Milton's Heirs: Epic Poetry in the 1790s

By Crawford, Joseph | Studies in Romanticism, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Milton's Heirs: Epic Poetry in the 1790s


Crawford, Joseph, Studies in Romanticism


IN HIS 1782 ESSAY ON EPIC POETRY, HAYLEY ADDRESSES HOMER THUS:

   And haply Greece, the Wonder of the Earth
   For feats of martial fire and civic worth,
   That glorious Land, of noblest minds the nurse,
   Owes her unrivall'd race to thy inspiring Verse;
   For O, what Greek, who in his youthful vein
   Had felt thy soul-invigorating strain,
   Who that had caught, amid the festive throng,
   The public lesson of thy patriot Song,
   Could ever cease to feel his bosom swell
   With zeal to dare, and passion to excel. (1)

In other words, it was not Greece that made Homer; it was Homer who made Greece. It was by heating Homer that the Greeks were inspired to achieve all that would make them famous in later years; if Homer had not sung, then Pericles would not have spoken, Plato would not have written, Leonidas would not have stood and fought. Alexander, the legend goes, slept with a dagger and an Iliad under his pillow. It hardly matters whether there was any truth in this. What counted was the idea: good epics make good nations.

The old Renaissance commonplace had been that good epics made good men, and if Homer and Virgil had been able to form the minds of the ancients, then they could form the minds of the modems, too. But in the intervening years, with all their highly visible modernization and change, a strong sense had grown up of the cultural otherness of antiquity. Renaissance-era printers had happily depicted Aeneas, Achilles, and the other epic heroes as sixteenth-century knights, but to an eighteenth-century artist it would have seemed absurd to draw them as contemporary soldiers, red coats and all. In his 1735 Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer, Thomas Blackwell had concluded that the modem world was simply too civilized to give rise to Homeric poetry:

   Neither indeed does it seem to be given to one and the same
   Kingdom, to be thoroughly civilised, and afford proper subjects for
   [epic] Poetry. The Marvellous and the Wonderful is the nerve of the
   Epic Strain: But what marvellous Things happen in a well ordered
   State? (2)

Thus, with the rise of historicist criticism in the writings of scholars such as Blackwell and Lowth, an uneasy sense arose that Homer and Virgil's works might no longer be applicable to their modem British readers. Hayley writes:

   What! Can the British heart, humanely brave,
   Feel for the Greek who lost his female slave?
   Can it, devoted to a savage Chief,
   Swell with his rage, and soften with his grief?

   (110)

This is not meant as a criticism of Homer, although it is a criticism of Homeric Greece; rather, it is a recognition that Homer's world and Hayley's are not the same, that indeed the cultural gap between them might now be so large as to make it difficult for modem readers to sympathize with Homer's heroes at all. Hayley was not alone in feeling this: as far back as 1715, Terrasson had complained about how little sympathy he had for "so very vicious a man as Achilles," and Addison had expounded on the unsuitabihty of ancient Greek or Roman models as behavioral or political guides for modem Britons. (3) But the need for epic inspiration remained as pressing as ever, and if the old ones were no longer suitable, then new epics were needed to do for Britain what Homer had done for Greece.

It was not just cultural difference that made a national epic such a pressing necessity: it was also national pride. As the eighteenth century progressed, and Britain rose to become a world imperial power, the achievements of Greece and Rome came to seem less like inimitable wonders to be marveled at and more like templates to be followed, or even rivals to be outdone (see Weinbrot 127-31). A British national epic would simultaneously prove that the British were the equals of the Ancients in poetry, and inspire the British to equal and exceed them in other ways. Hayley's Essay continues:

   And shall it [i. 

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Milton's Heirs: Epic Poetry in the 1790s
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?