The Battle of Marathon, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning


That Poetry is the first, and most celebrated of all the fine arts, has not been denied in any age, or by any philosopher. The culture of the soul, which Sallust so nobly describes, is necessary to those refined pleasures, and elegant enjoyments, in which man displays his superiority to brutes. It is alone the elevation of the soul, not the form of the body, which constitutes the proud distinction, according to the learned historian, “Alterum nobis cum diis, alterum cum belluis commune est.” The noblest of the productions of man, that which inspires the enthusiasm of virtue, the energy of truth, is Poetry: Poetry elevates the mind to Heaven, kindles within it unwonted fires, and bids it throb with feelings exalting to its nature.

This humble attempt may by some be unfortunately attributed to vanity, to an affectation of talent, or to the still more absurd desire of being thought a genius. With the humility and deference due to their judgments, I wish to plead not guilty to their accusations, and, with submission, to offer these pages to the perusal of the few kind and partial friends who may condescend to read them, assured that their criticism will be tempered with mercy.

Happily it is not now, as it was in the days of Pope, who was so early in actual danger of thinking himself “the greatest genius of the age.” Now, even the female may drive her Pegasus through the realms of Parnassus, without being saluted with that most equivocal of all appellations, a learned lady; without being celebrated by her friends as a Sappho, or traduced by her enemies as a pedant; without being abused in the Heview, or criticised in society; how justly then may a child hope to pass unheeded!

In these reading days, there need be little vulgar anxiety among Poets for the fate of their works: the public taste is no longer so epicurean. As the press pours forth profusion, the literary multitude eagerly receive its lavish offerings, while the sublimity of Homer, and the majesty of Virgil, those grand and solitary specimens of ancient poetic excel- lence, so renowned through the lapse of ages, are by many read only as school books, and are justly estimated alone by the comparative few, whose hearts can be touched by the grandeur of their sentiments, or exalted by their kindred fire; by them this dereliction must be felt, but they can do no more than mourn over this semblance of decline in literary judgment and poetic taste. Yet, in contemplating the Poets of our own times — (for there are real Poets, though they be mingled with an inferior multitude of the common herd) — who, unsophisticated by prejudice, can peruse those inspired pages emitted from the soul of Byron, or who can be dazzled by the gems sparkling from the rich mine of the imagination of Moodie, or captivated by scenes glowing in the descriptive powers of Scott, without a proud consciousness that our day may boast the exuberance of true poetic genius? And if criticism be somewhat too general in its suffrage, may it not be attributed to an overwhelming abundance of cotemporary Authors, which induces it to err in discrimination, and may cause its praises to be frequently ill-merited, and its censures ill-deserved; as the eye, wandering over a garden where flowers are mingled with weeds, harassed by exertion, and dimmed by the brilliancy of colors, frequently mistakes the flower for the weed, and the weed for the flower.

It is worthy of remark, that when Poetry first burst from the mists of ignorance — when first she shone a bright star illumining the then narrow understanding of the Greeks — from that period when Homer, the sublime Poet of antiquity, awoke the first notes of poetic inspiration to the praise of valor, honor, patriotism, and, best of all, to a sense of the high attributes of the Deity, though darkly and mysteriously revealed; then it was, and not till then, that the seed of every virtue, of every great quality, which had so long lain dormant in the souls of the Greeks, burst into the germ; as when the sun disperses the mist cowering o’er the face of the Heavens, illumes with his resplendant rays the whole creation, and speaks to the verdant beauties of nature, joy, peace, and gladness. Then it was that Greece began to give those immortal examples of exalted feeling, and of patriotic virtue, which have since astonished the world; then it was that the unenlightened soul of the savage rose above the degradation which assimilated him to the brute creation, and discovered the first rays of social independance, and of limited freedom; not the freedom of barbarism, but that of a state enlightened by a wise jurisdiction, and restrained by civil laws. Prom that period man seems to have first proved his resemblance to his Creator, and his superiority to brutes, and the birth of Poetry was that of all the kindred arts; in the words of Cicero, “Quo minus ergo honoris erat poetis eo minora studia fuerunt.”

It is no disparagement to an historical poem to enlarge upon its subject; but where truth is materially outraged, it ceases to be history. Homer, in his Illiad and Odyssey, and Virgil, in his Aeneid, liaA^e greatly beautified their subjects, so grand in themselves, and, with true poetic taste and poetic imagery, have contributed with magnificent profusion to adorn those incidents which otherwise would appear tame, barren, and uninteresting. It is certain, however happily they have succeeded, their Poems cannot be called strictly historical, because the truth of history is not altogether undeviated from. Virgil, especially, has introduced in his Aeneid “an anachronism of nearly three hundred years, Dido having fled from Phoenicia that period after the age of Aeneas.” But in that dependance upon the truth of history which I would enforce as a necessary quality in an historical Poem, I do not mean to insinuate that it should be mere prose versified, or a suspension of the functions of the imagination, for then it could no longer be Poetry. It is evident that an historical Poem should possess the following qualifications:— Imagination, invention, judgment, taste, and truth; the four first are ne- cessary to Poetry, the latter to history. He who writes an historical Poem must be directed by the pole-star of history, truth; his path may be laid beneath the bright sun of invention, amongst the varied walks of imagination, with judgment and taste for his guides, but his goal must be that resplendant an«j unchangeable luminary, truth.

Imagination must be allowed to be the characteristic, and invention the very foundation, of Poetry. The necessity of the latter in all poetic effusions is established by that magnificent translator of the greatest of Poets, Pope, in this beautiful passage: “It is the invention that in different degrees distinguishes all great geniuses: the utmost extent of human study, learning, and industry, which masters every thing besides, can never attain to this. It furnishes art with all her materials, and without it, judgment itself can but steal wisely; for art is only a prudent steward, who lives on managing the riches of nature.” And in this ingenious note the editor, Mr. Wakefield, elegantly exemplifies it: “For Poetry, in its proper acceptation, is absolutely creation, Ποιησις or invention. In the three requisites prescribed by Horace of poetic excellence, ‘Ingenium cui sit cui mens divinor at que os magna sonaturum.’ The first, ‘ingenium,’ or native fertility of intellect, corresponds to the ‘invention’ of Pope.”

The battle of Marathon is not, perhaps, a subject calculated to exercise the powers of the imagination, or of poetic fancy, the incidents being so limited; but it is a subject every way formed to call forth the feelings of the heart, to awake the strongest passions of the soul. Who can be indifferent, who can preserve his tranquillity, when he hears of one little city rising undaunted, and daring her innumerable enemies, in defence of her freedom — of a handful of men overthrowing the invaders, who sought to molest their rights and to destroy their liberties? Who can hear unmoved of such an example of heroic virtue, of patriotic spirit, which seems to be crying from the ruins of Athens for honor and im- mortality? The heart, which cannot be fired by such a recital, must be cold as the icy waters of the pole, and must be devoid at once of manly feeling and of patriotic virtue; for what is it that can awaken the high feelings which sometimes lie dormant in the soul of man, if it be not liberty? Liberty, beneath whose fostering sun, the arts, genius, every congenial talent of the mind, spring up spontaneously, and unite in forming one bright garland of glory around the brow of independance; liberty, at whose decline virtue sinks before the despotic sway of licentiousness, effeminacy, and vice. At the fall of liberty, the immortal Republics of Rome and Athens became deaf to the call of glory, fame, and manly virtue. “On vit manifestement (says Montesquieu) pendant le pen de temps que dura la tyrannie des decemvirs, a quel point l’agrandissement de Rome dependoit de sa liberie: l’etat sembla avoir perdu Tame qui la faisoit mouvoir.” And Bigland thus: “It was not till luxury had corrupted their manners, and their liberties were on the eve of their extinction, that the principal citizens of Athens and of E-ome began to construct magnificent houses, and to display their opulence and splendour in private life.”

It may be objected to my little Poem, that the mythology of the Ancients is too much called upon to support the most considerable incidents; it may unhappily offend those feelings most predominant in the breast of a Christian, or it may be considered as injudicious in destroying the simplicity so necessary to the epic. Glover’s Leonidas is commended by Lyttleton, because he did not allow himself the liberty so largely taken by his predecessors, of “wandering beyond the bounds, and out of sight, of common sense in the airy regions of poetic mythology;” yet, where is the Poet more remarkable for simplicity than Homer, and where is the author who makes more frequent use of Heathen mythology? “The Heathens,” says Rollin, “addrest themselves to their gods, as to beings worthy of adoration.”

He who writes an epic poem must transport himself to the scene of action; he must imagine himself possessed of the same opinions, manners, prejudices, and belief; he must suppose himself to he the hero he delineates, or his picture can no longer he nature, and what is not natural cannot please. It would he considered ridiculous in the historian or poet describing the ancient manners of Greece, to address himself to that Omnipotent Being who first called the world out of chaos, nor would it be considered less so if he were to be silent upon the whole subject; for in all nations, in all ages, religion must be the spur to every noble action, and the characteristic of every lofty soul.

Perhaps I have chosen the rhymes of Pope, and departed from the noble simplicity of the Miltonic verse injudiciously. The immortal Poet of England, in his apology for the verse of Paradise Lost, declares “rhymes to be, to all judicious ears, trivial, and of no true musical delight.” In my opinion, humble as it is, the custom of rhyming would ere now have been abolished amongst Poets, had not Pope, the disciple of the immortal Dryden, awakened the lyre to music, and proved that rhyme could equal blank verse in simplicity and gracefulness, and vie with it in elegance of composition, and in sonorous melody. No one who has read his translation of Homer, can refuse him the immortality which he merits so well, and for which he laboured so long. — He it was who planted rhyme for ever in the regions of Parnassus, and uniting elegance with strength, and sublimity with beauty, raised the English language to the highest excellence of smoothness and purity.

I confess that I have chosen Homes, for a model, and perhaps I have attempted to imitate his style too often and too closely; and yet some imitation is authorized by poets immortalized in the annals of Parnassus, whose memory will be revered as long as man has a soul to appreciate their merits. Virgil’s magnificent description of the storm in the first book of the Aeneid, is almost literally translated from Homer, where Ulysses, quitting the Isle of Calypso for “Phoeacia’s dusky shore,” is overwhelmed by Neptune. That sublime picture, “Ponto nox incubat atra,” and the beautiful apostrophe, “Oh terque quaterque beati,” is a literal translation of the same incident in Homer. There are many other imitations, which it would be unnecessary and tedious here to enumerate. Even Milton, the pride and glory of English taste, has not disdained to replenish his imagination from the abundant fountains of the first and greatest of poets. It would have been both absurd and presumptuous, young and inexperienced as I am, to have attempted to strike out a path for myself, and to have wandered among the varied windings of Parnassus, without a guide to direct my steps, or to warn me from those fatal quicksands of literary blunders, in which, even with the best guide, I find myself so frequently immersed. There is no humility, but rather folly, in taking inferiority for a model, and there is no vanity, but rather wisdom, in following humbly the footsteps of perfection; for who would prefer quenching his thirst at the stagnant pool, when he may drink the pure waters of the fountain head? Thus, then, however unworthily, I have presumed to select, from all the poets of ancient or modern ages, Homer, the most perfect of the votaries of Apollo, whom every nation has contributed to immortalize, to celebrate, and to admire.

If I have in these pages proved what I desired, that Poetry is the parent of liberty, and of all the fine arts, and if I have succeeded in clearing up some of the obscurities of my little Poem, I have attained my only object; but if, on the contrary, I have failed, it must be attributed to my incapacity, and not to my inclination. Either way, it would be useless to proceed further, for nothing can be more true than the declaration of Bigland, “that a good book seldom requires, and a worthless one never deserves, a long preface.”

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32