Leaving the realm of lyric poetry, we return now to narrative
poetry to examine briefly the longest, the most impressive, and
the most complex of narrative forms, the epic. Though variously
defined, the major elements of the epic are enough. A useful
definition is that given by W. F. Thrall and A. Hibbard in A
Handbook to Literature (New York, Doubleday, Doran & Co.,
1936): "a long narrative poem presenting characters of high
position in a series of adventures which form an organic whole
through their relation to a central figure of heroic proportions
and through their development of episodes important to the
development of a nation or race." One of the distinguishing marks
of the epic, then, is bigness-of character, of deed, of total
conception. For our purposes, it is not necessary to distinguish
here between the so-called folk epic-the product of the oral
transmission of shorter stories and lays welded into a unified
whole in the course of timeand the literary epic, the product of
a single poet writing in accordance with certain literary
conventions. The two forms at the point of their highest
development are similar enough to be considered as one.
The earliest epics to influence English epic poets are those ascribed to Homer (sixth or fifth century B.c.), The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Iliad deals with the story of the Trojan War and The Odyssey with the journeys of Ulysses after the Trojan War. Many of what have come to be conventional characteristics of the epic stem from these poems. Of major importance in firmly establishing these characteristics for English poets is Vergil, the Latin poet who lived just before the Christian era. His epic is The Aeneid, the story of Aeneas, who fled from fallen Troy and after journeys and adventures settled in Italy where his immediate descendants founded Rome. Though relatively few poets in English have attempted to write epics, the few epics or fragments of epics that have been produced make important a knowledge of the characteristics of the form. To bear out this statement, we need mention only such major works in our literature as Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Milton's Paradise Lost.
What, then, are the conventional characteristics of the epic? First, the story itself deals with an event of significance for a nation, or, indeed, for all mankind. Thus, in The Aeneid, Aeneas' journeys and adventures culminate in the settling in Italy of the immediate ancestors of the founders of Rome; and in Paradise Lost, the fall of man is central to the poem. The story must be a single story, structurally unified; there may be any number of digressive episodes, but these must be structurally related to the story whose main forward movement remains dominant in the poem. In The Aeneid, for example, the tragic love affair between Dido and Aeneas is essentially digressive and yet linked to the main action through Aeneas himself; it occurs in the course of Aeneas' journey toward Rome. In addition, the story frequently includes a visit to the world of the dead.
The source of the story is usually a combination of history-at a time far removed from the poet-and myth. Vergil wrote The Aeneid at a time when Rome was reaching the zenith of its power, some thirteen or fourteen centuries after the supposed founding of Rome. In Paradise Lost, Milton writes of events that occurred before the Creation and shortly thereafter. Indeed, the main outlines of the stories of most epics are well known to the audiences for which they are composed; the poet's over-all contribution is the artistry with which he retells known material and the interpretations he makes of it. His method of retelling the material usually involves a large number of dramatic scenes-scenes in which dialogue appropriate to characters of heroic proportions is used. Memorable in Paradise Lost, for example, is the initial conversation between Satan and Beelzebub when they regain consciousness after having been hurled from Heaven to the burning lake in the depths of Hell.
The supernatural, too, usually plays a large part in the epic. In Homer and Vergil the gods and goddesses take an active part in working out the destinies of the characters. In Beowulf, the hero has the power of thirty men in his hand grip and fights a major battle with a monster in an under-water cave. Battles-of major proportions -are also characteristic of the epic: the Trojan War is the setting of the Iliad, Beowulf risks his life in two battles with monsters and loses his life in a third battle with a dragon, and Satan and his cohorts in Paradise Lost are defeated in a tremendous battle against the forces of God.
Another major characteristic of the epic is that the poem begins with the story "in the middle of things" (in medias res is the technical term). The action is carried forward for a time and then, at a structurally convenient point, the story from its chronological beginning of the epic is recounted. In Paradise Lost the poem o the opening opens with Satan and the other fallen angels chained on the burning lake in Hell. After regaining consciousness, they arrange a great consult to determine how to proceed in their present plight, how to thwart the plans of God. It is not till much later in the epic that we learn, through a conversation between Adam and an angel of God, about Satan's initial revolt against God in Heaven, the mustering of his forces, and the heavenly battle that results in the expulsion from Heaven of Satan and his forces; they are hurled into Hell and chained on the burning lake where we first see them at the opening of the poem.
The epic traditionally begins with the announcement of the theme or subject matter either combined with or followed by an invocation to a heavenly power. Thus the Iliad (in the translation by Alexander Pope) opens:
and The Aeneid (in the translation of J. W. Mackail) opens:
Vergil divided The Aeneid into twelve books or parts. His influence is evident on Spenser who planned twelve books for The Faerie Queene (though be lived to finish only a little more than half) and on Milton, who divided Paradise Lost into twelve books.
The language of the epic is dignified and frequently exalted, as might be expected from the nature of the content. Characters are addressed in the most formal of terms, and rhetorical devices abound in the long speeches. Use of epic or expanded similes is another characteristic, as is the presence of one or more lists or catalogues of various heroes involved in the action, their backgrounds and their glorious deeds of the past.
From even this brief listing of major characteristics of the epic, it is easily understandable why so few poets in English have successfully used the form. It demands tremendous breadth of conception-of plot, characterization, and setting-and the highest kind of creative ability in the handling of all the elements of poetry. To sustain interest and the kind of excitement that the best poetry evokes through a work of impressive length is, indeed, the task of a major poet.
We come, finally, to the type of poetry known as the mock-epic. As the name implies, the mock-epic is written in imitation of the epic, usually for humorous or satirical purposes-or for both; it adopts the epic manner, form, and conventions to deal with subject matter normally unsuited to epic treatment. The result is apt to be amusing or even farcical; in the hands of a skillful poet, the mock-epic has proved to be not only amusing but powerful as a vehicle for social criticism. One of the most notable examples of the form is Pope's The Rape of the Lock, a poem recounting in the epic manner the story of young Lord Petre's snipping a lock of hair from Miss Arabella Fermor's pretty head. It opens with an announcement of subject, uses the machinery of supernatural elves, has a major battle in the form of a card game, describes the robing of, and application of makeup to, a fair young lady in terms of the epic arming of a "knight," uses epic address and epic similes, and includes delightful satirical criticism of the manners and morals of the day.