Can Epic Poetry Revive History?

  • Themes: Culture

‘Read history, poetry’, urged the historian David McCullough. When combined, as the ancients knew, history and poetry offer an incomparable insight into the human condition.

Hector taking leave of Andromache.
Hector taking leave of Andromache. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Why do we no longer turn to epic poetry to portray the majesty and tragedy of history? Since Homer, epic poetry has occupied a special, if rare place in the Western canon. It uniquely captures the intensity of emotions brought forth by tragedy, especially war. One might think then that Vietnam, let alone the American Civil War, would have been the perfect grist for the mill of a poet-historian. Less graphic but no less powerful than war are other travails that individuals and societies experience. Though more complex to relate, one could envision an epic poem bringing to life the enormity of the Great Depression or the 2008 financial crisis, with its Wall Street avarice and Main Street trauma. Surely not all could be captured in poetry, but what was might well strike nearer the truth of the matter than any traditional history, no matter how detailed.

No art form – and History is ultimately an art – can portray the pathos and grandeur of history quite like epic poetry. Could its return somehow bridge the divide between academics and laymen or between those who no longer seem even to agree on the basic facts of the past? Perhaps it could even re-instill a sense of awe, humility, and gratitude that might dampen the flames of civil discord.

History has long been a battlefield in the culture wars (and here we must distinguish between ‘history’ as the past and ‘History’ as a discipline). The academic focus on class, race, and gender since the 1960s has divorced most professional historians from the general public; lately, that worldview has seeped into journalism-as-history, promoting a wholesale – and many would say unsupportable – reinterpretation of the very founding of America. Politics now suffuses History, disproving the claims of scientific objectivity that the discipline has long used to justify its authority. Outside the academy and the newsroom, popular history continues to attract a large audience, especially biography and battle, though more than occasionally catering to the lowest common denominator. Yet whether inside the ivory tower or out, one senses that we have lost touch with the deeper power of History.

Homer remains the supreme chronicler of history in verse. Has anyone brought more vividly to life the horrors of combat than those burning lines that blot the pages of The Iliad like the gouts of blood he describes so often:

Athena drove the shaft and it split the archer’s nose between the eyes – it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw and the point came ripping out beneath his chin… and his life and power slipped away on the wind.

Can any parent’s eyes not fill with tears when Homer describes Hector leaving his infant son Astyanax and wife Andromache to meet his fate in battle, indelibly painting the sacrifices of the Home Front?

Though epic poetry may no longer be as popular as it once was, most of us remain familiar with the small pantheon of great poets whose labours covered the breadth of human experience. Alongside the peerless Iliad, myth-as-History in Virgil’s Aeneid and the Norse Eddas distill the elements of a tribe, society, or empire more purely than any prosaic treatment could.

The Mahabharata presents not just dynastic legends but philosophical foundations that influenced centuries of Indian society. And while not history per seThe Divine Comedy  fills its circles of Hell with the condemned souls of historical Florentines whom Dante had encountered during his travails, illuminating the consequences of weakness of character, avarice, lust, and other moral failings. Perhaps in a category of their own, and neither precisely epic nor poetry, are Shakespeare’s histories, though one could make a case for the ‘king cycle’ from Richard II through the Henrys to Richard III as an epic in all but name. And most recently, one might add T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

The serious literary treatment of history, fictionalised to a greater or lesser degree, is thus a central part of the human tradition. The insights of Shakespeare, the power of Homer, the vision of Dante almost certainly revealed truths more deeply and directly than the prose histories of their era and were equalled only – arguably – by the most skillful of historians.

And yet, the discipline of History is ultimately, like poetry, an act of imagination. Herodotus, the ‘father’ of History, included patently fantastic tales, while Thucydides, even as he claimed he was telling history as it happened, admitted to inventing the dramatic speeches of his protagonists for which he is justly remembered. All historical writing is invention at some level, and even the primary sources upon which the most rigorous History is based are themselves in many cases recreations of decisions, discussions, feelings, and the gamut of human experience. We can only mediate the past through imagination, making history resonate with readers removed by years or centuries from the events portrayed.

Since Thucydides, historians have tried to ground their claims to authority in the rigour of their methods. Centuries of Roman historians, notably Tacitus and Polybius, all relying on official documents and the work of predecessors, created an implicit understanding of what constituted acceptable historical method. They were followed by ecclesiastical historians, who used the same approach, even as they sought to prove the working out of God’s plan on the terrestrial plane.

The current dominance of historical prose traces back to the triumph of the Enlightenment view of the world and the rise of the scientific method. Since Edward Gibbon and Leopold von Ranke, François Guizot and Charles A. Beard, modern historical writing has been relentlessly rationalistic, claimed as a science. That is perhaps why most professional academic historians today have become increasingly narrow in scope, speaking to an ever-smaller audience of fellow specialists. There are, of course, accomplished narrative historians working today, some in academia, some not. One thinks of Margaret MacMillan, Andrew Roberts, Stacy Schiff, Rick Atkinson, and Simon Sebag-Montefiore, as well as David McCullough among recently deceased American public historians.

And yet, for all the skill of such prose historians, one wonders whether even their abilities fall short of the power and insight of epic poetry. As powerful as Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror is, could anything short of an epic poem capture the madness of Stalin’s purges (and, remember, Conquest was a poet before he became an historian)? If the Iliad is the model for all poetry of war, does not D-Day or the Siege of Leningrad deserve more than The Longest Day or The 900 Days, as fine as those works are? Great lives, too, must lend themselves even more readily to the insight of a poet as to the documentary historian. For over half a century, scholars have attempted to understand the mind and character of Richard Nixon, yet no account has satisfactorily captured his triumphs and agonies.

Nor is it only tragedy and suffering that is best represented in verse. Could epic poetry bring back to life for a new generation the awe-inspiring voyage of Apollo 11 or the extraordinary expedition of Lewis and Clark, perhaps inspired by The Odyssey? And brought back not just as uncomplicated panegyric, but full of the complications, compromises, and failings that attend all great accomplishments. Not all history is epic, but are we not impoverished if we don’t consider what deserves the treatment accorded to the great conflict over Troy? Prose can only go so far; the poetic mind can often see farther.

Why then do we have no epic poet-historians today? There may be a reason deeper than the professionalisation of the historical field since the nineteenth century or the dominance of the Enlightenment world view. If that were all, we might expect now and again an epic poem to emerge or for some entrepreneurial editor to entice a writer with historical sensibility to walk in Calliope’s train.

The deeper problem is the loss of poetry’s music in our daily lives. If Homer’s account of gods and men was recited long before it was written down, then it may be that our very literacy has severed us moderns from the melody of life. And as utilitarianism has triumphed and religion has receded, poetry, with its ineffable connection to mystery, has weakened.

What is certain is that poetry as a public act has declined precipitously in cultural and intellectual life, with banal offerings now trotted out mainly on a handful of formal occasions. Perhaps the last great example was Robert Frost’s reading at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, over sixty years ago. Poetry slams may occupy niches here and there but have little purchase on national identity. As poetry has withered, so has the collective imagination and sensitivity to the non-political and non-commercial. It is thus easier for politics to become an end-all, and all is interpreted through its lens, including history, shorn from any poetic vision that may give more meaningful context and deeper meaning to present and past alike.

So what, then, can be done to resurrect history as epic poetry?

To breathe poetic life back into history would require a writer with the combination of artistic sensibility and scholarly temperament. Speaking as a trained historian, I think it more likely that those of a poetic bent could learn the techniques of historical research than that historians could be taught to hear the music of poetry. T.S. Eliot held the same, arguing that ‘What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past …’ Conversely, the true artistic temperament is something mystical, it comes from inside, unlike the historian, who learns the external skill of documentary research. As Socrates argues in Plato’s minor dialogue Ion, ‘none of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of their subject; they are inspired, possessed… for a poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired…’ Professional historians aim precisely at being masters of their subject rather than vessels of otherworldly vision. But would the attempt to hold poets to the standards of documentary research dim or even kill the very inspiration that makes poetry what Socrates calls a ‘divine gift’?

Despite whatever difficulties lay in wait, it is worth the effort to try. There is no reason an epic poem about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., could not be rigorously sourced and at the same time reveal, like no other medium, the tragedy of the murder in his prime of both a man and a symbol of a national movement. The uncommon courage of Rosa Parks could serve as the opening set piece in an epic poem about the epochal struggle against racial injustice, all documented by reliable sources. And perhaps only verse, backed up by documents and first-hand accounts, can honour the bravery of the firemen and policemen who rushed up into the burning Twin Towers under a beautiful blue sky that fateful morning. The more verisimilitude, based on a thorough knowledge of history, the more powerful an epic poem can penetrate to the core of a particular experience.

While true writers learn by doing and not by talking about doing, it may be the case that some bridging-the-gap workshops of leading historians and poets could at least begin a dialogue between the two cultures. If an epic poem is more than the sum of its stanzas, then perhaps encouraging joint efforts between poets and historians might lead to some attempts at co-creation. Just as important would be the active efforts of a far-seeing editor, of either an historical or poetry journal, to find those brave enough and inspired enough to try their hand and risk the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

What we might gain from a return to History-as-epic poetry can only be imagined. As teacher John Keating reminds his students in Dead Poets Society, ‘We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.’ It’s time for the music of poetry to return that passion to History, to remind us of our common humanity.


Michael Auslin