Wordsworth, Byron, and the Romantic Redefinition of Heroism

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The Politics of the Epic: Wordsworth, Byron, and the Romantic Redefinition of Heroism Author(s): Paul A. Cantor Reviewed work(s): Source: The Review of Politics, Vol. 69, No. 3, Special Issue on Politics and Literature (Summer, 2007), pp. 375-401 Published by: Cambridge University Press for the University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20452900 . Accessed: 01/03/2013 16:15 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp

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The Review of Politics 69 (2007), 375-401. Copyright ?O University ofNotre Dame DOI: 10.1017/S0034670507000733 Printed in theUSA

The Politics of theEpic: Wordsworth, Byron, and

the of RomanticRedefinition Heroism
Paul A. Cantor

Abstract: Traditionally, theepic focused on theheroic deeds of great public figures,but the Romantics remade thegenre intosomethingmore personal, making thepoet himself the hero of theirepics. The Romantic disillusionment with politics, flowing from the failure of the French Revolution, lies behind their revaluation of heroism. The turn to nature, which theRomantics present as immediate, tums out tobe mediated by their political experience.Wordsworth's The Prelude and Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage are good examples of theRomantic transformation of the epic and provide a case study in the relation of politics and literature,specifically thepolitics of literaryform. Iwant a hero: an uncommon want, When every year and month sends fortha new one, Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, The age discovers he is not the true one. -Lord Byron, Don Juan All my tale is ofmyself. -Wordsworth, The Prelude

I "Arms and the man I sing" is the way John Dryden famously translates

theopeningwords ofVirgil'sAeneid, thereby summingup the traditional matter of epic poetry. The classic epics- The Iliad,TheOdyssey, The subject Aeneid -chronicle theheroicdeeds of great warriors like Achilles,Odysseus, and Aeneas and celebratethe life warfare. of AlthoughHomer and Virgil do not present thehero's intensedevotion towar as unproblematic,theydo single out Shakespeare, the warrior's with his wider life as

tories on and tragedies, public figures and thecentral war and political issueof peace. Shakespeare's tragicheroes-King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Mark Antony, Coriolanus- arenoblewarriorsand evengener Caesar,Brutus, als inthefield, and the greatexceptionto therule, one Hamlet, fervently wishes was not himself heroicdeeds in thepublic sphere.The traditional but subject achievement placed political life thecenter poetic concern. effectively at of concept of epic and tragedy as the supreme genres and the pinnacle of literary that he were a heroic man of action. Up through theRenaissance and beyond, the poet was generally subordinate to the man of action; the poet's highest

the central theme of epic poetry. Even range as a poet, focuses his serious plays, his his

375

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376

THE REVIEW OF POLITICS

does not prevail today. Few ifany contemporary Clearly thisattitude poets write an epic at all, letalone one celebratingthe life war. would...
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