Epic Tradition: Homer to Dante

I think that the poet is master of his art who by means of skilful words alone stirs my soul, grieves it, soothes it, fills it with his imagined terrors, and like a magician places me now in Thebes, now in Athens

In his ‘Discourse de la Posie Dramatique,’ Denis Diderot observed that ‘poetry wants something enormous, barbarous, savage.’ It is only with epic poetry that such an ideal is realised. The Epic sits on a lofty pinnacle, observing every facet of humanity & encompassing every genera of poetic utterance, from the love lyric to the dramatic battle scene. If one was to put all the world’s epics on a bookcase… & they would only need a couple of small shelves… you would find so much human existance in so little a space. These are are the mountains that jut out of the clouds of time; the great peaks of literature, towering over the valleys & the lower hills where reside the lesser hillocks of poetry & prose.

The true epics are the literary representatives of a culture; here the lore, legends, & language of a people passes onto the page, when, as Tasso declared, ‘the theme of epic is best taken from history.’ The prehistory of epic poetry begins with the shamen of primeval peoples, those namers of things, who in some bizarre firelit ceremony I imagine to utter strange & new sounds, teaching the tribe to speak as they recanted their tribal tales. As humanity evolved into the higher cultures of the Bronze Age, so too these shamen, who had now taken on a more bardic role, the tribal spokesman & a living treasure trove who would memorise the annals & traditions of the people. As time strode further, & history got deeper, the tales these bards would sing became larger & more complex. They would be called upon to entertain a king & his court, often accompanying their words with music. ‘The Germans celebrate their gods in ancient songs,’ noted the Roman Tacitus in 98AD, ‘which are the only kinds of records & annals they possess.’ These celebrations were preserved in the memory banks of the poets, an oral tradition passed down from poet to poet over the ages, with each new reciter tapping into their poetical facilities & enhancing the action with fresh phrases & interesting embellishments of the plots.

It was from such repositaries of imagination & legend that epic poetry was born, & with one tribe in particular. The tradition flourish’d in the minds of the Greeks like no other race before, or perhaps even since, whose poets were determined to analyze man, the cosmos & our role in it throuhh the device of the epic. It is with the swift-flying poems of Homer that the Western mind finds its first expression, whose wine-dark words issued the language of the gods from his mortal-yet-immortal mouth. Homer has been translated into every Western language, the collossus of poetry. He was also the first to convert the oral stories of the Trojan War into written literature, enacting a process known as the ‘diaskeue,’ which would be repeated over the centuries; the Sumanguru of the Sudanese, the Finnish Kalewala, the Estonian Kalewipoeg, the Shah Nameh of Persia & the Niebelungen of Germany would all be created through this process.

Homer’s two masterpieces, the Iliad & the Odyssey, are the immeasurably influential standards to which all epic must be valued. With the ancient Greeks visiting India; it is with their traders, perhaps, or even Pythagoras on his own visit to India, those sultry lands that the Homeric tradition was transplanted in the Indian courts. One may surmise that is after certain Hindu princes were regaled with the heroic tayles of Troy, that the two great Hindu epics began to be created. Composed in the voluptuous Sanskrit language, the Ramayana & the Mahabarata echo the Odyssey & the Iliad. Just as Odysseus goes on many adventures in order to be reunited with his wife, so does Rama seacrh India for Sita, while a great battle ensues in both epics when the heroes eventually find their loved ones. The comparisons between the Iliad & the Mahabharata are clear; when massed battles & dynastic conflicts mingle with the machinations of the gods.


After the legions of Rome marched into Greece, closing the country within the folds of empire, the ancient culture of Plato et al. was absorbed into the Latin psyche. The poet Andronicus soon translated Homer’s Odyssey in order to teach his Latin-speaking children the wonders of the Muses. Greek models were used by the Romans to create a literature worthy of the greatest empire ever to grace the Earth. The plant of Latin literature would grow. The Romans produced many great poets, from Horace to Ovid, but the laurels of epic glory are reserved for one Roman poet in particular, Virgil. After learning Greek & studying Homer, indeed claiming possession by that ancient poet, he settled under the shadow of Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples & began his great poem, The Aenied. Drawing from the lost epic by Gnaeus Naevius for its content, the poem concerns the foundation of Rome, tracing the lineage back to the walls of Troy. The poem consists of twelve books; the first six mirroring the voyages of Odysseus & the last six echoing the military endavours of the Iliad. Containing a harvest store of mythology & legend, the Aenied was soon to become the ‘bible’ of Rome.

The next true epic poet was an Italian, Dante Alighieri. In an essay on epic poetry, Voltaire wrote, ‘after we have lifted up our eyes toward Virgil, and Homer, we need not look down on the other Roman Authors who have been stumbling in the same Carrier.’ Over a thousand years separates Dante from Virgil, with the Fall of the Roman Empire inbetween. During the fifth century AD, in Western Europe a thousand years of high culture became a distant memory as the Roman Empire dissolved & the Classical Age drew to a close. Much of its literature was lost, but the greatest classics were fanatically preserved from the barbarian flames, for as Sri Aurobindo remark’d, ‘the poetic mind of Greece & Rome has pervaded & largely shaped the whole artistic production of Europe,’

It is like a phoenix that the spirit of poetry would rise up from the ashes of the defeat of Rome. This all appears to be down to one man, Charlemagne, the first soul of the Holy Roman Empire. It is his gift of the golden coasts & verdant massifs of Provence to musicians & poets that gave modern poetry its true foundation. The wandering jongleurs would compose their poems in the Provencal tongue – Langue d’oc – using increasingly intricate forms, such as the Rondeau & Chant Royal, & almost from the beginning of the movement the epic tradition was reborn. The poems these troubadors sung at the great courtly feasts of Europe are known as the Chanson de Geste (songs of deeds), lyrico-epics concerning tayles of heroic action. The oldest extant epic in French is also the greatest of the era, the Song of Roland. The anonymous poet records Charlemagne’s defeat by the Moors at the Pass of Roncevaux & the subsequent slaying of Roland, the emporer’s son. The poem has been found across Europe, translated into many languages, it’s four thousand lines ressuscitating the complex plots, fiery clash of arms & stirrings of humanity in a way that would have made Homer proud. As the violin-twanging Jongleurs wander’d beyond the courts of Provence they took their poetry with them, reaching all the corners of Europa. It was in Sicily, half-way to the Arab world, that they would meet the stream of texts on poetics, & fuse into the Sicilian School. This was a body of high & like-minded poets, who served the brilliant court of King Frederick the second at Palermo. It was here that the sonnet was first invented & an innovative attitude steered the poet to original pastures of thought. These poets in turn would influence the Tuscan school of the thirteenth century, chief among whom was the poet Dante Alighieri. It was from his majestic poetry that the Italian language was born – to this day the legacy of his ‘sweet new style’ can be heard upon the tongues of all Italians. It is no surprise that Italy would become the mother of modern Western poetry, for as Neruda said she, ‘holds the voices of the ancient poets deep within her earth, where it is purest.’

Following political exile from Florence, Dante went to work on the first great religious epic. His three-part ‘Comedy’ (three centuries would pass before the ‘Divine’ was added), would take him from the gates of Hell, up the slopes of the mountain of Purgatory & into the halls of Heaven, where the beatific vision formed the climax. Guided upon his journey by Virgil & his muse, Beatrix, he excelled in his word-artistry & succeeded in capturing the sentiment of an age like only the epic poets could. He is the bridge thrown between the ancient & modern worlds, the true rediscoverer of the epic tradition & all its nuances. It would be the first of several such epics to grace the global bookshelf in the three quarters of a Millenium since Dante first wrote;

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here

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