Attitudes Toward Epic

When Dryden published his Works of Virgil in 1697, he prefixed to the Aeneid a long dedicatory epistle to the Earl of Mulgrave discussing the properties of epic poetry. He begins with a ringing endorsement of a conviction found elsewhere in his critical writing: "A heroic poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform." So much becomes a critical truism in the English Augustan era, one which other leading writers, such as Alexander Pope, have no reservation in endorsing. Though ranked by Aristotle beneath tragedy in the hierarchy of genres, the epic was thought to be the loftiest of all kinds of nondramatic writing, comprising a literary summit which could be approached only humbly and falter-ingly after a candidate had surmounted the foothills of pastoral and georgic. The poetic career of the Roman poet Virgil had exemplified such an ideal graduation: a path self-consciously followed in the eighteenth century (if not quite all the way to its epic pinnacle) by Pope.

Much of the theorizing of epic in England from the mid-seventeenth century through to the close of the eighteenth takes its cue from the twinned treatises of William Davenant and Thomas Hobbes, published in 1650. Davenant's preface to Gondibert introduced several persistent themes. While acknowledging Homer as the great pioneer of the form, Davenant cautions against undue reliance on epic precedent; he advocates that the action of epics should always pass before a tribunal of "credibility"; and he enshrines the notion that an epic should serve an essentially didactic purpose. These propositions are in large part endorsed by Hobbes in his responding essay, and they become the accepted lore of English epic criticism (Swedenberg 1953).

A new critical construction of epic becomes available in the 1680s when the ideas contained in the French critic Le Bossu's Traité du poème épique seep into the English consciousness. As early as 1682, the Earl of Mulgrave felt able to announce that Le

Bossu had discovered the "sacred Mysteries" of heroic poetry, but it is perhaps not until 1695 that the full cultural importation of Le Bossu's theories is achieved. In this year appears Richard Blackmore's controversial epic poem Prince Arthur, to which the author supplied a critical preface on the nature of epic which deliberately sought to align the work with Le Bossu's precepts.

For Blackmore, "An Epick Poem is a feign'd or devis'd Story of an Illustrious Action, related in Verse, in an Allegorical, Probable, Delightful, and Admirable manner, to cultivate the Mind with Instructions of Virtue." The kind of virtues necessary to be inculcated are "Noble and Princely" ones, which he enumerates as "Fortitude, Wisdom, Piety, Moderation, [and] Generosity." The idea that an epic poem should instill virtue, and that the fable or story should be wrought specifically to this end, were the most influential of all Le Bossu's precepts. Le Bossu's criticism was also to a high degree formulaic. He believed in the force of epic precedent: that modern epic practitioners were duty-bound to comply with the models established by Homer and Virgil and with the "rules" codified from the former by Aristotle. Moreover, the method of criticism that his theories seemed to demand was one that entailed ticking off such compliance under a set of heads: fable, moral, characters, language, and so on. All these general ideas coalesce in Blackmore's preface of 1695. Throughout the essay, he taxonomizes his own and other epic poems along the lines laid down by Le Bossu, and he endorses Le Bossu's governing conviction that no epic poem could expect success unless bound to the ancient rules. Indeed, he cheekily observes that the reason why all modern poets have failed in their attempts at epic is not perhaps owing to a "want of Genius" so much as to "their Ignorance of the Rules of writing such a Poem; or at least, from their want of attending to them."

In his preparedness to be associated with Le Bossu's ideas, Blackmore was far from putting himself out on a limb; in fact, he was being prescient, catching the literary critical wave even before it had crested, and certainly before most of his contemporaries. It was a wave, indeed, that swept up most significant commentators on epic around the turn of the century. Dryden, for example, remarked with striking assurance that "Spenser wanted only to have read the rules of Bossu," and Pope endorses Bossu's ideas in the essay he appended to his translation of the Odyssey, "A General View of the Epic Poem, and of the Iliad and Odyssey. Extracted from Bossu' (Swedenberg 1953).

No less influenced by Bossu's ideas was John Dennis, best known now for his protracted and spiteful feuding with Pope. Yet there are a couple of issues on which Dennis departs from both Blackmore and Le Bossu. One of these concerns the unapol-ogetic formalism evident in the Traité, and the impression given by both Le Bossu and Blackmore that the rules were valued for their own sake, and on strength of precedent, rather than because they embodied rational principles. For Dennis, Blackmore's pon-tification about "Aristotle's excellent Rules of Poetry" was essentially empty without the addition that their necessity owed to their being "the pure Dictates of Reason and Repetitions of the Laws of Nature."

In registering this note of dissent, Dennis is reinforcing the rationalism that distinguishes the earlier criticism of epic by the likes of Davenant and Hobbes, but in other areas we find him striking out on his own. Perhaps the most salient aspect of his Remarks on a Book Entitled Prince Arthur (1696) is his conviction that a prime characteristic of epic is the type of emotion engendered by it. In particular, he believed epics should evoke pity and fear, emotions usually seen as the preserve of tragedy, and the absence of which from Prince Arthur he considers to be a major defect. This aspect of Dennis's essay was perhaps not widely influential, but his ideas proved particularly pregnant in respect of genius, a concept to which his discussion gives an unusually high profile. Much as he thought compliance with the rules as based on nature to be imperative, Dennis also felt that this was not in itself sufficient. Also required was an infusion of "genius" (a forcefulness of conception) which he isolates as the sine qua non of one particular literary effect: the sublime (Monk 1935; Ashfield and de Bolla 1996).

Much as Dennis found himself ridiculed, especially by the Scriblerians, for his enthusiasm for sublimity, a modish and powerful effect in which the reader would be transported emotionally, his work in many respects pointed the way ahead [see chs. 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm," and 37, "The Sublime"]. Subsequent critics of epics are more willing to turn a blind eye to breaches of the rules where these are compensated for by a general force of genius, agreeing in spirit with the sentiments expressed in Pope's Essay on Criticism that "License is a Rule" and that "Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend" Indeed, when Pope himself pens a critical essay on Homer's Iliad, prefaced to his translation, he lives up to his own general doctrine, praising Homer not for the "correctness" of his poem but for its rapture and sublimity. Any compositional vices of which Homer may be guilty are seen as inevitable, and condonable, by-products of his ebullient genius. Milton becomes another beneficiary of this tolerant, commonsensical approach, so that Dr. Johnson, while arguing that the reader might well have been spared the poet's superfluous digressions "at the beginning of the third, seventh, and ninth books" of Paradise Lost, is still prepared to defend them as fortunate errors: "superfluities so beautiful who would take away."

Dennis also plays a part in what was to be another revolution in critical attitudes toward epic: the rise in esteem for Milton and Spenser as English exponents of the genre. Dennis and Joseph Addison, in his Spectator papers on Paradise Lost, were to prove influential early campaigners on Milton's behalf and also helped to fix his credentials as a paragon of literary sublimity. Johnson puts the matter thus: "The char-acteristick quality of his poem is sublimity. He sometimes descends to the elegant, but his element is the great. He can occasionally invest himself with grace; but his natural port is gigantick loftiness." The eighteenth-century vogue for sublimity, introducing as it did a new standard for judging the success of an epic poem, was one factor contributing to the rise of Milton to a position of accepted equality with the classical poets Homer and Virgil (Griffin 1986). But Milton's admission to their august company was also made easier by his being himself a poet of strong classical leanings. A more intractable problem, however, was presented by the sixteenth-century poet, Spenser.

The eighteenth century looked on Spenser not as a classically inspired poet but as a throwback to the medieval age: The Faerie Queene was seen as rooted in a bygone feudal world, and constructed in compliance with an aesthetic characterized as "rude" or gothic (Terry 2001). It was clear that The Faerie Queene could never be judged favorably against any standard that emanated from the great classical epics. Accordingly critics like John Hughes, who added two critical essays to his edition of Spenser's works in 1715, and Thomas Warton, whose Observations on the Faerie Queene came out in 1754 and in revised form eight years later, led a movement to assess the work against a more sympathetic set of standards [see ch. 35, "Recovering the Past: Shakespeare, Spenser, and British Poetic Tradition" ]. For Hughes, indeed, to judge The Faerie Queene against the template of classical works would be no less inapt than "drawing a Parallel between the Roman and the Gothick Architecture." Under the attention of critics like Hughes and Warton, aspects of the work that had previously been derided — its quaint style, heavy-handed allegorizing, and teeming imagination — all became rehabilitated as evidence of the poem's success in the terms of its own particular aesthetic. Of course, Spenser's Faerie Queene, as a romance epic, has ties of indebtedness to earlier poems of the same kind, such as Ariosto's Orlando Furioso and Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, which were of little or no interest to later poets in the classical epic vein. The advancement of Spenser's reputation, however, can still be seen as part of a general softening of the rule-based criticism of epic characteristic of the seventeenth century.

I will return to the idea of the sublime later on, but it is important to note here that this busy theorizing about epic poetry stood in inverse relation to an appetite actually to compose such poems. Much the most high-profile exponent of the genre in the English Augustan era was Richard Blackmore, who produced two Arthurian epics, Prince Arthur (1695) and King Arthur (1697), and two later works on similar scale, Eliza (1705) and Alfred (1723). The pages of Blackmore's sonorous poems are little disturbed nowadays, even by eighteenth-century specialists, and the same could be said for another poem that received a fair amount of attention in its own time, Richard Glover's Leonidas (1737), a blank-verse epic about the battle of Thermopylae. Blackmore and Glover, though prominent literary figures in their day, languish now as irretrievably minor writers, and when the greatest poetic talents of the English Augustan era engaged with epic, this took the form not so much of original composition as translation. Dryden, for example, had translated Virgil's Aeneid in 1697, and Pope in his turn undertook a sole-authored rendering of Homer's Iliad from 1715 to 1720, and a collaborative one of the Odyssey in 1725—6. The two translations were enormously lucrative for Pope, and his version of the Iliad, in particular, drew lavish praise: Dr. Johnson, for example, declared it to be "certainly the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen." It should be noted that in translating Homer, Pope was not taking a holiday from his own individual creativity: his translation is rather the highest expression of that creativity.

That an age that so much venerated the epic form should have produced so few epic poems has come to be seen as something of a paradox, though the strength of that veneration must itself have figured as a strong deterrent to literary pretenders. One factor that may explain the conundrum is that eighteenth-century readers did not remain untouched by reservations, if not about epic itself as a literary form, then about the martial and barbaric culture from which it had seemingly sprung and which it seemed to glorify (Rawson 1982, 1994). The nature of this equivocation is captured by Cowley in his remark that "a warlike, various, and a tragical age is best to write of, but worst to write in" Even a writer as ardently committed to the glories of the classical past as Pope could not avoid sometimes wincing at that "spirit of cruelty which appears too manifestly in the Iliad." Pope's remark here is a momentary surge of revolt in the context of an abiding allegiance, but for writers of a non-classical stamp, such as Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson, no such circumambient allegiance existed. Ian Watt, for example, has described Defoe's attitude to epic as one of "casual depreciation," and in his scorn for the unwholesome morality of epic Defoe was joined by Richardson. In a letter to Lady Bradshaigh, Richardson can be found lambasting the "fierce, fighting Iliad" for both celebrating and spawning a culture of bellicosity which, passing down the ages, has "ravaged the earth, and made it a field of blood." Much the same sentiments occur also in his novel Sir Charles Grandison, where Lady Charlotte asks to know "Of what violences, murders, depredations have not the epic poets been the occasion?" (Watt 1957).

This realization that the epic world, whatever the cultural standing of the key artifacts which had emanated from it, was an inherently violent one, had been a constitutive factor in the only work revered by the Augustans as an illustrious vernacular epic, Milton's Paradise Lost. Though Paradise Lost conforms to the generic template of epic, the moral values it expresses are at an opposite pole from, and deliberately designed to rebuff, the martial bluster of traditional epic. Milton's values are not merely more pious but also more undemonstrative than heroic ones, consisting of a Christ-like "patience and heroic martyrdom," these being expressly contrasted with the ones spawned by the epic and romance cult of war, "hitherto the only argument / Heroic deemed." At the end of the poem, Adam comes to assume a personal placidity wholly at odds with the vaunting energy of the traditional epic hero, realizing that "to obey is best, / And love with fear the only God."

Not only was the morality of epic unappealing to many, then, but writers like Pope were aware that the only English epic poem on which they could fall back, Paradise Lost, had expressly disavowed it. This is one factor that may explain why Pope, who for many years kept under contemplation the idea of writing a nationalistic epic of his own, never brought such a project to fruition. Yet while both Dryden and Pope channeled some of their reverence for classical epic into translation (a way of "making" an epic without having to endorse its values), they also turned to another form through which they could engage with epic content and conventions through an intervening screen of irony: the mock-heroic.

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