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

By Donald M. Foerster | Go to book overview

6 Epic, Lyric, or Novel?
Intensification of a Rivalry
Around 1900

IN AN AGE OF steam it seems almost idle to speak of Dante."1 To some extent Frederic Harrison was right: the great poets of the past, even more than the minor poets of the present, appeared to be alien to a world that was busily building machines, to one that was keenly aware of the almost illimitable possibilities of biology, chemistry, and physics. But there was actually no call for pessimism as excessive as Harrison's. In periods of great change men tend to look backwards as well as forwards, to reestimate their heritage as well as to predict their own prospects. Often adopting the methodology of science themselves, the scholars and critics at the turn of the twentieth century were intent on examining the entire range of heroic poetry anew. They studied the genesis of the epic; they tried to determine its exact place in the long history of literature and the conditions under which it had apparently thriven. In the thirty years from 1880 to 1910, in fact, more books and essays and journalistic articles were written about epic poetry and poems than in any other thirty-year span of time. Nor was all this work inconsequential and antiquarian. With Harrison, we today may look askance at the valiant efforts to discover the name of the man who married Milton's grandmother, or the houses in which the poet resided, or the ailments that afflicted his first wife. But we are obliged to concede that this historical-biographical-sociological-philological study, though too often pursued as an end in

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