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has been at the pains to set before us. This is sufficiently evident, nor have any of the great poets failed in the choice of their action. Hence it may be asked, whether an epic poem ought uniformly to end well? It appears most probable it ought; for as the time is much longer than that of tragedy, to end miserably after the recital of so many misfortunes, would' too deeply distress the mind. Milton, however, is an exception; but it may be doubted whether he is happy in this respect. The subject of an epic poem should not be of too recent date: it should never be written from any history with which we are well acquainted; for the imagina tion may sport with the events and characters of former ages, and we can easily believe the latter much more perfect, than those with whom we are in a manner acquainted. Lucan and Voltaire are the only poets who have acted contrary to this rule. The time or duration of the action may, according to the critics, be considerably longer in an epic poem than a dramatic composition: the action of the Iliad employs forty-seven days,* that of the Æneid five years and a half, and the Odyssey about eight years. But if we compute, according to some, from the sailing of Ulysses from the isle of Calypso, and the dispersion of the fleet of Eneas, the latter only occupies fifty-eight days, and the former one year and seven months.†
There are some reasons why an epic poem should commence somewhere in the course of the action, indeed near the conclusion: 1st, because of the variety which it gives to the poem, by making it in part dramatic, and putting a part of the narrative into the mouth of the principal character; 2d, because it excuses the poet from that minuteness, and consequent tediousness, which would be necessary in pursuing the hero through every circumstance of the narrative; 3d, the introduction of a part of the narrative in that way pleases by the air and ingenuity which is displayed by the poet in the
manner of introducing it, and the surprise it occasions; 4thly, it affords room for more animated strokes of passion, than if the whole story was told by the poet....
"Quæ ipse miserrima vidi,
"Et quorum pars magna fui. Quis talia fando
"Those direful scenes I saw on Phrygia's shore,
As in the drama, so in epic poetry, the characters should be properly adapted to the plot, and should seem to rise naturally out of it. Each individual must be possessed of peculiar features, to distinguish him from others. Homer excels in this part; the characters of Virgil are more general, and not so easily distinguished. The only particular and well-drawn character in the Eneid is Dido, which is strongly marked. The epic however, with respect to character, differs from the drama essentially in one instance. In the drama supernatural beings, and particularly the deities of a superior order, are almost interdicted. In an epic poem, on the contrary, they are always expected. Why this low, mean, and inexpressive term machinery has been applied to this portion of epic poetry I have never seen rationally accounted for. It has arisen, I apprehend, among modern critics, from some metaphysical notion, that all the events of the poem are put in motion by the machinery of supernatural agency. Thus in Homer, where any thing wonderful is recounted it is ascribed to the gods, as when the horse of Achilles speaks.....
Ανδηέντα δ' έθηκε θεα λευκώλενος Ηρη.
Il. xix. v. 407.
"Then, strange to tell (so Juno will'd) he broke
The machinery of every epic poem should be such as is consonant to the popular belief at the time the poem is composed, otherwise it will be coldly introduced by the poet, and without effect to the reader. Allegorical machinery only serves to remind us that we are perusing fiction; and neither this, nor obsolete mythology can awaken the passions of awe and terror. After all, machinery should be sparingly used, and with great discretion, for in epic poetry as well as tragedy the rule is a good one....
"Nec deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus."
De Art. Poet. v. 191.
"Nor let a god in person stand display'd,
Homer makes perhaps too free use of his machinery; and indeed debases his divinities below the characters of men; but the Greek mythology was but a clumsy and puerile system. It can only please children, and is justly exposed to the sarcastic censure of Lactantius, and the ridicule of Lucian.
If the difficulty of composing a good epic poem is so great as all crities have concurred in representing it; if the fable must be happy, popular and interesting; the characters well chosen, striking and new, and the poetry abounding in every charm of verse, we cannot wonder, if in such long undertakings, so few have succeeded. Yet every age has been fertile in epic poems. Petrarch, and even Boccacio, composed each one. Sir Richard Blackmore produced no less than four, and even in our own time some compositions of this description, and of considerable merit, have made their appearance.
But, whatever may be the fate of our contemporary epic poets, very few of those who have preceded them have met with that attention from posterity with which their authors doubtless flattered themselves, and which perhaps many of them might really deserve. Perhaps
very long poems have a natural tendency to sink into oblivion by their own weight, unless supported by some very striking circumstances, or something peculiarly interesting in the plot, or fable; while a short poem may subsist on one brilliant passage. Even the charitable muse of Mr. Hayley can summon but a few as worthy candidates to the epic banquet, though he seems to have pressed Dante, Ariosto, and even Gresset, whose hero is a parrot, into the service. I shall present you with a still less voluminous catalogue.
Homer is not only the first epic poet, but one of the first of poets. Mr. Pope, I think, calls the Iliad “the oldest book extant, except the Bible." Yet I think I perceive some internal evidence to induce me to believe him a little posterior to Hesiod. If we consider the period at which he composed, the works of Homer can scarcely be contemplated with sufficient admiration. Not that I am prepared to join in the praises which distempered pedants have lavished on this wonderful person. I cannot find in him every art and science. I cannot agree that "the philosopher discovers in him the first rudiments of moral knowledge, or the physician the science of diseases and their cures." "The astronomer and the legislator" must resort to superior authority. Still the Iliad and Odyssey are wonderful productions. In the original no small share of their utility and interest arises from the striking and evidently correct picture which they exhibit of the manners, language, modes of thinking and of acting at so early a period of society. This effect is lost in Mr. Pope's translation, but in return he has presented us with poems richer than the originals in every poetical beauty. I feel myself confirmed in this last sentiment not only by the verdict of Dr. Johnson (always a high authority), but by the fact, that no literal translation of Homer has ever been acceptable to the public taste. There is a curiosa felicitas in the original language of every good author which cannot be transfused, and Mr. Pope, as he could not give us every excellence of Homer, was right to compensate for the loss by some
beauties of his own. In his English Homer he has brought his author nearer to the character and standard of Virgil's Æneid. Yet the version, where the subject and sentiment of the author would admit of it, is much more literal, correct, and even condensed, than might have been expected. I say condensed, for it is the nature of translation to expand by periphrasis, rather than to keep within the bounds and limtts of the original. Dr. Johnson says of Mr. Pope, that "he has left in his Homer a treasure of poetical elegance to posterity. His version may be said to have tuned the English tongue; for since its appearance no writer, however deficient in other powers, has wanted melody. Such a series of lines, so elaborately corrected, and so sweetly modulated, took possession of the public car, the vulgar was enamoured of the poem, and the learned wondered at the translation."
A question has been lately agitated, which however does not in my opinion admit of a debate. It has been gravely asserted that the Iliad and Odyssey have been composed in detached fragments, and by different hands; that these fragments were afterwards collected and (I can use no other than a vulgar term) patched together, and each made into a whole. It would really be to insult your understanding to argue in detail on such an absurd hypothesis. Unity of action is one of the great praises of Homer, especially in the Iliad. The fable is one complete plot, all the incidents tending to the same end. More than this, there is even a unity of character, and this is preserved religiously through each poem. We know, and almost anticipate (after we are acquainted with the characters) what Nestor, Achilles, or Ulysses will say upon any subject. Can such a poem then be the work of different persons without union or correspondence with each other? Can any thing in criticism itself be more absurd than such a supposition ? But further still, there is even in Homer a uniformity of language and style. Every author has a vocabulary of his own, and Homer's is not extremely copious. The same words and phrases continually occur, and some