Epic poetry was once considered the most exalted form of poetry; not coincidentally, writing a great epic was supposed to be part and parcel of the career trajectory of any major poet. Herbert F. Tucker's Epic: Britain's Heroic Muse, 1790-1910 is, suitably enough, not just about the epic, but at 737 pages (counting the index), manages to be epic in scope. (The division into twelve chapters may be a sly joke, given the magic number of "twelve books" in nineteenth-century epic.) In heft and, to a slightly lesser extent, subject matter, Epic shares shelf space with its acknowledged forebears, Howard Weinbrot's rumbustious Britannia's Issue and Isobel Armstrong's Victorian Poetry. Given the trend towards shorter and shorter books, especially in recent years, a "big" book is itself a tribute to the author's academic capital. Moreover, the literary-historical subject matter departs in focus from Tucker's two well-known monographs on Browning and Tennyson: instead of closely studying an individual, canonical author, Tucker now ranges widely over what is frequently uncharted territory. This is the literary historian as Odysseus, as it were.
Suitably enough, given the role of warfare in the history of epic, there's a bit of disciplinary warfare in both the historical narrative and in the text itself. In nineteenth-century studies, there has been a traditional division of labor between Romanticists, who mostly do poetry, and Victorianists, who mostly do fiction. Obviously, this division has never been a hard-and-fast rule, but this state of "genre attraction" has something to do with the relative critical reputations of poetry and fiction during the respective periods. Armstrong's book was an attempt to hew out some space for poetry in a sea of Victorian fiction, but Tucker goes a step further: while arguing that epic poets and novelists spent the nineteenth century competing, in effect, for the same literary territory, he also makes the stronger claim that attempts to differentiate epic from the novel have foundered rather badly. Or, as Tucker puts it, "a great deal of what Lukacs and Bakhtin say about the prose fiction of the nineteenth century will also find exemplification among the period's verse epics" (15). Even more bluntly, Tucker argues that "verse narrative" actually enjoyed considerably greater "flexibility of focus and agility of pace"than did those other, non-versified forms (21); anything fiction can do, the epic can do better--or, at least, as well. This includes taking in next-door genres like a hyped-up vacuum cleaner, a point that Tucker dryly suggests has been omitted from "prevailing literary histories," which celebrate such absorption in the novel but neglect to note the same activity in the epic (268). Instead of the novel springing from the epic's corpse, then, Tucker paints a picture of the novel and epic spurring each other on to new formal and aesthetic heights. Which, by extension, suggests that the professional Victorianist may wish to (at least temporarily) close his Dickens and open his Morris.
Tucker's project is traditional literary history in the best sense of the word: the survey aims for completeness (while admitting that it can never quite be complete); mixes its canonical authors, like Browning and Tennyson, with their less-canonical counterparts, like Robert Pollok (while noting, properly, that the latter were sometimes more popular than the former); and doesn't skimp on the qualitative judgments (while occasionally turning up some surprising gems languishing among the forgotten verses). Not surprisingly, given the vast quantities of text under discussion, Tucker moves through the shelves according to chronology, although he frequently finds his chronological groups cohering according to theme or subject matter. Thus, we have apocalyptic epics, Spasmodic epics, and so forth, which usually refuse to stay put neatly in their assigned spaces. (Tucker's periodization, which looks draconian if considered solely from the POV of the table of contents, is far less so in execution.) I note with some interest that this may be the first major literary history to incorporate rare texts made available courtesy of Project Gutenberg and GoogleBooks. Most chapters restrict themselves to five or ten years, so the reader knows something is afoot--or, rather, not afoot--when chapter eleven suddenly swallows up a quarter-century. While Tucker does tack shifts in literary priorities to contemporary politico-religious ebbs and swells, he disarmingly admits that "[t]he chapter arguments are seldom if ever arrestingly new; they conform more often than not to the received political and social history of the long nineteenth century" (9), and the book is really at its strongest when dealing with interrelationships among literary texts. This is not the type of historicist or new historicist project that reads literary texts against other discourses, whether theology, medicine, or ad copy.
Of course, Tucker has quite enough to read as it is. The book is big, and its argument is big to match; trying to narrow it down to a few lines or so is a perilous enterprise indeed. Nevertheless, Tucker often returns to a point made fairly early on in the long introduction: "From nebula to tissue, from testament to syllable, one had to learn that nothing had always been or would forever be. But that meant one might aspire to find the law of the change, integrate its differential into a compensatory performance by writing its code" (23). Tucker's heroic poets are always in the process of inventing and reinventing a personal, national, international, or even universal past, while trying to project that history forward into the future--sometimes, as in the case of the apocalyptic epics, into the next world. By the same token, while epic always retained certain essential elements (like scope), new topics meant new challenges to the boundary of the genre; apocalyptic epics, as Tucker points out, certainly brought new meaning to the term "comprehensiveness" (249). Epic's changeability leads us to another of Tucker's key arguments, which is that reports of epic's "death" (4 ff.) after Milton, are, like Mark Twain's, exaggerated. Poets may feel more or less angsty about taking epic on, and some poets only feel comfortable writing epic when the epic in question is mock-epic, but the genre was clearly not in a state of cryogenic suspension. While the reader may cavil at some point or another, that's a feature, not a bug: a history of such sweep is supposed to produce a critical conversation, not beat the Gentle Reader into whimpering submission.
If there's anything in the method that may cause some readers to demur, even slightly, it's Tucker's decision to avoid close work with language in favor of analyzing narrative constructions. Given that the section of the book's bibliography devoted only to the epics runs from pp. 602 to 626, this choice makes perfectly good sense; anyone who works on non-canonical works quickly learns the agonies of navigating between the Scylla of extensive quotation and the Charybdis of overarching plot summary. Moreover, as he correctly notes, close reading and epic don't necessarily go together (9)--although the distinction there between oral and written epic probably could have been theorized a little more explicitly. In fact, close reading occasionally crops up in quirky moments, as when Tucker seems mesmerized by the sheer oddity of Charles M. Doughty's The Dawn in Britain (1906) (571-83). From the POV of user-friendliness, though, this Gentle Reader occasionally found herself yearning to nail Tucker's more sweeping generalizations down to a quotation...sometimes, any quotation. E.g., when encountering Tucker on Swinburne: "As this narrative flashed at large from blaze to black across the thermodynamic inane, or as [backstage at the accidental theater of human consciousness] it was microscopically rehearsed at the speed of synaptic discharge, it demanded expression in lyric forms" (524). Still, Tucker's frequently punning, alliterative prose, while it requires close attention, never bogs down in forbidding jargon, and even comes ornamented with--dare one say it?--a sense of humor. Readers will find much to ponder.