This article is intended for an introduction to the study of the epics. The epic originated among tribes of barbarians, who deified departed heroes and recited legends in praise of their deeds. As the hymn developed, the chorus and strophe were dropped, and the narrative only was preserved. The word “epic” was used simply to distinguish the narrative poem, which was recited, from the lyric, which was sung, and from the dramatic, which was acted.
We have compiled this list of famous epics for our readers. So they find it less confusing to pick their next epic and can start reading. Here is a list of 20 of the greatest Epic in the tradition.
The Ramayana, the Hindu Iliad, is variously ascribed to the fifth, third, and first centuries B.C., its many interpolations making it almost impossible to determine its age by internal evidence. Its authorship is unknown, but according to legend, it was sung by Kuca and Lava, the sons of Rama, to whom it was taught by Valmiki. Of the three versions now extant, one is attributed to Valmiki, another to TulsiDas, and a third to Vyasa. Its historical basis almost lost in the innumerable episodes and grotesque imaginings of the Hindu is probably the conquest of southern India and Ceylon by the Aryans.
The Ramayana is written in the Sanskrit language, is divided into seven books, or sections, and contains fifty thousand lines, the English translation of which, by Griffith, occupies five volumes. The hero, Rama, is still an object of worship in India, the route of his wanderings being, each year, trodden by devout pilgrims.
The poem is not a mere literary monument,–it is a part of the actual religion of the Hindu, and is held in such reverence that the small reading or hearing of it, or specific passages of it are believed to free from sin and grant his every desire to the reader or hearer.
2. THE MAHÂ-BHÂRATA
“It is a deep and noble forest, abounding in delicious fruits and fragrant flowers, shaded and watered by perennial springs.”
Though parts of the Mahâ-Bhârata, or story of the great war, are of great antiquity, the entire poem was undoubtedly collected and re-written in the first or second century A. D. Tradition ascribes the Mahâ-Bhârata to the Brahman Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa.
The Mahâ-Bhârata, unlike the Râmâyana, is not the story of some great event, but consists of many episodes, legends, and philosophical treatises, strung upon the thread of a single account. These episodes are called Upakhyanani, and the five most beautiful are called, in India, the five precious stones.
Its historical basis is the strife between the Aryan invaders of India and the original inhabitants, illustrated in the conflict between the sons of the Raja Pandu and the blind Raja, Dhrita-rashtra, which forms the main story of the poem.
Though marred by the exaggerations peculiar to the Hindu, the poem is a great treasure house of Indian history, and from it, the Indian poets, historical writers, and philosophers have drawn much of their material.
The Mahâ-Bhârata is written in the Sanskrit language; it is the longest poem ever written, its eighteen cantos containing two hundred thousand lines.
It is held in even higher regard than the Râmâyana, and the reading of it is supposed to confer upon the happy reader every good and perfect gift.
The Iliad, or story of the fall of Ilium (Troy), is supposed to have been written by Homer, about the tenth century BC. The legendary history of Homer represents him as a schoolmaster and poet of Smyrna, who while visiting in Ithaca became blind, and afterwards spent his life travelling from place to place reciting his poems, until he died in Ios. Seven cities, Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Ithaca, Pylos, Argos, and Athens, claimed to be his birthplace.
In 1795, Wolf, a German scholar, published his “Prolegomena,” which set forth his theory that Homer was a fictitious character, and that the Iliad was made up of initially unconnected poems, collected and combined by Pisistratus.
Though for a time the Wolfian theory had many advocates, it is now generally conceded that although the stories of the fall of Troy were current long before Homer, they were collected and recast into one poem by some great poet. That the Iliad is the work of one man is clearly shown by its unity, its sustained simplicity of style, and the centralization of interest in the character of Achilles.
The destruction of Troy, for a time regarded as a poetic fiction, is now believed by many scholars to be an actual historical event which took place about the time of the Æolian migration.
The whole story of the fall of Troy is not related in the Iliad, the poem opening nine years after the beginning of the war, and closing with the death of Hector.
The Iliad is divided into twenty-four books and contains nineteen thousand four hundred and sixty-five lines.
As a work of art, the Iliad has never been excelled; moreover, it possesses what all works of art do not,—”the touches of things human”. That makes it ours, although the centuries lie between us and its unknown author, who told his exciting story in such swift-moving verses, with such touches of pathos and humour, and with such evident joy of living. Another evidence of the perfection of Homer’s art is that while his heroes are perfect types of Greeks and Trojans, they are also typical men, and for that reason, still keep their hold upon us. It is this human interest, simplicity of style, and grandeur of treatment that have rendered Homer immortal and his work imperishable.
The Odyssey relates the adventures of Ulysses on his return to Ithaca after the Trojan war.
It consists of twenty-four books, the first four of which are sometimes known as the Telemachia because Telemachus is the central figure.
The difference in style of the Iliad and Odyssey has caused some critics to assert that the latter is not the work of Homer; this is accounted for. However, by the difference of subject, and it is probable that the Odyssey, though of a later date, is the work of the same hand, “the work of Homer’s old age,—an epic bathed in a mellow light of sunset.”
If the Odyssey alone had come down to us, its authorship would have passed unquestioned, for the poem is so compact, its plot so carefully planned and so skilfully carried out, that there can be no doubt that it is the work of one hand.
The Odyssey is as great a work of art as the Iliad, and is even more popular; for the Odyssey is a domestic romance, and as such appeals to a broader audience than a tale of war alone,—the love of the wandering Ulysses and the faithful Penelope. Interwoven with it are the ever-popular fairy tales of Ulysses’s wanderings and descriptions of home life. It is marked by the same pagan enjoyment of life, the same freshness and charm that lend enchantment to the Iliad.
The national epic of Finland, the Kalevala, or Place of Heroes, stands midway between the purely epical structure, as exemplified in Homer, and the epic songs of certain nations.
It is a purely pagan epic, and from its complete silence as to Finland’s neighbours, the Russians, Germans, and Swedes, it is supposed to date back at least three thousand years.
The first attempt to collect Finnish folk-song was made in the seventeenth century by Palmsköld and Peter Bäng. In 1733, Maxenius published a volume on Finnish national poetry, and in 1745 Juslenius began a collection of national poems. Although scholars saw that these collected poems were evidently fragments of a Finnish epic, it remained for two physicians, Zacharias Topelius and Elias Lönnrot, to collect the entire poem. Topelius, though confined to his bed by illness for eleven years, took down the songs from travelling merchants brought to his bedside. His collections were published in 1822 and 1831. Lönnrot travelled over Finland, collecting the songs, which he published, arranged in epical form, in 1835. A revised edition was published in 1849.
The Kalevala consists of fifty parts, or runes, containing twenty-two thousand seven hundred and ninety-three lines. Its historical foundation is the contests between the Finns and the Lapps.
Its metre is the “eight syllabled trochaic with the part-line echo,” alliteration also being used, a metre familiar to us through Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”
The labours of a Wolf are not necessary to show that the Kalevala is composed of various runes or lays, arranged by a compiler. Topelius and Lönnrot were conscientious collectors and compilers, but they were no Homers, who could fuse these disconnected runes into one great poem. The Kalevala recites many events in the lives of different heroes who are not types of men, like Rama, or Achilles, or Ulysses, but the rude gods of an almost savage people, or rather, men in the process of apotheosis, all alike, save in the varying degrees of magic power possessed by each.
The Finnish lays are interesting to us because they are the popular songs of a people handed down with few changes from one generation to another; because they would have formed the material for a national epic if a great poet had arisen; because of their pictures of ancient customs, and particularly the description of the condition of women, and because of their frequently beautiful descriptions of nature. But because they are simply runes “loosely stitched together” we can regard them only with interest and curiosity, not with admiration.
The Aeneid was written by Publius Vergilius Maro, commonly known as Vergil, who was born at the Andes, near Mantua, Oct. 15, 70 B. C., and died at Brundusium, Sept. 22, 19 B.C.
He was educated at Cremona, Milan, Naples, and Rome. When the lands near Cremona and Mantua were assigned by Octavianus to his soldiers after the battle of Philippi, Vergil lost his estates; but they were afterwards restored to him through Asinius Pollio.
He became a favourite of Augustus, and spent part of his time in Rome, near his patron, Maecenas, the emperor’s minister.
The Aeneid is in twelve books, of which the first six describe the wanderings of Aeneas, and the last six his wars in Italy. Its metre is the dactylic hexameter.
Vergil worked for eleven years on the poem and considered it incomplete at his death.
The Aeneid tells the story of the flight of Aeneas from burning Troy to Italy and makes him an ancestor of the Romans. With the story of his wanderings are interwoven praises of the Caesars and the glory of Rome.
It is claimed that because Vergil was mainly a poet of rural life, he was specially fitted to be the national poet since Roman life was founded on the agricultural country life. He also chose a theme which particularly appealed to the patriotism of the Romans. For this reason, the poem was immediately received into popular favour and was made a text-book of the Roman youths. It is often said of Vergil by way of reproach, that his work was an imitation of Homer, and the first six books of the Aeneid are compared to the Odyssey, the last six to the Iliad. But while Vergil may be accused of imitation of subject matter, his style is his own and is entirely different from that of Homer. There is a tender grace in the Roman writer which the Greek does not possess. Vergil also lacks that purely pagan enjoyment of life; in its place, there is a tender melancholy that suggests the passing of the golden age. This difference of treatment, this added grace and charm, which are always mentioned as peculiarly Vergil’s own, united with his poetical feeling, and skill in versification, are sufficient to absolve him from the reproach of a mere imitator.
The Aeneid was much admired and imitated during the Middle Ages and still retains its high place in literature.
Beowulf, the only Anglo-Saxon epic preserved entire, was composed in southwest Sweden probably before the eighth century and taken to England, where it was worked over and Christianized by the Northumbrian poets.
It is variously attributed to the fifth, seventh, and eighth centuries; but the seventh is most probably correct, since the Higelac of the poem has been identified with Chocilaicus of the “Gesta Regum Francorum,” a Danish king who invaded Gaul in the days of Theuderic, son of Clovis, and died near the close of the sixth century.
The only manuscript of the poem in existence is thought to be of the tenth century. It is preserved in the British Museum. Since 1837 much interest has been manifested in the poem, and many editions of it have been given to the public.
Beowulf contains three thousand one hundred and eighty-four lines. It is written in alliterative verse. The lines are written in pairs, and each perfect line includes three alliterating words,—two in the first part, and one in the second.
The unknown writer of Beowulf cannot be praised for his skill in composition; the verse is rude, as was the language in which it was written. But it is of the most significant interest to us because of the pictures it gives of the everyday lives of the people whose heroic deeds it relates,—the drinking in the mead-halls, the relation of the king to his warriors, the description of the armour, the ships, and the halls. The heroes are true Anglo-Saxon types,—bold, fearless, ready to go to the assistance of anyone in trouble, no matter how great the risk to themselves; and as ready to drink mead and boast of their valour after the peril is over. In spite of the attempt to Christianize the poem, it is purely pagan; the most careless reader can discover the priestly interpolations. And it has the higher value to us because it refused to be moulded by priestly hands, but remained the rude but heroic monument of our Saxon ancestors.
8.THE NIBELUNGEN LIED
The Nibelungen Lied, or Song of the Nibelungen, was written about the beginning of the thirteenth century, though the events it chronicles belong to the sixth or seventh century. The manuscript poem was discovered about the middle of the eighteenth century.
Lachmann asserts that the Nibelungen Lied consists of twenty songs of various dates and authorship; other scholars, while agreeing that it is the work of a single author, ascribe it variously to Conrad von Kurenburger, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, and Walther von der Vogelweide.
Whoever was its author, he was only a compiler of legends that were the property of the people for centuries, and are found in many other of the popular German epics of the Middle Ages.
The poem consists of thirty-nine adventures, containing two thousand four hundred and fifty-nine stanzas of four lines each. The action covers thirty years. It is based on material obtained from four sources: (1) The Frankish saga-cycle, whose hero is Siegfried; (2) the saga-cycle of Burgundy, whose heroes are Günther, king of Worms, and his two brothers; (3) the Ostrogothic saga-cycle, whose hero is Dietrich of Bern; and (4) the saga-cycle of Etzel, king of the Huns, with his allies and vassals.
Dietrich of Bern is supposed to be Theodoric of Italy, in exile at the Hunnish court. Etzel is Attila the Hun, and Günther, Gunducarius, king of the Burgundians, who was destroyed by the Huns with his followers in the year 436.
The Nibelungen Lied very much resembles the Iliad, not only in the uncertainty of its origin and the impersonality of its author, but also in its objectivity, its realism, the primitive passions of its heroes, and the wondrous acts of valor performed by them. It contains many passages of wonderful beauty, and gives a striking picture of the social customs and the religious belief of the time.
9.THE SONG OF ROLAND
The Song of Roland is one of the many mediaeval romances that celebrate the deeds of Charlemagne.
The oldest text now in existence was written about 1096, but the poem was current in other forms long before this.
The author was a Norman, for the poem is written in the Norman dialect; but it is uncertain whether the Turoldus or Théroulde named in the last line of the poem, “Thus endeth here the geste Turoldus sang,” was the author, a copyist, or a jongleur.
It is said that Taillefer, the minstrel of Normandy, sang the Song of Roland at the battle of Hastings. “Taillefer, who right well sang, mounted on his rapid steed, went before them singing of Charlemagne, and of Roland, and Olivier, and of the vassals who died in Roncesvalles.”
The only text of the poem now in existence is one of the thirteenth century, preserved in the Bodleian library at Oxford.
On the fifteenth of August, 778, in the valley of Roncesvalles, in the Pyrenees, Charlemagne’s rear guard, left under the command of Roland, Prefect of the Marches of Brittany, was attacked and slaughtered by a large army of Gascons.
This incident forms the historical basis of the poem; but the imagination of the poet has made of Charlemagne, then a young man, the old emperor, with “beard all blossom white,” and transformed his Gascon foes to Saracens.
The Song of Roland is written in the heroic pentameter; it is divided into “laisses,” or stanzas, of irregular length, and contains about three thousand seven hundred and eight lines. It is written in the assonant, or vowel rhyme, that was universal among European nations in the early stage of their civilization.
Each stanza ends with the word “aoi,” for which no satisfactory translation has yet been offered, although “away” and “it is done” have been suggested.
The author of the Song of Roland undertook, like Homer, to sing of one great event about which all the interest of the poem centres; but unlike Homer, his poem is out of all proportion, the long-drawn out revenge being in the nature of an anti-climax. The Song of Roland is a fair exponent of the people among whom it originated. It contains no ornament; it is a straightforward relation of facts; it lacks passion, and while it describes fearful slaughter, it never appeals to the emotions. Though the French army shed many tears, and fell swooning to the ground at the sight of the fearful slaughter at Roncesvalles, we are rather moved to smile at the violence of their emotion than to weep over the dead, so little power has the poet to touch the springs of feeling. However, there are passages in which the poem rises to sublimity, and which have been pronounced Homeric by its admirers.
The monarchs of ancient Persia made several attempts to collect the historic annals of their country, but both people and traditions were scattered by the Arabian conquest. The manuscript annals were carried to Abyssinia, thence to India, and were taken back to Persia just when the weakness of the conquerors was beginning to show itself. The various members of the Persian line, who had declared themselves independent of their conquerors, determined to rouse the patriotism of their countrymen by the recital of the stirring deeds of the warriors of old Persia.
The fame of Abul Kasin Mansur, born at Thus, in Khorasan, A. D. 920, reached Mahmoud of Ghaznin, who was searching for a poet to re-cast the annals of Persia. He called the poet to his court, and, on hearing him improvise, called him Firdusi (the paradisiacal). The poet was intrusted with the preparation of the Shah-Nameh, or Epic of Kings, for every one thousand distichs of which he was to receive a thousand pieces of gold. It had been the dream of the poet’s life to build a bridge and otherwise improve his native town. He therefore asked that the payment be deferred until the completion of his work, that he might apply the entire sum to these improvements. But when the poem was completed, after thirty years’ labor, the king, instigated by the slanders of the jealous prime minister, sent to the poet sixty thousand silver instead of gold dirhems. The enraged poet threw the silver to his attendants and fled from the country, leaving behind him an insulting poem to the sultan. He spent the remainder of his life at Mazinderan and Bagdad, where he was received with honor, and in his old age returned to Thus to die. Tradition relates that Mahmoud at last discovered the villainy of his minister, and sent the gold to Thus. But the old poet was dead, and his daughter indignantly refused the money. Mahmoud then applied the sum to the improvements of the town so long desired by Firdusi.
The Shah-Nameh is written in the pure old Persian, that Mohammed declared would be the language of Paradise. In its sixty thousand couplets are related the deeds of the Persian kings from the foundation of the world to the invasion by the Mohammedans; but it is of very little value as a historical record, the facts it purports to relate being almost lost among the Oriental exaggerations of the deeds of its heroes.
The only complete translation in a foreign language is the elaborate French translation of Julius Mohl.
The Shah-Nameh is still popular in Persia, where it is said that even the camel drivers are able to repeat long portions of it. Firdusi is sometimes called the Homer of the East, because he describes rude heroic times and men, as did Homer; but he is also compared to Ariosto, because of his wealth of imagery. His heroes are very different from those to whom we have been wont to pay our allegiance; but they fight for the same principles and worship as lovely maids, to judge from the hyperbole employed in their description. The condensation of the Shah-Nameh reads like a dry chronicle; but in its entirety it reminds one of nothing so much as a gorgeous Persian web, so light and varied, so brightened is it by its wealth of episode.
11.THE POEM OF THE CID.
Rodrigo Ruy Diaz, El Cid Campeador, was born near Burgos, in Spain, about 1040. The name Cid was given him by the Moors, and means lord. Campeador means champion.
Ruy Diaz was the trusty lord of Sancho, King of Castile, who at his death divided his kingdom among his children. He then espoused the cause of the eldest son, Sancho, and assisted him in wresting their portion of the kingdom from his brothers Garcia and Alfonso. Sancho having been treacherously slain while besieging his sister Urraca’s town of Zamora, the Cid attached himself to Alfonso, humiliating him, however, by making him and his chief lords swear that they had had no hand in Sancho’s death. For this, Alfonso revenged himself by exiling the Cid on the slightest pretexts, recalling him only when his services were needed in the defence of the country.
This much, and the Cid’s victories over the Moors, his occupation of Valencia, and his army’s departure therefrom in 1102, led by his corpse seated on horseback, “clothed in his habit as he lived”, are historical facts.
A great mass of romances, among them the story of his slaying Count Don Gomez because he had insulted his father, Diego Laynez; of Don Gomez’s daughter Ximena wooing and wedding him; of his assisting the leper and having his future success foretold by him, and of his embalmed body sitting many years in the cathedral at Toledo, are related in the “Chronicle of the Cid” and the “Ballads.”
The Poem of the Cid narrates only a portion of his career, and “if it had been named,” says Ormsby, “would have been called ‘The Triumph of the Cid.'”
The Poem of the Cid was written about 1200 A. D. Its authorship is unknown.
It contains three thousand seven hundred and forty-five lines and is divided into two cantares. The versification is careless; when rhyme hampered the poet he dropped it, and used instead of the assonant rhyme.
The Poem of the Cid is of particular interest because it belongs to the very dawn of our modern literature, and because its hero was evidently a real personage, a portion of whose history was recorded in this epic not long after the events took place. The Cid is one of the most simple and natural of the epic heroes; he has all a man’s weaknesses, and it is difficult to repress a smile at the perfectly natural manner in which, while he slaughters enough Moors to secure himself a place in the heavenly kingdom, he takes good care to lay up gold for the enjoyment of life on earth. The poem is told with the greatest simplicity, naturalness, and directness, as well as with much poetic fire.
12.THE DIVINE COMEDY ~ THE HELL.
The Hell conceived by Dante was made by the falling of Lucifer to the centre of the earth. It was directly under Jerusalem. The earth, displaced by Lucifer’s fall, made the Mount of Purgatory, which was the antipodes of Jerusalem.
The unbarred entrance gate, over which stands the inscription, “Leave hope behind, all ye who enter here,” leads into a Vestibule or Ante-Hell, a dark plain separated from Hell proper by the river Acheron. Hell proper then falls into three great divisions for the punishment of the sins of Incontinence, Bestiality, and Malice, which are punished in nine circles, each circle sub-divided. Circle One is the Limbo of the Unbaptized. Circles Two, Three, Four, and Five are reserved for the punishment of the sins of Incontinence, Lasciviousness, Gluttony, Avarice with Prodigality, and Anger with Melancholy. In Circle Six is punished the sin of Bestiality, under which fall Infidelity and Heresiarchy, Bestiality having here its Italian meaning of folly.
In Circles Seven and Eight is punished Malice, subdivided into Violence and Fraud. There are three divisions of Violence,—the Violent against their neighbors (Tyrants, Murderers, etc.); the Violent against themselves (Suicides); and the violent against God (Blasphemers, etc.); and ten divisions of Circle Eight,—Fraud, i.e., Seducers, Flatterers, Simoniacs, Soothsayers, Barrators, Hypocrites, Thieves, False Counsellors, Schismatics, and Forgers and Falsifiers. Below these ten pits yawn the well of the giants, above which the giants tower so that half their persons is visible. Within this well in Circle Nine is Cocytus, a lake of ice divided into four belts,—Caina, Antenora, Ptolemaea, and Judecca, where are punished, respectively, the Betrayers of their kindred, of their country, of their friends and guests, and of their benefactors. At the bottom of the pit is Lucifer, half above the ice and half below it, the centre of his body being the centre of gravity.
13. THE DIVINE COMEDY ~ THE PURGATORY.
The Purgatory of Dante is situated on a mountain top on the opposite side of the earth from Jerusalem, and is surrounded by the western ocean. The souls of those who go there collect on the banks of the Tiber, and are taken to the mountain in a boat by an angel pilot. The shores of the island are covered with the reeds of humility. Around the base of the mount dwell the souls that, repenting late, must “expiate each year of deferred penitence with thirty years of deferred Purgatory” unless the time be shortened by the prayers of their friends on earth.
There are three stages of this Ante-Purgatory: the first, for those who put off conversion through negligence; the second, for those who died by violence and repented while dying; the third, for those monarchs who were too much absorbed in earthly greatness to give much thought to the world to come. The ascent of the terraces, as also those of Purgatory proper, is very difficult, and is not allowed to be made after sunset. The gate of St. Peter separates Ante-Purgatory from Purgatory proper. Three steps, the first of polished white marble, the second of purple, rough and cracked, and the third of blood-red porphyry, signifying confession, contrition, and penance, lead to the gate where sits the angel clad in a penitential robe, with the gold and silver keys with which to unlock the outer and inner gates.
Purgatory proper consists of seven terraces, in each of which one of the seven capital sins, Pride, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lasciviousness are punished; Pride first, because no other sin can be purged from the body until this deepest sin is eliminated. The soul, cleansed of these sins, mounts to the terrestrial paradise, which, above the sphere of air, crowns the Mount of Purgatory.
14.THE ORLANDO FURIOSO
Ludovico Ariosto, author of the Orlando Furioso was born in Reggio, Italy, Sept. 8, 1474. In 1503 he was taken into the service of the Cardinal Hippolito d’Este, and soon after began the composition of the Orlando Furioso, which occupied him for eleven years. It was published in 1516 and brought him immediate fame. Ariosto was so unkindly treated by his patron that he left him and entered the service of the cardinal’s brother, Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. By him he was appointed the governor of a province, in which position he repressed the banditti by whom it was infested, and after a successful administration of three years, returned to Ferrara to reside. The latter part of his life was spent in writing comedies and satires, and in revising the Orlando Furioso. He died in Ferrara, June 6, 1533.
The Orlando Furioso is a sequel to Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorata, Ariosto taking up the story at the end of that poem. Its historical basis is the wars of Charlemagne with the Moors, which were probably confused with those of Charles Martel. As the Orlando of the poem is the same Roland whose fall at Roncesvalles in 778 is celebrated in the Song of Roland, its events must have occurred before that time.
Although the poem is called Orlando Furioso, Orlando’s madness occupies a very small part of it, the principal threads of the story being Orlando’s love for Angelica and his consequent madness, the wars of Charlemagne, and the loves of Bradamant and Rogero. From this Rogero, the family of Este claimed to be derived, and for this reason, Ariosto made Rogero the real hero of the poem, and took occasion to lavish the most extravagant praises upon his patron and his family.
With these principal threads are interwoven innumerable episodes which are not out of place in the epic and lend variety to a story which would otherwise have become tiresome. The lightness of treatment, sometimes approaching ridicule, the rapidity of movement, the grace of style, and the clearness of language, the atmosphere created by the poet which so successfully harmonizes all his tales of magic and his occasional inconsistencies, and the excellent descriptions, have all contributed to the popularity of the poem, which is said to be the most widely read of the epics. These descriptions outweigh its faults,—the taking up the story of Boiardo without an explanation of the situation, the lack of unity, and the failure to depict character; for with the exception of Bradamant and Rogero, Ariosto’s heroes and heroines are very much alike, and their conversation is exceedingly tiresome.
The Furioso is written in the octave stanza and originally consisted of forty cantos, afterwards increased to forty-six.
The poem is the work of a practical poet, one who could govern a province. It is marred by an over-profusion of ornament and contains no such lofty flights of fancy as are to be found in the Jerusalem Delivered. To this, no doubt, it owes, in part at least, its great popularity, for the poet’s poem is never the people’s poem.
15. THE LUSIAD ~ MONTESQUIEU
The Portuguese epic, the Lusiad, so-called from Lusitania, the Latin name for Portugal, was written by Luis de Camoens.
He was born in Lisbon in 1524, lost his father by shipwreck in infancy, and was educated by his mother at the University of Coimbra. On leaving the university he appeared at court, where his graces of person and mind soon rendered him a favorite. Here a love affair with the Donna Catarina de Atayde, whom the king also loved, caused his banishment to Santarem. At this place, he began the Lusiad, and continued it on the expedition against the Moors in Africa sent out by John III., an expedition on which he displayed much valour and lost an eye. He was recalled to court, but jealousies soon drove him thence to India, whither he sailed in 1553, exclaiming, “Ungrateful country, thou shall not possess my bones.” In India his bravery and accomplishments won him friends, but his imprudences soon caused his exile to China, where he accumulated a small fortune and finished his poem. Happier circumstances permitted him to return to Goa; but on the way, the ship laden with his fortune sank, and he escaped, saving only his poem. After sixteen years of misfortune abroad, Camoens returned to Lisbon in 1569. The pestilence that was then raging delayed the publication of the Lusiad until 1572. The poem received little attention; a small pension was bestowed on the poet but was soon withdrawn, and the unfortunate Camoens was left to die in an almshouse. On his death-bed, he deplored the impending fate of his country, which he alone could see. “I have loved my country. I have returned not only to die on her bosom but to die with her.”
The Lusiad tells the story of the voyage of Vasco da Gama. The sailors of Prince Henry of Portugal, commander of the Portuguese forces in Africa, had passed Cape Nam and discovered the Cape of Storms, which the prince renamed the Cape of Good Hope. His successor Emmanuel determined to carry out the work of his predecessor by sending out da Gama to undertake the discovery of the southern passage to India. The Portuguese were generally hostile to the undertaking, but da Gama, his brother, and his friend Coello gathered a company, part of which consisted of malefactors whose sentence of death was reversed on condition that they undertake the voyage, and reached India.
The Lusiad is divided into ten cantos, containing one thousand one hundred and two stanzas. Its metre is the heroic iambic, in rhymed octave stanzas.
The Lusiad is marred by its mythological allusions in imitation of Homer and Virgil, but these are forgotten when the poet sings in impassioned strains of his country’s past glory.
The Lusiad is simple in style; its subject is prosaic; it is a constant wonder that out of such unpromising materials Camoens could construct a poem of such interest. He could not have done so had he not been so great a poet, so impassioned a patriot.
Camoens was in one sense of the word a practical man, like Ariosto; he had governed a province and governed it successfully. But he had also taken up arms for his country, and after suffering all the slights that could be put upon him by an ungrateful and forgetful monarch, still loved his native land, loved it the more, perhaps, that he had suffered for it and was by it neglected. He foresaw, also, as did no one else, the future ruin of his country, and loved it the more intensely, as a parent lavishes the fondest, most despairing affection on a child he knows doomed to an early death.
The Lusiad is sometimes called the epic of commerce; it could be called far more appropriately the epic of patriotism.
16. THE JERUSALEM DELIVERED
The Gerusalemme Liberata, or Jerusalem Delivered, was written by Torquato Tasso, who was born at Sorrento, March 11, 1544. He was educated at Naples, Urbino, Rome, Venice, Padua, and Bologna. In 1572 he attached himself to the court of Ferrara, which he had visited in 1565 in the suite of the Cardinal d’Este, and by whose duke he had been treated with great consideration. Here his pastoral drama “Aminta” was written and performed, and here he began to write his epic. The duke, angry because of Tasso’s affection for his sister Eleanora, and fearful lest the poet should dedicate his poem to the Medicis, whom he visited in 1575, and into whose service he was asked to enter, kept him under strict surveillance, and pretended to regard him as insane. Feigning sympathy and a desire to restore his mind, he had the unfortunate poet confined in a mad-house. Tasso escaped several times, but each time returned in the hope of a reconciliation with the duke. During his confinement his poem was published without his permission: first in 1580, a very imperfect version; in 1581, a genuine one. This at once brought him great fame; but while its publishers made a fortune, Tasso received nothing. Neither did the duke relent, although powerful influences were brought to bear on him. Tasso was not released until 1586, and then, broken in health, he passed the rest of his life in Rome and Naples, living on charity, though treated with great honour. He died in Rome, April 25, 1595, just before he was to have been crowned at the capitol.
The Jerusalem Delivered has for its subject the first Crusade, and the events recorded in its twenty cantos comprise the happenings in the camp of the Crusaders during forty days of the campaign of 1099. Its metre is the octava rima, the eight lined rhymed stanza.
Tasso was not so successful in the delineation of character and in the description of actions as in the interpretation of the feeling, being by nature a lyric rather than an epic poet. But his happy choice of subject,—for the Crusades were still fresh in the memory of the people, and chivalry was a thing of the present—his zeal for the Christian cause, his impassioned delineations of love, and his exquisitely poetical treatment of his whole theme, rendered his epic irresistible.
17. PARADISE LOST
Paradise Lost was written by John Milton, who was born in London, Dec. 9, 1608, and died Nov. 8, 1674. After leaving college, he spent five years in study at home, during which time he wrote L’Allegro, Il Penseroso, Arcades, Comus, and Lycidas. In 1638 he travelled on the continent and in Italy, where he met Galileo. He hastened home in 1639 on account of the political disturbances in England, and espousing the Puritan cause, devoted the next twenty years of his life to the writing of pamphlets in its defence. In 1649 he was appointed Latin Secretary under Cromwell. In 1652 he lost his sight in consequence of overwork. At the age of twenty-nine, Milton had decided to make an epic poem his life work, and had noted many historical subjects. By 1641 he had decided on a Biblical subject. He had probably conceived Paradise Lost at the age of thirty-two, although the poem was not composed until he was over fifty. It was written after his blindness and dictated in small portions to various persons, the work being collected and revised by Milton and Aubrey Phillips. It was completed, according to the authority of Phillips, in 1663, but on account of the Plague and the Great Fire, it was not published until 1667.
Paradise Lost is divided into twelve books and is written, to use Milton’s own words, “In English heroic verse without rhyme, as that of Homer in Greek and of Virgil in Latin, rhyme being no necessary adjunct or true ornament of poem or good verse.”
Paradise Lost was neglected until the time of the Whig supremacy in England. In 1688 Lord Somers, the Whig leader published an édition de luxe of the poem; Addison’s papers on it, in 1712, increased its popularity, and through the influence of the Whigs a bust of the poet was placed in Westminster Abbey in 1737.
There is no better proof of the greatness of Paradise Lost than the way in which it has survived hostile criticism. It has been criticised for the lengthy conversations and “arguments” of its characters; for its materialization of the Divine Being; because of its subject; because of Milton’s vagueness of description of things awesome and terrible, in comparison with Dante’s minute descriptions. But the earnest spirit in which it was conceived and written; the subject, giving it a “higher argument” than any merely national epic, even though many of Milton’s, and his age’s, special beliefs are things of the past, and its lofty and poetical style, have rendered unassailable its rank among the noblest of the epics.
18. PARADISE REGAINED
Paradise regained was written by Milton, judging from a passage in the Autobiography of Thomas Ellwood, in the winter of 1665-6, but was not published until 1671. It was printed at Milton’s expense in a small volume together with Samson Agonistes.
Paradise Regained tells the story of Christ’s temptation in the Wilderness, and the material was taken from the accounts of Matthew and Luke, which the poet, with great skill, expanded without essentially deviating from them.
The title has been criticised on the ground that the poem should have extended over the whole of Christ’s life on earth. But Paradise Regained was written as a sequel to Paradise Lost, and, as in the first poem the poet showed that Paradise was lost by the yielding of Adam and Eve to Satan, so in the second, he wished to show that Paradise was regained by the resistance of Christ to temptation, Satan’s defeat signifying the regaining of Paradise for men by giving them the hope of Christ’s second coming. Therefore the poem naturally ends with Satan’s rebuff and his final abandonment of the attempt on the pinnacle of the Temple.
The poem has been criticised for its shortness, some scholars even affecting to believe it unfinished; its lack of variety, in that it has but two characters, its lack of action, and the absence of figurative language.
But with all these faults, it has a charm of its own, entirely different from that of Paradise Lost. Satan has degenerated during his years of “roaming up and down the earth;” he is no longer the fallen angel of Paradise Lost, who struggled with himself before making evil his good. He is openly given over to evil practices and makes little effort to play the hypocrite. His temptations are worked up from that of hunger to that of the vision of the kingdoms of the earth with a wonderful power of description which makes up for the lack of action and the few actors. The pathless, rockbound desert, the old man, poorly clad, who accosts the Christ, the mountain-top from which all the earth was visible, the night of horror in the desert, and the sublime figure of the Savior, are all enduring pictures which compensate for any rigidity of treatment. If figurative language is omitted it is because the theme does not need it, and does not show that the poem is less carefully finished than Paradise Lost. Its lack of action and similarity of subject to the longer poem sufficiently account for its not meeting with popular favour. Johnson was correct when he said, “had this poem been written not by Milton, but by some imitator, it would have claimed and received universal praise.”