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Literary Epic Poetry

by Lascelles Abercrombie

Epic poetry, then, was invented to supply the artistic demands of society in a certain definite and recognizable state. Or rather, it was the epic material which supplied that; the first epic poets gave their age, as genius always does, something which the age had never thought of asking for; which, nevertheless, when it was given, the age took good hold of, and found that, after all, this, too, it had wanted without knowing it. But as society went on towards civilization, the need for epic grew less and less; and its preservation, if not accidental, was an act of conscious aesthetic admiration rather than of unconscious necessity. It was preserved somehow, however; and after other kinds of literature had arisen as inevitably and naturally as epic, and had become, in their turn, things of less instant necessity than they were, it was found that, in the manner and purpose of epic poetry, something was given which was not given elsewhere; something of extraordinary value. Epic poetry would therefore be undertaken again; but now, of course, deliberately. With several different kinds of poetry to choose from, a man would decide that he would like best to be an epic poet, and he would set out, in conscious determination, on an epic poem. The result, good or bad, of such a determination is called "literary" epic. The poems of Apollonius Rhodius, Virgil, Lucan, Camoens, Tasso and Milton are "literary" epics. But such poetry as the Odyssey, the Iliad, Beowulf, the Song of Roland, and the Nibelungenlied, poetry which seems an immediate response to some general and instant need in its surrounding community—such poetry is "authentic" epic.

A great deal has been made of this distinction; it has almost been taken to divide epic poetry into two species. And, as the names commonly given to the two supposed species suggest, there is some notion that "literary" epic must be in a way inferior to "authentic" epic. The superstition of antiquity has something to do with this; but the presence of Homer among the "authentic" epics has probably still more to do with it. For Homer is the poet who is usually chosen to stand for "authentic" epic; and, by a facile association of ideas, the conspicuous characteristics of Homer seem to be the marks of "authentic" epic as a species. It is, of course, quite true, that, for sustained grandeur and splendour, no poet can be put beside Homer except Dante and Milton; but it is also quite clear that in Homer, as in Dante, and Milton, such conspicuous characteristics are simply the marks of peculiar poetic genius. If we leave Homer out, and consider poetic greatness only (the only important thing to consider), there is no "authentic" epic which can stand against Paradise Lost or the Aeneid. Then there is the curious modern feeling—which is sometimes but dressed up by erroneous aesthetic theory (the worship of a quite national "lyricism," for instance) but which is really nothing but a sign of covert barbarism—that lengthy poetic composition is somehow undesirable; and Homer is thought to have had a better excuse for composing a long poem than Milton.

But doubtless the real reason for the hard division of epic poetry into two classes, and for the presumed inferiority of "literary" to "authentic," lies in the application of that curiosity among false ideas, the belief in a "folk-spirit." This notion that such a thing as a "folk-spirit" can create art, and that the art which it does create must be somehow better than other art, is, I suppose, the offspring of democratic ideas in politics. The chief objection to it is that there never has been and never can be anything in actuality corresponding to the "folk-spirit" which this notion supposes. Poetry is the work of poets, not of peoples or communities; artistic creation can never be anything but the production of an individual mind. We may, if we like, think that poetry would be more "natural" if it were composed by the folk as the folk, and not by persons peculiarly endowed; and to think so is doubtless agreeable to the notion that the folk is more important than the individual. But there is nothing gained by thinking in this way, except a very illusory kind of pleasure; since it is impossible that the folk should ever be a poet. This indisputable axiom has been ignored more in theories about ballads—about epic material—than in theories about the epics themselves. But the belief in a real folk-origin for ballads, untenable though it be in a little examination, has had a decided effect on the common opinion of the authentic epics. In the first place, a poem constructed out of ballads composed, somehow or other, by the folk, ought to be more "natural" than a work of deliberate art—a "literary" epic; that is to say, these Rousseau-ish notions will admire it for being further from civilization and nearer to the noble savage; civilization being held, by some mysterious argument, to be deficient in "naturalness." In the second place, this belief has made it credible that the plain corruption of authentic epic by oral transmission, or very limited transmission through script, might be the sign of multiple authorship; for if you believe that a whole folk can compose a ballad, you may easily believe that a dozen poets can compose an epic.

But all this rests on simple ignoring of the nature of poetic composition. The folk-origin of ballads and the multiple authorship of epics are heresies worse than the futilities of the Baconians; at any rate, they are based on the same resolute omission, and build on it a wilder fantasy. They omit to consider what poetry is. Those who think Bacon wrote Hamlet, and those who think several poets wrote the Iliad, can make out a deal of ingenious evidence for their doctrines. But it is all useless, because the first assumption in each case is unthinkable. It is psychologically impossible that the mind of Bacon should have produced Hamlet; but the impossibility is even more clamant when it comes to supposing that several poets, not in collaboration, but in haphazard succession, could produce a poem of vast sweeping unity and superbly consistent splendour of style. So far as mere authorship goes, then, we cannot make any real difference between "authentic" and "literary" epic. We cannot say that, while this is written by an individual genius, that is the work of a community. Individual genius, of whatever quality, is responsible for both. The folk, however, cannot be ruled out. Genius does the work; but the folk is the condition in which genius does it. And here we may find a genuine difference between "literary" and "authentic"; not so much in the nature of the condition as in its closeness and insistence.

The kind of folk-spirit behind the poet is, indeed, different in the Iliad and Beowulf and the Song of Roland from what it is in Milton and Tasso and Virgil. But there is also as much difference here between the members of each class as between the two classes themselves. You cannot read much of Beowulf with Homer in your mind, without becoming conscious that the difference in individual genius is by no means the whole difference. Both poets maintain a similar ideal in life; but they maintain it within conditions altogether unlike. The folk-spirit behind Beowulf is cloudy and tumultuous, finding grandeur in storm and gloom and mere mass—in the misty lack of shape. Behind Homer it is, on the contrary, radiant and, however vehement, always delighting in measure, finding grandeur in brightness and clarity and shining outline. So, again, we may very easily see how Tasso's poetry implies the Italy of his time, and Milton's the England of his time. But where Homer and Beowulf together differ from Tasso and Milton is in the way the surrounding folk-spirit contains the poet's mind. It would be a very idle piece of work, to choose between the potency of Homer's genius and of Milton's; but it is clear that the immediate circumstance of the poet's life presses much more insistently on the Iliad and the Odyssey than on Paradise Lost. It is the difference between the contracted, precise, but vigorous tradition of an heroic age, and the diffused, eclectic, complicated culture of a civilization. And if it may be said that the insistence of racial circumstance in Homer gives him a greater intensity of cordial, human inspiration, it must also be said that the larger, less exacting conditions of Milton's mental life allow his art to go into greater scope and more subtle complexity of significance. Great epic poetry will always frankly accept the social conditions within which it is composed; but the conditions contract and intensify the conduct of the poem, or allow it to dilate and absorb larger matter, according as the narrow primitive torrents of man's spirit broaden into the greater but slower volume of civilized life. The change is neither desirable nor undesirable; it is merely inevitable. It means that epic poetry has kept up with the development of human life.

It is because of all this that we have heard a good deal about the "authentic" epic getting "closer to its subject" than "literary" epic. It seems, on the face of it, very improbable that there should be any real difference here. No great poetry, of whatever kind, is conceivable unless the subject has become integrated with the poet's mind and mood. Milton is as close to his subject, Virgil to his, as Homer to Achilles or the Saxon poet to Beowulf. What is really meant can be nothing but the greater insistence of racial tradition in the "authentic" epics. The subject of the Iliad is the fighting of heroes, with all its implications and consequences; the subject of the Odyssey is adventure and its opposite, the longing for safety and home; in Beowulf it is kingship—the ability to show man how to conquer the monstrous forces of his world; and so on. Such were the subjects which an imperious racial tradition pressed on the early epic poet, who delighted to be so governed. These were the matters which his people could understand, of which they could easily perceive the significance. For him, then, there could be no other matters than these, or the like of these. But it is not in such matters that a poet living in a time of less primitive and more expanded consciousness would find the highest importance. For a Roman, the chief matter for an epic poem would be Roman civilization; for a Puritan, it would be the relations of God and man. When, therefore, we consider how close to his subject an epic poet is, we must be careful to be quite clear what his subject is. And if he has gone beyond the immediate experiences of primitive society, we need not expect him to be as close as the early poets were to the fury of battle and the agony of wounds and the desolation of widows; or to the sensation of exploring beyond the familiar regions; or to the marsh-fiends and fire-drakes into which primitive imagination naturally translated the terrible unknown powers of the world. We need not, in a word, expect the "literary" epic to compete with the "authentic" epic; for the fact is, that the purpose of epic poetry, and therefore the nature of its subject, must continually develop. It is quite true that the later epics take over, to a very great extent, the methods and manners of the earlier poems; just as architecture hands on the style of wooden structure to an age that builds in stone, and again imposes the manners of stone construction on an age that builds in concrete and steel. But, in the case of epic at any rate, this is not merely the inertia of artistic convention. With the development of epic intention, and the subsequent choosing of themes larger and subtler than what common experience is wont to deal in, a certain duplicity becomes inevitable. The real intention of the Aeneid, and the real intention of Paradise Lost, are not easily brought into vivid apprehension. The natural thing to do, then, would be to use the familiar substance of early epic, but to use it as a convenient and pleasant solvent for the novel intention. It is what has been done in all the great "literary" epics. But hasty criticism, finding that where they resembled Homer they seemed not so close to their matter, has taken this as a pervading and unfortunate characteristic. It has not perceived that what in Homer was the main business of the epic, has become in later epic a device. Having so altered, it has naturally lost in significance; but in the greatest instances of later epic, that for which the device was used has been as profoundly absorbed into the poet's being as Homer's matter was into his being. It may be noted, too, that a corresponding change has also taken place in the opposite direction. As Homer's chief substance becomes a device in later epic, so a device of Homer's becomes in later epic the chief substance. Homer's supernatural machinery may be reckoned as a device—a device to heighten the general style and action of his poems; the significance of Homer must be found among his heroes, not among his gods. But with Milton, it has become necessary to entrust to the supernatural action the whole aim and purport of the poem.

On the whole, then, there is no reason why "literary" epic should not be as close to its subject as "authentic" epic; there is every reason why both kinds should be equally close. But in testing whether they actually are equally close, we have to remember that in the later epic it has become necessary to use the ostensible subject as a vehicle for the real subject. And who, with any active sympathy for poetry, can say that Milton felt his theme with less intensity than Homer? Milton is not so close to his fighting angels as Homer is to his fighting men; but the war in heaven is an incident in Milton's figurative expression of something that has become altogether himself—the mystery of individual existence in universal existence, and the accompanying mystery of sin, of individual will inexplicably allowed to tamper with the divinely universal will. Milton, of course, in closeness to his subject and in everything else, stands as supreme above the other poets of literary epic as Homer does above the poets of authentic epic. But what is true of Milton is true, in less degree, of the others. If there is any good in them, it is primarily because they have got very close to their subjects: that is required not only for epic, but for all poetry. Coleridge, in a famous estimate put twenty years for the shortest period in which an epic could be composed; and of this, ten years were to be for preparation. He meant that not less than ten years would do for the poet to fill all his being with the theme; and nothing else will serve, It is well known how Milton brooded over his subject, how Virgil lingered over his, how Camoen. carried the Luisads round the world with him, with what furious intensity Tasso gave himself to writing Jerusalem Delivered. We may suppose, perhaps, that the poets of "authentic" epic had a somewhat easier task. There was no need for them to be "long choosing and beginning late." The pressure of racial tradition would see that they chose the right sort of subject; would see, too, that they lived right in the heart of their subject. For the poet of "literary" epic, however, it is his own consciousness that must select the kind of theme which will fulfil the epic intention for his own day; it is his own determination and studious endurance that will draw the theme into the secrets of his being. If he is not capable of getting close to his subject, we should not for that reason call his work "literary" epic. It would put him in the class of Milton, the most literary of all poets. We must simply call his stuff bad epic. There is plenty of it. Southey is the great instance. Southey would decide to write an epic about Spain, or India, or Arabia, or America. Next he would read up, in several languages, about his proposed subject; that would take him perhaps a year. Then he would versify as much strange information as he could remember; that might take a few months. The result is deadly; and because he was never anywhere near his subject. It is for the same reason that the unspeakable labours of Blackmore, Glover and Wilkie, and Voltaire's ridiculous Henriade, have gone to pile up the rubbish-heaps of literature.

So far, supposed differences between "authentic" and "literary" epic have resolved themselves into little more than signs of development in epic intention; the change has not been found to produce enough artistic difference between early and later epic to warrant anything like a division into two distinct species. The epic, whether "literary" or "authentic," is a single form of art; but it is a form capable of adapting itself to the altering requirements of prevalent consciousness. In addition, however, to differences in general conception, there are certain mechanical differences which should be just noticed. The first epics were intended for recitation; the literary epic is meant to be read. It is more difficult to keep the attention of hearers than of readers. This in itself would be enough to rule out themes remote from common experience, supposing any such were to suggest themselves to the primitive epic poet. Perhaps, indeed, we should not be far wrong if we saw a chief reason for the pressure of surrounding tradition on the early epic in this very fact, that it is poetry meant for recitation. Traditional matter must be glorified, since it would be easier to listen to the re-creation of familiar stories than to quite new and unexpected things; the listeners, we must remember, needed poetry chiefly as the re-creation of tired hours. Traditional manner would be equally difficult to avoid; for it is a tradition that plainly embodies the requirements, fixed by experience, of recited poetry. Those features of it which make for tedium when it is read—repetition, stock epithets, set phrases for given situations—are the very things best suited, with their recurring well-known syllables, to fix the attention of listeners more firmly, or to stir it when it drowses; at the least they provide a sort of recognizable scaffolding for the events, and it is remarkable how easily the progress of events may be missed when poetry is declaimed. Indeed, if the primitive epic poet could avoid some of the anxieties peculiar to the composition of literary epic, he had others to make up for it. He had to study closely the delicate science of holding auricular attention when once he had got it; and probably he would have some difficulty in getting it at all. The really great poet challenges it, like Homer, with some tremendous, irresistible opening; and in this respect the magnificent prelude to Beowulf may almost be put beside Homer. But lesser poets have another way. That prolixity at the beginning of many primitive epics, their wordy deliberation in getting under way, is probably intentional. The Song of Roland, for instance, begins with a long series of exceedingly dull stanzas; to a reader, the preliminaries of the story seem insufferably drawn out. But by the time the reciter had got through this unimportant dreariness, no doubt his audience had settled down to listen. The Chanson d'Antioche contains perhaps the most illuminating admission of this difficulty. In the first "Chant," the first section opens:[4]

Seigneurs, faites silence; et que tout bruit cesse,
Si vous voulez entendre une glorieuse chanson.
Aucun jongleur ne vous en dira une meilleure.

Then some vaguely prelusive lines. But the audience is clearly not quite ready yet, for the second section begins:

Barons, écoutez-moi, et cessez vos querelles!
Je vous dirai une très-belle chanson.

And after some further prelude, the section ends:

Ici commence la chanson où il y a tant à apprendre.

The "Chanson" does, indeed, make some show of beginning in the third

Maintenant, seigneurs, écoutez ce que dit l'Écriture.

And once more in the fifth section:

Barons, écoutez un excellent couplet.

In the sixth, the jongleur is getting desperate:

Seigneurs, pour l'amour de Dieu, faites silence, écoutez-moi,
Pour qu'en partant de ce monde vous entriez dans un meilleur;

but after this exclamation he has his way, though the story proper is still a good way off. Perhaps not all of these hortatory stanzas were commonly used; any or all of them could certainly be omitted without damaging the poem. But they were there to be used, according to the judgment of the jongleur and the temper of his audience, and their presence in the poem is very suggestive of the special difficulties in the art of rhapsodic poetry.

But the gravest difficulty, and perhaps the most important, in poetry meant solely for recitation, is the difficulty of achieving verbal beauty, or rather of making verbal beauty tell. Vigorous but controlled imagination, formative power, insight into the significance of things—these are qualities which a poet must eminently possess; but these are qualities which may also be eminently possessed by men who cannot claim the title of poet. The real differentia of the poet is his command over the secret magic of words. Others may have as delighted a sense of this magic, but it is only the poet who can master it and do what he likes with it. And next to the invention of speaking itself, the most important invention for the poet has been the invention of writing and reading; for this has added immensely to the scope of his mastery over words. No poet will ever take the written word as a substitute for the spoken word; he knows that it is on the spoken word, and the spoken word only, that his art is founded. But he trusts his reader to do as he himself does—to receive written words always as the code of spoken words. To do so has wonderfully enlarged his technical opportunities; for apprehension is quicker and finer through the eye than through the ear. After the invention of reading, even poetry designed primarily for declamation (like drama or lyric) has depths and subtleties of art which were not possible for the primitive poet. Accordingly we find that, on the whole, in comparison with "literary" epic, the texture of "authentic" epic is flat and dull. The story may be superb, and its management may be superb; but the words in which the story lives do not come near the grandeur of Milton, or the exquisiteness of Virgil, or the deliciousness of Tasso. Indeed, if we are to say what is the real difference between Beowulf and Paradise Lost, we must simply say that Beowulf is not such good poetry. There is, of course, one tremendous exception; Homer is the one poet of authentic epic who had sufficient genius to make unfailingly, nobly beautiful poetry within the strict and hard conditions of purely auricular art. Compare Homer's ambrosial glory with the descent tap-water of Hesiod; compare his continuous burnished gleam of wrought metal with the sparse grains that lie in the sandy diction of all the "authentic" epics of the other nations. And, by all ancient accounts, the other early Greek epics would not fare much better in the comparison. Homer's singularity in this respect is overwhelming; but it is frequently forgotten, and especially by those who think to help in the Homeric question by comparing him with other "authentic" epics. Supposing (we can only just suppose it) a case were made out for the growth rather than the individual authorship of some "authentic" epic other than Homer; it could never have any bearing on the question of Homeric authorship, because no early epic is comparable with the poetry of Homer. Nothing, indeed, is comparable with the poetry of Homer, except poetry for whose individual authorship history unmistakably vouches.

So we cannot say that Homer was not as deliberate a craftsman in words as Milton himself. The scope of his craft was more restricted, as his repetitions and stock epithets show; he was restricted by the fact that he composed for recitation, and the auricular appreciation of diction is limited, the nature of poetry obeying, in the main, the nature of those for whom it is composed. But this is just a case in which genius transcends technical scope. The effects Homer produced with his methods were as great as any effects produced by later and more elaborate methods, after poetry began to be read as well as heard. But neither must we say that the other poets of "authentic" epic were not deliberate craftsmen in words. Poets will always get as much beauty out of words as they can. The fact that so often in the early epics a magnificent subject is told, on the whole, in a lumpish and tedious diction, is not to be explained by any contempt for careful art, as though it were a thing unworthy of such heroic singers; it is simply to be explained by lack of such genius as is capable of transcending the severe limitations of auricular poetry. And we may well believe that only the rarest and most potent kind of genius could transcend such limitations.

In summary, then, we find certain conceptual differences and certain mechanical differences between "authentic" and "literary" epic. But these are not such as to enable us to say that there is, artistically, any real difference between the two kinds. Rather, the differences exhibit the changes we might expect in an art that has kept up with consciousness developing, and civilization becoming more intricate. "Literary" epic is as close to its subject as "authentic"; but, as a general rule, "authentic" epic, in response to its surrounding needs, has a simple and concrete subject, and the closeness of the poet to this is therefore more obvious than in "literary" epic, which (again in response to surrounding needs) has been driven to take for subject some great abstract idea and display this in a concrete but only ostensible subject. Then in craftsmanship, the two kinds of epic are equally deliberate, equally concerned with careful art; but "literary" epic has been able to take such advantage of the habit of reading that, with the single exception of Homer, it has achieved a diction much more answerable to the greatness of epic matter than the "authentic" poems. We may, then, in a general survey, regard epic poetry as being in all ages essentially the same kind of art, fulfilling always a similar, though constantly developing, intention. Whatever sort of society he lives in, whether he be surrounded by illiterate heroism or placid culture, the epic poet has a definite function to perform. We see him accepting, and with his genius transfiguring, the general circumstance of his time; we see him symbolizing, in some appropriate form, whatever sense of the significance of life he feels acting as the accepted unconscious metaphysic of his age. To do this, he takes some great story which has been absorbed into the prevailing consciousness of his people. As a rule, though not quite invariably, the story will be of things which are, or seem, so far back in the past, that anything may credibly happen in it; so imagination has its freedom, and so significance is displayed. But quite invariably, the materials of the story will have an unmistakable air of actuality; that is, they come profoundly out of human experience, whether they declare legendary heroism, as in Homer and Virgil, or myth, as in Beowulf and Paradise Lost, or actual history, as in Lucan and Camoens and Tasso. And he sets out this story and its significance in poetry as lofty and as elaborate as he can compass. That, roughly, is what we see the epic poets doing, whether they be "literary" or "authentic"; and if this can be agreed on, we should now have come tolerably close to a definition of epic poetry.


[Footnote 4: From the version of the Marquise de Sainte-Aulaire.]

Book: Shattered Sighs