Get Your Premium Membership

The General Process of Epic Poetry

by Lascelles Abercrombie

By the general process of epic poetry, I mean the way this form of art has constantly responded to the profound needs of the society in which it was made. But the development of human society does not go straight forward; and the epic process will therefore be a recurring process, the series a recurring series—though not in exact repetition. Thus, the Homeric poems, theArgonautica, the Aeneid, the Pharsalia, and the later Latin epics, form one series: the Aeneid would be the climax of the series, which thence declines, were it not that the whole originates with the incomparable genius of Homer—a fact which makes it seem to decline from start to finish. Then the process begins again, and again fulfils itself, in the series which goes from Beowulf, theSong of Roland, and the Nibelungenlied, through Camoens and Tasso up to Milton. And in this case Milton is plainly the climax. There is nothing like Paradise Lost in the preceding poems, and epic poetry has done nothing since but decline from that towering glory.

But it will be convenient not to make too much of chronology, in a general account of epic development. It has already appeared that the duties of all "authentic" epic are broadly the same, and the poems of this kind, though two thousand years may separate their occurrence, may be properly brought together as varieties of one sub-species. "Literary" epic differs much more in the specific purpose of its art, as civilized societies differ much more than heroic, and also as the looser milieu of a civilization allows a less strictly traditional exercise of personal genius than an heroic age. Still, it does not require any manipulation to combine the "literary" epics from both series into a single process. Indeed, if we take Homer, Virgil and Milton as the outstanding events in the whole progress of epic poetry, and group the less important poems appropriately round these three names, we shall not be far from the ideal truth of epic development. We might say, then, that Homer begins the whole business of epic, imperishably fixes its type and, in a way that can never be questioned, declares its artistic purpose; Virgil perfects the type; and Milton perfects the purpose. Three such poets are not, heaven knows, summed up in a phrase; I mean merely to indicate how they are related one to another in the general scheme of epic poetry. For discriminating their merits, deciding their comparative eminence, I have no inclination; and fortunately it does not come within the requirements of this essay. Indeed, I think the reader will easily excuse me, if I touch very slightly on the poetic manner, in the common and narrow sense, of the poets whom I shall have to mention; since these qualities have been so often and sometimes so admirably dealt with. It is at the broader aspects of artistic purpose that I wish to look.

"From Homer," said Goethe, "I learn every day more clearly, that in our life here above ground we have, properly speaking, to enact Hell." It is rather a startling sentence at first. That poetry which, for us, in Thoreau's excellent words, "lies in the east of literature," scarcely suggests, in the usual opinion of it, Hell. We are tempted to think of Homer as the most fortunate of poets. It seems as if he had but to open his mouth and speak, to create divine poetry; and it does not lessen our sense of his good fortune when, on looking a little closer, we see that this is really the result of an unerring and unfailing art, an extraordinarily skilful technique. He had it entirely at his command; and he exercised it in a language in which, though it may be singularly artificial and conventional, we can still feel the wonder of its sensuous beauty and the splendour of its expressive power. It is a language that seems alive with eagerness to respond to imagination. Open Homer anywhere, and the casual grandeur of his untranslatable language appears; such lines as:

  amphi de naees
smerdaleon konabaesan ausanton hup' Achaion.[6]

That, you might say, is Homer at his ease; when he exerts himself you get a miracle like:

  su den strophalingi koniaes
keiso megas megalosti, lelasmenos hipposunaon.[7]

It seems the art of one who walked through the world of things endowed with the senses of a god, and able, with that perfection of effort that looks as if it were effortless, to fashion his experience into incorruptible song; whether it be the dance of flies round a byre at milking-time, or a forest-fire on the mountains at night. The shape and clamour of waves breaking on the beach in a storm is as irresistibly recorded by Homer as the gleaming flowers which earth put forth to be the bed of Zeus and Hera in Gargaros, when a golden cloud was their coverlet, and Sleep sat on a pine tree near by in the likeness of a murmuring night-jar. It is an art so balanced, that when it tells us, with no special emphasis, how the Trojans came on with a din like the clangour of a flock of cranes, but the Achaians came on in silence, the temper of the two hosts is discriminated for the whole poem; or, in the supreme instance, when it tells us how the old men looked at Helen and said, "No wonder the young men fight for her!" then Helen's beauty must be accepted by the faith of all the world. The particulars of such poetry could be enumerated for pages; and this is the poetry which is filled, more than any other literature, in the Iliad with the nobility of men and women, in the Odyssey with the light of natural magic. And think of those gods of Homer's; he is the one poet who has been able to make the dark terrors of religion beautiful, harmless and quietly entertaining. It is easy to read this poetry and simply enjoy it; it is easy to say, the man whose spirit held this poetry must have been divinely happy. But this is the poetry whence Goethe learnt that the function of man is "to enact Hell."

Goethe is profoundly right; though possibly he puts it in a way to which Homer himself might have demurred. For the phrase inevitably has its point in the word "Hell"; Homer, we may suppose, would have preferred the point to come in the word "enact." In any case, the details of Christian eschatology must not engage us much in interpreting Goethe's epigram. There is truth in it, not simply because the two poems take place in a theatre of calamity; not simply, for instance, because of the beloved Hektor's terrible agony of death, and the woes of Andromache and Priam. Such things are the partial, incidental expressions of the whole artistic purpose. Still less is it because of a strain of latent savagery in, at any rate, the Iliad; as when the sage and reverend Nestor urges that not one of the Greeks should go home until he has lain with the wife of a slaughtered Trojan, or as in the tremendous words of the oath: "Whoever first offend against this oath, may their brains be poured out on the ground like this wine, their own and their children's, and may their wives be made subject to strangers." All that is one of the accidental qualities of Homer. But the force of the word "enact" in Goethe's epigram will certainly come home to us when we think of those famous speeches in which courage is unforgettably declared—such speeches as that of Sarpedon to Glaukos, or of Glaukos to Diomedes, or of Hektor at his parting with Andromache. What these speeches mean, however, in the whole artistic purpose of Homer, will assuredly be missed if they are detached for consideration; especially we shall miss the deep significance of the fact that in all of these speeches the substantial thought falls, as it were, into two clauses. Courage is in the one clause, a deliberate facing of death; but something equally important is in the other. Is it honour? The Homeric hero makes a great deal of honour; but it is honour paid to himself, living; what he wants above everything is to be admired—"always to be the best"; that is what true heroism is. But he is to go where he knows death will strike at him; and he does not make much of honour after death; for him, the meanest man living is better than a dead hero. Death ends everything, as far as he is concerned, honour and all; his courage looks for no reward hereafter. No; but since ten thousand fates of death are always instant round us; since the generations of men are of no more account than leaves of a tree; since Troy and all its people will soon be destroyed—he will stand in death's way. Sarpedon emphasizes this with its converse: There would be no need of daring and fighting, he says, of "man-ennobling battle," if we could be for ever ageless and deathless. That is the heroic age; any other would say, If only we could not be killed, how pleasant to run what might have been risks! For the hero, that would simply not be worth while. Does he find them pleasant, then, just because they are risky? Not quite; that, again, is to detach part of the meaning from the whole. If anywhere, we shall, perhaps, find the whole meaning of Homer most clearly indicated in such words as those given (without any enforcement) to Achilles and Thetis near the beginning of the Iliad, as if to sound the pitch of Homer's poetry:

mêter, hepi m hetekes ge minynthadion per heonta,
timên per moi hophellen Olympios engyalixai
Zeus hypsibremetês.[8]
timêson moi yion hos hôkymorôtatos hallon

Minunthadion—hôkymorôtatos: those are the imporportant words; key-words, they might be called. If we really understand these lines, if we see in them what it is that Agamemnon's insult has deprived Achilles of—the sign and acknowledgment of his fellows' admiration while he is still living among them, the one thing which makes a hero's life worth living, which enables him to enact his Hell—we shall scarcely complain that the Iliad is composed on a second-rate subject. The significance of the poem is not in the incidents surrounding the "Achilleis"; the whole significance is centred in the Wrath of Achilles, and thence made to impregnate every part.

Life is short; we must make the best of it. How trite that sounds! But it is not trite at all really. It seems difficult, sometimes, to believe that there was a time when sentiments now become habitual, sentiments that imply not only the original imperative of conduct, but the original metaphysic of living, were by no means altogether habitual. It is difficult to imagine backwards into the time when self-consciousness was still so fresh from its emergence out of the mere tribal consciousness of savagery, that it must not only accept the fact, but first intensely realize, that man is hôkymorôtatos—a thing of swiftest doom. And it was for men who were able, and forced, to do that, that the Iliad and the Odyssey and the other early epics were composed. But life is not only short; it is, in itself, valueless. "As the generation of leaves, so is the generation of men." The life of man matters to nobody but himself. It happens incidentally in universal destiny; but beyond just happening it has no function. No function, of course, except for man himself. If man is to find any value in life it is he himself that must create the value. For the sense of the ultimate uselessness of life, of the blankness of imperturbable darkness that surrounds it, Goethe's word "Hell" is not too shocking. But no one has properly lived who has not felt this Hell; and we may easily believe that in an heroic age, the intensity of this feeling was the secret of the intensity of living. For where will the primitive instinct of man, where will the hero, find the chance of creating a value for life? In danger, and in the courage that welcomes danger. That not only evaluates life; it derives the value from the very fact that forces man to create value—the fact of his swift and instant doom—hôkymorôtatos once more; it makes this dreadful fact enjoyable. And so, with courage as the value of life, and man thence delightedly accepting whatever can be made of his passage, the doom of life is not simply suffered; man enacts his own life; he has mastered it.

We need not say that this is the lesson of Homer. And all this, barely stated, is a very different matter from what it is when it is poetically symbolized in the vast and shapely substance of theIliad and the Odyssey. It is quite possible, of course, to appreciate, pleasantly and externally, the Iliad with its pressure of thronging life and its daring unity, and the Odyssey with its serener life and its superb construction, though much more sectional unity. But we do not appreciate what Homer did for his time, and is still doing for all the world, we do not appreciate the spirit of his music, unless we see the warfare and the adventure as symbols of the primary courage of life; and there is more in those words than seems when they are baldly written. And it is not his morals, but Homer's art that does that for us. And what Homer's art does supremely, the other early epics do in their way too. Their way is not to be compared with Homer's way. They are very much nearer than he is to the mere epic material—to the moderate accomplishment of the primitive ballad. Apart from their greatness, and often successful greatness, of intention, perhaps the only one that has an answerable greatness in the detail of its technique is Beowulf. That is not on account of its "kennings"—the strange device by which early popular poetry (Hesiod is another instance) tries to liberate and master the magic of words. A good deal has been made of these "kennings"; but it does not take us far towards great poetry, to have the sea called "whale-road" or "swan-road" or "gannet's-bath"; though we are getting nearer to it when the sun is called "candle of the firmament" or "heaven's gem." On the whole, the poem is composed in an elaborate, ambitious diction which is not properly governed. Alliteration proves a somewhat dangerous principle; it seems mainly responsible for the way the poet makes his sentences by piling up clauses, like shooting a load of stones out of a cart. You cannot always make out exactly what he means; and it is doubtful whether he always had a clearly-thought meaning. Most of the subsidiary matter is foisted in with monstrous clumsiness. Yet Beowulf has what we do not find, out of Homer, in the other early epics. It has occasionally an unforgettable grandeur of phrasing. And it has other and perhaps deeper poetic qualities. When the warriors are waiting in the haunted hall for the coming of the marsh-fiend Grendel, they fall into untroubled sleep; and the poet adds, with Homeric restraint: "Not one of them thought that he should thence be ever seeking his loved home again, his people or free city, where he was nurtured." The opening is magnificent, one of the noblest things that have been done in language. There is some wonderful grim landscape in the poem; towards the middle there is a great speech on deterioration through prosperity, a piece of sustained intensity that reads like an Aeschylean chorus; and there is some admirable fighting, especially the fight with Grendel in the hall, and with Grendel's mother under the waters, while Beowulf's companions anxiously watch the troubled surface of the mere. The fact that the action of the poem is chiefly made of single combat with supernatural creatures and that there is not tapestry figured with radiant gods drawn between the life of men and the ultimate darkness, gives a peculiar and notable character to the way Beowulf symbolizes the primary courage of life. One would like to think, with some enthusiasts, that this great poem, composed in a language totally unintelligible to the huge majority of Englishmen—further from English than Latin is from Italian—and perhaps not even composed in England, certainly not concerned either with England or Englishmen, might nevertheless be called an English epic.

But of course the early epics do not, any of them, merely repeat the significance of Homer in another form. They might do that, if poetry had to inculcate a moral, as some have supposed. But however nicely we may analyse it, we shall never find in poetry a significance which is really detachable, and expressible in another way. The significance is the poetry. What Beowulf or theIliad or the Odyssey means is simply what it is in its whole nature; we can but roughly indicate it. And as poetry is never the same, so its significance is never quite the same. Courage as the first necessary value of life is most naively and simply expressed, perhaps, in the Poem of the Cid; but even here the expression is, as in all art, unique, and chiefly because it is contrived through solidly imagined characters. There is splendid characterization, too, in the Song of Roland, together with a fine sense of poetic form; not fine enough, however, to avoid a prodigious deal of conventional gag. The battling is lavish, but always exciting; and in, at least, that section which describes how the dying Oliver, blinded by weariness and wounds, mistakes Roland for a pagan and feebly smites him with his sword, there is real and piercing pathos. But for all his sense of character, the poet has very little discretion in his admiration of his heroes. Christianity, in these two poems, has less effect than one might think. The conspicuous value of life is still the original value, courage; but elaboration and refinement of this begin to appear, especially in the Song of Roland, as passionately conscious patriotism and loyalty. The chief contribution of the Nibelungenlied to the main process of epic poetry is plot in narrative; a contribution, that is, to the manner rather than to the content of epic symbolism. There is something that can be called plot in Homer; but with him, as in all other early epics, it is of no great account compared with the straightforward linking of incidents into a direct chain of narrative. The story of the Nibelungenlied, however, is not a chain but a web. Events and the influence of characters are woven closely and intricately together into one tragic pattern; and this requires not only characterization, but also the adding to the characters of persistent and dominant motives.

Epic poetry exhibits life in some great symbolic attitude. It cannot strictly be said to symbolize life itself, but always some manner of life. But life as courage—the turning of the dark, hard condition of life into something which can be exulted in—this, which is the deep significance of the art of the first epics, is the absolutely necessary foundation for any subsequent valuation of life; Man can achieve nothing until he has first achieved courage. And this, much more than any inheritance of manner, is what makes all the writers of deliberate or "literary" epic imply the existence of Homer. If Homer had not done his work, they could not have done theirs. But "literary" epics are as necessary as Homer. We cannot go on with courage as the solitary valuation of life. We must have the foundation, but we must also have the superstructure. Speaking comparatively, it may be said that the function of Homeric epic has been to create imperishable symbolism for the actual courageous consciousness of life, but the duty of "literary" epic has been to develop this function, answerably to the development of life itself, into symbolism of some consciousidea of life—something at once more formalized and more subtilized than the primary virtue of courage. The Greeks, however, were too much overshadowed by the greatness of Homer to do much towards this. The Argonautica, the half-hearted epic of Apollonius Rhodius, is the only attempt that need concern us. It is not a poem that can be read straight through; it is only enjoyable in moments—moments of charming, minute observation, like the description of a sunbeam thrown quivering on the wall from a basin of water "which has just been poured out," lines not only charming in themselves, but finely used as a simile for Medea's agitated heart; or moments of romantic fantasy, as when the Argonauts see the eagle flying towards Prometheus, and then hear the Titan's agonized cry. But it is not in such passages that what Apollonius did for epic abides. A great deal of his third book is a real contribution to the main process, to epic content as well as to epic manner. To the manner of epic he added analytic psychology. No one will ever imagine character more deeply or more firmly than Homer did in, say, Achilles; but Apollonius was the man who showed how epic as well as drama may use the nice minutiae of psychological imagination. Through Virgil, this contribution to epic manner has pervaded subsequent literature. Apollonius, too, in his fumbling way, as though he did not quite know what he was doing, has yet done something very important for the development of epic significance. Love has been nothing but a subordinate incident, almost one might say an ornament, in the early epics; in Apollonius, though working through a deal of gross and lumbering mythological machinery, love becomes for the first time one of the primary values of life. The love of Jason and Medea is the vital symbolism of the Argonautica.

But it is Virgil who really begins the development of epic art. He took over from Apollonius love as part of the epic symbolism of life, and delicate psychology as part of the epic method. And, like Apollonius, he used these novelties chiefly in the person of a heroine. But in Virgil they belong to an incomparably greater art; and it is through Virgil that they have become necessities of the epic tradition. More than this, however, was required of him. The epic poet collaborates with the spirit of his time in the composition of his work. That is, if he is successful; the time may refuse to work with him, but he may not refuse to work with his time. Virgil not only implies, he often clearly states, the original epic values of life, the Homeric values; as in the famous:

Stat sua cuique dies; breve et inreparabile tempus
Omnibus est vitae: sed famam extendere factis,
Hoc virtutis opus.[10]

But to write a poem chiefly to symbolize this simple, heroic metaphysic would scarcely have done for Virgil; it would certainly not have done for his time. It was eminently a time of social organization, one might perhaps say of social consciousness. After Sylla and Marius and Caesar, life as an affair of sheer individualism would not very strongly appeal to a thoughtful Roman. Accordingly, as has so often been remarked, the Aeneid celebrates the Roman Empire. A political idea does not seem a very likely subject for a kind of poetry which must declare greatly the fundamentals of living; not even when it is a political idea unequalled in the world, the idea of the Roman Empire. Had Virgil been a good Roman, the Aeneid might have been what no doubt Augustus, and Rome generally, desired, a political epic. But Virgil was not a good Roman; there was something in him that was not Roman at all. It was this strange incalculable element in him that seems for ever making him accomplish something he had not thought of; it was surely this that made him, unintentionally it may be, use the idea of the Roman Empire as a vehicle for a much profounder valuation of life. We must remember here the Virgil of the Fourth Eclogue—that extraordinary, impassioned poem in which he dreams of man attaining to some perfection of living. It is still this Virgil, though saddened and resigned, who writes the Aeneid. Man creating his own destiny, man, however wearied with the long task of resistance, achieving some conscious community of aspiration, and dreaming of the perfection of himself: the poet whose lovely and noble art makes us a great symbol of that, is assuredly carrying on the work of Homer. This was the development in epic intention required to make epic poetry answer to the widening needs of civilization.

But even more important, in the whole process of epic, than what Virgil's art does, is the way it does it. And this in spite of the fact which everyone has noticed, that Virgil does not compare with Homer as a poet of seafaring and warfaring. He is not, indeed, very interested in either; and it is unfortunate that, in managing the story of Aeneas (in itself an excellent medium for his symbolic purpose) he felt himself compelled to try for some likeness to the Odyssey and the Iliad—to do by art married to study what the poet of the Odyssey and the Iliad had done by art married to intuitive experience. But his failure in this does not matter much in comparison with his technical success otherwise. Virgil showed how poetry may be made deliberately adequate to the epic purpose. That does not mean that Virgil is more artistic than Homer. Homer's redundance, wholesale repetition of lines, and stock epithets cannot be altogether dismissed as "faults"; they are characteristics of a wonderfully accomplished and efficient technique. But epic poetry cannot be written as Homer composed it; whereas it must be written something as Virgil wrote it; yes, if epic poetry is to be written, Virgil must show how that is to be done. The superb Virgilian economy is the thing for an epic poet now; the concision, the scrupulousness, the loading of every word with something appreciable of the whole significance. After the Aeneid, the epic style must be of this fashion:

Ibant ovscuri sola sub nocte per umbram
Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna:
Quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna
Est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra
Jupiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem.[11]

Lucan is much more of a Roman than Virgil; and the Pharsalia, so far as it is not an historical epic, is a political one; the idea of political liberty is at the bottom of it. That is not an unworthy theme; and Lucan evidently felt the necessity for development in epic. But he made the mistake, characteristically Roman, of thinking history more real than legend; and, trying to lead epic in this direction, supernatural machinery would inevitably go too. That, perhaps, was fortunate, for it enabled Lucan safely to introduce one of his great and memorable lines:

Jupiter est quodcunque vides, quodcunque moveris;[12]

which would certainly explode any supernatural machinery that could be invented. The Pharsalia could not be anything more than an interesting but unsuccessful attempt; it was not on these lines that epic poetry was to develop. Lucan died at an age when most poets have done nothing very remarkable; that he already had achieved a poem like the Pharsalia, would make us think he might have gone to incredible heights, were it not that the mistake of the Pharsalia seems to belong incurably to his temperament.

Lucan's determined stoicism may, philosophically, be more consistent than the dubious stoicism of Virgil. But Virgil knew that, in epic, supernatural imagination is better than consistency. It was an important step when he made Jupiter, though a personal god, a power to which no limits are assigned; when he also made the other divinities but shadows, or, at most, functions, of Jupiter. This answers to his conviction that spirit universally and singly pervades matter; but, what is more, it answers to the needs of epic development. When we come to Tasso and Camoens, we seem to have gone backward in this respect; we seem to come upon poetry in which supernatural machinery is in a state of chronic insubordination. But that, too, was perhaps necessary. In comparison with the Aeneid, Gerusalemme Liberata and Os Lusiadas lack intellectual control and spiritual depth; but in comparison with the Roman, the two modern poems thrill with a new passion of life, a new wine of life, heady, as it seems, with new significance—a significance as yet only felt, not understood. Both Tasso and Camoens clearly join on to the main epic tradition: Tasso derives chiefly from the Aeneid and the Iliad, Camoens from the Aeneid and the Odyssey. Tasso is perhaps more Virgilian than Camoens; the plastic power of his imagination is more assured. But the advantage Camoens has over Tasso seems to repeat the advantage Homer has over Virgil; the ostensible subject of the Lusiads glows with the truth of experience. But the real subject is behind these splendid voyagings, just as the real subject of Tasso is behind the battles of Christian and Saracen; and in both poets the inmost theme is broadly the same. It is the consciousness of modern Europe. Jerusalem Delivered and the Lusiads are drenched with the spirit of the Renaissance; and that is chiefly responsible for their lovely poetry. But they reach out towards the new Europe that was then just beginning. Europe making common cause against the peoples that are not Europe; Europe carrying her domination round the world—is that what Tasso and Camoens ultimately mean? It would be too hard and too narrow a matter by itself to make these poems what they are. No; it is not the action of Europe, but the spirit of European consciousness, that gave Tasso and Camoens their deepest inspiration. But what European consciousness really is, these poets rather vaguely suggest than master into clear and irresistible expression, into the supreme symbolism of perfectly adequate art. They still took European consciousness as an affair of geography and race rather than simply as a triumphant stage in the general progress of man's knowledge of himself. Their time imposed a duty on them; that they clearly understood. But they did not clearly understand what the duty was; partly, no doubt, because they were both strongly influenced by mediaeval religion. And so it is atmosphere, in Tasso and Camoens, that counts much more than substance; both poets seem perpetually thrilled by something they cannot express—the non so che of Tasso. And what chiefly gives this sense of quivering, uncertain significance to their poetry is the increase of freedom and decrease of control in the supernatural. Supernaturalism was emphasized, because they instinctively felt that this was the means epic poetry must use to accomplish its new duties; it was disorderly, because they did not quite know what use these duties required. Tasso and Camoens, for all the splendour and loveliness of their work, leave epic poetry, as it were, consciously dissatisfied—knowing that its future must achieve some significance larger and deeper than anything it had yet done, and knowing that this must be done somehow through imagined supernaturalism. It waited nearly a hundred years for the poet who understood exactly what was to be done and exactly how to do it.

In Paradise Lost, the development of epic poetry culminates, as far as it has yet gone. The essential inspiration of the poem implies a particular sense of human existence which has not yet definitely appeared in the epic series, but which the process of life in Europe made it absolutely necessary that epic poetry should symbolize. In Milton, the poet arose who was supremely adequate to the greatest task laid on epic poetry since its beginning with Homer; Milton's task was perhaps even more exacting than that original one. "His work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first." The epigram might just as reasonably have been the other way round. But nothing would be more unprofitable than a discussion in which Homer and Milton compete for supremacy of genius. Our business here is quite otherwise.

With the partial exception of Tasso and Camoens, all epic poetry before Milton is some symbolism of man's sense of his own will. It is simply this in Homer; and the succeeding poets developed this intention but remained well within it. Not even Virgil, with his metaphysic of individual merged into social will—not even Virgil went outside it. In fact, it is a sort of monism of consciousness that inspires all pre-Miltonic epic. But in Milton, it has become a dualism. Before him, the primary impulse of epic is an impassioned sense of man's nature being contained—by his destiny: his only because he is in it and belongs to it, as we say "my country." With Milton, this has necessarily become not only a sense of man's rigorously contained nature, but equally a sense of that which contains man—in fact, simultaneously a sense of individual will and of universal necessity. The single sense of these two irreconcilables is what Milton's poetry has to symbolize. Could they be reconciled, the two elements in man's modern consciousness of existence would form a monism. But this consciousness is a dualism; its elements are absolutely opposed. Paradise Lost is inspired by intense consciousness of the eternal contradiction between the general, unlimited, irresistible will of universal destiny, and defined individual will existing within this, and inexplicably capable of acting on it, even against it. Or, if that seems too much of an antinomy to some philosophies (and it is perhaps possible to make it look more apparent than real), the dualism can be unavoidably declared by putting it entirely in terms of consciousness: destiny creating within itself an existence which stands against and apart from destiny by beingconscious of it. In Milton's poetry the spirit of man is equally conscious of its own limited reality and of the unlimited reality of that which contains him and drives him with its motion—of his own will striving in the midst of destiny: destiny irresistible, yet his will unmastered.

This is not to examine the development of epic poetry by looking at that which is not poetry. In this kind of art, more perhaps than in any other, we must ignore the wilful theories of those who would set boundaries to the meaning of the word poetry. In such a poem as Milton's, whatever is in it is its poetry; the poetry of Paradise Lost is just—Paradise Lost! Its pomp of divine syllables and glorious images is no more the poetry of Milton than the idea of man which he expressed. But the general manner of an art is for ever similar; it is its inspiration that is for ever changing. We need never expect words and metre to do more than they do here:

  they, fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit
Chewed bitter ashes, which the offended taste
With spattering noise rejected: oft they assayed,
Hunger and thirst constraining; drugged as oft,
With hatefullest disrelish writhed their jaws,
With soot and cinders filled;

or more than they do here:

  What though the field be lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what is else not to be overcome.

But what Homer's words, and perhaps what Virgil's words, set out to do, they do just as marvellously. There is no sure way of comparison here. How words do their work in poetry, and how we appreciate the way they do it—this seems to involve the obscurest processes of the mind: analysis can but fumble at it. But we can compare inspiration—the nature of the inmost urgent motive of poetry. And it is not irrelevant to add (it seems to me mere fact), that Milton had the greatest motive that has ever ruled a poet.

For the vehicle of this motive, a fable of purely human action would obviously not suffice. What Milton has to express is, of course, altogether human; destiny is an entirely human conception. But he has to express not simply the sense of human existence occurring in destiny; that brings in destiny only mediately, through that which is destined. He has to express the sense of destiny immediately, at the same time as he expresses its opponent, the destined will of man. Destiny will appear in poetry as an omnipotent God; Virgil had already prepared poetry for that. But the action at large must clearly consist now, and for the first time, overwhelmingly of supernatural imagination. Milton has been foolishly blamed for making his supernaturalism too human. But nothing can come into poetry that is not shaped and recognizable; how else but in anthropomorphism could destiny, or (its poetic equivalent) deity, exist in Paradise Lost?

We may see what a change has come over epic poetry, if we compare this supernatural imagination of Milton's with the supernatural machinery of any previous epic poet. Virgil is the most scrupulous in this respect; and towards the inevitable change, which Milton completed and perfected from Camoens and Tasso, Virgil took a great step in making Jupiter professedly almighty. But compare Virgil's "Tantaene animis celestibus irae?" with Milton's "Evil, be thou my good!" It is the difference between an accidental device and essential substance. That, in order to symbolize in epic form—that is to say, in narrative form—the dualistic sense of destiny and the destined, and both immediately—Milton had to dissolve his human action completely in a supernatural action, is the sign not merely of a development, but of a re-creation, of epic art.

It has been said that Satan is the hero of Paradise Lost. The offence which the remark has caused is due, no doubt, to injudicious use of the word "hero." It is surely the simple fact that ifParadise Lost exists for any one figure, that is Satan; just as the Iliad exists for Achilles, and the Odyssey for Odysseus. It is in the figure of Satan that the imperishable significance of Paradise Lost is centred; his vast unyielding agony symbolizes the profound antinomy of modern consciousness. And if this is what he is in significance it is worth noting what he is in technique. He is the blending of the poem's human plane with its supernatural plane. The epic hero has always represented humanity by being superhuman; in Satan he has grown into the supernatural. He does not thereby cease to symbolize human existence; but he is thereby able to symbolize simultaneously the sense of its irreconcilable condition, of the universal destiny that contains it. Out of Satan's colossal figure, the single urgency of inspiration, which this dualistic consciousness of existence makes, radiates through all the regions of Milton's vast and rigorous imagination. "Milton," says Landor, "even Milton rankt with living men!"


[Footnote 6: 'And all round the ships echoed terribly to the shouting Achaians.']

[Footnote 7: 'When in a dusty whirlwind thou didst lie, Thy valour lost, forgot thy chivalry.'—OGILBY. (The version leaves out megas megalosti.) ]

[Footnote 8: 'Mother, since thou didst bear me to be so short-lived, Olympian Zeus that thunders from on high should especially have bestowed honour on me.']

[Footnote 9: 'Honour my son for me, for the swiftest doom of all is his.']

[Footnote 10: "For everyone his own day is appointed; for all men the period of life is short and not to be recalled: but to spread glory by deeds, that is what valour can do."]

[Footnote 11: "They wer' amid the shadows by night in loneliness obscure Walking forth i' the void and vasty dominyon of Ades; As by an uncertain moonray secretly illumin'd One goeth in the forest, when heav'n is gloomily clouded, And black night hath robb'd the colours and beauty from all things."—ROBERT BRIDGES. ]

[Footnote 12: "All that is known, all that is felt, is God."]


Book: Shattered Sighs