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An epic poem is by common consent a narrative of some length and deals with events which have a certain grandeur and importance and come from a life of action, especially of violent action such as war. It gives a special pleasure because its events and persons enhance our belief in the worth of human achievement and in the diginity and nobility of man. ["Some Characteristics of Literary Epic," p. 1]

Rather than using the terms "authentic" and "literary" epic, Maurice Bowra prefers to distinguish the two kinds of epic with the terms "oral and written, " or "between what is meant to be heard and what is meant to be read, between what is recited and what is put down in a book" (p. 2). Thus, he sees Homer as a master of improvisational story-telling who had at his disposal "constant epithets, the repeated lines and blocks of lines, the copious store of synonyms and alternative word-forms, [which] are a heritage from improvisation" (p. 3). In the oral epic, we have a composition which is freer and looser than Virgil's imitation of Homer's because the Greek bard is striving for simplicity of effect in terms of heroic characters and actions, which are often presented in detachable episodes. Virgil, on the other hand, as a conscious imitator, composes as a writer rather than a bard, "fashions his sentences carefully and individually; he takes care to avoid omissions and contradictions, to harmonize the details of his plot" (p. 4). A final distinction is that " [t]he truly heroic ideal and standards of conduct did not exist for the writers of literary epic" (p. 10).

The epic style cannot by itself produce a satisfactory epic, a form that Milton belived already inappropriate for seventeenth-century England. The essentially primitive nature of the genre in its primary form (with an emphasis on a life of valorous action and individual acts of courage in war) means that an age of widespread literacy is generally (as Milton noted) "too late for epic." However, Tennyson in "The Death of Arthur" and Arnold in "Sohrab and Rustum" can adapt the lesser epic or epyllion to the tastes of a literary age by setting their action in a distant past, a past which is rodelent with mythic patterns and supernatural powers in Tennyson's poem and a past whose unfamiliarity is heightened by a patently foreign setting largely unknown to Victorian readers, except through the accounts of travellers, historians, and archaeologists. The "Mighty Line" of Sir Christopher Marlow, iambic pentameter blank verse, confers upon Arnold's narrator and speakers the heroic dignity of the principals of Shakespeare's tragedies and histories, as well as of the supernatural beings of Milton's literary epic Paradise Lost.

Related Materials


Bowra, Sir Cecil Maurice. From Virgil to Milton. London: Macmillan, 1963.

Last modified 21 February 2005