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of poetry, in the persons of Virgil, Horace, Varius, Ovid, and many others; especially if we take into that century the latter end of the commonwealth, wherein we find Varo, Lucretius, and Catullus: and at the same time lived Cicero, Sallust, and Cæsar. A famous age in modern times, for learning in every kind, was that of Lorenzo de Medici and his son Leo X. wherein painting was revived, poetry flourished, and the Greek language was restored.
Examples in all these are obvious: but what I would infer is this, That in such an age, 'tis possible some great genius may arise to equal any of the ancients, abating only for the language; for great contemporaries whet and cultivate each other; and mutual borrowing, and commerce, makes the common riches of learning, as it does of civil government.
But suppose that Homer and Virgil were the only poets of their species, and that nature was so much worn out in producing them, that she is never able to bear the like again; yet the example only holds in heroic poetry. In tragedy and satire, I offer myself to maintain, against some of our modern critics, that this age and the last, particularly in England, have excelled the ancients in both these kinds.
Thus I might safely confine myself to my native country: but if I would only cross the seas, I might find in France a living Horace and a Juvenal, in the person of the admirable Boileau, whose numbers are excellent, whose expressions are noble, whose thoughts are just, whose language is pure, whose satire is peinted, and whose sense is close. What he borrows from the ancients, he repays with usury of his own, in coin as good, and almost as universally valuable; for, setting prejudice and partiality apart, though he is our enemy, the stamp of a Louis, the patron of arts, is not much inferior to the medal of an Augustus Cæsar.
Now, if it may be permitted me to go back again to the consideration of epic poetry, I have confessed that no man hitherto has reached, or so much as approached, to the excellencies of Homer or Virgil; I must further add, that Statius, the best versificator next Virgil, knew
not how to design after him, though he had the model in his eye; that Lucan is wanting both in design and subject, and is besides too full of heat and affection; that among the moderns, Ariosto neither designed justly, nor observed any unity of action or compass of time, or moderation in the vastness of his draught: his style is luxurious, without majesty or decency; and his adventures without the compass of nature and possibility. Tasso, whose design was regular, and who observed the rules of unity in time and place more closely than Virgil, yet was not so happy in his action; he confesses himself to have been too lyrical, that is, to have written beneath the dignity of heroic verse, in his episodes of Sophronia, Erminia, and Armida; his story is not so pleasing as Ariosto's; he is too flatulent sometimes, and sometimes too dry; many times unequal, and almost always forced; and besides, is full of conceptions, points of epigram, and witticisms; all which are not only below the dignity of heroic verse, but contrary to its nature. Virgil and Homer have not one of them: and those who are guilty of so boyish an ambition in so grave a subject, are so far from being considered as heroic poets, that they ought to be turned down from Homer to Anthologia, from Virgil to Martial and Owen's epigrams, and from Spencer to Flecno, that is from the top to the bottom of all poetry. But to return to Tasso; he borrows from the invention of Boiardo, and in his alteration of his poem, which is infinitely the worst, imitates Homer so very servilely, that (for example) he gives the king of Jerusalem fifty sons, only because Homer had bestowed the like number on king Priam; he kills the youngest in the same manner, and has provided his hero with a Patroclus, under another name, only to bring him back to the wars, when his friend was killed. The French have performed nothing in this kind, which is not below those two Italians, and subject to a thousand more reflections, without examining their St Louis, their Pucelle, or their Alarique. The English have only to boast of Spencer and Milton, who neither of them wanted either genius or learning to have been perfect poets, and yet both of them are liable to many censures. Dryden.
27.-On the Iliad of Homer.
THE subject of the Iliad must unquestionably be admitted to be, in the main, happily chosen. In the days of Homer, no object could be more splendid and dignified than the Trojan war. So great a confederacy of the Grecian states, under one leader; and the ten years' siege which they carried on against Troy, must have spread far abroad the renown of many military exploits, and interested all Greece in the traditions concerning the heroes who had most eminently signalized themselves. Upon these traditions, Homer grounded his poem; and though he lived, as is generally believed, only two or three centuries after the Trojan war, yet, through the want of written records, tradition must, by his time, have fallen into the degree of obscurity most proper for poetry; and have left him at full liberty to mix as much fable as he pleased with the remains of true history. He has not chosen, for his subject, the whole Trojan war; but, with great judgment, he has selected one part of it, the quarrel betwixt Achilles and Agamemnon, and the events to which that quarrel gave rise; which, though they take up forty-seven days only, yet include the most interesting, and most critical period of the war. By this management, he has given greater unity to what would have otherwise been an unconnected history of battles. He has gained one hero, or principal character, Achilles, who reigns throughout the work; and he has shewn the pernicious effect of discord among confederated princes. At the same time, I admit that Homer is less fortunate in his subject than Virgil. The plan of the Æneid includes a greater compass, and a more agreeable diversity of events; whereas the Iliad is almost entirely filled with battles.
The praise of high invention has in every age been given to Homer, with the greatest reason. The prodigious number of incidents, of speeches, of characters divine and human, with which he abounds; the surprising variety with which he has diversified his battles, in the wounds and deaths, and little history pieces of
almost all the persons slain, discover an invention next to boundless. But the praise of judgment is, in my opinion, no less due to Homer than that of invention. His story is all along conducted with great art. He rises upon us gradually; his heroes are brought out, one after another, to be objects of our attention. The distress thickens, as the poem advances; and every thing is so contrived, as to aggrandize Achilles, and to render him, as the poet intended he should be, the capital figure.
But that wherein Homer excels all writers, is the characteristical part. Here, he is without a rival. His lively and spirited exhibition of characters, is, in a great measure, owing to his being so dramatic a writer, abounding every where with dialogue and conversation. There is much more dialogue in Homer than in Virgil; or, indeed, than in any other poet. Blair.
28.—On the Odyssey of Homer.
My observations, hitherto, have been made upon the Iliad only. It is necessary to take some notice of the Odyssey also. Longinus's criticism upon it is not without foundation, that Homer may, in this poem, be compared to the setting sun, whose grandeur still remains, without the heat of his meridian beams. It wants the vigour and sublimity of the Iliad; yet, at the same time, possesses so many beauties, as to be justly entitled to high praise. It is a very amusing poem, and has much greater variety than the Iliad; it contains many inte resting stories, and beautiful descriptions. We see every where the same description and dramatic genius, and the same fertility of invention that appears in the other work. It descends indeed from the dignity of gods, and heroes, and warlike achievements; but in recompense, we have more pleasing pictures of ancient manners. Instead of that ferocity which reigns in the Iliad, the Odyssey presents us with the most amiable images of hospitality and humanity; entertains us with many a wonderful adventure, and many a landscape of nature; and instructs us by a constant vein of morality and virtue, which runs through the poem.
29.-On the Beauties of Virgil.
VIRGIL possesses beauties which have justly drawn the admiration of ages, and which, to this day, hold the balance in equilibrium between his fame and that of Homer. The principal and distinguishing excellency of Virgil, and which, in my opinion, he possesses beyond all poets, is tenderness. Nature had endowed him with exquisite sensibility; he felt every affecting circumstance in the scenes he describes; and, by a single stroke, he knows how to reach the heart. This, in an epic poem, is the merit next to sublimity; and puts it in an author's power to render his composition extremely interesting to all readers.
The chief beauty, of this kind, in the Iliad, is, the interview of Hector with Andromache. But, in the Æneid, there are many such. The second book is one of the greatest master-pieces that ever was executed by any hand; and Virgil seems to have put forth there the whole strength of his genius, as the subject afforded a variety of scenes, both of the awful and tender kind. The images of horror, presented by a city burned and sacked in the night, are finely mixed with pathetic and affecting incidents. Nothing, in any poet, is more beautifully described than the death of old Priam; and the family-pieces of Æneas, Anchises, and Creusa, are as tender as can be conceived. In many passages of the Eneid the same pathetic spirit shines; and they have been always the favourite passages in that work. The fourth book, for instance, relating the unhappy passion and death of Dido, has been always most justly admired, and abounds with beauties of the highest kind. The interview of Æneas with Andromache and Helenus, in the third book; the episodes of Pallas and Evander, of Nisus and Euryalus, of Lausus and Mezentius, in the Italian wars, are all striking instances of the poet's power of raising the tender emotions. For we must observe, that though the Eneid be an unequal poem, and, in some places, languid, yet there are beauties scattered through it all; and not a few, even in the last