In elder days men worked and played together. The single member of the clan or the individual citizen was completely merged in the unity of the tribe or the state. His welfare depended upon the welfare of the group, his interests were bound up inextricably with the life of the community as a whole. This fact explains the range and character of the earlier poetry of any people. All nations have their own distinctive beginnings, and these are widely distributed in time: the term “earlier,” therefore, is relative to each nation. Examples of such earlier poetry are the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” on the one hand—though these represent the culmination rather than the beginning of an age, which, however, is relatively early—and on the other hand, the English traditional ballads.〖See Harvard Classics, xl, 51–128.〗 In point of time these two instances are separated from each other by about two thousand years, but as earlier poetry they have this trait in common, that they are not the work of any one man. Such poetry as this is not made; it grows. It springs as a kind of spontaneous expression of the life of the group. An incident of common concern to the whole people, a situation involving the fortunes of all, furnishes the occasion and the motive of the tale. Necessarily some one, any one,—unknown by name,—starts it on its course. The story is told and retold: passing from lip to lip, it receives changes and additions. Again, finally, some one, unknown by name, gives it the form in which it is written down and so preserved. But it is the poetry of a people rather than of a man.

This poetry has certain traits which serve to mark it as popular or national. In the case of poems of greater scope, like the “Iliad” or “Beowulf,” it deals with action in the large. The heroes whose deeds it celebrates are the possession of the kindred or the race; they are kings and men of might or valor, known to all in the national traditions. Even the gods are not absent; they play a dominant part in the action. Similarly in the popular ballads, the persons of the story, though drawn from humbler life, acquire a legendary interest which makes them typical figures and invests them with general importance. Such poetry, then, mirrors the ideals of the group or the nation. It is shaped and colored by the religious beliefs of the people or by vague questionings and vaguer answers as to the nature and meaning of things. By the kind of persons it sets in action, by the deeds they do and the passions they feel, this poetry becomes the projection and expression of life at its best as the whole people conceives it to be. It is the nation’s interpretation of itself.

One characteristic these tales have which, apart from their form as verse, makes them poetry. The world which they give back is idealized. They come into being in response to men’s love of a story. But the action which they embody is not the petty and commonplace round of daily affairs; the action is heightened and intensified. What we call the “glamour of romance” is over it. The free imagination is at work to fashion a more engaging and significant world. The stories told are of a time long past, in a happier and golden prime. This, they say, is the world as it was; would that it were so now, or might be again! Across the obscure yearnings of the present need, seen at a distance in the fresh light of mornings gone, the men of an elder age are figured of heroic mould. Their virtues, their passions, and their faults are nobler than the common breed. The world in which they move and do is an ampler scene, bathed in a freer air. This transfiguring of things, making them bright, intense, and full of a farther meaning, is the spirit of poetry.

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