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Epics

During the summer of 1977, Robert Lowell finished a draft of a long essay on New England poets, “New England and Further.” The “further” refers (for the most part) to the conclusion of the essay, “Epics,” published here. He intended to spend the first two months of the fall school term polishing the essay, and correcting mistakes. He was working in Castine, Maine, almost without books, and pressing to complete a draft. (There are errors: Dante assigns Boniface VIII to Hell, not Purgatory.) He died September 12, 1977.

Frank Bidart

Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden said; but the great epics, like our own classics, must mean something, not by didactic pedagogy, propaganda, or edification—but by their action, a murky metaphysical historic significance, a sober intuition into the character of a nation—profundities imagined, as if in a dream, by authors who knew what they had written. Even to the Philistine podestà, Dante was the soul of Italy.

Homer—hexameters must have slid from his tongue, as easily and artfully as Shakespeare’s last blank verse. He had no necessity or license to vary meter, and has less anxiety than even Walt Whitman for the triumphs of overcurious craft. This and narrative genius were his simplicities to celebrate the cycle of Greek radiance, barbarism, and doom with the terrible clairvoyance of a prophet.

The Iliad is the epic of Greece, written when Greece was still half-Asiatic, and tossing in the womb of her brilliance. Here, already foreshadowed, are deviously debating fractious Greek leaders, kings of petty city states; the bisexual warrior, heroic comradeship, the lonely man of Excellence, unreliable, indispensable, ostracized at the height of his fortune—here too the theme of Greek pathos, the young men carved on the stele for Marathon, the victory’s gloria mundi killed in full flower.

The Iliad, unlike other world-epics, is dialectical: thesis, antithesis—the synthesis is wearisome to work and transitory…fury then contrition—insensate rage of Achilles forced to relinquish his concubine, Briseis, to Agamemnon, then his recoiling on himself after the death of Patroclus to rejoin the Greek fighting—then his rabid butchery of the Trojans, then gently relenting to return Hector’s body to Priam, the helpless father…what no other Greek would dare to do. Achilles is the most mercurial and psychic mind in epic narrative—if mind may be defined as wavering, irresistible force, a great scythe of hubris, lethal to itself, enemies and the slaves—animator of the actual.

Alexander carried the Iliad with other Greek classics on his own Asian invasion, and mysteriously relived with greater intelligence, though a Macedonian alcoholic, the impulsive brutality and forgiveness of Achilles. General Fuller writes, “He was both mystical and practical…. It was in his outlook upon women—in nearly all ages considered the legitimate spoil of the soldier—that Alexander stood in a totally different moral world compared with the one inhabited by his contemporaries…. Yet, in spite of this extraordinary respect for womanhood, his highest moral virtue is to be discovered in one of the final remarks Arrian makes in The Anabasis[:] ‘But I do know that to Alexander alone of the kings of old did repentance for his faults come by reason of his noble nature.’ ” It’s the same Achilles, imitated by a long line of Plutarchan Greeks, from Themistocles and Socrates of Athens down to Philopemon of Megalopolis. What can Homer teach…the generosity in cruelty?

Milton’s run-on blank verse is very baroque, but strangely unlike other ornate verse, it is hard and idiomatic. I believe him when he boasts that with time, his numbers became easy and unpremeditated, an inspired, various instrument whenever his plot condescended to him.

Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell.” Thus Blake, of course, in the most famous comment on Paradise Lost. Blake based a whole heretical theology on it, many revolutionary Songs of Experience…and much distrait sprawling. Blake was right. One can prove this by running through Paradise Lost, and marking the good lines or groups of lines. The only celestial angels are fallen.

I do not understand Milton’s intention. Who or what is Satan? He is not ultimate evil, though in Milton’s myth the origin of human ill. He lacks many of the common vices of tragedy: disloyalty to friends, cowardice, and stupidity. By title, the Father of Lies, he is not provably a liar. What he says to the rebel angels, Eve, and even Christ might well seem true to the sage and unorthodox Milton. He is no devil, but a cosmic rebellious Earl of Northumberland, Harry Hotspur, with an intelligence and iron restraint. He is almost early American, the cruel, unconquerable spirit of freedom.

He has great moments—rousing his followers prostrate in the infernal bog, his great oratory to them, the Cromwellian drill and parade of his defeated armies. One feels Milton knew more of military tactics than Shakespeare, whose battles are charade. This can’t be simply the limitations of Elizabethan stage. Yet Shakespeare understood most realistically the evil and pestilence of civil war. In Book Two’s great parliamentary speeches, the devils organize their words like old parliamentarians, less dishonest, and more concise. Satan defying the sun at the beginning of Book Four might be Milton addressing his blindness, his head only ringing now with ideal upheaval. Satan even animates Eve, though Adam has never been able to, nor she him. He brings out all the good in her, then her ruin. We can’t deprive Satan of his power to destroy—“…yet all his good proved ill in me…evil be thou my good.” In Paradise Regained, a diminished Satan, maybe himself in disguise, makes all the brilliant speeches. Christ is only a rocky, immobile Puritan break-water—the voice of denial? Which voice rings true? Are both schizoid anti-selves of one person?

Paradise Lost is alone among epics in being without human beings, except perhaps Eve and Adam. Satan is the engineer of ruin.

His troubled thoughts…stir
The Hell within him, for within him Hell
He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell
One step no more than from himself can fly.

After twenty centuries of Christianity, we see our ruin is irreparable. Satan cannot be discovered by faith or science. Could he have been plausible to Milton in the 1660s? Paradise Lost is of the world’s great poems; I do not see the author’s intention. Is Satan the hermetic God…Christus Liberator?

Dante was virtually a Ghibelline, a fanatical one. His Commedia is a Ghibelline epic. The Ghibellines looked for a German Emperor, their shadowy hope, who would unify, but not annex, Italy. They loathed popes as principals of disharmony and internecine murder. They had leanings toward heresy. They led lives, as did the Pope’s adherents, the Guelphs, that sinned in a hundred common ways: adultery, sodomy, murder, treason, intrigue. In the Commedia, they are tortured for these misdeeds—but who is ever hurt in a poem? Almost all Dante’s poetically inspired or humanly attractive characters are Ghibelline—if they are not, like Francesca and Ulysses, they seem the Ghibelline underground. There’s one arguable exception, Beatrice, but I will come to her in time. The great sinners are imagined with such sympathy that Erich Auerbach believed that they almost crack Dante’s theological system.

With saints, Dante is apathetic. They are written with a dry pen, and parsimonious vision. St. Francis, St. Dominic, St. Bonaventure, Cato, etc. seem almost like primitive lives of the saints read in the silence of a Trappist dinner. They are nature morte, and hardly nature, though girded in cunning coils of scholastic philosophy.

Dante’s unique genius as a writer of epic—I even include Melville’s prose—is that his chief characters are not heroically enlarged, but life-size. Masaccio, alone among the old Italian painters, had this wish for human proportion, lost by the grandeur and embellishment of his greater successors. It’s in Farinata’s “But who are your ancestors?” Or, holding himself upright in his fiery tomb “as if he held the Inferno in disdain.” Ugolino’s eating his own starving children, who willingly sacrifice themselves to save their father from starvation. Or Manfredi in the Purgatorio, a type of the liberator German Emperor and solider than Othello, “Biondo era e bello” etc., down to his burial, a lume spento, without the rites of the Church. He is the bastard son of Federico Secondo, the stupor mundi, and the greatest Ghibelline, who, though only listed in the Inferno among those damned for heresy, somehow overshadows the whole Commedia with a revered spirit; just as Pope Boniface VIII is its devil, though paradoxically consigned to Purgatory, not Hell. I am suggesting that the Commedia, like Paradise Lost, is in part hermetic, and means at times the opposite of what it asserts.

I find it hard to consider Dante as entirely orthodox. Much in his political preference and poetic training, in the dolce stil nuovo derived from the Provençals, points toward heresy. But Christian Faith is alive in him, not cold as in Milton. The Church gave his writing a dialectical confusion and intensity. Two forces, not one. His dogs of the Church, Hell’s torturers, are real dogs. The Commedia is not just a political epic, but also, perhaps with less ebullience, a religious epic. Pilgrim’s Progress. In Canto 100 of the Paradiso, by far Dante’s greatest purely sacred poem, dogma changes miraculously to mystical contemplation, the most magnificent in Christian literature.

Beatrice? Saving Grace? She was born in Provence, in the heretical Toulouse of the troubadours—the lady, not one’s wife, but the one the troubadour truly loves—chastely by necessity with Dante, but not always in the tradition. Where, where, in the whole Commedia, are Mrs. Dante and the Dante children? Dante’s meeting with Beatrice in the Purgatorio burns with a fiercer love than Francesca’s for Paolo. Without Beatrice, Dante’s Comedy wouldn’t exist, but as Pound said would be “a ladder leading to a balloon.”

Homer is blinding Greek sunlight; Vergil is dark, narrow, morbid, mysterious, and artistic. He fades in translation, unlike Homer who barely survives. By combining the plots of the Iliad and Odyssey, Vergil has seemed a plagiarist, attempting an epic as a task for rhetoric. He is as original as Milton. Dryden and the Restoration critics were wrong in thinking the Aeneid something like their regilding of Jacobean tragedy…giving alloy and polish to old gold.

One cannot doubt that Vergil sincerely and deeply admired the Emperor Augustus, not only for personal patronage, but for the peace he brought Italy after her ulcerous, unceasing civil wars, from Marius and Sulla, Caesar and Pompey, Marcus Antonius and Brutus, to Marcus Antonius and Octavian…to Augustus. Aeneas is a peace-bringer, a bringer of peace through carnage. I feel Vergil, like a more ambivalent and furtive Milton, was also on the devil’s side.

The Aeneid is the song of Rome’s annals in prophecy and hindsight. Aeneas, unlike Achilles and Odysseus, is darkened by destiny—his actions do not emanate in the present, or from impulsive passions. He exemplifies the grit, torture, and sacrifice that made Rome’s unification of the Mediterranean possible. One’s heart goes to the defeated. How could Vergil, an outlander, sympathize with Rome’s bloody, centralizing conquest of Italy? Why does he make us weep for the deaths of Camilla, Mezentius, and Turnus, outlanders like himself? It’s interesting how instinctively and without justifying himself, Vergil chose archaic heroes of his country from both Trojan and Italian.

Mezentius:

nunc vivo neque adhuc homines lucemque relinquo.
sed linquam.”

Camilla:

hactenus, Acca soror, potui; nunc volnus acerbum
conficit et tenebris nigrescunt omnia circum…”
vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras*

Aeneas puzzles, a force more than a person—nothing here of Achilles’ dialectic, or the crafty, resourceful companionship of Odysseus. He lumbers through his irresistible march in the last books, less a living man than a Patroclus, hit on the head and stunned by Apollo—or Sintram, paranoid, brave, riding half-paralyzed by his costly armor through the bedeviled wood of Dürer. He thinks little, thinks up little, though subject to heartfelt depression. Whatever his author was, he is not an anima naturaliter Christiana.

Aeneas has a moment or two of imagination and clairvoyance—his hallucinated and almost surrealist narrative of the fall of Troy in Book Two—dust, smoke, butchery, deceit, terror, the annihilation of his home and city. Some authentic murmur in Aeneas’s voice makes us unwilling to believe this book was ghost-written by Vergil. With Dido too, he is alive. Dido is hell, Phèdre, Madame Bovary, talkative, repetitive—her few words symbolize thousands. Yet our love goes with her, her beauty, her bravery, her misfortune; and Aeneas, her deserter, seems no man. After her suicide, Aeneas must descend to the underworld, a Roman cemetery with shades like statues: the Illustrious, his dead comrades and unborn descendants. Dido alone is alive, when she turns her back and says nothing to Aeneas’s false, forced appeals.

Aeneas is sometimes swollen and Rubensesque, as if painted for the peaceful triumphs of Marie de’ Medici—I wish he were greater and had more charm. Yet Vergil, like Frankenstein, put a heart and mind, his own, into his Colossus, the triumphant Roman general, the soul of his great epic, if not of Rome. He bears all, he suffers all, a man of sorrows, if human…. He mislays his wife, while himself escaping the ruin of Troy. He ungrapples mighty Dido, though almost as unfitted for this struggle as Prufrock. Don’t doubt him; his soldiers move forward undeflected. They do not fight helter-skelter like Greeks, but rather as legionnaires drilled by Marius or Caesar to slaughter the barbarian. All Italy is turned on its head by Aeneas for him to marry Lavinia—she must have loved his victim, Turnus, whose plea for life is refused by Aeneas with stoical severity. Turnus’s last action is the final line of the Aeneid:

vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.

Forever, indignation—too many beautiful things were crushed by the conquest. Too much attrition for the slavery to be immortal for the Romans hard as nails. Vergil may have understood his epic, its prophecy that the Empire of the Divine Augustus was inevitably eroding.

Unlike other epics, Moby-Dick, though an allegory, is also an exact whaling voyage. It is not hermetic; things are what they are, and do not opaquely suggest the opposite. The plot is as uncomplicated and straight as its harpoons. Ahab, of course, is other things than a veteran Nantucket whaling captain. In “the Guinea-coast slavery of his solitary command,” he suggests Melville’s copy-clerk, Bartleby, and Pierre crazed on his withdrawal to write…three cut off from society by the wreck of seclusion. Ahab’s perverted religious hunt to kill the White Whale is monomaniacal. He is apocalyptic, with a rage that drowns ship, shipmates, and himself. His destiny is analogous to heroes in Norse Saga, Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and in real life, Adolf Hitler. “The first thing that but offers to jump from this boat, I stand in, that thing I harpoon.’ …all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to…how they still strove through the infinite blueness to seek the thing that might destroy them.” There’s no doubt of Ahab’s courage and ability—in action he is more subtly alert and correct than his subordinates.

Moby Dick, the Whale, is more ambiguous. Contradictory scholars label and symbolize him as both evil and its opposite, Nature. Let him be nature, a Leviathan with the dolphin’s uncanny psychic brain—superior, his enthusiasts would claim, to man whom he never fought, except to save his life. His evil is strength to kill the killer whalemen. Indestructible by Ahab, he is not immortal, and is often permanently wounded.

Moby-Dick, like most of our nineteenth-century masterpieces, was published still-born, and sold so little, it soon snuffed out Melville’s popular reputation. It’s our epic, a New England epic; unless we feel the enchanted discontinuity of Pound’s Cantos qualifies. Moby-Dick is also our one epic in prose. Are there epics in prose? I know one, Carlyle’s French Revolution, also stylized as poetic extravagance. The modern British historian, Taylor, wrote, “…more than five hundred errors, some of them by no means minor. But what does it matter? When you read Carlyle’s Revolution, you are there.” Epics as verifiable history have too many pitfalls, too many to tempt a rival.

Moby-Dick is fiction, not history—beside James or Dickens, how thin and few its characters, how heroic and barbarous its adventure. As a librettist once said to me, “Not the faintest whisper of a female voice.” Often magnificent rhythms and a larger vocabulary make it equal to the great metrical poems. Parts, of course, are not even prose, but collages of encyclopedic clippings on cetology. It is our best book. It tells us not to break our necks on a brick wall. Yet what sticks in mind is the Homeric prowess of the extinct whaleman, gone before his prey.

Melville had much experience, if sailing on whalers brings more than working like Hawthorne in a Customs House…as Melville himself did for the remainder of his life…twenty unfathomable years of marriage, parenthood, customs, whatever—then thinking of the oceans, and possibly allegorizing himself a little, Melville wrote his final and imperfect masterpiece, Billy Budd, the blond, innocent young seaman, hanged from the yardarm by naval law.

  1. *

    Aeneid, X, 855-856, XI 823-824, 831.

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