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INTRODUCTION THE TALE OF THE TRIBE “I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase ‘a long poem’ is simply a contradiction in terms. . . . If at any time, any very long poem were popular in reality—which I doubt—it is at least clear that no very long poem will ever be popular again.” —Edgar Allan Poe, “The Poetic Principle”
1 “A heroic poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform.” —John Dryden, “Dedication Of The Aeneis”
2 In 1920, Georg Lukacs published a critical study entitled The Theory of the Novel. The subtitle of this work, “A historicophilosophical essay on the forms of great epic literature,” announces Lukacs’ decision to treat the novel as the fundamental form of epic literature in modern writing. Subsequently, he justifies this decision, explaining: The epic and the novel, these two major forms of great epic literature differ from one another not by their author ‘s fundamental intentions but by the given historico -philosophical realities with which the authors were confronted. The novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become the problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality.
3 The conviction that verse could no longer deal adequately with “the extensive totality of life” (while the novel was now
4 · INTRODUCTION regarded as uniquely suited to attempt such a task) was by no means original with, or restricted to, Lukacs. Rather, he is representative of a widely shared attitude: a narrowing of the sphere regarded as “appropriate” for verse, which any poet seeking to equal the breadth of scope and subject matter of great novelists was compelled to confront. In 1917, when Ezra Pound began to publish his long modern verse epic, The Cantos, he was distinctly nervous about the problematic nature of his undertaking, and in the unrevised version of Canto I, he speculates whether it would not be wiser to “sulk and leave the word to novelists.”
4 As late as 1922, after he had already completely revised the poem’s opening and published the first eight Cantos, Pound’s correspondence reveals a man still anxiously defending the ambitious intentions of his work-in-progress: “Perhaps as the poem goes on I shall be able to make various things clearer. Having the crust to attempt a poem in 100 or 120 cantos long after all mankind has been commanded never again to attempt a poem of any length, I have to stagger as I can.” (L:180) Underlying both Lukacs’ critical pronouncement and Pound’s initial self-doubt is a questioning of the essential nature of poetic discourse, of the formal limits within which the special language of verse must move if it is to remain faithful to its fundamental character as poetry. The question is really one of “decorum” in the full classical sense, an attempt to discover anew which modes of literary presentations are intrinsically most suitable to the different areas of human experience. By the end of the First World War, a verse epic was not so much a form as an oxymoron, an anachronism that seemed to violate what many poets as well as critics had come to regard as the characteristic structure and horizon of poetic discourse. Edgar Allan Poe’s strictures against the long poem in “The Poetic Principle” (1848) exercised a profound influence throughout the nineteenth century, especially upon the decisive figures in the development of modern French verse— Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme, and Arthur Rimbaud —but, in their own writings, Poe’s argument was taken up as only one aspect of a fundamental upheaval in the connection between language as a literary, poetic artifact and the INTRODUCTION ·
5 world of quotidian reality. At bottom it was the representational nature of artistic language that was challenged, the traditional conception of verse as a mimesis of some external, and consequently independent, event. For Mallarme the poetic text was neither the discoverer nor even the celebrant of previously existent values: it was their sole originator, at once the source and only locus of meaning. The words of a poem, an incantation and hieroglyph, were absolutely divorced from their usage in the mundane world, and art, rather than offering an articulated duplication of reality, was seen as itself conferring the only reality, the only authentic and absolute form of being attainable.