Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Hill, Jen | Style, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain


Hill, Jen, Style


Simon Dentith. Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.245 pp. $85.00 cloth.

Simon Dentith's Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain opens with an epigraph: "Is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press, not to mention the printing machine?" Karl Marx's query fingers what is for Dentith a central issue of the epic: its dependency on historical distance and alterity. Dentith's book discusses this "epic primitivism" and its unexpected centrality to discussions of modernity, nation, and empire in the nineteenth century. He reveals the epic as popular and puissant form for poets and critics alike who either distanced themselves from or embraced this ancient form as they conceived and represented themselves and their culture as modern. Focusing on this problematic enables Dentith to discuss a wide range of texts - from Vico to Hegel to Moretti, from Scott to Barren Browning to Kipling - in order to explore the many different contexts and forms of the epic in the nineteenth-century. Thus Dentith's subject extends into translation, criticism, history, and the novel. His accessible, engaging, lucid, and nuanced study is sensitive to the complexities of nineteenth-century literature and culture while attending to and making vital contribution to current discussions of genre in twentieth-century historical and literary studies.

Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain reveals and demonstrates how attention to questions of genre, either as expressed by authors working within or against generic convention or by critics and translators, complicates our understanding of the interrelationship between forms of historical thinking, literary genre, and national and imperial imaginations. By making the epic the focus of his discussion of impulses and tensions (between epic and novel, center and periphery, nation and empire, to name a few) that haunt nineteenth-century literature, Dentith signals epic specifically and genre more generally as terrain of ideological struggle, and points towards epic's unlikely importance to a century that defined itself as modern in opposition to the values of the historically and culturally distant epic, even as it sometimes endorsed and deployed those same values in understanding and justification of itself. Thus the epic serves as a kind of contrasting reagent to modernity, effectively defining the modern as that which epic cannot be even as it valorizes epic categories of primitive and barbarous. It is this valorization of the primitive and barbarous, Dentith concludes, that makes the epic's relation to nation and empire more complicated than has been acknowledged.

The first half of the book addresses specific variations of this relation of the epic to definitions of modernity. Dentith's opening chapter situates his claims of the epic's importance to nineteenth-century definitions of modernity in eighteenth-century discussions of the relation of Homer to Greek culture and of the previous century over Homer and Ossian. "Walter Scott and Heroic Minstrelsy" (chapter 2) moves this now-established paradoxical motivation and function of epic into the national context, starting with Scott's discussion of Ossian and continuing to a discussion of his editing of ballads and his use of ballad-stanzas in his own self-consciously national poetry. Dentith argues that Scott's poetry provides an affective geography and history in its dramatization of the historical moment in which local affiliations give way to national imaginings and in which a social order that sustains minstrelsy gives way to what follows. Yet for Dentith a significant paradox and utility of epic in the nineteenth century is that the very vastness of the heroism it uses to map a history and region necessarily ties it to a distant, affectively potent past from which we are excluded. Dentith extends his discussion of nation and balladry in his third chapter, "Epic Translation and the National Balled Metre," in which he discusses the debate between Matthew Arnold and Francis Newman on Homeric translation. …

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