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Account of American Editions of Fo-
reign Publications.

Art. IX.

Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem, by Ro-
bert Southey. Boston. Manning
and Loring. 1798. 12mo. pp.

AN Epic Poem is the narrative,
in verse, of some moment-
ous and solemn event, generally
connected with the fate of nations
or large bodies of men. The ear-
liest performance of this kind with
which we are acquainted is the Iliad
of Homer. The reverence for
what is ancient, and the influence
of education, have combined to
make this poem the object of our
praise and our imitation. It is,
in a considerable degree, the model
by which every thing that is called
an epic poem is to be fashioned.
The metrical form, the distribution
into books, the artificial arrange-
ment of incidents, the influence of
preternatural agents, the scenes of
war and battle, the embellishment
of similies and allegories, accompa-
ny most works of this kind, chiefly
because these constitute the pattern
which the Grecian bard has exhi-

Homer was a man of a barbarous
age, and a rude nation. Supersti-
tion was vigorous; science was un-

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known; war and depredation made
up the business and delight of man-
kind. All mental exertions were
limited to the composition of mea-
gre annals of past events, in which
the truth was deformed by tradition
and credulity; in which effects were
disjoined from their causes, and un-
attended with their circumstances,
or of metrical legends, in which
invention supplied the defects of
memory, and embellished events
with causes and circumstances, gro-
tesque, miraculous, and incredible.
These legends were more or less
copious and complex, and exem-
plified all the degrees of extent and
of intricacy, from the ballad of Che-
vy-Chace to the Epopæa of Homer.

The progress of society enlarged
the views, sharpened the sagacity
and refined the judgment of men.
Language, bound down to a regu-
lar succession of short and long, gave
place to the variety and freedom of
prose: meagre, diffuse, disjointed
and miraculous tales were supplant-
ed by narratives, where invention
was chastened by judgment, where
effects were duly adjusted to causes,
and where motives were properly
connected with actions, and actions
with motives. Ionic legends, and
the chronicles of Cecrops, gave
way to the romance of Xenophon
and the history of Thucydides. In
Italy, Hetruscan songs and ponti-
fical records were, in time, sup-
planted by the speeches of Livy,
and the portraits of Tacitus.

It is a problem not easily solved,
why, in the periods of Attic and
Roman refinement, Homer should
continue to be idolized and imitat-
ed? The rude and barbarous tra-
ditions current among the vulgar,
respecting the foundation of the
Roman State, by emigrants from
Troy, were treated, by Cicero and
Livy, with just neglect and con-
tempt: but when Cæsar and Oc-
tavius had overturned the liberties
of Rome, it behoved them to secure

to themselves the homage which
folly and ignorance bestow upon
ancestry and names. The memory
of Venus, and Anchises, and Iulus
was revived; and a poet of Man-
tua has given a remarkable instance
of servile adulation to tyrants, and
superstitious reverence for antiquity,
in a poem in which monstrous fa-
bles, absurdities and contradictions,
are woven into a metrical tale.—
Homer's verse, images, and allu-
sions; his brutal men and sangui-
nary deities, are laboriously trans-
fused into the Æneid; and the race
of the Cæsars, and the enmity of
Carthage, are traced to the conde-
scension of a goddess, and to a

Monsters and phantoms may be
vividly painted, and may afford a
certain species of delight, by the
decoration of imagery and numbers.
We admire the poet's exhibition of
the conflagration of Troy, and the
amorous despair of Dido, and are
ravished by the music of his phraze.
What we wonder at and censure, is
the conforming of his fiction to a
model so defective as Homer; the
consecration of his powers to the
embellishment of childish chimera's
and vulgar superstitions, and the
propagation of slavish maxims and
national delusions. An instance of
the same folly had like to have been
given by Pope, when he designed
to write an epic poem on the ridi-
culous story of Brutus’ emigration
to Britain from Troy.

Narrations are either fictitious or
true. Fictitious narratives differ,
among other respects, in their form,
which is either verse or prose.
There are no essential differences
between them, but those which
arise from more or less abounding
in utility and eloquence; from dis-
playing more or less knowledge,
genius and sagacity, in the plan and
execution of the story.

The selection of a theme truly
important, adorning it with the lus-

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tre of eloquence, supplying, with
judicious hand, the deficiencies of
history, in the statement of motives
and the enumeration of circum-
stances; fashioning falsehood by
the most rigid standard of proba-
bility, and suggesting to the readers
beneficial truths, is the sublimest
province that can be assigned to
man. It is questionable whether
verse be a more advantageous garb
of such a theme than prose; but
whatever superiority we ascribe to
verse, this superiority is small. All
that constitutes the genuine and
lasting excellence of narratives; all
the subtilties of ratiocination, the
energies and ornaments of rhetoric,
and the colours of description, are
compatible with prose. Numbers
are an equivocal, or, at least, not
an essential attribute of moral and
useful tale.

No incident is more adapted to
the purposes of moral and political
instruction than the revolution pro-
duced, in the fifteenth century, in
France, by the enthusiasm of Joan
of Arc. History has preserved the
material events of this revolution,
and genius could not be more use-
fully employed than in filling up
the outline sketched by the best
historians, amplifying and drawing
out the unnoticed parts, charming
the attention by minute details, and
filling the fancy by luminous dis-
plays of actions and motives.

No where is taught a more pow-
erful lesson on the principles of hu-
man nature, the tendency of the
feudal system, the evils of ambition
and war, and the operations of re-
ligious enthusiasm and popular pas-
sions. No tale strikes the imagi-
nation with greater wonder, more
frequently eludes and defeats fore-
sight, and produces stronger emo-
tions of surprize, without, at the
same time, shocking our belief:
Hence no tale is more fitted for
lofty and poetic narrative.

Mr. Southey is the first poet who

has appeared to be sensible of the
excellence of this theme. The mo-
tives of his choice, however, are
not of the most comprehensive kind.
A resemblance seems designed to
be insinuated between the condi-
tion of France at that period and
at present, and a lesson to be taught
on the force of the national spirit
to repel invasion. It is a satire on
the English nation, and a lesson on
the folly as well as injustice of am-

The story of the Maid of Arc is
well known. It is told by David
Hume with perspicuity and judg-
ment that has seldom been sur-
passed. All divine and miraculous
agency is, of course, rejected by
him. The tales which the fancy
of the fifteenth century invented,
to exalt the birth and education,
and dignify the motives of the he-
roine, are justly exploded. Mr.
Southey, however, adopts the most
fantastic of these tales, which, no
doubt, were imagined by him more
suitable to poetry, but which, in
reality, degrade it, and destroy its

The poem opens with the ap-
pearance of a wounded knight in a
forest. Joan finds him, where he
lies in a swoon; and, calling him
by his name, (Dunois) encourages
him by the promise of a speedy
cure. This cure is immediately
performed; and the hero, recover-
ing his strength, tenders his thanks,
and acknowledges the interference
of a deity in his behalf. The maid
proceeds to relate her history. She
proves to have been the daughter
of a cottager living in the neigh-
bourhood of Harfleur, and com-
pelled, by the invasion of Henry
V. to retire to that city. She
dwells upon the miseries of the
siege that followed. The city being
taken, she flies, in company with
a friend of her father, and finds a
refuge in the cell of an hermit,
where she remains fourteen years,

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and acquires the skill of a physi-
cian. On the death of the hermit
she accompanies Theodore, a young
soldier who had been found, like
Dunois, wounded and helpless in
the forest, to his home. The oc-
cupations and amusements of a
shepherdess succeeded. These, in
consequence of dialogues on the
deplorable state of France, and of
supernatural impulses, are exchang-
ed for the design of fighting the bat-
tles of her country.

In her way to the residence of
the prince, various encounters take
place, by which she is informed of
previous and contemporary inci-
dents. A vision is described, in which
her future exploits and her ultimate
destiny are shadowed forth. Being
introduced to the king, she displays
a miraculous sagacity in singling
him out from among his courtiers.
She defends, before an assembly of
divines, the religion of nature, and
the truth of her mission is attested
by mysterious sounds issuing from
a tomb. Afterwards a magical
sword is procured from the tomb
of Orlando, and this gift is attested
with many marvellous incidents.
The remainder of the poem is occu-
pied with incidents which happen-
ed at the siege of Orleans, mingled
with visions and allegories.

The events of the siege consist
chiefly of personal combats, de-
scribed with some force, and em-
bellished with well-selected circum-
stances and pathetic allusions. The-
odore, the companion and lover of
the maid, is slain, and occasion is
hence afforded to exhibit Joan in a
new and more tender light. The
poem terminates with the deliver-
ance of Orleans, the defeat of the
English, and the coronation of the
Dauphin at Rheims.

An accurate conception of the
merit of this performance cannot
be easily formed. True genius
cannot be denied to shine forth in
almost every line; but that genius is

not chastened or exalted by disci-
pline and knowledge. Happy epi-
thets, vivid descriptions, copious
imagery, and tender sentiments are
every where to be found; but these
are constantly mingled with feeble
and rugged numbers, with harsh
and new coined terms, with affec-
tations and obscurities.

The plan is simple and artless;
attention is never roused by expec-
tation, or held in suspense. We are
never imperiously called away from
the present scene by that which is to
follow. Incidents are touched light-
ly, and connected loosely. They
belong to one person, place and
time; and by reasoning on the mat-
ter, we perceive that they have a
kind of subservience to the great
event of the Dauphin's coronation;
but the narrative awakens neither
curiosity nor surprize. The merit
of a well-constructed fable does not
belong to this work, while, at the
same time, it cannot be condemned
for incongruity or useless episodes.

The genuine story of Joan lays
the highest claim to our curiosity
and admiration; but some disgust
and disappointment were awakened
in our minds, on finding the bold,
natural and instructive features of
her history displaced by the tasteless
and trite fictions of an hermit's cell,
miraculous skill in the cure of dis-
eases, Orlando's sword, the inno-
cent amusements of a shepherdess,
the sorrows of fantastic love, and,
lastly, the serious assertions of pre-
ternatural impulse.

Characters, strictly speaking, are
not to be found in this poem.
Names are introduced, and actions
recounted, but no distinct images
of the habits and motives connected
with them are produced. Joan is
feebly and vaguely pourtrayed. Her
speeches are without energy or elo-
quence, and we meet with none of
those pictures which remind us of
the extraordinary transitions which
she underwent, and the wonderful

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energies by which she was actuated.
The exploits of a woman of ob-
scure birth, and servile education,
in an age of aristocratical pride and
military turbulence, are here de-
scribed as if they were common
and vulgar things. The contest of
one prejudice with another; the
power of enthusiasm over maiden
inexperience and womanish scru-
ples, over lordly and martial pre-
sumption; the events of war and
the fate of nations, which the story
of Joan was so well adapted to il-
lustrate, is not exhibited here, or
exhibited in a frigid, indirect, and
feeble manner.

The male characters, Dunois,
Conrade and Theodore, have no-
thing in them appropriate or dis-
tinct. The same hues of mildness,
tenderness, and amiable feelings,
are diffused over the heroine and
her companions. They are beings
entitled to our love; they are looked
upon with pity and complacency,
but without admiration or delight.

But, though we may conceive
pictures of more strenuous minds,
narratives of more natural and in-
structive incidents, and inferences
more comprehensive and profound,
on the state of ancient manners,
and in the principles of human na-
ture, than are contained in this
poem, we must not deny it the
praise which is due. The tale,
though languid and marvellous, is
not incongruous. The allegories
are spun with ingenuity, and much
vivacity of fancy; the style is not
void of many faults, nor destitute
of many beauties; and the moral
tendency of the whole is blameless
and pure.

If the value of this poem were
measured by comparison with con-
temporary productions, we should
rate it very highly. Among the se-
rious and pathetic poets of our
own time, the author of Joan of
Arc must, perhaps, be assigned the
highest place. None other pos-

sesses a fancy equally vigorous and
sprightly, a strain more equable,
melodious, moral, and pathetic. If
any should be thought to exceed
him in these estimable properties,
perhaps it is Cowper, whose tender,
enthusiastic, and devout spirit, is
shared by this author, but whose
poetry is not blemished with so
many defects.


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