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Others have, to be sure, been written since. Indeed, the Quarterly Review, in an article published in 1852 under the alarming title “Recent Epics,” remarks, “The course of these stars of the first magnitude (we class them by size) is seldom observed, or the world would be astonished at the host which keep rising in mist to set in darkness." 1 Two of the epics published between 1840 and 1845 that the Quarterly discusses use the style and diction of Paradise Lost, and two even copy its angels and devils. In John Fitchett's King Alfred, for example, there are many infernal councils at which Satan addresses the
Powers deathless, progeny of heaven, once slaves;;
High in the midst upon his sable throne
As when a traveller....
The geologist Thomas Hawkins makes no use of the style of Paradise Lost for the nine books of his Wars of Jehovah, in Heaven, Earth, and Hell (1844), but, according to the Quarterly, he does not
3 iii. 460.
This does not include Cottle's Alfred and Montgomery's Luther (see pp. 298 above and 412 below), which are also considered in the article.
• jii. 429-38. 6 Palatine Note-Book (1882, ii. 169), where other information regarding the poem is given. It seems that Fitchett was a highly-successful attorney who, after laboring forty years over his epic and printing a first version privately between 1808 and 1834, left it unfinished. His clerk, Robert Roscoe (son of the biographer of Lorenzo de' Medici), "edited” it, added over 2500 lines in bringing it to a brief and rapid termination, and published it in 1841-2. For Fitchett's Bewsey, see above, p. 258.
hesitate to borrow freely from its subject matter. W. R. Harris, on the contrary, in his Napoleon, an Epic Poem in twelve cantos (1845), discards the devils but keeps the style of the Puritan work. No secret is made of the indebtedness, for he tells us frankly,
He who now adventurous tardy pours
Mute — till a heavenly theme his fancy fired! Harris was, however, no servile imitator, for by a happy inspiration he introduced "sudden bursts of rhyme, varying in length from a couplet to a hundred lines,” whenever the humor seized him. In consequence of many such idiosyncrasies, Napoleon, like the Wars of Jehovah and one of the other “recent epics” discussed in the article, seems like the work of a somewhat unbalanced mind.
Aside from the sneers of the Quarterly, these productions apparently attracted no attention whatever, and, though similar poems have doubtless appeared since, the surprising vitality of the epic tradition must have been almost exhausted by 1850. It may be significant that in 1855, when Susannah Henderson published her Olga (the life of a Russian empress of the tenth century) she did not term it an epic, as she probably would have done fifty years earlier. Certainly Milman, who composed Samor as a schoolboy, attempted nothing of the kind again, and Herbert's Attila, though published as late as 1838, was begun much earlier, perhaps, like Fitchett's Alfred, soon after 1800. The later epics of Southey, like the work of Pennie, Drummond, Hawkins, and Harris, are the last manifestations of a force almost spent; and Hyperion, though written in 1818–19 and in Miltonic blank verse, was not a part of the literary movement that produced the others.
The epic may, therefore, be said to have been moribund throughout the second quarter of the nineteenth century and to have died soon after. It has never revived. Occasionally, to be sure, epic fragments and even complete poems have been written in subsequent years, and in the case of Sohrab and Rustum with no small success; but these are “sports” of literary evolution which do not prove any
1 Quart. Rev., xc. 345. I have not seen this epic or Hawkins's. Hawkins wrote at least two other poems, of which I know only the titles, The Lost Angel and the History of the Old Adamites (1840) and Prometheus (1850).
2 In most respects her poem belongs to the preceding century; for it employs conventional poetic diction, with words like "decidence," "congelations," "appetence," "perturbated,” and “bold emprize," as well as many other Miltonisms, and jogs along in unmistakable though unrimed heroic couplets which have none of the condensed brilliance of Pope and make little effort to conceal their lack of inspiration under loftiness of style.
vitality for the form. Arnold's episode is unique in that it is composed in a blank verse which is heroic without being Miltonic. This is not true of Ernest Myers's noble Judgment of Prometheus (1886), as the opening lines will show:
Now through the royal hall, for Heaven's dread Lord
In duel dire, convulsive war of worlds. Classical influences undoubtedly entered strongly into Myers's writings, but the fine insight into the character of the earlier poet shown in his sonnet on Milton must have borne fruit when he came to write the epic fragment.?
Another short poem of recent years, more romantic or Hellenistic than the Judgment of Prometheus but one that, like it, might well be part of an extended epic, is Alfred Noyes's Last of the Titans (1908). The style of this rich, dignified narrative occasionally recalls that of Paradise Lost, as when the chariots rolled
Their flaming wheels remote, so that they seemed,
Than dust of diamonds in the abysmal gloom; or when
two monstrous bulks arose, Mountainous,
as of wild crimson torches Far-sunken in a thick and savage wood,
Over what seemed a gulf of glimmering sea,
The burden of the heavens.s In view of these recent heroic episodes and fragments, it cannot be denied that impressive and interesting epic poetry may still be
i Gathered Poems (1904), 3.
? For the sonnet, see ib. 120; notice also 61 (Vallombrosa). The Olympic Hermes (ib. 41-6) and some of Myers's other brief pieces of blank verse on classical subjects recall Paradise Lost in their lofty utterance and their occasional inversions. In his drama on the Greek model, The Puritans (1869), Milton is a principal character.
3 Golden Hynde, etc. (N. Y. 1908), 56, 64, 65, 54.
written. But this is not to say that impressive and interesting epics may be written, for all these pieces are short. Would twelve books of Sohrab and Rustum be popular? How many persons would read the completed Hyperion - or, for that matter, how many read the
— incomplete? Should we enjoy three hundred pages of the Judgment of Prometheus or the Last of the Titans? On this last question some light might be expected from the twelve books of Mr. Noyes's Drake, an English Epic (1906–8), were not this work romantic rather than heroic. The difference does not, of course, lie in the dropping of supernatural machinery and classical subjects, for such changes are likely to be made if the form is ever to awake to renewed vitality. It is rather that Drake suggests a medieval romance rewritten by Tennyson, is descriptive and reflective, and lacks the directness, the objectivity, and the interest in action which mark Iliad and Paradise Lost.
Is there, then, no future for the epic? May not another Milton arise and give us a work differing perhaps from the poetry of our time as much as Paradise Lost did from that of the Restoration? It may be. At least such a work, if it is ever written, is likely to violate many of our preconceptions. There is no certainty that it will be in blank verse; it may resemble Don Juan more than it does Hyperion; it may even be in prose; perhaps it will follow the lines of Thomas Hardy's Dynasts, a drama partly in prose but with more of the epic sweep than any other English work of our time. Homers and Miltons have never been numerous or predicable, and the non-appearance of one of the “giant brood” for two and a half centuries does not warrant the belief that they are no more, or prove that a mightier Whitman or Masefield may not some day, with a theme like the discovery and settlement of the western United States, show us that the race of heroic poets still lives.
THE BURLESQUE The sublimity and distinctive style of Paradise Lost invite parody, and at a time when the poem was widely read and imitated the invitation was frequently accepted. Some seventy-five humorous poems in blank verse have come to my attention, most of which probably go back, directly or indirectly, to the first, the Splendid Shilling (1701). If Philips's humor is somewhat obvious and deliberate, that of his successors is rarely so good, and in consequence has long been forgotten; for "the merit of such performances," as Dr. Johnson
1 As does Mickiewicz's Polish epic, Pan Tadeusz (1834, translated by G. R. Noyes, 1917).
said, "begins and ends with the first author."1 The poems were too easy to write to be well written: they are funny, but not funny enough. Furthermore, the pentameter and tetrameter couplets had developed a terse brilliance that the slower, heavier, and more diffuse blank verse of the day could not rival; consequently, men whose bent was towards wit or humor usually followed Pope, Swift, and Churchill in devoting their energies exclusively to rime. Certainly very few flowers of genius were wasted upon the desert air of the eighteenth-century burlesque.
But not much could be expected of works that make so little attempt at originality as these humorous pieces in blank verse.
Practically all of them do the obvious thing, - apply a pompous x exaggeration of the style of Paradise Lost to humble themes. In exe
cution many are passable, but none show anything like the cleverness
Happy the man! whose well-stor'd shelf contains,
Even the choice of subject was usually suggested by Philips. The Splendid Shilling laments not only poverty but the "eternal drought" which accompanies it; for the pots of ale which the poet "tipples” are, alas, imaginary! This hint was enough to call forth at least eight paeans on liquor from the heavy-drinking bards of the day, Wine (1708), Gin (1734), A Bacchanalian Rhapsody (1746), Small-beer (1746), Oxford Ale (1750), A Tankard of Porter (1760), The Corkscrew (1760), and Punch (1769). Nor should the solemnly ludicrous picture of the orgy after the fox-chase, in Thomson's Autumn (1730), be forgotten, or two poems on the gout (1756, 1768). Philips's “warming Puff ... from Tube as black As Winters Chimney” may have suggested the unrimed humorous Verses on Bad Tobacco (1738) and The Tobacco-stopper (1760). He had little to say about food, but his
1 "Philips,” in Lives (ed. Hill), i. 317.
: Philips's Cerealia and Cyder, which also deal with drink, probably had some influence.
* Lines 492-569.