12.10.2008

epicism

rare.

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[f. EPIC + -ISM.]

The mental habit characteristic of the epic poet.

1878 T. SINCLAIR Mount 166 But the lyricism and the balance of epicism in his nature saved him.
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My compliments as always to the OED. I've been thinking, as always, about encyclopedism, and recently I've been reading about lyricism (the spell-checker embedded within this blogging software recognizes the latter but not the former--the same holds true in MS Word). I think it's safe to say we recognize encyclopedism as a word -- if we don't, then we should -- but why we should have lyricism without epicism is entirely beyond me.

"Epicism," as the entry above suggests, enjoyed brief usage in the nineteenth century. Sinclair's is the only example recorded by the OED, but according to this page it's not necessarily the earliest. (A quick search of Google Books confirmed D. K. Sandford's use of the term in his 1830 translation of The Greek Grammar of Frederick Thiersch.) In contrast, the OED credits Thomas Grey with the first recording of "lyricism[s]" in 1760, written in a letter to William Mason, a minor poet and Gray's literary executor. I suppose it would be reasonable to suggest that in the latter half of the eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth the lyric had a much better time of it than the epic, which for the most part had been appropriated by a host of novelists and one ambitious Scotsman. Epics as the Augustans would have thought of them had gone out of the world with Paradise Lost, and if they'd had the word epicism in their day I doubt very much they'd have wanted anyone alive after 1744 to use it. That of course explains neither its abence in the 18th century nor its apparent creation and presence in the 19th, but I'll leave such things to the lexicographers.

There's something to be said for Sinclair's deployment of the terms as opposites; lyricism balanced by epicism. Not having read Sinclair, I can't accurately explain precisely what's at work in the statement, but I can pluck it from its context and make an eighteenth-century argument that's relevant to my work with encyclopedias and encyclopedism. Part of what's at stake must refer to scope--the narrow subject of the lyric vs. the expansive grasp of the epic. The author of the Memoirs of Literature for Monday, June 5, 1710 writes that "Lyrick Verses, so call’d because they were sung upon the Lyre, are a Branch of Epick Poetry, and contain the Description of a single Fact, or of a single Passion, and Ceremony” (49). The epic accounts for all or much--the complete range of human characters, emotions, etc., all deployed in the course of relating a complete action. The lyric accounts for one part of that range--or so this author seems to suggest. If lyricism truly entails that kind of specificity (along with its attachment to sentiment or poetic enthusiasm, as the OED and Grey suggest), then what might epicism be meant to comprehend? What is the "mental habit," as the OED puts it, of the epic poet?

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the epic poet was though to require a comprehensive imagination and knowledge as well as the ability to digest and organize his (most frequently his--there are few female epic poets of note, though Dacier of course translated Homer, and epic-by-proxy certainly comes close to the "real" thing in our post-elevation-of-original-genius understanding of authorship) knowledge into a unified literary work. Eighteenth-century poets and critics (including the likes of Dryden and Pope) certainly gave this faculty to Homer and Virgil; they identified Chaucer as having a comprehensive imagination; they said as much of Shakespeare; and of course, they honored Milton with such praise.

I'm bringing up Milton for two reasons: 1) yesterday marked his 400th birthday and 2) one can't talk about epic in the eighteenth century without dealing with it in one way or another. I'm writing in part about generic durability (the usefulness of genres over time) in the context of the search for complete knowledge, and it's widely acknowledged that Milton wrote the last, best example of epic poetry in the English language (yes, we can make room for Byron and others if you really insist, but the epics of the Romantic poets were either acknowledged as incomplete or considered to be too different from the classical model to make the grade). As Marvell observed in his prefatory poem:

"Thou hast not missed one thought that could be fit,
And all that was improper does omit:
So that no room is here for writers left,
But to detect their ignorance or theft" (27-30).

No room for writers left; Milton's successors--Blackmore and a few scattered others excepted--treated the genre like it died in its perfection. What remains for a poet to do, when he or she believed that in Paradise Lost Milton had achieved the following, from another prefatory poem by Milton's friend Samuel Barrow? (trans. from the Latin):

"You who read Paradise Lost, the magnificent poem by the great Milton, what do you read but the story of everything? The book includes all things, and the origins of all things, and their destinies and ends. The innermost secrets of the great universe are revealed, and whatever lies hidden in the entire world is there set out: the land and breadth of the sea, and the depths of the sky amd the sulphurous fire-vomiting den of Erebus--all that lives on earth and in the sea, and everything that lives in dark Tartarus and in the bright kingdoms of Heaven above; whatever is included anywhere within any boundaries, and also that which is without boundary: chaos and infinite God, and what is even more without limit, if there is anything that is more without limit, the love towards mankind embodies in Christ...Anyone who will read this poem will think that Homer only sang of frogs, Virgil only of gnats."

Clearly an argument is being made here for a particular kind of epic comprehensiveness that made Paradise Lost what Johnson would later call, in assent with others, "a book of universal knowledge" (The Lives of the English Poets). At stake in these claims, however, is precisely what is meant by knowledge, the definition and nature of which were in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries changing with the advent of empiricism and the efforts undertaken by the Royal Society, its members, and their like across Europe.

Most of the fallout from the above is the subject and substance of my second chapter (in order of presentation rather than composition), so I don't want to give away the best (worst) bits here. In any case the chapter is currently standing in the corner giving me dirty looks as if to say "go on then, I DARE you to write me. What are you? Chicken?" This has been way way of making a threatening gesture towards it. Epicism. A useful term in no way current in the early eighteenth but still useful--how do discuss the existence of something before the word identifying it exists? Signifiers! Signifieds! Can we talk of culture before the word "culture?" Yes. Can I speak of epicism before "epicism?" Surely...?

1 comment:

Adela said...

Most fascinating stuff, Scrib! I am not sure this is even relevant to what you're trying to do in this chapter: Writing in 1742, Fielding incorporates the epic to his prose experiment arguing that it endows his narrative with the "expansive knowledge" (i.e., variety of characters and circumstance) you refer to above. He defines the comic as being the genre that allows the variety of characters to remain ordered (i.e. to prevent the manners and morals of the higher and the lower to mix or to invert). So I'm curious is there an "idea of order" at all implied in the idea of epic that the post-Miltonians were invoking? Your post has made me wonder why Fielding would need another genre to ensure his epic variety remained straight (i.e., other than dispelling the burlesque from his work). I guess what I'm curious to know is what your thoughts are on the relevance/irrelevance of how this expansive knowledge was ordered and the decline of the epic and epicism after 1744. (I hope this makes sense).