home authors books contributors books for sale links
The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

Support the Library!
Buy your books here.

Find On Worldcat
Find On This Site


English: Epic Poems

Authority: Gracian

(What is this?)

Epic comes from the Greek epos the earliest meaning of which was simply word. It then evolved the meaning of a poem and finally epic as we now know it a form to be distinguished from the lyric which expressed a personal and intimate emotion.

     The early history of the epic is almost the history of culture itself. In primitive non-literate societies oral poetry was the vehicle for the transmission of culture from generation to generation and provided a medium which appealed to listeners and therefore guaranteed this perpetuation. The epic poem was the earliest type of story-telling in most parts of Europe from Greece and Rome to Ireland and Norway and it flourished throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, from Beowolf, through the Niebelungenlied to the Chanson de Roland and other chansons de gestes of the 11th and 12th centuries. These stories of legendary or historical events, of ancestors and heroes of ancient society, of their part in the formation of these societies, and of other themes of universal significance provided at the same time entertainment and education for their listeners. Many of the epics were specifically Christian allegories, others such as the great epic poem of Ovid are described further under metamorphoses and yet others are the subject matter of the mythologies.

     The epic was a vehicle for the heroes or great men of the day and the nature of the epic changed through the centuries tracking changes in the character and status of the hero. The classical hero was of noble birth or even godlike, he often suffered some fatal character flaw and his ambition was personal and selfish. By contrast, the medieval and Renaissance hero could be a commoner, he existed within the Christian and feudal chivalric tradition where loyalty was due primarily to his lord and he had to be seen to be of good moral character. It is noticeable that in both cases the ideal hero was as wise as he was courageous.  As Isidore said (Etymologies I, 39) the epic ‘is called heroic song because it tells of the brave men. For hero is the name given to men who by their wisdom and courage are worthy of heaven.’ This characterization of the hero was continued throughout the Renaissance and typified in the description by Castiglione of the ideal courtier who was equally as adept with the pen as with the sword.

     It has always been recognized that the epic is the acme of the poetic undertaking and the Renaissance was no different with numerous writers attempting the genre such as Boiardo with his Orlando Innamorato, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Camoens The Lusiads, just to name the greatest of them all.


See also: Allegories, Metamorphoses, Mythologies