The History of Tom Jones
Containing About Two Days.
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.