G H I J K L M 

Total read books on site:
more than 10 000

You can read its for free!

Text on one page: Few Medium Many
Produced by Garrett Alley and PG Distributed Proofreaders

The Epic: an Essay

By Lascelles Abercrombie


By the same Author:

Towards a Theory of Art
Speculative Dialogues
Four Short Plays
Thomas Hardy: A Critical Study
Principles of English Prosody


_As this essay is disposed to consider epic poetry as a species of
literature, and not as a department of sociology or archaeology or
ethnology, the reader will not find it anything material to the
discussion which may be typified in those very interesting works,
Gilbert Murray's "The Rise of the Greek Epic" and Andrew Lang's "The
World of Homer." The distinction between a literary and a scientific
attitude to Homer (and all other "authentic" epic) is, I think, finally
summed up in Mr. Mackail's "Lectures on Greek Poetry"; the following
pages, at any rate, assume that this is so. Theories about epic origins
were therefore 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_.



The invention of epic poetry corresponds with 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 independently; 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
compounded, 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 commonplace. Exactly 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 civilization--this difficult matter has been very nicely
investigated of late, and to interesting, though not decided, result.
But I may not concern myself with this; 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 individuality. 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 is blinded to the glaring
incongruities of his tribal ideas not 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 individuality
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 permanence 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 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 existence was perfectly
adapted to another for which it was quite unsuited, with the added
necessity of conquering the peoples found in possession. Whatever 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
decidedly Heroic Ages have occurred much later than 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 that warfare was a cause
or 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_, the _Song of Roland_, and
the lays of the Crusaders (_la Chanson d'Antioche_, 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
Mahometan 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, it was somehow
unusually prolonged, or else the clash of the Ottoman war revived it.
The case of Servia is interesting in another way. The songs about the
battle of Kossovo describe Servian defeat--defeat so overwhelming that
poetry cannot possibly translate 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 Ottoman 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. Servia's
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 inadequate 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
circumscribed 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 structure 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 unmistakable. 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--mutually 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 brightness the radiance of the Heroic Age.

Pages: | 1 | | 2 | | 3 | | 4 | | 5 | | 6 | | 7 | | 8 | | 9 | | 10 | | 11 | | 12 | | 13 | | Next |

U V W X Y Z 

Your last read book:

You dont read books at this site.