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Qsmania University Library 

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This book should be returned on or before the date last marked below 

The Epic 

By the same Author 

Towards a Theory of Art 

Speculative Dialogues 

Four Short Plays 

Thomas Hardy : A Critical Study 
Principles of English Prosody 

The Epic: an Essay 

By Lascelles Abercrombie 

London : Martin Seeker 
Number Five John Street 
Adelphi m c m x x i i 

First published 1914 

New Edition, reset 1922 



As this essay is disposed to consider epic poetry as a 
species of literature, and not as a department of 
sociology or archeology or ethnology, the reader will 
not find it anything material to the Discussion which 
may be typified in those very interesting wofks, Gilbert 
Murray's " The Rise of the Greek Epic "nhd Andrew 
Lang's " The World of Hontfr" The distinction 
between a literary and a scientific attitude to Homer 
(and all other " authentic " epic) is, I think , finally 
summed up in Mr. MackaiVs " Lectures on Greek 
Poetry " ; the following pages, at any rate, assume 
that this is so. Theories about epic origins were there- 
fore indifferent to my purpose. Besides, I do not see 
the need for any theories ; I think it need only be 
said, of any epic poem whatever, that it was composed 
by a man and transmitted by men. But this is not 
to say that investigation of the " authentic " epic 
poet's milieu may not be extremely profitable ; and 
for settling the preliminaries of this essay, I owe a 



great deal to Mr. Chadwick's profoundly interesting 
study, " The Heroic Age " ; though I daresay Mr. 
Chadwick would repudiate some of my conclusions. I 
must also acknowledge suggestions taken from Mr. 
Macneile Dixon's learned and vigorous " English Epic 
and Heroic Poetry " ; and especially the assistance of 
Mr. John Clark's " History of Epic Poetry." Mr. 
Clark's book is so thorough and so adequate that my 
own would certainly have been superfluous, were it not 
that I have taken a particular point of view which his 
method seems to rule out a point of view which 
seemed well worth taking. This is my excuse, too, 
for considering only the most conspicuous instances of 
epic poetry. They have been discussed often enough ; 
but not often, so far as I know, primarily as stages of 
one continuous artistic development. 


invention of epic poetry corresponds with 
A 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 inde- 
pendently ; 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 com- 
pounded, 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 commonplao^ Exactly 


The Epic 

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 civil- 
ization this difficult matter has been very nicely 
investigated of late, and to interesting, though not 
decided, result. But I may not concern myself with 
thisj 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 individu- 
ality. 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 isj)linded 
to the glaring incongruities of his tribal ideas rnot 



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 individu- 
ality 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 per- 
manence 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 


The Epic 

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 exist- 
ence was perfectly adapted to another for which 
it was quite unsuited, with the added necessity of 
conquering the peoples found in possession. What- 
ever 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 de- 
cidedly Heroic Ages have occurred much later than 

TTOTtt/IOt KttT 

3dX\TOv oB 
CK /.tcAaAwv KOiXrjs tvToa-O 

Iliad, IV, 452. 



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_jhat warfare was_a_cause, ,Q . 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 y the Song of Roland, and the 
lays of the Crusaders (la Chanson cTAntioche, 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 Mahotaelan 
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, i 
how unusually prolonge<l^flr_else the clash 

Ottoman, war revived it._ The case of Servia is 


The Epic 

interesting in another way. The songs about the 
Battle of Kossovo describe Servian defeat defeat 
so overwhelming that poetry cannot possibly trans- 
late 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 Otto- 
man 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,,. Servians 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 inade- 
quate 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 circym- 
scribed 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 struc- 
ture 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 unmis- 


The Epic 

takable. 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 mutu- 
ally 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 bright- 
ness 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 1 ; a " bad man is 

1 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 


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 some- 
thing ; usually fighting whoever is near enough 
to be fought with, though in Beowulf it seems to 
be doing something more profitable to the civiliza- 
tion which is to follow it taming the fierceness of 
surrounding circumstance and jnan'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 

it had been said to Homer, that his gods cannot be " good " 
because their behaviour is consistently cynical, cruel, unscrupu- 
lous 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. 


The Epic 

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 sur- 
vives 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 
tavenfe\ 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 ; 
B 17 

The Epic 

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 CucHulaiqt ; 
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 

n epic is not made by piecing together a set 
of heroic lays, adjusting their discrepancies and 
naking them into a continuous narrative. An epic 
is not even a re-creation of old things ; it is al- 
together a new creation, a new creation in terms 
af 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 cgmpellingi This must not be lost sieht 


The Epic 

of. It is what the poet does with the tiadition 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. Ob- 
viously, 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 per- 
plexed stuff of epic material into unity ; and that 
is, an ability to see in particular hurjian experience 
some significant symbolism of man's general 

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 ftftpr they _hfl.d heard tfre familiar 



events fall into the magnificent ordered pomp of 
the genuine epicgoet^ The tradition, indeed, 
would start atresh 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 men- 
tioned. 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 inten- 
tion 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 


The Epic 

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. 1 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 m\self to its greatest examples. Before, 
however, proceeding to consider epic poetry as a 
whole, as a constantly recurring form of art, con- 
tinually responding to the new needs of man's 
developing consciousness, I must go, rapidly and 

1 Scarcely what we call epic. " Epos " might include Hesiod 
as well as epic material ; " epopee " is the business that Homer 



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." 



EPIC poetry, JLhen, was invented to supply the 
artistic demands of society in a certain de- 
finitejmd recognizable state. Or rather, it was the 
epic material which supplied that ; the first epic 
poets gave their age, as genius always does, some- 
thing which the age had never thought of asking 
for ; which, nevertheless, when it was given, the 
age took good hold of, and found that, after all, 
this, too, it had wanted without knowing it. But 
as society went on towards civilization, the need 
for epic grew less and less ; and its preservation, 
if not accidental, was an act of conscious aesthetic 
admiration rather than of unconscious necessity. 
It was preserved somehow, however ; and after 
other kinds of literature had arisen as inevitably 
and naturally as epic, and had become, in their 
turn, things of less instant necessity than they were, 


Literary Epic 

it was found that, in the manner and purpose of 
epic poetry, something was given which was not 
jiven elsewhere ; something of extraordinary value, 
ipic poetry would therefore be undertaken again ; 
nit now, of course, deliberately. With several 
lifferent kinds ofpoetry to choose from, a man would 
lecide ; that _he_ would like best to be an epic poet, 
ind he would set out, in conscious determination, 
>n an epic poem. The result, goo J or bad, of such 
1 determination is called " literary " epic.^ The 

3oems of Apollonius Rhodius^ Virgil, jLucan~ 

Zlamoens, Tasso"lmid~Tvlilton are " literary " epics, 
But such~poeEy as t^USyssey, the Iliad, Beowulf, 
:he Sqn^o/JR^ldnd, and the Nibelungenlied, poetry 
ivhich seems an immediate response to some general 
ma instant need in its surrounding community 
such poetry is u ..aulbentic,_" epic A 

IM^^gA,- w*~- ~ __' ' ~- ltf*l*HU**mf*Mpu\ | I .MIH "* J? 

^ great deal has been made of this distinction 
it has almost been taken to divide epic poetry intc 
two species. And, as the names commonly giver 
to the two supposed species suggest, there is some 
notion that " literary " epic must be in a way in- 
ferior to " authentic " epic. The superstition o 


The Epic 

antiquity has something to do with this ; but the 
presence of Homer among the " authentic " epics 
has probably still more to do with it. For Homer 
is the poet who is usually chosen to stand for 
" authentic " epic ; and, by a facile association of 
ideas, the conspicuous characteristics of Homer 
seem to be the marks of " authentic " epic as a 
species. It is, of course, quite true, that, for sus- 
tained grandeur and splendour, no poet can be 
put beside Homer except Dante and Milton ; but 
it is also quite clear that in Homer, as in Dante, 
and Milton, such conspicuous characteristics are 
simply the marks of peculiar poetic genius^ If we 
leave Homer out, and consider poetic greatness 
only (the only important thing to consider), there 
is no " authentic " epic which can stand against 
Paradise Lost or the JEneid. \ Then there is the 
curious modern feeling which is sometimes but- 
tressed up by erroneous aesthetic theory (the worship 
of a quite national " lyricism," for instance) but 
which is really nothing but a sign of covert bar- 
barism that lengthy poetic composition is some- 
how undesirable ; and Homer is thought to have 


Literary Epic 

had a better excuse for composing a long poem than 

But doubtless the real reason for the hard division 
of epic poetry into two classes, and for the pre- 
sumed inferiority of " literary " to " authentic," 
lies in the application of that curiosity among false 
ideas, the belief in a " folk-spirit."*; This notion 
that such a thing as a " folk-spirit " can create art, 
and that the art which it does create must be some- 
how better than other art, is, I suppose^ the off- 
spring of democratic ideas in politics. yThe chief 
objection to it is that there never has been and never 
can be anything in actuality corresponding to the 
" folk-spirit " which this notion supposes. Poetry 
is the work of poets, not of peoples or communities ; 
artistic creation can never be anything but the pro- 
duction of an individual mind. j We may, if we like, 
think that poetry would be more " natural " if it 
were composed by the folk as the folk, and not by 
persons peculiarly endowed ; and to think so is 
doubtless agreeable to the notion that the folk is 
more important than the individual. But there is 
nothing gained by thinking in this way, except a 


The Epic 

very illusory kind of pleasure ; since it is impossible 
that the folk should ever be a poet. This indis- 
putable axiom has been ignored more in theories 
about ballads about epic material than in theories 
about the epics themselves. But the belief in a real 
folk-origin for ballads, untenabl^ th^ugioLbeTn a 
little examination, has had a decided effect on the 
common opinion of the authentic epics. In the 

first place,/ a poem constructed out of ballads com- 

* , . -- ~ - "^ 

posed, somehpwj)r m qther, by the folk, ought to be 
more " natural " than a work of deliberate art 
aj* literary " epic ;l that is to say, these Rousseau- 
ish notions will rfdmire it for being further from 
civilization and nearer to the noble savage ; civil- 
ization being held, by some mysterious argument, 
to be deficient in " naturalness." In the second 
place, this belief has made it credible that the plain 
corruption of authentic epic by oral transmission, 
or very limited transmission through script, might 
be the sign of multiple authorship ; for if you believe 
that a whole folk can compose a ballad, you may 
easily believe that a dozen poets can compose an 


Literary Epic 

Jmit all this rests on simE^jgnoniig of the nature 
of poetic ^composition ?) The folk-origin of ballads 
and the multiple authorship of epics are heresies 
worse than the futilities of the Baconians ; at any 
rate, they are based on the same resolute omission, 
and build on it a wilder fantasy. 

consider what poetry is. Those who think Bacon 
wrote Hamfetl and those who think several poets 
wrote the Iliad, can make out a deal of ingenious 
evidence for their doctrines < ^ But it is 'all useless, 
because the first assumption in each case is unthink- 
able. It is psychologically impossible that the mind 
of Bacon should have produced Hamlet ; but the 
impossibility is even more clamant when it comes 
to supposing that several poets, not in collaboration, 
but in haphazard succession, could produce ^a 
poem of vast sweeping unity and superbly consistent 
splendour of stylet So far as mere authorship goes, 
then, we cannot make any real difference between 
" authentic " and " literary " epic. We cannot sa> 
that, while this is written by an individual genius 
that is the work of a community. Individual 
genius, of whatever quality, is responsible for both 


The Epic 

The folk, however, cannot be ruled out. (Genius 
does the work ; but the folk is the condition in 
which genius does it. And here we may find a 
genuine difference between " literary " and " au- 
thentic " ; not so much in the nature of the condi- 
tion as in its closeness and insistence Kdte' 

The kind of folk-spirit behind the poet is, indeed, 
different in the Iliad and Beowulf and the Song of 
Roland from what it is in Milton and Tasso and 
Virgil. But there is also as much difference here 
between the members of each class as between 
the two classes themselves. You cannot read much 
of Beowulf with Homer in your mind, without 
becoming conscious that the difference in individual 
genius is by no means the whole difference. Both 
poets maintain a similar ideal in life ; but they 
paaintain it within conditions altogether unlike. 
Xhe folk-spirit behind Beowulf is cloudy and tumult- 
uous, finding grandeur in storm and gloom and mere 
mass in the misty lack of shape. Behind Homer 
it is, on the contrary, radiant and, however vehement, 
always delighting in measure, finding grandeur in 
brightness and clarity and shining outline. So, 


Literary Epic 

again, we may very easily see how Tasso's poetry 
implies the Italy of his time, and Milton's the 
England of his time. But where Homer and Beo- 
wulf together differ from Tasso and Milton is in 
the way the surrounding folk-spirit contains the 
poet's mind. It would be a very idle piece of work, 
to choose between the (potency of Homer's genius 
and of Milton's ; but iHs clear that the immediate 
circumstance of the poet's life presses much more 
insistently on the Iliad and the Odyssey than on 
Paradise Lost. It is the difference between the 
contracted, precise, but vigorous tradition of an 
heroic age, and the diffused, eclectic, complicated 
culture of a civilization) And if it may be said 
that the insistence of rsfcial circumstance in Homer 
gives him a greater intensity of cordial, human in- 
spiration, it must also be said that the larger, less 
exacting conditions of Milton's mental life allow 
his art to go into greater scope and more subtle 
complexity of significance. Great epic poetry will 
always frankly accept the sottfal conditions within 
which it is composed ; but the conditions contract 
and intensify the conduct of the poem,\>r allow it 

The Epic 

to dilate and absorb larger matter, according as 
the narrow primitive torrents of man's spirit broaden 
into the greater but slower volume of civilized life. 
The change is neither desirable nor undesirable ; 
it is merely inevitable. It means that epic poetry 
has kept up with the development of human life. 

It is because of all this that we have heard a good 
deal about the " authentic " epic getting " closer 
to its subject " than " literary " epic. It seems, on 
the face of it, very improbable that there should 
be any real difference here. No great poetry, of 
whatever kind, is conceivable unless the subject 
has become integrated with the poet's mind and 
mood. Milton is as close to his subject, Virgil to 
his, as Homer to Achilles or the Saxon poet to 
Beowulf. What is really meant can be nothing but 
the greater insistence of racial tradition in the " au- 
thentic " epics. The subject of the Iliad is the fight- 
ing of heroes, with all its implications and conse- 
quences ; /the subject of the Odyssey is adventure 
and its opposite, the longing for safety and home ; 
in Beowulf it is kingship the ability to show man 
htfw to conquer the monstrous forces of his world ; 

Literary Epic 

and so on. Such were the subjects which an im- 
perious racial tradition pressed on the e^rly epic 
poet, who delighted to be so governed/} These 
were the matters which his people could Understand, 
of which they could easily perceive the significance. 
For him, then, there could be no other matters 
than these, or the like of these. But it is not in 
such matters that a poet living in a time of less 
primitive and more expanded consciousness would 
find the highest importance. For a Roman, the 
chief matter for an epic poem would be Roman 
civilization ; for a Puritan, it would be the relations 
of God and manT~) When, therefore, we consider 
how close to his subject an epic poet is, we must 
be careful to be quite clear what his subject is. 
And if he has gone beyond the immediate experi- 
ences of primitive society, we need not expect 
him to be as close as the early poets were to the fury 
of battle and the agony of wounds and the desolation 
of widows ; or to the sensation of exploring beyond 
the familiar regions ; or to the marsh-fiends and 
fire-drakes into which primitive imagination natur- 
ally translated the terrible unknown powers of the 
c 33 

The Epic 

world. We need not, in a word, expect the 
" literary " epic to compete with the " authentic " 
epic ; for the fact is, that the purpose of epic poetry, 
and therefore the nature of its subject, must con- 
tinually develop. It is quite true that the later 
epics take over, to a very great extent, the methods 
and manners of the earlier poems ; just as architec- 
ture hands on the style of wooden structure to an 
age that builds in stone, and again imposes the 
manners of stone construction on an age that builds 
in concrete and steel. But, in the case of epic at any 
rate, this is not merely the inertia of artistic con- 
vention. ; With the development of epic intention, 
and the subsequent choosing of themes larger and 
subtler than what common experience is wont to 
deal in, a certain duplicity becomes inevitable. 
The real intention of the JEneid, and the real 
intention of Paradise Lost, are not easily brought 
into vivid apprehension. The natural thing to do, 
then, would be to use the familiar substance of 
early epic, but to use it as a convenient and pleasant 
solvent for the novel intention. It is what has been 
done in all the great " literary " epics." But hasty 


Literary Epic 

criticism, finding that where they resembled Homer 
they seemed not so close to their matter, has taken 
jfhis as a pervading and unfortunate characteristic. 
It has not perceived that what in Homer was the 
main business of the epic, has become in later epic 
a device. jHaving so altered, it has naturally lost 
in significance ; but in the greatest instances of 
later epic, that for which the device was used has 
been as profoundly absorbed into the poet's being 
as Homer's matter was into his being. It may be 
noted, too, that a corresponding change has also 
taken place in the opposite direction./ As Homer's 
chief substance becomes a device ifr" later epic, 
so a device of Homer's becomes in later epic the 
chief substance. Homer's supernatural machinery 
may be reckoned as a device a device to heighten 
the general style and action of his poems ; the 
significance of Homer must be found among his 
heroes, not among his gods. But with Milton, it 
has become necessary to entrust to the supernatural 
action the whole aim and purport of the poem^) 

On the whole, then, there is no reason why 
" literary " epic should not be as close to its subject 


The Epic 

as " authentic " epic ; there is every reason why 
both kinds should be equally close. But in testing 
whether they actually are equally close, we have to 
remember that in the later epic it has become 
necessary to use the ostensible subject as a vehicle 
for the real subject. And who, with any active 
sympathy for poetry, can say that Milton felt his 
theme with less intensity than Homer ? > Milton 
is not so close to his fighting angels as Homer is 
to his fighting men ; but the war in heaven is an 
incident in Milton's figurative expression of some- 
thing that has become altogether himself the 
mystery of individual existence in universal exist- 
ence, and the accompanying mystery of sin, of 
individual will inexplicably allowed to tamper with 
the divinely universal will. Milton, of course, in 
closeness to his subject and in everything else, 
stands as supreme above the other poets of literary 
epic as Homer does above the poets of authentic 
epic. But what is true of Milton is true, in less 
degree, of the others. \f there is any good in them, 
it is primarily because they have got very close to 
their subjects : that is required not only for epic, 


Literary Epic 

but for all poetry. (Coleridge, in a famous estimate 
put twenty years for the shortest period in which 
an epic could be composed ; and of this, ten years 
were to be for preparation. He meant that not less 
than ten years would do for the poet to fill all his 
being with the theme ; and nothing else will serve, 
It is well known how Milton brooded over his^ 
subject, how Virgil lingered over his, how Camoen. 
carried the Luisads round the world with him, 
with what furious intensity Tasso gave himself to 
writing Jerusalem Delivered. We may suppose, 
perhaps, that the poets of " authentic " epic had a 
somewhat easier task. There was no need for them 
to be " long choosing and beginning late." The 
pressure of racial tradition would see that they 
chose the right sort of subject ; would see, too, that 
they lived right in the heart of their subject. For 
the poet of " literary " epic, however, it is his own 
consciousness that must select the kind of theme 
which will fulfil the epic intention for his own day ; 
it is his own determination and studious endurance 
that will draw the theme into the secrets of his 
being. If he is not capable of getting close to his 


The Epic 

subject, we should not for that reason call his work 
" literary " epic. It would put him in the class of 
Milton, the most literary of all poets. We must 
simply call his stuff bad epic. There is plenty of 
it. Southey is the great instance. Southey would 
decide to write an epic about Spain, or India, or 
Arabia, or America. Next he would read up, in 
several languages, about his proposed subject ; that 
would take him perhaps a year. Then he would 
versify as much strange information as he could 
remember ; that might take a few months. The 
result is deadly ; and because he was never any- 
where near his subject. It is for the same reason 
that the unspeakable labours of Blackmore, Glover 
and Wilkie, and Voltaire's ridiculous Henriade, have 
gone to pile up the rubbish-heaps of literature. 

So far, supposed differences between " authen- 
tic " and " literary " epic have resolved themselves 
into little more than signs of development in epic 
intention ; the change has not been found to pro- 
duce enough artistic difference between early and 
later epic to warrant anything like a division into 
two distinct species. The epic, whether " literary " 


Literary Epic 

or " authentic/' is a single form of art j but it is a 
form capable of adapting itself to ihe altering 
requirements of prevalent consciousness. \ In addi- 
tion, however, to differences in general conception, 
there are certain mechanical differences which 
should be just noticed. The first epics were in- 
tended for recitation ; the literary epic is meant 
to be read. *It is more difficult to keep the attention 
of hearers than of readers. This in itself would be 
enough to rule out themes remote from common 
experience, supposing any such were to suggest 
themselves to the primitive epic poet. Perhaps, 
indeed, we should not be far wrong if we saw a 
chief reason for the pressure of surrounding tradi- 
tion on the early epic in this very fact, that it is 
poetry meant for recitation. Traditional matter 
must be glorified, since it would be easier to listen 
to the re-creation of familiar stories than to quite 
new and unexpected things ; the listeners, we 
must remember, needed poetry chiefly as the re- 
creation of tired hours. Traditional manner would 
be equally difficult to avoid ; for it is a tradition 
that plainly embodies the requirements, fixed by 


The Epic 

experience, of recited poetry. Those features of it 
which make for tedium when it is read repetition, 
stock epithets, set phrases for given situations 
are the very things best suited, with their recurring 
well-known syllables, to fix the attention of listeners 
more firmly, or to stir it when it drowses ; at 
the least they provide a sort of recognizable scaf- 
folding for the events, and it is remarkable how 
easily the progress of events may be missed when 
poetry is declaimed. ^Indeed, if the primitive epic 
poet could avoid some of the anxieties peculiar 
to the compositioa x of literary epic, he had others 
to make up for it. } He had to study closely the 
delicate science of holding auricular attention when 
once he had got 'it ; and probably he wpuld have 
some difficulty in getting it at all. 'The really 
great poet challenges it, like Homer, with some 
tremendous, irresistible opening ; and in this respect 
the magnificent prelude to Beowulf may almost 
be put beside HomerT^jl^ut lesser poets have another 
way. That prolixity' at the beginning of many 
primitive epics, their wordy deliberation in getting 
under way, is probably intentional. The Song of 


Literary Epic 

Roland, for instance/) begins with a long series of 
exceedingly dull stanzas ; to a reader, the pre- 
liminaries of the story seem insufferably drawn out. 
But by the time the reciter had got through this 
unimportant dreariness, no doubt his audience had 
settled down to listen. The Chanson d'Antioche 
contains perhaps the most illuminating admission 
of this difficulty. In the first " Chant," the first 
section opens : 1 

Seigneurs, faites silence ; et que tout bruit cesse, 
Si vous voulez entendre une glorieuse chanson. 
Aucun jongleur ne vous en dira une meilleure. 

Then some vaguely prelusive lines. But the 
audience is clearly not quite ready yet, for the 
second section begins : 

Barons, ecoutez-moi, et cessez vos querelles ! 

Je vous dirai une tres-belle chanson. 

And after some further prelude, the section ends : 
Ici commence la chanson ou il y a tant a apprendre. 

The " Chanson " does, indeed, make some show 
of beginning in the third section, but it still moves 
1 From the version of the Marquise de Sainte-Aulaire. 

4 1 

The Epic 

with a cautious and prelusive air, as if anxious not 
to launch out too soon. And this was evidently 
prudent, for when the fourth section opens, direct 
exhortation to the audience has again become neces- 
sary : 

Maintenant, seigneurs, ecoutez ce que dit I'ficriture. 

And once more in the fifth section : 

Barons, ecoutez un excellent couplet. 

In the sixth, the jongleur is getting desperate : 

Seigneurs, pour 1'amour de Dieu, faites silence, ecoutez- 

Pour qu'en partant de ce monde vous entriez dans un 

meilleur ; 

but after this exclamation he has his way, though 
the story proper is still a good way off. Perhaps 
not all of these hortatory stanzas were commonly 
used ; any or all of them could certainly be omitted 
without damaging the poem. But they were there 
to be used, according to the judgment of the jongleur 
and the temper of his audience, and their presence 
in the poem is very suggestive of the special diffi- 
culties in the art of rhapsodic poetry. 


Literary Epic 

But the gravest difficulty, and perhaps the most 
important, in poetry meant solely for recitation, is 
the difficulty of achieving verbal beauty, or rather 
&f* making verbal beauty tell. Vigorous but con- 
trolled imagination, formative power, insight into 
the significance of things^these are qualities which 
a poet must eminently ^possess ; but these are 
qualities which may also be eminently possessed 
by men who cannot claim the title of poet. The real 
differentia of the pqet is his command x>ver the 
secret magic of words. ^ Others may have as delighted 
i sense of this magic,^but it is only the poet who can 
naster it and do what he likes with it. And next 
,o the invention of speaking itself, the most import - 
mt invention for the poet has been the invention 
}f writing and reading ; for this has added im- 
nensely to the scope of his mastery over words. 
No poet will ever take the written word as a sub- 
stitute for the spoken word ; he knows that it is 
sn the spoken word, ^and the spoken word only, 
that his art is foundedN But he trusts his reader 
to do as he himself does to receive written words 
always as the code of spoken words. To do so 


The Epic 

has wonderfully enlarged his technical opportunities ; 
for apprehension is quicker and finer through the 
eye than through the ear. /After the invention of 
reading, even poetry designecfprimarily for declama- 
tion (like drama or lyric) has depths and subtleties 
of art which were not possible for the primitive 
poet. Accordingly we find that, on the whole, in 
comparison with " literary " epic, the texture of 
" authentic " epic is flat and dull. The story may 
be superb, and its management may be superb ; 
but the words in which the story lives do not come 
near the grandeur of Milton, or the exquisiteness 
of Virgil, or the deliciousness of TassoA Indeed, 
if we are to say what is the real difference between 
Beowulf and Paradise Lost, we must simply say 
that Beowulf is not such good poetry. There is, 
of course, one tremendous exception ; Homer is 
the one poet of authentic epic who had sufficient 
genius to make unfailingly, nobly beautiful poetry 
within the strict and hard conditions of purely 
auricular art. Compare Homer's ambrosial glory 
with the descent tap -water of Hesiod ; compare 
his continuous burnished gleam of wrought metal 


Literary Epic 

with the sparse grains that lie in the sandy diction 
of all the " authentic " epics of the other nations. 
And, by all ancient accounts, th^ ; other early Greek 
epics would not fare much better tlFfEe comparison, 
Homer's singularity in this respect is overwhelm- 
ing ; but it is frequently forgotten, and especially 
by those who think to help in the Homeric question 
by comparing him with other " authentic " epics- 
Supposing (we can only just suppose it) a case were 
made out for the growth rather than the individuai 
authorship of some " authentic " epic other than 
Homer ; it could never have any bearing on the 
question of Homeric authorship^ because no earl} 
epic is comparable with thepoetrytyf Homer. Noth- 
ing, indeed, is comparable with the poetry of Homer 
except poetry for whose individual authorship 
history unmistakably vouches. 

So we cannot say that (tlomer was not as deliberate 
a craftsman in words as Milton himself. The scop* 
of his craft was more restricted, as his repetitions 
and stock epithets show ; he was restricted by th( 
fact that he composed for recitation, and th< 
auricular appreciation of diction is limited, the natun 


The Epic 

of poetry obeying, in the main, the nature of those 
for whom it is composed. But this is just a case 
in which genius transcends technical scope. \ The 
effects Homer produced with his methods vCfere as 
great as any effects produced by later and more 
elaborate methods, after poetry began to be read 
as well as heard. But neither must we say that the 
other poets of " authentic " epic were not deliberate 
craftsmen in words. Poets will always get as much 
beauty out of words as they can. The fact that so 
often in the early epics a magnificent subject is 
told, on the whole, in a lumpish and tedious diction, 
is not to be explained by any contempt for careful 
art, as though it were a thing unworthy of such 
heroic singers ; it is simply to be explained by lack 
of such genius as is capable of transcending the 
severe limitations of auricular poetry. And we 
may well believe that only the rarest and most 
potent kind of genius could transcend such limita- 

| In summary, then, we find certain conceptual 
differences and certain mechanical differences be- 
tween " authentic " and " literary " epic. But 

Literary Epic 

these are not such as to enable us to say that there 
is, artistically, any real difference between the two 
kinds. Rather, the differences exhibit the changes 
we might expect in an art that has kept up with 
consciousness developing, and civilization becoming 
more intricate. " Liteiary " epic is as close to its 
subject as " authentic " ; but, as a general rule, 
" authentic " epic, in response to its surrounding 
needs, has a simple and concrete subject, and the 
closeness of the poet to this is therefore more 
obvious than in " literary " epic, which (again in 
response to surrounding needs) has been driven to 
take for subject some great abstract idea and display 
this in a concrete but only ostensible subject. Then 
in craftsmanship, the two kinds of epic are equally 
deliberate, equally concerned with careful art ; 
but " literary " epic has been able to take such 
advantage of the habit of reading that, with the 
single exception of Homer, it has achieved a diction 
much more answerable to the greatness of epic 
matter than the " authentic " poems/N We may, 
then, in a general survey, regard epic poetry as 
being in all ages essentially the same kind of art, 

The Epic 

fulfilling always a similar, though constantly de- 
veloping, intention. Whatever sort of society he 
lives in, whether he be surrounded by illiterate 
heroism or placid culture, the epic poet has a definite 
function to perform. yVVe see him accepting, and 
with his genius transfiguring, the general circum- 
stance of his time ; we see him symbolizing, in 
some appropriate form, whatever sense of the signifi- 
cance of life he feels acting as the accepted un- 
conscious metaphysic of his age.ff To do this, he 
takes some great story which has been absorbed 
into the prevailing consciousness of his people. 
As a rule, though not quite invariably, the story 
will be of things which are, or seem, so far back in 
the past, that anything may credibly happen in it ; 
so imagination has its freedom, and so significance 
is displayed. But quite invariably, the materials 
of the story will have an unmistakable air of actu- 
ality ; that is, they come profoundly out of human 
experience, whether they declare legendary heroism, 
as in Homer and Virgil, or myth, as in Beowulf 
and Paradise Lost, or actual history, as in Lucan 
and Camoens and Tasso. And he sets out this 

Literary Epic 

story and its significance in poetry as lofty and as 
elaborate as he can compass^ That, roughly, is 
what we see the epic poets doing, whether they 
be " literary " or " authentic " ; and if this can 
be agreed on, we should now have come tolerably 
close to a definition of epic poetry. 




RIGID definitions in literature are, however, 
dangerous. At bottom, it is what we feel, 
not what we think, that makes us put certain poems 
together and apart from others ; and feelings cannot 
be defined, but only related. If we define a poem, 
we say what we think about it ; and that may not 
sufficiently imply the essential thing the poem does 
for us. Hence the definition is liable either to be 
too strict, or to admit work which does not properly 
satisfy the criterion of feeling. It seems probable 
that, in the last resort, classification in literature 
rests on that least tangible, least definable matter, 
style ; for style is the sign of the poem's spirit, and 
it is the spirit that we feel. If we can get some notion 
of how those poems, which we call epic, agree with 
one another in style, it is likely we shall be as 


The Nature of Epic 

close as may be to a definition of epic. I use the 
word " style," of course, in its largest sense 
manner of conception as well as manner of compo- 

An easy way to define epic, though not a very 
profitable way, would be to say simply, that an 
epic is a poem which produces feelings similar 
to those produced by Paradise Lost or the Iliad, 
Beowulf or the Song of Roland. Indeed, you might 
include all the epics of Europe in this definition 
without losing your breath ; for the epic poet is 
the rarest kind of artist. And while it is not a 
simple matter to say off-hand what it is that is 
common to all these poems, there seems to be 
general acknowledgment that they are clearly separ- 
able from other kinds of poetry ; and this although 
the word epic has been rather badly abused. For 
instance, The Faery Oueene and La Divina Corn- 
media have been called epic poems ; but I do not 
think that anyone could fail to admit, on a little 
pressure, that the experience of reading The Faery 
Queene or La Divina Commedia is not in the least 
like the experience of reading Paradise Lost or the 

The Epic 

Iliad. But as a poem may have lyrical qualities with- 
out being a lyric, so a poem may have epical qualities 
without being an epic. In all the poems which the 
world has agreed to call epics, there is a story told, 
and well told. But Dante's poem attempts no story 
at all, and Spenser's, though it attempts several, does 
not tell them well it scarcely attempts to make the 
reader believe in them, being much more concerned 
with the decoration and the implication of its fables 
than with the fables themselves. What epic quality, 
detached from epic proper, do these poems possess, 
then, apart from the mere fact that they take up a 
great many pages ? It is simply a question of their 
style the style of their conception and the style of 
their writing ; the whole style of their imagination, 
in fact. They take us into a region in which nothing 
happens that is not deeply significant ; a dominant, 
noticeably symbolic, purpose presides over each 
poem, moulds it greatly and informs it through- 

This takes us some little way towards deciding 
the nature of epic, lit must be a story, and the 
story must be told well and greatly ; and, whether 


The Nature of Epic 

in the story itself or in the telling of it, significance 
must be implied. \Does that mean that the epic 
must be allegorical * Many have thought so ; even 
Homer has been accused of constructing allegories. 
But this is only a crude way of emphasizing the 
significance of epic ; and there is a vast deal of 
difference between a significant story and an alle- 
gorical storyt Reality of substance is a thing on 
which epic jjoetry must always be able to relyj 
Not only because Spenser does not tell his stories 
very well, but even more because their substance 
(not, of course, their meaning) is deliciously and de- 
liberately unreal, The Faery Queene is outside the 
strict sense of the word epic. Allegory requires 
material ingeniously manipulated and fantastic ; 
what is more important, it requires material invented 
by the poet himself. That is a long way from the 
solid reality of material which epic requires] Not 
manipulation, but imaginative transfiguration of 
material ; not invention, but selection of existing 
material appropriate to his genius, and complete 
absorption of it into his being ; that is how the epic 
poet works. \A^ e g or y * s a beautiful way of incul- 


The Epic 

eating and asserting some special significance in 
life ; but epic has a severer task, and a more impres- 
sive one. It has not to say, Life in the world ought 
to mean this or that ; it has to show life unmis- 
takably being significant. It does not gloss or inter- 
pret the fact of life, but re-creates it and charges the 
fact itself with the poet's own sense of ultimate 
values. This will be less precise than the definite 
assertions of allegory ; but for that reason it will be 
more deeply felt. The values will be emotional and 
spiritual rather than intellectual. And they will be 
the poet's own only because he has made them part 
of his being ; in him (though he probably does not 
know it) they will be representative of the best and 
most characteristic life of his time. That does not 
mean that the epic poet's image of life's significance 
is of merely contemporary or transient importance. 
No stage through which the general consciousness 
of men has gone can ever be outgrown by men ; 
whatever happens afterwards does not displace 
it, but includes it. We could not do without 
Paradise Lost nowadays ; but neither can we do 
without the Iliad. It would not, perhaps, be 


" r __^^~ 

The Nature of Epic 

far from the truth, if it were even said that the 
significance of Paradise Lost cannot be properly 
understood unless the significance of the Iliad be 

The prime material of the epic poet, then, must 
be real and not invented. But when the story of 
the poem is safely concerned with some reality, he 
can, of course, graft on this as much appropriate 
invention as he pleases ; it will be one of his ways 
of elaborating his main, unifying purpose and to 
call it " unifying " is to assume that, however 
brilliant his surrounding invention may be, the pur- 
pose will always be firmly implicit in the central 
subject. Some of the early epics manage to do with- 
out any conspicuous added invention designed to 
extend what the main subject intends ; but such 
nobly simple, forthright narrative as Beowulf and 
the Song of Roland would not do for a purpose 
slightly more subtle than what the makers of these 
ringing poems had in mind. The reality of the 
central subject is, of course, to be understood 
broadly. It means that the story must be founded 
deep in the general experience of men. A decisive 

The Epic 

campaign is not, for the epic poet, any more real 
than a legend full of human truth. All that the 
name of Caesar suggests is extremely important for 
mankind ; so is all that the name of Satan suggests : 
Satan, in this sense, is as real as Caesar. And, as far 
as reality is concerned, there is nothing to choose 
between the Christians taking Jerusalem and the 
Greeks taking Troy ; nor between Odysseus sailing 
into fairyland and Vasco da Gama sailing round the 
world, 'it is certainly possible that a poet might 
devise a story of such a kind that we could easily 
take it as something which might have been a real 
human experience. But that is not enough for the 
epic poet. He needs something which everyone 
knows about, something which indisputably, and 
admittedly, has been a human experience ; and even 
Grendel, the fiend of the marshes, was, we can 
clearly see, for the poet of Beowulf a figure pro- 
foundly and generally accepted as not only true but 
real ; what, indeed, can be more real for poetry 
than a devouring fiend which lives in pestilent fens ? 
And the reason why epic poetry so imperiously de- 
mands reality of subject is clear ; it is because such 


The Nature of Epic 

poetry has symbolically to re-create the actual fact 
and the actual particulars of human existence in 
terms of a general significance the reader must feel 
that life itself has submitted to plastic imagination. 
No fiction will ever have the air, so necessary for 
this epic symbolism, not merely of representing, but 
of unmistakably being , human experience. This 
might suggest that history would be the thing for 
an epic poet ; and so it would be, if history were 
superior to legend in poetic reality. But, simply as 
substance, there is nothing to choose between them ; 
while history has the obvious disadvantage of being 
commonly too strict in the manner of its events to 
allow of creative freedom. Its details will probably 
be so well known, that any modification of them will 
draw more attention to discrepancy with the records 
than to achievement thereby of poetic purpose. 
And yet modification, or at least suppression and 
exaggeration, of the details of history will certainly 
be necessary. Not to declare what happened, and 
the results of what happened, is the object of an 
epic ; but to accept all this as the mere material in 
which a single artistic purpose, a unique, vital 


The Epic 

F symbolism may be shaped. And if legend, after 
passing for innumerable years through popular 
imagination, still requires to be shaped at the hands 
of the epic poet, how much more must the crude 
events of history require this ! For it is not in 
events as they happen, however notably, that 
man may see symbols of vital destiny, but in 
events as they are transformed by plastic imagina- 

Yet it has been possible to use history as the 
material of great epic poetry ; Camoens and Tasso 
did this the chief subject of the Lusiads is even 
contemporary history. But evidently success in 
these cases was due to the exceptional and fortunate 
fact that the fixed notorieties of history were com- 
bined with a strange and mysterious geography. 
The remoteness and, one might say, the romantic 
possibilities of the places into which Camoens and 
Tasso were led by their themes, enable imagination 
to deal pretty freely with history. But in a little 
more than ten years after Camoens glorified Portugal 
in an historical epic, Don Alonso de Ercilla tried to 
do the same for Spain. He puts his action far enough 


The Nature of Epic 

from home : the Spaniards are conquering Chili. 
But the world has grown smaller and more familiar 
in the interval : the astonishing things that could 
easily happen in the seas of Madagascar cannot now 
conveniently happen in Chili. The Araucana is 
versified history, not epic. That is to say, the action 
has no deeper significance than any other actual 
warfare ; it has not been, and could not have been, 
shaped to any symbolic purpose. Long before Tasso 
and Camoens and Ercilla, two Scotchmen had at- 
tempted to put patriotism into epic form ; Barbour 
had written his Bruce and Blind Harry his Wallace. 
But what with the nearness of their events, and what 
with the rusticity of their authors, these tolerable, 
ambling poems are quite unable to get the better 
of the hardness of history. Probably the boldest 
attempt to make epic of well-known, documented 
history is Lucan's Pharsalia. It is a brilliant per- 
formance, and a deliberate effort to carry on the 
development of epic. At the very least it has en- 
riched the thought of humanity with some imperish- 
able lines. But it is true, what the great critic said 
of it ; the Pharsalia partakes more of the nature of 


The Epic 

oratory than of poetry. It means that Lucan, in 
choosing history, chose something which he had to 
declaim about, something which, at best, he could 
imaginatively realize ; but not something which he 
could imaginatively re-create. It is quite different 
with poems like the Song of Roland. They are 
composed in, or are drawn immediately out of, an 
heroic age ; an age, that is to say, when the idea of 
history has not arisen, when anything that happens 
turns inevitably, and in a surprisingly short time, 
into legend. Thus, an unimportant, probably un- 
punished, attack by Basque mountaineers on the 
Emperor's rear-guard has become, in the Song of 
Roland, a great infamy of Saracenic treachery, which 
must be greatly avenged. 

Such, in a broad description, is the nature of epic 
poetry. To define it with any narrower nicety would 
probably be rash. We have not been discovering 
what an epic poem ought to be, but roughly examin- 
ing what similarity of quality there is in all those 
poems which we feel, strictly attending to the 
emotional experience of reading them, can be 
classed together and, for convenience, termed epic. 


The Nature of Epic 

But it is not much good having a name for this 
species of poetry if it is given as well to poems of 
quite a different nature. * It is not much good agree- 
ing to call by the name of epic such poems as the 
Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf and the Song of 
Roland, Paradise Lost and Gerusalemme Liberata, if 
epic is also to be the title for The Faery Queene and 
La Divina Commedia, The Idylls of the King and 
The Ring and the Book. But I believe most of the 
importance in the meaning of the word epic, when 
it is reasonably used, will be found in what is 
written above. Apart from the specific form of 
epic, it shares much of its ultimate intention with 
the greatest kind of drama (though not with all 
drama). And just as drama, whatever grandeur of 
purpose it may attempt, must be a good play, so 
epic must be a good story. \ It will tell its tale both 
largely and intensely, and the diction will be carried 
on the volume of a powerful, flowing metre. To 
distinguish, however, between merely narrative 
poetry, and poetry which goes beyond being mere 
narrative into the being of epic, must often be left 
to feeling which can scarcely be precisely analysed. 


The Epic 

A curious instance of the difficulty in exactly de- 
fining epic (but not in exactly deciding what is epic) 
may be found in the work of William Morris. 
Morris left two long narrative poems, The Life 
and Death of Jason , and The Story of Sigurd the 

I do not think anyone need hesitate to put Sigurd 
among the epics ; but I do not think anyone who 
will scrupulously compare the experience of reading 
Jason with the experience of reading Sigurd, can 
help agreeing that Jason should be kept out of the 
epics. There is nothing to choose between the sub- 
jects of the two poems. For an Englishman, Greek 
mythology means as much as the mythology of the 
North. And I should say that the bright, exact 
diction and the modest metre of Jason are more 
interesting and attractive than the diction, often 
monotonous and vague, and the metre, often 
clumsily vehement, of Sigurd. Yet for all that it 
is the style of Sigurd that puts it with the epics and 
apart from Jason ; for sj^legoes beyond metre and 
Action, beyond execution, into conception. The 
whole imagination of Sigurd is incomparably larger 


The Nature of Epic 

than that of Jason. In Sigurd, you feel that the 
fashioning grasp of imagination has not only seized 
on the show of things, and not only on the physical 
or moral unity of things, but has somehow brought 
into the midst of all this, and has kneaded into the 
texture of it all, something of the ultimate and meta- 
physical significance of life. You scarcely feel that 
m Jason. 

I Yes, epic poetry must be an affair of evident 
largeness. It was well said, that " the praise of 
an epic poem is to feign a person exceeding Nature." 
" Feign " here means to imagine ; and imagine does 
not mean to invent. But, like most of the numer- 
ous epigrams that have been made about epic 
poetry, the remark does not describe the nature of 
epic, but rather one of the conspicuous signs that 
that nature is fulfilling itself. /A poem which is, in 
some sort, a summation for |ts time of the values 
of life, will inevitably concern itself with at least 
one figure, and probably with several, in whom the 
whole virtue, and perhaps also the whole failure, of 
living seems superhumanly concentrated. A story 
weighted with the epic purpose could not proceed 


The Epic 

at all, unless it were expressed in persons big 
enough to support it. IThe subject, then, as the epic 
poet uses it, will obviously be an important one. 
Whether, apart from the way the poet uses it, the 
subject ought to be an important one, would not 
start a very profitable discussion., Homer has been 
praised for making, in the Iliad, a first-rate poem 
out of a second-rate subject. It is a neat saying ; 
but it seems unlikely that anything really second- 
rate should turn into first-rate epic, I imagine 
Homer would have been considerably surprised, if 
anyone had told him that the vast train of tragic 
events caused by the gross and insupportable insult 
put by Agamemnon, the mean mind in authority, 
on Achilles, the typical hero that this noble and 
profoundly human theme was a second-rate subject. 
At any rate, the subject must be of capital import- 
ance in its treatment. It must symbolize not as a 
particular and separable assertion, but at large and 
generally some great aspect of vital destiny, with- 
out losing the air of recording some accepted reality 
of human experience, and without failing to be a 
good story ; and the pressure of high purpose will 

The Nature of Epic 

inform diction and metre, as far, at least, as the 
poet's verbal art will let it. | 

The usual attempts at stricter definition of epic 
than anything this chapter contains, are either, in 
spite of what they try for, so vague that they would 
admit almost any long stretch of narrative poetry ; 
or else they are based on the accidents or devices of 
epic art ; and in that case they are apt to exclude 
work which is essentially epic because something 
inessential is lacking. It has, for instance, been 
seriously debated, whether an epic should not con- 
tain a catalogue of heroes. Other things, which 
epics have been required to contain, besides much 
that is not worth mentioning, 1 are a descent into 
hell and some supernatural machinery. Both of 
these are obviously devices for enlarging the scope 
of the action. The notion of a visit to the ghosts 
has fascinated many poets, and Dante elaborated 
this Homeric device into the m^in scheme of the 
greatest of non-epical poems, a^ Milton elaborated 

1 Such as similes and episodes. It is as if a man were 
to say, the essential thing about a bridge is that it should be 
painted . 

E 65 

The Epic 

the other Homeric device into the main scheme of 
the greatest of literary epics. But a visit to the 
ghosts is, of course, like games or single combat or 
a set debate, merely an incident which may or may 
not be useful/ 4 Supernatural machinery, however, 
is worth some short discussion here, though it must 
be alluded to further in the sequel. The first and 
obvious thing to remark is, that an unquestionably 
epic effect can be given without any supernatural 
machinery at all. The poet of Beowulf has no need 
of it, for instance. A Christian redactor has worked 
over the poem, with more piety than skill ; he can 
always be detected, and his clumsy little interjec- 
tions have nothing to do with the general tenour of 
the poem. The human world ends off, as it were, 
precipitously ; and beyond there is an endless, im- 
practicable abyss in which dwells the secret govern- 
ance of things, an unknowable and implacable fate 
" Wyrd " neither malign nor benevolent, but 
simply inscrutable. The peculiar cast of noble 
and desolate courage which this bleak conception 
gives to the poem is perhaps unique among the 
epics. } 


The Nature of Epic 

But very few epic poets have ventured to do 
without supernatural machinery of some sort. And 
it is plain that it must greatly assist the epic purpose 
to surround the action with immortals who are not 
only interested spectators of the event, but are 
deeply implicated in it ; nothing could more cer- 
tainly liberate, or at least more appropriately deco- 
rate, the significant force of the subject. We may 
jleave Milton out, for there can be no question about 
Paradise Lost here ; the significance of the subject 
is not only liberated by, it entirely exists in, the 
supernatural machinery A But with the other epic 
poets, we should certainly expect them to ask us for 
our belief in their immortals. That, however, is 
just what they seem curiously careless of doing. 
The immortals are there, they are the occasion of 
splendid poetry ; they do what they are intended 
to do they declare, namely, by their speech and 
their action, the importance to the world of what is 
going on in the poem. Only there is no obligation 
to believe in them ; and will not that mean, no 
obligation to believe in their concern for the sub- 
ject, and all that that implies ? Homer begins this 


The Epic 

paradox. Think of that lovely and exquisitely mis- 
chievous passage in the Iliad called The Cheating of 
Zeus. The Salvationist school of commentators calls 
this an interpolation ; but the spirit of it is implicit 
throughout the whole of Homer's dealing with the 
gods ; whenever, at least, he deals with them at 
length, and not merely incidentally. Not to accept 
that spirit is not to accept Homer. The manner of 
describing the Olympian family at the end of the 
first book is quite continuous throughout, and 
simply reaches its climax in the fourteenth book. 
Nobody ever believed in Homer's gods, as he must 
believe in Hektor and Achilles. (Puritans like 
Xenophanes were annoyed not with the gods for 
being as Homer described them, but with Homer 
for describing them as he did.) Virgil is more 
decorous ; but can we imagine Virgil praying, or 
anybody praying, to the gods of the sEneid ? The 
supernatural machinery of Camoens and Tasso is 
frankly absurd ; they a^e not only careless of credi- 
bility, but of sanity. Lucan tried to do without 
gods ; but his witchcraft engages belief even more 
faintly than the mingled Paganism and Christianity 


The Nature of Epic 

of Camoens, and merely shows how strongly the 
most rationalistic of epic poets felt the value of some 
imaginary relaxation in the limits of human exist- 
ence. 'Is it, then, only as such a relaxation that 
supernatural machinery is valuable ? Or only as a 
superlative kind of ornament ? It is surely more 
than that. In spite of the fact that we are not seri- 
ously asked to believe in it, it does beautifully and 
strikingly crystallize the poet's determination to 
show us things that go past the reach of common 
knowledge. But by putting it, whether instinctively 
or deliberately, on a lower plane of credibility than 
the main action, the poet obeys his deepest and 
gravest necessity : the necessity of keeping his poem 
emphatically an affair of recognizable human events. 
It is of man, and man's purpose in the world, that 
the epic poet has to sing ; not of the purpose of 
gods. The gods must only illustrate man's destiny ; 
and they must be kept within the bounds of beau- 
tiful illustration! But it requires a finer genius than 
most epic poets nave possessed, to keep supernatural 
machinery just sufficiently fanciful without missing 
its function. Perhaps only Homer and Virgil have 


The Epic 

done that perfectly. Milton's revolutionary de- 
velopment marks a crisis in the general process of 
epic so important, that it can only be discussed when 
that proces^ is considered, in the following chapter, 
as a whole. 



BY the general process of epic poetry, I mean 
the way this form of art has constantly re- 
sponded to the profound needs of the society in 
which it was made; But the development of human 
society does not go straight forward ; and the epic 
process will therefore be a recurring process, the 
series a recurring series though not in exact repe- 
tition. Thus, the Homeric poems, the Argonautica, 
the JEneid, the Pharsalia, and the later Latin epics, 
form one series : the Mneid would be the climax of 
the series, which thence declines, were it not that 
the whole originates with the incomparable genius 
of Homer a fact which makes it seem to decline 
from start to finish. Then the process begins again, 
and again fulfils itself, in the series which goes from 
Beowulf, the Song of Roland, and the Nibelungenlied, 
through Camoens and Tasso up to Milton, And in 

7 1 

The Epic 

this case Milton is plainly the climax. There is 
nothing like Paradise Lost in the preceding poems, 
and epic poetry has done nothing since but decline 
from that towering glory. 

But it will be convenient not to make too much 
of chronology, in a general account of epic develop- 
ment. It has already appeared that the duties of all 
" authentic " epic are broadly the same, and the 
poems of this kind, though two thousand years may 
separate their occurrence, may be properly brought 
together as varieties of one sub-species. " Literary " 
epic differs much more in the specific purpose of its 
art, as civilized societies differ much more than 
heroic, and also as the looser milieu of a civilization 
allows a less strictly traditional exercise of personal 
genius than an heroic age. Still, it does not require 
any manipulation to combine the " literary " epics 
from both series into a single process. Indeed, if 
we take Homer, Virgil and Milton as the outstand- 
ing events in the whole progress of epic poetry, and 
group the less important poems appropriately round 
these three names, we shall not be far from the 
ideal truth of epic development* We might say, 


The Epic Series 

then, that Homer begins the whole business of epic, 
imperishably fixes its type and, in a way that can 
never be questioned, declares its artistic purpose ; 
Virgil perfects the type ; and Milton perfects the 
purpose. Three such poets are not, heaven knows, 
summed up in a phrase ; I mean merely to indicate 
how they are related one to another in the general 
scheme of epic poetry. For discriminating their 
merits, deciding their comparative eminence, I have 
no inclination ; and fortunately it does not come 
within the requirements of this essay. Indeed, I 
think the reader will easily excuse me, if I touch very 
slightly on the poetic manner, in the common and 
narrow sense, of the poets whom I shall have to 
mention ; since these qualities have been so often 
and sometimes so admirably dealt with. It is at the 
broader aspects of artistic purpose that I wish to 

" From Homer," said Goethe, " I learn every day 
more clearly, that in our life here above ground we 
have, properly speaking, to enact Hell." It is rather 
a startling sentence at first. That poetry which, for 
us, in Thoreau's excellent words, " lies in the east 


The Epic 

of literature," scarcely suggests, in the usual opinion 
of it, Hell. We are tempted to think of Homer as 
the most fortunate of poets. It seems as if he had 
but to open his mouth and speak, to create divine 
poetry ; and it does not lessen our sense of his good 
fortune when, on looking a little closer, we see that 
this is really the result of an unerring and unfailing 
art, an extraordinarily skilful technique. He had it 
entirely at his command ; and he exercised it in a 
language in which, though it may be singularly 
artificial and conventional, we can still feel the 
wonder of its sensuous beauty and the splendour of 
its expressive power. It is a language that seems 
alive with eagerness to respond to imagination. 
Open Homer anywhere, and the casual grandeur of 
his untranslatable language appears ; such lines as : 

l Se 

That, you might say, is Homer at his ease ; when 
he exerts himself you get a miracle like : 

1 ' And all round the ships echoed terribly to the shouting 


The Epic Series 

crv S'ev err po<pa\iyy i 
Kt<ro fjieyas [JLeyaXwcm, XeAatr/uei/o? t 

It seems the art of one who walked through the 
world of things endowed with the senses of a god, 
and able, with that perfection of effort that looks as 
if it were effortless, to fashion his experience into 
incorruptible song ; whether it be the dance of flies 
round a byre at milking-time, or a forest-fire on the 
mountains at night. The shape and clamour of 
waves breaking on the beach in a storm is as irresis- 
tibly recorded by Homer as the gleaming flowers 
which earth put forth to be the bed of Zeus and 
Hera in Gargaros, when a golden cloud was their 
coverlet, and Sleep sat on a pine tree near by in the 
likeness of a murmuring night-jar. It is an art so 
balanced, that when it tells us, with no special 
emphasis, how the Trojans came on with a din like 
the clangour of a flock of cranes, but the Achaians 
came on in silence, the temper of the two hosts is 
discriminated for the whole poem ; or, in the 

' When in a dusty whirlwind thou didst lie, 
Thy valour lost, forgot thy chivalry/ OGILBY. 
(The version leaves out 


The Epic 

supreme instance, when it tells us how the old men 
looked at Helen and said, " No wonder the young 
men fight for her ! " then Helen's beauty must be 
accepted by the faith of all the world. The par- 
ticulars of such poetry could be enumerated for 
pages ; and this is the poetry which is filled, more 
than any other literature, in the Iliad with the 
nobility of men and women, in the Odyssey with the 
light of natural magic. And think of those gods of 
Homer's ; he is the one poet who has been able to 
make the dark terrors of religion beautiful, harmless 
and quietly entertaining. It is easy to read this 
poetry and simply enjoy it ; it is easy to say, the 
man whose spirit held this poetry must have been 
divinely happy. But this is the poetry whence 
Goethe learnt that the function of man is " to enact 

Goethe is profoundly right ; though possibly he 
puts it in a way to which Homer himself might have 
demurred. For the phrase inevitably has its point 
in the word " Hell " ; Homer, we may suppose, 
would have preferred the point to come in the word 
" enact." In any case, the details of Christian 

The Epic Series 

eschatology must not engage us much in interpreting 
Goethe's epigram. There is truth in it, not simply 
because the two poems take place in a theatre of 
calamity ; not simply, for instance, because of the 
beloved Hektor's terrible agony of death, and the 
woes of Andromache and Priam. Such things are 
the partial, incidental expressions of the whole 
artistic purpose. Still less is it because of a strain 
of latent savagery in, at any rate, the Iliad ; as when 
the" sage and reverend Nestor urges that not one of 
the Greeks should go home until he has lain with 
the wife of a slaughtered Trojan, or as in the tre- 
mendous words of the oath : " Whoever first offend 
against this oath, may their brains be poured out on 
the ground like this wine, their own and their chil- 
dren's, and may their wives be made subject to 
strangers." All that is one of the accidental qualities 
of Homer. But the force of the word " enact " in 
Goethe's epigram will certainly come home to us 
when we think of those famous speeches in which 
courage is unforgettably declared -such speeches as 
that of Sarpedon to Glaukos, or of Glaukos to Dio- 
medes, or of Hektor at his parting with Andromache. 


The Epic 

What these speeches mean, however, in the whole 
artistic purpose of Homer, will assuredly be missed 
if they are detached for consideration ; especially we 
shall miss the deep significance of the fact that in all 
of these speeches the substantial thought falls, as it 
were, into two clauses. Courage is in the one 
clause, a deliberate facing of death ; but something 
equally important is in the other. Is it honour ? 
The Homeric hero makes a great deal of honour ; 
but it is honour paid to himself, living ; what he 
wants above everything is to be admired " always 
to be the best " ; that is what true heroism is. But 
he is to go where he knows death will strike at him ; 
and he does not make much of honour after death ; 
for him, the meanest man living is better than a dead 
hero. Death ends everything, as far as he is con- 
cerned, honour and all ; his courage looks for no 
reward hereafter. No ; but since ten thousand fates 
of death are always instant round us ; since the 
generations of men are of no more account than 
leaves of a tree ; since Troy and all its people will 
soon be destroyed he will stand in death's way. 
Sarpedon emphasizes this with its converse : There 


The Epic Series 

would be no need of daring and fighting, he says, 
of " man-ennobling battle," if we could be for ever 
ageless and deathless. That is the heroic age ; any 
other would say, If only we could not be killed, how 
pleasant to run what might have been risks ! For 
the hero, that would simply not be worth while. 
Does he find them pleasant, then, just because they 
are risky ? Not quite ; that, again, is to detach part 
of the meaning from the whole. If anywhere, we 
shall, perhaps, find the whole meaning of Homer 
most clearly indicated in such words as those given 
(without any enforcement) to Achilles and Thetis 
near the beginning of the Iliad, as if to sound the 
pitch of Homer's poetry : 

, end IJL tVe/ceV yc fjiivvvQdSiov Trcp eoVra, 
Trep JULOI o(f>e\\V 'OAu/xTno? eyyva\icu 

v JULOI vidv, 69 co/ayxopcoraTO? XXa>y 

1 ' Mother, since thou didst bear me to be so short-lived, 
Olympian Zeus that thunders from on high should especially 
have bestowed honour on me.' 

2 * Honour my son for me, for the swiftest doom of all is 


The Epic 

those are the impor- 
portant words ; key-words, they might be called. If 
we really understand these lines, if we see in them 
what it is that Agamemnon's insult has deprived 
Achilles of the sign and acknowledgment of his 
fellows' admiration while he is still living among 
them, the one thing which makes a hero's life worth 
living, which enables him to enact his Hell we 
shall scarcely complain that the Iliad is composed 
on a second-rate subject. The sginificance of the 
poem is not in the incidents surrounding the 
" Achilleis " ; the whole significance is centred in 
the Wrath of Achilles, and thence made to impreg- 
nate every part. 

Life is short ; we must make the best of it. How 
trite that sounds ! But it is not trite at all really. 
It seems difficult, sometimes, to believe that there 
was a time when sentiments now become habitual, 
sentiments that imply not only the original impera- 
tive of conduct, but the original metaphysic of 
living, were by no means altogether habitual. It is 
difficult to imagine backwards into the time when 
self-consciousness was still so fresh from its emer- 


The Epic Series 

gence out of the mere tribal consciousness of 
savagery, that it must not only accept the fact, but 
first intensely realize, that man is avciy/xo/oarraro? a 
thing of swiftest doom. And it was for men who 
were able, and forced, to do that, that the Iliad and 
the Odyssey and the other early epics were com- 
posed. But life is not only short ; it is, in itself, 
valueless. " As the generation of leaves, so is the 
generation of men.'' The life of man matters to 
nobody but himself. It happens incidentally in 
universal destiny ; but beyond just happening it has 
no function. No function, of course, except for 
man himself. If man is to find any value in life it 
is he himself that must create the value. For the 
sense of the ultimate usclcssness of life, of the blank- 
ness of imperturbable darkness that surrounds it, 
Goethe's word " Hell " is not too shocking. But 
no one has properly lived who has not felt this 
Hell ; and we may easily believe that in an heroic 
age, the intensity of this feeling was the secret of 
the intensity of living. For where will the primitive 
instinct of man, where will the hero, find the chance 
of creating a value for life ? In danger, and in the 
F Si 

The Epic 

courage that welcomes danger. That not only 
evaluates life ; it derives the value from the very 
fact that forces man to create value the fact of his 
swift and instant doom wKv/uLopdoraro? once more ; 
it makes this dreadful fact enjoyable. And so, with 
courage as the value of life, and man thence de- 
lightedly accepting whatever can be made of his 
passage, the doom of life is not simply suffered ; 
man enacts his own life ; he has mastered it. 

We need not say that this is the lesson of Homer. 
And all this, barely stated, is a very different matter 
from what it is when it is poetically symbolized in 
the vast and shapely substance of the Iliad and the 
Odyssey. It is quite possible, of course, to appre- 
ciate, pleasantly and externally, the Iliad with its 
pressure of thronging life and its daring unity, and 
the Odyssey with its serener life and its superb con- 
struction, though much more sectional unity. But 
we do not appreciate what Homer did for his time, 
and is still doing for all the world, we do not appre- 
ciate the spirit of his music, unless we see thefyvarfare 
and the adventure as symbols of the primary 
courage of life ; and there is more in those words 


The Epic Series 

than seems when they are baldly written. And it 
is not his morals, but Homer's art that does that for 
us. And what Homer's art does supremely, the 
other early epics do in their way too. Their way is 
not to be compared with Homer's way. They are 
very much nearer than he is to the mere epic 
material to the moderate accomplishment of the 
primitive ballad. Apart from their greatness, and 
often successful greatness, of intention, perhaps the 
only one that has an answerable greatness in the 
detail of its technique is Beowulf. That is not on 
account of its " kennings " the strange device by 
which early popular poetry (Hesiod is another in- 
stance) tries to liberate and master the magic of 
words. A good deal has been made of these " ken- 
nings " ; but it does not take us far towards great 
poetry, to have the sea called " whale-road " or 
" swan-road " or " gannet's-bath " ; though we are 
getting nearer to it when the sun is called " candle 
of the firmament " or " heaven's gem." On the 
whole, the poem is composed in an elaborate, 
ambitious diction which is not properly governed. 
Alliteration proves a somewhat dangerous principle ; 


The Epic 

it seems mainly responsible for the way the poet 
makes his sentences by piling up clauses, like shoot- 
ing a load of stones out of a cart. You cannot 
always make out exactly what he means ; and it is 
doubtful whether he always had a clearly-thought 
meaning. Most of the subsidiary matter is foisted 
in with monstrous clumsiness. Yet Beowulf has 
what we do not find, out of Homer, in the other 
early epics. It has occasionally an unforgettable 
grandeur of phrasing. And it has other and perhaps 
deeper poetic qualities. When the warriors are 
waiting in the haunted hall for the coming of the 
marsh-fiend Grendel, they fall into untroubled 
sleep ; and the poet adds, with Homeric restraint : 
" Not one of them thought that he should thence 
be ever seeking his loved home again, his people or 
free city, where he was nurtured/' The opening is 
magnificent, one of the noblest things that have been 
done in language. There is some wonderful grim 
landscape in the poem ; towards the middle there is 
a great speech on deterioration through prosperity, 
a piece of sustained intensity that reads like an 
^Eschylean chorus ; and there is some admirable 

The Epic Series 

fighting, especially the fight with Grendel in the hall, 
and with Grendel 's mother under the waters, while 
Beowulf's companions anxiously watch the troubled 
surface of the mere. The fact that the action of the 
poem is chiefly made of single combat with super- 
natural creatures and that there is not tapestry 
figured with radiant gods drawn between the life 
of men and the ultimate darkness, gives a peculiar 
and notable character to the way Beowulf symbolizes 
the primary courage of life. One would like to 
think, with some enthusiasts, that this great poem, 
composed in a language totally unintelligible to the 
huge majority of Englishmen further from English 
than Latin is from Italian and perhaps not even 
composed in England, certainly not concerned either 
with England or Englishmen, might nevertheless be 
called an English epic. 

But of course the early epics do not, any of them, 
merely repeat the significance of Homer in another 
form. They might do that, if poetry had to incul- 
cate a moral, as some have supposed. But however 
nicely we may analyse it, we shall never find in 
poetry a significance which is really detachable, and 


The Epic 

expressible in another way. The significance is the 
poetry. What Beowulf or the Iliad or the Odyssey 
means is simply what it is in its whole nature ; we 
can but roughly indicate it. And as poetry is never 
the same, so its significance is never quite the same. 
Courage as the first necessary value of life is most 
naively and simply expressed, perhaps, in the Poem 
of the Cid ; but even here the expression is, as in 
all art, unique, and chiefly because it is contrived 
through solidly imagined characters. There is 
splendid characterization, too, in the Song of Roland, 
together with a fine sense of poetic form ; not fine 
enough, however, to avoid a prodigious deal of 
conventional gag. The battling is lavish, but always 
exciting ; and in, at least, that section which de- 
scribes how the dying Oliver, blinded by weariness 
and wounds, mistakes Roland for a pagan and 
feebly smites him with his sword, there is real and 
piercing pathos. But for all his sense of character, 
the poet has very little discretion in his admiration 
of his heroes. Christianity, in these two poems, has 
less effect than one might think. The conspicuous 
value of life is still the original value, courage ; but 


The Epic Series 

elaboration and refinement of this begin to appear, 
especially in the Song of Roland, as passionately 
conscious patriotism and loyalty. The chief con- 
tribution of the Nibelungenlied to the main process 
of epic poetry is plot in narrative ; a contribution, 
that is, to the manner rather than to the content of 
epic symbolism. There is something that can be 
called plot in Homer ; but with him, as in all other 
early epics, it is of no great account compared with 
the straightforward linking of incidents into a direct 
chain of narrative. The story of the Nibelungenlied, 
however, is not a chain but a web. Events and the 
influence of characters are woven closely and intri- 
cately together into one tragic pattern ; and this 
requires not only characterization, but also the 
adding to the characters of persistent and dominant 

Epic poetry exhibits life in some great symbolic 
attitude. It cannot strictly be said to symbolize 
life itself, but always some manner of life. But life 
as courage the turning of the dark, hard condition 
of life into something which can be exulted in this, 
which is the deep significance of the art of the first 


The Epic 

epics, is the absolutely necessary foundation for any 
subsequent valuation of life ; Man can achieve 
nothing until he has first achieved courage. And 
this, much more than any inheritance of manner, is 
what makes all the writers of deliberate or " literary" 
epic imply the existence of Homer. If Homer had 
not done his work, they could not have done theirs. 
But " literary " epics are as necessary as Homer. 
We cannot go on with courage as the solitary valua- 
tion of life. We must have the foundation, but we 
must also have the superstructure. Speaking com- 
paratively, it may be said that the function of 
Homeric epic has been to create imperishable sym- 
bolism for the actual courageous consciousness of 
life, but the duty of " literary " epic has been to 
develop this function, answerably to the develop- 
ment of life itself, into symbolism of some conscious 
idea of life something at once more formalized and 
more subtilized than the primary virtue of courage.) 
The Greeks, however, were too much overshadowed 
by the greatness of Homer to do much towards this. 
The Argonautica, the half-hearted epic of Apollonius 
Rhodius, is the only attempt that need concern us. 


The Epic Series 

It is not a poem that can be read straight through ; 
it is only enjoyable in moments moments of charm- 
ing, minute observation, like the description of a 
sunbeam thrown quivering on the wall from a basin 
of water " which has just been poured out/' lines 
not only charming in themselves, but finely used as 
a simile for Medea's agitated heart ; or moments of 
romantic fantasy, as when the Argonauts see the 
eagle flying towards Prometheus, and then hear the 
Titan's agonized cry. But it is not in such passages 
that what Apollonius did for epic abides. A great 
deal of his third book is a real contribution to the 
main process, to epic content as well as to epic 
manner. To the manner of epic he added analytic 
psychology. No one will ever imagine character 
more deeply or more firmly than Homer did in, say, 
Achilles ; but Apollonius was the man who showed 
how epic as well as drama may use the nice minutiae 
of psychological imagination. Through Virgil, this 
contribution to epic manner has pervaded subse- 
quent literature. Apollonius, too, in his fumbling 
way, as though he did not quite know what he was 
doing, has yet done something very important for 

The Epic 

the development of epic significance. Love has 
been nothing but a subordinate incident, almost one 
might say an ornament, in the early epics ; in Apol- 
lonius, though working through a deal of gross and 
lumbering mythological machinery, love becomes 
for the first time one of the pirmary values of life. 
The love of Jason and Medea is the vital symbolism 
of the Argonautica. 

I But it is Virgil who really begins the development 
of epic art. He took over from Apollonius love as 
part of the epic symbolism of life, and delicate 
psychology as part of the epic method. And, like 
Apollonius, he used these novelties chiefly in the 
person of a heroine. But in Virgil they belong to 
an incomparably greater art ; and it is through Virgil 
that they have become necessities of the epic tradi- 
tion. More than this, however, was required of 
him. The epic poet collaborates with the spirit of 
his time in the composition of his work. That is, 
if he is successful ; the time may refuse to work 
with him, but he may not refuse to work with his 
time. Virgil not only implies, he often clearly states, 


The Epic Series 

the original epic values of life, the Homeric values ; 
as in the famous 

Stat sua cuiquc dies ; breve et inreparabile tempus 
Omnibus est vitae : sed famam extendere factis, 
Hoc virtutis opus. 1 

But to write a poem chiefly to symbolize this simple, 
heroic metaphysic would scarcely have done for 
Virgil ; it would certainly not have done for his 
time. It was eminently a time of social organiza- 
tion, one might perhaps say of social consciousness. 
After Sylla and Marius and Caesar, life as an affair 
of sheer individualism would not very strongly 
appeal to a thoughtful Roman. Accordingly, as has 
so often been remarked, the lEneid celebrates tliej 
Roman Empire. A political idea does not seem a 
very likely subject for a kind of poetry which must 
declare greatly the fundamentals of living ; not even 
when it is a political idea unequalled in the world, 
the idea of the Roman Empire. Had Virgil been a 

1 " For everyone his own day is appointed ; for all men the 
period of life is short and not to be recalled : but to spread glory 
by deeds, that is what valour can do." 

9 1 

The Epic 

good Roman, the dEneid might have been what no 
doubt Augustus, and Rome generally, desired, a 
political epic. But Virgil was not a good Roman ; 
there was something in him that was not Roman at 
all. It was this strange incalculable element in him 
that seems for ever making him accomplish some- 
thing he had not thought of ; it was surely this that 
made him, unintentionally it may be, use the idea 
of the Roman Empire as a vehicle for a much pro- 
founder valuation of life. We must remember here 
the Virgil of the Fourth Eclogue that extraordi- 
nary, impassioned poem in which he dreams of 
man attaining to some perfection of living. It is 
still this Virgil, though saddened and resigned, who 
writes the lEneid. Man creating his own destiny, 
man, however wearied with the long task of resist- 
ance, achieving some conscious community of 
aspiration, and dreaming of the perfection of him- 
self : the poet whose lovely and noble art makes us 
a great symbol of that, is assuredly carrying on the 
work of Homer. This was the development in epic 
intention required to make epic poetry answer to 
the widening needs of civilization. 


The Epic Series 

But even more important, in the whole process 
of epic, than what Virgil's art does, is the way it 
does it. And this in spite of the fact which every- 
one has noticed, that Virgil does not compare with 
Homer as a poet of seafaring and warfaring. He is 
not, indeed, very interested in either ; and it is un- 
fortunate that, in managing the story of /Eneas (in 
itself an excellent medium for his symbolic purpose) 
he felt himself compelled to try for some likeness 
to the Odyssey and the Iliad to do by art married 
to study what the poet of the Odyssey and tKe Iliad 
had done by art married to intuitive experience. 
But his failure in this does not matter much in com- 
parison with his technical success otherwise. Virgil 
showed how poetry may be made deliberately 
adequate to the epic purpose. That does not mean 
that Virgil is more artistic than Homer. Homer's 
redundance, wholesale repetition of lines, and stock 
epithets cannot be altogether dismissed as " faults " ; 
they are characteristics of a wonderfully accom- 
plished and efficient technique. But epic poetry 
cannot be written as Homer composed it ; whereas 
it must be written something as Virgil wrote it ; yes, 


The Epic 

if epic poetry is to be written, Virgil must show how 
that is to be done. The superb Virgilian economy 
is the thing for an epic poet now ; the concision, 
the scrupulousness, the loading of every word with 
something appreciable of the whole significance. 
After the &neid, the epic style must be of this 
fashion : 

Ibant ovscuri sola sub noctc per umbram 
Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna : 
Quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna 
Est iter in silvis, ubi caelum condidit umbra 
Jupiter, et rebus nox abstulit atra colorem. 1 

Lucan is much more of a Roman than Virgil ; 
and the Pharsalia, so far as it is not an historical 
epic, is a political one ; the idea of political liberty 
is at the bottom of it. That is not an unworthy 
theme ; and Lucan evidently felt the necessity for 

1 " They wer' amid the shadows by night in loneliness obscure 
Walking forth i' the void and vasty dominyon of Ades ; 
As by an uncertain moonray secretly illumined 
One goeth in the forest, when heav'n is gloomily clouded, 
And black night hath robb'd the colours and beauty from all 


The Epic Series 

development in epic. But he made the mistake, 
characteristically Roman, of thinking history more 
real than legend ; and, trying to lead epic in this 
direction, supernatural machinery would inevitably 
go too. That, perhaps, was fortunate, for it enabled 
Lucan safely to introduce one of his great and 
memorable lines : 

Jupiter est quodcunque vides, quodcunque moveris ; 1 

which would certainly explode any supernatural 
machinery that could be invented. The Pharsalia 
could not be anything more than an interesting but 
unsuccessful attempt ; it was not on these lines that 
epic poetry was to develop. Lucan died at an age 
when most poets have done nothing very remark- 
able ; that he already had achieved a poem like the 
Pharsalia, would make us think he might have gone 
to incredible heights, were it not that the mistake 
of the Pharsalia seems to belong incurably to his 

Lucan's determined stoicism may, philosophic- 
ally, be more consistent than the dubious stoicism 

1 " All that is known, all that is felt, is God." 


The Epic 

of Virgil. But Virgil knew that, in epic, super- 
natural imagination is better than consistency. It 
was an important step when he made Jupiter, 
though a personal god, a power to which no limits 
are assigned ; when he also made the other divini- 
ties but shadows, or, at most, functions, of Jupiter. 
This answers to his conviction that spirit universally 
and singly pervades matter ; but, what is more, it 
answers to the needs of epic development. When we 
come to Tasso and Camoens, we seem to have gone 
backward in this respect ; we seem to come upon 
poetry in which supernatural machinery is in a state 
of chronic insubordination. But that, too, was per- 
haps necessary. In comparison with the Mneid, 
Gerusalemme Liberata and Os Lusiadas lack intel- 
lectual control and spiritual depth ; but in com- 
parison with the Roman, the two modern poems 
thrill with a new passion of life, a new wine of life, 
heady, as it seems, with new significance a signifi- 
cance as yet only felt, not understood. Both Tasso 
and Camoens clearly join on to the main epic 
tradition : Tasso derives chiefly from the Mneid 
and the Iliad, Camoens from the JEmid and the 

The Epic Series 

Odyssey. Tasso is perhaps more Virgilian than 
Camoens ; the plastic power of his imagination is 
more assured. But the advantage Camoens has 
over Tasso seems to repeat the advantage Homer 
has over Virgil ; the ostensible subject of the 
Lusiads glows with the truth of experience. But 
the real subject is behind these splendid voyagings, 
just as the real subject of Tasso is behind the battles 
of Christian and Saracen ; and in both poets the 
inmost theme is broadly the same. It is the con- 
sciousness of modern Europe. Jerusalem Delivered 
and the Lusiads arc drenched with the spirit of the 
Renaissance ; and that is chiefly responsible for 
their lovely poetry. But they reach out towards the 
new Europe that was then just beginning. Europe 
making common cause against the peoples that are 
not Europe ; Europe carrying her domination round 
the world is that what Tasso and Camoens ulti- 
mately mean ? It would be too hard and too narrow 
a matter by itself to make these poems what they 
are. No ; it is not the action of Europe, but the 
spirit of European consciousness, that gave Tasso 
and Camoens their deepest inspiration. But what 
G 97 

The Epic 

European consciousness really is, these poets rather 
vaguely suggest than master into clear and irresis- 
tible expression, into the supreme symbolism of 
perfectly adequate art. They still took European 
consciousness as an affair of geography and race 
rather than simply as a triumphant stage in the 
general progress of man's knowledge of himself. 
Their time imposed a duty on them ; that they 
clearly understood. But they did not clearly under- 
stand what the duty was ; partly, no doubt, because 
they were both strongly influenced by mediaeval 
religion. And so it is atmosphere, in Tasso and 
Camoens, that counts much more than substance ; 
both poets seem perpetually thrilled by something 
they cannot express the non so che of Tasso. And 
what chiefly gives this sense of quivering, uncertain 
significance to their poetry is the increase of freedom 
and decrease of control in the supernatural. Super- 
naturalism was emphasized, because they instinc- 
tively felt that this was the means epic poetry must 
use to accomplish its new duties ; it was disorderly, 
because they did not quite know what use these 
duties required. Tasso and Camoens, for all the 

The Epic Series 

splendour and loveliness of their work, leave epic 
poetry, as it were, consciously dissatisfied knowing 
that its future must achieve some significance larger 
and deeper than anything it had yet done, and know- 
ing that this must be done somehow through im- 
agined supernaturalism. It waited nearly a hundred 
years for the poet who understood exactly what was 
to be done and exactly how to do it. 

In Paradise Lost, the development of epic poetry^ 
culminates, as far as it has yet gone. The essential 
inspiration of the poem implies a particular sense of 
human existence which has not yet definitely ap- 
peared in the epic series, but which the process of 
life in Europe made it absolutely necessary that epic 
poetry should symbolize. In Milton, the poet arose 
who was supremely adequate to the greatest task 
laid on epic poetry since its beginning with Homer ; 
Milton's task was perhaps even more exacting than 
that original one. " His work is not the greatest of 
heroic poems, only because it is not the first." The 
epigram might just as reasonably have been the 
other way round. But nothing would be more un- 
profitable than a discussion in which Homer and 


The Epic 

Milton compete for supremacy of geriius. Our 
business here is quite otherwise. 

With the partial exception of Tasso and Camoens, 
all epic poetry before Milton is some symbolism of 
man's sense of his own will. It is simply this in 
Homer ; and the succeeding poets developed this 
intention but remained well within it. Not even 
Virgil, with his metaphysic of individual merged 
into social will not even Virgil went outside it. In 
fact, it is a sort of monism of consciousness that in- 
spires all pre-Miltonic epic. But in Milton, it has 
become a dualism. Before him, the primary impulse 
of epic is an impassioned sense of man's nature being 
contained by his destiny : his only because he is in 
it and belongs to it, as we say " my country." With 
Milton, this has necessarily become not only a sense 
of man's rigorously contained nature, but equally a 
sense of that which contains man in fact, simul- 
taneously a sense of individual will and of universal 
necessity. The single sense of these two irrecon- 
cilables is what Milton's poetry has to symbolize. 
Could they be reconciled, the two elements in man's 
modern consciousness of existence would form a 


The Epic Series 

monism. But this consciousness ip a dualism ; its 
elements are absolutely opposed./ Paradise Lost is 
inspired by intense consciousness of the eternal con- 
tradiction between the general, unlimited, irresis- 
tible will of universal destiny, and defined individual 
will existing within this, and inexplicably capable of 
acting on it, even against it.) Or, if that seems too 
much of an antinomy to some philosophies (and it 
is perhaps possible to make it look more apparent 
than real), the dualism can be unavoidably declared 
by putting it entirely in terms of consciousness : 
destiny creating within itself an existence which 
stands against and apart from destiny by being 
conscious of it. fin Milton's poetry the spirit of man 
is equally conscious of its own limited reality and 
of the unlimited reality of that which contains him 
and drives him with its motion of his own will 
striving in the midst of destiny : destiny irresistible, 
yet his will unmasteredA 

This is not to examine the development of epic 
poetry by looking at that which is not poetry. In 
this kind of art, more perhaps than in any other, we 
must ignore the wilful theories of those who would 


The Epic 

set boundaries to the meaning of the word poetry. 
In such a poem as Milton's, whatever is in it is its 
poetry ; the poetry of Paradise Lost is just Paradise 
Lost ! i Its pomp of divine syllables and glorious 
images is no more the poetry of Milton than the 
idea of man which he expressed. But the general 
manner of an art is for ever similar ; it is its inspir- 
ation that is for ever changing. We need never 
expect words and metre to do more than they do 
here : 

they, fondly thinking to allay 
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit 
Chewed bitter ashes, which the offended taste 
With spattering noise rejected : oft they assayed, 
Hunger and thirst constraining ; drugged as oft, 
With hatefullest disrelish writhed their jaws, 
With soot and cinders filled ; 

or more than they do here : 

What though the field be lost ? 
All is not lost ; the unconquerable will, 
And study of revenge, immortal hate, 
And courage never to submit or yield, 
And what is else not to be overcome. 

I O2 

The Epic Series 

But what Homer's words, and perhaps what Virgil's 
words, set out to do, they do just as marvellously. 
There is no sure way of comparison here. How 
words do their work in poetry, and how we appre- 
ciate the way they do it this seems to involve the 
obscurest processes of the mind : analysis can but 
fumble at it. But we can compare inspiration the 
nature of the inmost urgent motive of poetry. And 
it is not irrelevant to add (it seems to me mere fact), 
that Milton had the greatest motive that has ever 
ruled a poet. 

For the vehicle of this motive, a fable of purely 
human action would obviously not suffice. What 
Milton has to express is, of course, altogether 
human ; destiny is an entirely human conception. 
But he has to express not simply the sense of human 
existence occurring in destiny ; that brings in 
destiny only mediately, through that which is 
destined. He has to express the sense of destiny 
immediately, at the same time as he expresses its 
opponent, the destined will of man. Destiny will 
appear in poetry as an omnipotent God ; Virgil had 
already prepared poetry for that. 1 But the action at 


The Epic 

large must clearly consist now, and for the first time, 
overwhelmingly of supernatural imagination. Milton 
has been foolishly blamed for making his super- 
naturalism too human. But nothing can come 
into poetry that is not shaped and recognizable ; 
how else but in anthropomorphism could destiny, 
or (its poetic equivalent) deity, exist in Paradise 
Lost ? 

We may see what a change has come over epic 
poetry, if we compare this supernatural imagination 
of Milton's with the supernatural machinery of any 
previous epic poet. Virgil is the most scrupulous 
in this respect ; and towards the inevitable change, 
which Milton completed and perfected from Camoens 
and Tasso, Virgil took ^ great step in making Jupiter 
professedly almighty. ^But compare Virgil's " Tan- 
taene animis celestibus irae ? " with Milton's " Evil 
be thou my good ! " It is the difference between an 
accidental device and essential substance. That, in 
order to symbolize in epic form that is to say, in 
narrative form the dualistic sense of destiny and 
the destined, and both immediately Milton had tc 
dissolve his human action completely in a super- 


The Epic Series 

natural action, is the sign not merely of a develop- 
ment, but of a re-creation, of epic art. v 

it has been said that Satan is the hero of Paradise 
Lost. The offence which the remark has caused is 
due, no doubt, to injudicious use of the word 
" hero." It is surely the simple fact that if Paradise 
Lost exists for any one figure, that is Satan ; just as 
the Iliad exists for Achilles, and the Odyssey for 
Odysseus. It is in the figure of Satan that the im- 
perishable significance of Paradise Lost is centred ; 
his vast unyielding agony symbolizes the profound 
antinomy of modern consciousness. And if this is 
what he is in significance it is worth noting what 
he is in technique. He is the blending of the 
poem's human plane with its supernatural plane. 
The epic hero has always represented humanity by 
being superhuman ; in Satan he has grown into the 
supernatural. He does not thereby cease to sym- 
bolize human existence ; but he is thereby able to 
symbolize simultaneously the sense of its irrecon- 
cilable condition, of the universal destiny that con- 
tains it. Out of Satan's colossal figure, the single 
urgency of inspiration, which thisjdualistic con- 

I0 5 

The Epic 

sciousness of existence makes, radiates through all 
the regions of Milton's vast and rigorous imagina- 
tion. " Milton," says Landor, " even Milton rankt 
with living men ! 

1 06 


A^D after Milton, what is to happen ? First, 
briefly, for a few instances of what has hap- 
pened. We may leave out experiments in religious 
sentiment like Klopstock's Messiah. We must leave 
out also poems which have something of the look 
of epic at first glance, but have nothing of the scope 
of epic intention ; such as Scott's longer poems. 
These might resemble the " lays " out of which 
some people imagine " authentic " epic to have 
been made. But the lays are not the epic. Scott's 
poems have not the depth nor the definiteness of 
symbolic intention what is sometimes called the 
epic unity and this is what we can always discover 
in any poetry which gives us the peculiar experience 
we must associate with the word epic, if it is to have 
any precision of meaning. What applies to Scott, 
will apply still more to Byron's poems ; Byron ie 


The Epic 

one of the greatest of modern poets, but that does 
not make him an epic poet. We must keep our 
minds on epic intention. Shelley's Revolt of Islam 
has something of it, but too vaguely and too fan- 
tastically ; the generality of human experience had 
little to do with this glittering poem. Keats 's 
Hyperion is wonderful ; but it does not go far 
enough to let us form any judgment of it appropriate 
to the present purpose. 1 Our search will not take 
us far before we notice something very remarkable ; 
poems which look superficially like epic turn out to 
have scarce anything of real epic intention ; whereas 
epic intention is apt to appear in poems that do not 
look like epic at all. In fact, it seems as if epic 
manner and epic content were trying for a divorce. 

1 In the greatest poetry, all the elements of human nature 
are burning in a single flame. The artifice of criticism is to 
detect what peculiar radiance each element contributes to the 
whole light ; but this no more affects the singleness of the com- 
pounded energy in poetry than the spectroscopic examination of 
fire affects the single nature of actual flame. For the purposes of 
this book, it has been necessary to look chiefly at the contribution 
of intellect to epic poetry ; for it is in that contribution that the 
development of poetry, so far as there is any development at all, 


After Milton 

If this be so, the traditional epic manner will scarcely 
survive the separation. Epic content, however, may 
very well be looking out for a match with a new 
manner ; though so far it does not seem to have 
found an altogether satisfactory partner. 

But there are one or two poems in which the old 
union seems still happy. Most noteworthy is 
Goethe's Hermann und Dorothea. You may say 
that it does not much matter whether such poetry 
should be called epic or, as some hold, idyllic. But 
it is interesting to note, first, that the poem is de- 
liberately written with epic style and epic intention ; 
and, second, that, though singularly beautiful, it 
makes no attempt to add anything to epic develop- 
really consists. This being so, it might be thought that Keats 
could hardly have done anything for the real progress of epic. 
But Keats's apparent (it is only apparent) rejection of intellect in 
his poetry was the result of youthful theory ; his letters show 
that, in fact, intellect was a thing unusually vigorous in his 
nature. If the Keats of the letters be added to the Keats of the 
poems, a personality appears that seems more likely than any of 
his contemporaries, or than anyone who has come after him, for 
the work of carrying Miltonic epic forward without forsaking 
Miltonic form. 


The Epic 

ment. It is interesting, too, to see epic poetry try- 
ing to get away from its heroes, and trying to use 
material the poetic importance of which seems to 
depend solely on the treatment, not on itself. This 
was a natural and, for some things, a laudable re- 
action. But it inevitably meant that epic must 
renounce the triumphs which Milton had won for 
it. William Morris saw no reason for abandoning 
either the heroes or anything else of the epic tradi- 
tion. The chief personages of Sigurd the Volsung 
are admittedly more than human, the events frankly 
marvellous. The poem is an impressive one, and 
in one way or another fulfils all the main qualifica- 
tions of epic. But perhaps no great poem ever had 
so many faults. These have nothing to do with its 
management of supernaturalism ; those who object 
to this simply show ignorance of the fundamental 
necessities of epic poetry. The first book is mag- 
nificent ; everything that epic narrative should be ; 
but after this the poem grows long-winded, and that 
is the last thing epic poetry should be. It is written 
with a running pen ; so long as the verse keeps going 
on, Morris seems satisfied, though it is very often 


After Milton 

going on about unimportant things, and in an un- 
interesting manner. After the first book, indeed, as 
far as Morris's epic manner is concerned, Virgil and 
Milton might never have lived. It attempts to be 
the grand manner by means of vagueness. In an 
altogether extraordinary way, the poem slurs over 
the crucial incidents (as in the inept lines describing 
the death of Fafnir, and those, equally hollow, de- 
scribing the death of Guttorm two noble oppor- 
tunities simply not perceived) and tirelessly expa- 
tiates on the mere surroundings of the story. Yet 
there is no attempt to make anything there credible : 
Morris seems to have mixed up the effects of epic with 
the effects of a fairy-tale. The poem lacks intellect ; 
it has no clear-cut thought. And it lacks sensuous 
images ; it is full of the sentiment, not of the sense 
of things, which is the wrong way round. Hence 
the protracted conversations are as a rule amazingly 
windy and pointless, as the protracted descriptions 
are amazingly useless and tedious. And the super- 
human virtues of the characters are not shown in the 
poem so much as energetically asserted. It says 
much for the genius of Morris that Sigurd the 


The Epic 

Volsung, with all these faults, is not to be con- 
demned ; that, on the contrary, to read it is rather 
a great than a tiresome experience ; and not only 
because the faults are relieved, here and there, by 
exquisite beauties and dignities, indeed by incom- 
parable lines, but because the poem as a whole does, 
as it goes on, accumulate an immense pressure of 
significance. All the great epics of the world have, 
however, perfectly clearly a significance in close 
relation with the spirit of their time ; the intense 
desire to symbolize the consciousness of man as far 
as it has attained, is what vitally inspires an epic 
poet, and the ardour of this infects his whole style. 
Morris, in this sense, was not vitally inspired. 
Sigurd the Volsung is a kind of set exercise in epic 
poetry. It is great, but it is not needed. It is, in 
fact, an attempt to write epic poetry as it might 
have been written, and to make epic poetry mean 
what it might have meant, in the days when the tale 
of Sigurd and the Niblungs was newly come among 
men's minds. Mr. Doughty, in his surprising poem* 
The Dawn in Britain, also seems trying to compose 
an epic exercise, rather than to be obeying a vital 


After Milton 

necessity of inspiration. For all that, it is a great 
poem, full of irresistible vision and memorable 
diction. But it is written in a revolutionary syntax, 
which, like most revolutions of this kind, achieves 
nothing beyond the fact of being revolutionary ; 
and Mr. Doughty often uses the unexpected effects 
of his queer syntax instead of the unexpected effects 
of poetry, which makes the poem even longer 
psychologically than it is physically. Landor's Gebir 
has much that can truly be called epic in it ; and 
it has learned the lessons in manner which Virgil 
and Milton so nobly taught. It has perhaps learned 
them too well ; never were concision, and the load- 
ing of each word with heavy duties, so thoroughly 
practised. The action is so compressed that it is 
difficult to make out exactly what is going on ; we 
no sooner realize that an incident has begun than 
we find ourselves in the midst of another. Apart 
from these idiosyncrasies, the poetry of Gebir is a 
curious mixture of splendour and commonplace. If 
fiction could ever be wholly, and not only partially, 
epic, it would be in Gebir. 

In all these poems, we see an epic intention still 
H 113 

The Epic 

combined with a recognizably epic manner. But 
what is quite evident is, that in all of them there 
is no attempt to carry on the development of epic, 
to take up its symbolic power where Milton left it. 
On the contrary, this seems to be deliberately 
avoided. For any tentative advance on Miltonic 
significance, even for any real acceptance of it, we 
must go to poetry which tries to put epic intention 
into a new form. Some obvious peculiarities of epic 
style are sufficiently definite to be detachable. Since 
Theocritus, a perverse kind of pleasure has often 
been obtained by putting some of the peculiarities 
of epic peculiarities really required by a very long 
poem into the compass of a very short poem. An 
epic idyll cannot, of course, contain any consider- 
able epic intention ; it is wrought out of the mere 
sBell of epic, and avoids any semblance of epic scope. 
But by devising somehow a connected sequence of 
idylls, something of epic scope can be acquired 
again. As Hugo says, in his preface to La Legende 
des Sticks : " Comme dans une mosalque, chaque 
pierre a sa couleur et sa forme propre ; Pensemble 
donne une figure. La figure de ce livre," he goes 


After Milton 

on, " c'est 1'homme." To get an epic design or 
figure through a sequence of small idylls need not 
be the result of mere technical curiosity. It may be 
a valuable method for the future of epic. Tennyson 
attempted this method in Idylls of the King ; not, 
as is now usually admitted, with any great success. 
The sequence is admirable for sheer craftsmanship, 
for astonishing craftsmanship ; but it did not 
manage to effect anything like a conspicuous sym- 
bolism. You have but to think of Paradise Lost to 
see what Idylls of the King lacks. Victor Hugo, how- 
ever, did better in La Legende des Si&les. " La 
figure, c'est Thomme " ; there, at any rate, is the 
intention of epic symbolism. And, however pre- 
tentious the poem may be, it undoubtedly does make 
a passionate effort to develop the significance which 
Milton had achieved ; chiefly to enlarge the scope 
of this significance. 1 Browning's The Ring and the 

1 For all I know, Hugo may never have read Milton ; judging 
by some silly remarks of his, I should hope not. But Hugo 
could feel the things in the spirit of man that Milton felt ; not 
only because they were still there, but because the secret in- 
fluence of Milton has intensified the consciousness of them in 


The Epic 

Book also uses this notion of an idyllic sequence ; 
but without any semblance of epic purpose, purely 
for the exhibition of human character. 

It has already been remarked that the ultimate 
significance of great drama is the same as that of 
epic. Since the vital epic purpose the kind of epic 
purpose which answers to the spirit of the time is 
evidently looking for some new form to inhabit, it 
is not surprising, then, that it should have occasion- 
ally tried on dramatic form. And, unquestionably, 
for great poetic symbolism of the depths of modern 
consciousness, for such symbolism as Milton's, we 
must go to two such invasions of epic purpose into 

thousands who think they know nothing of Paradise Lost. 
Modern literary history will not be properly understood until 
it is realized that Milton is one of the dominating minds of 
Europe, whether Europe know it or not. There are scarcely 
half a dozen figures that can be compared with Milton for 
irresistible influence quite apart from his unapproachable 
supremacy in the technique of poetry. When Addison remarked 
that Paradise Lost is universally and perpetually interesting, he 
said what is not to be questioned ; though he did not perceive 
the real reason for his assertion. Darwin no more injured 
the significance of Paradise Lost than air-planes have injured 


After Milton 

dramatic manner to Goethe's Faust and Hardy's 
The Dynasts. But dramatic significance and epic 
significance have been admitted to be broadly the 
same ; to take but one instance, /Eschylus's Prome- 
theus is closely related to Milton's Satan (though I 
think Prometheus really represents a monism of 
consciousness that which is destined as Satan 
represents a dualism at once the destined and the 
destiny). How then can we speak of epic purpose 
invading drama ? Surely in this way. Drama seeks 
to present its significance with narrowed intensity, 
but epic in a large dilatation : the one contracts, the 
other expatiates. When, therefore, we find drama 
setting out its significance in such a way as to be- 
come epically dilated, we may say that dramatic has 
grown into epic purpose. Or, even more positively, 
we may say that epic has taken over drama and 
adapted it to its peculiar needs. In any case, with 
one exception to be mentioned presently, it is only 
in Faust and The Dynasts that we find any great 
development of Miltonic significance. These are 
the poems that give us immense and shapely symbols 
pf the spirit of man, conscious not only of the sense 


The Epic 

of his own destined being, but also of some sense of 
that which destines. In fact, these two are the 
poems that develop and elaborate, in their own way, 
the Miltonic significance, as all the epics in between 
Homer and Milton develop and elaborate Homeric 
significance. And yet, in spite of Faust and The 
Dynasts, it may be doubted whether the union of 
epic and drama is likely to be permanent. The 
peculiar effects which epic intention, in whatever 
manner, must aim at, seem to be as much hindered 
as helped by dramatic form ; and possibly it is be- 
cause the detail is necessarily too much enforced for 
the broad perfection of epic effect. 

The real truth seems to be, that there is an in- 
evitable and profound difficulty in carrying on the 
Miltonic significance in anything like a story. 
Regular epic having reached its climax in Paradise 
Lost, the epic purpose must find some other way of 
going on. Hugo saw this, when he strung his huge 
epic sequence together not on a connected story but 
on a single idea : "la figure, c'est Phomme." If 
we are to have, as we must have, direct symbolism 
pf the way man is conscious of his being nowadays, 


After Milton 

which means direct symbolism both of man's spirit 
and of the (philosophical) opponent of this, the 
universal fate of things if we are to have all this, 
it is hard to see how any story can be adequate to 
such symbolic requirements, unless it is a story 
which moves in some large region of imagined super- 
naturalism. And it seems questionable whether we 
have enough formal " belief " nowadays to allow of 
such a story appearing as solid and as vividly credible 
as epic poetry needs. It is a decided disadvantage, 
from the purely epic point of view, that those 
admirable " Intelligences " in Hardy's The Dynasts 
are so obviously abstract ideas disguised. The super- 
naturalism of epic, however incredible it may be in 
the poem, must be worked up out of the material of 
some generally accepted belief. I think it would be 
agreed, that what was possible for Milton would 
scarcely be possible to-day ; and even more impos- 
sible would be the naivete of Homer and the quite 
Different but equally impracticable naivete of Tasso 
and Camoens. The conclusion seems to be, that 
thejepic purpose will have to abandon the necessity 
of telling a story. 


The Epic 

Hugo's way may prove to be the right one. But 
there may be another ; and what has happened in 
the past may suggest what may happen in the future. 
Epic poetry in the regular epic form has before now 
seemed unlikely. It seemed unlikely after the 
Alexandrians had made such poor attempts at stand- 
ing upright under the immensity of Homer ; it 
seemed so, until, after several efforts, Latin poetry 
became triumphantly epic in Virgil. And again, 
when the mystical prestige of Virgil was domineer- 
ing everything, regular epic seemed unlikely ; until, 
after the doubtful attempts of Boiardo and Ariosto, 
Tasso arrived. But in each case, while the occur- 
rence of regular epic was seeming so improbable, it 
nevertheless happened that poetry was written which 
was certainly nothing like epic in form, but which 
was strongly charged with a profound pressure of 
purpose closely akin to epic purpose ; and De Rerum 
Natura and La Divina Commedia are very suggestive 
to speculation now. Of course, the fact that, in both 
these cases, regular epic did eventually occur, must 
warn us that in artistic development anything may 
happen ; but it does seem as if there were a deeper 

1 20 

After Milton 

improbability for the occurrence of regular epic 
now than in the times just before Virgil and Tasso 
of regular epic, that is, inspired by some vital 
import, not simply, like Sigurd the Volsung, by 
archaeological import. Lucretius is a good deal 
more suggestive than Dante ; for Dante's form is 
too exactly suited to his own peculiar genius and his 
own peculiar time to be adaptable. But the method 
of Lucretius is eminently adaptable. That amazing 
image of the sublime mind of Lucretius is exactly 
the kind of lofty symbolism that the continuation 
of epic purpose now seems to require a subjective 
symbolism. I believe Wordsworth felt this, when 
he planned his great symbolic poem, and partly 
executed it in The Prelude and The. Excursion : for 
there, more profoundly than anywhere out of Milton 
himself, Milton's spiritual legacy is employed. It 
may be, then, that Lucretius and Wordsworth will 
preside over the change from objective to subjective 
symbolism which Milton has, perhaps, made neces- 
sary for the continued development of the epic 
purpose : after Milton, it seems likely that there is 
nothing more to be done with objective epic. But 


The Epic 

Hugo's method, of a connected sequence of separate 
poems, instead of one continuous poem, may come 
in here. The determination to keep up a continuous 
form brought both Lucretius and Wordsworth at 
times perilously near to the odious state of didactic 
poetry ; it was at least responsible for some tedium. 
Epic poetry will certainly never be didactic. What 
we may imagine who knows how vainly imagine ? 
is, then, a sequence of odes expressing, in the 
image of some fortunate and lofty mind, as much of 
the spiritual significance which the epic purpose 
must continue from Milton, as is possible, in the 
style of Lucretius and Wordsworth, for subjective 
symbolism. A pregnant experiment towards some- 
thing like this has already been seen in George 
Meredith's magnificent set of Odes in Contribution 
to the Song of the French History. The subject is 
ostensibly concrete ; but France in her agonies and 
triumphs has been personified into a superb symbol 
of Meredith's own reading of human fate. The 
series builds up a decidedly epic significance, 
and its manner is extraordinarily suggestive of a 
pew epic method. Nevertheless, something more 


After Milton 

Lucretian in central imagination, something less 
bound to concrete and particular event, seems 
required for the complete development of epic 

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