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Epic Poetry After John Milton

by Lascelles Abercrombie

AFTER JOHN MILTON (Continued from The General Process of Epic Poetry)

And after Milton, what is to happen? First, briefly, for a few instances of what has happened. We may leave out experiments in religious sentiment like Klopstock's Messiah. We must leave out also poems which have something of the look of epic at first glance, but have nothing of the scope of epic intention; such as Scott's longer poems. These might resemble the "lays" out of which some people imagine "authentic" epic to have been made. But the lays are not the epic. Scott's poems have not the depth nor the definiteness of symbolic intention—what is sometimes called the epic unity—and this is what we can always discover in any poetry which gives us the peculiar experience we must associate with the word epic, if it is to have any precision of meaning. What applies to Scott, will apply still more to Byron's poems; Byron is one of the greatest of modern poets, but that does not make him an epic poet. We must keep our minds on epic intention. Shelley's Revolt of Islam has something of it, but too vaguely and too fantastically; the generality of human experience had little to do with this glittering poem. Keats's Hyperion is wonderful; but it does not go far enough to let us form any judgment of it appropriate to the present purpose.[13] Our search will not take us far before we notice something very remarkable; poems which look superficially like epic turn out to have scarce anything of real epic intention; whereas epic intention is apt to appear in poems that do not look like epic at all. In fact, it seems as if epic manner and epic content were trying for a divorce. If this be so, the traditional epic manner will scarcely survive the separation. Epic content, however, may very well be looking out for a match with a new manner; though so far it does not seem to have found an altogether satisfactory partner.

But there are one or two poems in which the old union seems still happy. Most noteworthy is Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea. You may say that it does not much matter whether such poetry should be called epic or, as some hold, idyllic. But it is interesting to note, first, that the poem is deliberately written with epic style and epic intention; and, second, that, though singularly beautiful, it makes no attempt to add anything to epic development. It is interesting, too, to see epic poetry trying to get away from its heroes, and trying to use material the poetic importance of which seems to depend solely on the treatment, not on itself. This was a natural and, for some things, a laudable reaction. But it inevitably meant that epic must renounce the triumphs which Milton had won for it. William Morris saw no reason for abandoning either the heroes or anything else of the epic tradition. The chief personages of Sigurd the Volsung are admittedly more than human, the events frankly marvellous. The poem is an impressive one, and in one way or another fulfils all the main qualifications of epic. But perhaps no great poem ever had so many faults. These have nothing to do with its management of supernaturalism; those who object to this simply show ignorance of the fundamental necessities of epic poetry. The first book is magnificent; everything that epic narrative should be; but after this the poem grows long-winded, and that is the last thing epic poetry should be. It is written with a running pen; so long as the verse keeps going on, Morris seems satisfied, though it is very often going on about unimportant things, and in an uninteresting manner. After the first book, indeed, as far as Morris's epic manner is concerned, Virgil and Milton might never have lived. It attempts to be the grand manner by means of vagueness. In an altogether extraordinary way, the poem slurs over the crucial incidents (as in the inept lines describing the death of Fafnir, and those, equally hollow, describing the death of Guttorm—two noble opportunities simply not perceived) and tirelessly expatiates on the mere surroundings of the story. Yet there is no attempt to make anything there credible: Morris seems to have mixed up the effects of epic with the effects of a fairy-tale. The poem lacks intellect; it has no clear-cut thought. And it lacks sensuous images; it is full of the sentiment, not of the sense of things, which is the wrong way round. Hence the protracted conversations are as a rule amazingly windy and pointless, as the protracted descriptions are amazingly useless and tedious. And the superhuman virtues of the characters are not shown in the poem so much as energetically asserted. It says much for the genius of Morris that Sigurd the Volsung, with all these faults, is not to be condemned; that, on the contrary, to read it is rather a great than a tiresome experience; and not only because the faults are relieved, here and there, by exquisite beauties and dignities, indeed by incomparable lines, but because the poem as a whole does, as it goes on, accumulate an immense pressure of significance. All the great epics of the world have, however, perfectly clearly a significance in close relation with the spirit of their time; the intense desire to symbolize the consciousness of man as far as it has attained, is what vitally inspires an epic poet, and the ardour of this infects his whole style. Morris, in this sense, was not vitally inspired.Sigurd the Volsung is a kind of set exercise in epic poetry. It is great, but it is not needed. It is, in fact, an attempt to write epic poetry as it might have been written, and to make epic poetry mean what it might have meant, in the days when the tale of Sigurd and the Niblungs was newly come among men's minds. Mr. Doughty, in his surprising poem The Dawn in Britain, also seems trying to compose an epic exercise, rather than to be obeying a vital necessity of inspiration. For all that, it is a great poem, full of irresistible vision and memorable diction. But it is written in a revolutionary syntax, which, like most revolutions of this kind, achieves nothing beyond the fact of being revolutionary; and Mr. Doughty often uses the unexpected effects of his queer syntax instead of the unexpected effects of poetry, which makes the poem even longer psychologically than it is physically. Lander's Gebir has much that can truly be called epic in it; and it has learned the lessons in manner which Virgil and Milton so nobly taught. It has perhaps learned them too well; never were concision, and the loading of each word with heavy duties, so thoroughly practised. The action is so compressed that it is difficult to make out exactly what is going on; we no sooner realize that an incident has begun than we find ourselves in the midst of another. Apart from these idiosyncrasies, the poetry of Gebir is a curious mixture of splendour and commonplace. If fiction could ever be wholly, and not only partially, epic, it would be in Gebir.

In all these poems, we see an epic intention still combined with a recognizably epic manner. But what is quite evident is, that in all of them there is no attempt to carry on the development of epic, to take up its symbolic power where Milton left it. On the contrary, this seems to be deliberately avoided. For any tentative advance on Miltonic significance, even for any real acceptance of it, we must go to poetry which tries to put epic intention into a new form. Some obvious peculiarities of epic style are sufficiently definite to be detachable. Since Theocritus, a perverse kind of pleasure has often been obtained by putting some of the peculiarities of epic—peculiarities really required by a very long poem—into the compass of a very short poem. An epic idyll cannot, of course, contain any considerable epic intention; it is wrought out of the mere shell of epic, and avoids any semblance of epic scope. But by devising somehow a connected sequence of idylls, something of epic scope can be acquired again. As Hugo says, in his preface to La Legende des Siècles: "Comme dans une mosaïque, chaque pierre a sa couleur et sa forme propre; l'ensemble donne une figure. La figure de ce livre," he goes on, "c'est l'homme." To get an epic design or figure through a sequence of small idylls need not be the result of mere technical curiosity. It may be a valuable method for the future of epic. Tennyson attempted this method in Idylls of the King; not, as is now usually admitted, with any great success. The sequence is admirable for sheer craftsmanship, for astonishing craftsmanship; but it did not manage to effect anything like a conspicuous symbolism. You have but to think of Paradise Lost to see what Idylls of the King lacks. Victor Hugo, however, did better in La Legende des Siècles. "La figure, c'est l'homme"; there, at any rate, is the intention of epic symbolism. And, however pretentious the poem may be, it undoubtedly does make a passionate effort to develop the significance which Milton had achieved; chiefly to enlarge the scope of this significance.[14] Browning's The Ring and the Book also uses this notion of an idyllic sequence; but without any semblance of epic purpose, purely for the exhibition of human character.

It has already been remarked that the ultimate significance of great drama is the same as that of epic. Since the vital epic purpose—the kind of epic purpose which answers to the spirit of the time—is evidently looking for some new form to inhabit, it is not surprising, then, that it should have occasionally tried on dramatic form. And, unquestionably, for great poetic symbolism of the depths of modern consciousness, for such symbolism as Milton's, we must go to two such invasions of epic purpose into dramatic manner—to Goethe's Faust and Hardy's The Dynasts. But dramatic significance and epic significance have been admitted to be broadly the same; to take but one instance, Aeschylus's Prometheus is closely related to Milton's Satan (though I think Prometheus really represents a monism of consciousness—that which is destined—as Satan represents a dualism—at once the destined and the destiny). How then can we speak of epic purpose invading drama? Surely in this way. Drama seeks to present its significance with narrowed intensity, but epic in a large dilatation: the one contracts, the other expatiates. When, therefore, we find drama setting out its significance in such a way as to become epically dilated, we may say that dramatic has grown into epic purpose. Or, even more positively, we may say that epic has taken over drama and adapted it to its peculiar needs. In any case, with one exception to be mentioned presently, it is only in Faust and The Dynasts that we find any great development of Miltonic significance. These are the poems that give us immense and shapely symbols of the spirit of man, conscious not only of the sense of his own destined being, but also of some sense of that which destines. In fact, these two are the poems that develop and elaborate, in their own way, the Miltonic significance, as all the epics in between Homer and Milton develop and elaborate Homeric significance. And yet, in spite of Faust and The Dynasts, it may be doubted whether the union of epic and drama is likely to be permanent. The peculiar effects which epic intention, in whatever manner, must aim at, seem to be as much hindered as helped by dramatic form; and possibly it is because the detail is necessarily too much enforced for the broad perfection of epic effect.

The real truth seems to be, that there is an inevitable and profound difficulty in carrying on the Miltonic significance in anything like a story. Regular epic having reached its climax inParadise Lost, the epic purpose must find some other way of going on. Hugo saw this, when he strung his huge epic sequence together not on a connected story but on a single idea: "la figure, c'est l'homme." If we are to have, as we must have, direct symbolism of the way man is conscious of his being nowadays, which means direct symbolism both of man's spirit and of the (philosophical) opponent of this, the universal fate of things—if we are to have all this, it is hard to see how any story can be adequate to such symbolic requirements, unless it is a story which moves in some large region of imagined supernaturalism. And it seems questionable whether we have enough formal "belief" nowadays to allow of such a story appearing as solid and as vividly credible as epic poetry needs. It is a decided disadvantage, from the purely epic point of view, that those admirable "Intelligences" in Hardy's The Dynasts are so obviously abstract ideas disguised. The supernaturalism of epic, however incredible it may be in the poem, must be worked up out of the material of some generally accepted belief. I think it would be agreed, that what was possible for Milton would scarcely be possible to-day; and even more impossible would be the naïveté of Homer and the quite different but equally impracticable naïveté of Tasso and Camoens. The conclusion seems to be, that the epic purpose will have to abandon the necessity of telling a story.

Hugo's way may prove to be the right one. But there may be another; and what has happened in the past may suggest what may happen in the future. Epic poetry in the regular epic form has before now seemed unlikely. It seemed unlikely after the Alexandrians had made such poor attempts at standing upright under the immensity of Homer; it seemed so, until, after several efforts, Latin poetry became triumphantly epic in Virgil. And again, when the mystical prestige of Virgil was domineering everything, regular epic seemed unlikely; until, after the doubtful attempts of Boiardo and Ariosto, Tasso arrived. But in each case, while the occurrence of regular epic was seeming so improbable, it nevertheless happened that poetry was written which was certainly nothing like epic in form, but which was strongly charged with a profound pressure of purpose closely akin to epic purpose; and De Rerum Natura and La Divina Commedia are very suggestive to speculation now. Of course, the fact that, in both these cases, regular epic did eventually occur, must warn us that in artistic development anything may happen; but it does seem as if there were a deeper improbability for the occurrence of regular epic now than in the times just before Virgil and Tasso—of regular epic, that is, inspired by some vital import, not simply, like Sigurd the Volsung, by archaeological import. Lucretius is a good deal more suggestive than Dante; for Dante's form is too exactly suited to his own peculiar genius and his own peculiar time to be adaptable. But the method of Lucretius is eminently adaptable. That amazing image of the sublime mind of Lucretius is exactly the kind of lofty symbolism that the continuation of epic purpose now seems to require—a subjective symbolism. I believe Wordsworth felt this, when he planned his great symbolic poem, and partly executed it in The Prelude and The Excursion: for there, more profoundly than anywhere out of Milton himself, Milton's spiritual legacy is employed. It may be, then, that Lucretius and Wordsworth will preside over the change from objective to subjective symbolism which Milton has, perhaps, made necessary for the continued development of the epic purpose: after Milton, it seems likely that there is nothing more to be done with objective epic. But Hugo's method, of a connected sequence of separate poems, instead of one continuous poem, may come in here. The determination to keep up a continuous form brought both Lucretius and Wordsworth at times perilously near to the odious state of didactic poetry; it was at least responsible for some tedium. Epic poetry will certainly never be didactic. What we may imagine—who knows how vainly imagine?—is, then, a sequence of odes expressing, in the image of some fortunate and lofty mind, as much of the spiritual significance which the epic purpose must continue from Milton, as is possible, in the style of Lucretius and Wordsworth, for subjective symbolism. A pregnant experiment towards something like this has already been seen—in George Meredith's magnificent set of Odes in Contribution to the Song of the French History. The subject is ostensibly concrete; but France in her agonies and triumphs has been personified into a superb symbol of Meredith's own reading of human fate. The series builds up a decidedly epic significance, and its manner is extraordinarily suggestive of a new epic method. Nevertheless, something more Lucretian in central imagination, something less bound to concrete and particular event, seems required for the complete development of epic purpose.


[Footnote 13: In the greatest poetry, all the elements of human nature are burning in a single flame. The artifice of criticism is to detect what peculiar radiance each element contributes to the whole light; but this no more affects the singleness of the compounded energy in poetry than the spectroscopic examination of fire affects the single nature of actual flame. For the purposes of this book, it has been necessary to look chiefly at the contribution of intellect to epic poetry; for it is in that contribution that the development of poetry, so far as there is any development at all, really consists. This being so, it might be thought that Keats could hardly have done anything for the real progress of epic. But Keats's apparent (it is only apparent) rejection of intellect in his poetry was the result of youthful theory; his letters show that, in fact, intellect was a thing unusually vigorous in his nature. If the Keats of the letters be added to the Keats of the poems, a personality appears that seems more likely than any of his contemporaries, or than anyone who has come after him, for the work of carrying Miltonic epic forward without forsaking Miltonic form.]

[Footnote 14: For all I know, Hugo may never have read Milton; judging by some silly remarks of his, I should hope not. But Hugo could feel the things in the spirit of man that Milton felt; not only because they were still there, but because the secret influence of Milton has intensified the consciousness of them in thousands who think they know nothing of Paradise Lost. Modern literary history will not be properly understood until it is realized that Milton is one of the dominating minds of Europe, whether Europe know it or not. There are scarcely half a dozen figures that can be compared with Milton for irresistible influence—quite apart from his unapproachable supremacy in the technique of poetry. When Addison remarked that Paradise Lost is universally and perpetually interesting, he said what is not to be questioned; though he did not perceive the real reason for his assertion. Darwin no more injured the significance of Paradise Lost than air-planes have injured Homer.]