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TO THE MOST HONORABLE JOHN, LORD MARQUIS OF
NORMANBY, EARL OF MULGRAVE, &c. AND KNIGHT OF THE MOST NOBLE ORDER OF THE GARTER.
A HEROIC poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work, which the soul of man is capable to perform. The design of it is to form the mind to heroic virtue by example, It is conveyed in verse, that it may delight, while it in. structs : the action of it is always one, intire, and great. The least and most trivial episodes or under-actions, which are interwoven in it, are parts either necessary or convenient to carry on the main design; either so necessary, that with. out them the poem must be imperfect, or so convenient, that no others can be imagined more suitable to the place in which they are. There is nothing to be left void in a firm building; even the cavities ought not to be filled with rubbish (which is of a perishable kind, destructive to the strength), but with brick or stone, though of less pieces, yet of the same nature, and fitted to the crannies. Even the least portions of them must be of the epic kind : all things must be grave, majesti. cal, and sublime; nothing of a foreign nature, like the trifling novels, which Ariosto and others have inserted in their poems; by which the reader is misled into another sort of pleasure, opposite to that which is designed in an epic poem. One raises the soul, and hardens it to virtue; the other softens it again, and unbends it into vice. One conduces to the poet's aim, the completing of his work, which he is driving on, laboring and hastening in every line ; the other slackens his pace, diverts him from his way, and locks him up like a knight-errant in an enchanted castle, when he should be pursuing his first adventure. Statius, as Bossu has well ob. served, was ambitious of trying his strength with his master Virgil, as Virgil had before tried his with Homer. The
Grecian gave the two Romans an example, in the games which were celebrated at the funerals of Patroclus. Virgil imitated the invention of Homer, but changed the sports, But both the Greek and Latin poet took their occasions from the subject; though, to confess the truth, they were both ornamental, or at best, convenient parts of it, rather than of necessity arising from it. Statius-who, through his whole poem, is noted for want of conduct and judgment- instead of staying, as he might have done, for the death of Capaneus, Hippomedon, Tydeus, or some other of his seven champions (who are heroes all alike), or more properly for the tragical end of the two brothers, whose exequies the next successor had leisure to perform when the siege was raised, and in the interval betwixt the poet's first action and his secondwent out of his way, as it were on prepense malice, to commit a fault : for he took his opportunity to kill a royal infant by the means of a serpent (that author of all evil), to make way for those funeral honors which he intended for him. Now, if this innocent had been of any relation to his Thebais-if he had either farthered or hindered the taking of the town, the poet might have found some sorry excuse at least, for detaining the reader from the promised siege. On these terms, this Capaneus of a poet engaged his two immortal predecessors; and his success was answerable to his enterprise.
If this economy must be observed in the minutest parts of an epic poem, which, to a common reader, seem to be de. tached from the body, and almost independent of it, what soul, though sent into the world with great advantages of nature, cultivated with the liberal arts and sciences, conversant with histories of the dead, and enriched with observations on the living, can be sufficient to inform the whole body of so great a work? I touch here but transiently, with. out any strict method, on some few of those many rules of imitating nature, which Aristotle drew from Homer's Iliads and Odysseys, and which he fitted to the drama ; furnishing himself also with observations from the practice of the theatre, when it florished under Æschylus, Euripides, and Sopho. cles : for the original of the stage was from the epic poem. Narration, doubtless, preceded acting, and gave laws to it: what at first was told artfully, was, in process of time, res presented gracefully to the sight and hearing. Those episodes of Homer, which were proper for the stage, the poets amplified each into an action: out of his limbs they formed their bodies: what he had contracted, they enlarged: out of one Hercules were made infinity of pigmies ; yet all endued with human souls : for from hiin, their great creator, they have each of them the divinæ particulam auræ.' They flowed from him at first, and are at last resolved into him. Nor were they only animated by him, but their measure and sýmmetry were owing to him. His one, intire, and great action was copied by them according to the proportions of the drama. If he finished his orb within the year, it sufficed to teach them, that, their action being less, and being also less diversified with incidents, their orb, of consequence, must be circumscribed in a less compass, which they reduced within the limits either of a natural or an artificial day; so that, as he taught them to amplify what he had shortened by the same rule applied the contrary way, he taught them to shorten what he had amplified. Tragedy is the miniature of human life ; an epic poem is the draught at length. Here, my lord, I must contract also ; for, before I was aware, I was almost running into a long digression, to prove that there is no such absolute necessity that the time of a stage-action should so strictly be confined to twenty-four hours, as never to exceed them, for which Aristotle contends and the Grecian stage has practised. Some longer space, on some occasions, I think, may be allowed, especially for the English theatre, which requires more variety of incidents than the French. Corneille himself, after long practice, was inclined to think that the time allotted by the ancients was too short to raise and finish a great action: and better a mechanic rule were stretched or broken, than a great beauty were omitted. To raise, and afterwards to calm, the passions—to purge the soul from pride by the examples of human miseries which befall the greatest-in few words, to expel arrogance, and introduce compassion, are the great effects of tragedy; great, I must confess, if they were alto. gether as true as they are pompous. But are habits to be introduced at three hours' warning ? are radical diseases so suddenly removed ? A mountebank may promise such a cure ; but a skilful physician will not undertake it. An epic poem is not so much in haste : it works leisurely; the changes which it makes are slow; but the cure is likely to be more perfect. The effects of tragedy, as I said, are too violent to be lasting, If it be answered, that for this reason tragedies are often to be seen, and the dose to be repeated; this is tacitly to con, fess that there is more virtue in one heroic poem than in many tragedies. A man is humbled one day, and his pride returns the next. Chymical medicines are observed to relieve oftener than to cure : for it is the nature of spirits to make swift impressions, but not deep. Galenical decoctions, to which I may properly compare an epic poem, have more of body in them; they work by their substance and their weight. It is one reason of Aristotle's to prove that tragedy is the more noble, because it turns in a shorter compass; the whole action being circumscribed within the space of fourand-twenty hours. He might prove as well that a mushroom is to be preferred before a peach, because it shoots up in the compass of a night. A chariot may be driven round the pillar in less space than a large machine, because the bulk is not so great. Is the Moon a more noble planet than Saturn, because she makes her revolution in less than thirty days, and he in little less than thirty years ? Both their orbs are in proportion to their several magnitudes; and, consequently, the quickness or slowness of their motion, and the time of their circumvolutions, is no argument of the greater or less perfection. And besides, what virtue is there in a tragedy, which is not contained in an epic poem, where pride is hum. bled, virtue rewarded, and vice punished ; and those more amply treated, than the narrowness of the drama can admit? The shining quality of an epic hero, his magnanimity, his constancy, his patience, his piety, or whatever characteristical virtue his poet gives him, raises first our admiration. We are naturally prone to imitate what we admire; and frequent acts produce a habit. If the hero's chief quality he vicious, as for example, the choler and obstinate desire of vengeance in Achilles, yet the moral is instructive: and, besides, we are informed in the very proposition of the Iliads that this anger was pernicious; that it brought a thousand ills on the Grecian camp. The courage of Achilles is proposed to imi. tation, not his pride and disobedience to his general, nor his brutal cruelty to his dead enemy, nor the selling his body to