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Great must be the excellence of that poetry, or wit, which can make such an impression by piece-meal....
“ Disjecta membra poetæ,”
and which will bear so nice an inspection. It reminds me of some exquisite pieces of machinery, the ingenuity and excellence of which are chiefly discovered when they are viewed through a microscope.
The next epic poem of consequence which the genius of Rome produced, is the “ Pharsalia” of Lucan. He is universally allowed to hold an inferior rank to both Homer and Virgil; and his failure is generally ascribed to the recent date of the facts which form the subject of it, and the want of the usual machinery. I cannot conceive, however, that the mere story of the Pharsalia, even if narrated by an historian, is inferior to that of the Iliad, embellished even by the invention of the poet; and I am sure the machinery of Lucan is much more sublime than that of either Homer or Virgil ; of this a single instance will be sufficient, the description of the sorceress in the sixth book. The truth is, that Lucan wants the invention of Homer, and the polish and elegance of Virgil. There is nothing in the Pharsalia which, as an effort of the imagination, can compare with the scenes and adventures described in the Odyssey. Lucan narrates his story too much in the way of an historian, without variety of arrangement and embellishment. In style he is exceedingly inferior to Virgil; his colouring is less vivid; his figures are often trite, and sometimes imperfect, and his diction by no means so happily chosen as that of Virgil. For all these faults there is sufficient excuse ; we must regard the work of Lucan as the unfinished production of a very young man : for he was murdered by the execrable tyrant Nero at the age of twenty-six; and though he may be allowed a less portion of poetical merit, strictly so speaking, than the two great masters of epic, yet for the bold and philosophical sentiments, the manly eloquence, and the grandeur and importance of the nar.
ration, the Pharsalia is read, and probably will continue to be read with greater pleasure than most productions of the epic muse. “ Let us remember,” says Mr. Hayley, “ that in in the most polished nations of Europe the most elevated and poetic spirits have been his warmest admirers: thus in France he was idolized by Corneille, and in England translated by Rowe.” Dr. Johnson regards Mr. Rowe's Lucan as the second translation in our language; but I think it is at least rivalled by Mr. Mickle's Lusiad.
The next epic poem which demands our attention is Tasso's Giurusalemme Liberata. It is founded on a grand, heroic, and venerable enterprise. The author's invention is noble and fertile : the events are striking and sufficiently diversified, by the tenderness of love and the fierceness of war: the heroes are well characterized. Godfrey is represented as generous, moderate, and brave : Tancred is tender and impassioned : Rinaldo, who is the principal hero, is drawn after Homer's Achilles. The machinery of Tasso is to me more interesting than that of any other poet. The fourth and ninth book contain some incomparable passages and descriptions; but some have thought that his demons act too great a part. The plot seems to turn too much upon enchantment. Rinaldo, leaves the army in discontent, and retires into a desart island, where he is confined by spells. The chiefs are informed of the necessity of his presence to their success ; hence some of them are sent in quest of him : they find him in this island, break the spells of the demon, who endeavours to detain them, and then hurry him along with them to the army, where he breaks all the enchantments which retard their success : after this every thing proceeds happily to a conclusion. The whole of the sixteenth and seventeenth books are more worthy the genius of Ariosto than of Tasso. His descriptions, however, are fine, and rise happily towards the conclusion : the language is harmonious and elegant; and the poem in general displays infinitely more genius than Voltaire's Henriade.
Camoens, the epic poet of Portugal, was contemporary with Tasso. I am extremely partial to this poem. I read the original many years ago; but it was little known in England, till an excellent translation was published by the late Mr. Mickle. The poem has infinite merit; every part of it interests and entertains ; and it is justly entitled to the appellation of epic. You are aware that the subject is the discovery of India by Vasco de Gama. The characters in general are tolerably well drawn, but not so well supported as might be wished. The subject too, you will be inclined to observe, is too recent, and the cruelties which the Portuguese committed naturally prejudice us against it. Notwithstanding this, the subject is novel and grand; it affords an admirable scope for description, and for the introduction of very interesting scenes. If Paradise Lost is emphatically styled the epic poem of religion, this justly may be denominated that of commerce; and if we read Homer and Virgil for pleasure, and to admire the poetry, let me add, we cannot read this without reaping some further improvement, a knowledge of nature and of the globe which we inhabit.
Spain can also boast of an epic poem of no inconsiderablc merit, as appears from the sketch with which Mr. Hayley has favoured us, the Arancana of Don Alonzo de Erecilla. This epic poem differs from all others, for the author celebrates a course of military actions in which he had himself a share, the reduction, by the Spaniards, of the Arancanians, an Indian nation of singular heroism, in the country of Chili. The poem certainly contains fine passages, but is much inferior to the Lusiad of Camoens. It has not yet been translated into English
The Henriade of Voltaire seems to demand a few observations. As this was written by a person of extraordinary genius, we are led to expect something uncommon: his boldness in attempting an epic poem in this age deserves our admiration ; but the French language seems improper for epic poetry, and the author has failed in other respects. The subject of the poem
is the triumph of Henry IV. over the arms of the League: it lies under the same disadvantage with respect to the recentness of the date, &c. with Lucan's Pharsalia ; and it would have been better had the author followed the example of Lucan, which he recommends as judicious, concerning the machinery. The poem opens with an interview between Henry, and Elizabeth, Queen of England. He has used fiction in order to bring together these two great personages, and to give his hero an opportunity of relating the exploits of the wars. Now it is well known to every one-that Henry never was in England: besides, though Virgil makes Æneas properly enough relate his adventures to Dido, who cannot be supposed to have had any particular account of them ; yet we cannot suppose the Queen of England could be ignorant of what was done by the French King, until he came hinıself to inform her. The whole poem is employed on the subject of a civil war of the most detestable and bloody kind, and which presents ideas too shocking to the mind to excite our admiration. His episodes also are not full, for the poem is not long, yet it contains a great many important events, which are generally related in a very imperfect manner. But he is peculiarly unhappy with respect to the machinery; he has introduced chiefly allegorical beings, as Discord, War, Fanaticism, La Politique, and Love, which are the worst that can be employed in epic poetry. By mixing truth and falsehood together they render the whole improbable. The appearance of St. Lewis to Henry IV. is, however, much better; the whole is wrought up with great judgment, and is certainly one of the best parts of the poem. The descent into hell is also well managed.
Although Voltaire is not conspicuous for his zeal for religion, yet he understood the necessity of it in his poetry; hence it is full of the most noble and generous sentiments, and in these consist its greatest merit.
Though Milton's Paradise Lost was published long anterior to the poem I last noticed, the custom I have followed of considering the British writers the last in
order, seems to justify my present arrangement. After the criticisms of Mr. Addison and Dr. Johnson, which are in every body's hands, there remains but little to be said upon this extraordinary performance. This being the case, my own sentiments will, I am sure, please you better than those of any other critic. Whether from the nature of his subject, with which every person is familiar: or whether, from any defect of the arrangement, Milton pleases more in detached parts than in the whole. With the plot or fable we are perfectly acquainted; and it is unfortunate for Milton, though happy for society, that the Bible is universally read. The plot does not to me appear to warrant so extensive a detail. The poet probably indulged his own inclination and habits in the middle book, when he makes....
“ God the Father turn a school divine."
But he should have had some mercy on his readers, who might not have so strong a relish for these metaphysical disputations as he had himself. Yet even this is curious and interesting, not indeed to the multitude, but to all persons who think, and who wish to know the state of theological opinions at that period of time in which Milton wrote. These discussions, I must observe also, are maintained with dignity, and supported with all the ingenuity and learning that was possible. Milton was perhaps the most learned man of his time ; his learning is apparent in almost every line that he has composed; and so far the least interesting parts of Paradise Lost are valuable, as affording an animated picture of the knowledge of the times.
This however is foreign to his praise as an epic poet. In that view. we must allow his plot to be regular, his action undisturbed by any collateral circumstances, his characters (in Pandemonium at least) strongly marked and well defined. But still he seems to have protracted his plot beyond the proper limits; and therefore, as Dr. Johnson remarks of the Paradise Lost, “its perusal is