Literary histories of specific genres like tragedy or epic typically concern themselves with influence and deviation, tradition and innovation, the genealogical links between authors and the forms they make. Renaissance scholarship is particularly suited to these accounts of generic evolution; we read of the afterlife of Senecan tragedy in English drama, or of the respective influence of Virgil and Lucan on Renaissance epic. My study of epic poetry differs, though: by insisting on the primacy of material conditions, social organization and especially information technology to the production of literature, I present a discontinuous series of set pieces in which any given epic poem—the Iliad, the Aeneid, or The Faerie Queene—is structured more by local circumstances and methods than by authorial responses to distant epic predecessors.
Ultimately I make arguments about how modes of literary production determine the forms of epic poems. Achilleus’ contradictory and anachronistic funerary practices in Iliad 23, for instance, are symptomatic of the accumulative transcription of disparate oral performances over time, which calls into question what, if any artistic ‘unity’ might guide scholarly readings of the Homeric texts. While classicists have conventionally opposed Virgil’s Aeneid to Lucan’s Bellum Civile on aesthetic and political grounds, I argue that both poets endorse the ethnographic-imperialist ideology ‘virtus at the frontier’ under the twin pressures of Julio-Claudian military expansion and the Principate’s instrumentalization of Roman intellectual life in its public library system. Finally, my chapter on Renaissance English epic demonstrates how Spenser and Milton grappled with humanist anxieties about the political utility of the classics and the unmanageable archive produced by print culture. It is my hope that this thesis coheres into a narrative of a particularly long-lived genre, the epic, and the mutations and adaptations it underwent in oral, manuscript, and print contexts.
Hampstead, John Paul, "Toward a Material History of Epic Poetry" (2010). English Publications and Other Works.