The Genius of Homer
Preface to the Iliad by Alexander Pope (1715)

Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever. The Praise of Judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their pretensions as to particular excellences; but his invention remains yet unrivalled. Nor is it a wonder if he has ever been acknowledged the greatest of poets, who most excelled in that which is the very foundation of poetry. It is the invention that in different degrees distinguishes all great genius's: The utmost stretch of human study, learning, and industry, which masters every thing besides, can never attain to this. It furnishes art with all her materials, and without it judgment itself can at best but steal wisely: For art is only like a prudent steward that lives on managing the riches of nature. Whatever praises may be given to works of judgment, there is not even a single beauty in them but is owing to the invention: As in the most regular gardens, however art may carry the greatest appearance, there is not a plant or flower but is the gift of nature. The first can only reduce the beauties of the latter into a more obvious figure, which the common eye may better take in, and is therefore more entertained with. And perhaps the reason why most critics are inclined to prefer a judicious and methodical genius to a great and fruitful one, is, because they find it easier for themselves to pursue their observations though an uniform and bounded walk of art, than to comprehend the vast and various extent of Nature.

Our author's work is a wild paradise, where if we cannot see all the beauties so distinctly as in an ordered garden, it is only because the number of them is infinitely greater. 'Tis like a copious nursery which contains the seeds and first productions of every kind, out of which those who followed him have but selected some particular plants, each according to his fancy, to cultivate and beautify. If some things are too luxuriant, it is owing to the richness of the soil; and if others are not arrived to perfection or maturity, it is only because they are over-run and oppressed by those of a stronger nature.

It is to the Strength of this amazing invention we are to attribute that unequalled fire and rapture, which is so forcible in Homer, that no man of a true poetical spirit is master of himself while he reads him. What he writes is of the most animated nature imaginable; every thing moves, every thing lives, and is put in action. If a council be called, or a battle fought, you are not coldly informed of what was said or done as from a third person; the reader is hurried out of himself by the force of the poet's imagination, and turns in one place to a hearer, in another to a spectator. The course of his verses resembles that of the army he describes,

They pour along like a Fire that sweeps the whole Earth before it.

'Tis however remarkable that his fancy, which is everywhere vigorous, is not discovered immediately at the beginning of his Poems in its fullest splendour: It grows in the progress both upon himself and others, and becomes on fire like a chariot-wheel, by its own rapidity. Exact disposition, just thought, correct elocution, polished numbers, may have been found in a thousand; but this poetical fire, this Vivida vis animi, in a very few. Even in works where all those are imperfect or neglected, this can over-power criticism, and make us admire even while we disapprove. Nay, where this appears, though attended with absurdities, it brightens all the rubbish about it, 'till we see nothing but its own Splendor. This fire is discerned in Virgil, but discerned as through a glass, reflected, and more shining than warm, but everywhere equal and constant: In Lucan and Statius, it bursts out in sudden, short, and interrupted flashes: In Milton, it glows like a furnace kept up to an uncommon fierceness by the force of art: In Shakespeare, it strikes before we are aware, like an accidental fire from heaven; But in Homer, and in him only, it burns everywhere clearly, and everywhere irresistibly.

We acknowledge him the father of poetical diction, the first who taught that language of the Gods to men. His Expression is like the colouring of some great masters, which discovers itself to be laid on boldly, and executed with rapidity. It is indeed the strongest and most glowing imaginable, and touched with the greatest spirit. Aristotle had reason to say, he was the only poet who had found out living words; there are in him more daring figures and metaphors than in any good author whatever. An arrow is impatient to be on the wing, a weapon thirsts to drink the blood of an enemy, and the like. Yet his expression is never too big for the sense, but justly great in proportion to it: 'Tis the sentiment that swells and fills out the diction, which rises with it, and forms itself about it. For in the same degree that a thought is warmer, an expression will be brighter; and as that is more strong, This will become more perspicuous: like glass in the furnace which grows to a greater magnitude, and refines to a greater clearness, only as the breath within is more powerful, and the heat more intense.

No Author of Man ever excelled all the World in more than one faculty, and as Homer has done this in invention, Virgil has in judgment. Not that we are to think Homer wanted judgment, because Virgil had it in a more eminent degree; or that Virgil wanted invention, because Homer possessed a larger share of it: Each of these great authors had more of both than perhaps any man besides, and are only said to have less in comparison with one another. Homer was the greater genius, Virgil the better artist. In one we most admire the man, in the other the work. Homer hurries and transports us with a commanding impetuosity, Virgil leads us with an attractive majesty; Homer scatters with a generous profusion, Virgil bestows with a careful magnificence: Homer, like the Nile, pours out his riches with a sudden overflow; Virgil like a river in its banks, with a gentle and constant stream. When we behold their battles, methinks the two poets resemble the heroes they celebrate: Homer, boundless and irresistible as Achilles, bears all before him, and shines more and more as the tumult increases; Virgil, calmly daring like Æneas, appears undisturbed in the midst of the action, disposes all about him, and conquers with tranquillity: And when we look upon their machines, Homer seems like his own Jupiter in his terrors, shaking olympus, scattering the lightnings, and firing the heavens; Virgil, like the same power in his benevolence counselling with the Gods, laying plans for empires, and regularly ordering his whole creation.

A cooler judgment may commit fewer faults, and be more approved in the eyes of one sort of critics: but that warmth of fancy will carry the loudest and most universal applauses which holds the heart of a reader under the strongest enchantment. Homer not only appears the inventor of poetry, but excels all the inventors of other arts in this, that he has swallowed up the honour of those who succeeded him. What he has done admitted no increase, it only left room for contraction or regulation. he showed all the stretch of fancy at once; and if he has failed in some of his flights, it was but because he attempted everything. A work of this kind seems like a mighty tree which rises from the most vigorous seed, is improved with industry, flourishes, and produces the finest fruit; Nature and Art have conspired to raise it; pleasure and profit joined to make it valuable: and they who find the justest faults, have only said, that a few branches (which run luxuriant through a richness of nature) might be lopped into form to give it a more regular appearance.