Abstract: The Evolution of the Epic

The epic is a classic literary genre that usually takes the form of a long narrative poem involving heroic deeds that take place on a grand scale. The epic is one of the earliest types of written literature as evidenced by the Mesopotamian text, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Since then, epics have continued to be a popular form of literature throughout the ages. Epics have been featured as a significant part of Western education for centuries. In the past, most members of the educated class were required to study the epics of Homer and Virgil. Perhaps for this reason, allusions to past epics permeate many prominent works of English literature. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein draws overt parallels to Paradise Lost and Shakespeare scatters references to the Odyssey and Iliad throughout his plays. An understanding of these iconic works of English literature is not complete without familiarity with the epics that came before them. For this reason, I feel that an understanding of the genre of epic is important to the understanding of English literature as a whole.

This research project is an attempt to gain such an understanding of the genre. As part of my research, I will read (or have already read) many of the classic epics including the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, The Fairie Queene, and Paradise Lost. Depending on the ultimate scope of my research, I may also consider more modern works such as Wordsworth’s Prelude, Whitman’s Songs of Myself, and Berryman’s Dream Songs, which are often described as continuations of the epic genre.  In addition to the works of literature themselves, I will also read literary criticism and previous studies of the epic genre.  I will consider both historical perspectives, such as those laid out in Le Bossu’s Traite du poeme epique, and more modern perspectives, beginning with Abrams’ “Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature” and Adam Potkay’s “The Virgilian Way from Milton to Wordsworth.” After conducting this research, I will analyze my findings in a 30-page paper. Within this paper, I will explore the defining characteristics of epic poetry and how the genre is viewed by society, as well as how each of these has changed over time.