Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Cambridge University Press
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In the nineteenth century, epic poetry in the Homeric style was widely seen as an ancient and anachronistic genre, yet Victorian authors worked to recreate it for the modern world. Simon Dentith explores the relationship between epic and the evolution of Britain's national identity in the nineteenth century up to the apparent demise of all notions of heroic warfare in the catastrophe of the First World War. Paradoxically, writers found equivalents of the societies which produced Homeric or Northern epics not in Europe, but on the margins of empire and among its subject peoples. Dentith considers the implications of the status of epic for a range of nineteenth-century writers, including Walter Scott, Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Morris and Rudyard Kipling. He also considers the relationship between epic poetry and the novel and discusses late nineteenth-century adventure novels, concluding with a brief survey of epic in the twentieth century.
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Additional Information

Publisher
Cambridge University Press
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Published on
Jun 15, 2006
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Pages
204
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ISBN
9781139457095
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Language
English
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Genres
Literary Criticism / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
Literary Criticism / General
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This content is DRM protected.
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Envisioning today’s readers as poised between an impossible attempt to read texts as their original readers experienced them and an awareness of our own temporal moment, Simon Dentith complicates traditional prejudices against hindsight to approach issues of interpretation and historicity in nineteenth-century literature. Suggesting that the characteristic aesthetic attitude encouraged by the backward look is one of irony rather than remorse or regret, he examines works by Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, William Morris and John Ruskin in terms of their participation in significant histories that extend to this day. Liberalism, class, gender, political representation and notions of progress, utopianism and ecological concern as currently understood can be traced back to the nineteenth century. Just as today’s critics strive to respect the authenticity of nineteenth-century writers and readers who responded to these ideas within their historical world, so, too, do those nineteenth-century imaginings persist to challenge the assumptions of the present. It is therefore possible, Dentith argues, to conceive of the act of reading historical literature with an awareness of the historical context and of the difference between the past and the present while allowing that friction or difference to be part of how we think about a text and how it communicates. His book summons us to consider how words travel to the reality of the reader’s own time and how engagement with nineteenth-century writers’ anticipation of the judgements of future generations reveal hindsight’s capacity to transform our understanding of the past in the light of subsequent knowledge.
This book is the first to provide a connected history of epic poetry in Britain between the French Revolution and the First World War. Although epic is widely held to have been shouldered aside by the novel, if not invalidated in advance by modernity, in fact the genre was practised without interruption across the long nineteenth century by nearly every prominent Romantic and Victorian poet, and shoals of ambitious poetasters into the bargain. Poets kept the epic alive by revising its conventions to meet an overlapping series of changing realities: insurgent democracy, Napoleonic war, the rise of class consciousness and repeated reform of the franchise, challenges posed by scientific advance to religious belief and cherished notions of the human, the evolution of a postnationalist and eventually imperialist identity for Britain as the world's superpower. Each of these developments called on nineteenth-century epic to do what the genre had always done: affirm the unity of its sponsoring culture through a large utterance that both acknowledged the distinctive flowering of the modern and affirmed its rootedness in tradition. The best writers answered this call by figuring Britain's self-renewal and the genre's as versions of one another. In passing Herbert Tucker notices scores of mediocre congeners (and worse), so as to show where the challenge of a given decade fell and suggest what lay at stake. The background these lesser works provide throws into relief what the book stresses in extended discussions of several dozen major works: an unbroken history of daring experimentation in which circumspect, inventive, worried epoists engaged because the genre and the age alike demanded it.
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