Tuesday 6 August 2013

Victorian Epic: Remodelling Models

The death of Arthur in the BBC's Merlin

Tennyson’s poem 'The Epic' (1842) is a frame to his ‘Morte d’Arthur’, a description of the death of the legendary king. The use of a frame in such a poem is hardly unusual in itself  - it ties into the oral tradition associated with epic verse and some of the most famous passages in classical epic (Aeneas telling his tale to Dido, Odysseus listening to the bard Demodocus). What is striking about the frame however is its historical distinctness from the medievalism of the poem it contains – here we are undoubtedly in nineteenth-century Britain. ‘The Epic’ opens with a contemporary Christmas Eve scene, almost Dickensian in its depiction of festive domesticity (forfeits, kissing and ice-skating). Yet there are more sombre notes here – the social discord referred to by the guests’ conversation (‘The parson taking wide and wider sweeps,/Now harping on the church-commissioners,/Now hawking at geology and schism’), and, from the outset, an emphasis on decline (‘all the old honour had from Christmas gone’), hinting at the uneasy relationship with the poetic past which Tennyson’s treatment of epic in the poem will indicate.

For the ‘Morte d’Arthur’ is incomplete – a fragment of the poet Everard Hall, whose work is introduced in the following terms:

“You know,” said Frank,
“he burnt
His epic, his King Arthur, some twelve books” –
And then to me demanding why: “O, sir,
He thought that nothing new was said, or else
Something so said ’t was nothing – that a truth
Looks freshest in the fashion of the day;
God knows; he has a mint of reasons; ask.
It pleased me well enough.” “Nay, nay,” said
“Why take the style of those heroic times?
For nature brings not back the mastodon,
Nor we those times; and why should any man
Remodel models? these twelve books of mine
Were faint Homeric echoes, nothing worth.
Mere chaff and draff, much better burnt.”

The opposing arguments given here by Frank and the poet Hall are at the crux of Victorian engagements with epic. Hall thinks his work overly imitative and concludes that modern verse must deal with modern times - the very conclusion Elizabeth Barrett Browning also comes to her in modernising strategy for epic in Aurora Leigh (1856). In a previous post I dealt with the gendered inflections of dealing with the poetic past, but Barrett Browning also faces the same difficulties with epic as Tennyson. She resists the idea of decline by arguing that it is simply hard to see the heroism of the age you live in:

All actual heroes are essential men,
And all men possible heroes: every age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backwards and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos.

Yet, while these assertions aggrandise her own work, they also diminish the status of the poets she follows, as when she claims that ‘Helen’s hair turned gray/Like any plain Miss Smith’s who wears a front’ (i.e. a hairpiece). It is not enough to claim heroism for your own age – you must kill off your predecessors, and so she does, radically altering the genre she inherits by combining epic and the novel. In her correspondence she writes: 'I am inclined to think that we want new forms.., as well as thoughts . . . Why should we go back to the antique moulds?’, her question closely resembling Hall’s ‘Why take the style of those heroic times?’.

Hall, however, is unconvincing, for, in his desire to burn his epic, he is in fact being all the more imitative – nearly succeeding where Virgil (who allegedly requested his Aeneid be burnt) had failed. Tennyson – the real poet behind the fictional Hall - is being even more referential; his incomplete engagement with Arthurianism in epic verse here mimicking Milton’s early abandoned attempts at epic in a similar vein.

Of course, Tennyson would go on to deal with Arthurian legend at much greater length in his Idylls of the King, but for these also he was conflicted about the ‘epic’ label, resisting overall narrative coherence to some extent, and referring to pastoral, rather than epic, in his choice of title (an allusion to Theocritus).

Epic, for the Victorians, often needs to be explained, theorised, justified and framed. Yet Tennyson’s ‘The Epic’, as it returns to a bright clear Christmas morning at the close of the poem, offers no definitive conclusions as to the difficulties of modern engagement with it.

Let me know what you think of Tennyson’s ‘The Epic’ here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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