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

By Donald M. Foerster | Go to book overview

2 English Romantic Concepts of the
Epic and Criticism of
Dante and Milton

IN THE EARLY nineteenth century, criticism in England lacked a real center, a principal focus. It was comprised of many foci, many strands of dissimilar opinion. Fundamental ideas were often in palpable conflict, or they impinged upon or merged with other ideas. Because of this complexity, antagonism, and fusion, scholars have found it impossible to give a succinct yet comprehensive description of "romanticism," and it is equally impossible, in the present study, to epitomize what critics in Wordsworth's day thought of epic poetry. It will be necessary, in fact, to approach our subject from a multiplicity of angles, to follow the rather artificial procedure of singling out key ideas, issues, and developments, and of treating each one separately even though it may be closely linked with others.

Just what is an epic? Earlier theorists had assumed that they knew, but theorists after 1800 often implied that they were by no means certain. Generally speaking, they were unsure because the traditional concept of a hierarchy of genres, after some modification during the preceding century, was now in a state of almost complete collapse. The historical approach, with its stress upon development and uniqueness, had demonstrated once and for all that many basic rather than merely the superficial characteristics of a literary work are determined by time and place, that two works are alike only insofar as the circumstances under which they are written are alike. The related biographical approach had

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