Page:The Harvard Classics Vol. 51; Lectures.djvu/76

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By Professor Charles Burton Gulick

EPIC poetry might be described as that in which fewest poets have achieved distinction. Homer, Virgil, Milton are the names which occur to the mind when we try to define the type, but beyond these three it is hard to find any who have successfully treated a large theme with the dignity, grandeur, and beauty which the heroic poem demands.

This is because the standard was set at the beginning; and when we analyze the method and the purpose of these great poets, Homer emerges as the one supreme and incomparable master of them all. For, in "Paradise Lost,"[1]Milton was too often diverted from the true office of the poet by theological controversy; Virgil's "Æneid"[2] is the highly studied product of a self-conscious age, and was deliberately written to exalt the greatness of imperial Rome.


And yet, although the art of Homer is more naïve and unconscious than Virgil's, it is a mistake to think, as the eighteenth century thought, that Homer represents the childhood of the race. Fresh, vigorous, spontaneous, swift, he none the less stands at the end of many generations of singers. From them he inherited traditions of versification, diction, and phrase that reach back to the very earliest emergence of the Greeks from barbarism.

The material of the first epic songs was quite simple. In the beginning the tribal gods would be the theme of a hymn of praise or thanksgiving; and since the heroic ancestors of the chieftains were thought to be the sons of gods, it was easy to pass from god to man and contemporary exploits in some famous raid were not forgotten. Sacred hymn became heroic lay. Popular poetry it was, in the sense that it appealed strongly to popular interest and local

  1. Harvard Classics, iv, 87-358.
  2. H. C., xiii.