- Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse 1790–1910 by Herbert F. Tucker
In his prodigious Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse 1790–1910, Herbert F. Tucker excavates a history of the epic in the long nineteenth century in an attempt to correct the “categorical erasure of the epic genre from our working picture of the nineteenth century” (10). “Literary history must have its victim” (4), argues Tucker in his introduction, and the epic in the nineteenth century is one such victim, in part because the rise of the novel and of modernity are stories told at the expense of the epic, which is presented “either as a casualty of great old age or as a sacrifice exacted to consecrate the birth of that modern consciousness from whose vantage literary history is perennially put together” (4). In Tucker’s account, the histories of both the development of the novel and of modernism require the concurrent history of the epic’s “surviving tradition” (7) during the long century, a history which has hitherto been ignored.
In Tucker’s reasoning, if literary critics can kill off the epic, then they can also resurrect it. After the first theoretical and introductory chapter, he presents, in eleven chronological chapters (most treating a single decade), the evidence of hundreds of epics—the bibliography of poems cited runs to over twenty pages—written and circulated between 1790 and 1910. He offers sustained readings of only a portion of this list, ranging from Erasmus Darwin’s 1791 Botanic Garden to Thomas Hardy’s 1910 Dynasts. These chapters each read their epics according to “the gust of the zeitgeist as a given decade’s epic output shows it blowing” (8), and if these gusts occasionally seem suspiciously tidy, and conveniently divisible by decade, they are also appropriate to the larger purpose of the work, which is to counter received literary histories with Tucker’s own.
And so Tucker begins his work. “We need to tell a different story,” Tucker writes, “one that organizes phases into episodes and then connects the episodes in series to a history that matters” (10). Tucker explains that Epic is less interested in “theoretical arguments, explications de texte, or even the thick description of epic texts concurrently produced” (10); as he succeeds in his stated aims so well, it seems churlish to look for those absent elements. Tucker’s “alternative story” (8) is a sound one, which makes a highly readable case for a counter-historical narrative in which the epic is still very active indeed, busy at the work that the nineteenth century’s victorious genre, the novel, cannot do. Epics tell their readers stories about themselves as members of communities, however construed. “Bold-faced or latent, mutant or rote,” argues Tucker, “the epic conventions that litter the nineteenth-century landscape were not fossils but proofs attesting the bard’s membership in a guild and the reader’s stake in a heritage” (26). In ways unavailable to the novel, the epic was able to engage, on a large scale, with notions of belonging and inheritance, of communities and cultures, in order to place the nineteenth century reading-subject within the whole sweep of human history. It is the epic, argues Tucker, that offers “the [End Page 153] successful articulation of a collective identity that links origins to destinies by way of heroic value in imagined action” (13). In short, it is the epic that can make a community known to itself.
Tucker’s twenty-odd-page list of poems cited is accompanied by an extensive and thorough review of secondary scholarship, and his frequent footnotes provide a lively and helpful overview of the history of many of the scholarly debates with which he engages in his text. Tucker wears his impressive research lightly, however, and Epic is a remarkably engaging work, even when it is busy discussing poems that, by Tucker’s own admission, are not good, or much read. For a book of this size, and with such an expansive genre as its subject, it also works remarkably well...