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

By Donald M. Foerster | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE
The Epic in an Age of
Disillusionment, 1910-1950

IN THE VICTORIAN age it was still possible for a literary critic confidently to assert that "the future of poetry is immense." Science, Arnold held, will hereafter be completed not by religion and philosophy but by poetry. For an understanding of life mankind must turn to the best poetry, the quality of which can be sensed even in a few lines of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, or Milton.

Certainly this prophecy has shown few signs of fulfillment. In our age of science and technology, the further dissolution of "what passes with us for religion and philosophy" has been accompanied by a marked decline of public interest in poetry-- especially in the great epics and dramas Arnold had in mind. The public taste has been satisfied by the realistic-sentimentalsensational novels of the day, by utilitarian prose in books, magazines, and newspapers, by the soap-operas, "westerns," and gangland dramas of the cinema and television. If the Homeric epics are still read outside educational requirement, they are not read as "best poetry" but, in prose, as exotic novels of adventure. The exalted ethos of the Classical and Christian traditions which informed all the major epics makes small impression upon a skeptical public seeking casual recreation rather than "high poetic truth and seriousness."

Indifference toward epic poetry has often been shared by the literary critics themselves. Many have agreed with Croce and

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