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The Invention of Epic Poetry

by Lascelles Abercrombie

The invention of epic poetry corresponds with a definite and, in the history of the world, often recurring state of society. That is to say, epic poetry has been invented many times and independently; but, as the needs which prompted the invention have been broadly similar, so the invention itself has been. Most nations have passed through the same sort of chemistry. Before their hot racial elements have been thoroughly compounded, and thence have cooled into the stable convenience of routine which is the material shape of civilization—before this has firmly occurred, there has usually been what is called an "Heroic Age." It is apt to be the hottest and most glowing stage of the process. So much is commonplace. Exactly what causes the racial elements of a nation, with all their varying properties, to flash suddenly (as it seems) into the splendid incandescence of an Heroic Age, and thence to shift again into a comparatively rigid and perhaps comparatively lustreless civilization—this difficult matter has been very nicely investigated of late, and to interesting, though not decided, result. But I may not concern myself with this; nor even with the detailed characteristics, alleged or ascertained, of the Heroic Age of nations. It is enough for the purpose of this book that the name "Heroic Age" is a good one for this stage of the business; it is obviously, and on the whole rightly, descriptive. For the stage displays the first vigorous expression, as the natural thing and without conspicuous restraint, of private individuality. In savagery, thought, sentiment, religion and social organization may be exceedingly complicated, full of the most subtle and strange relationships; but they exist as complete and determined wholes, each part absolutely bound up with the rest. Analysis has never come near them. The savage is blinded to the glaring incongruities of his tribal ideas not so much by habit or reverence; it is simply that the mere possibility of such a thing as analysis has never occurred to him. He thinks, he feels, he lives, all in a whole. Each person is the tribe in little. This may make everyone an astoundingly complex character; but it makes strong individuality impossible in savagery, since everyone accepts the same elaborate unanalysed whole of tribal existence. That existence, indeed, would find in the assertion of private individuality a serious danger; and tribal organization guards against this so efficiently that it is doubtless impossible, so long as there is no interruption from outside. In some obscure manner, however, savage existence has been constantly interrupted; and it seems as if the long-repressed forces of individuality then burst out into exaggerated vehemence; for the result (if it is not slavery) is, that a people passes from its savage to its heroic age, on its way to some permanence of civilization. It must always have taken a good deal to break up the rigidity of savage society. It might be the shock of enforced mixture with a totally alien race, the two kinds of blood, full of independent vigour, compelled to flow together;[1] or it might be the migration, due to economic stress, from one tract of country to which the tribal existence was perfectly adapted to another for which it was quite unsuited, with the added necessity of conquering the peoples found in possession. Whatever the cause may have been, the result is obvious: a sudden liberation, a delighted expansion, of numerous private individualities.

But the various appearances of the Heroic Age cannot, perhaps, be completely generalized. What has just been written will probably do for the Heroic Age which produced Homer, and for that which produced the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, and the Northern Sagas. It may, therefore stand as the typical case; since Homer and these Northern poems are what most people have in their minds when they speak of "authentic" epic. But decidedly Heroic Ages have occurred much later than the latest of these cases; and they arose out of a state of society which cannot roundly be called savagery. Europe, for instance, had its unmistakable Heroic Age when it was fighting with the Moslem, whether that warfare was a cause or merely an accompaniment. And the period which preceded it, the period after the failure of Roman civilization, was sufficiently "dark" and devoid of individuality, to make the sudden plenty of potent and splendid individuals seem a phenomenon of the same sort as that which has been roughly described; it can scarcely be doubted that the age which is exhibited in the Poem of the Cid, the Song of Roland, and the lays of the Crusaders (la Chanson d'Antioche, for instance), was similar in all essentials to the age we find in Homer and the Nibelungenlied. Servia, too, has its ballad-cycles of Christian and Mahometan warfare, which suppose an age obviously heroic. But it hardly falls in with our scheme; Servia, at this time, might have been expected to have gone well past its Heroic Age. Either, then, it was somehow unusually prolonged, or else the clash of the Ottoman war revived it. The case of Servia is interesting in another way. The songs about the battle of Kossovo describe Servian defeat—defeat so overwhelming that poetry cannot possibly translate it, and does not attempt it, into anything that looks like victory. Even the splendid courage of its hero Milos, who counters an imputation of treachery by riding in full daylight into the Ottoman camp and murdering the Sultan, even this courage is rather near to desperation. The Marko cycle—Marko whose betrayal of his country seems wiped out by his immense prowess—has in a less degree this utter defeat of Servia as its background. But Servian history before all this has many glories, which, one would think, would serve the turn of heroic song better than appalling defeat and, indeed, enslavement. Why is the latter celebrated and not the former? The reason can only be this: heroic poetry depends on an heroic age, and an age is heroic because of what it is, not because of what it does. Servia's defeat by the armies of Amurath came at a time when its people was too strongly possessed by the heroic spirit to avoid uttering itself in poetry. And from this it appears, too, that when the heroic age sings, it primarily sings of itself, even when that means singing of its own humiliation.—One other exceptional kind of heroic age must just be mentioned, in this professedly inadequate summary. It is the kind which occurs quite locally and on a petty scale, with causes obscurer than ever. The Border Ballads, for instance, and the Robin Hood Ballads, clearly suppose a state of society which is nothing but a very circumscribed and not very important heroic age. Here the households of gentry take the place of courts, and the poetry in vogue there is perhaps instantly taken up by the taverns; or perhaps this is a case in which the heroes are so little removed from common folk that celebration of individual prowess begins among the latter, not, as seems usually to have happened, among the social equals of the heroes. But doubtless there are infinite grades in the structure of the Heroic Age.

The note of the Heroic Age, then, is vehement private individuality freely and greatly asserting itself. The assertion is not always what we should call noble; but it is always forceful and unmistakable. There would be, no doubt, some social and religious scheme to contain the individual's self-assertion; but the latter, not the former, is the thing that counts. It is not an age that lasts for very long as a rule; and before there comes the state in which strong social organization and strong private individuality are compatible—mutually helpful instead of destroying one another, as they do, in opposite ways, in savagery and in the Heroic Age—before the state called civilization can arrive, there has commonly been a long passage of dark obscurity, which throws up into exaggerated brightness the radiance of the Heroic Age. The balance of private good and general welfare is at the bottom of civilized morals; but the morals of the Heroic Age are founded on individuality, and on nothing else. In Homer, for instance, it can be seen pretty clearly that a "good" man is simply a man of imposing, active individuality[2]; a "bad" man is an inefficient, undistinguished man—probably, too, like Thersites, ugly. It is, in fact, an absolutely aristocratic age—an age in which he who rules is thereby proven the "best." And from its nature it must be an age very heartily engaged in something; usually fighting whoever is near enough to be fought with, though in Beowulf it seems to be doing something more profitable to the civilization which is to follow it—taming the fierceness of surrounding circumstance and man's primitive kind. But in any case it has a good deal of leisure; and the best way to prevent this from dragging heavily is (after feasting) to glory in the things it has done; or perhaps in the things it would like to have done. Hence heroic poetry. But exactly what heroic poetry was in its origin, probably we shall never know. It would scarcely be history, and it would scarcely be very ornate poetry. The first thing required would be to translate the prowess of champions into good and moving narrative; and this would be metrified, because so it becomes both more exciting and more easily remembered. Each succeeding bard would improve, according to his own notions, the material he received from his teachers; the prowess of the great heroes would become more and more astonishing, more and more calculated to keep awake the feasted nobles who listened to the song. In an age when writing, if it exists at all, is a rare and secret art, the mists of antiquity descend after a very few generations. There is little chance of the songs of the bards being checked by recorded actuality; for if anyone could write at all, it would be the bards themselves, who would use the mystery or purposes of their own trade. In quite a short time, oral tradition, in keeping of the bards, whose business is to purvey wonders, makes the champions perform easily, deeds which "the men of the present time" can only gape at; and every bard takes over the stock of tradition, not from original sources, but from the mingled fantasy and memory of the bard who came just before him. So that when this tradition survives at all, it survives in a form very different from what it was in the beginning. But apparently we can mark out several stages in the fortunes of the tradition. It is first of all court poetry, or perhaps baronial poetry; and it may survive as that. From this stage it may pass into possession of the common people, or at least into the possession of bards whose clients are peasants and not nobles; from being court poetry it becomes the poetry of cottages and taverns. It may survive as this. Finally, it may be taken up again by the courts, and become poetry of much greater sophistication and nicety than it was in either of the preceding stages. But each stage leaves its sign on the tradition.

All this gives us what is conveniently called "epic material"; the material out of which epic poetry might be made. But it does not give us epic poetry. The world knows of a vast stock of epic material scattered up and down the nations; sometimes its artistic value is as extraordinary as its archaeological interest, but not always. Instances are our own Border Ballads and Robin Hood Ballads; the Servian cycles of the Battle of Kossovo and the prowess of Marko; the modern Greek songs of the revolt against Turkey (the conditions of which seem to have been similar to those which surrounded the growth of our riding ballads); the fragments of Finnish legend which were pieced together into the Kalevala; the Ossianic poetry; and perhaps some of the minor sagas should be put in here. Then there are the glorious Welsh stories of Arthur, Tristram, and the rest, and the not less glorious Irish stories of Deirdre and Cuchulain; both of these noble masses of legend seem to have only just missed the final shaping which turns epic material into epic poetry. For epic material, it must be repeated, is not the same thing as epic poetry. Epic material is fragmentary, scattered, loosely related, sometimes contradictory, each piece of comparatively small size, with no intention beyond hearty narrative. It is a heap of excellent stones, admirably quarried out of a great rock-face of stubborn experience. But for this to be worked into some great structure of epic poetry, the Heroic Age must be capable of producing individuality of much profounder nature than any of its fighting champions. Or rather, we should simply say that the production of epic poetry depends on the occurrence (always an accidental occurrence) of creative genius. It is quite likely that what Homer had to work on was nothing superior to the Arthurian legends. But Homer occurred; and the tales of Troy and Odysseus became incomparable poetry.

An epic is not made by piecing together a set of heroic lays, adjusting their discrepancies and making them into a continuous narrative. An epic is not even a re-creation of old things; it is altogether a new creation, a new creation in terms of old things. And what else is any other poetry? The epic poet has behind him a tradition of matter and a tradition of style; and that is what every other poet has behind him too; only, for the epic poet, tradition is rather narrower, rather more strictly compelling. This must not be lost sight of. It is what the poet does with the tradition he falls in which is, artistically, the important thing. He takes a mass of confused splendours, and he makes them into something which they certainly were not before; something which, as we can clearly see by comparing epic poetry with mere epic material, the latter scarce hinted at. He makes this heap of matter into a grand design; he forces it to obey a single presiding unity of artistic purpose. Obviously, something much more potent is required for this than a fine skill in narrative and poetic ornament. Unity is not merely an external affair. There is only one thing which can master the perplexed stuff of epic material into unity; and that is, an ability to see in particular human experience some significant symbolism of man's general destiny.

It is natural that, after the epic poet has arrived, the crude epic material in which he worked should scarcely be heard of. It could only be handed on by the minstrels themselves; and their audiences would not be likely to listen comfortably to the old piecemeal songs after they had heard the familiar events fall into the magnificent ordered pomp of the genuine epic poet. The tradition, indeed, would start afresh with him; but how the novel tradition fared as it grew old with his successors, is difficult guesswork. We can tell, however, sometimes, in what stage of the epic material's development the great unifying epic poet occurred. Three roughly defined stages have been mentioned. Homer perhaps came when the epic material was still in its first stage of being court-poetry. Almost certainly this is when the poets of the Crusading lays, of the Song of Roland, and the Poem of the Cid, set to work. Hesiod is a clear instance of the poet who masters epic material after it has passed into popular possession; and the Nibelungenlied is thought to be made out of matter that has passed from the people back again to the courts.

Epic poetry, then, as distinct from mere epic material, is the concern of this book. The intention is, to determine wherein epic poetry is a definite species of literature, what it characteristically does for conscious human life, and to find out whether this species and this function have shown, and are likely to show, any development. It must be admitted, that the great unifying poet who worked on the epic material before him, did not always produce something which must come within the scope of this intention. Hesiod has just been given as an instance of such a poet; but his work is scarcely an epic.[3] The great sagas, too, I must omit. They are epic enough in primary intention, but they are not poetry; and I am among those who believe that there is a difference between poetry and prose. If epic poetry is a definite species, the sagas do not fall within it. But this will leave me more of the "authentic" epic poetry than I can possibly deal with; and I shall have to confine myself to its greatest examples. Before, however, proceeding to consider epic poetry as a whole, as a constantly recurring form of art, continually responding to the new needs of man's developing consciousness, I must go, rapidly and generally, over the "literary epic"; and especially I must question whether it is really justifiable or profitable to divide epic poetry into the two contrasted departments of "authentic" and "literary."


[Footnote 1: hos d' ote cheimarroi potamoi kat opesthi rheontes es misgagkeian xumballeton obrimon udor krounon ek melalon koilaes entosthe charadraes. Iliad, IV, 452.]

[Footnote 2: Etymologically, the "good" man is the "admirable" man. In this sense, Homer's gods are certainly "good"; every epithet he gives them—Joyous-Thunderer, Far-Darter, Cloud-Gatherer and the rest—proclaims their unapproachable "goodness." If it had been said to Homer, that his gods cannot be "good" because their behaviour is consistently cynical, cruel, unscrupulous and scandalous, he would simply think he had not heard aright: Zeus is an habitual liar, of course, but what has that got to do with his "goodness"?—Only those who would have Homer a kind of Salvationist need regret this. Just because he could only make his gods "good" in this primitive style, he was able to treat their discordant family in that vein of exquisite comedy which is one of the most precious things in the world.]

[Footnote 3: Scarcely what we call epic. "Epos" might include Hesiod as well as epic material; "epopee" is the business that Homer started.]