Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry (1700) and the Essay on Heroic Poetry Part 4

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But indeed the Translator has here mended Boileau's Thought, or at least made it more plausible and defensible, tho he has miss'd his Sence; for these are his Lines:

De la foi d'une Christien les Mysteres terribles D' Ornemens egayes ne sont point susceptibles.

The plain English of which, I think is, "That the terrible Mysteries of the Christian Faith, are not at all susceptible of these gayer Ornaments."

I'll not be too Critical here, tho' methinks its but an odd sort of Gayety that's to be found in Tales of h.e.l.l; agreeable, I own, the most dreadful thing nay be, if well manag'd in Poetry, but he can hardly ever make 'em gay without a yery strong Catachresis. But tho' we let that pa.s.s, so must not what follows, wherein he further explains his Notion. L'Evangile, &c.

The Gospel offers nothing to our Thoughts But Penitence and Punishment for Faults.

To which it may be first said, that supposing this true, and the Gospel did present nothing else, yet why mayn't Angels be us'd in it, to warn Sinners to that Repentance which we know they so much rejoyce in; or Devils, to punish and torment the Guilty and Impious; as in the Case of Sceva's Son, and others. But yet further, as to the a.s.sertion it self, I know not what their Gospel offers, nor I believe are they better acquainted with what ours does; but we are sure 'tis far enough from being such a dismal melancholy thing as they represent it, since Immortality and Life are brought to light therein. We know that it gives us the n.o.blest Examples, the most divine Law, the strongest, yet justest Pa.s.sions, the most glorious Combats, and Friendships, and Sufferings, such as neither History or Fable cou'd ever yet equal. It shews us a G.o.d really Descending, disrob'd indeed of all his more dazling and insupportable Glories, as our Divine Herbert; but yet clothed with what has more of true Divinity, with Humility, and Charity, and Patience, and Meekness, and Innocence. Here's War, here's Love indeed; such as never was besides, or will be more. He lov'd our Dust and Clay, and even for us, single encounter'd all the Powers of Darkness, and yet more, his Almighty Father's anger. But I'll go no farther, lest the Reader should think I forget where I am. I must return to Boileau, whose strongest Objection is yet behind; Et de vos Fictions, &c.

And mingling Falshood with those Mysteries Wou'd make our sacred Truths appear like Lies.

But I hope the Critic knew, that there is a fair difference between a mere Fiction, or Falshood, and an Instructive Parable or Fable, on one side, or a few more lively Poetical Colours on the other. To mingle Falshoods, or dull Legendary Fictions, without either Life or Soul in 'em, with our Saviour's Blessed Gospel, may make 'em, in some Sence, superiour to it: This wou'd indeed incline an Italian to be of the same Faith with his Countryman, that 'twas all Fabula Christi, in the worst Sence of the Word: But certainly expressing the Truth in Parables, and mingling these with the Mysteries of the Gospel, can't be thought to give it an Air of Fiction: nor dare any affirm it does so, without Blasphemy, since our Saviour has so often done it. Nor only these but deeper Allegories are thought to be made use of in the Christian Religion; for Example, the Throne and Temple of G.o.d in the Revelations, and the Description of the New Jerusalem, with all its Gates and Foundations of Sapphires and Emeralds, and that lovely Scheme of Trees and Rivers, worthy a Paradise: All this, I say, will scarcely be granted literal, and consequently must be all an Allegory; alluding partly to the Old Jewish Church and Temple, partly to Ezekiel's Visionary Representation and Prophetical Paradise. Nor can it, I think, be justly reckoned more criminal, where we have any great instructive Example, which has been real matter of Fact, to expatiate thereon; adding suitable and proper Circ.u.mstances and Colours to the whole, especially when the History it self is but succinctly Related, and the Heads of things only left us. And this some great Man have thought was the Method of the Holy Pen-man himself, whoever he were, in that lovely antient Poem of Job; which, that 't was at the bottom a real History, few but Atheists deny; and yet 'tis thought some Circ.u.mstances might be amplified in the account we have left us, particularly the long Speeches between that Great Man and his Friends; tho' the main hinges of the Relation, his Person, Character, and Losses, the malice of the Devil, the behaviour of his Wife and Friends, nay even the Substance of their Discourses, as well as of that between G.o.d and him, and the wonderful Turn of his Affairs soon after: All this might, and did, truly happen. Or, if any amplification should be here deny'd, does not the Divine however every day, Paraphrase and Expatiate upon the Words of his Text, inverting their Method as he sees occasion, and yet is still thought unblameable. All the difference is, that he delivers what's probable, as only probable; whereas the Nature of Poetry requires, that such probable Amplifications as these, be wrought into the main Action, in such a manner, as if they had really happen'd; and without this, a Man might Ryme long enough, but ne'er cou'd make a Poem, any more than this would have been one, had I begun with, Abraham begat Isaac, and so tagg'd on to the end of all the fourteen Generations, much as Nonnus has done with St. John, and yet often miss'd his Sence too, as Heinsius judges.

But enough of Fable, and of those who would either reduce all Heroic Poetry unto it, or absolutely banish it thence.

Next the Fable of Epics, the Poem is to be considered; which, after Bossu, is the other part of its general Nature, and shews the manner of handling it, comprehending Thoughts, Expressions and Verses; of which there need not much be said, since they are obvious to every Reader. The Thoughts must be clear and just, and n.o.ble, and the Diction or Expression suited to them. The chief Difficulty, as Rapin observes, is to keep up the Sublime, which Virgil has done admirably, even in the meanest Subjects; and which Aristotle thinks may be best done by the judicious use of Metaphors. There ought to meet, according to him, Proportion in the Design, Justness in the Thoughts, and Exactness in the Expression, to const.i.tute an accomplish'd Heroic Poem; and the great Art of Thought and Expression lies in this, that they be natural and proper without Meanness, and sublime without a vitious Swelling and Affectation.

The Matter is next in an Heroic Poem, which must be one important Action; it must be important, Res gestae Regumque Duc.u.mque, with Horace. "It only speaks of Kings and Princes," says Rapin, by which he must mean that it chiefly and princ.i.p.ally turns upon them: for both Virgil and Homer have occasion for Traitors, and Cryers, and Beggars, nay even Swineherds (in the Odysses), and yet still more, of whole Armies, which can't be all compos'd of Kings and Princes. However, the more there is of these lower Walks in the Plan of a Design, the less Heroic it must appear, even in the Hands of the greatest Genius in Nature. Such a Genius, I think, was Homer's, and yet the Truth of this a.s.sertion will be plain to any who compares his Odysses with his Iliads; where he'll find, if 'tis not for want of Judgment, in the latter a very different Air from the former, in many places much more dead and languishing, and this which I have given, seems one probable Reason on't; not excluding that of Longinus, that Homer was then grown old, and besides too much of the Work was spent in Narration; to which may be added, that he here design'd a wise and prudent rather than a brave and fighting Hero, having wrought off most of the Edg and Fury of his Youthful Spirit and Fury in Achilles, as in Ulysses he express'd more of Age and Judgment.

This Action must be one and uniform: the Painture of one Heroic Action, says Rapin from Aristotle. It must be, as Bossu from Horace, simplex duntaxat & unum, that is, the princ.i.p.al Action on which the whole Work moves ought to be one, otherwise the whole will be confus'd; tho' there may be many Episodic Actions without making what Aristotle calls an Episodic Poem, which is, where the Actions are not necessarily or not probably link'd to each other, and of such an irregular multiplication of Actions and Incidents. Bossu instances very pleasantly in Statius's Achilleid; but he tells us there's also a regular and just Multiplication, without which 'twere impossible to find matter for so large a Poem, when as before it's so ordered that the Unity of the whole is not broken, and consequently divers Incidents it has bound together are not to be accounted different Actions and Fables, but only different Parts not finish'd, or entire of one Action or Fable entire or finished: and, agreeable to this Doctrine, Rapin blames Lucan's Episodes as too far-fetch'd, over-scholastic, and consisting purely of speculative Disputes on natural Causes whenever they came in his way, not being link'd with the main Action, nor flowing naturally from it, nor tending to its Perfection.

And in this Action, the Poet ought, as Rapin tells us, to invert the natural Order of things, not to begin with his Hero in the Cradle, and write his Annals instead of an Epic Poem, as Statius in his Achilleid, the Reason of which seems plain, because this would look more like History than Poetry. It's more agreeable, more natural, in some Sence, to be here unnatural; to bring in, by way of Recitation or Narration, what was first in order of time, at some distance from that time when it really happened, which makes the whole look unlike a dull formal Story, and gives more scope for handsome Turns and the Art of the writer. Another Reason why a whole Life is not ordinarily a proper Subject for Epics, is, because many trivial Accidents must be therein recited; but if a Life can be found in which is nothing but what's diverting and wonderful, tending besides to the perfecting the main Action, and the Order of time revers'd in the whole, the Case would be so much altered, that I think their Rules would not hold.

For the Form of Epic, which comes next in view, 'tis agreed on all Hands to be Recitation or Narration. Bossu says, The Persons are not at all to be introduced before the Eyes of the Spectators, acting by themselves without the Poet; not that he'd hereby exclude the Poet from introducing the persons telling their own Story, or some one of them that of the princ.i.p.al Hero: for great part of Epic is thus far Dramatic. And thus Virgil manages his second and third Books by way of Recitation, and that by his Hero himself, making him give Dido a long account of the Wars of Troy, and his own Actions, tho' thereby he falls into the Impropriety of commending himself, with a--sum pius aeneas. Vida takes the same way of Recitation, wherein he employs two or three of his six Books; and Milton follows them both, tho' less naturally than either; for he introduces our Saviour, in his Paradise regain'd, repeating a great part of his own Life in Soliloquy, which way of Discourse includes, in a Wise Man especially, so much of Calmness and deep Reflection, that it seems improper for the great and n.o.ble Turn required in such a Work, unless in describing a Pa.s.sion, where it may be more lively. All that they mean by not introducing the Parties, is not doing it as in a Tragedy: they are not to be brought in abruptly to tell their own Tale from the beginning, without the appearing Help of the Poet, as Actors in a true and proper Drama. And this Narration, says Rapin, should be simple and natural; but the greatest difficulty is, not to let its Simplicity appear, lest it thence grow disagreeable, and the chiefest Art in this, consists in its Transitions, and all the delicate surprising Turns, which lead the Reader from one thing to another without his thinking whither he's going, or perceiving any Breach or so much as a pa.s.sage between 'em; after all, the more Action there is in Epic, still the more Life there will be. A Poet may, I find, easily fall into Poorness of Thought by aiming too much at the Probability and neglecting the Admirable; whereby he loses that agreeableness which is a mixture of both. He ought then to take more care than some have done, not to keep himself too long behind the Scenes, and trust the Narration with another, which, without a great deal of Art and Pains, will take off much of the Life of the Work, as Longinus has already formerly observed.

And here come in the Qualities of Narration, mentioned in our Definition, that it ought to be done in a manner probable, agreeable, and admirable; 'tis rendered probable by its Simplicity and Singularity, and admirable by the Grandeur of the Subject, the Figures and Machines, or [Greek: theoi apo mechanes], much more lawful here than in the Drama's; and lastly agreeable, as has been said, by a mixture of both.

The last thing in our Definition, is, the End of Epic, indeed the first and princ.i.p.al which ought to be intended, and that's Instruction, not only, as Rapin thinks, of great Men, but of all, as in Virgil's Scheme, which we have already described; and, this either by the princ.i.p.al Moral aim'd at in the whole, or the Manners of particular Persons. Of Fable and Moral, I've already discours'd, and whether be the more lively and probable way to instruct, by that or History. But here it may be worth the while to enquire, whether the princ.i.p.al Hero in Epic ought to be virtuous?

Bossu thinks not, the manners being formed as well by seeing Errors as Beauties in the chief Actors; but yet methinks it seems too much to form a Hero that's a perfect Almanzor, with not one spark of Vertue, and only remarkable for his extraordinary Strength and little Brains; such was certainly Homer's Achilles, of whom I think the Father was in the right when he observes, the Poet makes him not do one brave or virtuous Action, all the while he lies before the Town: whereas Virgil's Hero, is, to tell truth, an indifferent good Heathen, and, bating one or two slips, comes up pretty well to his own good word. The same however may be said for Homer, which our present Dramatists plead for their Excuse; that he copied his Hero from those who were esteemed such in the barbarous Age in which he liv'd,

Impiger, iracundus, inexorabllis, acer, Jura neget sibi nata, &c.

Made up of Lewdness, Love, and Fighting: who, had he liv'd in our Days, would have made an excellent Town Bully, I wish there were not too much reason to say a modish Gentleman. But tho' old Homer took this way, Virgil, who writes with much more Judgment and Exactness, and follows him in many things, here thought fit to leave him; making his Hero, as I've said, not only brave and prudent, but for the most part virtuous. Which would much better form the manners of his Reader, than if they were set to spell out Instruction from contraries, as Homer has done. Whence it follows, the more virtuous a Hero is, the better; since he more effectually answers the true end of Epics. After all, Rapin says, the chief Excellency of an Heroic Poem consists in the just proportion of the Parts; that perfect Union, just Agreement, and admirable Relation, which the Parts of this great Work bear one towards another; and blames Ta.s.so for mingling all the Sweetness and Delicacy of Eclogues and Lyricks, with the Force of an Heroic Poem. But I should think him mistaken here, and that this is not the meaning of Aristotles [Greek: a.n.a.logon]. For if we allow not such a pleasing Variety, how shall we excuse even Virgil himself, who has his Dido, as well a Ta.s.so his Armida and Erminia? nay, how shall we manage Love? which is usually one great Episode of Heroic, if not with something of Delicacy. I grant Love ought to have a different Air in different sorts of Poems; but still if it be natural it must have something of Softness; and for his Enchanted Forrest, which this severe Critic also blames, I believe there's few who read that part of his Work, who would willingly have it omitted, for the sake of a fancied Regularity, any more than they would part with Mr. Dryden's Improvement on't in his King Arthur. However, if it be a fault, 'tis strange so many who have been Masters of the greatest Genius should unanimously fall into it; as Ovid in his Palace of Circe, Ariosto in that of Alcina, and Spencer in his Acasia's Bower of Bliss, and several others, who have taken the same Method. I should therefore rather think that this beautiful and marvellous a.n.a.logy which Aristotle requires as the best thing in Epic, relates rather to the Harmony and Agreement of the Parts with the Whole; so that there appears no Fracture or Contradiction, the different Parts, tho' much unlike, yet all together making one beautiful Figure and uniform Variety.

And thus much of the Definition of Epic, containing the main Rules thereof, by which the Reader may be able to form a Judgment of this, or any other Heroic Poem: Especially if to these Rules be added some Examples to render them more plain. In order to which, I desire to express my Thoughts freely of other Poems, as I must expect every one will do of mine, always observing that piece of Justice, never to find fault, without taking notice of some Beauty to ballance it, and giving, where I can find it, the better Judgment of other Persons as well as my own. Concluding all with a brief Account of my own Work.

To begin then with Grandsire Homer, this may be added to the particular Remarks that have been already made. I think none will deny but the Disposition of his Iliads, is so truly admirable, so regular, and exact, that one would be apt to think he wrote his Poem by Aristotle's Rules, and not Aristotle his Rules by his Poem. I confess, I once thought that he had been oblig'd to his Commentators for most of the Beauties they celebrated in him; but I am now, on a nearer view, so well satisfied to the contrary, that I can ne'er think his Poem writ by piece-meal, without any Connexion or Dependance: wherein Dionysius the Halicarna.s.sian very justly praises the Order and Management of the Design, as well as the Grandeur and Magnificence of the Expression, and the sweet and pa.s.sionate Movements.

Nor is it without Reason that Horace, Longinus, and all Antiquity have given him, as the Model of just and n.o.ble Sentiments and Expressions.

I must confess there's something in his Numbers that strikes me more than even Virgil's, his Thoughts and Expressions appear stronger than his, tho'

it cannot be denied but that Virgil's Design is much more regular. Rapin says a great deal of that Prince of the Latin Poets, tho' indeed he can never say enough, "He had an admirable Taste, says he, of what's natural, an excellent Judgment for the Order, and an incomparable Delicacy for the Number and Harmony of his Versification." And adds, "That the Design of the Poem is, if we consider it in all its Circ.u.mstances, the most judicious and best-laid that ever was or ever will be." There is indeed a prodigious Variety in Virgil, and yet the same Soul visible in every Line.

His own great Spirit informs his Poetical World, and like that he speaks of,

---- totos infusa per Artus Mens agitat Molem, & magno se corpora miscet.

He's soft with the height of Majesty, his Marcellus, his Dido, and, I think, above all, his Elegy on Pallas is very n.o.ble and tender. The joints so strong and exactly wrought, the Parts so proportionable, the Thoughts and Expression so great, the Complements so fine and just, that I could ne'er endure to read Statius, or any of the rest of the Antient Latins after him; with whom therefore I shan't concern my self nor trouble my Reader. Ariosto was the first of the Moderns who attempted any thing like an Heroic Poem, and has many great and beautiful Thoughts; but at the same time, 'tis true, as Balzac observes, that you can hardly tell whether he's a Christian or an Heathen, making G.o.d swear by Styx, and using all the Pagan Ornaments; his Fancy very often runs away with his Judgment, his Action is neither one nor simple, nor can you imagine what he drives at; he has an hundred Hero's but you can't tell which he designs should be chief: Orlando indeed seems a wild Imitation of Homer's Achilles, but his Character is not bright enough to make him the Princ.i.p.al; and besides he orders it so, that he does more great Actions when he's mad then when sober. Agreeable to this are Rapin's thoughts of him, which, in few words, are "That he's elevated and admirable in his Expressions, his Descriptions fine, but that he wants Judgment; and speaks well, but thinks ill, and that tho' the Parts are handsome enough, yet the whole Work can by no means pa.s.s for an Epic Poem, he having never seen the Rules of Aristotle;"

which he thinks Ta.s.so had, and therefore wrote much better, whom he commends as more correct in his Design, more regular in the ordering his Fable, and more accomplish'd in all parts of his Poem than any other of the Italians, whom yet he justly blames, because he has two Hero's G.o.dfredo and Rinaldo, of whom G.o.dfredo seems the princ.i.p.al, and yet Rinaldo performs the greatest part of the notable Actions. He seems to imitate Agamemnon and Achilles, but then he raises his Agamemnon too high, or keeps him too low, for he hardly lets him do one great Action through the whole Work. He further criticises upon him as mingling too much Gallantry with his Poem, which, he thinks, is unbecoming the Gravity of his Subject. But whether this Censure be just, I know not, for Love and Gallantry runs through all Virgil's aeneids, in the Instances of Helen, Dido, and Lavinia, and indeed it gives so great a Life to Epic, that it hardly can be agreeable without it, and I question whether ever it has been so. Nor is he more just, I think, against Ta.s.so's Episodes, which he blames as not proper to circ.u.mstantiate his princ.i.p.al Action, not entring into the Causes and Effects thereof, but seeking too much to please, tho'

I think this Charge is unjust, for 'tis in his Episodes, if any where, that Ta.s.so is admirable. I might here give several Instances, but shall, at present, only refer my Reader to that of Tancred and Erminia, and I'm mistaken if he does not dissent from Rapin in this particular. Sannazarius and Vida were the next who did any thing remarkable in Epic; they both writ in Latin on the same Subject, both Christian Heroics; Rapin says they both had a good Genius for Latin, the Purity of their Style being admirable, but that their ordering of the Fable has nothing in't of Delicacy, nor is the manner of their Writing proportionable to the dignity of the Subject. For Sannazarius he's indeed so faulty, that one can hardly with Patience read him, the whole Structure of his imperfect Piece, de partu, being built on Heathen Fable; yet he has great and vigorous Thoughts and very Poetical Expressions, tho' therein Vida far excels him, whose Thoughts are so n.o.ble, and the Air of his Stile so great, that the Elogy Balzac gives his Countryman Ta.s.so, wou'd as well or rather better have fitted him; "That Virgil is the Cause, Vida is not the first; and Vida, that Virgil is not alone." It is true, as Rapin observes, that his Fable is very simple, and perhaps so much the better, considering the Subject; tho' he forgets not Poetical Ornaments, where there's occasion, if he does not lean a little to Sannazarius's Error; for he talks of the Gorgons and Sphinxes, the Centaurs and Hydra's and Chimera's, though much more sparingly and modestly than the other. He has the happiest beginning that perhaps is to be found in any Poem, and by mingling his Proposition and Invocation, has the advantage of placing one of the n.o.blest Thoughts in the World in the first Line, without danger of falling into the absurdity of Horace's Author with his Fortunam Priami: For thus he sings,

Qui mare, qui terras, qul coelum numine comples Spiritus alme, &c.

After the Invocation, in the very beginning of the Poem, he's preparing the Incidents for his Hero's Death; he brings him to Jerusalem at the Pa.s.sover with Hosanna's; then raises his Machines, and falls to the Description of h.e.l.l. He through the whole, uses his Figures very gracefully; few have been more happy in Comparisons, more moving in Pa.s.sion, succinct, yet full in Narration: Yet is he not without Faults; or in the second Book he brings him to his last Supper in the Garden, from thence before Caiaphas and Pilate; which too much precipitates the main Action: Besides, it seems harsh and improbable to bring in S. John, and Joseph, our Saviour's reputed Father, as he does in the Third and Fourth Book, giving Pilate an account of his Life; not to insist on the general Opinion, that Joseph was not then alive. But notwithstanding these few failures, it can't be deny'd, that his Description of our Saviour's Pa.s.sion in the Fourth Book, is incomparably fine; the disturbance among the Angels on that occasion; his Character of Michael, and the Virgins Lamentation under the Cross, and at the Sepulchre, are inimitable. And thus much for Vida, on whom I've been more large because I've often made use of his Thoughts in this following Work; his Poem being the most complete on that Subject I've ever seen or expect to see. And here han't the English more reason to complain of Rapin, that he takes no notice of their Heroic Poems, than Lupez Viga of Ta.s.so, for not mentioning the Spaniards at the Siege of Jerusalem: but since he has been so partial, as not to take any notice of our Writers, who sure as much deserve it as their Dubartas and Ronsard; we may have liberty to speak of our own, and to do 'em Justice: To begin with Spencer, who I think comes the nearest Ariosto of any other; he's almost as Irregular, but much more Natural and Lovely: But he's not only Irregular but Imperfect too, I mean, as to what he intended; and therefore we can't well imagine what it wou'd have been, had he liv'd to complete it. If Fable be the Essence of Epic, his Fairy Queen had certainly enough of that to give it that Name. He seems, by the account he gives of it to Sir Walter Rawleigh, to have design'd one Princ.i.p.al Hero King Arthur, and one main important Action bringing him to his Throne; but neither of these appear sufficiently distinct, or well defin'd, being both lost in the vast Seas of Matter which compose those Books which are finish'd. This however must be granted, the Design was n.o.ble, and required such a comprehensive Genius as his, but to draw the first Sketch of it: And as the Design, so the Thoughts are also very great, the Expressions flowing natural and easie, with such a prodigious Poetical Copia as never any other must expect to enjoy. Gondibert methinks wants Life; the Style is rather stiff than Heroic, and has more of Statius than Virgil; one may see every where a great deal of Art, and Pains, and Regularity, even to a fault; nor is a Genius wanting, but it's so unnatural, that an ingenious Person may find much more pleasure in reading a worse Poet. Besides, his Stanza's often cramp the Sence, and injure many a n.o.ble Thought and Pa.s.sion. But Mr. Cowley's Davideis is the Medium between both; it has Gondibert's Majesty without his stiffness, and something of Spencer's Sweetness and Variety, without his Irregularity: Indeed all his Works are so admirable, that another Cowley might well be employ'd in giving them their just Elogy. His Hero is according to the ancient Model, truly Poetical, a mixture of some Faults and greater Virtues. He had the advantage of both Love and Honour for his Episodes, nay, and Friendship too, and that the n.o.blest in History. He had all the sacred History before him, and liberty to chuse where he pleased, either by Narration or Prophecy; nor has he, as far as he has gone, neglected any advantage the Subject gave him. Its a great Loss to the World that he left the Work unfinish'd, since now he's dead, its always like to continue so.

As for Milton's Paradise Lost its an Original, and indeed he seems rather above the common Rules of Epic than ignorant of them. Its I'm sure a very lovely Poem, by what ever Name it's call'd, and in it he has many Thoughts and Images, greater than perhaps any either in Virgil or Homer. The Foundation is true History, but the turn is Fable: The Action is very Important, but not uniform; for one can't tell which is the Princ.i.p.al in the Poem, the Wars of the Angels or the Fall of Man, nor which is the Chief Person Michael or Adam. Its true, the former comes in as an Episode to the latter, but it takes up too great a part thereof, because its link'd to it. His Discourse of Light is incomparable; and I think 'twas worth the while to be blind to be its Author. His Description of Adam and Eve, their Persons and Love, is almost too lively to bear reading: Not but that he has his inequalities and repet.i.tions, the latter pretty often, as have, more or less, all other Poets but Virgil. For his antique Words I'm not like to blame him whoever does: And for his blank Verse, I'm of a different mind from most others, and think they rather excuse his uncorrectness than the contraries; for I find its easier to run into it, in that sort of Verse, than in Rhyming Works where the Thought is oftner turned; whereas here the Fancy flows on, without check or controul. As for his Paradise Regain'd, I nothing wonder that it has not near the Life of his former Poem, any more than the Odysses fell short of the Iliads.

Milton, when he writ this, was grown Older, probably poorer: He had not that scope for Fable, was confin'd to a lower Walk, and draws out that in four Books which might have been well compriz'd in one: Notwithstanding all this, there are many strokes which appear truly his; as the Mustring of the Parthian Troops, the Description of Rome by the Devil to our Saviour, and several other places.

And now I've done with all the rest, I may take liberty to say something of my own.

For the Subject I dare stand by it, that 'tis fit for a better Heroic Poem than any ever was, or will be made; and that if a good Poem cou'd not be made on't, it must be either from the weakness of the Art itself, or for want of a good Artist. I don't say the Subject with all its Circ.u.mstances is the best for Epic, but considered in it self, or with a prudent choice out of the vast Field of Matter which it affords.

The Action is Important, if ever any was, being no less than the Redemption of the World, which was not accomplish'd till after our Saviours Death and Resurrection. The Ascension I confess should be left out, according to the common Rules of Heroick Poetry, but I had not the same reason of omitting it, as others have for not coming to the End of their History, a little short of which they generally stop, because after the main Business is over, nothing great remains, or however not greater than has already past. And if any thing mean followed, the Reader wou'd leave off dissatisfied. But I've as great and remarkable an Action, as any in the whole story, yet upon my Hands, and which if I had omitted, I had lost many very moving Incidents that follow'd the Resurrection; and besides, Vida before me, has carry'd it yet further, to the actual Descent of the Holy Ghost on the Disciples, and the spreading the Christian Name all the World over; which I have done only in Prophecy.

The Action is I think uniform, because all the Episodes are part of the main Action, the Redemption of the World; to which his Incarnation, and Divine Conception were absolutely necessary, and so were his Holy Life, Doctrine, Miracles, and especially his Sufferings and Agonies. My princ.i.p.al Hero was perfect, yet imitable, and that both in active and contemplative Life. He leaves his own Kingdom to save and conquer another, endures the greatest hardships, is reduc'd to the lowest ebb, nay is at last forc'd to suffer Death it self. Yet after all, he emerges from his Misfortunes, conquers all his Enemies, fixes Laws, establishes Religion, Peace, and his own Empire, and is advanced higher than any Conquerer ever was before him.

The other Persons are Heroical enough, Angels, Kings, High Priests, Governours, Councellors, nay even the Apostles themselves were more than Kings, for they were thought and call'd G.o.ds by the People. The Moral I find not make it, in a true Example, which others are forced to Form in Fable; "That we ought to do Good, to suffer evil, submit to the Divine Will; to venture or lose a Life for a Friend; to forgive our Enemies."

Yet further I desire to recommend the whole of the Christian Religion; all the Articles of Faith; all that System of Divinity and Morality contain'd in the Gospel of the Blessed Jesus, to the Study and Practice of Persons of Ingenuity and Reason; to make his Divine Person, which is already infinitely Amiable, if possible, actually more Ador'd and Lov'd; and to Vindicate his Mission, his Satisfaction, and his Divinity, against all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Heretics; which sure are the most proper Ends that can be propos'd in a Work of this Nature: Which may be agreeably and admirably done, if 'tis not the Poets fault; for here's all the marvellous that cou'd be wished for, already done to my Hand, and all sacredly True, Angels and Demons, and Miracles, with Voices from Heaven.

Now the Subject being so fit for a good Heroic Poem, I shall have the less excuse, if this be a bad one. And here I must ingenuously confess, I had seen none of these Rules given by the Masters of Epic, when I laid the Scheme of this Poem, tho I wish I had, for I might probably then have done it better, or not at all. I knew not the hazard of the undertaking, but greedily embrac'd it, when first propos'd by some Friends, who were ignorant of what they put me upon. Being full of the Design wherein, the earnest desire I had to see it accomplish'd, and either a lucky Chance, or the Happiness of my Subject, may perhaps in some Instances, have supply'd the want both of Rules and Genius. All I will say of my own performance is, that I now know the Faults on't, tho I am not oblig'd to point 'em out to my Reader, who will but too soon find 'em. That I wou'd have mended much that's now amiss, had I lived in an Age where a man might afford to be Nine or Ten Years about a Poem. And in the Mean time this satisfies me, whatever is the success, that I've done all that cou'd be done by one in my Circ.u.mstances towards the rendering it more compleat and free from Faults, and only wish that my own Reputation may suffer, by the weakness of the Work, and not the Dignity of the Subject.

I cou'd plead for my self what Longinus says on Works of this Nature, wou'd it not look like Arrogance, "That even the greatest Genius may sometimes sink into meanness, when the force of their Spirits is once exhausted: That its very difficult for height of Thought to sustain it self long in an equal Tenour; and that some Faults ought to be excused when there are more Beauties." But if none of these will pa.s.s, I hope it will not much mortifie me, since I think the World and I have no great matter to do with one another. I'm sensible my Poem wou'd have had fewer Enemies, had I left out some Pa.s.sages in't. But as mean as the worst of this are, I wou'd not buy their good Word at such a rate. I had almost forgot to mention the Gravers Work, which is not without Faults, particularly he has err'd in the Posture of the Disciples at the last Supper, whom he has made Sitting, when they were really Declining, or Disc.u.mbent. But its now more than time to conclude my long Preface, which I shall do in few Words. Since the chief Design in this Work, is to advance the Honour of my Hero, and next to that, the entertainment of Pious and ingenious Minds; for the truth of which, I hope I may appeal to the great [Greek: kritikos tes kardias]; I shall not be much concern'd for the success it may meet with in the World.

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Epistle to a Friend Concerning Poetry (1700) and the Essay on Heroic Poetry Part 4 summary

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