ABSTRACT

Epic poems continue to be produced after Milton, as part of the overall ongoing poetic engagement with the classics. However, by the early nineteenth century, epic seems to lose something of its cultural centrality, even though it continues to be regarded as the highest poetic form. A good example is the Columbiad of the American poet Joel Barlow, first published in 1807, an enlarged version of a previous poem entitled The Vision of Columbus, neither of which was especially successful. David Quint places the Columbiad in its historical context towards the end of a discussion of European overseas expansionism, noting the difficulty of epic production in the changed circumstances of the early nineteenth century:

Barlow uses epic as part of an argument against the institution of slavery, but as Quint realises, the American poet is at best hesitant in his project. Barlow shares with Camoes an underlying recognition that the force of epic can no longer be taken for granted. In the wake of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment emphasis on science and reason and the scepticism generated by an increasingly scientific worldview, the form commanded less widespread attention than it had done previously. As we saw in the previous chapter, epic motifs migrated to the emerging novel form, while some of its characteristic tropes and its elevated tone were to become parodied in the novels of Henry Fielding and the poetry of Alexander Pope as mock-heroic.