Thursday, October 26, 2006

Epic, eh?

I'm still thinking about the topic of the basically unshiftable imbalance between what you've read and what you want to read. A friend of mine is worried that he might die before reading all the books on his list. Since he adds books to the list faster than he reads them, this is very likely.

A poem I've never properly got to grips with is Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. I've always half-hoped it wouldn't be any good, thus justifying my ignorance of it. No such luck. Having a good go at the bit in book 5 about poets and the present age, I was struck by the tension between the realist and epic elements to the imperative, and the implication that a modern epic would both look very different from a classical or even Renaissance one, and, presumably, celebrate some very different things. One can't really imagine a pro-Bush epic, for example - our own present age just doesn't see military matters and the State as its defining concerns. (I am excluding satire and the mock-epic, which quite clearly could address politics in such a way, without being a contemporary epic in the way I am thinking of - its relation to convention, for example, would have to be ironic and self-conscious.)

So what would be the thematic preoccupation of a modern epic? Well, presumably that question would itself form part of the content: what does it mean to celebrate nation in the absence of a nationalism with which one is comfortable? What, in that case, precisely constitutes the nation? On the other hand, in what ways might a contemporary epic participate in epic conventions of style? I can't see that it can be as long as the classics, for a variety of reasons, including that: it wouldn't come out of an oral tradition; long poems aren't terribly fashionable or even necessarily read at the moment; in the absence of grand, often military, narratives, it would be difficult to sustain interest over a long period; given still-current notions about the fragmentary nature of experience, a long single narrative may not suit one's thematic purposes.

That isn't to say that an epic would be impossible. The conventions are there to be subverted. But I wonder whether the basic challenge of a contemporary epic - to celebrate a nationalism which is in doubt - doesn't push the form towards pastoral, which Andrew Ettin calls its 'diametric opposite, in much the same way as the heroic life is a challenge to private leisure'. The epic as small, local event as opposed to grand, national event: the challenge then would be to construct, through a poem, a nationalism - or, since that term may be too loaded to think straight - an Englishness, a regionalism, a comfortable and historically literate identity which did not only turn away from major events towards the local, but insisted that it is the local event which should be considered major.

Such an insistence, though, if it were to be more than sticking one's fingers in one's ears, would have to provide a sense that the local can also be politically effective. Thus - and I mean this quite seriously, although these are not positions I'd necessarily like to claim for my own - you might write an epic in praise of local government, or in praise of non-govermental institutions. It's true that devolution of political power, whether towards constituent nation states or towards charities, special-interest societies and clubs, is often an ideal used cynically by conventional political powers operating and thinking at a national level, and also that devolved power may reconstitute itself at the local level in no less a repugnant way. So maybe the best that today's writer of epic can do is to espouse the indefinite refusal of power (pastoral disguised as epic), or to celebrate those institutions which, through their oblique relation to power are hardly likely to acquire it, for good or ill. The epic as life-going-on-anyway, though that too risks slipping into pastoral via I'm-alright-Jack. But then such institutions are often surprisingly capable of robust encounters with the political sphere. The W.I.-ad, anyone?


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