Epic Ambitions

The subject matter of the war, and the deeper malaise it represented for Eliot and Pound, shaped the poems' form as well as their content. The Waste Land and The Cantos are extremely broad in scope, seeking to analyse contemporary history through comparison of events and personalities in the present with those of past periods and other cultures. Pound later described The Cantos as a sequel to Dante's Divine Comedy: 'the first thing was this: you had six centuries that hadn't been packaged. It was a question of dealing with material that wasn't in the Divina Commedia' (Hall 1962: 38). Neither the imagist poem nor the Laforguean dramatic monologue was appropriate to this task: the traditional form for this subject matter was the epic.

But what would a modernist epic look like? When Eliot and Pound faced this problem in the early twentieth century, the modernist epic seemed a contradiction in terms. In the first chapter we saw that Hulme defined modern poetry in opposition to the epic and the ballad (1994: 53). The modernist poem, so far, had been concerned either with the impressions of the individual mind, or — as in the recent quatrain poems — social satire. In neither case had the poetry sustained a narrative or moved beyond the representation of a single point of view. And why would it? Narrative was no longer the preserve of poetry: if Homer or Dante were to write the Odyssey or The Divine Comedy in the twentieth century they would be unlikely to write in verse; they would, instead, write in the more flexible and expansive form of the novel.

Epic. A long narrative poem in an elevated style, celebrating the actions of a legendary hero or heroes. Homer's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey (c. 900-750 bc), are the source of most conventions followed by subsequent epics in the Western tradition, such as Virgil's Aeneid(c. 29-19 bc), Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) and Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590-1596).

La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) (c. 1310-1314). Italian poem of a hundred cantos by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) consisting of three parts, Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Paradise). The poem describes the poet's journey from hell to paradise, guided first by Virgil and, through paradise, by Beatrice, the woman Dante had fallen in love with in childhood.

But it was not simply a question of expanding the modernist poem's form to emulate the novel. There was a philosophical problem to be solved: the intensely subjective mode of Eliot's and Pound's early verse arose not only from their admiration for the French symbolists, but also from their belief, following Bradley and Bergson respectively, that one could only speak with integrity about one's own experience. The great epics, however, depended on a shared belief structure through which to interpret and communicate experience: 'An epic is a poem containing history', Pound explained in an interview:

The modern mind contains heterocllte elements. The past epos have succeeded when all or a great many of the answers were assumed, at least between author and audience, or a great mass of audience. The attempt in an experimental age is therefore rash.

Where Dante had what Pound called an 'Aquinas-map', a theological system derived from the Christian philosophy of Thomas Aquinas (1225—1274) (1971: 323), to guide him and his readers, twentieth-century poets and readers had no such agreed framework of 'answers'.

Eliot and Pound responded to these challenges by turning to a range of models — novels and dramatic works, as well as poetry. Eliot's clearest statement on this subject is 'Prose and Verse' (1921), in which he explicitly rejects an absolute distinction between poetry and prose and instead argues that 'we must be very tolerant of any attempt in verse that appears to trespass upon prose, or of any attempt in prose that appears to strive towards the condition of "poetry"'. In sentences which shed much light on the metrical variety of The Waste Land, Eliot writes, 'I see no reason why a considerable variety of verse forms may not be employed within the limits of a single poem [. . .]; We seem to see clearly enough that prose is allowed to be "poetic"; we appear to have overlooked the right of poetry to be "prosaic"' (Eliot 2005: 160, 163—64). Pound had been making the same point since 1913, when he drew attention to what he called ' "the prose tradition" of poetry', a poetic tradition more closely related to the development of the realist novel than lyric poetry, and represented by the poetry of George Crabbe (1754—1832), William Wordsworth and Ford Madox Ford (1873—1939). In contrast to the introspection of pre-war modernist poetry, this tradition 'presents. It does not comment. It is irrefutable

Realism. In general, writing or art that appears to accurately record lite, especially everyday or ordinary lite. As a trend in European literature it is particularly associated with the mid-nineteenth century novel ot middle-class lite, pioneered by the French novelists Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), and the English novelist George Eliot (1819-1880).

because it does not present a personal predilection for any particular fraction of truth [. . .]. It does not attempt to justify anybody's ways to anybody or anything else' (1913: 662).

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