Read Epic Poetry to save Civilization (or: What is an Epic Poem?)

A couple of years ago I re-committed myself to reading The Great Books, the Classics of Western Civilization.  This is partly my attempt to continue the sharpening of my mind, having been away from the formal classroom for over 10 years now (I've mentioned in a recent post why I think the Great Books are well worth reading).
Reading and celebrating the Great Books it is also one part of my small attempt to preserve and uphold the glories of Western Civilization over against the onslaught of a multi-cultural (that is, anti-cultural and generic) consumption/entertainment culture (or better yet, "un-culture") that encourages us to forget our history, our roots, and the ideas and ideals that made Western Civilization great, so that we become acultural "consumers" of the latest widgets, willing to do whatever is needed to keep the global economy going, without regard to the ideas, quirks, habits, and inhibitions of our forebears.

Though no civilization is perfect, or anywhere near to it, I remain very proud to be an heir of the treasures of Christendom and Western Civilization more broadly: Our ancestors built the Gothic Cathedrals and put a man on the moon; they developed the ideas of Human dignity and the rights of the individual and democratic governance; they brought to the whole world science and technology, hospitals and schools; they abolished slavery and created some of the greatest works of philosophy, theology, music, architecture and literature ever known.
Of course they did plenty of terribly bad things too that we have to learn from; but I believe there is a strong tendency in our society, and especially among our gatekeepers of education, mass-media, and political institutions, to downplay and even reject our Western Heritage rather than celebrate its many noble achievements.  Reading the Classics and celebrating our unique culture as members of what Winston Churchill called "Christian civilization" is a needed corrective in our era of cultural nihilism, intellectual distraction, and historical amnesia.

SO I've been working through a number of great and demanding works including of course the Epic Poems.  I've read the Iliad and the Odyssey (in prose translation) and The Aeneid and The Divine Comedy (in verse translations).  These poems share with us not only the stories, but many of the ideas, questions, and values that are at the heart of Western Civilization.
The only other Epic Poem that immediately came to mind is Paradise Lost by Milton.  Following The Aeneid of Vergil (or 'Virgil'), Milton (eventually) divided Paradise Lost into 12 books (chapters), to mimic more closely the Epic poetry of the classical era.

I never cared much for narrative poetry in High School or really even in college.  But now I find my tastes have changed (matured?) and I do enjoy reading narrative poetry much more.  I've gone back to re-read the narrative poems and Psalms of the Bible, and looked for narrative lyrics in hymns (which there doesn't seem to be much of).

And of course, I've read and re-read other classic narrative poems.  But the question arises do these other Classics of Narrative Poetry also "count" as Epics?  I mean poems such as Beowulf or the Song of Roland or, more recently Idylls of the King by Tennyson (which are 12 narrative poems about King Arthur that do cover the major events of his life, but do not exactly form one continuous narrative).

As it turns out someone has made a YouTube video discussing just this point. I enjoyed watching this conversation between noted Classical School and Great-Books-based Home-Schooling proponent Wes Callahan (whose videos I've shared before) and the interesting Christian blogger and theologian Peter Leithart, asking whether Paradise Lost was the last epic, what exactly is an epic, and why has narrative poetry fallen out of literary fashion (which is a really interesting moment to reflect on the ways that culture, technology, and art all interact).
I hope it whets your appetite to go read some epic poetry or other classics of the Western Tradition...

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home