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The History of Epic Poetry

Written by: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

EPIC POETRY, or Epos, the names given to the most dignified and elaborate forms of narrative poetry. The word epopee is also, but more rarely, employed to designate the same thing, ?ποποι?ς in Greek being a maker of epic poetry, and ?ποποι?α what he makes.

It is to Greece, where the earliest literary monuments which we possess are of an epical character, that we turn for a definition of these vast heroic compositions, and we gather that their subject-matter was not confined, as Voltaire and the critics of the 18th century supposed, to “narratives in verse of warlike adventures.” When we first discover the epos, hexameter verse has already been selected for its vehicle. In this form epic poems were composed not merely dealing with war and personal romance, but carrying out a didactic purpose, or celebrating the mysteries of religion. These three divisions, to which are severally attached the more or less mythical names of Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus seem to have marked the earliest literary movement of the Greeks. But, even here, we must be warned that what we possess is not primitive; there had been unwritten epics, probably in hexameters, long before the composition of any now-surviving fragment. The saga of the Greek nation, the catalogue of its arts and possessions, the rites and beliefs of its priesthood, must have been circulated, by word of mouth, long before any historical poet was born. We look upon Homer and Hesiod as records of primitive thought, but Professor Gilbert Murray reminds us that “our Iliad, OdysseyErga and Theogony are not the first, nor the second, nor the twelfth of such embodiments.” The early epic poets, Lesches, Linus, Orpheus, Arctinus, Eugammon are the veriest shadows, whose names often betray their symbolic and fabulous character. It is now believed that there was a class of minstrels, the Rhapsodists or Homeridae, whose business it was to recite poetry at feasts and other solemn occasions. “The real bards of early Greece were all nameless and impersonal.” When our tradition begins to be preserved, we find everything of a saga-character attributed to Homer, a blind man and an inhabitant of Chios. This gradually crystallized until we find Aristotle definitely treating Homer as a person, and attributing to him the composition of three great poems, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Margites, now lost (see Homer). The first two of these have been preserved and form for us the type of the ancient epic; when we speak of epic poetry, we unconsciously measure it by the example of the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is quite certain, however, that these poems had not merely been preceded by a vast number of revisions of the mythical history of the country, but were accompanied by innumerable poems of a similar character, now entirely lost. That antiquity did not regard these other epics as equal in beauty to the Iliad seems to be certain; but such poems as CypriaIliou Persis (Sack of Ilion) and Aethiopis can hardly but have exhibited other sides of the epic tradition. Did we possess them, it is almost certain that we could speak with more assurance as to the scope of epic poetry in the days of oral tradition, and could understand more clearly what sort of ballads in hexameter it was which rhapsodes took round from court to court. In the 4th century b.c. it seems that people began to write down what was not yet forgotten of all this oral poetry. Unfortunately, the earliest critic who describes this process is Proclus, a Byzantine neo-Platonist, who did not write until some 800 years later, when the whole tradition had become hopelessly corrupted. When we pass from Homer and Hesiod, about whose actual existence critics will be eternally divided, we reach in the 7th century a poet, Peisander of Rhodes, who wrote an epic poem, the Heracleia, of which fragments remain. Other epic writers, who appear to be undoubtedly historic, are Antimachus of Colophon, who wrote a Thebais; Panyasis, who, like Peisander, celebrated the feats of Heracles; Choerilus of Samos; and Anyte, of whom we only know that she was an epic poetess, and was called “The female Homer.” In the 6th and 5th centuries b.c. there was a distinct school of philosophical epic, and we distinguish the names of Xenophanes, Parmenides and Empedocles as the leaders of it.

From the dawn of Latin literature epic poetry seems to have been cultivated in Italy. A Greek exile, named Livius Andronicus, translated theOdyssey into Latin during the first Punic War, but the earliest original epic of Rome was the lost Bellum Punicum of Naevius, a work to which Virgil was indebted. A little later, Ennius composed, about 172 b.c., in 18 books, an historical epic of the Annales, dealing with the whole chronicle of Rome. This was the foremost Latin poem, until the appearance of the Aeneid; it was not imitated, remaining, for a hundred years, as Mr Mackail has said, “not only the unique, but the satisfying achievement in this kind of poetry.” Virgil began the most famous of Roman epics in the year 30 b.c., and when he died, nine years later, he desired that the MS. of the Aeneid should be burned, as it required three years’ work to complete it. Nevertheless, it seems to us, and seemed to the ancient world, almost perfect, and a priceless monument of art; it is written, like the great Greek poems on which it is patently modelled, in hexameters. In the next generation, the Pharsalia of Lucan, of which Cato, as the type of the republican spirit, is the hero, was the principal example of Latin epic. Statius, under the Flavian emperors, wrote several epic poems, of which the Thebaidsurvives. In the 1st century a.d. Valerius Flaccus wrote the Argonautica in 8 books, and Silius Italicus the Punic War, in 17 books; these authors show a great decline in taste and merit, even in comparison with Statius, and Silius Italicus, in particular, is as purely imitative as the worst of the epic writers of modern Europe. At the close of the 4th century the style revived with Claudian, who produced five or six elaborate historical and mythological epics of which the Rape of Proserpine was probably the most remarkable; in his interesting poetry we have a valuable link between the Silver Age in Rome and the Italian Renaissance. With Claudian the history of epic poetry among the ancients closes.

In medieval times there existed a large body of narrative 682poetry to which the general title of Epic has usually been given. Three principal schools are recognized, the French, the Teutonic and the Icelandic. Teutonic epic poetry deals, as a rule, with legends founded on the history of Germany in the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries, and in particular with such heroes as Ermanaric, Attila and Theodoric. But there is also an important group in it which deals with English themes, and among these BeowulfWaldereThe Lay of Maldon and Finnesburh are pre-eminent. To this group is allied the purely German poem of Hildebrand, attributed to c. 800. Among these Beowulf is the only one which exists in anything like complete form, and it is of all examples of Teutonic epic the most important. With all its trivialities and incongruities, which belong to a barbarous age, Beowulf is yet a solid and comprehensive example of native epic poetry. It is written, like all old Teutonic work of the kind, in alliterative unrhymed rhythm. In Iceland, a new heroic literature was invented in the middle ages, and to this we owe the Sagas, which are, in fact, a reduction to prose of the epics of the warlike history of the North. These Sagas took the place of a group of archaic Icelandic epics, the series of which seems to have closed with the noble poem of Atlamál, the principal surviving specimen of epic poetry as it was cultivated in the primitive literature of Iceland. The surviving epical fragments of Icelandic composition are found thrown together in the Codex Regius, under the title of The Elder Edda, a most precious MS. discovered in the 17th century. The Icelandic epics seem to have been shorter and more episodical in character than the lost Teutonic specimens; both kinds were written in alliterative verse. It is not probable that either possessed the organic unity and vitality of spirit which make the Sagas so delightful. The French medieval epics (see Chansons de Geste) are late in comparison with those of England, Germany and Iceland. They form a curious transitional link between primitive and modern poetry; the literature of civilized Europe may be said to begin with them. There is a great increase of simplicity, a great broadening of the scene of action. The Teutonic epics were obscure and intense, the French chansons de geste are lucid and easy. The existing masterpiece of this kind, the magnificent Roland, is doubtless the most interesting and pleasing of all the epics of medieval Europe. Professor Ker’s analysis of its merits may be taken as typical of all that is best in the vast body of epic which comes between the antique models, which were unknown to the medieval poets, and the artificial epics of a later time which were founded on vast ideal themes, in imitation of the ancients. “There is something lyrical in Roland, but the poem is not governed by lyrical principles; it requires the deliberation and the freedom of epic; it must have room to move in before it can come up to the height of its argument. The abruptness of its periods is not really an interruption of its even flight; it is an abruptness of detail, like a broken sea with a larger wave moving under it; it does not impair or disguise the grandeur of the movement as a whole.” Of the progress and decline of the chansons de geste (q.v.) from the ideals of Roland a fuller account is given elsewhere. To theNibelungenlied (q.v.) also, detailed attention is given in a separate article.

What may be called the artificial or secondary epics of modern Europe, founded upon an imitation of the Iliad and the Aeneid, are more numerous than the ordinary reader supposes, although but few of them have preserved much vitality. In Italy the Chanson de Roland inspired romantic epics by Luigi Pulci (1432-1487), whose Morgante Maggiore appeared in 1481, and is a masterpiece of burlesque; by M.M. Boiardo (1434-1494), whoseOrlando Innamorato was finished in 1486; by Francesco Bello (1440?-1495), whose Mambriano was published in 1497; by Lodovico Ariosto (q.v.), whose Orlando Furioso, by far the greatest of its class, was published in 1516, and by Luigi Dolce (1508-1568), as well as by a great number of less illustrious poets. G.G. Trissino (1478-1549) wrote a Deliverance of Italy from the Goths in 1547, and Bernardo Tasso (1493-1569) an Amadigi in 1559; Berni remodelled the epic of Boiardo in 1541, and Teofilo Folengo (1491-1544), ridiculed the whole school in an Orlandino of 1526. An extraordinary feat of mock-heroic epic was The Bucket (1622) of Alessandro Tassoni (1565-1638). The most splendid of all the epics of Italy, however, was, and remains, the Jerusalem Delivered of Torquato Tasso (q.v.), published originally in 1580, and afterwards rewritten as The Conquest of Jerusalem, 1593. The fantastic Adone (1623) of G.B. Marini (1569-1625) and the long poems of Chiabrera, close the list of Italian epics. Early Portuguese literature is rich in epic poetry. Luis Pereira Brandão wrote an Elegiada in 18 books, published in 1588; Jeronymo Corte-Real (d. 1588) a Shipwreck of Sepulveda and two other epics; V.M. Quevedo, in 1601, an Alphonso of Africa, in 12 books; Sá de Menezes (d. 1664) aConquest of Malacca, 1634; but all these, and many more, are obscured by the glory of Camoens (q.v.), whose magnificent Lusiads had been printed in 1572, and forms the summit of Portuguese literature. In Spanish poetry, the Poem of the Cid takes the first place, as the great national epic of the middle ages; it is supposed to have been written between 1135 and 1175. It was followed by the Rodrigo, and the medieval school closes with theAlphonso XI. of Rodrigo Yañez, probably written at the close of the 12th century. The success of the Italian imitative epics of the 15th century led to some imitation of their form in Spain. Juan de la Cueva (1550?-1606) published a Conquest of Bética in 1603; Cristóbal de Virues (1550-1610) aMonserrate, in 1588; Luis Barahona de Soto continued Ariosto in a Tears of Angélica; Gutiérrez wrote an Austriada in 1584; but perhaps the finest modern epic in Spanish verse is the Araucana (1569-1590) of Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga (1533-1595), “the first literary work of merit,” as Mr Fitzmaurice-Kelly remarks, “composed in either American continent.” In France, the epic never flourished in modern times, and no real success attended the Franciade of Ronsard, the Alaric of Scudéry, the Pucelle of Chapelain, the Divine Épopée of Soumet, or even the Henriade of Voltaire. In English literature The Faery Queen of Spenser has the same claim as the Italian poems mentioned above to bear the name of epic, and Milton, who stands entirely apart, may be said, by his isolated Paradise Lost, to take rank with Homer and Virgil, as one of the three types of the mastery of epical composition.

See Bossu, Traité du poeme épique (1675); Voltaire, Sur la poésie épique; Fauviel, L’Origine de l’épopée chevaleresque (1832); W.P. Ker, Epic and Romance (1897), and Essays in Medieval Literature (1905); Gilbert Murray, History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897); W. von Christ,Geschichte der griechischen Litteratur (1879); Gaston Paris, La Littérature française au moyen âge (1890); Léon Gautier, Les Épopées françaises(1865-1868). For works on the Greek epics see also Greek Literature and Cycle.


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