Date of this Version
The Oxford Handbook of British Poetry, 1660-1800
The history of the eighteenth-century English epic has long been viewed as a sad tale of decline and dispersal. In this traditional understanding, the epic reached its peak in John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667). After Milton, the dignity of the formal verse epic gradually gave way to the mischief and pleasure of the mock-heroic, which borrowed the genre's lofty style without its lofty substance. The narrative and descriptive energies of the epic were ultimately subsumed into the long poem and the novel, whose "rise" has come to define the age. A primary evidentiary consideration in this history has been the observation that, after Milton, no canonical poets of the long eighteenth century wrote "original" verse epics-that is, topically innovative epics in the sober spirit of a formal verse tradition. John Dryden and Alexander Pope wrote mock-heroics, couplet translations of Virgil and Homer, and important critical commentaries, but nothing to rival Paradise Lost. Original epics by the likes of Richard Blackmore have not stood the test of time. In the absence of such writings, and in light of the judgment that other classical genres enjoyed comparative prosperity in the period, the post-Miltonic era has been cast as a "unique, epic depression," sustained by substantial knowledge of and interest in the epic, but by no real creative energy until the Romantics infused new life into the genre at the end of the century. This has been the standard view of the subject for some 150 years. It has long structured surveys, anthologies, and local studies of the genre, and it has informed scholarship on both the novel and the mock-heroic.
This material was originally published in The Oxford Handbook of British Poetry, 1660-1800 edited by Jack Lynch, and has been reproduced by permission of Oxford University Press. For permission to reuse this material, please visit http://global.oup.com/academic/rights.
Foy, Anna M. (2016). Epic. In Jack Lynch, The Oxford Handbook of British Poetry, 1660-1800, (pp. 473-494). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Date Posted: 24 January 2017