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The Iliad of Homer

Page: 15

A blending of popular legends, and a free use of the songs of other bards, are features perfectly consistent with poetical originality. In fact, the most original writer is still drawing upon outward impressions—nay, even his own thoughts are a kind of secondary agents which support and feed the impulses of imagination. But unless there be some grand pervading principle—some invisible, yet most distinctly stamped archetypus of the great whole, a poem like the Iliad can never come to the birth. Traditions the most picturesque, episodes the most pathetic, local associations teeming with the thoughts of gods and great men, may crowd in one mighty vision, or reveal themselves in more substantial forms to the mind of the poet; but, except the power to create a grand whole, to which these shall be but as details and embellishments, be present, we shall have nought but a scrap-book, a parterre filled with flowers and weeds strangling each other in their wild redundancy: we shall have a cento of rags and tatters, which will require little acuteness to detect.

Sensible as I am of the difficulty of disproving a negative, and aware as I must be of the weighty grounds there are for opposing my belief, it still seems to me that the Homeric question is one that is reserved for a higher criticism than it has often obtained. We are not by nature intended to know all things; still less, to compass the powers by which the greatest blessings of life have been placed at our disposal. Were faith no virtue, then we might indeed wonder why God willed our ignorance on any matter. But we are too well taught the contrary lesson; and it seems as though our faith should be especially tried touching the men and the events which have wrought most influence upon the condition of humanity. And there is a kind of sacredness attached to the memory of the great and the good, which seems to bid us repulse the scepticism which would allegorize their existence into a pleasing apologue, and measure the giants of intellect by an homeopathic dynameter.

Long and habitual reading of Homer appears to familiarize our thoughts even to his incongruities; or rather, if we read in a right spirit and with a heartfelt appreciation, we are too much dazzled, too deeply wrapped in admiration of the whole, to dwell upon the minute spots which mere analysis can discover. In reading an heroic poem we must transform ourselves into heroes of the time being, we in imagination must fight over the same battles, woo the same loves, burn with the same sense of injury, as an Achilles or a Hector. And if we can but attain this degree of enthusiasm (and less enthusiasm will scarcely suffice for the reading of Homer), we shall feel that the poems of Homer are not only the work of one writer, but of the greatest writer that ever touched the hearts of men by the power of song.


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