An enumeration of generic qualities will define epic less helpfully than will an assessment of its behaviors. Among major literary kinds, epic offers the most long-standing and globally distributed evidence of the human habit of thinking by means of narrative. What it cherishes is the common good; what it ponders are the behaviors and values that forward or threaten collective welfare. What it reckons are the stakes of heroic risk that any living culture must hazard in order to prosper, by negotiating core identities with margins and adjusting settled customs to emergent opportunities; and it roots all these in the transmission of a tale that commands perennial attention on their account. Such dialectics underlie epic’s favorite narrative templates, the master plots of strife, quest, and foundation; and they find expression in such conventions as the in medias res opening and suspended closure; the epic invocation, ancestral underworld, superhuman machinery, and encyclopedic simile; the genre’s formal gravitation towards verse artifice and the lexical and syntactic mingling of old with new language. The genre steadfastly highlights the human condition and prospect, defining these along a scale of higher and lower being, along a timeline correlating history with prophecy, and along cultural coordinates where the familiar and the exotic take each other’s measure.
The topic of rhythm in literary theory draws both on discussions of poetry and prose and on much broader currents of thought in the natural sciences and philosophy. In Western thought, rhythm was a central focus of attention in ancient Greece, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when theorists and practitioners of literature and the other arts often referred back to classical models. This is also the case in more recent theorizing of rhythm in the context of everyday life in advanced modern or, as some would say, postmodern societies. Nietzsche, who constantly circled around the term and with frequent direct and metaphorical references to dance, is in many ways the central figure in these discussions. He was massively influential after his death in 1900, both in Germany and more widely, for example, in Britain and North America, and he was taken up again, along with Heidegger, in much French thought after World War 2. Contemporary debates around rhythm and its relation to meter continue to refer to classical Greece, and in Chinese and Indian thought there is a similar continuity of attention to issues of rhythm.
Pastoral refers to any representation of the countryside or life in the countryside that emphasizes its beautiful and pleasurable aspects. Although the term has come to be used broadly to describe paintings, novels, and popular media, it originated and developed in the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome. Poems about shepherds and cowherds, also called bucolic, first appeared in the Idylls of Theocritus (3rd century bce), and these inspired the Roman poet Virgil to write a set of poems called the Eclogues (c. 42–37 bce). Virgil’s ten poems have been immensely influential. Indeed, pastoral’s long and relatively unbroken European history can be traced to the ongoing popularity of the Eclogues. These poems helped establish the defining elements of the mode: shepherds, who spend much of their time in song and dialogue; the topics of love, loss, and singing itself; a leisurely life; and a natural landscape of endless summer. In the Middle Ages, when Virgil’s eclogues were still read but rarely directly imitated, an explicitly Christian version of pastoral developed; this version was based in the shepherds of the Bible, both the literal shepherds who witnessed Jesus’ birth and the figurative shepherds referred to by Jesus or mentioned in the Psalms. In this biblical or ecclesiastical pastoral, authors used shepherds to discuss priestly duties and the state of the church more generally. Pastoral flourished in the Renaissance, when poets brought together Virgilian and Christian traditions, along with topical concerns about court politics and rural controversies, such as enclosure, to invent a new kind of poetry. During and after the Romantic period, pastoral lost its distinctly shepherdly focus and merged with a broader category of nature writing. As one of several possible approaches to nature, pastoral was reduced to its idealizing and nostalgic qualities, and it was often contrasted with more realistic or scientific representations. From the perspective of the longue durée, pastoral is a capacious category that includes many different attitudes toward rural people and rural life, even the realism of labor and exile. Despite this variety, pastoral is recognizable for the feelings it hopes to generate in its readers about rural life: the delight that the senses take in nature, the sadness at the loss of people and places, and the intense crushes of adolescence.
Stephanie Burt and Jenn Lewin
Ideas about song, and actual songs, inform literary works in ways that go back to classical and to biblical antiquity. Set apart from non-musical language, song can indicate proximity to the divine, intense emotion, or distance from the everyday. At least from the early modern period, actual songs compete with idealized songs in a body of lyric poetry where song is sometimes scheme and sometimes trope. Songs and singers in novels can do the work of plot and of character, sometimes isolating songwriter or singer, and sometimes linking them to a milieu beyond what readers are shown. Accounts of song as poetry’s inferior, as its other, or as its unreachable ideal—while historically prominent—do not consider the variety of literary uses in English that songs—historically attested and fictional; popular, vernacular, and “classical”— continue to find.
John D. Niles
The human capacity for oral communication is superbly well developed. While other animals produce meaningful sounds, most linguists agree that only human beings are possessed of true language, with its complex grammar. Moreover, only humans have the ability to tell stories, with their contrary-to-fact capabilities. This fact has momentous implications for the complexity of the oral communications that humans can produce, not just in conversation but also in a wide array of artistic genres. It is likewise true that only human beings enjoy the benefits of literacy; that is, only humans have developed technologies that enable the sounds of speech to be made visible and construed through one or another type of graphemic representation. Although orality is as innate to the human condition as is breathing or walking, competence in literacy requires training, and it has traditionally been the accomplishment of an educated elite. Correspondingly, the transmutation of oral art forms into writing—that is, the production of what can be called “oral literature”—is a relatively rare and special phenomenon compared with the ease with which people cultivate those art forms themselves. All the same, a large amount of the world’s recorded literature appears to be closely related to oral art forms, deriving directly from them in some instances. Literature of this kind is an oral/literary hybrid. It can fittingly be called “literature of the third domain,” for while it differs in character from literature produced in writing by well-educated people, the fact that it exists in writing distinguishes it from oral communication, even though it may closely resemble oral art forms in its stylized patterning. Understanding the nature of that hybridity requires an engagement not just with the dynamics of oral tradition but also with the processes by which written records of oral art forms are produced. In former days, this was through the cooperative efforts of speakers, scribes, and editors. Since the early 20th century, innovative technologies have opened up new possibilities of representation, not just through print but also through video and audio recordings that preserve a facsimile of the voice. Nevertheless, problems relating to the representation of oral art forms via other media are endemic to the category of oral literature and practically define it as such.
First known as a kephalaion in Greek, capitulum or caput in Latin, the chapter arose in antiquity as a finding device within long, often heterogenous prose texts, prior even to the advent of the codex. By the 4th century ce, it was no longer unusual for texts to be composed in capitula; but it is with the advent of the fictional prose narratives we call the novel that the chapter, both ubiquitous and innocuous, developed into a compositional practice with a distinct way of thinking about biographical time. A technique of discontinuous reading or “consultative access” which finds a home in a form for continuous, immersive reading, the chapter is a case study in adaptive reuse and slow change. One of the primary ways the chapter became a narrative form rather than just an editorial practice is through the long history of the chaptering of the Bible, particularly the various systems for chaptering the New Testament, which culminated in the early 13th century formation of the biblical chaptering system still in use across the West. Biblical chapters formed a template for how to segment ongoing plots or actions which was taken up by writers, printers, and editors from the late medieval period onward; pivotal examples include William Caxton’s chaptering of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur in his 1485 printing of the text, or the several mises en proses of Chrétien de Troyes’s poems carried out in the Burgundian court circle of the 15th century. By the 18th century, a vibrant set of discussions, controversies, and experiments with chapters were characteristic of the novel form, which increasingly used chapter titles and chapter breaks to meditate upon how different temporal units understand human agency in different ways. With the eventual dominance of the novel in 19th-century literary culture, the chapter had been honed into a way of thinking about the segmented nature of biographical memory, as well as the temporal frames—the day, the year, the episode or epoch—in which that segmenting occurs; chapters in this period were of an increasingly standard size, although still lacking any formal rules or definition. Modernist prose narratives often played with the chapter form, expanding it or drastically shortening it, but these experiments usually tended to reaffirm the unit of the chapter as a significant measure by which we make sense of human experience.