Word Cloud of Dissertation“The Hero as Man of Letters” : Intellectual Politics and the Construction of the Romantic Epic

The craze for epic poetry that erupted in Britain during the late 1790s and began to subside only in the third decade of the nineteenth century remains one of the great mysteries of the Romantic period.  The canonical narratives of literary history (the rise of the novel; the revival of oral poetry) are blind to this event; yet, each of the “big six” Romantic poets tried their hand at the epic.  The grandest productions of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron were epic poems, and, indeed, many of the other major writers of the Romantic period produced fine epics of their own, including Walter Scott, Charlotte Smith, and Robert Southey.  I argue that in order to understand this period of “epomania,” as the poet Robert Southey called it, we must expand our view beyond the personal ambitions of each of these authors and extend the limits of what is commonly thought of as epic poetry.  Epic, in my analysis, is more than a kind of poetry; it is a pattern of thought and action mediating intellectual identity.  We must seek to understand the entire intellectual “class” and the set of texts they deployed in order to negotiate their emerging social position.  As intellectuals structured ideas about themselves and their world as long poems which they published for one another, they began to think of themselves in grand poetic terms, as epic heroes, as the saviors of humanity.  Thus, I claim it was through epic poetry that the intellectual community redefined their political role in society and increasingly saw themselves as serving the public interest and enlightening the world.

In the first chapter I contend that the proliferation of epic poetry during the Romantic period remains outside canonical literary history for two important reasons.  First, literary critics have been struggling against a limiting conception of genre that is unable to account for the unusual diversity of the structure and topics found in the epic poems of this period.  The solution I offer is to adopt a rhetorical understanding of genre.  Rhetorical genre theory organizes texts by focusing on commonalities in the situation of writers, their audience, and their texts’ social function.  It forgoes attempts to establish generic categories based solely on formal similarities.  Second, what appears to be a sudden interest in epic poetry is the result of a restrictive understanding of Romanticism itself.  By confining Romanticism to a narrow political or aesthetic moment of little more than three decades, literary historians have been unable to grasp Romanticism’s place in the longue durée.  Returning to definitions of Romanticism first suggested by György Lukács and Antonio Gramsci, and recently reinvigorated by the work of Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre, I consider Romanticism as a reaction by the European intellectual stratum against the nature of life in a commercial society and their century-long political shift away from the dominant classes and toward “the People.”  By expanding the categories of the epic and the Romantic my investigation of the Romantic epic at once solves the problem of sudden generic appearance and allows the analyst-critic to take account of the deep historical forces at work in the production of these poems and the community of intellectuals that shared them.

The second chapter begins the work of redefining the Romantic epic by charting the epic’s generic transformation from the Augustan epics of Richard Blackmore to the quintessential Romantic epic, Wordsworth’s Prelude.  While these two modes of eighteenth-century epic poetry are marked by some slight alterations in style, I argue that the Romantic epic is organized in opposition to the social function of Augustan epic.  The impulse to move away from the Augustan epic is shown in William Collin’s “Ode to Liberty,” which directly challenges James Thomson’s epic Liberty.  Other Pindaric odes by Collins and Thomas Gray similarly contest the Augustan epic and delineate the unique heroic qualities of the intellectual class that would make up the Romantic epic mode.  James Macpherson’s Ossian “translations” continued the daring experiments in what the new epic could be.  A collaborative project of the Edinburgh literati, Ossian imagined a more democratic society organized not by the demands of markets but by warrior-poets and their epics.  Another major step in the Romantic epic’s development occurred in James Beattie’s Minstrel, which created a mythological framework through which the intellectual community came to understand their experience of alienation and their historic role.  It was through The Minstrel’s poet protagonist that later intellectual generations would interpret their own lives, a situation made clear by William Wordsworth’s Prelude, a quasi-autobiographical account of his poetic development set atop the epic framework designed by Beattie.  Thus, my analysis exposes the falsity of the “epomania” narrative.  The genre of epic did not simply reappear in the mid-1790s after a nearly a century long absence but was under constant transformation throughout the eighteenth century.  Just as importantly, it also demonstrates genre’s reciprocal relationship with ideology and “class” formation: intellectuals used the epic to strengthen the bonds of community at the same time the epic’s structure and generic past mystified the intellectual’s historical role.

In the final chapter, I analyze Robert Southey’s first epic, Joan of Arc (1796).  Although modern critics have been quick to dismiss Joan for its lack of character psychology, I argue that the character of Joan acted as an important symbol of the intellectual bloc’s political ambitions.  Where traditional epics celebrated national warriors (most often kings and princes), Southey’s epic centered on a peasant girl who had previously appeared in British accounts only as a witch, a fraud, or a whore.  But in Joan, Southey saw a historical figure that could embody the intellectual community’s theories of intellectual leadership.  Southey replaced the image of Joan as a national martyr with a portrayal of Joan as an unconquerable champion of international justice.  In place of the might of arms, Joan represented the soft power of clear reason and inspiration.  Beset by corrupting forces on all sides, Joan stands for intellectual autonomy by rejecting the greed of feudal monarchs and their courts, the violent expansion of commercial society, and the superstitious coven of priests, who signify an earlier, slavish mode of intellectual life.  Most importantly, Joan symbolizes the idealized figure of the intellectual.  That a sixteen-year-old fifteenth-century girl from the countryside who claimed to hear voices should become a symbol of the Enlightenment “Man of Letters” was certainly unlikely, but Southey buttressed Joan’s story with allusions to the Greek goddess Athena.  As a symbol of wisdom and cunning warfare, Athena became an important figure for Renaissance intellectuals, and by the late-eighteenth century she was also increasingly associated with the French goddess of liberty.  At the same time, Athena also brought to mind the epics of antiquity. Drawing on their shared iconography of a woman in armor, Southey brought Joan and Athena together, creating a new kind of epic heroine for the Romantic epic mode.  If Southey’s Joan lacks psychological depth it is because she carries tremendous allegorical richness.  Joan, I insist, is not a historical person in Southey’s depiction but a historical class.  Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries writers and artists would return repeatedly to Joan’s story to voice their grievances with commercial society and discuss their ambivalence towards intellectual life, but it was Robert Southey who first saw her potential to portray the attitudes and values of the burgeoning intellectual community.

My project is a genre study that uses the Romantic epic to pry open the structural forces behind class formation, while remaining attuned to the agency of writers who are actively negotiating the organization and direction of their community.  It seeks to recover literary history as a dialectical history, attempting to grapple seriously with Marx’s dictum: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please.”