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I've mark'd with what a silent awe he'd spoken,
To the rapacious cormorant,-yet still,
A thought which soothes the soul?) yet still my spirit
On Homer's Iliad:
His sermons are
HUGH BLAIR was born at Edinburgh, in 1718, and died 1800. still extremely popular, but his fame mainly rests upon his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, in which we can almost trace the acuteness and clearness of thought which shone forth in the writings of his contemporary and friend, Dr. Johnson. The following passage forms an admirable introduction to the reading of the greatest of poems, the "Iliad."
As the epic poem is universally allowed to possess the highest rank among poetical works, it merits particular discussion, and I therefore proceed to make some observations on the most distinguished epic poems, ancient and modern.
Homer claims, on every account, our first attention, as the father not only of epic poetry, but, in some measure, of poetry in general. Whoever sits down to read Homer, must consider that he is going to read the most ancient book in the world, next to the Bible. Without making this reflection he cannot enter into the spirit, nor relish the composition of the author. He is not to look for the correctness and elegance of the Augustan age. He must divest himself of our modern ideas of dignity and refinement, and transport his imagination almost three thousand years back in the history of mankind. What he is to expect is, a picture of the ancient world. He must reckon upon finding characters and manners, that retain a considerable tincture of the savage
state; moral ideas as yet imperfectly formed; and the appetites and passions of men brought under none of those restraints, to which, in a more advanced state of society, they are accustomed; but bodily strength prized as one of the chief heroic endowments; the preparing of a meal, and the appeasing of hunger, described as very interesting objects; and the heroes boasting of themselves openly, scolding one another outrageously, and glorying, as we should now think very indecently, over their fallen enemies.
The opening of the Iliad possesses none of that sort of dignity which a modern looks for in a great epic poem. It turns on no higher subject than the quarrel of two chieftains about a female slave. The priest of Apollo beseeches Agamemnon to restore his daughter, who in the plunder of a city had fallen to Agamem non's share of booty. He refuses. Apollo, at the prayer of his priest, sends a plague into the Grecian camp. The augur, when consulted, declares, that there is no way of appeasing Apollo, but by restoring the daughter of his priest. Agamemnon is enraged at the augur, professes that he likes this slave better than his wife, Clytemnestra; but since he must restore her in order to save the army, insists to have another in her place; and pitches upon Briseis, the slave of Achilles. Achilles, as was to be expected, kindles into rage at this demand; reproaches him for his rapacity and insolence, and, after giving him many hard names, solemnly swears that, if he is to be thus treated by the general, he will withdraw his troops, and assist the Grecians no more against the Trojans. He withdraws accordingly. His mother, the goddess Thetis, interests Jupiter in his cause, who to revenge the wrong which Achilles had suffered, takes part against the Greeks, and suffers them to fall into great and long distress, until Achilles is pacified, and reconciliation brought about between him and Agamemnon.
Such is the basis of the whole action of the Iliad. Hence rise all those speciosa miracula,* as Horace terms them, which fill that extraordinary poem: and which have had the power of interesting almost all the nations of Europe, in every age, since the days of Homer. The general admiration commanded by a poetical plan so very different from what any one would have formed in our times, ought not, upon reflection, to be matter of surprise. For besides that a fertile genius can enrich and beautify any subject on which it is employed, it is to be observed, that ancient manners, how much soever they contradict our present notions of dignity and refinement, afford, nevertheless, materials for poetry superior in some respects to those which are furnished by a more polished state of society. They discover human nature more open and undisguised, without any of those studied forms of behaviour which now conceal men from one another. They give free scope to the strongest and most impetuous emotions of the mind, which
* Specious wonders; i. e., possessing just sufficient probability to allow of their falling within the reach of belief,-things which one might imagine true.
make a better figure in description, than calm and temperate feelings. They show us our native prejudices, appetites, and desires, exerting themselves without control. From this state of manners, joined with the advantage of that strong and expressive style, which, as I formerly observed, commonly distinguishes the compositions of early ages, we have ground to look for more of the boldness, ease, and freedom of native genius, in compositions of such a period, than in those of more civilized times. And, accordingly, the two great characters of the Homeric poetry are fire and simplicity. Let us now proceed to make some more particular observations on the Iliad, under the three heads of the subject and action, the characters and narration of the poet.
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 this 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 Agamem non, 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 shown 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 Eneid 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 everywhere with dialogue and conversation. There is much more dialogue in Homer than in Virgil, or, indeed, than in any other poet. What Virgil informs us of by two words of narration, Homer brings about by a speech. We may observe here, that this method of writing is more ancient than the narrative manner. Of this we have a clear proof in the books of the Old Testament, which instead of narration, abound with speeches, with answers, and replies, upon the most familiar subjects. Thus, in the book of Genesis, "Joseph said unto his brethren, Whence come ye? And they answered, From the Land of Canaan we come to buy food. And Joseph said, Ye are spies, to see the nakedness of the land are ye come. And they said unto him, Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come; we are all one man's sons, we are true men, thy servants are no spies. And ne said unto them, Nay, but to see the nakedness of the land are ye come. And they said, Thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father; and one is not. And Joseph said unto them, This it is that I spake unto you, saying, ye are spies. Hereby ye shall be proved; by the life of Pharaoh, ye shall not go forth except your youngest brother come hither," &c.* Such a style as this is the most simple and artless form of writing, and must therefore, undoubtedly, have been the most ancient. It is copying directly from nature, giving a plain rehearsal of what passed, or was supposed to pass, in conversation between the persons of whom the author treats. In progress of time, when the art of writing was more studied, it was thought more elegant to compress the substance of conversation into short distinct narratives, made by the poet or historian in his own person; and to reserve direct speeches for solemn occasions only.
The ancient dramatic method which Homer practised has some advantages, balanced with some defects. It renders composition more natural and animated, and more expressive of manners and characters, but withal less grave and majestic, and sometimes tiresome. Homer, it must be admitted, has carried his propensity to the making of speeches too far, and if he be tedious any where, it is in these; some of them trifling, and some of them plainly unseasonable. Together with the Greek vivacity, he leaves upon our minds some impression of the Greek loquacity also. His speeches, however, are upon the whole characteristic and lively and to them we owe, in a great measure, that admirable display which he has given of human nature. Every one who
* Genesis xliii. 7-15.
reads him, becomes familiarly and intimately acquainted with his heroes. We seem to have lived among them, and to have conversed with them. Not only has he pursued the single virtue of courage through all its different forms and features, in his different warriors, but some more delicate characters, into which courage either enters not at all, or but for an inconsiderable part, he has drawn with singular art.
How finely, for instance, has he painted the character of Helen, so as, notwithstanding her frailty and her crimes, to prevent her from being an odious object. The admiration with which the old generals behold her, in the third book, when she is coming towards them, presents her to us with much dignity. Her veiling herself and shedding tears, her confusion in the presence of Priam, her grief and self-accusations at the sight of Menelaus, her upbraiding Paris for his cowardice, and at the same time, her returning fondness for him, exhibit the most striking features of that mixed female character, which we partly condemn and partly pity. Homer never introduces her, without making her say something to move our compassion, while at the same time, he takes care to contrast her character with that of a virtuous matron, in the chaste and tender Andromache.
Paris himself, the author of all the mischief, is characterized with the utmost propriety. He is, as we should expect him, a mixture of gallantry and effeminacy. He retreats from Menelaus, on his first appearance; but immediately afterwards, enters into single combat with him. He is a great master of civility, remarkably courteous in his speeches, and receives all the reproofs of his brother Hector with modesty and deference. He is described as a person of elegance and taste. He was the architect of his own palace. He is, in the sixth book, found by Hector, burnishing and dressing up his armour; and issues forth to battle with a peculiar gaiety and ostentation of appearance, which is illustrated by one of the finest comparisons in all the Iliad, that of the horse prancing to the river. Homer has been blamed for making his hero, Achilles, of too brutal and unamiable a character. But I am inclined to think, that injustice is commonly done to Achilles upon the credit of two lines in Horace, who has certainly overloaded his character.
Impiger, iracundus, inexorabilis, acer,
Jura negat sibi nata, nihil non arroget armis.*
Achilles is passionate indeed, to a great degree, but he is far from being a contemner of laws and justice. In the contest with Agamemnon, though he carries it on with too much heat, yet he has reason on his side. He was notoriously wronged: but he submits, and resigns Briseis peaceably, when the heralds come to demand her, only he will fight no longer under a leader who has
* Eager, wrathful, deaf to entreaty, sharp, he denies that laws were created for him, but there is nothing that he will not arrogate to himself by force of