As civilization progresses, the individual begins to define himself more sharply against the background of his group. The common effort of the group has wrought out for itself the arts of life; the store of culture is gradually enriched by collective striving. Then a time comes when the various functions of life tend to be distributed more and more among the separate members of the community; and to them it becomes possible to develop their own special gifts and aptitudes as potter, weaver, smith. One day a man arises who has the gift of song. Conscious of himself now as an individual, he takes the stories which the fathers have told, threads of legend and tradition, and weaves them into a new pattern. As the earlier poetry was the expression of the collective ideals of the group, so now the poem conceived and shaped by a single maker is animated by his own special purpose; colored by his personal emotion, it reflects the world as he himself sees it: and it becomes in this wise the expression of his individual interpretation of life.〖As illustrating the contrast in point of view of the work of the individual poet and of national poetry, it is interesting to compare the acute self-consciousness of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (H.C., xlii, 977) with the downrightness of Homer’s hero.〗

Thus a new spirit comes into narrative poetry. Less and less it is spontaneous, impersonal, objective; more and more it is the product of a deliberate, self-conscious art; the choice of subject and the manner of presenting it are determined by the poet’s own feeling. The world from which he draws his material is nearer home. His characters are more immediate to everyday experience; what they lose in glamour they gain in directness of appeal. Interest in the action for its own sake does not flag, but the persons who move in it are more closely and definitely expressive of what the poet thinks and feels. He chooses his characters because they embody concretely and so exemplify the conception he has formed of a significant situation. The story of the mythical hero Beowulf and his fight with the weird sea-monster Grendel is succeeded by Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”〖H.C., xl, 11.〗 Here the poet assembles a motley company, of high and low degree, of clerical and lay, sketched from the life with exquisitely humorous fidelity. The stories they tell to pass the stages of their pilgrimage are as varied as themselves—none, however, more characteristic of the new temper of poetry than the Nun’s Priest’s tale. Now A povre widwe somdel stope in age, Was whylom dwelling in a narwe cotage, Bisyde a grove, stondyng in a dale.〖H.C., xl, 34.〗

And the hero of the tale is “Chauntecleer”! The cock discourses learnedly of dreams, and for authorities he invokes the great names of antiquity. But he succumbs to inexorable fate, figured by “Russel the fox,” while the denizens of the barnyard act the chorus to his tragedy. The poem in its mock heroics is a sly satire of the grand manner of the romantic epic. But beyond the entertainment it furnishes by the way, in it is reflected Chaucer’s own genial though shrewd criticism of life; and we enjoy this contact with the poet’s own personality. So in all narrative poetry of conscious art, whether the “Faerie Queene” or “Paradise Lost,” Keats’s “Endymion” or “Enoch Arden,” whether it portrays the figures of romance and fable, or whether it treats the high argument of God’s ways with man or a tragedy of humble souls, we discern the image of a heightened and intenser world, which serves finally to express the poet’s own way of conceiving life, his interpretation of experience.

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