Only—there is no obligation to believe in them; and will not that mean, no obligation to believe in their concern for the subject, and all that that implies? Homer begins this paradox. Think of that lovely and exquisitely mischievous passage in the Iliad called The Cheating of Zeus. The salvationist school of commentators calls this an interpolation; but the spirit of it is implicit throughout the whole of Homer’s dealing with the gods; whenever, at least, he deals with them at length, and not merely incidentally. Not to accept that spirit is not to accept Homer. The manner of describing the Olympian family at the end of the first book is quite continuous throughout, and simply reaches its climax in the fourteenth book. Nobody ever believed in Homer’s gods, as he must believe in Hektor and Achilles. (Puritans like Xenophanes were annoyed not with the gods for being as Homer described them, but with Homer for describing them as he did.) Virgil is more decorous; but can we imagine Virgil praying, or anybody praying, to the gods of the Aeneid? The supernatural machinery of Camoens and Tasso is frankly absurd; they are not only careless of credibility, but of sanity. Lucan tried to do without gods; but his witchcraft engages belief even more faintly than the mingled Paganism and Christianity of Camoens, and merely shows how strongly the most rationalistic of epic poets felt the value of some imaginary relaxation in the limits of human existence. Is it, then, only as such a relaxation that supernatural machinery is valuable? Or only as a superlative kind of ornament? It is surely more than that. In spite of the fact that we are not seriously asked to believe in it, it does beautifully and strikingly crystallize the poet’s determination to show us things that go past the reach of common knowledge. But by putting it, whether instinctively or deliberately, on a lower plane of credibility than the main action, the poet obeys his deepest and gravest necessity: the necessity of keeping his poem emphatically an affair of recognizable human events. It is of man, and man’s purpose in the world, that the epic poet has to sing; not of the purpose of gods. The gods must only illustrate man’s destiny; and they must be kept within the bounds of beautiful illustration. But it requires a finer genius than most epic poets have possessed, to keep supernatural machinery just sufficiently fanciful without missing its function. Perhaps only Homer and Virgil have done that perfectly. Milton’s revolutionary development marks a crisis in the general process of epic so important, that it can only be discussed when that process is considered, in the following chapter, as a whole.
[Footnote 5: Such as similes and episodes. It is as if a man were to say, the essential thing about a bridge is that it should be painted.]