Classical Influences on English Poetry

By J. A. K. Thomson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
THE EPIC TRADITION IN ANTIQUITY

IT was necessary to examine the structure and style of the Homeric poems, if we are to understand the history and nature of epic poetry at all. But the influence of Homer on English literature has been in the main indirect. The direct influence is Latin, transmitted chiefly through Virgil, Lucan and Statius.


A

The Aeneid of Virgil is much more closely articulated than the Iliad or even the Odyssey, but its structure is altogether on their lines and it pays for its closer articulation by seeming more obviously contrived. For all that Virgil handles his complex material with admirable skill, and he has not, any more than Milton, received all the credit due to him as a considerable, if not supreme, master of succinct and energetic narrative. But perhaps he overcrowds his canvas, for within the limits of the Aeneid he tries as it were to compress an Iliad, an Odyssey and an Argonautica. He begins like Homer towards the end of his story, and we are shown Aeneas and his men battling with a storm off the coast of Carthage. It is the Odyssey that Virgil has here in mind, that is to say the fifth book of the Odyssey. The storm has been raised by Juno, who pursues Aeneas with her hostility all through the poem, a unifying strand running through its texture, just as the will of Zeus holds together the Iliad, and the wrath of Poseidon the Odyssey. But something more powerful than Juno, namely Destiny (fatum), has ordained that Aeneas shall fulfil his mission, which is to found a Trojan city in Italy that shall be the mother of Rome. This conception of Aeneas as the servant of Destiny is very im

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