Thus the popular ballad had a strong dramatic element; the audience were not merely passive listeners, they danced and sang along with the bard. There was thus a strong sense of participation and, consequently, the entertainment was much greater. As the ballads generally narrated some local event, they were easily understood by the audience even when they were most allusive. Loves, battles, or heroic exploits, some supernatural incident or some local event are the chief themes of the ballads.
1. THE BALLAD
Ballad: Its Nature and Definition
The Ballad may be defined as a short-story in verse. The word Ballad is derived from the word “Ballare” which means “to dance”. Originally a ballad was a song with a strong narrative substance sung to the accompaniment of dancing. The minstrel or the bard would sing the main parts, and the dancers would sing the refrain or certain lines which were frequently repeated. Often it was in the form of a dialogue.
Its Two Kinds
Gradually the dance accompaniment was dropped out and it became more and more common for ballads to be recited to an audience sitting still. Its metrical form also grew fixed, and the term ballad came to be loosely applied to any narrative poem in the ballad metre i.e. in a quatrain or four-lined stanza with alternate rhymes, the first and third lines being eight-syllabled, and the second and fourth six-syllabled. In this way it is possible to divide ballads into two kinds or categories: (a) The “Popular ballad” or the Ballad of growth with its simplicity, its apparent ease and artlessness, and its primitive feeling, and (b) the “literary ballad”, the conscious imitation of a later date of the original popular ballad.
A Brief Historical Survey
The ballad was originally oral literature. It was folk-lore. Ballads were passed on orally from generation to generation and in the process they were much “altered, modified or suppressed, and new circumstances suggested opportune additions.” Oral tradition changed the form of the ballad. “Like money in circulation it lost, little by little, its imprint; its salient curves were blunted; and long use gave it a polish it did not have originally” – (Legouis). The popular ballad thus is not the work of any single poet, but of a number of unknown poets or bards.
The ballads had been very popular since the earliest times but the impulse to make them is strongest in the 15th century, and it is also to this century that the earliest written specimens belong. Not only were numerous ballads of a very high quality made and sung, but two of the very finest English ballads were also reduced to writing for the first time in this period.
First of these remarkable ballads is the ballad of The Nut-Brown Maid. A lady, who is also supposed to be the poet, plays the part of the nut-brown maid and the other speaker takes up the part of her lover, who pretends to be an outlaw in order to test her love. This dialogue imparts to this ballad a heightened dramatic interest and animation and these qualities, along with its sincerity and primitive simplicity, go a long way to explain its popularity and the fascination it has exercised on all those who have read it. This piece shows that the essence of poetry existed in the disinherited 15th century. “In this echo of some humble love-ballad there is not even one false note.” Its purpose is to free womanhood from the reproach of inconstancy but this didacticism does in no way lessen the aesthetic charm of this little piece.
Chevy-Chase is the other remarkable ballad. Its subject is the war between Percy of England and Douglas of Scotland. It extols the heroism of the two as well as the generosity and chivalry of the victor, Percy, who weeps over the body of his enemy and admires his heroism. The ballad is primitive in its simplicity and there is minimum of ornament. As it is realistic, it betrays sincere emotion in every line, and for this reason it moves the readers and wins their hearts. It is one of the so-called “Homeric or epic ballads”, its theme being the heroic exploits of Percy, and it deals with its subject with Homeric impartiality. The poet is an Englishman and his English patriotism is visible in every line and yet the courage and war-like qualities of Douglas have been impartially brought out.
This simple, moving ballad has fascinated not only the people but also the learned. It charmed Sir Philip Sydney, and Addison in the 18th century, admired it, for its just style and natural feeling. It was included by Bishop Percy in his Reliques (1765). It is one of those medieval poems which did much to cause a revival of romanticism.
There has also come down a large cluster of ballads centring round the exploits of Robin Hood and his merry-men, who though outlaws, merely robbed the rich to distribute their wealth among the poor and the needy. They were local heroes and their exploits were sung by many a wandering bard.
While the ballads mentioned above are the finest examples of the ‘ballad of growth’ or the ‘Authentic ballad’, Keat’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Coleridge’s Christabel and The Ancient Mariner are the finest examples of the literary ballad i.e. ballads written in imitation of the popular ballad.
The literary ballads are conscious work of art in which the poet tries to capture the simplicity, the freshness and charm, and the rapidity of movement and the music and melody of the original. The English had never ceased to enjoy the ballads, but the Augustans had no ear for any kind of music other than that of the heroic couplet. But the medivealisation movement about the middle of the 19th century did much to cause a revival of interest in the medieval ballads. In 1765, Bishop Percy published his famous Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, and this single work aroused a widespread interest in the popular ballads of the past. Its influence upon Scott, Coleridge and Wordsworth cannot be exaggerated. Literature owes a deep debt to Percy as the first popularizer of English ballads, though he was a most unreliable editor, and did not scruple to add and alter in order to confer, what he considered to be, elegance on the ancient poems. However, it is quite possible that if he had presented the public with a scientifically edited text, his work would not have been popular. As it was, it awakened a keen and widespread interest in old ballads and poetry, and it hastened the decay of poetry of the artificial school.
Next came Sir Walter Scott’s anthology of medieval ballads The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, with some original ballads of his own. The best of his own contributions, such as the Eve of St. John, have a strong infusion of the ancient force and fire, as well as a grimly supernatural element. In the Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) there is much more originality. The work is a poem of considerable length written in the Christabel metre, and professing to be the lay of an aged bard who seeks shelter in the castle of Newark. As a tale, the poem is confused and difficult; as poetry it is mediocre; but the abounding vitality of the style, fresh and intimate local knowledge and the healthy love of nature, made it a revelation to a public anxious to welcome the new romantic methods. The chief characteristics of Scott’s ballads are scenic background, historical and psychological interest, and supernatural element.
These two great anthologies had far-reaching influence on succeeding poets. Mention in this connection may be made of Coleridge’s Christabel and Ancient Mariner and Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is first of the great literary ballads of the romantic era. Written in the traditional ballad stanza, it makes full use of devices like repetition, refrain, question and answer method of narration, invocation, etc., in the manner of the medieval ballad makers. He has succeeded in capturing the freshness and simplicity of his great originals. “Thus” says Compton Rickett “all the simple beauty of the old ballad is imparted without any of its extravagance, while with the Medievalism he blends the modern spirit, so as to convey a more moving magic to the reader of today.”
Keats’ ballad La Belle Dame Sans Merci is one of the finest literary ballads in the English language. This incomparable ballad can hardly be said to tell a story. “It rather sets before us,” says Sidney Colvin “with imagery drawn from the medieval world of enchantment and knight errantry, type of the wasting power of love, when either adverse fate or deluded choice makes of love not a blessing but a bane.” The poem does not so much seek to tell a story as to create an impression or express a mood. The ballad is also autobiographical; it partly expresses the plight of the poet himself in the thralldom of Fanny Browne. It is a rare union of simplicity and art. It shows the poet’s mastery of the ballad stanza and the ballad manner. The use of question and answer method of narration and frequent repetitions in the ballad manner serve to heighten the medieval atmosphere. Its weird old world atmosphere, its imagery, skilfully chosen to harmonise with its emotion, its conciseness and purity of poetic form, its simplicity of diction, and the perfect union of sound and sense, make, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ the master-piece of Keats at least among his shorter pieces. “The ballad marks the highest point of romantic imagination to which Keats could attain.”
In the Victorian Age, we find many ballad-like qualities in Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot which is based on the Arthurian legends. Lady of Shallot, besieged in a tower, is looking at a mirror and seeing the outside world reflected in the mirror. She falls in love with Sir Lancelot whom she sees in the mirror. Use of archaic language, repetition, alliteration and the use of refrain are some of the characteristics of this poem, which give it a ballad flavour.
Browning also tried his hand at ballad-writing. In Herve Riel, we see him at work in a medium whose method is by no means to dissect step by step individual consciousness, but to describe an event graphically, swiftly, and dramatically, the method of the ballad. Once before he had done it as a perpetual joy for children in The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a work written to amuse little Willy Macredy, the son of famous actor. For his purpose he had borrowed from an old legend, but now he went to history itself.
Nor were the Pre-Raphaelites without a love for this literary genre. Of Rossetti’s ballad Sister Helen is the noblest, as Rose Mary is the richest: Sister Helen has an original quality and has been variously appraised. Medieval in setting it tells of a woman who in her castle, burns the waxen image of her lover who has betrayed her. So fierce is her passion for revenge that she wants to damn him, body and soul, by the power of magic. The lover’s brother, father, and finally his wedded wife arrive to pray for mercy, but she is adamant. The poem is in the form of conversation between Helen herself and her little brother, who is set in the window to watch what may befall, while the slow agony is in progress. Each stanza has a refrain, to capture the appropriate atmosphere of magic. Rose Mary is Rossetti’s most characteristic poem. A.C. Benson writes, “In this ballad are blended all the strains that were most potent in his mind. The setting is purely romantic, “there is the passion of erring and slighted love and the whole poem is dominated by the deepest and most mystical super-naturalism.” Swinburne has to his credit ballads like May Fanet; The Witch Mother, and A Ballad of Dreamland. William Morris (1834-96) also wrote ballads. His first book of poetry, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858), contained two ballads, Shameful Death; and the Haystack in the Floods. These two ballads are the models of compression and simplicity in narrative. Here mention may also be made of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome and Matthew Arnold’s Forsaken Merman.
The Englishman’s love of the ballad continues unabated in the 20th century. Thus love was accentuated by the publication of F.J. Child’s Anthology of Ballads entitled English and Scotish Popular Ballads, and the recent researches in Anthropology and Sociology. This monumental work inspired a host of writers to write ballads, and some have done so with great success. John Masefield has a number of fine ballad to his credit and the ballad-strain runs through his masterpiece Reynard the Fox. Walter De La Mare has also tried his hand at the genre. While T.S. Eliot’s genius was too heavy for primitive simplicity of this form, W.B. Yeats was one of the greatest writers of ballads in the modern age. The ballad strain runs through most of his poetry. This is so because he was profoundly influenced by Irish folk-lore and folk-ballads, and this influence has left a permanent mark on his poetry. The Ballad of Moll Magee is one of his more popular ballads. Another great writer of ballads in the 20th century was W.H. Auden. His The Ballad of Miss Gee and Victor rank very high as ballads. They are ballads of the Comic-horofic kind; they arouse horror by narrating lightly deeds of incredible cruelty.
The Mock-ballad: In the end mention may be made of Mock-ballad, a parody of the ballad proper. In the mock-ballad a comic theme is treated with tragic earnestness and so the serious is made ridiculous. William Cowper’s John Gilpin is one of the finest examples of a mock-ballad in the English language.
Essentials of a Good Ballad
The chief characteristics of a good ballad may be summarised as follows:
1. It is a short story in verse, about the exploits of some popular hero, or about an incident of common knowledge. The story is generally tragic.
2. The narration is dramatic, and the attention of the readers is captured by an abrupt, startling opening.
3. It is characterised by extreme simplicity. Indeed, its primitive simplicity is one of its peculiar charms. Complexity and difficulty of every kind is avoided.
4. Question and answer method of narration is used.
5. Often the poet prays to Christ and Virgin Mary.
6. Obsolete and archaic words are used to create a medieval, old world atmosphere.
7. It is extremely musical.
8. An element of the supernatural, magic and mystery is generally introduced.
9. It is written in the ballad-stanza i.e. in quatrains with alternate rhymes (first line rhyming with the third, and the second with the fourth). However, this basic pattern is frequently varied.
10. Often there is repetition of particular lines, words, or phrases.
2. THE EPIC
The Epic of Growth
Just as a Ballad is a short story in verse, the epic is a long story in verse. Just as there are ballads of growth and ballads of art, so also there are Epics of growth and Epics of art. The epic of growth has its origin in popular song and story. It is not the work of one man or the result of conscious artistic effort. A number of stories and legends about some popular hero may circulate in an oral form for generations. They may be given currency by wandering bards or minstrels. Later on, some poet may collect them, organise them and impart to them form and unity. Iliad is one such epic. It is supposed to have been composed by the Ancient Greek poet Homer out of a number of fragmentary stories. The Anglo-Saxon Beuwolf is another epic of growth. The name of the poet who brought together the floating material of legend and folk-lore is not known.
The Epic of Art
An epic of art, on the other hand, is an artistic imitation of the manner and style of the authentic epic or the epic of growth. It is the work of one man who tries to imitate and excel the earlier poets. Aenied of the Roman poet Virgil and Paradise Lost of the English poet Milton are the most prominent examples of the Epic of art.
Hudson, distinguishing between these two different kinds, writes: “The literary epic naturally resembles the primitive epic, on which it is ultimately based, in various fundamental characteristics. Its subject-matter is of the old heroic and mythical kind; it makes free use of the supernatural; it follows the same structural plan and reproduces many traditional details of composition; while, greatly as it necessarily differs in style, it often adopts the formulas, fixed epithets, and stereotyped phrases and locations, which are among the marked features of the early type. But examination discloses, beneath all superficial likenesses, a radical dissimilarity. The heroic and legendary material is no longer living material; it is invented by the poet or by disinterested scholarly research; and it is handled with laborious care in accordance with abstract rules and principles which have become part of an accepted literary tradition. Where, therefore, the epic of growth is fresh, spontaneous, racy, the epic of art is learned, antiquarian, bookish, imitative. Its specifically ‘literary’ qualities – its skilful reproduction, and adaptation of epic matter and methods, its erudition, its echoes, reminiscences, and borrowings – are indeed, as the Aenied and Paradise Lost will suffice to prove, among its most interesting characteristics for a cultured reader.
Essentials of an Epic
The essentials of an epic are:
1. It is a long narrative poem, generally divided into twelve books. Homer’s epics are divided into twelve books each, and Milton also divided his Paradise Lost into twelve books.
2. It deals with the military exploits, deeds of valour, of some national hero or of same person of national, even international importance. The epic hero is a man of heroic bulk and dimensions. He is giant among men and has extra-ordinary physical prowess. Because an epic is a story of heroic deeds it is also called a heroic poem. Thus Homer’s Iliad narrates the heroic deeds of the Greeks during the war of Troy, and Odyssey those of King Odysessus or Ulysses. Milton’s Paradise Lost has a cosmic sweep and range and deals with events of interest to all mankind. In this respect, it stands unique among the epics of the world.
3. A number of thrilling and sensational episodes and digressions are introduced. There is much exaggeration, and the incredible adventures and deeds of valour narrated by the poet excite wonder and admiration.
4. However, despite such digressions, the epic has a well-marked unity and form. It is an organic whole. Thus unity is provided by the fact that all events and adventures centre round the central figure, the epic-hero. Indeed, it is on this basis that epic is divided into two classes (a) the classic epic, and (b) the romantic epic. The classic epic is coherent and well-knit, while the romantic epic is characterised by much incoherence and looseness of structure. A romantic epic is rambling and incoherent and lacks concentration on any one central figure. There is confusing diversity of character and action, and if there is any unity, it is hard to discover. Spenser’s Fairy Queen is an instance of such a romantic epic. It lacks in that organic unity which is an essential characteristic of a classic epic, like the epics of Homer or Milton.
5. The supernatural plays an important part, and frequently intervenes in the action. Thus in Homer’s Iliad, the Gods intervence in the war of Troy, and in Spenser’s Fairy Queen also a number of supernatural agencies are seen at work.
6. An epic reflects the life of the times. It is the very embodiment of the spirit of the age in which it is written. It is an important social document and much may be known from it about the life of the times.
7. The purpose of the epic is moral. It may be to arouse patriotism and national pride as in the case of Homer, or “to fashion a gentleman in virtuous and gentle discipline” as in the case of Spenser, or to justify the ways of god to man, as in the case of Milton.
8. The theme of an epic is lofty and sublime, and its diction is equally elevated and grand. Grandeur both in theme and treatment characterises an epic. Epic-similes, Personifications, Latinism, unusual and unfamiliar words, allusions and references, Latin or inverted constructions, peripherises, etc., are the various stylistic devices used with this end in view.
9. There are certain epic conventions which are followed as far as the method of narration is concerned. First, poet does not begin his story from the beginning, but plunges somewhere in the middle, and the earlier part of the story is told in due course.
Secondly, the poet begins the epic with an invocation to the Muse to inspire him. Milton invokes the Heavently Muse in the very beginning of his epic.
Thirdly, the invocation is followed by a statement of the theme of the epic and the purpose of the poet in writing it. Thus Milton tells us that his theme is the fall of man, and his purpose is to justify the ways of God to Men.
Fourthly, in all epics there is a journey to the underworld, undertaken to seek the help of some supernatural agency. Similarly, accounts of tournaments, catalogues of warriors, assemblies and conferences, are common features of an epic, and are a part of the epic convention.
“The ambition to write an epic and thus to equal the literary exploits of the ancients like, Virgil and Homer, and of the modern poets of Europe, like Ariosto, was born with the Renaissance”. We find that there is a host of poets trying to write an epic after the model of Homer and Virgil and there are many others trying to translate the epics of antiquity. The best of such translations is George Chapman’s rendering of Homer, a work which fired the imagination of Keats; and the best of the long, narrative poems are those of Daniel, Drayton and Spenser, who tried to write epics but succeeded only in producing long, narrative poems.
Epics continued to be written all through the 17th century – Abraham Cowley’s Davidies and D’Avenant’s Gondibert being the outstanding examples – but it was Milton alone who could write a successful epic in the classical style. Paradise Lost is the only classical epic in the English language. This is the significance of the remark that the “epic in England, begins and ends with Milton.”
‘Paradise Lost’ is a classical epic, having all the common features of the epics of homer and Virgil. It is a long narrative poem in twelve books, its subject is solemn and grand, and it finds an equally grand and solemn treatment. Indeed grandeur and majesty are the key-notes of Milton’s epic. Like the classical epic, it has unity of theme and treatment. There is nothing in it that is superfluous; every episode and incident leads to the central theme – the fall of man and the loss of paradise. Wars and heroic exploits are also not lacking. There is supernatural intervention in plenty. Its characters are mostly superhuman – God and His angels, and Satan and his followers. There are only two human characters, Adam and Eve. Indeed this paucity of human actors and consequent lack of human interest is the basic weakness of Milton’s epic. In keeping with the epic tradition, its style and versification is lofty and sublime. Frequent and effective use has been made of Homeric or epic similes.
Paradise Lost is a classical epic, but it also has a number of qualities all its own. A classical epic deals with a subject of national importance, with the war-like exploits of some hero of national status. The theme of Milton’s epic is vaster and of a more universal human interest than any handled by the poet’s predecessors. It concerns itself with the fortune, not of a city or an empire, but of the whole human race, and with that particular event in the history of the race which has moulded all its destinies. Around this event, the plucking of an apple are ranged, according to the strictest rules of the ancient epic, the histories of Heaven and Earth and Hell. The scene of action is Universal Space. The time represented is Eternity. The characters are God and all his creatures. And all these are exhibited in the clearest and most inevitable relation with the main event, so that there is not an incident, hardly a line of the poem, but leads backwards or forwards to that central theme.
The Romantic Era:
Wordsworth’s “Prelude”: The 18th century is an age of satire, of parody, of burlesque, and of mock epic. The genius of the age was not suited to epic or heroic poetry. In the romantic and the Victorian ages, many poets tried their hands at the epic but with little success. The greatest of the epics of the romantic era is doubtlessly Wordsworth’s The Prelude. The Prelude has all the essential features of an epic. It is characterised by length. It runs into twelve books. It has a central figure, the poet, and it tells the story of how his mind was educated and developed under the influence of Nature. In an epic there are military adventures, but in The Prelude the adventures are of the mind and the soul. There is conflict, but the conflict is not physical and external: it is rather internal and spiritual. In other words, The Prelude does have the war-like nature of an epic. However, in this respect Milton had already enlarged the scope of the epic, and Wordsworth carries this enlargement a step further. Milton had shown external conflict. In Wordsworth, the spiritual, the adventures and conflicts of the spirit, are the very basis of the epic.
The epic unity in Wordsworth’s poem, is provided throughout by the personality of the poet, but there is also epic variety, sweep and range. This variety is provided by the countless digressions and episodes that the poet has introduced. Thus we have the digressions of the stolen-boat, bird-nesting, and the episodes of card playing and the game of Naughts and Crosses. Nor does the poem lack epic significance and universality. As Abercrombie rightly points out, “The Prelude is not the story of the growth and education of a particular poetic, but of the poetic temperament and as such has universal implications. It tells us not only of the education of the poet Wordsworth but how the soul of a great poet is formed and developed under various influences, specially the influence of Nature.” Thus The Prelude is an epic but an epic of a different kind.
Keats and Byron:
Keats’ Hyperion is modelled on Milton’s Paradise Lost and Keats employed many of the devices of the classical epic e.g. catalogue of assembled Titans in the second book, description of the great council, and architecture of the classical epic. Keats gave up the adventure in sheer disgust; for Milton’s flights and daring conjurations were beyond his power. Byron’s Don Juan is another great work in the epical style. It is Byron’s epic-satire reviewing satirically the social, political and economic conditions of different countries of Europe.
English Epic in the Victorian Age: During the Victorian age Tennyson attempted the fusion of classical epic and romance in The Idylls of the King. “We look in vain here, however, for the technical features of either classical or romantic epic. The unity is a unity of framework rather than an organic unity of all the parts. The Idylls are really idylls, separate pictures or cantos of a single poem. Each has its independent beginning and in no respect prepares for that which follows. There is scarcely one of the traditional devices we have come to associate with the epic-form – the formal theme, the plunge in the middle with a later narrative exposition, the catalogue of forces, or the epic simile. There is blank verse, it is true as in Paradise Lost, but it is not Miltonic blank verse. Classical ideals are upheld in the artistry and precision with which the flowing verses are made rich and beautiful, but the spirit is that of slightly ennobled and purified romance.
Morris’ The Defence of Gunievera and Other Poems is an epic in which he approached the Arthurian legend, in a very different manner. Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustam, based an Firdosi’s Shahnama, is an epic fragment describing with all the richness of Homeric similes, the death of Sohrab at the hands of his father, Rustam. This epic fragment embodies Arnold’s fatalistic attitude towards life and the overpowering role of fate in human affairs.
The Modern Epic:
All these poems bear witness to the continued ambition to write an epic, but considered as epics they fall far short of the epics of antiquity or of the epics of Milton. It seems that the modern age is not suited to epic poetry. T.S. Eliot may write The Waste Land which has been called the epic of the 20th century, and an Alfred Noyes may write Drake dealing with the exploits of the well known Elizabethan sea-dog, but there can be no denying the fact that the modern ages has neither the heroic temper nor the requisite leisure. The Horizons of life have widened and no poet can include them all in his work, however, wide his vision, and the range sweep of his imagination. Moreover there is the competition from the novel which is a long narrative in prose, as the epic is a long narrative in verse.
3. THE MOCK-EPIC
A Mock-epic is a small narrative poem in which the machinery and conventions of epic proper are employed in the treatment of trivial themes, and in this way it becomes a parody or burlesque of the epic. A mocking, ridiculous effect is created when the grandiloquent epic-style and epic-conventions are used for a theme which is essentially trivial and insignificant. The ancient Mock-epic The Battle of the Frog and Mice, a parody of Homer’s Iliad, Swift’s Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books and Pope’s Dunciad and The Rape of the Lock are the finest examples of the Mock-epic.
Its Essential Features
The essentials of a Mock-epic are best illustrated by a brief consideration of Pope’s Rape of the Lock. The theme of the Mock-epic is the rape on the locks of a butterfly of society, Belinda, committed by her lover, Lord Peter, a gallant. The lady is displeased, the two families fall out, and Pope is requested to write something to laugh away the displeasure of the young lady. Pope uses the machinery and convention of the epic, as well as the grandiloquent epic-style for his essentially trivial theme. The trivial is exaggerated and glorified and a mocking, ridiculous effect is thus created. Instead of the mighty epic-hero, we have a tiny slip of a girl as the central personage, digression and episodes deal not with the military exploits of some gigantic epic hero, but with a game of cards, and the fight of the lord and ladies for the severed lock of hair. The weapons used are not swords and spears, but a bodkin and a pinch of snuff, and the killing eyes of ladies. The supernatural agency is also there in the form of tiny sylphs who seated on bodkins or candlesticks watch the fight between the parties. The various stylistic devices of he epic-poet, exaggeration, Latinism, personifi- cation, circumlocution, have been used throughout, and as the subject is trivial the result is ridiculous in the extreme. In this way, the epic values are reversed, and we get not the epic, but the mock-epic, a parody of the epic proper.
The Battle of the Books is one of the finest and the greatest of the prose mock-epics in the language. The exalted epic manner and style have been used effectively for a trivial subject i.e. a literary controversy regarding the comparative merits and demerits of ancient and modern learning. ”The result is a delightful fantasia, an inimitable parody of the epic.”
4. THE IDYLL
By the word “Idyll” is meant a description in prose or verse of some scene or event which is striking, picturesque, and complete in itself. Such an idyll may stand alone, or it may form a kind of interlude in a longer composition. In our literature idyllic passages are commoner than isolated-idylls. Indeed, the actual name is best known to us by Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and Browning’s Dramatic Idylls.
An Idyll is neither a lyric nor a narrative but partakes of the qualities of both. It derives its name from the Greek word meaning, “a little picture”, and so two of its essential characteristics are (a) its brevity, and (b) pictorial effect. An Idyll keeps relatively close to the ordinary world of action and experience, though it may give idealised pictures of that world. More often than not an Idyll gives us idealised, poetic pictures of the life and doings of rural folk in rural setting. It sheds a romantic poetic glow on what may otherwise be commonplace, dull, prosaic and dreary. It deals with simple like, and so its language is also simple. It is characterised by simplicity both in theme and treatment. We get such an idealised picture of rural life in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale with Perdita distributing flowers to her guests, and there are a number of such idylls scattered all up and down the novels of Thomas Hardy.
Commenting on the characteristics of an Idyll, Hudson writes, “This kind of narrative poetry often finds its themes and characters in the present; and even when it goes back into the past for them, it seeks them still, as in Longfellow’s Evageline, mind commonplace people and surroundings and not in heroic legend, or romantic achievements, or among the great movements and figures of history. Sometimes it may take the form of a humorous transcript from contemporary manners, especially the manners of “low” life, as in several of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and in the delightful character-studies loosely set in the economic argument of Goldesmith’s Deserted village. But the greatest interest belongs to two subdivisions of it, both of comparatively recent growth, the first of these comprises such poems as derive their material from “the short and simple annals of the poor,” or from the lives of the humble and obscure, like Wordsworth’s Michael and Tennyson’s Enoch Arden and Dora. To the second we may assign all such poetic narratives as, Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House, and Robert Browning’s Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country, which are to all intent and purpose novels in verse. The former class has a special historical significance as marking the influx into narrative poetry of that ever-broadening sympathy with “all sorts and conditions of men.” Which is one aspect of the modern democratic movement. The latter is manifestly the result of that same complex of forces, social and literary, which produced the modern novel.”
5. THE DRAMATIC MONOLOGUE
The Dramatic Monologue is the most important kind of that sub-division of objective poetry which we have called dramatic, which is dramatic not because it is to be acted on the stage, but because it gives the thoughts and emotions not of the poet but of some imagined character. The poet’s identity is merged with that of the dramatic personage, and the poet speaks through his mouth, so to say. Robert Browning is the most important writer of dramatic monologues in the English language.
The dramatic monologues are dramatic because they do not express the thoughts and feelings of the poet but of some imaginary character; they are monologues because in them only one character speaks throughout (Mono means ‘one’).
The dramatic monologues may be used for the study of character, of particular mental states and of moral crises in the soul of the characters concerned. In his monologues, the poet Browning depicts an amazingly wide variety of characters, taken from all walks of life, cowards, rogues, artists, scholars, Dukes, cheats, beggars, murderers, and saints like Pippa, all crowd his picture-gallery. His characters belong not to any one country and age, but to a number of countries and ages.
In each monologue, one character is at the centre, and the substance of the monologue consists of what passes within his soul. Cazamian calls them, “soul reflectors”, or “studies in practical psychology”, for they provide us with a peep into the inner working of the mind and soul of these characters. Beside these main figures, in each monologue there are some minor figures who are briefly but distinctly sketched with a few deft touches. They are the listeners for most of the time, but they also perform the dramatic function of the interlocutor from time to time, and thus provide the reason or the cause for the speaker’s mood or his self-analysis. Thus in Andrea Del Sarto, Andrea is the speaker, Lucrezia is the listener, and her lover and the three rival artists are also introduced indirectly. Often the nature background is skilfully interwoven with the mood and temper of the speaker, and in this way the total effect is heightened. In the poem mentioned-above, the speaker’s references to the Autumnal grey nature-background are used to heighten his own mood of depression and world weariness.
In each monologue, the speaker is placed in the most momentous or critical situation of his life and the monologue embodies his reactions to his situation. The monologues have an abrupt, but very arresting opening, and, at the same time, what has gone before is suggested cleverly or brought out through retrospective meditation and reflection. Thus My Last Duchess opens with a reference to the picture of the dead Duchess, with clear indication that it is being shown to some one. Similarly this abrupt beginning may be followed by self-introspection on the part of the speaker, and his moods, emotions, reflections, and meditations may be fully expressed. The speaker’s thoughts range freely over the past and the future, and so there is no logical and chronological development. The past and the future are focused in the present and the unity is emotional rather than logical.