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The Oxford Handbook of British Poetry, 1660-1800

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Eighteenth-century epic is often said to have declined after Milton’s accomplishments in Paradise Lost. Because no major eighteenth-century poets wrote sober, “original,” formal verse epics, the period is envisioned as an emblematic instance of generic death. This chapter argues for a reappraisal. After noting recent challenges to this understanding of the genre and the period, I propose an alternate vision of the epic’s Restoration and eighteenth-century development. The period saw not a “decline” of epic but a consequential shift in how the genre was understood: from a notion of epic based on Virgil (epic as a “heroic” handbook for princes) to an understanding of epic centered on Homer (epics as lofty portraits of primitive, distant cultures). This transition informed translations and imitations, sober-spirited poems and mock-heroics, verse and prose pieces, and critical commentaries. Throughout the period, however, the epic remained closely associated with meditations on British “manners.”

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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.



Date Posted: 24 January 2017