Blot Post #3: Destroying Definitions

In my last post, I talked a bit about some of the ideas I had about writing my paper. Well now I’ve been involved in the writing process for over a week, and I’ve written about 16 ½ pages of my actual paper. It’s been an interesting process, and I find that my ideas keep changing, even as I write.

One thing that has stayed the same since my last post is how I feel about the definition of the epic. In my paper, I discuss varied attempts by critics to define the epic genre, followed by the ways in which these definitions are flawed or too restrictive. So in my own analysis, I scrapped the idea of trying to constrain the genre to a static definition, and rather include in my discussion any works that participate in the epic tradition. This looser categorization allowed me to talk about works that are not always considered by critics to be “true” epic poems, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, the mock-epics of the 18th century, and the long poems of Wordsworth, Eliot, and Pound.

The “problem” with many of these works is that they blend genres. This makes them difficult to categorize and often causes them to be dismissed by purist critics. But I don’t think the blending of genres is a bad thing or makes these works any less valuable. And even though the Prelude may have just as much in common with the lyric as it does with the epic, and the Divine Comedy may seem almost like a novel at times, these works are still worth talking about in terms of the epic tradition.

Some critics, especially the critics of earlier centuries, want definitions to stay the same and new works to resemble the ancient originals as closely as possible. For them, whatever is oldest must be correct, and writers today should try to conform to their predecessor’s standards. But we don’t live in the same society that Homer or Virgil were writing in. Society changes, and our literature changes to match. So while the ancient Greeks were fascinated by stories of old heroes fighting for glory in familiar legends, modern writers and readers are more interested in the mind of the individual and personal introspection.  The ancient Romans wanted to celebrate their empire and herald in a new Golden Age, but the satirists of the 18th century found they had more to criticize than celebrate. These changing literary trends within the epic tradition do not signify a degrading of the ancient form, but rather tell a story of larger changes in culture and philosophy.

In my paper, I embrace this change. I want to approach the epic from a dynamic perspective, viewing it across the centuries as though it were a living thing, growing and adapting to its environment. The epic genre has evolved, and continues to evolve. And I don’t think any literary genre can truly be understood without accepting change as part of its definition.


  1. J. Keohane says:

    This idea of “purity” is, speaking personally, very interesting. In the world of Creative Writing as an academic discipline, as opposed to Lit. Crit., there is no bias against the new in favor of the old. Indeed, one may be tempted to place these two closely-related disciplines into a dichotomy between “new-obsessed” and “old-obsessed;” in my Advanced Fiction Writing class this past Spring, our professor made us get a subscription to a couple contemporary literature magazines so we could read short stories fresh off the press.

    Also, I’m very curious as to how you are going about the translation issue.

  2. oesitler says:

    I agree with your idea that change is an essential part of any literary genre that should be embraced. What you found regarding the Greeks and Romans writing in more positive or celebratory styles versus less uplifting material from more recent writers jibes with my own research into war poetry (although on a far shorter time scale). Once upon a time, war poetry frequently spoke to the glory and courage of the individual hero, whereas more modern material often focuses on the more brutal, uglier realities of conflict.

    What other significant changes beyond subject matter did you find?

  3. jjoconnell says:

    @oesitler: As I mentioned in my post, one other change that I found was growing fluidity of genre and a willingness to break out of pre-conceived definitions.
    I also found a growing tendency to criticize society in general, not just regarding war. Later epics were much more critical of their government, of religious beliefs, and of fellow writers and other members of society.
    I also noticed a larger trend of moving away from a focus on the community toward a focus on the individual–which I think contributed to the triumph of the novel over the epic as a better medium with which to handle the stories of individuals.
    I just posted the summary of my research if you’d like to hear more about my findings!

  4. While the topics and moods change over time (from celebratory styles to satire, criticism, and war), does that constitute a change the genre, or a change in the definition of the genre? My impression is that the genre is defined by more structural or organizational characteristics than by whether it is writing about something positive or something negative.

    Julia, did you consider using Google to track the use of terms such as “epic”, “epic poetry”, and “mock-epic” in the academic and non-academic literature? The geek in me is drawn to technology so see what how genre definitions and views have changed over time.