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

By Donald M. Foerster | Go to book overview

5 The Pendulum Begins to Swing:
Early Victorian Estimates: 1832-1880

IN SOME RESPECTS the Victorian era up to 1880 was a second "Romantic" era. From the Age of Wordsworth it inherited, almost as a matter of course, the historical-biographical approach to literature, the propensity not merely to explicate the backgrounds of a work of art but to make them an important basis for critical judgment. It continued the earlier practice of bifurcating literary history into "classical" and "romantic," of challenging the neo- Aristotelian systems of rules on the ground that they were dogmatic and arbitrary, of stressing emotionalism rather than architectonics or ethical purpose as the salient criterion of greatness in poetry. At the same time, in reacting to the positivism of Comte and to an ever-increasing accentuation upon utilitarianism as a measure of worth, it sought to perpetuate or refurbish the neo-Platonist concepts of beauty and the Christian idealism that had underlain the critical pronouncements of earlier writers.

Because of this continuity in literary opinion, we can hardly look for any precipitous abandonment of "Romantic" definitions and estimates of the epic as a genre. Some Victorian critics, implying that "epic" is synonymous with "narrative," held that either of these terms could rightly be applied to any versified tale, ancient or modern, long or short, well organized or loosely constructed, to the Nibelungenlied or Tennyson Idylls as properly as to Paradise Lost. Others, placing a special premium on emotionalism in poetry, associated "epic" with Homer and spoke derogatorily of the Iliad as a consciously contrived and therefore artificial composition, as an altogether archaic type of poem. Still

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