Traditional, heroic, Homeric and Virgilian epic has not been a massively successful genre of English poetry since about the seventeenth century. One likely reason for that, it strikes me, is our growing awareness and cynicism towards propaganda. Virgil wrote the Aeneid in praise of Rome under Augustus, but any epic in praise of our own leaders or the status quo would be smug, false and unreadable. That seems to write off any creative use of the structure of classical epic.
But there’s another kind of epic poem–Beowulf, the Old English epic, a work unread for thousands of years before its eventual rediscovery and translation in the Victorian era. This makes it relatively new ground compared to the millenia-spanning transmission history of the ckassical epic. Thus it struck me that plenty of people have appropriated and adapted Anglo-Saxon alliterative metre—Heaney, Tolkien, Kipling, Auden, etc—but I’ve never heard of anyone using the actual structure of Beowulf.
In brief, this structure consists of three events, two linked and one independent. After a short prologue describing the burial of one of Beowulf’s ancestors, we begin at the mead-hall of Heorot, ruled by King Hrothgar. This hall is besieged by a monster named Grendel, who raids in nightly, killing many of Hrothgar’s men. Fortunately Beowulf, a superhuman Scandinavian hero, arrives to test his strength against the monster and spring on Grendel during his next raid. After a fierce tussle, he rips Grendel’s arm off and lets him flee away and die. Hrothgar and his men celebrate, but they’d reckoned without Grendel’s mother, who comes down on them the next night and wreaks an even bloodier vengeance. However, Beowulf tracks her back to the mere where she lives and swims down to her subterranean palace. After a titanic battle, he emerges victorious. There’s then a time-lapse to far later in Beowulf’s life, when he’s assumed the throne and is now ruler of the Geats. A dragon awakes in his kingdom and Beowulf rushes into battle with it, slaying it only at the cost of his life.
I like the idea of using this structure. It seems like a way you could write a proper English epic without getting bogged down in Augustan neo-classicism.
What subject, though? Who can we find from English history or legend to match up to Beowulf’s ambiguity, his semi-monstrousness, the bleakness of the ending where all the King had fought for threatens to crumble with his death?
It has to be Cromwell, that great hero/villain of English history. And this works structurally: you can begin with a pair of episodes from the English Civil War—actually, the dramatic place to begin is with King Charles storming into the House of Commons to arrest the MPs. The third episode, from his Lord Protector period, closes the set neatly.
There was little to say for the project in terms of its commercial viability as opposed to the quantity of research it would require. But it had a pleasing shape in the head, and I found myself drafting out the opening lines, where the funeral of Winston Churchill stands in for that of Scyld Sheathing. What surprised me as I wrote was how hard it was to abandon all the apparatus of the classical epic: I was unable to resist a Homeric catalogue of the heroes, nor a Virgilian thesis question. Such as it is, however, I think it strikes a tenable political balance between celebration and scepticism, with a strong alliterative pulse to the verse.
Cromwell: A Fragment of an Epic
Well. Earnestly and often in England we speak
with pride and loathing of Parliament.
Two Houses hold it, in the heart of Westminster:
Commons that addresses the cares of the people
and Lords the concerns of the landed classes.
Here has been heard high rhetoric;
eloquence to enthral and move;
powers of persuasion, prejudice-withering;
robust rebuttals and reasoned replies;
artful argument and expressive gesture,,
in chambers of combat for crafty speakers,
when the land’s lawmakers and loyal opposition
on back and front benches boo and cheer
to rattle the rafters in raucous debates.
In the Cabinet, the country’s affairs
are managed by ministers and foremost among
her peers in power, the Prime Minister.
An arduous office for ambition to grasp at,
arraigned by journalists, judged by historians,
flaring to fame or fading in obscurity,
loved and loathed for the little time
their names are news. Now we recall them:
Asquith, Attlee, Anthony Eden,
Balfour, Baldwin, Bonar-Law,
Chamberlain, Callaghan, Campbell-Bannerman,
MacDonald, Disraeli, David Cameron,
Gladstone, Lloyd-George, Gordon Brown,
Heath, Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson,
Macmillan, Major, Margaret Thatcher,
Tony Blair and Theresa May.
Old men still remember the mourning decreed,
a four-day funeral in freezing weather,
for our wily war-leader, Sir Winston Churchill,
a magnificent monster. Manufactured by empire,
serving in South Africa, Sudan and the trenches
he survived to see its staged decline
and the Commonwealth's creation. Consoled in dark hours
by cognac, champagne, cigars and brandy,
through blood and toil, tears and sweat,
he roused and rallied a retreating nation,
a brutalised Britain, bombed and starved,
its battalions broken by Blitzkrieg assaults
and snatched in small ships from the sands of Dunkirk,
to defy and defeat the fascist Axis
fighting through France to the final surrender
of Berlin’s last bunker: the best PM?
Three days long he lay in state;
they carried his coffin on a chilly morning
with pomp in procession to St Paul’s Cathedral.
Dignitaries from dozens of nations,
presidents and prime ministers paid their respects.
Taken from there to Tower Pier,
Big Ben chimed with clapper muffled
and London’s dockers dipped their cranes
as his barge went by. In Badon churchyard
he is buried beside his brother and father.
An age expired with this elder statesman,
latest of a line of loyal soldiers
for country and King three centuries long,
enduring down to his distant namesake,
Sir Winston, a colonel of Cavalier horse
in the Civil Wars. Savage years
of bitter division, days of blood
when the fabric of Britain was ripped apart
in calamitous conflict, compared with which
our turbulent times seem tame enough.
But what first kindled the King to wrath
against the assembly and set them at odds
so Parliament's power opposed his right?