VIII. It will be obvious to all who study what I may call the natural history of poetry, that short hymns or songs must long have preceded the gigantic compositions of Homer. Linus and Thamyris, and, more disputably, Orpheus, are recorded to have been the precursors of Homer, though the poems ascribed to them (some of which still remain) were of much later date. Almost coeval with the Grecian gods were doubtless religious hymns in their honour. And the germe of the great lyrical poetry that we now possess was, in the rude chants of the warlike Dorians, to that Apollo who was no less the Inspirer than the Protector. The religion of the Greeks preserved and dignified the poetry it created; and the bard, "beloved by gods as men," became invested, as well with a sacred character as a popular fame. Beneath that cheerful and familiar mythology, even the comic genius sheltered its license, and found its subjects. Not only do the earliest of the comic dramatists seem to have sought in mythic fables their characters and plots, but, far before the DRAMA itself arose in any of the Grecian states, comic recital prepared the way for comic representation. In the eighth book of the Odyssey, the splendid Alcinous and the pious Ulysses listen with delight to the story, even broadly ludicrous, how Vulcan nets and exposes Venus and her war-god lover -
"All heaven beholds imprisoned as they lie,
And unextinguished laughter shakes the sky."
And this singular and well-known effusion shows, not only how grave and reverent an example Epicharmus had for his own audacious portraiture of the infirmities of the Olympian family, but how immemorially and how deeply fixed in the popular spirit was the disposition to draw from the same source the elements of humour and of awe.
But, however ancient the lyrical poetry of Greece, its masterpieces of art were composed long subsequent to the Homeric poems; and, no doubt, greatly influenced by acquaintance with those fountains of universal inspiration. I think it might be shown that lyrical poetry developed itself, in its more elaborate form, earliest in those places where the poems of Homer are most likely to have been familiarly known.
The peculiar character of the Greek lyrical poetry can only be understood by remembering its inseparable connexion with music; and the general application of both, not only to religious but political purposes. The Dorian states regarded the lyre and the song as powerful instruments upon the education, the manners, and the national character of their citizens. With them these arts were watched and regulated by the law, and the poet acquired something of the social rank, and aimed at much of the moral design, of a statesman and a legislator: while, in the Ionian states, the wonderful stir and agitation, the changes and experiments in government, the rapid growth of luxury, commerce, and civilization, afforded to a poetry which was not, as with us, considered a detached, unsocial, and solitary art, but which was associated with every event of actual life - occasions of vast variety - themes of universal animation. The eloquence of poetry will always be more exciting in its appeals - the love for poetry always more diffused throughout a people, in proportion as it is less written than recited. How few, even at this day, will read a poem! - what crowds will listen to a song! Recitation transfers the stage of effect from the closet to the multitude - the public becomes an audience, the poet an orator. And when we remember that the poetry, thus created, imbodying the most vivid, popular, animated subjects of interest, was united with all the pomp of festival and show - all the grandest, the most elaborate, and artful effects of music - we may understand why the true genius of lyrical composition has passed for ever away from the modern world.