The polymathic writer, critic, and translator Guy Davenport (whose essay "That Faire Field of Enna" (in The Geography of the Imagination) may be the best thing ever written about the work of Eudora Welty) remarks in one of his essays that the three great English epics are The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I like the idea of Gibbon--who deserves to stand alongside Fielding, Johnson and Sterne as one of the master prose stylists of eighteenth-century English--as the British Enlightenment's grand epicist, and I want to continue Davenport's list forward, adding Wordsworth's 1805/1850 Prelude as the epic of Romanticism (or perhaps, my inner libertine subversively suggests, that slot should be amply filled by Byron's bulging Don Juan...), Middlemarch as the epic of the bourgeois era, and.... but where's the epic of English Modernism? If we were speaking of Irish Modernism the answer would be obvious, but no Englishperson wrote a Ulysses. Is the epic of English Modernism one of those heaping, dusty doorstops that languish largely unread today even by the most serious readers, something like John Cowper Powys' Wolf Solent or Glastonbury Romance, or Ford Madox Ford's Tietjens tetralogy or Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time...? Or perhaps we should propose Frazer's Golden Bough as the epic of the late Victorian era and David Jones' In Parenthesis as its Modernist successor... (And that poet's name fires off a digression: England needs more names. There's simply no excuse for a country to have at least three prominent David Joneses (the Modernist poet, the man from The Monkees, and David Bowie, who had the eminent good sense to rename himself after a knife); two Francis Bacons (Renaissance writer and postmodern painter) and a Roger Bacon, medieval philosopher of science; two Richard Burtons (explorer of the world; explorer of Elizabeth Taylor) and a Robert Burton, anatomist of melancholy, a mild form of which might be induced by extended reflection upon the paucity of British names.) Anyway, one possible English epic line might be drawn thus: Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon), The Canterbury Tales (Middle English), Morte D'Arthur (late Medieval), The Faerie Queene (Renaissance), Paradise Lost (Baroque), Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Enlightenment), The Prelude (Romanticism), Middlemarch (mid-Victorian), The Golden Bough (late Victorian), In Parenthesis (Modernist), The Golden Notebook (Postmodernist), The Satanic Verses (Cosmopolitan).
As with all such lists, this one becomes more arguable as it approaches the present. The Nobel committee was correct to identify Lessing, in their citation, as an epicist, but a fashionable focus on feminism in the critical discourse of her work tends to slight the vast thematic range and profound psychological depth of The Golden Notebook. If British postmodernism produced an epic, this is it. As for my final choice, Rushdie's most impressive, most complex, most outrageously imaginative novel seems a logical choice for the English epic of our time. A book by an immigrant writer born an imperial subject, it also reminds us that immigration will be, among many other things, the solution to that dire cognominal deficiency deplored in the above David Jones-inspired parenthesis. England's most recent Nobel laureate, for example, bears a decidedly non-Jones, unBacony name. Neither a David nor a Francis he.