Herbert F. Tucker. Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse 1790-1910. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0199232987. Price: US$60.00[Notice]

  • Julia F. Saville

…plus d’informations

  • Julia F. Saville
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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 ...

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