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Epic: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch


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February 24, 2015

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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epic: A long narrative poem, exalted in style, heroic in theme. The earliest epics all focus on the legendary adventures of a hero against the backdrop of a historical event: think of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s action-packed journey home in the eighth century BCE Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, the models for epic poetry ever since; or the territorial battles of a warrior culture in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, dated between the eighth and eleventh centuries; or the preservation of a city and a civilization in the Babylonian Gilgamesh (ca. 1600–1000 BCE). These epics seem to be the written versions of texts long sung and retold, composed and recomposed by many epic singers over time, all telling the tale of a tribe. The first audiences for the epics were listeners, the later ones readers. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) considered the Homeric epic the prototype of tragedy. The epic carried important cultural truths but, as M. I. Finley puts it, “Whatever else the epic may have been, it was not history. It was narrative, detailed and precise, with minute description of fighting and sailing, and feasting and burials and sacrifices, all very real and vivid; it may even contain, buried away, some kernels of historical fact—but it was not history.” The epic is inherently nostalgic. It looks back to greater and more heroic times—the emergence of tribes, the founding of countries, the deeds of legendary figures. It is removed from the contemporary world of the audience and looks back to what Goethe and Schiller called the vollkommen vergangen, or “perfect past.” It moves beyond individual experience. It binds people to their own outsize communal past and instills a sense of grandeur.

The epic singer of tales brings together a powerful memory and strong improvisatory technique, using formulaic phrases, lines, and half-lines; propulsive rhythms; stock descriptions; and recurrent scenes and incidents to build a tale with encyclopedic range and cyclical action. The epic is purposefully recited in segments. In the epic, Bakhtin writes, “It is, therefore, possible to take any part and offer it as the whole . . . the structure of the whole is repeated in each part, and each part is complete and circular like the whole.” The epic poets who worked at the same time as Homer are sometimes called the Cyclic poets because they covered the entire war cycle. “The cyclical form of the classical epic is based on the natural cycle,” Northrop Frye explains. “The cycle has two main rhythms: the life and death of the individual, and the slower social rhythm which, in the course of years . . . brings cities and empires to their rise and fall.”

Some examples: the great Sanskrit epics of ancient India are the Mahābhārata (ninth to eighth century BCE) and the Rāmāyana (fifth to fourth century BCE); the major epic poem in Persian is the Iranian epic Shāhnāma (ca. 977–1010). The epics of Mesopotamia survived in tales written in Sumerian and Akkadian. The Nibelungenlied (ca. 1180–1210) is the great epic of Middle High German. La Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland, ca. 1090) is the pinnacle of the French epic tradition of chansons de geste (“songs of heroic deeds [lineage]”), which influenced the most complete example in the thriving Spanish epic tradition, the Poema de mío Cid (Poem of the Cid, twelfth century). The Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) was first written down by monks in the ninth century, but the story dates to the La Tène period of civilization, possibly about 100 BCE It intersperses lyrics and verse duologues with the main tale told in prose. The story, which narrates the great deeds of the warrior Cuchulainn, has attracted a large number of subsidiary tales called remscéla, or introductory tales, and iarscéla, or after-tales. In his translation from Old Russian, Vladimir Nabokov calls The Song of Igor’s Campaign: An Epic of the Twelfth Century (1960) “a harmonious, many leveled, many hued, uniquely poetical structure created in a sustained and controlled surge of inspiration by an artist with a fondness for pagan gods and a percipience of sensuous things.” In the early nineteenth century, a group of medieval German texts were grouped together as Spielmannsepen, or “minstrel epics.” These historic legends included König Rothar (ca. 1160), Herzog Ernst (ca. 1180), Der Münchener Oswald (fifteenth century), Orendel (late twelfth century), and Salman und Moralf (late twelfth century). In the 1830s, the folklorist Elias Lönnrot linked and organized Finnish runo-songs (runo-laulu) to create the Kalevala, a magisterial Balto-Finnish epic (“It is my desire, it is my wish, / my desire to recite, / to get ready to sing”). In the 1860s, the folklorist F. Reinhold Kreutzwald followed suit and used Estonian runo songs to compose Estonia’s national epic, Kalevipoeg.

There are two main types of European songs that tell stories: epics and ballads. Whereas the ballad is a short strophic form that focuses on a primary event, the epic song is a long non-strophic form that focuses on a variety of events. But the genres sometimes blur and there is considerable thematic overlap between the longer ballads and the shorter epic songs, often dramatic, that have been collected in a wide range of cultures.

The Serbs, Croatians, Montenegrins, Bulgarians, and Albanians all have epic songs, which are performed by guslars (the gusle or gusla is a single-stringed instrument). The guslars specialized in junačke pesme (“men’s songs”), heroic narratives chanted or sung on aggressively masculine themes, like war. They also performed narodne pesme (“people’s songs”) — the word pesma also means “poem.” There are nine epic cycles of these popular narrative poems based on historical events, which were collected in the nineteenth century by the Serbian scholar Vuk Karadžić. The guslari provided the models for Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s theories of an oral-formulaic method that stretches back to the Homeric bards. The slow-moving, unrhymed, and typically unaccompanied Russian epic songs are called byliny. The Ukrainian version of the epic is a body of songs called dumy, which were traditionally performed by itinerant Cossack bards called kobzani. The Tibetan Epic of King Gesar (ca. twelfth century), one of the major epic cycles of Central and East Asia, is performed both by amateurs and professional epic bards. A typical episode of the story contains five to ten thousand lines of verse (fifty to one hundred songs) linked by a spoken narration. The Mande epic of Son-Jara is recited by professional finah (poet-historians) and runs to more than three thousand lines. The Kyrgy national epic, Manas (ca. eighteenth century), can range close to half a million lines and take up to three weeks to recite.

Sïrat Banï Hiläl (ca. eleventh century) is the epic history of the Banï Hiläl Bedouin tribe. It has been told and retold throughout the Arab world from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Coast for almost a thousand years. Dwight Fletcher Reynolds points out that “in different regions and over different historical periods the epic has been performed as a complex tale cycle narrated entirely in prose, as a prose narrative embellished with lengthy poems, as a narrative recited in rhymed verse, and as a narrative sung to the accompaniment of various musical instruments.” It is both a textual and a performance tradition. Al-Bakātūsh, a village in northern Egypt, is known throughout the Nile Delta as the “village of the poets” because of its large community of hereditary epic singers who recite and perform the poem.

Ezra Pound called the epic “a poem including history.” Literary or secondary epics—one thinks not just of Virgil’s Aeneid (29–19 BCE), but also of Dante’s Divine Comedy (ca. 1308–1321), Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516), Camões’s The Lusiads (1572), Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1590–1596), Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (1581), Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)—adopted many of the conventions and strategies of the traditional epic, even though they are written poems meant to be read (and reread) rather than oral ones intended to be told and sung. “Homer makes us hearers,” Alexander Pope said, “and Virgil leaves us readers.” The editors of Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World argue, “Epic conceived as a poetic narrative of length and complexity that centers around deeds of significance to the community transcends the oral and literary divide that has long marked the approach to the genre.” Byron playfully satirizes the epic apparatus he employs in this stanza from Don Juan (1819–1824):

     My poem’s epic, and is meant to be
     Divided in twelve books; each book containing,
     With Love, and War, a heavy gale at sea,
     A list of ships, and captains, and kings reigning,
     New characters; the episodes are three:
     A panoramic view of Hell’s in training,
     After the style of Virgil and of Homer,
     So that my name of Epic’s no misnomer.

The epic also generated several types of revisionary and even anti-epics, such as the epic with a recent action (Lucan’s Pharsalia, ca. 61–65 CE) or Christian “brief epics” (Abraham Cowley’s Davideis: A Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David, 1656, or John Milton’s Paradise Regained, 1671), which were supposedly modeled on the book of Job but more closely followed the classical epic. “All the types of Biblical epic developed during the Divine Poetry movement [in sixteenth-century England] answered the pagan epic repertoire feature by feature,” Alastair Fowler explains. The pagan muse was replaced by the Holy Spirit, or a prayer to God, and the national or legendary action became the redemptive history of Scripture.

Pound’s Cantos (1915–1969) were a bid to revive the epic as a modernist form. Nikos Kazantzakis’s Greek poem The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1924–1938), David Jones’s Welsh poem Anathemata (1952), and Derek Walcott’s West Indian Omeros (1990) all make epic bids. From a Turkish prison cell, Nazim Hikmet wrote a five-volume epic novel in verse, Human Landscapes from My Country (1963), which he regarded as a historical synthesis of oral poetry, designed to be sung, and the printed novel, designed to be read silently in private. An epic apparatus has been employed by American poets from Anne Bradstreet’s Exact Epitome of the Four Monarchies (1650), which could be called the first North American epic, to William Carlos Williams’s Paterson (1940–1961), H. D.’s Helen in Egypt (1974), Louis Zukofsky’s “A” (1928–1968), Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems (1950–1970), and James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover (1976–1982).

All in all, as Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “the epic is one of the necessities of the human mind.”

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Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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