The Fortunes of Epic Poetry: A Study in English and American Criticism, 1750-1950

By Donald M. Foerster | Go to book overview
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1 Homage and Doubt in the
Neo-classical Period

A HEROIC POEM, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform."1 To Dryden it perhaps seemed as if he were expressing an axiom of the ages, a truth too self-evident ever to be questioned. Little did he suspect that the time would arrive when critics would honor the lyric at the expense of the epic or prose fiction at the expense of both the lyric and the epic. Little did he imagine that literary theorists could ever argue, as some few of them do today, that there is no such thing as "greatness" in art.

What led Dryden to pay such homage to the epic? To answer the question, we must remember his basic conception of literature. For him as for all neo-classicists, the central intention of a true literary work was not the dispassionate recording of the particulars of daily living or the baring of the author's soul: these are intentions that were to be recognized by later generations of critics. Dryden believed that all serious literature must be directed at man's whole being, intellective as well as emotional. Its chief function, he held, is to instruct through the medium of pleasing fiction, and conversely, to please by satisfying one's innate desire to acquire knowledge. It attains these dual aims instantaneously, and it does so in two ways. On the one hand, the true literary work minimizes transient appearances, the everchanging, kaleidoscopic aspects of human experience, emphasizing instead the real that underlies ordinary phenomena, the real in the sense of the central and the ideal, of the objective towards which life collectively is ever striving; in the words of Dryden

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