas is robbed of the higher glory that springs from triumph over valour.
We pass to other, but hardly less contentious matters. No commentator ventured to challenge the Aristotelian canon that the epic poem must possess unity. There is no greater horror than the sprawling poetic monster, of which one can view the parts but never the whole; yet wherein, one may ask, consists the idea of unity, if, as Castelvetro allows, not alone the doings of a single person, but even the multifarious actions of a whole nation, may in the epic properly be recalled? Once more, a chief support and ornament of heroic poetry—the machinery of Olympus, the interest of Heaven in the affairs of earth—was not easily to be thought away. Yet here the critical battle raged, perhaps, most fiercely. For Voltaire it was a faded dream: “Lucan is to be commended for having laid the gods aside," and thus given proof that "the intervention of the gods is not absolutely required in an epic poem." Yet what to substitute? The allegory of the Henriade has not found many admirers, the new spiritualities were fainter than the old, dim shadows of dim abstractions.
“ What Homer saw, what Virgil dreamed, was truth,
And died not being divine; but whence, in sooth,
Might shades that never lived win deathless youth ? " Lucan, indeed, attained a measure of success without assistance of the gods, and the nature of things, it may be, supplies no overpowering argument to recall them, yet for the majority of the French critics the law of their presence was immutable, nor was it easy to break with so delightful a tradition. Machinery such as Homer's, belonging to the religion of his race and country, Virgil's even, was inevitable and proper; the Christian poet owed elsewhere his allegiance. Doubtless Ossian was rightly praised by Blair; he found the tales of his country full of ghosts and spirits, he stood on the border of debateable land, he had claims upon his country's beliefs. But the plan and limits of the supernatural in epic poetry—that problem, greatly complicated when the turbid tributaries of mediæval romance began to flow into the pure classical stream, had been foreshadowed by the doubts of Longinus, who thought it a sign of age and declining power in Homer that the Odyssey harboured romantic fictions. That the Renaissance, more classical than the classics, would tolerate the Gothic strain was unthinkable, and Tasso after an adventure in the forbidden field hastily retreated into the safer region of allegory. His afterthought of a symbolical sense for his romantic inventions saved him from the impending sword of ecclesiastical censure, but only to incur the contempt of the literary critic. “He could not be insensible,"is Voltaire's commentary," that such wild fairy tales, at that time so much in fashion not in Italy only, but in all Europe, were altogether inconsistent with the gravity of epic poetry. In order to cover this defect he printed a preface, in which he pretends all his poem is but a shadow and a type. The army of the Christian princes, says he, represents the body and the soul. Jerusalem the figure of true happiness, which cannot be obtained but by labour and difficulties. The spells and illusions of the enchanted forest shadow out the false reasoning into which our passions are apt to mislead us. ... However, the ridiculous explanation which Tasso gives, with so much gravity, of his extravagance, cannot impose upon mankind.” Hobbes was of the same opinion—“There are some that are not pleased with fiction unless it be bold not only to exceed the work, but also the possibility of nature: they would have impenetrable armours,
enchanted castles, invulnerable bodies, iron men, flying horses, and a thousand other such things which are easily feigned by those that dare. ... Beyond the actual works of nature a poet may now go; but beyond the conceived possibility of nature, never.” What is this but the rejection of the everlasting child's mind in man, a solvent of his eternal dream? So also Kames. “A situation can never be intricate, nor the reader ever in pain about the catastrophe, as long as there is an angel, devil, or magician to lend a helping hand.” The Renaissance would have us rational at any price, and poetry, the old house of vision, must open her doors to logic and to reason. Poetry was haunted, the metaphysical Cowley held, by unnatural monsters, until the coming of the champion, Davenant, who succoured it.
Methinks heroic poesy till now
Dost drive the monsters thence, and end the charms." But hear, on the contrary part, Dryden, an unexpected ally“I am of opinion that neither Homer, Virgil, Statius, Ariosto, Tasso, nor our English Spenser, could have formed their poems half so beautiful without those gods and spirits, and those enthusiastic parts of poetry which compose the most noble part of all their writings. 'Tis enough that, in all eyes and religions, the greatest part of mankind have believed the power of magic and that there are spirits or spectres which have appeared. This, I say, is foundation enough for poetry.” Bishop Hurd, too, was for magic and mystery. “I stick to my point and maintain that the fairy tales of Tasso do him more honour than what are called the more natural, that is, the classical parts of his poem. His imitations of the ancients have indeed their merit, for he was a genius in everything. But they are faint and cold, and almost insipid, when compared with his Gothic fictions. We have made shift to run over the passages he has copied from Virgil. We are all on fire amidst the magical feats of Ismen, and the enchantments of Armida. . .. I speak at least for
myself; and must fully own, if it were not for these lies of Gothic invention, I should scarcely be disposed to give the Gierusalem Liberata a second reading." Quot homines, tot sententiae.
The worship of antiquity involved the Renaissance in strange doctrine. Pope's counsel, though fervid in expression, is not foreign to reason
“ Be Homer's works your study and delight,
Read him by day and meditate by night; but imitatio, defined by Jonson as the power" to convert the substance or riches of another poet to his own use," received, from Vida and others, even larger interpretation. Borrowing, naked and unashamed, was not a virtue, it was a duty.
“Come then, ye youths, and urge your generous toils,
Come strip the ancients, and divide the spoils." It was the poet's business, his art also, to transfer, from the golden books of Homer and Virgil, spirit and idea, word and phrase, to his own pages, with care indeed, as of a man handling precious things, and skilfully to make them his own, altering it might be the position, the original order, the immediate reference. For this poetic method a great weight of authority might be adduced, but we are not yet on firm, incontestable ground. Voltaire, the sceptic, thought it less easy than the eloquent Vida supposed to steal dexterously. Trissino, he comments," was justly fond of Homer, and yet his great fault is to have imitated him, for imitation requires more art than is generally believed.” Homer may venture upon details, for example, which in him do not offend, but no modern writer will make it “his particular care to describe with accuracy how such a colonel was wounded through the bladder, and such a captain in the kidneys."
For his avoidance of this very imitation so cordially recommended by others Davenant is expressly praised, and by Cowley again, because he "scorn'd to live by robbing the dead," and Young goes further, “ The less we copy the divine ancients we shall resemble them the more.” Davenant himself speaks with pith and distinctness, illustrating by simile, when he says,
Whilst we imitate others we can no more excell than he that sails by others maps can make a new discovery.” The doctrine of imitation found its limits of application by the close of the seventeenth century, and was finally dissolved in the crucible of humour. " In his ode upon the taking of Namur," says Kames of Boileau, “he demands with a most serious countenance whether the walls were built by Apollo or Neptune ? and in relating the passage of the Rhine, ANNO 1672, he describes the god of that river as fighting with all his might to oppose the French monarch." Addison, anticipating a torrent of verse on the occasion of a general peace, derives ironical satisfaction from a public warning to the poets——“I do strictly require every person who shall write on this subject to remember that he is a Christian, and not to sacrifice his catechism to his poetry. In order to it, I do expect of him, in the first place, to make his own poem, without depending upon Phæbus for any part of it, or calling out for aid upon any of the Muses by name. I do likewise positively forbid the sending of Mercury with any particular message or dispatch, relating to the peace, and shall by no means suffer Minerva to take upon her the shape of any plenipotentiary concerned in this great work. I do further declare, that I shall not allow the destinies to have had a hand in the deaths of the several thousands who have been slain in the late war; being of opinion that all such deaths may be well accounted for by the Christian system of powder and ball. I do therefore strictly forbid the poets to cut the thread of any man's life upon any pretence whatever, unless it be for the sake of rhyme.” i
The discussion, interminable and inconclusive, of literary problems arising out of the consideration of epos during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries prompted some to the pious wish that “ England were as free from critics as it is from wolves," and make it easy to accept Davenant's opinion that " Learning is not knowledge, but a continual sailing by fantastic and uncertain winds towards it.” Ask what question we will, the simplest, we are plunged in difficulty. Is it the nobility of the subject that makes the great epic? Then Tasso outdoes Homer, for his
1 Spectator, 523.