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It's so strange to me that we all praised and adore things, but would never consider supporting them in a modern setting. There are many examples of this: poetry (very unpopular nowadays; not in the amount of it, but by the respectability of it), obscure, but interesting essays like A Hanging, by Orwell. But not least of these is the most impressive, which is the epic poem.

These epics, like the Illiad, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, et al., are praised and taught almost as if they are a standard for incredible writing and story telling.

But I simply cannot see any modern writer putting forth an epic poem; and further still, I could reasonably suspect that it would not find its way to the best seller list.

It's an interesting question of psychology of why we praised past things, but would never wish to see them in a modern setting, or find them pretentious, but I will stick with a simpler question:

What specifically happened to the epic poem? Where did it leave us and when? And why?

  • It might be because we're indoctrinated from a young age to 'respect the past'. – MalayTheDynamo Mar 12 '18 at 3:48
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    I can't imagine it's that. Anyone who has actually read the Iliad would not assume that they like it for that reason. The ending to that epic is damned heartbreaking. They're sensationally good; but they're just lost. – user31078 Mar 12 '18 at 6:04
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The epic poem gradually disappeared after the Middle Ages. Late examples include Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando furioso (1516 – 1532) and Torquato Tasso's La Gerusalemme liberata (1581).

By that time, the humanists had started attacking the chivalric romance (which could be in prose or in verse). For example, in English Literature In The Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (1954), C. S. Lewis writes (p. 29):

Erasmus would forbid a young prince to read 'Arthurs and Lancelots' which 'smacke of tyrannie and moreouer rude (ineruditi), foolish and anile' (Inst. Principis Christiani, ii). Montaigne congratulates himself on an education which had made Ovid his nursery book and kept him from hearing even the names of Amadis, Huon, and such trumpery (I, xxv). Vives condemns book 'such as are Amadis and Florisand in Spain or Lancelot and the Round Table in France, the which were made and compiled of idle fellows (hominibus otiosis) and stuffed fulle of leasings' (De Causis, ii).

The epic poem can't simply be equated with the chivalric romance, but some of the criticism would also apply to epic poems.

In addition, Cervantes published a parody on chivalric romances (especially Amadís de Gaula) that became a great success: El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (volume 1 in 1605, volume 2 in 1615).

With this background, Milton's epic poems Paradise Lost (1667) and Paradise Regained (1671) are exceptions.

That does not mean there have no epic poems since Milton. However, Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock and Byron's Don Juan (1819–1824) are satires on the genre. Two more recent, non-satyrical, examples are Christopher Logue's War Music and Omeros (1990) by Nobel Prize laureate Derek Walcott.

  • That's all very interesting. I became somewhat hopeful about the last part of your message, but War Music, from what I read, is an attempt to mimic the Iliad, which is a bit unfortunate, but I'll give it a read. – user31078 Mar 10 '18 at 21:44
  • I think Lord Byron and William Blake also wrote some epic poems? It seems like there's been a more-or-less continuous history of epic poems over time, just with a sharp decrease. – Rand al'Thor Mar 11 '18 at 1:10
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    @Randal'Thor Not all narrative poems are epic poems. Which poems do you have in mind? – Christophe Strobbe Mar 11 '18 at 16:33
  • @ChristopheStrobbe I was thinking of Byron's Don Juan and Blake's Milton (neither of which I've actually read in full, but I've seen them described as epic poems). – Rand al'Thor Mar 11 '18 at 16:36
  • Possibly wider availability of print meant less focus on epic stories being framed in poetic terms (which used to be a way of facilitating accurate transfer of oral history). So, more sagas written as novels – à la J R Artol-Keen, Stephen Donaldson – but fewer rendered in verse. Also, more history books meant less need for the immortalisation of heroes in such form(!) – Will Crawford Mar 14 '18 at 3:50

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