The End of the Story: The Shrinking of the Epic Hero

I am big. It's the pictures that got small. Photo Credit: Knight's Castle by Hartwig HKD
--Norma Desmond

Well, yes, there's nothing like trotting out one of the tiredest, most hag-ridden quotations in pop culture to get this thing off to a limping start, but bear with me here; I think I have a good reason for using it and with a little luck, I'll get to it eventually.

Below is a short list of long poems. Some, like Song of Roland and The Divine Comedy are dictionary definition-style epics; others are sequences of interrelated poems that trace narrative arcs. Snodgrass' The Fuhrer Bunker and Berryman's The Dream Songs are meant to be read as "stories" comprised of stand-alone poems.

Cover Art: Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again / Frank MillerThe list runs in more or less chronological order and by dipping into it at random points following a downward trajectory you will note an evolution or devolution (depending on your tastes) in the nature of the hero, as well as drastic transformations in narrative purpose, and poetic form. The stories grow smaller, more inward, more fragmentary as we progress through time. Heroes have always had faults--think of Achilles sulking on the beach, or Aeneas shucking off Dido like a bad suit, so it is not that our heroes have become more human, so much as they have become disembodied. It is as if the canonical Western hero, and perhaps the human species, has climbed the rungs of his backbone and curled up inside his skull to wander no more, instead exploring the winding corridors of the self, becoming paler, more solipsistic, more accustomed to the dark as the centuries wash away the sand beneath his feet.

This corkscrewing inward corresponds to the transformation of poetry from a form of mass (or at least popular) entertainment to its current state as the most academic, most hermetically-sealed of the arts. The self has become the final frontier for poetic discourse and this coincides I think with the ascendance of the lyric mode. Poems have grown smaller as the worlds the poet feels competent to encompass grow smaller.

As always, comments, disagreements and suggestions for future posts are encouraged.
Thanks again to Richard D. for suggesting this topic.

A Short List of Long Poems from the collections of Harris County Public Libraries
Works and Days  & Theogony / Hesiod

The Book of Job /

The Metamorphoses / OvidCover Art: The Metamorphoses of Ovid

One Thousand and One Nights /

Song of Roland /

Divine Comedy / Dante Alleghieri

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight /

Orlando Furioso / Ludovico Ariosto

The Faerie Queene / Sir Edmund Spenser

Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained / John Milton

Faust / J. W. von Goethe

Lady of the Lake / Sir Walter Scott

Queen Mab / Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Battle of Marathon, Prometheus Bound & The Seraphim / Elizabeth Barrett BrowningCover Art: The Faerie Queene: A Reader's Guide by Elizabeth Heale

Endymion & Hyperion / John Keats

Don Juan / George Gordon, Lord Byron

Evangeline & The Song of Hiawatha / Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The Prelude / William Wordsworth

Idylls of the King / Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Eugene Onegin / Aleksandr Puskkin

The Wanderings of Oisin / W. B. Yeats

Mensagem / Fernando Pessoa
Paterson  / William Carlos Williams

The Cantos / Ezra Pound

"A" / Louis Zukofsky

The Dream Songs / John Berryman

Changing Light at Sandover / James MerrillCover Art: Splay Anthem by Nathaniel Mackey

The Maximus Poems / Charles Olson

The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos / Anne Carson.
Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse / Anne Carson
The Fuhrer Bunker / W. D. Snodgrass
Garbage, Sphere, Glare & Tape for the Turn of a Year / A. R. Ammons
Girls on the Run / John Ashbery
Louise in Love / Mary Jo Bang
Splay Anthem / Nathaniel Mackey

Fredy Neptune / Les Murray

 

Photo: Knight's Castle by Hartwig HKD