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

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

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

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

Excerpt

In ancient Greece, as everyone knows, Homer was the "Bible" of the people. In ancient Rome, it is said, Virgil was the favorite of emperor and clown. In Elizabethan England, the Graeco-Roman epic was considered indispensable for the training of princes and gentlemen. In the England of Cromwell and Charles II, the epic seemed to Milton, as poet, the best means of explaining how evil came into the world. In the England of Anne and the Georges, as in the America of Thomas Jefferson, no man could pretend to be educated unless he knew large portions of Homer and Virgil by heart, and no poet, it almost seemed, could hope for laurels unless he had published an Epigoniad or a Columbiad.

But in our world, the epic has fallen upon evil days. What remains of its high prestige? Critics affirm that heroic poetry is an anomaly in our unheroic age, that science has destroyed man's love for the mythical and supernatural, that global warfare and modern political beliefs have made us indifferent to the aristocratic Greek chieftain and his small-scale battles beneath the walls of Troy. Other critics observe that the tempo of twentiethcentury life precludes reading of long narratives in uniform verse, or that new concepts of the nature of poetry have led readers to prefer the modern lyric, intellectualized and tightly complex, to rambling epics of adventures on land and sea, of struggles between an autocratic Hebrew God and an altogether too human Satan, of trials of the soul in its ascent into the Christian empyrean. Still others imply that the day of poetry--all poetry--has apparently come to an end, that the mushrooming of natural, psychological, and social sciences has established the realistic novel as the appropriate literary form for the contemporary mind.

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