Thursday, November 09, 2006

Epic Poetry

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

Pernassus hill, upon whose Airy top
The Epick Poets so divinely show,
And with just pride behold the rest below.
(The Earl of Mulgrave, An Essay upon Poetry, 1682)

Walter Benjamin remarked that there is a clear relationship between epic and history. This is true to a certain extent. In his "Poetics", Aristotles namely makes a clear distinction between poetry and history, concluding that "[…] poetry is something more scientific and serious than history, because poetry tends to give general truths while history gives particular facts". This statement, of course, also applies to epic poetry, which widens its scope beyond what happened to "what might have happened", thus thematizing universal truths and displaying events as "models of the course of the world" or "meta-history".

Contrary to history, in epic poetry time as such, "chronological time", is largely irrelevant. The action of the "Odyssey", for example, occurs over a period of twenty years, but is compressed to merely forty days in the epic. And in "Beowulf" a few days correspond to over fifty years. This device ("In Media Res") was established by Homer in the eighth century BC.

The real goal of the epic, from Homer to Spenser over Vergil and Dante, has been to help man understand the past (which in epic poetry, as we have stated, includes "what might have happened") through the deeds of a hero representing the fate of his community in order to better shape the future. In the West, the "Iliad", "Odyssey", and "Nibelungenlied", and in the East, the "Mahabharata", "Ramayana", and "Shahnama" are often cited as outstanding examples of the epic genre. To these we have to add Vergil's "Aeneid", Lucan's "Pharsalia", and Statius's "Thebaid".

The first recorded epic is the Sumerian "Gilgamesh", while the longest is the "Tibetan Epic" of King Gesar, composed of roughly 20 volumes and more than one million verses.1

It is also appropriate at this stage to mention some of the translations of the greatest epics, as they constitute works of art in themselves, like Douglas's "Aeneid", Harington's "Ariosto", Fairfax's "Tasso", Chapman's "Homer", Sylvester's "Du Bartas", and Pope's "Iliad". It is thanks to them that we can read the greatest epics of the past, although of course a translation will never be like the original.

In the epic, the narrative often starts in the middle of an action2 with an invocation to the Muses. Primary or folks epics often originate from heroic ballads and legends, don't have a single author, are only written down after centuries of oral tradition 3, are about the nobility and are recited (and quite often sung) in front of an audience (and for this reason usually consist of short episodes of equal importance that are easy to memorize), while secondary or literary epics (popularized by Vergil) imitate primary epics, are the work of a single author, are about some remarkable events and are meant to be read from a book by an individual. Further characteristics worthy of consideration are that in primary epics deities and other supernatural beings (demigods or extraordinary heroes) interfere in human affairs and are often the product of a fight or an adventure. The earliest known European epic is Virgil's "Aeneid", which follows both the style and subject matter of Homer (a primary epic).

Important elements of the epic style include an invocation and an epic question, dignified, stately language and rhythm (created for example by lengthy lists), dignified manner of address between characters, repetition, protracted similes, long, formal speeches often followed by "thus he spoke", the ekphrasis (which will be described in detail later in this paper), a climactic confrontation, bias towards low social strata, and sometimes also magical elements like a haunted wood. The hero himself is often introduced in the middle of the action and is often a demigod armed with magic weapons, a warrior with no equals (often emphasized by epithets like "pious Aeneas"). He must go through several trials often involving his descent in the underworld to test his virtues and bring them to perfection (arete). His antagonists are always quite valiant warriors themselves, as it would be beneath the dignity of the hero to fight against weaklings. Quite often though, they are against God (and that is obviously the reason why the hero has to fight against them). In his quest or fight, the hero often reaches a low point, the moment when he starts to question the validity of his enterprise, but he is then typically "resurrected" from this state of temporary mental inertia and is able to complete his quest / adventure successfully.

An epic poem is usually a whole culture in a microcosm4 through flashbacks and inset narratives and is either centred on a war or on a journey, where the hero is usually on a quest. The hero is often of auspicious birth, and the deeds and events associated with him are often transferred to or taken over from another hero, for instance the hero descending to the Underworld.

Example -
The primary epic "Beowulf" begins:

Listen! We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
in the old days, the kings of tribes--
how noble princes showed great courage!
Often Scyld Scefing seized mead-benches
from enemy troops, from many a clan;
he terrified warriors, even though first he was found
a waif, helpless. For that came a remedy,
he grew under heaven, prospered in honours
until every last one of the bordering nations
beyond the whale-road had to heed him,
pay him tribute. He was a good king!

"Beowulf", written in alliterative measure, represents about 10% of the extant corpus of Old English poetry. It has 3,182 lines in a single manuscript (Cotton Vitellius A XV) and is considered the masterpiece of Old English literature. It was most probably written between 700 and 750 (but only printed in 1815) by a Christian poet (Beowulf himself was a pagan, but in a Christian setting, as Grendel and Grendel's mother are described as the kin of Cain in a Germanic warrior society, thus mixing Christian and pagan elements) and describes events of the 6th century. Originally, it was untitled, but it was later named after the Scandinavian hero Beowulf. In Beowulf, we recognize the Germanic tradition metrically, stylistically and thematically, and yet the Christian spirit is much stronger than in the German tradition, and Beowulf himself is much more altruistic and generous than the traditional Germanic heroes. Beowulf has even been seen as a Christian allegory of the fight between light and darkness, culminating in Beowulf's death as the tragic but appropriate death of a good hero fighting for noble ideals. Beowulf is a work of fiction, but it also contains an historic event, the raid by king Hygelac into Frisia, ca 516. It is believed that there are more real people and events in Beowulf, as some of them also appear in early Scandinavian sources.

A more modern example -
The secondary epic "Paradise Lost" by John Milton begins:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the Heavens and Earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

The first edition of "Paradise Lost" (1667) comprised ten books, but in the second (1674), two books were split into two to make a total of twelve books (like in Vergil's" Aeneid"), the longest book being Book IX, with 1189 lines, and the shortest Book VII, with 640. Each book starts with an argument (a summary of the book's contents), a novelty as compared to the first edition.

"Paradise Lost" is an epic poem of extraordinary organization and power of imagination, not lacking a touch of irony too, written in blank verse5 (a very unconventional decision for an epic work, as rhyme was the standard for this kind of dignified poetry, as established by the great continental epic writers6) and recounting the story of the fall of Satan and the subsequent temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden "“ another innovative act giving up the traditional heroic theme for a more "human" story, as Adam and Eve are represented in all their humanity, a little bit like the French impressionist painters had shifted from officialdom and war to scenes of ordinary life, and Shakespeare from the traditional historical play to a kind of play where ordinary people are the real protagonists.

In his presentation of the Genesis theme, Milton remained loyal to the Puritan myth; at the same time though he transformed it, carefully avoiding the excessive display of sensibility so typical of the Puritan age, as when Adam and Eve ask God for forgiveness.

Apart from the total of twelve books, there are other similarities with Vergil, like Milton's roll call of the leaders of the fallen angels vs. Vergil's roll call of the Italian chiefs preparing to fight against Aeneas. Milton himself had foreseen the scope of "Paradise Lost" in the introduction to "Reason of Church Government", where he explained that he wanted "to be an interpreter and relater of the best and sagest things among mine own Citizens throughout this Iliad in the mother dialect. That what the greatest and choicest wits of Athens, Rome, or modern Italy, and those Hebrews of old did for their country, I in my proportion with this over and above of being a Christian, might doe for mine."

Satan is described powerfully as a real hero in his reign, hell, but a tragic figure outside his dominion, a figure well aware of his own evil and damnation, and yet unable to do anything to escape his fate, as becomes evident in his soliloquy directed to the Sun. He assumes many forms in the course of the story, which go hand in hand with his progressive degradation. This is the most common interpretation of the latter half of the twentieth century, while the Romanticism tended to see Satan as the true hero of the epic. Adam and Eve fall too and succumb to Satan, as we all know, but in them there is hope for redemption through grace and penitence, so that the fall becomes a means of self-discovery (felix culpa). Satan's fate is thus contrasted with that of Adam and Eve, and even more, of course, with the fate of the Son of God.

Milton is a central figure in English epic, comparable to Vergil in Latin, and he considered himself the third great narrative poet in the English language after Chaucer and Spenser. No epic writing in the English language could escape his influence after him. In his time, a time that began to open to new foreign cultures, in particular the French culture, he resisted such influences to the last and expressed himself against them on several occasions. In "Of Education", he clearly expresses his aversion against the propagating French culture and asserts we should still look to Italy for modern critical theory. He was also quite popular and widely read in the eighteenth century, particularly in the middle class, where he had become authorized Sunday reading along with the Bible and the "Pilgrim's Progress" "“ not only for the theme of his epic, but also for his honesty and forthrightness.

At the same time though, in spite of being a convinced neo-classic, he was open to new forms of epics that didn't strictly follow the classical form. He took the critical principles of the Renaissance very seriously, as we can understand from just a few lines of "Paradise Lost":

Say Goddess, what ensu'd when Raphael,
The affable Arch-Angel, had forewarn'd
Adam by dire example to beware
Apostasie, by what befell in Heaven
To those Apostates, least the like befall
In Paradise to Adam or his Race,
Charg'd not to touch the interdicted Tree.
However, Milton was not destined to write a heroic poem in the Renaissance style, although he had planned to write an Arthuriad just before the Civil War. So he had to go back to an age in Europe before the rise of militant nationalism and choose an old theme, the theme of morality and the battle between good and evil. And that's how "Paradise Lost" was born, an epic poem modelled above all on the "Odyssey", but that still presents some Renaissance themes, like Adam going out in naked dignity to meet Raphael, or Satan, who is partly a Renaissance tyrant.

A particular form or topos of epic poetry is the ekphrasis, the "timeless" verbal description of a work of graphic art embedded into the larger context of the proper history of the epic poem in question, the first ekphrasis being the description of Achilles' shield in the "Iliad". Other forms (or "versions of history", as we might call them in the present context) are legends recounted, dreams and visions, but for now, we want to focus on the ekphrasis. The ekphrasis clearly exemplifies what we have stated at the beginning of this paper, namely the display of an event as a model or icon of the course of the world, uniting past and future in an exemplary way, and including the progress of the hero in the representation. It is also a citation, a milestone (in some cases a warning or a lesson) and a synecdoche7, quite often at the same time.

The ekphrasis is so important for epic poetry that Spenser's inability to use it appropriately marks the beginning of the end of the traditional epic and the introduction of the modern era.

Meta-history in the "Iliad" was at its highest as a celebration of endless repetitions. Vergil cites the Homeric topos and transforms it, representing times and places that have specific relevance for his own hero. But we are still dealing with meta-history, with something that clearly goes beyond the Trojan past and the future of the Roman people. In Dante's "Divina Commedia" then time becomes manifold, but it is linear, contrary to the works of his predecessors8. In Spenser, however, we notice that the various heroes of his "Faerie Queene" (a quite successful9 epic poem in six books celebrating the Tudor dynasty in an allegorical way based on the battle between virtues and vices, which is what still makes it pleasant to read and interesting, albeit occasionally difficult) move through a deceptive, mutable landscape in which, however, they concretely have to acknowledge their past and put it in perspective, thus breaking the tradition of the ekphrasis as described above.

So we can see that from the Greek heroic era over the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, 10 the ekphrasis gradually loses its traditional meaning and becomes a mere fragment alluding to a past that must be superseded, overcome. At the same time, the message it conveys becomes ambiguous.

Another feature we observe is that the maker of the work of art gradually disappears, thus shifting the relationship god-hero to a relationship between hero and history. In Spenser, the tapestries and ivories his heroes are presented with are from the hands of unknown and even "demonic" makers. Some scenes in Book I, for example, where Redcrosse is drawn in by Despayre's art, are reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, yet without having the positive force present in Dante 11 . They were made in a distant and foggy past the hero has no access to. Spenser cannot present a coherent connection between past, present, and future, so that time in Spenser can only be perceived as fragmented. In Spenser, the ekphrasis becomes an artefact, the mere representation of an archaic view of Eros that must be criticized and transcended, and the hero doesn't embody the fate of his community any more. History itself becomes irreversible, and the future uncertain. As a consequence, we also observe that the ekphrasis gradually loses its magic powers and in Spenser even becomes a mere object of dubious utility, and the hero gradually loses his ability to represent the fate of his community in a meta-historical context in the measure in which he loses his connection to the gods.

In Milton's "Paradise Lost" then, the ekphrasis disappears altogether, and the angel Michael shows Adam the future in the form of a vision similar to a map. Adam is not moving towards perfection either, but is rather cast out of a perfect world, the role of the hero having degenerated to the role of a sinner who will be made responsible for humanity's fate.

Although Spenser didn't succeed in outdoing Ariosto, as he would have liked to, as he once told Gabriel Harvey, he was not the mere dreamer he is occasionally thought of and still did a good job with his "Faerie Queene", to which he dedicated the best years of his life, managing to introduce new elements in the epic. We read Spenser without too much effort, in spite of a few archaic words. His language gets to the point and is straightforward, even when dealing with complicated matters, a gift he inherited from Homer. He also possesses an incantatory power in his descriptions, like the Bower of Bliss, a power that, however, contrary to what critics normally think, is not limited to his descriptions, but can surprise the reader anywhere, including his landscapes (usually regarded as rather dull). It is a power that evokes the feelings of actual life and makes the reader forget he is reading fiction in spite of the other aspect of Spenser's epic, his portentous strange visions and allegories. Sometimes these two qualities of Spenser's writing even go hand in hand, as in the case of Malbecco's transformations, an allegory that crowns a very realistic episode. So, even if it cannot be asserted that Spenser fulfilled the choric function of the real (traditional) epic, he should undoubtedly be regarded as a successful poet, who, like many successful poets, also had followers, like the brothers Giles and Phineas Fletcher, and who even influenced Milton in his medieval skills.

In his "Christs Victorie, and Triumph in Heaven, and Earth, over, and after Death", published in 1610, Giles, in his address to the reader, mentions his indebtment to Spenser's "Faerie Queene" for the metric structure of his work "“ eight lines with a final alexandrine -, although his language is more modern than Spenser's.

In his "Purple Island", his brother Phineas presents his allegory in a very skilful manner, remindful of Spenser's clarity of diction, and follows the medieval tradition thoroughly, for example in making Intellect and Will the princes of the island in his epic.

Seventeenth-century England was an age of literacy and didn't suit the essentially primitive nature of the epic any more, or, as Milton remarked, it was "too late for epic", and epic poets were slowly starting to come down from the summit of Parnassus. However, there are three works that are worthy of mention in this context, namely Tennyson's "The Death of Arthur" and Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum", two minor epics that managed to adapt the traditional form to the taste of their age by setting the action in a distant, mythical past, as well as Marlow's "Mighty Line". In some of his writings, Dryden also managed to achieve the nearest approach to the epic that was possible in the late seventeenth century, although in many other respects he failed and his creative energy was "dissipated in a multitude of miscellaneous tasks", as Bredvold remarked. He himself still held the epic in the highest esteem, in spite of its slow decline, as we have stated, choosing a middle way in the dispute between ancients and moderns in his "Essay of Dramatic Poesy" and calling the epic "the most noble, the most pleasant, and the most instructive way of writing in verse, and withal the highest pattern of human life", "undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform".

His first epicising poem was "Annus Mirabilis", although he himself considered it historic 12 rather than epic, as it was far too short for an epic and its action was not one.

Much more successful than his attempts at writing his own epic was Dryden's translation of the "Aeneid", in whose introduction he reiterates his notions of the epic and protests against its decline, making it clear that, if cultivated, it "could" flourish in England. Here too though he fails to achieve real genius, and his translation is far too rough in certain passages for Virgil's subtlety and mysticism.

Dryden's genius was at its best not in the epic, but in his "Fables" and his "Odes".

The eighteenth century then saw further changes. Lois Whitney describes the situation quite clearly and appropriately: "The eighteenth century saw a change in the critical conception of the epic from that of the Aristotelian formalist at the beginning of the century to that of the primitivistic critic in the latter part. Critics of the former school regarded the epic, whether by Homer or Virgil, as the highest and most difficult form of literary art, the product of a sophisticated writer, who, as a conscious literary artist, followed certain prescribed regulations and wrote with a definite moral purpose. The primitivists, on the other hand, assumed that the epic was the product of the primitive bard, ignorant of rhetoric and the rules of the epic, who sang his lays to savage audiences on festival occasions."

The "official" epic of the eighteenth century is "Robinson Crusoe" by Defoe, published in 1719, a clearly heroic and aristocratic work about a man's shipwreck on a desert island and his adventures.

This is also the age in which the epic starts to be burlesqued, like in "Tom Thumb the Great" and "Jonathan Wild" by Fielding, the age in which a new kind of comic epic was introduced, like "Joseph Andrews" by the same author, although at the same time there were still examples of "serious" epics, like "Télémaque" by Fénelon.

The eighteenth century also witnessed the creation of two great works belonging to the traditional epic, as traditions are always hard to die: Pope's "Iliad" and Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire".

Pope's translation of the "Iliad" is the result of six years of hard work, although Pope confessed that his work was nothing compared to Homer's, whom he admired with quasi-religious reverence. Pope also made some slight changes to the original work in his translation, like adding a certain gentility to the warriors or transforming Homer's shepherds into "conscious Swains", as this seemed to be more appropriate for the readers of his age. However, he retained most Homeric peculiarities as no other translation succeeded in doing, like the pathos he managed to convey in the description of the parting of Hector and Andromache, or the energy in the description of the pick of the Greek leaders in the thirteenth book, or the fight over the body of Patroculus. The general effect in these instances, which is the most important element of a good translation, is the same as in the original, and this is certainly a great merit of Pope's "Iliad", in spite of the liberty he took with certain details.

Pope managed to adapt the "Iliad" to his age because of his skills as a translator and a poet, of course, and also thanks to the remarkable correspondences between Homer's age and his own age, the age of Queen Anne, like the power in the hands of the nobles in time of war.

Gibbon always showed a remarkable interest in the epic, although, as we notice in "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", his talent is much more evident in conveying ideas rather than describing people or heroes - great general truths and moral lessons -, as history's task for Gibbon was exactly this: to offer general lessons in morality.

The lessons we find in Gibbon's work are for example the combination of disillusionment about humanity and a moderate belief in progress ("liberty" and "enlightenment"), typical of the eighteenth century, the condemnation of religious fanaticism, and the destructive power of religious strife.

Gibbon was also an incredibly strong man and a unique intellectual. He spent twenty years on his work, and at the end he was just as fresh as at the beginning, and although we cannot call his work "epic" in the strictest sense of the term, as it is more historical than epic, it certainly expresses the mindset of eighteenth-century Britain in the age of Hume in a manner remindful of the epic.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the idea of the epic and its zeal had almost perished. The few attempts at an epic work were unsuccessful, like Crabbe's, an impossibility of attainment of which he was fully conscious. The old mystical idea of the epic itself didn't exist any more in the nineteenth century, as new forces and interests were gaining ground. The more and more complex lifestyle and the ever expanding stock of human learning made it impossible to write an epic that spanned a whole society as required by the traditional epic. The new era required new thought patterns and a new literature. The most suitable style remindful of the epic now became the middle-class novel. The first of the "Waverly Novels" by Scott, for instance, represent an epic area in themselves with their wide, all-embracing themes. Another excellent example of "modern" epic is George Eliot's "Middlemarch" (in the late nineteenth century), which describes the stories of some of the inhabitants of a small English town on the eve of the Reform Bill of 1832.

The twentieth century has also produced some significant poetry works of epic scope, like "Savitri" by Aurobindo Ghose, "The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel" by Nikos Kazantzakis, "Paterson" by William Carlos Williams, to name just a few, as well as new kinds of modern epics like "The Prelude" by William Wordsworth (a long lyric biographical poem), "Der Ring der Nibelungen" by Richard Wagner (an opera), "The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot, and "The Cantos" by Ezra Pound.

To conclude, I would like to remark that with different objectives and styles, new forms of epics will continue to be written also in the twenty-first century, as we are witnessing in the works of the proponents of "Expansive Poetry", an umbrella term coined by Frederick Feirstein for a new kind of long poetry started in the 1980s and characterized by strong narrative and dramatic elements.


Bjork, R. and Niles, J., A Beowulf Handbook, University of Exeter Press, Exeter, Devon 1997

Britannica 2002 Deluxe Edition

Dubois, P., History, rhetorical description and the epic, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge 1982

Tillyard, E.M.W., The English Epic and Its Background, Chatto and Windus, London 1954


1 Length is a characteristic of the epic and one of the main differences between epic and tragedy. Tragic though can be contained in the epic, as Huxley remarked. Aristotle even described the epic in his "Poetics" as a mode of imitation comparable with the tragedy.

2 This is not problematic because the epic usually deals with familiar themes of assumed historicity.

3 The word "epic" comes from Greek "epein", "to speak".

4 In both space and time.

5 Occasionally though, there are extra syllables, and the stresses may vary too, so that in "Paradise Lost" the rhythm is never monotonous, but rather adapts to the sense of a particular theme.

6 This does not mean though, of course, that Milton's language is not dignified.

7 The whole is represented by the part, the embedded ekphrasis. Sometimes, the ekphrasis can stand for other poems.

8 Dante uses for example the written work of his own past to build part of the mountain of Purgatory.

9 Spenser was granted a life pension for it.

10 The most significant works of this period are "Mirror for Magistrates", a collection of English Renaissance narrative poems, the "Barons' Wars" by Michael Drayton, and "Albion's England" by William Warner, although they didn't correspond to the traditional standards of the epic.

11 In Dante the hero always moves forward, until he reaches Paradise.

12 It was written to celebrate the naval campaigns against the Dutch and the great fire of London in 1666.

1 comment:

Sean OLeary said...

Dear Maria,

Have you seen the modern epic poem "The Common Weal: A fictitious Australian tragedy" ?

I understand that it is written entirely in metric verse and was published this year, in 2009.

It was written by the Australian author Kundan Misra.