February 19, 1998
On the Primary and Secondary Epics
Because Homer composed for recitation, his composition is in some ways freer and looser than Virgil’s. Both of Homer’s poems have a majestic plan — less closely woven than the Aeneid; their episodes are more easily detached from the whole and may be enjoyed as separate poems. The Greek epic poet composes on a grand scale, and could not always expect to recite his poems in their entirety; therefore, Homer’s epics share looser methods of composition — though they are not a collection of separate lays. They are single poems with single plans and consistency of language.
Homer’s art is oral — Virgil’s is written. Virgil writes for the readers — i.e., he operates less with phrases and formulas than with single words; he fashions sentences carefully and individually; he takes care to avoid omissions, contradictions, and inconsistencies; he uses carefully planned poetic texture and exquisite choice of words and significance. Homer’s oral epic is characterized by it simplicity, strength and straightforwardness, movement of lines, splendid climax, singleness of effect, and unbroken maintenance of tragic or heroic mood. The real difference between primary and secondary epics results from distinctions of origins and character — whether oral or written.
The difference in methods of epic composition coincides with another difference — social and spiritual. Oral epics display the heroic spirit and societies that hold heroic standards of conduct; literary epics have heroes, but a different conception of heroism and of human greatness and come from societies which cannot be called heroic. The heroic world values prowess and fame of the individual hero — Achilles surpasses others in strength and courage (which will win him honor and renown after death), and he is ruthless to any who frustrate or deride him. He is cut off from intercourse with common men and lacks allegiance except to his personal pride — what matters is his prowess. Homer’s heroism is a reflection of men’s desire to be in the last degree self-fulfilled — to satisfy their own ambitions in life with much ado. Achilles lives mainly to win glory and assumes that it is right, but his life is darkened by suffering and he dies for his belief in heroic manhood. The doom of a short and glorious life hanging over Achilles is tragic for the most noble and gifted of Greek men.
The heroic ideal of personal prowess did not exist for the writers of literary epics. Virgil has a different conception of human worth and lived in a society from which Homer’s heroes were remote and alien. His work is traditional in form, but it is shaped by the present. The “secondary” epic is an attempt to use again in new circumstances what is already a complete and satisfying form of poetry. The fundamental difference between the literary epic and the oral epic is in the circumstances of their origins. The literary epic was born from a society where the unfettered individual had no place and where a different conception of heroism reigned. The hero of the literary epic sacrifices himself for his society, not individual prowess or happiness. A social ideal replaces the personal ideal which was anarchic and anti-social. The epic, in the hands of Virgil, became a national expression of the philosophy of Rome; Aeneas stands for Rome. The hero of the literary epic point to a moral — represent the ideals of society and self-sacrifice. They, then, have a didactic purpose: to inspire, elevate, and instruct readers — to appeal to their hearts and minds. They did not share the idea that poetry merely beguiles hours of leisure or stimulates to a refined enjoyment. They believed that their art was serious — a way to make humans better, but that stern moral task did not diminish their artistry. The literary epic’s primary concern is truth.
Sensual pleasures were alien to the spirit of the literary epic. Homer’s heroes enjoy food and drink, but they are interested more in their loot. The sordid and fantastic aspects of live-making are confined to gods who are free from limitations of human life and from its obligations to live nobly. But by heroic standards, men do not indulge their passions and appetites — they keep them under control. In the one great love episode of the Aeneid, Dido’s passion for Aeneas is treated in a tragic spirit and takes its place in the poem as a fearful obstacle which the hero has to overcome in his moral progress and is the prelude of disasters to come in the political relations between Carthage and Rome.
Literary epic flourishes not in the heyday of a nation, but in its lost days or aftermath. At such a time, a poet surveys the recent past with its record of dazzling successes and asks if they can last. Virgil wrote at a time when the Roman world turned with weariness and relief from vaulting ambitions of the Caesarean age to the rest and quiet promised by Augustus. He works the transition from the restless years of the Republic with its strong personalities and struggles, to the long peace when few men mattered.
Writers of the literary epic set themselves to adapt the personal heroic ideal to unheroic times and to proclaim in poetry a new conception of man’s grandeur and nobility in social and nationalistic terms.