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Heroic Poetry: Studies in Literature and History

Written by: Sir Alfred Comyn Lyall

I have taken the words 'Heroic Poetry' to signify the poetry of strenuous action, the art of describing in vigorous animating verse those scenes and emergent situations in which the energies of mankind are strung up to the higher tones, and where the emotions are brought into full play by the exhibition of valour, endurance, and suffering. It seems to me remarkable that modern English poetry, with all its splendid variety, should have produced very little in this particular form; because no one can deny that the latter-day story of the English has been full of enterprise and perilous adventure, providing ample material to the artist who knows how to use it. Nor can it be said that there is any lack of demand for this sort of poetry, and consequently little inducement to supply it. On the contrary, any one can see that hero worship is as strong as ever, that any striking incident, or example of personal valour, or exploit of war, brings out the verse-writer, and that his efforts, if only very moderately successful, are sure to win him great popularity.

But it must be admitted that most of these efforts fail rather lamentably, insomuch that at the present day we may seem to be losing one of the finest forms of a noble art. From this point of view there may be some advantage in looking back to the heroic poetry of earlier ages, and in endeavouring to mark briefly and imperfectly its distinctive qualities, to recall the conditions and circumstances in which it[Pg 156] flourished, and possibly to hazard some suggestions as to the causes of its decline.

I do not know any recent book which throws more light upon this subject than Professor Ker's book on Epic and Romance, published in 1897. It is, to my mind, most valuable as an exposition of the right nature and methods of heroic narrative, in poetry and in prose. The author has the rare gift of insight into the ways and feelings of primitive folk, and the critical faculty of discerning the characteristics of a style or a period, showing how men, who knew what to say and the right manner of saying it, have shaped the true form of heroic poetry. We can see that its elementary principles, the methods of composition in verse and prose, are essentially the same in all times and countries, in the Iliad, in the Icelandic Sagas, in the old Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon poems, and to some extent in the French Chansons de Geste; they might be used to-morrow for a heroic subject by any one gifted with the requisite skill, imagination, and the eye for impressive realities.

'Few nations have attained, at the close of their heroic age, to a form of poetical art in which men are represented freely in action and conversation. The labour and meditation of all the world has not discovered, for the purposes of narrative, any essential modification of the procedure of Homer.'

Professor Ker's essays are a brilliant and scholarly contribution to the external history of poetical forms: and it would be great presumption in me to attempt a review of his work. But it is so eminently suggestive, and to my mind so valuable as a study for verse writers of the present day, that I have ventured to place this book in the foreground of an attempt to sketch rapidly some clear outline of the conditions and the essential qualities of heroic poetry, which is too commonly regarded as an easy off-hand kind of[Pg 157] versification, largely made up of dash, glowing words, and warlike clatter; although in reality nothing is more rare or difficult than success in it.

We may say, then, that the first heroic poets and tale-tellers were those who related the deeds and sufferings, the life and death of the mighty men of earlier times; and that their verse was the embodiment of the living traditions of men and manners. They were bards and chroniclers who lived close enough to the age of which they wrote to understand and keep touch with it—an age when battles and adventures were ordinary incidents in the annals of a tribe, a city, or a country—when valour, skill at arms, and a stout heart were supremely important, being almost the only virtues that led to high distinction and a great career. Heroic poetry of the higher kind could not exist in a period of mere barbarism, for among barbarous folk there is no art of poetic form. It could not have arisen before the people were so far civilised as to have among them artistic singers or story-tellers who gave fine and forcible expression to the acts they celebrated or the scenes they described.

The old heroic poets were neither too near to the time of which they sung or wrote, nor too far from it; and this gave them another special advantage, they had a good audience. The song, or the story, must have often been recited before listeners to whom the whole subject was more or less familiar, who knew the facts and ways of war, the true aspect and usages of a rough and perilous existence. They were too well acquainted, at any rate, with such things to be captivated by vague imaginative descriptions of fighting and refined chivalrous methods of dealing with a mortal foe, such as are found in the later Romance. Among primitive folk there would have been no taste for fantastic, allegoric, and extravagant[Pg 158] though highly poetical accounts of valorous exploits by noble knights, with their tournaments and their adventures with giants, dwarfs, or enchanters. The tradition was of a community encompassed by dangers for men and for women, where life and goods depended on strength and sagacity. And so the original hero was strictly a practical soldier, a man who knew his business, who had very few troublesome scruples; he was a man of war from his youth up, struggling with arduous circumstance; and he usually came at last, as in actual life, to a bloody though glorious end. For the experience of a rough age is that the drama mostly finishes tragically, not happily as in a modern novel. There was always a strain of Romance in the heroic tale, and softer feelings were never quite absent: but all this was subordinate to facts: whereas Romance seems to have prevailed and grown popular in proportion as the writer stood further away from the actualities, trusted to imagination rather than to authentic experience, preferred literary ornament to probability, and indeed took his readers as far away as possible from scenes or situations which they could recognise or verify.

It may thus be suggested that the essential quality of Heroic poetry is this—that it gives a true picture of the time. Not that the poet was an eye-witness of what he narrated, or even that he lived in the same generation with the men or the events that he celebrated. On the contrary, the distance which lends enchantment to the view is needed to surround heroes with a golden haze of glorification. But the bard did live on the outer edge, so to speak, of the period which he wrote about; he was more or less in the same atmosphere; his audience kept him very near the truth because they could detect any exaggeration, absurdity, or very unlikely incident; just as we should mark and reject any particularly foolish[Pg 159] story of the war that might appear in to-morrow's newspaper. They would indeed swallow strange marvels of a supernatural kind, the doings of gods and goddesses, and of magicians. But I think it will be agreed that in all ages this has been a separate matter, because men will believe what is plainly miraculous, when they will not accept what is merely improbable. So far as the natural world was concerned, the heroic artist worked upon genuine material, transmitted orally or by fragmentary records, producing a right image of remarkable men and the world in which they lived. It was a world, in most cases, of small communities and petty wars, in which a good chief or warrior came rapidly to the front, and was all-important individually.

The word Hero is one of those Greek words which have been adopted into all European languages, because they signify precisely a universal idea of the thing. He must be strong and able in battle, for a lost fight might mean the death or slavery of all his people. If the hero does his living and dying in a noble fashion, the folk trouble themselves very moderately about minor questions of religion or ethics, and are very moderately scandalised by occasional ferocity. Such a man is not to be hampered by ordinary rules; he is like a general commanding in the field, who may do anything for the preservation of his army, and the consequence is that he is seldom expected to moralise. He acknowledges and pays great honour to the cardinal virtues of truth-speaking, mutual fidelity, hospitality, strict observance of pledges. He is in many ways a religious man; though he is apt to break away from the priests when they interfere seriously with the business in hand. For the chastity of wives he has a high esteem, yet although he and his people are constantly brought into trouble about women, he is tolerant of them,[Pg 160] even when their behaviour is what might be called regrettable; he treats them in some degree as irresponsible beings, on the ground, perhaps, that they are the only non-combatants in the world as he knows it, and that this gives them special privileges. We can measure the importance of such a personage in ancient days, by the noise which a first-class hero made in the primitive world. He became literally and figuratively immortal: he was regarded as a god, or at least godlike—the greatest of them were actually deified. He was seized upon by fable, myth, miraculous legend, and poetry—his name was handed down for centuries until the heroic lineaments were softened down, disfigured, and at last faded away in the magical haze of later Romance. But in very rare instances he had the good luck to be taken in hand, before it was too late, by some man of genius, who knew the temper of heroic times because he lived within range of them, and who has preserved for us a story, an incident, or a typical character—not, indeed, an authentic narrative, for the true story disappears under the tradition which is built over it; nor would such accurate knowledge be of much use to the poet, whose business it is only to give us a fine spirited account of what might have occurred. For the evidence that an ancient battle was really fought we must go to the historian; the poet will tell us how it was fought, he stirs the blood and fires the imagination by his tale of noble deeds and deaths. His strength rests upon the foundation of reality that underlies his artistic construction: he has never let go his hold upon sound experience: and the truth is felt in all the colour and detail of the picture, though the whole is a work of vivid imagination. We cannot verify, obviously, the facts and motives which led to the siege of Troy, although Herodotus appears to agree that the cause of that war was a Spartan[Pg 161] woman's abduction, and only examines the point whether the Asiatic or the European Greeks were first to blame in the matter. Professor Murray prefers to believe in a myth growing out of the strife of light and darkness in the sky: but the rape of beautiful girls by seafaring rovers was evidently common enough in those times, so why should not the Homeric version be right? We can always be sure that the old poems represent accurately life, manners, and character; and from the analogy of those legends whose origin is known, we may fairly infer that the root of a famous story, divine or human, is first planted in fact, not in fancy; just as the Chanson de Roland is founded on a real battle in the pass of Roncevalles.

Such, therefore, were the conditions and fortunate coincidences which produced the finest heroic poetry. You had the popular hero—the noble warrior who knew his business; and you had also the poet or story-teller who knew his art, could give you a dramatic picture founded upon fact, and could always keep close to reality, without crowding his canvas with unnecessary particulars; he gave you the ruling motives, actions, and feelings of the age. The excellence of the work lay in simplicity and directness of treatment, in a sureness of line drawing, in a power of striking the right note, whether of praise or sorrow, of glory or grief. There is no staginess or far-fetched emotion, or artificial scene-painting: the style strikes the right chords of passion or pity, and stamps upon the mind a vivid impression of situation and character. Moreover, the heroic poet, as a composer, had this advantage in early days, that continual recital before an appreciative public must have had the effect of polishing up his best verses, and polishing off his bad ones. As the theme was always some well-known story or personage, it was possible[Pg 162] to omit details and explanations, and to go straight to the points that repetition had proved to be the most effective, so that the criterion of excellence must have been immediate popularity with the audience as in a play. It may be conjectured also that the metre, in length of line and cadence, formed itself to a great degree on the natural conditions of oral delivery and listening. For all poetry, I think, makes its primary appeal to the ear; and the modern habit of reading it seems to me to have thrown this essential test of quality somewhat into the background. The arrangement of metre and rhyme may have been gradually invented to correspond with and satisfy that natural expectation of the recurrence of certain tones and measures which always delights primitive men, and of which one may possibly trace some symptoms even in animals, as when the snake sways slowly to the simple sounds of a snake-charmer's pipe. The order of all modern versification (except in blank verse, which is never popular) depends on the echoing rhyme, which marks time like the stroke of a bell, and is waited for with keen anticipation by the sensitive listener. It is strange, to my mind, that such a beautiful creation as the beat of tonic sounds at a line's terminal should have been comparatively so recent a discovery in European poetry.

That a master of this art must have been very rare is shown by the very few pieces of first-class heroic poetry still extant out of the immense quantity that must have been attempted in different ages and countries. Yet the materials lie strewn around us, awaiting the skilful hand; they are to be found wherever a high-spirited warlike race is fighting its way upward out of barbarism into some less wretched stage of society that may allow breathing time for working the precious mines of recent traditions. The state of society described in some Icelandic Sagas, for example, with its[Pg 163] hereditary blood feuds and perpetual assassinations, with its code of honour making vengeance a pious duty, its tariff of blood money, and its council for adjusting civil and criminal wrongs, has a close resemblance to everyday life among the free Afghan tribes beyond the North-West Frontier of India. But the Saga writers flourished, I understand, when this state of things had passed or was passing away; while the Afghans are still a rude illiterate folk who have only songs, recited by the professional bards. The best collection of these popular songs has been made by a Frenchman, the late James Darmesteter, who remarks that 'English people in India care little for Indian songs'; though one may reply that he has made use of English writers and collectors of frontier folklore, and indeed he acknowledges his debt to Mr. Thorburn's excellent book on Bannu or our Afghan Frontier. However that may be, we have here, in these unwritten lays, the stuff out of which is developed, first, the established tradition, and, secondly, not only poetry but also the beginnings of history, for these lays are the oral records of contemporary events—'c'est le cri même de l'histoire.' They tell of the last Afghan War, and of the most famous border forays made by the English lords on the Afghan marches: they preserve the names and deeds of English officers and of the leading warriors of the Afghan tribes: they tell how Cavagnari 'drank the stirrup-cup of the great journey' when the English mission was slaughtered at Kabul in 1879, and how General Roberts, his heart shot through with grief, set out in fiery speed on his avenging march against the Afghan capital. Here then is for the modern historian a rare opportunity of comparing the contemporary popular version of events with exact authentic official record; and the result ought to aid him in deciding, by analogy, what value is to be placed[Pg 164] on similar material that has been handed down in the ancient songs and stories of other countries. He will be fortified, I think, in the sound conclusion that all far-sounding legend has a solid substratum of fact. As poetry, these songs render forcibly the temper and feelings of the people; they illustrate their virtues and vices, their worship of courage and devotion to the clan, their fanaticism and ferocity. The sense of Afghan honour, in the matter of sheltering a guest, is shown in the ballad which relates how a son killed his father for violating this law of hospitality. Like all popular verse, the Afghan songs have their recurrent phrases and familiar commonplaces; yet, says Darmesteter,

'in spite of the limited range of ideas and interests, and a rather low ideal, all such defects find their excuse in the passion, the simplicity, the direct spontaneous outspeaking, that supreme gift which has been lost in our intellectual decadence.'

The stirring events of the time have been immediately put into verse; the scenes and feelings are struck off in the die of actual circumstance; the heated metal takes a clear-cut impression. It is in rough songs like these that are to be found the germs of the higher heroic poetry. The ballad, the short stories, the favourite anecdotes of remarkable men at their exploits, have the luck to fall, later, into the hands of a skilful reciter or verse-maker; they are enlarged, knit together, and fashioned according to the ideas of the day, with an infusion of rhetoric and literary decoration. The heroic ideal, to use Professor Ker's words, is thus worked up out of the sayings and doings of great men of the fore-time, who stand forth as the type and embodiment of the virtues and vices of their age, as it was conceived by poets who could handle the popular traditions. And we may guess that all anecdotes, words of might, and feats of arms[Pg 165] that were current before and after him, if they were appropriate to the type, would cluster round the hero, and be used for bringing his character into strong relief. We can even discern this tendency in modern society, where a notable personage, like the Duke of Wellington or Talleyrand, is credited with any vigorous or caustic saying that suits the idea of him, and may be passed on in another generation to the account of the next popular favourite. The literary habit of providing impressive 'last words' for great men at death's door might be taken as another example of the magnetic attraction of types.

Of course the perfect samples of heroic verse, of famous songs and stories woven into an epic poem, are to be found in Homer.[17] Nowhere, in the whole range of the world's poetry, can we see such splendid impersonations of primitive life and character treated artistically. Yet the plot is simple enough. Agamemnon, the chief commander of the Greek army, has carried off the daughter of a priest of Apollo, and flatly refuses to give her back; whereupon the priest appeals to the god, who brings the chief to reason by spreading a plague in the Grecian camp; and so the girl goes home with apologies. But Agamemnon indemnifies himself by seizing a captive damsel belonging to Achilles, who, being justly infuriated, will go no more to battle, but sits sulkily in his tent, until the Greek army is very nearly destroyed, for want of his help, by the Trojans.

Here we have at once a picture of manners not unlike those of the Afghan tribes, though very differently treated. The poet is at no pains to put on any moral varnish, or to tone down the roughness romantically; because he is writing, or reciting, for people of much the same way of thinking as his heroes, who are fierce chiefs quarrelling over captured women;[Pg 166] and the whole plot is developed by sheer pressure of circumstance and character. Then on the Trojan side we have the figure of Hector, the true patriotic hero, who is naturally displeased with Paris for the abduction of Helen, which has brought a disastrous war upon Troy; yet what is done cannot be undone, and his clear duty is to fight for his own people. To Helen herself he is gentle and kind; and the religious men only irritate him when they interfere in military matters. But although he is far the noblest character in the whole poem, he is eventually slain by Achilles, for the plain reason that Achilles is the most terrible warrior of both armies. It was Hector's fate, which is the poet's way of saying that the inexorable logic of facts, as he knows them, must always prevail.

With regard to the position of women in Homeric poetry. They are mainly irresponsible creatures: how could they be otherwise, when everything depends on the sword, and a woman cannot wield it? As the equality of sexes implies a high state of civilisation and security, so in the old fighting times a woman had to stand aside; yet though she could not take part in a battle, there were incessant battles about her: the fatal woman, who is the ruin of her country, is well-known in all legend and romance, from Helen of Troy to La Cava, whose seduction by King Roderick brought the Moors into Spain.[18] In the Iliad King Priam treats Helen with delicate consideration, as is seen in the beautiful passage that describes her sitting by him on the walls of Troy, and pointing out to him the leaders of the Greek army marshalled in the plain before them. Nor is any more perfect female character to be found in poetry than Andromache, Hector's wife, high-spirited,[Pg 167] virtuous, and passionately affectionate. Yet Helen, the erring woman, is brought home eventually by Menelaus, and appears again in the Odyssey as a highly respected matron, who has had an adventure in early life; while Andromache, having seen her husband slain and dragged round the walls of Troy behind the chariot of Achilles, is carried off a childless widow into dolorous servitude.

Here one may feel the tragic power of an artist who draws life from the sombre verities, not as it is seen through the romantic colouring of a softer moralising age; he never wastes himself on vain lamentations, never suggests that virtue will save you from bitter unmerited calamity: he gives the true situation. There is one short passage in the Odyssey where the poet, merely by the way, and to illustrate something else, lets us have a glimpse of an incident that was probably familiar to him and his audience. He wishes to show what he means by a burst of grief, and this he does, not by a string of epithets, but by a picture.[19]

From the historic books of the Old Testament, particularly from the books of Samuel and the Kings, one might take some fine specimens of the peculiar quality distinguishing the heroic style, in prose that is very near poetry. Nothing can be more simple than the narrative, it is cool and quiet: there are whole chapters without an unnecessary adjective; and yet it is most impressive, both in the drawing of such characters as Saul, David, and Joab, who stand[Pg 168] out dramatically, like Homeric heroes, and in the stories of their deeds and death.

Professor Ker's essays contain a masterly and luminous survey of the vicissitudes undergone by the songs and legends of Western and Northern nations in the course of transmutation from the primitive heroic stage into deliberate literary composition. The original material never attained the grand epical form; the process was interrupted by the advancement of learning, by ecclesiastical influences, and by vast social changes.

'Even before the people had fairly escaped from barbarism, before they had made a fair beginning of civilisation and of reflective literature on their own account, they were drawn within the Empire, within Christendom.'

A similar fate, it may here be noticed, has overtaken, or awaits, the heroic songs of the Afghans; for Darmesteter tells us that as the oral tradition becomes written it falls into the net of translation and paraphrase, it is absorbed into the elegant literature of Persia, Arabia, and Hindustan, it becomes theological and romanesque. And another dangerous enemy has now appeared in the shape of the Anglo-Indian schools which follow and fix the English dominion; for the primitive folklore has no more chance against systematic education than the wild fighting men have against drilled and disciplined soldiers. In Europe the Sagas of Iceland, which lay furthest from the civilising influences, had the luck of preserving the true elements of heroic narrative; and the Anglo-Saxon poem of Beowulf, though it falls far short of the epic, has a certain Homeric flavour. The chief is the 'folces-hyrde,' his people's shepherd; and we have Beowulf, like Hector,[20] desiring that after his death a mound may be raised at the headland which juts out into the sea, 'that seafaring men may afterward call it[Pg 169] Beowulf's Mound, they who drive from far their roaring vessels over the mists of the flood.'[21]

Let us turn now to the romantic poetry of England, which for some centuries ruled all our imaginative literature, and annexed, so to speak, almost the whole field of battles, adventures, and energetic activity generally. The subjects are much the same: the gallantry of men, the beauty, virtues, and frailties of women: but the writers have got a loose uncertain grip upon the actualities of life; they wander away into fanciful stories of noble knights, distressed damsels, and marvellous feats of chivalry—in short they are romancing. They care little whether the details accord with natural fact—whether, for instance, the account of a fight is incredible to any one who knows what a battle really is; the heroes are chivalrous knight-errants, noble, pious, devoted to their lady loves; but they are not hard-headed, hard-fisted men like Ulysses, David, or some old Icelandic sea-rover. The true heroic spirit shoots up occasionally, nevertheless the prevailing idea of the romance-writer is to tell a wondrous tale of love and adventure, in which he lets his fancy run riot, rather enjoying than avoiding magnificent improbabilities. Undoubtedly the beautiful mystic romance of the Morte d'Arthur does light up at the end with a true flash of heroic poetry, in the famous lamentation over Lancelot, when he is found at last dead in the hermitage: but in this passage the elegiac strain rises far above the ordinary level of romantic composers. Meanwhile, as the English nation at home settled down into peaceful habits under the strong organising pressure of Church and State, and arms gave way to laws, the hero's occupation disappeared from our everyday society, and the heroic tradition decayed out of imaginative literature, which was often[Pg 170] picturesque, sublime, and profoundly reflective, but had parted with the special qualities of energetic simplicity and the vivid impression of fact. Nevertheless, heroic poetry in this sense has never been quite extinguished in Great Britain; it survived, naturally, wherever it could be preserved by a living popular tradition. And so it found a congenial refuge, though in greatly reduced circumstances, in the rough outlying regions where personal strength and daring were still vitally necessary—in the borderland between England and Scotland. An epic poem gave heroic poetry on a grand scale, it told the incidents of a great war: the ballad tells of a single skirmish or foray. Yet the difference is but one of degree, for both epic and ballad were composed for men and by men, who were in the right atmosphere; and so we have here very different work from that of the fanciful romancer. There are not many good examples; yet the antique tone rings out now and then, as in the ballad of Chevy Chase, which commemorates a fierce Northumbrian fight at Otterburne that must have stirred the hearts of the whole countryside. Here you have no knightly tournament, or duel for rescue of dames, but the sharp clash of bloody conflict between English and Scots borderers, the best fighting men of our island. Of course the genuine account, given in Froissart, is very different; but the ballad-singer knows his art; and whereas from history we only learn that a Scottish knight, Sir Hugh Montgomery, was slain in the medley, in the ballad an English archer draws his bow

'An arrow of a cloth yard long To the hard head hayled he.'

And then

'Against Sir Hugh Montgomery So right his shaft he set, The swan's feather that his arrow bare In his heart's blood was wet.'

[Pg 171]

In the compressed energy of these four lines, without an epithet or a superfluous word, we have a picture, drawn by a sure hand, of a man drawing his long bow, and driving it from steel to feathers through a knight in armour.

Well, the border fighting disappeared with the union of the two kingdoms, and as Great Britain became civilised and began to transfer her wars oversea, the heroic verse decayed under the influence of the higher culture. For a civilised and literary society to have preserved its ancient lays and ballads is the rarest of lucky chances; the enthusiastic collector, like Percy or Walter Scott, is generally born too late, for indeed all antiquarianism is a very modern task. And poetry of this sort must decay under what Shakespeare calls 'the cankers of a calm world': while it also tends to disappear with the introduction of professional soldiers and great armies, where personal heroism counts for little. These may be, I suppose, the main reasons why great wars produce so little heroic verse: it may be questioned whether even our civil wars of the seventeenth century inspired any genuine poetry of this sort. And when in the eighteenth century the clang of arms had completely died away at home, the battle pieces were done after an artificial literary fashion, by writers who were content to describe vaguely the charging of hosts, the thunder of cannon, the groans of the wounded, and other such mechanical generalities.

If any one could have revived the true heroic style, it would have been done by Walter Scott, with his delight in the border minstrelsy, and his martial ardour; but the romantic spirit was too strong upon him. He had laid hold of the right tradition, could give picturesque scenes and characters of a bygone time, and Bonnie Dundee is a ringing ballad; yet his style in the longer metrical tales is distinctly romantic[Pg 172] and conventional. If he had not been writing for readers to whom the rough riders of the Border in the sixteenth century were totally strange and unreal beings, he could never have said that they

'Carved at the meal with gloves of steel, And drank the red wine through the helmet barred.'

An unsophisticated audience would have laughed outright at such a comical performance. And we can see how Scott, as a poet of the battlefield, had become possessed with the idea that the grand style must be a lofty strain, something magnificently unusual, by his two poems upon Waterloo, which are fine failures; though we may admit the impossibility of making a heroic poem out of a battle that has just been minutely described in newspapers. On the other hand, his prose novels afford us a remarkable example of the two styles contrasted. When he wrote of the middle ages, as in Ivanhoe, The Talisman, and others, he was a pure romancer; whereas in his Tales of Scotland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in the Legend of Montrose, Old Mortality, The Bride of Lammermoor, there are two or three rapid sketches of sharp fighting which are true and spirited, full of vivacity and character. On this ground he trod firmly, knowing the country, the times, and the people of Scotland: while the petty skirmishes at Drumclog or Bothwell Brig were easier to manage artistically than a great battle. Poetry, indeed, like painting, can do nothing on a vast scale, cannot manage masses of men; and moreover it fails to deal effectively with a state of war in which mechanical skill and the tactical movement of large bodies of troops win the day. There may be as much personal heroism as ever, but it is lost in the multitude. Nevertheless sea-fighting, where separate ships may encounter and grapple like two mortal foes, with[Pg 173] the deep water around and beneath them, gives heroism a better chance; and the mariner is always a poetic figure. So Thomas Campbell did rise very nearly to the heroic level in his poem on the battle of the Baltic, written when the true story of Nelson's famous exploit was still fresh; we have a clear and forcible impression of the British ships moving silently to the attack; and the closing lines touch the ancient ever-living feeling of gratitude to Captain Riou and his brave comrades, 'so tried and yet so true,' who fell in the great victory.

With this exception, the prolonged conflict between England and France, which lasted twenty years up to its end at Waterloo, struck out hardly a spark of heroic poetry. Yet the Peninsular War is full of splendid military exploits, of fierce battles and the desperate storming of fortresses: it was a period of great national energy, when the people were contending with all their heart and strength against a most dangerous enemy; it was also a time when England was singularly rich in poets of the highest order. Nevertheless the only verses that may be assigned to the peculiar class which I have been attempting to define, were written, not by one of the famous group of poets, but by an unknown hand; and they relate not to a great battle, but to a slight incident, not to a victory, but to a hasty retreat. I am alluding to the well-known stanzas on the Burial of Sir John Moore, who was killed at Corunna in 1809; and my apology for quoting anything so hackneyed must be that it is trite by reason of its excellence; for a short poem, like a single happy phrase, wins incessant repetition and lasting popularity, because the words precisely fit some universal feeling. Why have these verses made such an effect that they are familiar to all of us, and fresh as when they were first read? Is it not because the writer[Pg 174] had one clear flash of imaginative light, which showed him the reality of the scene, so that the description speaks for itself, without literary epithets, creating, as the French say, the true image. He struck the right note of soldierly emotion, brief, stern, and compressed, when there is no time for vain lamentation—as when in the Iliad Ulysses says to Achilles, who is inconsolable for the death of his friend, that a soldier must bury his comrade with a pitiless heart, and that in war a day's mourning is all that can be spared for slain men.[22]

It may be allowable to suggest, therefore, among the reasons for the prevailing dearth and scarcity of first-class heroic poetry, notwithstanding the universal demand for it, the impossibility of thus handling war on a great scale, and also the serious difficulty of giving this poetic form to contemporary events, which are not easily grouped in artistic perspective because they are so accurately described elsewhere. This suggestion may derive support from the observation that whenever, in our own day, we have had brief samples of verse-writing with a strain of the genuine old quality, they have almost always come from a distant scene, usually from the frontiers of the British Empire, far away from the centres of academic culture and the fields of organised war. Two or three of Rudyard Kipling's short poems about life on the Afghan border and Indian camp life have the right ring: they are instinct with the colour and sensation of the environment: they stir the blood with a conviction of reality. If it be permissible for a moment to compare these rough energetic verses with the battle pieces of an immeasurably greater artist—with Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade, for example—one may see that in the poetry of action the grand style misses something which has been[Pg 175] caught by the eye that has seen the thing itself; the Charge is a splendid composition, but the frontier ballad sets you down on the ground and shows you life.

Undoubtedly, also, the romantic literary style, which prevailed so long in this country, and which is the natural product of high culture, has been unfavourable, because it was radically unsuitable, to the poetry of energetic action. It is true that all the highest compositions of the heroic poet are set off by a tinge of romance, as fine drawing is perfected by superb colouring; but the drawbacks of romance lie in a tendency to vagueness of thought, and to the preference of archaic words and overstrained sentiments which were given as poetic mainly because they were far-fetched and did not sound commonplace. In fact the later poets adopted mechanically the strong natural language of those who wrote under the inspiration of actual emotion or events, and therefore they used it awkwardly and ineffectively; or else in their consciousness of not knowing how things really happened, they kept within sonorous generalities, which are the resource of artistic impotence. In our own day we have witnessed a sharp revolt against romantic verse, and a reversion toward those forms of art which reflect the actual experience of men, toward precision and accurate detail: Romance has been abandoned for what is called Realism. But here we are threatened by a danger from the opposite direction: for a clumsy Realist is apt to suppose that his business is merely to describe facts without adding anything out of his own imaginative faculty, that he may bring his characters on the stage in their daily garb, in the dirty slovenliness with which they go about dreaming or acting in their own petty sphere,[23] and so he overcharges with technicalities or trivial[Pg 176] particulars. Nevertheless one may say that the poetry of action has found better methods since it shook off the influence of fantastic romance, and is distinctly improving: though its strength lies in short pieces repeating some notable incident or dramatic situations bringing out character, which is just where it began originally, and where indeed it is likely to remain, for the epic poem, or heroic verse on the grand scale, may be thought to have disappeared finally.

To conclude a very brief and inadequate dissertation, we may, I think, lay it down as a principle of the art, that heroic poetry must be true to circumstances and to character, must have the qualities of simplicity and sincerity, combined with the magnetic power of stirring the heart by showing how men and women can behave when really confronted by danger, death, or irremediable misfortune. Its background, in skilful hands, is the contrast of calm Nature looking on at human strife and sorrow, at stern fortitude and energetic effort in tragic situations. We are reading every day of such situations in the South African War, where there has been no lack of brave men 'so tried and yet so true,' who have found themselves back again suddenly in the rough fighting world of their forefathers, and have felt and acted like the men of old time. There is abundant proof that the English folk can display as much heroism as ever men did; but we may look in vain for the poet who knows how to commemorate their valour and patriotic self-sacrifice in heroic verse.

FOOTNOTES:

[16] Anglo-Saxon Review, June 1900.

[17] Epic and Romance, p. 15.

[18]

'Ay España Perdita por un gusto y por La Cava.' Romance del Rey Rodrigo.

[19]

So doth a woman weep, as her husband in death she embraces, Him, who in front of his people and city has fallen in battle, Striving in vain to defend his home from the fate of the vanquished. She there, seeing him die, and gasping his life out before her, Clings to him bitterly moaning. And round her the others, the foemen, Beat her, and bid her arise, and stab at her back with the lances, Dragging her off as a slave to the bondage of labour and sorrow. Odyssey, viii. 523-29.

[20] Iliad, vi. 86-90.

[21] Arnold's translation.

[22] Iliad, xix. 228-29.

[23] Lessing.




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