TO THE READER,
CONCERNING THE VIRTUES OF AN HEROIC POEM.
The virtues required in an heroic poem, and indeed in all writings published, are comprehended all in this one word—discretion.
And discretion consisteth in this, that every part of the poem be conducing, and in good order placed to the end and design of the poet. And the design is not only to profit, but also to delight the reader.
By profit, I intend not here any accession of wealth, either to the poet, or to the reader; but accession of prudence, justice, and fortitude, by the example of such great and noble persons as he introduceth speaking, or describeth acting. For all men love to behold, though not to practise virtue. So that at last the work of an heroic poet is no more but to furnish an ingenuous reader, when his leisure abounds, with the diversion of an honest and delightful story, whether true or feigned.
But because there be many men called critics, and wits, and virtuosi, that are accustomed to censure the poets, and most of them of divers judgments, how is it possible, you’ll say, to please them all? Yes, very well; if the poem be as it should be. For men can judge what is good, that know not what is best. For he that can judge what is best, must have considered all those things, though they be almost innumerable, that concur to make the reading of an heroic poem pleasant. Whereof I’ll name as many as shall come into my mind.
And they are contained, first, in the choice of words. Secondly, in the construction. Thirdly, in the contrivance of the story or fiction. Fourthly, in the elevation of the fancy. Fifthly, in the justice and impartiality of the poet. Sixthly, in the clearness of descriptions. Seventhly, in the amplitude of the subject.
And, to begin with words: the first indiscretion is, the use of such words as to the readers of poesy (which are commonly persons of the best quality) are not sufficiently known. For the work of an heroic poem is to raise admiration, principally, for three virtues, valour, beauty, and love; to the reading whereof women no less than men have a just pretence, though their skill in language be not so universal; and therefore foreign words, till by long use they become vulgar, are unintelligible to them. Also the names of instruments and tools of artificers, and words of art, though of use in the Schools, are far from being fit to be spoken by a hero. He may delight in the arts themselves, and have skill in some of them, but his glory lies not in that, but in courage, nobility, and other virtues of nature, or in the command he has over other men. Nor does Homer in any part of his poem attribute any praise to Achilles, or any blame to Alexander, for that they had both learnt to play upon the guitar. The character of words that become a hero are property and significancy, but without both the malice and lasciviousness of a satyr.
Another virtue of an heroic poem is the perspicuity and the facility of construction, and consisteth in a natural contexture of the words, so as not to discover the labour, but the natural ability of the poet; and this is usually called a good style. For the order of words, when placed as they ought to be, carries a light before it, whereby a man may foresee the length of his period, as a torch in the night shows a man the stops and unevenness in his way. But when placed unnaturally, the reader will often find unexpected checks, and be forced to go back and hunt for the sense, and suffer such unease, as in a coach a man unexpectedly finds in passing over a furrow. And though the laws of verse (which have bound the Greeks and Latins to number of feet, and quantity of syllables, and the English and other nations to number of syllables and rhyme) put great constraint upon the natural course of language, yet the poet, having the liberty to depart from what is obstinate, and to choose somewhat else that is more obedient to such laws, and no less fit for his purpose, shall not be, neither by the measure, nor by the necessity of rhyme, excused; though a translation often may.
A third virtue lies in the contrivance. For there is difference between a poem and a history in prose. For a history is wholly related by the writer; but in an heroic poem the narration is, a great part of it, put upon some of the persons introduced by the poet. So Homer begins not his Iliad with the injury done by Paris, but makes it related by Menelaus, and very briefly, as a thing notorious; nor begins he his Odysseys with the departure of Ulysses from Troy, but makes Ulysses himself relate the same to Alcinous, in the midst of his poem; which I think much more pleasant and ingenious, than a too precise and close following of the time.
A fourth is in the elevation of fancy, which is generally taken for the greatest praise of heroic poetry; and is so, when governed by discretion. For men more generally affect and admire fancy than they do either judgment, or reason, or memory, or any other intellectual virtue, and for the pleasantness of it, give to it alone the name of wit, accounting reason and judgment but for a dull entertainment. For in fancy consisteth the sublimity of a poet, which is that poetical fury which the readers, for the most part, call for. It flies abroad swiftly to fetch in both matter and words; but if there be not discretion at home to distinguish which are fit to be used and which not, which decent and which undecent for persons, times, and places, their delight and grace is lost. But if they be discreetly used, they are greater ornaments of a poem by much than any other. A metaphor also (which is a comparison contracted into a word) is not unpleasant; but when they are sharp and extraordinary, they are not fit for an heroic poet, nor for a public consultation, but only for an accusation or defence at the bar.
A fifth lies in the justice and impartiality of the poet, and belongeth as well to history as to poetry. For both the poet and the historian writeth only, or should do, matter of fact. And as far as the truth of fact can defame a man, so far they are allowed to blemish the reputation of persons. But to do the same upon report, or by inference, is below the dignity, not only of a hero, but of a man. For neither a poet nor a historian ought to make himself an absolute master of any man’s good name. None of the Emperors of Rome whom Tacitus, or any other writer, hath condemned, was ever subject to the judgment of any of them; nor were they ever heard to plead for themselves, which are things that ought to be antecedent to condemnation. Nor was, I think, Epicurus the philosopher, (who is transmitted to us by the Stoics for a man of evil and voluptuous life), ever called, convented, and lawfully convicted, as all men ought to be before they be defamed. Therefore it is a very great fault in a poet to speak evil of any man in their writings historical.
A sixth virtue consists in the perfection and curiosity of descriptions, which the ancient writers of eloquence call icones, that is images. And an image is always a part, or rather a ground of the poetical comparison. As, for example, when Virgil would set before our eyes the fall of Troy, he describes perhaps the whole labour of many men together in the felling of some great tree, and with how much ado it fell. This is the image. To which if you but add these words, “So fell Troy,” you have the comparison entire; the grace whereof lieth in the lightsomeness, and is but the description of all, even the minutest, parts of the thing described; that not only they that stand far off, but also they that stand near, and look upon it with the oldest spectacles of a critic, may approve it. For a poet is a painter, and should paint actions to the understanding with the most decent words, as painters do persons and bodies with the choicest colours, to the eye; which if not done nicely, will not be worthy to be placed in a cabinet.
The seventh virtue, which lying in the amplitude of the subject, is nothing but variety, and a thing without which a whole poem would be no pleasanter than an epigram, or one good verse; nor a picture of a hundred figures better than any one of them asunder, if drawn with equal art. And these are the virtues which ought especially to be looked upon by the critics, in the comparing of the poets, Homer with Virgil, or Virgil with Lucan. For these only, for their excellency, I have read, or heard compared.
If the comparison be grounded upon the first and second virtues, which consist in known words and style unforced, they are all excellent in their own language, though perhaps the Latin than the Grerk is apter to dispose itself into an hexameter verse, as having both fewer monosyllables and fewer polysyllables. And this may make the Latin verse appear more grave and equal, which is taken for a kind of majesty; though in truth there be no majesty in words, but then when they seem to proceed from a high and weighty employment of the mind. But neither Homer, nor Virgil, nor Lucan, nor any poet writing commendably, though not excellently, was ever charged much with unknown words, or great constraint of style, as being a fault proper to translators, when they hold themselves too superstitiously to their author’s words.
In the third virtue, which is contrivance, there is no doubt but Homer excels them all. For their poems, except the introduction of their Gods, are but so many histories in verse: where Homer has woven so many histories together as contain the whole learning of his time (which the Greeks call cyclopædia,), and furnished both the Greek and Latin stages with all the plots and arguments of their tragedies.
The fourth virtue, which is the height of fancy, is almost proper to Lucan, and so admirable in him, that no heroic poem raises such admiration of the poet, as his hath done, though not so great admiration of the persons he introduceth. And though it be a mark of a great wit, yet it is fitter for a rhetorician than a poet, and rebelleth often against discretion, as when he says,
- Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.
- The side that won the Gods approved most,
- But Cato better lik’d the side that lost.
Than which nothing could be spoken more gloriously to the the exaltation of a man, nor more disgracefully to the depression of the Gods. Homer indeed maketh some Gods for the Greeks, and some for the Trojans, but always makes Jupiter impartial; and never prefers the judgment of a man before that of Jupiter, much less before the judgment of all the Gods together.
The fifth virtue, which is the justice and impartiality of a poet, is very eminent in Homer and Virgil, but the contrary in Lucan. Lucan shows himself openly in the Pompeian faction, inveighing against Cæsar throughout his poem, like Cicero against Cataline or Marc Antony, and is therefore justly reckoned by Quintilian as a rhetorician rather than a poet. And a great part of the delight of his readers proceedeth from the pleasure which too many men take to hear great persons censured. But Homer and Virgil, especially Homer, do everywhere what they can to preserve the reputation of their heroes.
If we compare Homer and Virgil by the sixth virtue, which is the clearness of images, or descriptions, it is manifest that Homer ought to be preferred, though Virgil himself were to be the judge. For there are very few images in Virgil besides those which he hath translated out of Homer; so that Virgil’s images are Homer’s praises. But what if he have added something to it of his own? Though he have, yet it is no addition of praise, because it is easy. But he hath some images which are not in Homer, and better than his. It may be so; and so may other poets have which never durst compare themselves with Homer. Two or three fine sayings are not enough to make a wit. But where is that image of his better done by him than Homer, of those that have been done by them both? Yes, Eustathius, as Mr. Ogilby hath observed, where they both describe the falling of a tree, prefers Virgil’s description. But Eustathius is in that, I think, mistaken. The place of Homer is in the fourth of the Iliads, the sense whereof is this:
- As when a man hath fell’d a poplar tree,
- Tall, straight, and smooth, with all the fair boughs on;
- Of which he means a coach-wheel made shall be,
- And leaves it on the bank to dry i’ th’ sun;
- So lay the comely Simoisius,
- Slain by great Ajax, son of Telamon.
It is manifest that in this place Homer intended no more than to show how comely the body of Simoisius appeared as he lay dead upon the bank of Scamander, straight and tall, with a fair head of hair, and like a straight and high poplar with the boughs still on; and not at all to describe the manner of his falling, which, when a man is wounded through the breast, as he was with a spear, is always sudden.
The description of how a great tree falleth, when many men together hew it down, is in the second of Virgil’s Æneads. The sense of it, with the comparison, is in English this:
- And Troy, methought, then sunk in fire and smoke,
- And overturned was in every part:
- As when upon the mountain an old oak
- Is hewn about with keen steel to the heart,
- And plied by swains with many heavy blows,
- It nods and every way it threatens round,
- Till overcome with many wounds, it bows,
- And leisurely at last comes to the ground.
And here again it is evident that Virgil meant to compare the manner how Troy, after many battles, and after the losses of many cities, conquered by the many nations under Agamemnon in a long war, and thereby weakened, and at last overthrown, with a great tree hewn round about, and then falling by little and little leisurely.
So that neither these two descriptions, nor the two comparisons can be compared together. The image of a man lying on the ground is one thing; the image of falling, especially of a kingdom, is another. This therefore gives no advantage to Virgil over Homer. It is true, that this description of the felling and falling of a tree is exceeding graceful, but is it therefore more than Homer could have done if need had been? Or is there no description in Homer of somewhat else as good as this? Yes, and in many of our English poets now alive. If it then be lawful for Julius Scaliger to say, that if Jupiter would have described the fall of a tree, he could not have mended this of Virgil; it will be lawful for me to repeat an old epigram of Antipater, to the like purpose, in favour of Homer.
- The writer of the famous Trojan war,
- And of Ulysses’ life, O Jove make known,
- Who, whence he was; for thine the verses are,
- And he would have us think they are his own.
The seventh and last commendation of an heroic poem consisteth in amplitude and variety; and in this Homer exceedeth Virgil very much, and that not by superfluity of words, but by plenty of heroic matter, and multitude of descriptions and comparisons (whereof Virgil hath translated but a small part into his Æneads), such as are the images of shipwracks, battles, single combats, beauty, passions of the mind, sacrifices, entertainments, and other things, whereof Virgil, abating what he borrows of Homer, has scarce the twentieth part. It is no wonder therefore if all the ancient learned men both of Greece and Rome have given the first place in poetry to Homer. It is rather strange that two or three, and of late time, and but learners of the Greek tongue, should dare to contradict so many competent judges both of language and discretion. But howsoever I defend Homer, I aim not thereby at any reflection upon the following translation. Why then did I write it? Because I had nothing else to do. Why publish it? Because I thought it might take off my adversaries from showing their folly upon my more serious writings, and set them upon my verses to show their wisdom. But why without annotations? Because I had no hope to do it better than it is already done by Mr. Ogilby.