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The Epic An Essay   By: (1881-1938)

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The Epic: an Essay

By Lascelles Abercrombie


By the same Author:

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As this essay is disposed to consider epic poetry as a species of literature, and not as a department of sociology or archaeology or ethnology, the reader will not find it anything material to the discussion which may be typified in those very interesting works, Gilbert Murray's "The Rise of the Greek Epic" and Andrew Lang's "The World of Homer." The distinction between a literary and a scientific attitude to Homer (and all other "authentic" epic) is, I think, finally summed up in Mr. Mackail's "Lectures on Greek Poetry"; the following pages, at any rate, assume that this is so. Theories about epic origins were therefore indifferent to my purpose. Besides, I do not see the need for any theories; I think it need only be said, of any epic poem whatever, that it was composed by a man and transmitted by men. But this is not to say that investigation of the "authentic" epic poet's milieu may not be extremely profitable; and for settling the preliminaries of this essay, I owe a great deal to Mr. Chadwick's profoundly interesting study, "The Heroic Age"; though I daresay Mr. Chadwick would repudiate some of my conclusions. I must also acknowledge suggestions taken from Mr. Macneile Dixon's learned and vigorous "English Epic and Heroic Poetry"; and especially the assistance of Mr. John Clark's "History of Epic Poetry." Mr. Clark's book is so thorough and so adequate that my own would certainly have been superfluous, were it not that I have taken a particular point of view which his method seems to rule out a point of view which seemed well worth taking. This is my excuse, too, for considering only the most conspicuous instances of epic poetry. They have been discussed often enough; but not often, so far as I know, primarily as stages of one continuous artistic development .



The invention of epic poetry corresponds with a definite and, in the history of the world, often recurring state of society. That is to say, epic poetry has been invented many times and independently; but, as the needs which prompted the invention have been broadly similar, so the invention itself has been. Most nations have passed through the same sort of chemistry. Before their hot racial elements have been thoroughly compounded, and thence have cooled into the stable convenience of routine which is the material shape of civilization before this has firmly occurred, there has usually been what is called an "Heroic Age." It is apt to be the hottest and most glowing stage of the process. So much is commonplace. Exactly what causes the racial elements of a nation, with all their varying properties, to flash suddenly (as it seems) into the splendid incandescence of an Heroic Age, and thence to shift again into a comparatively rigid and perhaps comparatively lustreless civilization this difficult matter has been very nicely investigated of late, and to interesting, though not decided, result. But I may not concern myself with this; nor even with the detailed characteristics, alleged or ascertained, of the Heroic Age of nations. It is enough for the purpose of this book that the name "Heroic Age" is a good one for this stage of the business; it is obviously, and on the whole rightly, descriptive. For the stage displays the first vigorous expression, as the natural thing and without conspicuous restraint, of private individuality. In savagery, thought, sentiment, religion and social organization may be exceedingly complicated, full of the most subtle and strange relationships; but they exist as complete and determined wholes , each part absolutely bound up with the rest. Analysis has never come near them. The savage is blinded to the glaring incongruities of his tribal ideas not so much by habit or reverence; it is simply that the mere possibility of such a thing as analysis has never occurred to him... Continue reading book >>

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