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ESSAY THE THIRD.
SOCIETY AND MANNERS,
EARLY HEROJC AGES.
In considering the work of a writer, who has chosen for his subject one of the most memorable adventures of the early heroic ages of Greece, we are naturally led, to direct some share of attention to the manners and state of society, at the period to which the action of the poem in question is referred. The reader will find many scat. tered observations, to this effect, in the course of the preface, the other essays, and notes; which form a part of this publication; but, I trust, he will not think a few observations, on the same subject, in a more regular and systematic form, wholly superfluous.
The manners and occurrences of the heroic ages are, in themselves, a most interesting and sublime spectacle. They exhibit to the philosopher, human nature, undisguised and unsophisticated, with the most prominent passions, and faculties, in full energy and effect. All the actions, and motives of action, in that state of society, are great and prominent; original thinking, independent conduct, and daring enterprise, are its characteristic features. The sketches, taken from a prospect of mankind, viewed in this state, will be like the drawings from the naked forms of wrestlers, or the figures of Michael Angelo: all the muscles and sinews, all that constitutes strength, and aids exertion, will come forward, and appear bold, and in full relief.
But it is not, in a general point of view, that the nature of the present work demands a consideration of the heroic ages. When we view them with a reference to the production of a poet, as, in the present case, our attention must be directed to the Argonautics of Apollonius, we are led, to consider this subject, under an aspect, somewhat differing from the philosophical and historical views of it. We must contemplate the state of society and manners, as far as they are calculated, to prompt and produce actions and adventures, fitted to afford subjects for the higher parts of poetry, the Epopeia, and the Drama. It is also natural for us to enquire, in what degree they are susceptible of poetical embellishment, and whether they are more capable of it, than society and manners in a more advanced state of civilization and refinement. It remains yet further, to be considered, whether there are not different passions and feelings, more particularly appropriated to different states and stages of society; and which of these, in their practical operation, as exemplified in the affairs of men, will be most likely to furnish subjects for poetry: which of them, as traced to the human heart, and exhibited, in the workings and operations of the spirit, the vicissitudes of thought, and purpose, which they occasion, are most capable of being treated with advantage, and receiving embellishment:--what are the particular branches of poetry, which are most likely to be suggested, rendered popular, or called to
perfection, by the predominancy of particular passions, and feelings, of course, what are the various species and forms of poetry, which will become most prevalent, and may be most successfully cultivated, respectively, at various periods, and in various stages, and states of society and manners.-In other words, it may be determined, how revolutions in the state of society, and changes in the manners and ways of thinking of men, naturally operate to produce revolutions in poetry.
Such considerations and enquiries, as I have mentioned, would form an interesting and entertaining section in poetical history; and conduce much to the extension of sound criticism, founded on philosophical principles, and tracing poetry to its origin in the manners and dispositions of men.— Poetry has not been sufficiently turned to the true light; or placed in the point of view, in which it ought to be considered, that of an art, which records in the most impressive manner the actions of mankind; gives a harmonized form, and musical utterance, to their passions and feelings; and reflects a living picture of the manners of the times. It is obvious, that much of the merit of such pictures, must consist in the fidelity of the likenesses; and to judge properly of this fidelity in the painter, it is necessary, that we should recur to the originals, from whence his portraits are drawn. It is justly said, by a celebrated poet,*
“ Heroic acts high raptures do infuse,
“ And every conqueror creates a muse.” In the heroic ages, both mind and body are capable of the strongest and greatest exertions, the body is sinewed by toil, and daily exercise, in the most active and manly
sports. The passions are all uncontrolled and vigorous, very little restrained by laws, very little modified or subdued by decorums, customs, institutes, or dissimulation.--The ruling passions, and predominant dispo. sitions, which then display themselves, are all of the boldest feature, and strongest tone a nger, revenge, love of spoil, lust of power, thirst of glory, ardent cariosity, the restless spirit of adventure. -Such motives as these, are likely to produce bold, extraordinary, and hardy attempts, such as seem to pass the boundaries of human' strength, and outstrip the belief of human possibility.' The mind and body are prepared for the atchievement of things' unattainable by human force, in times, when the body is, in some measure, relaxed by luxury and indulgence, and the mind restrained by legal curbs and prudential reflections.
It must, also, be remarked, that in those rude ages, which 'the world has agreed to call heroic; by reason of the small restraint, that is imposed by law, on the unruly passions, and the imperfect state of government and police, which afforded few and feeble means of protection to the weak, against the inroads of the strong, acts of blood and rapine, of outrage and ferocity, were very frequent. ' Human nature was perpetually called forth, to suffer and to dare, in such transactions as furnish niatter for the Epos, or people the stage with perpetrators or victims of mighty crimes, and mighty calamities.
Enthusiasm is a peculiar attribute of the heroic ages. _" Nil admirari” may be a very useful maxim, for
the the conduct of common life, but it is a precept highly inimical to the atchievements of heroism, and the flights of poetry. The sources of information, in those ages, are too scanty, and the leisure allowed for the acquirement of knowledge, too small, to render the diffusion of arts and sciences so general, as to produce the fastidiousness of mind, and critical difficulty of being pleased, which destroy enthusiasm.-The mind uninformed and unrestrained, is prone to admiration.-Little versed in natural causes, men are disposed to magnify into prodigies those appearances, for which they are unable to account. - The love of the marvellous predominates ; and this propensity will be perpetually nourished, by an abundant supply of subjects. The fewer the things, which are understood by men, the greater will be the number of those, which must appear wonderful. Man is, in every state and stage of society, a collection of paradoxes, an union of inconsistencies; and in the fabulous or heroic ages we find, a strange combination of the two kinds of enthusiasm, so different in their form, so contrary in their effects, yet, manifestly, proceeding from the same source. The one enlarging: the other, contracting.-The one form of enthusiasm, is seen operating to elevate the other, to debase the mind. The one is seen producing great exploits, through grandeur of sentiment, the other an ardent credulity, under the dominion of ignorance. A high opinion in the minds of men, of their own powers, a fervid imagination, perpe. tually inflaming violent and uncontrolled passions, dauntless courage conceiving great things, and prompting men to attempt them, flattering and eager hope painting the distant object in colours of allurement, and unconque. rable irresistible impetuosity pursuing it, without pause or remission; these are the consequences, or the inseparable marks and concomitants, of the first kind of FOL. III.