Epic as a form of Art is dead

A Critique on R. J. Rees's English Literature: An Introduction for foreign students : chapter Epic 

R. J. Rees in his English Literature: An Introduction for foreign students has passed the verdict that ‘the epic as a form of literature is now dead’. This orbiter dictum is quite justifiable considering the fact that no modern writer (barring the exception of James Joyce, whose Ulysses can justifiably claim epical stature) embarks upon this form today. This does not however, mean that great epics like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey or Virgil’s Aenied or Dante’s The Devina Commedia are no longer read with interest. But it must also be as certain that serious epics of the part have lost popular appeal among modern readers and that their interest today has been narrowed to the limited sphere of the academia. 

There are many reasons which is why the epic in modern literature seems to be a dying and uncultivated phenomena. Primarily, the epic deals with the great exploits, partly historical and partly legendary, of Gods and heroes. These great heroes of traditional epic poetry were once identified with their respective national cultures. For example, Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector or Odysseus represented the highest ideals of the Greek culture, while Rama, Yudhisthir and Arjuna represented the noblest ideals of the ancient Indian ethos. But since the modern age is not an age of heroism and heroes and that because nobility and grandeur have waned out from this world full of bathos, it would be anachronistic on the part of any author to present an epical hero in our times. T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land and Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain have both tolled the death knell of heroism, divinity, love and all nobler virtues in the post war modern world which they portrayed, rightly enough, as a fragmented, hellish, insubstantial circle of spiritual vacuity and emotional drought. In such a world, the glorious ideals presented in, say Iliad or The Mahabharata would be an anathema. Modern readers would fail to identify themselves with such heroes and such literary forms. An epic without a hero or without a message of heroism is an impossibility; the modern age can not, thus, make room for an epic.

        Secondly, the modern age is an age of artistic freedom. Modern writers have never been pinned by conventions. Modern literature is endlessly involved in innovations in form and technique. But to be an epic poet one has to be tied down to conventions. For an epic poet would have to consciously conform to those forms and conventions which are age old. For instance, in order to write an epic poem, one must begin with an ‘Invocation’ to either a God or a Muse. The epic poet must also use the epic or Homeric simile. There must also be a description of some kind of athletic contest or games, either in commemoration of a dead hero or in celebration of a great victory. Mention must also be made of a long and dangerous journey undertaken by the hero while the poem must begin in medias yes, in the middle of the action. For a modern poet, to be clamped down to these essentials and stylistic conventions is to lose his artistic freedom and hence the interest in an epic poem is no longer generates in the 20th century literature.

        It should be mentioned that with the tremendous pressure of speed, which is an off shoot of cross materialism, and also because of the explosion of infotainment owing to the mass escalation of electronic media, modern life  is much more demanding upon the time at the disposed of modern men. The life of an educated Englishman of the Elizabethan times or the life style of an aristocratic reader of ancient Greece permitted him the luxury of spending hours over years together to read The Faerie Queene or The Iliad with leisure and delectable case. The situations of modern life having been changed, it is no more possible for a modern reader to spend all his times on the epic. These factors have led to the death of the epic in our times.

        The epic has no long been a possible uncertainly in modern literature; it has become a certain impossibility in contemporary literature which is so very much shadowed by the overwhelming up surge of contemporary literary theory. The emergence of Ferdinand de Sassure and the advent of Jaeques Derrida, Roland Barths, Stanley Fish and Pierre Machieray and the theories of ‘De Construction’, ‘Reader Respons’, ‘Theory of Absence’, the critical position that a particular text had a more or less cognizable meaning has been bombard. The death of the author is announced and authorial intentions or messages have, therefore, been thrown to the wind. Not only that the very concept of meaning has become contingent following Perida’s ultimate assertion that the meaning is always differed and Macheray’s contention that the meaning is not in the text, but outside, in the ‘absences’. Now, because an epic has to have a unified message and meaning, contemporary literature overshadowed by splintered possibilities in meaning, cannot simply have room for an epic. Indeed, the epic is now dead.

However, I personally believe that the epic is one of the most exciting and important literary forms, that can and should reach the widest possible readership. However, in the din and bustle of daily life fewer and fewer people these days read epic. This is unfortunate--so few will never experience the joy that reading such fine work can give. Reading of epic will excite these people into rediscovering this excellent source of entertainment.


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An English Teacher;    M. A.(English) , D. Ed., B. Ed., UGC- NET Qualified

"Dear Readers/ Students, I am a huge fan of books, English Grammar & Literature. I write this blog to instill that passion in you." 

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