Verbal distinctions should be valued, since they stand for mental – intellectual – distinctions. Yet one feels it is somehow a pity that the word “poet” should have been split asunder. For nowadays when we speak of a poet, we think only of the utterer of such lyric, birdlike notes as “With ships the sea was sprinkled far and nigh, / Like stars in heaven” (Wordsworth), or “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly? / Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.” Whereas the ancients, when they spoke of a poet – a “maker” – thought of him not only as the utterer of those high lyric notes, but also as the teller of a tale. A tale wherein all the voices of mankind might be found – not only the lyric, the wistful, the melancholy, but also the voices of courage and of hope. This means that I am speaking of what I suppose is the oldest form of poetry: the epic. Let us consider a few of them.
Perhaps the first which comes to mind is the one that Andrew Lang, who so finely translated it, called The Tale of Troy. We will look into it for that very ancient telling of a tale. In the very first line, we have something like: “Tell me, muse, of the anger of Achilles.” Or as Professor Rouse, I think, has translated it: “An angry man – that is my subject.” Perhaps Homer, or the man we call Homer (for that is an old question, of course), thought he was writing his poem about an angry man, and this somehow disconnects us. For we think of anger as the Latins did: “ira furor brevis” – anger is a brief madness, a fit of madness. The plot of the Iliad is really, in itself, not a charming one – the idea of the hero sulking in his tent, feeling that the king has dealt unjustly with him, and then taking up the war as a private feud because his friend has been killed, and afterwards selling the dead man he has killed to the man’s father.
But perhaps (I may have said this before; I am sure I have), perhaps the intentions of the poet are not that important. What is important nowadays is that although Homer might have thought he was telling that story, he was actually telling something far finer: the story of a man, a hero, who knows he will die before [the city] falls; and the still more stirring tale of men defending a city whose doom is already known to them, a city that is already in flames. I think this is the real subject of the Iliad. And, in fact, men have always felt that the Trojans were the real heroes. We think of Virgil, but we many also think of Snorri Sturluson, who, in his younger era, wrote that Odin – the Odin of the Saxons, the god – was the son of Priam and the brother of Hector. Men have sought kinship with the defeated Trojans, and not with the victorious Greeks. This is perhaps because there is a dignity in defeat that hardly belongs to victory.
Let us take a second epic, the Odyssey. The Odyssey may be read in two ways. I suppose the man (or the woman, as Samuel Butler thought) who had written it felt that there were really two stories: the homecoming of Ulysses, and the marvels and perils of the sea. If we take the Odyssey in the first sense, then we have the idea of homecoming, the idea that we are in banishment, that our true home is in the past or in heaven or somewhere else, that we are never at home. But of course the seafaring and the homecoming had to be made interesting. so the many marvels were worked in. And already, when we come to the Arabian Nights, we find the Arabian version of the Odyssey, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, is not a story of homecoming but a story of adventure; and I think we read it thus. When we read the Odyssey, I think that what we feel is the glamour, the magic of the sea; what we feel is what we find in the seafarer. For example, he has no heart for the harp, nor for the giving of rings, nor for the delight of a woman, nor for the greatness of the world. He thinks only of the long sea salt streams. So that we have both stories in one: we can read it as a homecoming, and we can read it as a tale of adventure – perhaps the finest that has ever been written or sung.
We come now to a third “poem” that looms far above them: the four Gospels. the Gospels may also be read in two ways. By the believer, they are read as the strange story of a man, of a god, who atones for the sins of mankind. A god who condescends to suffering – to death on the “bitter cross,” as Shakespeare has it. There is a still stranger interpretation, which I found in Langland: the idea that God wanted to know all about human suffering, and that it was not enough for Him to know it intellectually, as a god might; he wanted to suffer as a man, and with the limitations of a man. However, if you are an unbeliever (many of us are) then you can read the story in a different way. You can think of a man of genius, of a man who thought he was a god and who at the end found out that he was merely a man, and that god – his god – had forsaken him.
It might be said that for many centuries, those three stories – the tale of Troy, the tale of Ulysses, the tale of Jesus – have been sufficient for mankind. People have been telling and retelling them over and over again; they have been set to music; they have been painted. People have told them many times over, yet the stories are still there, illimitable. You might think of somebody, in a thousand years of ten thousand years, writing them over again. But in the case of the Gospels, there is a difference: the story of Christ, I think, cannot be told better. It has been told many times over, yet I think the few verses where we read, for example, of Christ being tempted by Satan are stronger than all four books of Paradise Regained. One feels that Milton perhaps had no inkling as to what kind of a man Christ was.
Well, we have these stories and we have the fact that men did not need many stories. I don’t suppose Chaucer ever thought of inventing a story. I don’t think people were less inventive in those days than they are today. I think they felt that the new shadings brought into the story – the fine shadings brought into it – were enough. Besides, it made things easier for the poet. His hearers or his readers knew what he was going to say. And so they could take in all the differences.
Now, in the epic – and we might think of the Gospels as a kind of divine epic – all things could be found. But poetry, as I said, has fallen asunder; or rather, on the one hand we have the lyrical poem and the elegy, and on the other we have the telling of a tale – we have the novel. One is almost tempted to think of the novel as a degeneration of the epic, in spite of such writers as Joseph Conrad or Herman Melville. For the novel goes back to the dignity of the epic.
If we think about the novel and the epic, we are tempted to fall into thinking that the chief difference lies in the difference between verse and prose, in the difference between singing something and stating something. But I think there is a greater difference. The difference lies in the fact that the important thing about the epic is a hero – a man who is a pattern for all men. While, as Mencken pointed out, the essence of most novels lies in the breaking down of a man, in the degeneration of character.
The brings us to another question: What do we think of happiness? What do we think of defeat, and of victory? Nowadays when people talk of a happy ending, they think of it as a mere pandering to the public, or they think of it as a commercial device; they think of it as artificial. Yet for centuries men could very sincerely believe in happiness and in victory, though they felt the essential dignity of defeat. For example, when people wrote about the Golden Fleece (one of the ancient stories of mankind), readers and hearers werer made to feel from the beginning that the treasure would be found at the end.
Well, nowadays if an adventure is attempted, we know that it will end in failure. When we read – I think of an example I admire – The Aspern Papers, we know that the papers will never be found. When we read Franz Kafka’s The Castle, we know that the man will never get inside the castle. That is to say, we cannot really believe in happiness and success. And this may be one of the poverties of our time. I suppose Kafka felt much the same when he wanted his books to be destroyed: he really wanted to write a happy and victorious book, and he felt that he could not do it. He might have written it, of course, but people would have felt that he was not telling the truth. Not truth of facts but the truth of his dreams.
At the end of the eighteenth of the beginning of the nineteenth century, let’s say (we need hardly go into a discussion of dates), man began to invent stories. Perhaps one might say that the attempt began with Hawthorne and with Edgar Allan Poe, but of course there are always forerunners. As Rubén Darío has pointed out, nobody is the literary Adam. Still, it was Poe who wrote that a story should be written for the sake of the last sentence, and a poem for the sake of the last line. This degenerated into the trick story, and in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries people have invented all kinds of plots. Those plots are sometimes very clever. Those plots, if merely told, are cleverer than the plots of the epics. Yet somehow we feel that there is something artificial about them – or rather, that there is something trivial about them. If we take two cases – let us suppose the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, then a novel or a film like Psycho – perhaps the plot of the second is cleverer, but we feel that there is something more behind Stevenson’s plot.
Regarding the idea I spoke about in the beginning, the idea about there being only a few plots: perhaps we should mention those books where the interest lies not in the plot but in the shifting, in the changing, of many plots. I am thinking of the Arabian Nights, of Orlando Furioso, and so on. One might also add the idea of an evil treasure. we get that in the Völsunga Saga, and perhaps at the end of Beowulf - the idea of a treasure bringing evil to the people who find it. Here we may come to the idea that I tried to work out in my last lecture, on metaphor – the idea that perhaps all plots belong to only a few patterns. Of course, nowadays people are inventing so many plots that we are blinded by them. But perhaps this fit of inventiveness may flicker, and then we may find that those many plots are but appearances of a few essential plots. This, however, is not for me to discuss.
There is another fact to be noticed: poets seem to forget that, at one time, the telling of a tale was essential, and the telling of the tale and the uttering of the verse were not thought of as different things. A man told a tale; he sang it; and his hearers did not think of him as a man attempting two tasks, but rather as a man attempting one task that had two sides to it. Or perhaps they did not feel that there were two sides to it, but rather thought of the whole thing as one essential thing.
We come now to our own time, and we find this very strange circumstance: we have had two world wars, yet somehow no epic has come from them – except perhaps the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom I find many epic qualities. But the book is hampered by the fact that the hero is the teller, and so sometimes he has to belittle himself, he has to make himself human, he has to make himself far too believable. In fact, he has to fall into the trickery of a novelist.
There is another book, quite forgotten now, which I read, I think, in 1915 – a novel called Le Feu, by Henri Barbusse. “The author was a pacifist; it was a book written against war. Yet somehow epic thrust itself through the book (I remember a very fine bayonet charge in it). Another writer who had the epic sense was Kipling. We get this in such a wonderful story as “A Sahib’s War.” But in the same way that Kipling never attempted the sonnet, because he thought that this might estrange him from his readers, he never attempted the epic, though he might have done it. I am also reminded of Chesterton who wrote “The Ballad of the White Horse,” a poem about King Alfred’s wars with the Danes. Therein we find very strange metaphors (I wonder how I forgot to quote them last time!) – for example, “marble like solid moonlight,” “gold like frozen fire,” where marble and gold are compared to two things that are even more elementary. They are compared to moonlight and to fire – and not to fire itself, but to a magic frozen fire.
In a way, people are hungering and thirsting for epic. I feel that epic is one of the things that men need. Of all places (and this may come as a kind of anticlimax, but the fact is there), it has been Hollywood that has furnished epic to the world. All over the globe, when people see a Western – beholding the mythology of a rider, and the desert, and justice, and the sheriff, and the shooting, and so on – I think they get the epic feeling from it, whether they know it or not. After all, knowing the thing is not important.
Now, I do not want to prophesy, because such things are dangerous (though they may come true in the long run), but I think that if the telling of a tale and the singing of a verse could come together again, then a very important thing might happen. Perhaps this will come from America – since, as you all know, America has an ethical sense of a thing being right or wrong. It may be felt in other countries, but I do not think it can be found in such an obvious way as I find it here. If this could be achieved, if we could go back to the epic, then something very great would have been accomplished. When Chesterton wrote “The Ballad of the White Horse,” it got good reviews and so on, but readers did not take kindly to it. In fact, when we think of Chesterton, we think of the Father Brown saga and not of that poem.
I have been thinking about the subject only rather late in life; and besides, I do not think I could attempt the epic (though I might have worked in two or three lines of epic). This is for younger men to do. And I hope they will do it, because of course we all feel that the novel is somehow breaking down. Think of the chief novels of our time – say, Joyce’s Ulysses. We are told thousands of things about the two characters, yet we do not know them. We have a better knowledge of characters in Dante or Shakespeare, who come to us – who live and die – in a few sentences. We do not know thousands of circumstances about them, but we know them intimately. That, of course, is far more important.
I think that the novel is breaking down. I think that all those very daring and interesting experiments with the novel – for example, the idea of shifting time, the idea of the story being told by different characters – all those are leading to the moment when we shall feel that the novel is no longer with us.
But there is something about a tale, a story that will always be going on. I do not believe men will ever tire of telling or hearing stories. And if along with the pleasure of being told a story we get the additional pleasure of the dignity of verse, then something great will have happened. Maybe I am an old-fashioned man from the nineteenth century, but I have optimism, I have hope; and as the future holds many things – as the future, perhaps, holds all things – I think the epic will come back to us. I believe that the poet shall once again be a maker. I mean, he will tell a story and he will also sing it. And we will not think of those two things as different, even as we do not think they are different in Homer or in Virgil.
–J.L.B., Harvard lecture, AY 1967-1968