Victorian Literature The Epic Tradition
Isobel Hurst
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0159


Epic occupied a prominent position as the highest test of poetic genius, yet any poet imprudent enough to attempt an epic would be faced with a daunting challenge. For a Victorian poet the attempt to rival Homer or Virgil involved complex considerations of form, theme, and history. The genre was traditionally associated with heroism and masculine strength, mythology, and the shaping of national identity, religion, and war, and with the poet’s own desire to compete with and surpass his predecessors much as epic heroes seek to prove their own supremacy. The reception of ancient epic was an ongoing concern in the period, since Homer in particular was cited as a model in literature, politics, and morality. Matthew Arnold’s prescriptions for translating Homer conveyed a sense of the responsibility involved in disseminating classical texts to a new readership. The Iliad was appropriated in debates on divorce, masculinity, authorship, and the historical criticism of the Bible. The Odyssey offered an alternative, novelistic version of Homeric epic, one which prioritized domesticity and highlighted the poem’s female characters. Some of the most influential creative responses to the epic tradition were not poems in twelve or twenty-four books but verse novels, dramatic monologues, or theatrical burlesques. Others took up the challenge of writing at epic length and addressing national concerns. For aspiring epic poets, there were many choices to be made: should poetry inhabit a mythological world, whether Arthurian (Tennyson’s Idylls of the King or Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyonesse) or Norse (William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung), or a contemporary domain like that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh? Might the epic be used to intervene in religious controversies or political conflicts such as Chartism? Could a modern poet be the Virgil of the British Empire? Facing strong competition from the novel, ambitious Victorian poets chose to approach such questions and an astonishing range of themes in a form which evoked vast expanses of time and space, extraordinary physical and intellectual achievement, and literary renown. Yet to achieve recognition as an epic poet remains an unusual distinction. Despite recent critical attention to the proliferation of Victorian poems with epic aspirations, a small number of poems by Tennyson, Barrett Browning, and William Morris have continued to dominate accounts of the genre.

General Overviews

Scholarly interest in epic as a genre is a comparatively recent phenomenon in Victorian studies, challenging earlier assumptions that Paradise Lost represents an end point for the English epic. Foerster 1962 surveys the reception of epic in the Victorian period, citing numerous statements by poets and critics. Tucker 2002 is an insightful introduction to the prevalence of epic in the Victorian period, drawing attention to numerous minor epics as well as familiar examples. Roberts 1999 is a useful point of reference for epics and other long poems of the period. Johns-Putra 2006 explores an important issue in accounts of the genre, the relationship between the epic and the novel. Graham 1998 and Dentith 2006 address the idea of epic as a form associated with nationalism and imperialism. Tucker 2008 is unrivaled as a rigorously researched and engaging account of the diverse epic aspirations of Victorian poets. Buckland and Vaninskaya 2009 is a collection of essays responding to a revival of interest in the epic and informed by Tucker 2008.

  • Buckland, Adelene, and Anna Vaninskaya, eds. Special Issue: Victorian Epic. Journal of Victorian Culture 14 (2009): 163–320.

    A journal issue which examines the use of epic form in the 19th century to represent the past, present, and future. In the “Introduction: Epic’s Historic Form” (pp. 163–172), Buckland and Vaninskaya argue that epic proved to be an apt form for the reworking of history in terms of geology, religion, and archaeology. They connect the interdisciplinary readings of epic in this special issue with the literary-critical turn to a “new formalism.”

  • Dentith, Simon. Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511484773

    A wide-ranging study of epic primitivism and the desire for a national epic in 19th-century poetry and fiction. Dentith argues that 19th-century responses to the epic contain ambivalence toward the barbarism and heroism of the past, and that attitudes to the subject peoples of the British Empire were shaped by epic. Authors discussed include Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, William Morris, Rudyard Kipling and writers of late-Victorian imperial adventure stories.

  • Foerster, Donald M. “The Pendulum Begins to Swing: Early Victorian Estimates: 1832–1880.” In The Fortunes of Epic Poetry: A Study in English and American Criticism, 1750–1950. By Donald M. Foerster, 116–159. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1962.

    A comprehensive survey of responses to epic by critics and poets in the Victorian period. Foerster argues that the period after 1832 was in some respects hostile to the epic, but the genre also regained some of the prestige it had lost in the Romantic era. Discusses the reception of Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

  • Graham, Colin. Ideologies of Epic: Nation, Empire, and Victorian Epic Poetry. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1998.

    A Bakhtinian reading of the cultural and national politics of the epic in the context of colonialism. Graham adapts Bakhtin’s theory of the epic as a monologic genre, arguing that epic can never exclude the dialogic. Poems discussed include examples from England, Ireland, and India: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Samuel Ferguson’s Congal, and Edwin Arnold’s translations from the Mahabharata.

  • Johns-Putra, Adeline. “The Nineteenth Century: Epic and the Self.” In The History of the Epic. By Adeline Johns-Putra, 114–154. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230595729

    An insightful chapter on Romantic and Victorian epics within a larger examination of the genre. Discusses the expression and celebration of individualism developing as psychological exploration replaces martial heroism. Juxtaposes Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh with Tolstoy’s War and Peace as examples of the convergence of epic and novel, highlighting the relationship between individuals and the community, with actions by ordinary men and women taking the place of traditionally heroic deeds.

  • Roberts, Adam. Romantic and Victorian Long Poems: A Guide. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    Summarizes a wide-ranging selection of long poems and gives descriptions of genres such as epic, romance, and verse novel. Roberts uses the term “epic” as a descriptor for poems of over 1,000 lines, arguing that length (rather than other conventions of the genre such as the catalogue or the beginning in medias res) inspired 19th-century poets to attempt epics.

  • Tucker, Herbert F. “Epic.” In A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison, 25–41. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631222071.2002.00005.x

    A lucid and authoritative survey of the heterogeneous kinds of epic produced in the Victorian period. Excellent starting point for a study of the genre.

  • Tucker, Herbert F. Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790–1910. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199232987.001.0001

    An indispensable resource for the development of the epic in the long 19th century. Tucker’s commentary on the genre offers a rich contextualization of the more prominent long poems of the period by paying attention to subgenres such as Chartist epic, Spasmodic epic, or scientific epic. The comprehensive bibliography identifies hundreds of epics from the period.

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