Alexander Pope, A RECEIT TO MAKE AN EPICK POEM
(Note: "receipt" =
Wednesday, June 10, 1773
Docebo Unde parentur opes,
quid alat, formetque Poetam. — Horace
["I will teach the poet's
office and duty; whence he draws his stories, what nurtures and fashions
is no small pleasure to me, who am zealous in the Interests of Learning, to
think I may have the Honour of leading the Town into a very new and uncommon
Road of Criticism. As that kind of Literature is at present carried on, it
consists only in a Knowledge of Mechanick Rules, which contribute to the
Structure of different sorts of Poetry, as the Receipts of good Houswives do to
the making Puddings of Flower, Oranges, Plumbs, or any other Ingredients. It
would, methinks, make these my instructions more easily intelligible to
ordinary Readers, if I discoursed of these matters is the Stile in which Ladies
Learned in Śconomicks dictate to their Pupils for the Improvement of the
Kitchin and Larder.
I shall begin with Epick Poetry, because
the Criticks agree it is the greatest Work Human Nature is capable of. I know
the French have already laid down many Mechanical Rules for Compositions
of this Sort, but at the same time they cut off almost all Undertakers from the
Possibility of ever performing them; for the first Qualification they
unanimously require in a Poet, is a Genius. I shall here endeavor (for
the Benefit of my Countrymen) to make it manifest, that Epick Poems may be made
without a Genius, nay without Learning or much Reading. This must
necessarily be of great Use to all those Poets who confess they never Read, and
of whom the World is convinced they never Learn. What Moliere observes
of making a Dinner, that any Man can do it with Mony, and if a profest
Cook cannot without, he has his Art for nothing; the same may be said of
making a Poem, 'tis easily brought about by him that has a Genius, but
the Skill lies in doing it without on. In pursuance of this End, I shall
present the Reader with a plain and certain Recipe, by which even
Sonneteers and Ladies may be qualified for this grand Performance.
I know it will be objected, that one of
the chief Qualifications of an Epick Poet, is to be knowing in all Arts and
Sciences. But this ought not to discourage those that have no Learning, as long
as Indexes and Dictionaries may be had, which are the Compendium of all
Knowledge. Besides, since it is an established Rule, that none of the Terms of
those Arts and Sciences are to be made use of, one may venture to affirm, our
Poet cannot impertinently offend in this Point. The Learning which will be more
particularly necessary to him, is the ancient Geography of Towns, Mountains,
and Rivers: For this let him take Cluverious, Value Four-pence.
Another Quality required is a compleat
Skill in Languages. To this I answer, that it is notorious that Persons of no
Genius have been often-times great Linguists.
To instance in the Greek, of which there are two Sorts; the
Original Greek, and that from which our Modern Authors translate. I
should be unwilling to promise Impossibilities, but modestly speaking, this may
be learned in about an Hour's time with Ease. I have known one, who became a
sudden Professor of Greek, immediately upon Application of the Left-hand
Page of the Cambridge Homer to his Eye. It is, in these Days, with
Authors as with other Men, the well bred are familiarly acquainted with them at
first Sight, and as it is sufficient for a good General to have survey'd
the Ground he is to conquer, so it is enough for a good Poet to have seen
the Author he is to be Master of. But to proceed to the Purpose of this Paper.
A RECEIT TO MAKE AN EPICK
For the Fable
Take out of any old Poem, History books,
Romance, or Legend (for instance Geffry of Monmouth or Don Belianis
of Greece: those Parts of Story which afford most Scope for long Descriptions;
Put these Pieces together, and throw all the Adventures you fancy into one
Tale. Then take a Hero, whom you may chuse for the Sound of his Name, and put
him into the midst of these Adventures; There let him work for twelve Books; at
the end of which you may take him out, ready prepared to conquer or to marry;
it being necessary that the Conclusion of an Epick Poem be fortunate.
To make an Episode.
Take any remaining adventure of your former
Collection, in which you could no way involve your Hero; or any unfortunate
Accident that was too good to be thrown away; and it will be of Use, applied to
any other Person; who may be lost and evaporate in the Course of the Work,
without the least Damage to the Composition.
For the Moral and Allegory.
These you may Extract out of the Fable afterwards
at your Leisure: Be sure you strain them sufficiently.
For the Manners.
For those of the Hero, take all the best
Qualities you can find in all the best celebrated Heroes of Antiquity; if they will
not be reduced to a Consistency, lay 'em all on a heap upon him. But be sure
they are Qualities which your Patron would be thought to have; and to
prevent any Mistake which the World may be subject to, select from the Alphabet
those Capita Letters that compose his Name, and set them at the Head of a
Dedication before your Poem. However, do not absolutely observe the exact
Quantity of these Virtues, it not being determined whether or no it be
necessary for the Hero of a Poem to be an honest Man — For the Under-Characters
gather them from Homer and Virgil, and change the Names as the
For the Machines.
Take of Deities, Male and Female, as many
as you can use. Separate them into two equal parts, and keep Jupiter in
the middle. Let Juno put him in a Ferment, and Venus mollifie
him. Remember on all Occasions to make use of Volatile Mercury. If you
have need of Devils, draw them out of Milton's Paradise, and extract
your Spirits from Tasso, The Use of these Machines is evident; for since
no Epick Poem can possibly subsist without them, the wisest way is to reserve
them for you greatest Necessities. When you cannot extricate your Hero by any
Human Means, or your self by your own Wit, seek Relief from Heaven, and the
Gods will do your Business very readily. This is according to the direct
Prescription of Horace in his Art of Poetry.
Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vidice Nodus
is to say, a Poet should never call upon the Gods for their Assistance,
but when he is in great Perplexity.
For the Descriptions.
For a Tempest.
Zephyr, Auster and Boreas, and cast them together in one Verse. Add to these of
Rain, Lightning, and of Thunder (the loudest you can) quantum sufficit. Mix your Clouds and Billows well together till they foam, and thicken
your description here and there with a Quicksand. Brew your Tempest well in
your Head, before you set it a blowing.
For a Battel.
a large quantity of Images and Descriptions from Homer's Iliads, with a
Spice or two of Virgil, and if there remain any Overplus, you may
lay them by for a Skirmish. Season it well with Similes, and it will make an Excellent
For a Burning Town.
such a Description be necessary, because it is certain there is one in Virgil, Old Troy is ready burnt to your Hands. But if you
fear That would be thought Borrowed, a Chapter or two of the Theory of the Conflagration, well circumstanced, and done into Verse, will be a good Succedaneum.
for Similes and Metaphors, they may be
found all over the Creation, the most ignorant may gather them, but the danger
is in applying them. For this, advise with your Bookseller.
For the Language.
(I mean the Diction). Here it will
do well to be an Imitator of Milton, for you'll find it easier to
imitate him in this than in any thing else. Hebraisms and Grecisms
are to be found in him, without the trouble of Learning the Languages. I knew a
Painter, who (Like our Poet) had no Genius, make his Dawbings be thought
Originals by setting them in the Smoak: You may in the same
manner give the venerable Air of Antiquity to your Piece, by darkening it up
and down with Old English. With this you may be easily furnished upon
any Occasion, by the Dictionary commonly Printed at the end of Chaucer.
I must not conclude, without cautioning
all Writers without Genius in one material Point; which is, never to be afraid
of having too much Fire in their Works. I should advise rather to take
their warmest Thoughts, and spread them abroad upon Paper; for they are
observed to cool before they are read.