In the last half-century and particularly in the last two decades much light has been thrown on the literature and thought of England in the eighteenth century. A number of able and devoted scholars have given their time to correcting the misinformation promulgated about the period by the nineteenth century, so that there is no longer much need to defend the writers of the Augustan age. It is now pretty well agreed that what we need is a series of detailed and critical studies on various phases of the thought which flourished during that time. A number of articles, monographs, and books in the field of literary criticism have contributed to this enlightenment, and it is my hope that the work presented in these pages may throw further light on the English critical mind during the hundred and fifty years between 1650 and 1800. Certainly during this time no literary form was more frequently written about than the epic. The student may therefore find it of some service to have a detailed account of what the critics thought about the epic, of the origin of their ideas, and of the relationship of these ideas to the intellectual currents of the period.
Any attempt to study the English theory of the epic necessitates a preliminary survey of classical and Continental criticism, inasmuch as it permeated English writings. Criticism of the epic started with Aristotle, who in the Poetics suggested certain regulations for the epic which were appropriated intact, added to, and changed again and again by subsequent critics in Italy, France, and England. The few comments of Horace, which were given a place of high honor by Italian, French, and English theorists, were almost as frequently referred to. The Italian critics of the sixteenth century expanded and refined the principles of their classical predecessors, developing a body of criticism to which later French and English writers were heavily indebted. The immediate influence of the Italians can be seen in the work of the French of the seventeenth century, who took over the Italian theories and organized them into a formal set of rules.
The Italian influence is not so immediately apparent in England, for the English of the Renaissance gave comparatively little attention to the formal principles of epic theory, and by the time an expanded theory was worked out in England, writers were looking to France rather than Italy for their inspiration. The theory of the epic in England, which may, for want of a better term, be called neoclassic, began in 1650 with the publication of the . . .