The Epic eBook

This eBook from the Gutenberg Project consists of approximately 80 pages of information about The Epic.
of his age.  To do this, he takes some great story which has been absorbed into the prevailing consciousness of his people.  As a rule, though not quite invariably, the story will be of things which are, or seem, so far back in the past, that anything may credibly happen in it; so imagination has its freedom, and so significance is displayed.  But quite invariably, the materials of the story will have an unmistakable air of actuality; that is, they come profoundly out of human experience, whether they declare legendary heroism, as in Homer and Virgil, or myth, as in Beowulf and Paradise Lost, or actual history, as in Lucan and Camoens and Tasso.  And he sets out this story and its significance in poetry as lofty and as elaborate as he can compass.  That, roughly, is what we see the epic poets doing, whether they be “literary” or “authentic”; and if this can be agreed on, we should now have come tolerably close to a definition of epic poetry.


[Footnote 4:  From the version of the Marquise de Sainte-Aulaire.]



Rigid definitions in literature are, however, dangerous.  At bottom, it is what we feel, not what we think, that makes us put certain poems together and apart from others; and feelings cannot be defined, but only related.  If we define a poem, we say what we think about it; and that may not sufficiently imply the essential thing the poem does for us.  Hence the definition is liable either to be too strict, or to admit work which does not properly satisfy the criterion of feeling.  It seems probable that, in the last resort, classification in literature rests on that least tangible, least definable matter, style; for style is the sign of the poem’s spirit, and it is the spirit that we feel.  If we can get some notion of how those poems, which we call epic, agree with one another in style, it is likely we shall be as close as may be to a definition of epic.  I use the word “style,” of course, in its largest sense—­manner of conception as well as manner of composition.

An easy way to define epic, though not a very profitable way, would be to say simply, that an epic is a poem which produces feelings similar to those produced by Paradise Lost or the Iliad, Beowulf or the Song of Roland.  Indeed, you might include all the epics of Europe in this definition without losing your breath; for the epic poet is the rarest kind of artist.  And while it is not a simple matter to say off-hand what it is that is common to all these poems, there seems to be general acknowledgment that they are clearly separable from other kinds of poetry; and this although the word epic has been rather badly abused.  For instance, The Faery Queene and La Divina Commedia have been called epic poems; but I do not think that anyone could fail to

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The Epic from Project Gutenberg. Public domain.
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