Sunday, 29 December 2013

Minor Epic

Declaring Virgil the "most inflated reputation in literary history," Amit Majmudar explores the areas in which he believes the Latin poet's Aeneid fails to measure up to the Greek epics he copied:
So we see that Virgil broke with Homer in two ways, and that it bit him both times. First, he improved on the Odyssey-pattern by having the jilted woman immolate herself; this was thoroughly successful, but it exerted intense power where it didn’t belong and created a break point, dividing the poem structurally. In his second break with Homer, Virgil inverted the Iliad-pattern, with Hector beating Achilles and the Trojans implicitly founding a city, instead of Achilles beating Hector and the Argives implicitly sacking a city. This second break was, manifestly, not an improvement. Virgil himself may have sensed this—after all, he did order his literary executors to destroy the Aeneid, although literary tradition assumes it was from a finicky Flaubertian dissatisfaction with minor points of diction and rhythm, invisible to anyone else. Overall, though, Virgil tried to make his epic out of sequential episodes, instead of episodes embedded in a single dramatic movement. Other Latin epic poets—Lucan, Valerius Flaccus, and Silius Italicus, among others—fell into the same architectural error. That sprawl and sweep is, contrary to what is commonly thought, antithetical to the classical epic, a secret of Homer’s power that Virgil failed to recognize, and hence failed to learn.

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