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I often ask my students why the 20th century, and now the 21st, produced no great epic poems. I have yet to receive an answer, any answer. After 30 years of such questioning, I suspect I never will.

So here, in desperation, I do what I seldom do: I give them the answer they never gave me. It is not my own; it comes from Russell Kirk, as does so much that explains what’s wrong with the world.

Great literature, Kirk insists in his “English Letters in an Age of Boredom,” habitually hovers around four enduring themes: religion, heroism, love, and human variety.

But, he says, a society, like ours, which has lost its religious convictions and its piety, denies itself the first theme. A society that denies and denigrates true greatness denies itself the second. A society that takes love for nothing more than carnal gratification denies itself the third. A society that conceives of humans as little more than accidental, soulless, interchangeable, cogs in a mechanistic and economic nexus denies itself the fourth. “The springs of the imagination thus are dried up,” he pronounces truly, tragically, and finally. In that springless desert, not even satire can long exist, for with the loss of the great themes and of imagination comes the loss even of mockery.

There, in one paragraph, is why great literature died in our hands. We stopped believing the right things. In our hands, even the perennial issues and the perennial questions to which they gave rise all died. We have the opposite of the Midas touch. What we handle turns not to gold, or even to garbage, but to ghosts.

You can expect nothing else from the culture of death.

No cure for it can be found, save the Word of Life, which we have banned from the public square, the academy, the laboratory, and the arena.

Wyndham Lewis, it turns out, despite his pessimism and complaints, was too optimistic. He thought human reason might save us. He never asked what, or Who, might save reason.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Dr. Bauman, at the risk of sounding melodramatic I am happy to inform you that there is one Epic Poem which should satisfy the longing for heroism, love, religion, human variety and greatness – written and published at the beginning of this century. The Epic takes as its’ backdrop the democratic landscape you describe, following Kirk, as “dried up” and makes this the setting for the heroic struggle of our nihilistic age. The protagonists of this Epic struggle against the gods of our age: time, space, nature and the “dried up” soul.

    The epic is titled Wimmera, authored by one of Australia’s foremost poets who also happens to be my Old Man, Homer Rieth. I highly recommend getting a copy.

    You may watch a short television program about the Epic here:

  2. Excellent piece! There may be other contributing factors, firstly that few people read poetry for pleasure anymore, and fewer read modern poetry, which is intentionally obscure and elitist. Duncan Williams is good on this in “Trousered Apes,” where the twin Romantic Era (ideological) objectives of originality and subjectivity lead to impenetrability. There are modern poets who remain accessible; Coleman Barks comes to mind, but most living poets, and especially the Ivy League hoity-toity critics, would be horrified by common popularity. Theirs is a preserve for elites.

    Secondly, modern poetry may be ill-suited to long works that cry out for rhyme and meter., although this may be my personal taste.

    • As far as epic poems go, “White Horse” is a middling effort, and is certainly not great. It comes up to about the level of Southey’s poems on Thalaba, Roderick, or Kehama. If I remember correctly, WH was begun in the 19th century and published years before WW1, which makes it in, but not of, the 20th century. So, to me at least, my first paragraph still stands: When it comes to a great epic poem, the 20th and 21st centuries have none. I have doubts that the 19th century has any (Southey’s included). Wordsworth’s Prelude perhaps comes close, but it’s not actually an epic, though it is quite a remarkable work.

  3. Cyril Connolly in his bibliography THE MODERN AGE: ONE HUNDRED KEY BOOKS FROM ENGLAND, FRANCE, AND AMERICA, 1880-1950, says the socialism of France, the philosophy of Germany, and the industrialism of Britain change the culture of the West. We see the effects today as anti-family, anti-Christian, and anti-capital.

  4. If there’s any difference between an epic and a long poem (I’m sure there’s an unresolved academic debate three hundred theses long on that) it might simply be directness in narratology. Our generations have given us long poems the ancients couldn’t’ve dreamt of—”The Waste Land”, Pound’s “Cantos”. Heck, don’t forget about “Ulysses”! Times change; style evolves. So, too, the question changes, both what’s being asked and how we need to ask it. That’s quite alright.

  5. Dr. Bauman
    Can you also include “prose epics” , because after all, Homer and the Icelandic sagas are “unrhymed. I nominate Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, in the magnificent new translation by Tiina Nunnally. This novel has been “marginalized” by the secular universities because it is too “Catholic.”
    Mary Jane Myers

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