Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre

By Steven M. Oberhelman; Van Kelly et al. | Go to book overview

Stalin and the Death of Epic: Mikhail Bakhtin,
Nadezhda Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak

Frederick T. Griffiths and Stanley J. Rabinowitz

Does epic belong to princes? Imperialists have often assumed that it does: Alexander of Macedonia, after pausing at Troy to envy Achilles for having found a Homer, swept on to India with an Iliad in a jewelled casket. Caesar Augustus extracted the Aeneid from an apparently reluctant poet of shorter forms. Napoleon took a copy of Ossian on his march to Moscow. And Mussolini's favorite play was Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which, speaking better than he knew, he proclaimed to be a textbook for statesmen. Ezra Pound seconded the impulse, while trying to educate the taste.

Among general readers, few might dispute the association. The unfading image of Hitler at Bayreuth indicts the influence of all heroic art. Even with the battlefield replaced by the dynamo and the collective farm, what is bad about Stalin's socialist realism, like his architecture, is heroically bad. Yet, as most of the essays in this volume reflect, poets of the first rank are not easily tarred by this brush. When epic poetry has gratified the naked bellicosity of the Alexanders and Napoleons, it has usually done so late and mistakenly, for Homer's most esteemed heirs have more often satirized than gratified regal claims to grandeur. Alexander presumably overlooked how Homer actually portrays the leaders of expeditions through the ineffectual, blustering, and ingloriously doomed Agamemnon. However much Vergil fostered Augustus' vanity in seeing himself as

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