« PreviousContinue »
The Design of “ Britain Discovered,” an Heroic Poem, in Twelve Books,
By WILLIAM JONES.
Ne carmine quidem ludere contrarium fuerit: ideoque mihi videtur M. Tullius tantum intulisse eloquentiæ lumen, quod in hos quoque studiorum secessus excurrit.
Quintil. Instit. l. x. 5.
The Idea of an Epic Poem, at Spa, July 1770, Anno ætat. 23.
IN TWELVE BOOKS.
THE first hint of this poem was suggested by a passage in a letter of Spenser to Sir Walter Raleigh, where having explained his intention in writing the Fairy Queen, he adds, that if he found his image of Prince Arthur, and the allegory of the
twelve private virtues to be well accepted, he might, perhaps, be encouraged to frame the other part of political virtues in his person, after he came to be king. What Spenser never lived to perform, it is my design in some measure to supply, and in the short intervals of my leisure from the fatigues of the bar, to finish an heroic poem on the excellence of our Constitution, and the character of a perfect king of England.
When this idea first presented itself to my mind, I found myself obliged, though unwillingly, to follow the advice of Bossu, who insists, that a poet should choose his subject in the abstract, and then search in the wide field of universal history for a hero exactly fitted to his purpose. My hero was not easy to be found ; for the story of King Arthur, which might have been excellent in the sixteenth century, has lost its dignity in the eighteenth; and it seemed below a writer of any genius to adopt entirely a plan chalked out by others ; not to mention, that Milton had a design in his youth, of making Arthur his hero; that Dryden has given us a sketch of his intended poem on the same subject; and that even Blackmore had taken the same story; whose steps it were a disgrace to follow.
It only remains, therefore, to have recourse to allegory and tradition ; and to give the poem a double sense; in the first of which, its subject is simply this, the discovery of our island by the Tyrian adventurers, who first gave it the name of Britain; in the second, or allegorical sense, it exhibits the character above mentioned, of a perfect king of this country,-a character the most glorious and beneficial of any that the warmest imagination can form. It represents the danger to which a king of England must necessarily be exposed, the vices which he must avoid, and the virtues and
great qualities with which he must be adorned. On the whole, Britain Discovered, is intended as a poetical panegyric on our excellent Constitution, and as a pledge of the author's attachment to it; as a national epic poem, like those of Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Camoëns, designed to celebrate the honours of his Country, to display in a striking light the most important principles of politics and morality, and to inculcate these grand maxims, that nothing can shake our state, while the true liberty of the subject remains united with the dignity of the sovereign, and, that in all states, virtue is the only sure basis of private and public happiness.
A work of this nature might indeed have been written in prose, either in the form of a treatise, after the example of Aristotle, or of a dialogue, in the manner of Tully, whose six books on govern. ment are now unhappily lost ; or perhaps in imitation of Lord Bolingbroke, who has left us something of the same kind in his idea of a patriot king: but as poetry has the allowed advantage over mere prose, of instilling moral precepts in a manner more lively and entertaining, it was thought proper to deliver the whole subject in regular measure, under the fiction of an heroic adventure.
The poem will be written in rhyme, like the translation of the Iliad by Pope, and of the Eneid by Dryden ; since it has been found by experience, that the verses of those poets not only make a deeper impression on the mind, but are more easily retained in the memory, than blank verse, which must necessarily be too diffuse, and in general can only be distinguished from prose by the affectation of obsolete or foreign idioms, inversions, and swelling epithets, all tending to destroy the beauty of our language, which consists in a natural sweetness and unaffected perspicuity : not to insist that a writer who finds himself obliged to confine his senti
ments in a narrow circle, will be less liable to run into luxuriance, and more likely to attain that roundness of diction so justly admired by the ancients. As to the monotony which many people complain of in our English rhymes, that defect, which is certainly no small one, if we admit only those endings which are exactly similar, must be compensated by a judicious variation of the pauses, an artful diversity of modulation, and chiefly by avoiding too near a return of the same endings.
The machinery is taken partly from the Socratic doctrine of attendant spirits, or benevolent angels, like Thyrsis in the Masque of Comus; and partly from the Scriptural account of evil spirits worshipped in Asia, under the names of Baal, Astartè, Nisroc, Dagon, Mammon, Moloch, and in ancient Europe, where Cadmus introduced them under those of Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Neptune, Vulcan, Pluto. If any objection be made to these machines, they may be considered as allegorical, like Spenser's knights and paynims; the good spirits may be said to represent the virtues, and the evil ones the vices.
The action, or story of the piece, is raised upon the tradition before-mentioned, that the Phænicians first discovered the island of Britain ; but the rest must be wholly supplied by invention.
A prince of Tyre, therefore, whom we may name Britanus or Britan, shocked at the cruelty of his countrymen in sacrificing their prisoners to idols, and at their impiety in paying divine honours to evil spirits, had meditated a voyage to some distant coast; with which intent, pretending to prepare for an expedition against some rival nation, he had built a number of barques, and secured to his interests a company of enterprizing youths, but was doubtful whither he should direct his course, till his attendant spirit, Ramiel,