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date: 15 June 2024

The Long Poemlocked

The Long Poemlocked

  • Burton Hatlen


The long poem arrived in North America carrying a heavy weight of associations. The august lineage that passes from Homer through Virgil and Dante to Milton and Wordsworth has meant that whenever an American poet has chosen the long poem form, that choice has had cultural and even political implications. Already for the Greeks, “epic” implied not simply a long narrative poem but a poem that defined the identity of a people. According to legend, Alexander the Great carried a copy of the Iliad with him on his expeditions of conquest, as a symbol of the Greek culture that he was spreading from Egypt to India. In the first century b.c.e., Virgil read the Homeric poems and resolved to create an epic of his own that would do for Rome, consciously, what Homer's poems had more or less unconsciously done for the Greeks: that is, to define the meaning of Romanitas, “Romanness.” Virgil centers his epic on a hero who embodies the central Roman virtue: pietas (duty). Thus, Aeneas leaves Troy carrying his father on his back and leading his son by the hand. Virgil's epic also centers on the moment in which the Roman people came into being, when Aeneas, having led across the seas his band of refugees from Troy, defeats the indigenous resistance represented by Turnus and marries Lavinia, princess of the Latins. With its vision of a divinely guided westward migration into a new land to found a new state, climaxing in a union between the indigenous inhabitants and the new arrivals, the Aeneid, a staple of American education until well into the twentieth century, would haunt the imagination of virtually every American aspirant to the mantle of epic bard.


  • North American Literatures

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