Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading.
Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers.
The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art.
Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake
As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!”
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea.
The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.” As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth.
Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it.
Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it.
Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, “Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? … Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton’s daughters did to their father?” In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties.
Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis
Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be.
Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons.
Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice.
The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster
Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things.
Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd
Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer.
The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie
Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold.
Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble,” a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.”
But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.
After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor’s Note: See our “Correction” to this list.]
The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World.
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton
Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner. As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America.
The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth
Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion.
The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists. But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass.
Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley
We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century.
Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow
In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.”
America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake
Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere.
Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey
Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!”
The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian — it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.” The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic.
“Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman
Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject — simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres — advertisements for himself.
Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”
The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound
His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war. Yet this was not an act of contrition — it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could.
John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét
The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it.
The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane
From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities. Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people. A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.
“Middle Passage” (c.1940) by Robert Hayden
Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his “Middle Passage” was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” “Middle Passage” is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land.
Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams
Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams’s philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams’s answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.”
Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg
The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people — the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks — doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.”
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford
The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.”
The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner
Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us.
The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor
As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.” In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir.
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine
The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver — racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.