Tag Archives: Homer

What Makes The Epic Epic

We’ve all called something epic – it’s now associated with awesome, big, spectacular – but, as a literary term, the epic means something very specific. Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, the unknown author’s Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself aren’t epics because they’re long pieces of poetry, but rather, because they all share a very specific elements which puts them into the epic category.

The movie Epic and epic poetry have nothing in common, I’m sorry to say.

First, epic poems open with what’s called a in medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.” Beowulf opens with a kingdom in need of a Grendel extermination. The reader doesn’t start with the birth of Beowulf, but rather we start with a scene ripe for action.

The setting of epics are vast. Think the exact opposite of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which mostly takes place in one room. Epics are epic in part because of the vastness of their settings. The Odyssey spans oceans and continents, for example.

Almost all epics call to a muse to set the tone of the piece of poetry to come.

No, not those muses (I knew your brain would go there). The muses were not five gospel singers – and that’s the gospel truth.

Beautiful Prose

Like many English majors, I keep a list of my favorite sentences (people do that, right?). It’s hard to explain why certain writing styles appeal to me, or turn other readers off, but it’s the shared love for writing that keeps us all coming back, I think. I just wanted to share some of my favorite sentences with you, and hear some of your own!

This one comes from W.H.D. Rouse’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey. I like Rouse’s for its lack of affectation: other translations structure Homer’s epic in stanzas and rhymes that take away from the work’s relatively conversational tone. The “poetry” that emerges naturally from the text is beautiful as is.

Here, the narrator finds Odysseus languishing on Calypso’s island, afraid he will never again reach Ithaca:

The tears were never dry in his eyes; life with its sweetness was slowly trickling away (65).

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a sentence that gave me such a strong sense of futility. Despite the heroic circumstances that separate us from the protagonist, I feel that here and throughout the epic, we can relate with him because of the familiarity of the translation’s tone. Many of us have felt the overwhelming force of circumstance on our lives, the influence events have on the way we carry on, and unlucky for us, we usually don’t have a divine benefactor to whisk us away. I’d like to chalk all this up to Rouse keeping close to Homer’s original voice, but what translator doesn’t claim to do that?