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THE ILIAD AND ODYSSEY;
EXTRACTED FROM BOSSU.
THE NATURE OF EPIC POETRY.
THE fables of poets were originally employed in representing the Divine Nature, according to the notion then conceived of it. This sublime subject occasioned the first poets to be called divines, and poetry the language of the gods. They divided the divine attributes into so many persons; because the infirmity of a human mind cannot sufficiently conceive, or explain, so much power and action in a simplicity so great and indivisible as that of God. And perhaps they were also jealous of the advantages they reaped from such excellent and exalted
learning, and of which they thought the vulgar part of mankind was not worthy.
They could not describe the operations of this almighty cause, without speaking at the same time of its effects: so that to divinity they added physiology, and treated of both, without quitting the umbrages of their allegorical expressions.
But man being the chief and most noble of all that God produced, and nothing being so proper, or more useful, to poets than this subject, they added it to the former, and treated of the doctrine of morality after the same manner as they did that of divinity and physiology: and from morality thus treated, is formed that kind of poem and fable which we call epic.
The poets did the same in morality, that the divines had done in divinity. But that infinite variety of the actions and operations of the Divine Nature (to which our understanding bears so small a proportion) did as it were force them upon dividing the single idea of the only one God into several persons, under the different names of Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, and the rest.
And, on the other hand, the nature of moral philosophy being such, as never to treat of things in particular, but in general, the epic poets were obliged to unite in one single idea, in one and the same person, and in an action which appeared singular, all that looked like it in different persons, and in various actions; which might be thus contained as so many species under their genus.
The presence of the Deity, and the care such an august cause is to be supposed to take about any action, obliges the poet to represent this action
as great, important, and managed by kings and princes'. It obliges him likewise to think and speak in an elevated way, above the vulgar, and in a style that may in some sort keep up the character of the divine persons he introduces. To this end serve the poetical and figurative expression, and the majesty of the heroic verse.
But all this, being divine and surprising, may quite ruin all probability; therefore the poet should take a peculiar care as to that point, since his chief aim is to instruct, and without probability any action is less likely to persuade.
Lastly, since precepts ought to be concise 3, to be the more easily conceived, and less oppress the memory, and since nothing can be more effectual to this end than proposing one single idea, and collecting all things so well together, as to be present to our minds all at once; therefore the poets have reduced all to one single action 4, under one and the same design, and in a body whose members and parts should be homogeneous.
What we have observed of the nature of the epic poem gives us a just idea of it, and we may define it thus:
'The epic poem is a discourse invented by art,
1 Res gestæ regumque ducumque.'
HOR. Art. Poet.
Cui mens divinior atque os
3 Quicquid præcipies esto brevis, ut citò dicta
4 Denique sit quodvis simplex duntaxat, et unum.'
to form the manners, by such instructions as are disguised under the allegories of some one important action, which is related in verse, after a probable, diverting, and surprising manner.'
THE FABLE OF THE ILIAD.
In every design which a man deliberately undertakes, the end he proposes is the first thing in his mind, and that by which he governs the whole work, and all its parts: thus, since the end of the epic poem is to regulate the manners, it is with this first view the poet ought to begin.
But there is a great difference between the philosophical and the poetical doctrine of manners. The schoolmen content themselves with treating of virtues and vices in general: the instructions they give are proper for all states of people, and for all ages. But the poet has a nearer regard to his own country, and the necessities of his own nation. With this design he makes choice of some piece of morality, the most proper and just he can imagine: and in order to press this home, he makes less use of the force of reasoning, than of the power of insinuation; accommodating himself to the particular customs and inclinations of those who are to be the subject, or the readers, of his work.
Let us now see how Homer has acquitted himself in these respects.
He saw the Grecians, for whom he designed his poem, were divided into as many states as they had
capital cities. Each was a body politic apart, and had its form of government independent from all the rest. And yet these distinct states were very often obliged to unite together in one body against their common enemies. These were two very different sorts of government, such as could not be comprehended in one maxim of morality, and in one single poem.
The poet therefore has made two distinct fables of them. The one is for Greece in general, united into one body, but composed of parts independent on each other; and the other for each particular state, considered as they were in time of peace, without the former circumstances and the necessity of being united.
As for the first sort of government, in the union, or rather in the confederacy, of many independent states, experience has always made it appear, 'That nothing so much causes success as a due subordination, and a right understanding among the chief commanders. And on the other hand, the inevita ble ruin of such confederacies proceeds from the heats, jealousies, and ambition of the different leaders, and the discontents of submitting to a single general.' All sorts of states, and in particular the Grecians, had dearly experienced this truth. So that the most useful and necessary instruction that could be given them, was, to lay before their eyes the loss which both the people and the princes must of necessity suffer, by the ambition, discord, and obstinacy of the latter.
Homer then has taken for the foundation of his fable this great truth; that a misunderstanding between princes is the ruin of their own states. 'I