Essay on Poetic Theory

Preface to The Iliad of Homer (1715)

by Alexander Pope
It is owing to the same vast invention, that his similes have been thought too exuberant and full of circumstances. The force of this faculty is seen in nothing more, than in its inability to confine itself to that single circumstance upon which the comparison is grounded: it runs out into embellishments of additional images, which, however, are so managed as not to overpower the main one. His similes are like pictures, where the principal figure has not only its proportion given agreeable to the original, but is also set off with occasional ornaments and prospects. The same will account for his manner of heaping a number of comparisons together in one breath, when his fancy suggested to him at once so many various and correspondent images. The reader will easily extend this observation to more objections of the same kind.

If there are others which seem rather to charge him with a defect or narrowness of genius, than an excess of it, those seeming defects will be found upon examination to proceed wholly from the nature of the times he lived in. Such are his grosser representations of the gods; and the vicious and imperfect manners of his heroes; but I must here speak a word of the latter, as it is a point generally carried into extremes, both by the censurers and defenders of Homer. It must be a strange partiality to antiquity, to think with Madame Dacier, “that those times and manners are so much the more excellent, as they are more contrary to ours.” Who can be so prejudiced in their favour as to magnify the felicity of those ages, when a spirit of revenge and cruelty, joined with the practice of rapine and robbery, reigned through the world: when no mercy was shown but for the sake of lucre; when the greatest princes were put to the sword, and their wives and daughters made slaves and concubines? On the other side, I would not be so delicate as those modern critics, who are shocked at the servile offices and mean employments in which we sometimes see the heroes of Homer engaged. There is a pleasure in taking a view of that simplicity, in opposition to the luxury of succeeding ages: in beholding monarchs without their guards; princes tending their flocks, and princesses drawing water from the springs. When we read Homer, we ought to reflect that we are reading the most ancient author in the heathen world; and those who consider him in this light, will double their pleasure in the perusal of him. Let them think they are growing acquainted with nations and people that are now no more; that they are stepping almost three thousand years back into the remotest antiquity, and entertaining themselves with a clear and surprising vision of things nowhere else to be found, the only true mirror of that ancient world. By this means alone their greatest obstacles will vanish; and what usually creates their dislike, will become a satisfaction.

This consideration may further serve to answer for the constant use of the same epithets to his gods and heroes; such as the “far-darting Phoebus,” the “blue-eyed Pallas,” the “swift-footed Achilles,” &c., which some have censured as impertinent, and tediously repeated. Those of the gods depended upon the powers and offices then believed to belong to them; and had contracted a weight and veneration from the rites and solemn devotions in which they were used: they were a sort of attributes with which it was a matter of religion to salute them on all occasions, and which it was an irreverence to omit. As for the epithets of great men, Mons. Boileau is of opinion, that they were in the nature of surnames, and repeated as such; for the Greeks having no names derived from their fathers, were obliged to add some other distinction of each person; either naming his parents expressly, or his place of birth, profession, or the like: as Alexander the son of Philip, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Diogenes the Cynic, &c. Homer, therefore, complying with the custom of his country, used such distinctive additions as better agreed with poetry. And, indeed, we have something parallel to these in modern times, such as the names of Harold Harefoot, Edmund Ironside, Edward Longshanks, Edward the Black Prince, &c. If yet this be thought to account better for the propriety than for the repetition, I shall add a further conjecture. Hesiod, dividing the world into its different ages, has placed a fourth age, between the brazen and the iron one, of “heroes distinct from other men; a divine race who fought at Thebes and Troy, are called demi-gods, and live by the care of Jupiter in the islands of the blessed.” Now among the divine honours which were paid them, they might have this also in common with the gods, not to be mentioned without the solemnity of an epithet, and such as might be acceptable to them by celebrating their families, actions or qualities.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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Biography

Alexander Pope was born in London to a Roman Catholic family. A childhood sickness left him with stunted height, a curved spine, and ill health for the rest of his life. Pope earned fame and great financial success as a poet, satirist, and translator. He is perhaps best remembered for his mastery of the heroic couplet, as in An Essay on Man and “The Rape of the Lock.”

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