Milton's Heirs: Epic Poetry in the 1790s

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IN HIS 1782 ESSAY ON EPIC POETRY, HAYLEY ADDRESSES HOMER THUS:

   And haply Greece, the Wonder of the Earth
   For feats of martial fire and civic worth,
   That glorious Land, of noblest minds the nurse,
   Owes her unrivall'd race to thy inspiring Verse;
   For O, what Greek, who in his youthful vein
   Had felt thy soul-invigorating strain,
   Who that had caught, amid the festive throng,
   The public lesson of thy patriot Song,
   Could ever cease to feel his bosom swell
   With zeal to dare, and passion to excel. (1)

In other words, it was not Greece that made Homer; it was Homer who made Greece. It was by heating Homer that the Greeks were inspired to achieve all that would make them famous in later years; if Homer had not sung, then Pericles would not have spoken, Plato would not have written, Leonidas would not have stood and fought. Alexander, the legend goes, slept with a dagger and an Iliad under his pillow. It hardly matters whether there was any truth in this. What counted was the idea: good epics make good nations.

The old Renaissance commonplace had been that good epics made good men, and if Homer and Virgil had been able to form the minds of the ancients, then they could form the minds of the modems, too. But in the intervening years, with all their highly visible modernization and change, a strong sense had grown up of the cultural otherness of antiquity. Renaissance-era printers had happily depicted Aeneas, Achilles, and the other epic heroes as sixteenth-century knights, but to an eighteenth-century artist it would have seemed absurd to draw them as contemporary soldiers, red coats and all. In his 1735 Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer, Thomas Blackwell had concluded that the modem world was simply too civilized to give rise to Homeric poetry:

   Neither indeed does it seem to be given to one and the same
   Kingdom, to be thoroughly civilised, and afford proper subjects for
   [epic] Poetry. The Marvellous and the Wonderful is the nerve of the
   Epic Strain: But what marvellous Things happen in a well ordered
   State? (2)

Thus, with the rise of historicist criticism in the writings of scholars such as Blackwell and Lowth, an uneasy sense arose that Homer and Virgil's works might no longer be applicable to their modem British readers. Hayley writes:

   What! Can the British heart, humanely brave,
   Feel for the Greek who lost his female slave?
   Can it, devoted to a savage Chief,
   Swell with his rage, and soften with his grief?

   (110)

This is not meant as a criticism of Homer, although it is a criticism of Homeric Greece; rather, it is a recognition that Homer's world and Hayley's are not the same, that indeed the cultural gap between them might now be so large as to make it difficult for modem readers to sympathize with Homer's heroes at all. Hayley was not alone in feeling this: as far back as 1715, Terrasson had complained about how little sympathy he had for "so very vicious a man as Achilles," and Addison had expounded on the unsuitabihty of ancient Greek or Roman models as behavioral or political guides for modem Britons. (3) But the need for epic inspiration remained as pressing as ever, and if the old ones were no longer suitable, then new epics were needed to do for Britain what Homer had done for Greece.

It was not just cultural difference that made a national epic such a pressing necessity: it was also national pride. As the eighteenth century progressed, and Britain rose to become a world imperial power, the achievements of Greece and Rome came to seem less like inimitable wonders to be marveled at and more like templates to be followed, or even rivals to be outdone (see Weinbrot 127-31). A British national epic would simultaneously prove that the British were the equals of the Ancients in poetry, and inspire the British to equal and exceed them in other ways. Hayley's Essay continues:

   And shall it [i. …