« ÎnapoiContinuați »
times the same verses. Where are the breaks, the junctures? where is the hand of the compiler who put these fragments together discernible? who has discovered, or who can discover interpolation in Homer? That different portions of such large poems might be dispersed in various hands throughout Greece, is very probable, from the difficulty at that period of obtaining transcripts of the whole. Many of these might be collected and collated in order to make the copy more complete. But both the Iliad and Odyssey bear every mark of proceeding from the same mind, and each was unquestionably from the first a perfect whole. What an age must it have been indeed to produce seven or eight poets, who could write like Homer? Why had we not as many Shakspeare's in the reign of Elizabeth? The Iliad and Odyssey may be regarded as models for all epic writers. In taking a hasty view of the former of these poems, I would observe than when we open the Iliad, we must prepare ourselves for a picture of the ancient world; without this reflection we shall lose many of its beauties, which I observed consist in giving us a lively delineation or description of the early ages. In the days of Homer, for instance, the ordering of an entertainment was an action of importance ; the greatest heroes were allowed to praise themselves, and to indulge in the most bitter invectives against their enemies, neither consistent with the modern notions of politeness, or even decency. In the opening of the Iliad we find none of that dignity we should now expect at the commencement of an epic poem. Two chiefs contend for a female captive, which to us appears a subject of small importance, yet this is the point upon which the whole action turns. The priest of Apollo demands his daughter, who had been given to Agamemnon, and upon his being compelled to resign her, hè forces Briseis from Achilles, who on this account withdraws his troops from assisting the Greeks against the Trojans, and from his anger all the train of actions follow.
The subject of the Iliad is, however, well chosen ; there was no object more splendid or of greater dignity than the war of Troy, at the period the poet wrote; for Homer lived about the second or third century after the Trojan war, when every thing was magnified by tradition. As there was at that time no regular record of public transactions, the real actions performed in these wars must have been in some degree obscured, so that the poet was allowed to connect them with what fables he pleased, if they did not contradict the tradition. He has not, however, chosen the whole war for his subject, but only one of the latter scenes, and indeed the most important of the whole.
All the different incidents are disposed in the most regular manner, and Achilles, the principal hero, is never out of our view through the whole. Homer excels all poets in characteristic expression; that which Virgil expresses in a short sentence, furnishes Homer with matter for a long conversation. He is dramatic throughout, and this mode of expressing himself has great advantages, for undoubtedly to set the person before our eyes will make a stronger impression upon the reader than the simple recital of facts by the poet. All his characters, as I before observed, are strongly marked. No two of his heroes act or speak alike. Even Priam and Paris are characters. The female personages have their peculiar features. The picture of Helen is finely drawn in his third book; the poet takes care she shall never appear odious, still blending some virtues with her vices: she is a character which, though we must condemn, we cannot hate; and yet she is nicely contrasted with the chaste and amiable Andromache.
The machinery of Homer is perhaps the most defective part of his poems; but this was not his fault, but that of the puerile mythology which he was obliged to follow. His gods are mere men, and hardly so respectable as his heroes.
On the Odyssey I differ from the majority of critics, for it seems to me to possess more genius than the
Iliad. That imagination must have been most fertile that could invent such a story, and carry it through the various incidents with such consummate art and address. The adventures of Ulysses among the Sirens, the Cyclops, and in the islands of Circe, are more entertaining than any romance that ever was penned. The Odyssey has also more domestic incident than the Iliad: it presents us with more pleasing and more exact pictures of the ancient manners. Eumeus, for instance, is a character beloved by every reader; and the natural incident of the old and faithful dog must touch every heart. Perhaps the latter parts are tedious id languid: Ulysses seems to remain too long undiscovered among the suitors: the difficulty with which Penelope is convinced of the reality of her husband's arrival, deprives us of those emotions we expected from the discovery, and the conclusion is perhaps abrupt. The travels of Telemachus are all episodes, and we cannot easily see the connection of his adventures with the rest of the poem; in every other part the unity is well preserved, and it occupies only forty-one days from the proper opening of the poem.
The difficulty of succeeding in this species of composition is, I think, sufficiently apparent, when we reflect that Greece, the very soil of genius, where imagination flourished as the beauties of the vegetable world under a tropical sun, has left to posterity only two epic poems, and those by the same master, and on the same subject.
An amiable poet, and an excellent critic of our own times has, however, brought forward another Grecian candidate for epic fame. As I confess myself not conversant with the poem of Apollonius Rhodius, I must satisfy myself with transcribing Mr. Hayley's character of that author....
Yet may not judgment, with severe disdain,
"His tender genius, with alluring art,
The Iliad and Odyssey undoubtedly gave birth to the Eneid, and Virgil has imitated Homer in very many instances. Yet the Eneid has quite a distinct character from both the poems of Homer, and the Roman poet is essentially different from the Greek. Homer wrote in a rude and barbarous age; Virgil at a period when manners were civilized, and science very generally dif fused. "He therefore (as Dr. Johnson remarks), found the state of the world so much altered, and the demand for elegance so much increased, that mere nature could be endured no longer; and perhaps in the multitude of borrowed passages, very few can be shewn which he has not embellished,"
"There is a time (adds this venerable critic) when nations emerging from barbarity, and falling into regular subordination, gain leisure to grow wise, and feel the shame of ignorance, and the craving pain of unsatisfied curiosity. To this hunger of the mind plain sense is grateful; that which fills the void removes uneasiness, and to be free from pain for a while is pleasure; but repletion generates fastidiousness; a saturated intellect soon becomes luxurious, and knowledge finds no willing reception till it is recommended by artificial diction. Thus it will be found in the progress of learning, that in all nations the first writers are simple, and that every age improves in elegance."
The grand characteristic therefore of Virgil, as opposed to Homer (and perhaps to all other poets), is
elegance. Yet he is extremely happy in the choice of his subject, for never could he have chosen one more interesting to the Romans, than that of deducing their origin from Æneas. Virgil combines the plot of the Odyssey with that of the Iliad, and there is, perhaps, no where to be found so complete a subject for an epic poem; the unity is exactly preserved through the whole; but there is almost no character marked in the Eneid, and the personages are only made known to us by their Eneas is pious and brave, but not interesting; he is eloquent, but not fervid; he is a warrior, without fire and spirit; and a lover without gallantry. Dido is the only character that is strongly marked; her unhappy, yet finely described passions, render her much more animated than any of the rest. We must admit, however, that Virgil excels in narration; and perhaps there never was a more finished specimen of poetry in this line, or one more abounding in animated and interesting description than the second Eneid. The third is also beautiful, and has all the charm of variety and entertainment. Some passages of the fourth are also incomparable. It has been remarked that the last six books of the Æneid are inferior to the former, and that the genius of the poet seems to lose somewhat of its former vigour. This I believe will be found to result from the nature of the subject, which is less susceptible of beauties; and unfortunately all the most interesting parts of the poem are the first read.
One sensation I have felt with respect to Virgil, whether it may correspond or not with those of other men I cannot tell. In reading the Æneid for any length of time, in an uninterrupted series, I find the appetite paled as by an excess of sweetness; but when I casually encounter a short quotation from it, I feel charmed. There is in every thought, in every phrase, something that arrests attention. The richness of his diction, the curiosa felicitas, is such, that almost every word seems to fill the mind with various images, and to excite grand or pleasing ideas. I have remarked the same with respect to annotations from Milton and Hudibras.