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NARRATIVE poetry is distinguished from other types of verse in that it aims to relate a connected series of events and, therefore, deals primarily with actions, rather than with thoughts or emotions. This definition, however, simple as it appears to be in theory, is often difficult to apply as a test because other matter is blended with the pure narrative. In any story where the situation is made prominent, description may be required to make clear the scene and explain movements to the reader; thus Enoch Arden begins with a word picture of a sea-coast town. Again it is often necessary to analyze the motives which actuate certain characters, and so it becomes necessary to introduce exposition of some sort into the plot. The poems in this collection serve to enforce the lesson that the four standard rhetorical forms -- narration, description, exposition, and argumentation - are constantly being combined and welded in a complicated way. In cases where ese various literary elements are apparently in a tangle, a classification, if it be made at all, must be based on the design of the poem as a whole, and the emphasis and proportion given to the respective elements by the author. If the stress is laid on the recounting of the events which make up a unified action, and if the other factors are made subordinate and subsidiary to this end, then the poem in question belongs to the narrative group.
The antiquity of the narrative as a form of literature is undisputed. Indeed it has been established with a reasonable degree of certainty that poetry in its very beginnings was narrative and in its primitive state must have been a sort of rude, rhythmical chant, originated and participated in by the tribe as a whole, and telling of the exploits of gods or legendary heroes. In the course of time there arose the minstrel, who, acting first as chorus leader, became eventually the representative of the tribe and its own special singer. When we reach a somewhat more advanced stage of civilization, we find regularly appointed bards reciting their lays in the hall of the chieftain or urging on the warriors to battle with rehearsals of past victories. Originally these bards simply repeated the old oral traditions handed down as common property, but the opportunity for the display of individual genius soon induced them to try variations on the current themes and to compose versions of their own. With this advance of individualism, poetry became gradually more complex. Various elements, lyrical, descriptive, and dramatic, assumed some prominence and tended to develop separate forms. This differentiation, however, did not impair the vigor of the story-telling spirit, and a constant succession of narrative poems down to the present day evidences how productive and characteristic a feature of our literature this form has been.
Obviously it is impracticable to undertake here even a brief summary of the history of English narrative poetry and of the influences to which it has been responsive. Something may, nevertheless, be done to map out roughly a few divisions which may be of assistance in bringing this material into orderly shape for the student. Many efforts at systematic classification have been made, and a few fairly well-marked types have been defined. In spite of this fact, the task still presents insuperable obstacles over which there has been futile controversy. One type is likely to run into another in a way which is uncomfortably baffling. Then there are numerous nondescript works whose proper place seems determinable by no law of poetics. The fact is that, here at least, narrow distinctions are bound to be unsatisfactory. The critic finds it imperative to avoid dogmatism lest he lay himself open to attack; his only refuge is in the general statement which may be suggestive even if it is not exact.
Of the fixed types, two of the best known, the Epic and the Ballad, were among the earliest to be created. The Epic in its original form was a long poem of uniform metre, serious in tone and elevated in style, introducing supernatural or heroic characters and usually dealing with some significant event in racial or national history. In its first or primitive shape it was anonymous, a spontaneous outgrowth of popular feeling, though perhaps arranged and revised at a later date by some conscious artistic hand. Such a primitive Epic is the old English Beowulf: it is thoroughly objective; in it no clew to definite authorship can be detected; in it personality is buried in the rush of incident and the clash of action. When, with the broadening of the scope of poetry, the individual writer displaced the tribe as the preserver of folk-lore, the new order of things evolved the so-called artificial Epic as represented by Milton's Paradise Lost. Here the conven
tional Epic style and material is kept; the universe is the stage, and the figures upon it are imposing and grand; but behind the poem is a single personality whose mood colors and modifies the whole. The Epic is no longer entirely racial or national, but individual; and we have the introduction of such passages as Milton's reference to his own blindness in Book Three.
Akin to the Epic is the Mock Epic, which appropriates the Epic machinery and Epic style to use them in dealing with trivialities. In Pope's The Rape of the Lock, the most artistic Mock Epic in English, the theft of a single lock of hair becomes an act of national and supernatural interest and a game of cards is described as if it were a mighty battle.
Almost parallel with and closely resembling the development of the Epic is that of the Ballad. Like the primitive Epic in anonymity and impersonality, the Ballad was much shorter, had rime and stanzas, and dealt, as a rule, with incidents of less importance. Not so formal or pretentious as the Epic, it was easily memorized even by the peasant, and handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Favorite subjects were the legends of Robin Hood, the misfortunes of nobles, and the incidents of Border warfare. Mixed in many of them was a tendency toward superstition, a survival of the belief in ghosts, magicians, and talking animals. Numerous examples gathered by antiquaries may be found in the edition of old English Ballads in this series; among the better known are The Wife of Usher's Well and Chevy Chase. Later poets naturally adapted the Ballad form to their own uses, and so we have the artificial Ballad, illustrated by Cowper's The History of John Gilpin, Longfellow's The Wreck of the Hesperus, and Swinburne's May Janet. In these poems many of the trite expressions so peculiar to the primitive Ballad are retained; but, like the artificial Epic, the work is no longer communal, but individual, in origin and bears the stamp of one mind animated by an artistic purpose.
In discussing the Epic and the Ballad one is on fairly safe ground, but between these types one finds a vast amount of poetry, evidently narrative, which suggests perplexing problems. Much of it may be made to come under what we term loosely the Metrical Romance. This title is often narrowed by scholars to apply strictly to a poetical genre, arising in the Middle Ages and brought into England by the Norman-French, which deals in a rambling way with the marvellous adventures of wandering knights or heroes. Its plot, in which love and combat are conspicuous features, is enveloped in a kind of glamour, an atmosphere of unreality. It drew its material from many diverse sources: from the legends of Troy and the stories of classical and Oriental antiquity; from the tales of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne and his paladins; from the Celtic accounts of King Arthur and the Table Round. Since its characters, sometimes not without anachronism, embodied the chivalric ideals of courtesy and loyalty to ladies, hatred of paganism, and general conduct according to a prescribed but unwritten code, its appeal was made for the most part to the courtier and the aristocrat, - though it must be added that many of the robuster Charlemagne romances acquired currency with the humbler classes and were sung in the cottage of the peasant. The fact that the greater number of these Metrical Romances were mere redac