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For those of us primed by the heralds of this book over the past twenty years—for instance, “The Epic Plight of Troth in Idylls of the King” (1991), “Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends” (1993), or “Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse as Assimilationist Epic” (1993), to name only some of the most influential—the arrival of Herbert F. Tucker’s Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse 1790-1910 is cause for celebration indeed. Unmatched in scope since Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (1993), this is an intellectual and informational resource that all Romanticists and Victorianists will want on their bookshelves. Since it lends itself both to leisurely, sustained reading and to more selective browsing, Epic offers many things to many readers: a fascinating, revolutionizing literary history that challenges conventional wisdom about nineteenth-century epic on various fronts; an encyclopedic taxonomy of a capacious form; a repository of counter-intuitive and thought-provoking questions; and a wealth of brilliant poetic readings leavened with vintage Tucker wit (indeed in places laugh-out-loud funny).
Tucker disputes two prevailing narratives about epic. First, he rejects the myth of modernity triumphant which argues that the genre of epic, along with its associations of unified community and bardic truth-telling, effectively dies after Milton as feudalism is displaced by markets, democracy, and the novel. Second, he disputes the exceptionalist argument that takes epic’s death as a given, but discovers with joyful tunnel-vision an isolated revival of the form in, for example, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce or Ezra Pound. In fact, Tucker counters, the nineteenth century is a period of steady epic productivity which twenty-first-century readers ignore at their peril, for only by discovering how epic was continuously transforming itself over the course of the century can we understand how the novel emerged from the older verse form. In the course of his counter-narrative, the novel becomes epic’s interlocutor and debtor, while the negotiations, compromises, and triumphs of epoists tell us much about the organization of knowledge then and now.
Thus unfolds a profoundly self-conscious reflection on post-Augustan epic revival—itself an epic in twelve chapters (the requisite number of “books” for a Virgilian epic)—which, begins in the last decade of the eighteenth century, shortly before the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars, and concludes in 1910 with the return of Napoleon in Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece, The Dynasts: An Epic-Drama of the War with Napoléon, in Three Parts, Nineteen Acts, and One Hundred and Thirty Scenes. Differentiating his undertaking from Simon Dentith’s excellent but selective study of “epic primitivism,” Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain, Tucker tells a story of a “self-repairing tradition” (25) that negotiates between change and continuity, producing a continuum distinct from progress. He recounts epoists’ responses to shifting historical pressure and public mood, tracing the form’s turn away from “a somewhat embarrassing” military legacy, toward paedeia or public education (27-28). Limiting himself to epic poems in verse, he uses length and scope to choose works that relate to a broad social collective (16).
By reading hundreds of epics, some familiar and many forgotten (though now handily assembled, many with online links, in an appended “Bibliography of Poems Cited” [602-626]), Tucker shows not only how extraordinarily rich nineteenth-century epic culture was, but also how many poets—men and women, good and bad—contributed to vibrant public conversations. Surprising numbers of authors familiar to us in quite different contexts emerge as would-be epoists. One striking instance is novelist-politician Benjamin Disraeli whose volume The Revolutionary Epick (1829) belongs to a forensic permutation of the genre that emerged during the First Reform debates and imagined discursive rather than military contests for power (288). Another such forensic epic comes from Sarah Stickney Ellis, well-known author of conduct manuals such as The Women of England (1838), who, less familiarly, went on to generate The Sons of the Soil (1840), a 12-book epic in heroic couplets which remonstrates against the displacement of traditional values by commercialism (305). Equally intriguing is Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s pocket epic in Spenserian stanzas, Garibaldi (1861). In the wake of epic’s inward turn with Spasmodism, Tucker explains in his ninth chapter, Braddon the epoist appears “in spasmodical training for her métier in sensation fiction” (398).
Such recovery work yields more generous interpretive dividends than merely to demonstrate the plenitude of epic life in the Romantic and Victorian periods; for minor or flawed epics also tell us much about the epic masterpieces we value. To illustrate: Tucker’s second chapter on the last decade of the eighteenth century, which describes epic’s revival after a long neoclassical dormancy, contrasts the youthful inventiveness and radicalism of Robert Southey’s early epic Joan of Arc (1796) with George Skene’s drearily conventional Donald Bane: An Heroic Poem in Three Books, of the same year. While Skene ties the rapid unfolding of plot tightly to the defense of conservative moral values like clan prowess and patriarchal honor (76), Southey refuses to integrate Joan of Arc’s moral sphere with its field of action. Consequently the protagonist’s moral virtue and her French nationalism remain separate so that the former can be appropriated by British nationalists during a time of strained Anglo-French relations (78-79). Using the now forgotten Skene as foil, Tucker is able to show how Southey’s talent, if no longer celebrated today, was sufficient to stimulate some of Byron’s best satire in The Vision of Judgment (72).
Another benefit of returning to neglected epics is evidence of their capacity to illuminate problems addressed differently through prose fiction. Consider for instance, his fascinating insights into George Eliot’s enigmatic and under-read verse-hybrid The Spanish Gypsy (1868). Situating this epic within Eliot’s much-studied constellation of novels—Romola (1862), Middlemarch (1871-2), and Daniel Deronda (1876)—Tucker reveals her use of poetry’s sensory, musical flexibility as she writes a myth of vocation felt bodily, though not simply reducible to biology. Where the implicitly optimistic realist novel marshals commonplace detail to create the illusion of a reality within which free choice is viable, the fixed poetic design of Eliot’s epic puts pressure on the alternative tragic possibility that individual choice might be in large part determined by the fate of individual heritage. In this case, Fedalma’s fate is her lost identity as a Zincáli princess that, once revealed, negates her free choice to be the wife of the Hidalgo, duke of Bedmár, and his to renounce his heritage and become “the poem’s other Spanish Gypsy” (417). Verse epic thus affords Eliot a new angle of approach to her ongoing exploration of a problematic that we continue to debate today: the tension between putative free choice and the inherited or fated conditions that may prove them illusory.
Tucker has long been the advocate of attentiveness to poetic form as a means of gaining interpretive purchase on the organization and enforcement of meaning within particular historical contexts. His own marshaling of awesome formal expertise in the interest of historical, literary, and political insights is among the most inspiring effects of this book. A particularly memorable instance occurs in the eleventh chapter’s study of William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung and Algernon Charles Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse, both rare, monumental challenges to prevailing contemporary myths of imperial progress. Using meticulous close reading of an extract from the narrative opening of Tristram, Tucker demonstrates the constant merging of narration with description, literal with figurative language, and human bodies with natural bodies (water, the sky, the sun). Thus revealed, Swinburne’s monistic creed becomes the ground on which to launch a subtle, but powerful defense of the poet against retrospective imputations of a totalitarianism that foreshadows twentieth-century fascism. The question arises, Tucker explains, “in view of the prima facie resemblance between the cosmic passion to which Tristram and Iseult surrender and the world-historical passivity that had become, by the imperial 1880s, the governing mood of Anglophone epic writing” (530).
Pointing to Swinburne’s resolute republicanism and ingrained anti-authoritarianism as likely warranties of the poet’s resistance to prevailing hegemonies, Tucker draws attention to the balance apparent in the epic’s “Prelude” between deference to other epic voices (“from Homer through Dante to Milton and Shelley”) and assertion of his own individual creativity: “Among epic proemata Swinburne’s remains remarkable equally for the indiscriminateness with which it lavishes praise on other makers and for the sangfroid with which it goes about joining them” (531). According to this reading, Swinburne defers to authority only to launch his own free divergence from it. Swinburnian Fate, by its very atropic or unrepresentable nature, provides the grounds not for passive, mindless compliance that abets totalitarianism, but for freedom from the norm. Although invariably tragic, such freedom engenders limitless poetic creativity (532). The basis of this shrewd critical riposte is a deeply sedimented knowledge of internationalist poetics and epic practice demonstrated throughout the study. In the face of Tucker’s judgment, the charge of totalitarianism fades as ill-founded, ahistorical suspicion.
There is no doubt that this magnum opus will leave even the best-informed readers humbled by the author’s wide-ranging, supple critical scope and abundant expertise on all matters poetic. Yet far from a masterly attempt at the last word on the genre, Tucker’s Epic is, on the contrary, a call to future spirited conversations and poetic pleasures renewed. All readers, but especially those invested in Romantic and Victorian verse, can look forward to an intellectually exuberant tour de force, dense with brilliant formulations and fresh insights, but leavened with sociable mirth. To read even one chapter is to feel compelled to revisit familiar poems anew, approach daunting monoliths more boldly, and become part of a conversation that Tucker has made too intellectually fascinating to bypass.
Julia F. Saville is Associate Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of A Queer Chivalry: The Homoerotic Asceticism of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2000) as well as various articles on nineteenth-century poetry, painting, and politics. She is currently working on a book manuscript provisionally entitled “Cosmopolitan Republican Poets: Poetic Bodies and the British Body Politic, 1840-1885.”