BOOK VIII. CONTAINING ABOUT TWO DAYS.
1. Chapter i. A wonderful long chapter...
A wonderful long chapter concerning the marvellous; being much the
longest of all our introductory chapters.
As we are now entering upon a book in which the course of our history
will oblige us to relate some matters of a more strange and surprizing
kind than any which have hitherto occurred, it may not be amiss, in
the prolegomenous or introductory chapter, to say something of that
species of writing which is called the marvellous. To this we shall,
as well for the sake of ourselves as of others, endeavour to set some
certain bounds, and indeed nothing can be more necessary, as
critics[*] of different complexions are here apt to run into very
different extremes; for while some are, with M. Dacier, ready to
allow, that the same thing which is impossible may be yet
probable,[**] others have so little historic or poetic faith, that they
believe nothing to be either possible or probable, the like to which
hath not occurred to their own observation.
[*] By this word here, and in most other parts of our work, we mean
every reader in the world.
[**] It is happy for M. Dacier that he was not an Irishman.
First, then, I think it may very reasonably be required of every
writer, that he keeps within the bounds of possibility; and still
remembers that what it is not possible for man to perform, it is
scarce possible for man to believe he did perform. This conviction
perhaps gave birth to many stories of the antient heathen deities (for
most of them are of poetical original). The poet, being desirous to
indulge a wanton and extravagant imagination, took refuge in that
power, of the extent of which his readers were no judges, or rather
which they imagined to be infinite, and consequently they could not be
shocked at any prodigies related of it. This hath been strongly urged
in defence of Homer's miracles; and it is perhaps a defence; not, as
Mr Pope would have it, because Ulysses told a set of foolish lies to
the Phaeacians, who were a very dull nation; but because the poet
himself wrote to heathens, to whom poetical fables were articles of
faith. For my own part, I must confess, so compassionate is my temper,
I wish Polypheme had confined himself to his milk diet, and preserved
his eye; nor could Ulysses be much more concerned than myself, when
his companions were turned into swine by Circe, who showed, I think,
afterwards, too much regard for man's flesh to be supposed capable of
converting it into bacon. I wish, likewise, with all my heart, that
Homer could have known the rule prescribed by Horace, to introduce
supernatural agents as seldom as possible. We should not then have
seen his gods coming on trivial errands, and often behaving themselves
so as not only to forfeit all title to respect, but to become the
objects of scorn and derision. A conduct which must have shocked the
credulity of a pious and sagacious heathen; and which could never have
been defended, unless by agreeing with a supposition to which I have
been sometimes almost inclined, that this most glorious poet, as he
certainly was, had an intent to burlesque the superstitious faith of
his own age and country.