Unity and Multiplicity. Epic Poetics in Late Humanism and Early Enlightenment

The rise of the novel in the 18th century triggered a debate on its sister genre, the epic. Here, the epic serves as a template for describing the novel: As a form of objective totality (Hegel), the epic opposes the novel, which claims formlessness as its principle, a relic of a time “when the starry sky was the map of all possible paths” (Lukács). At the same time, though, the epic attracts new attention as an old genre that was able to bring the unwieldy abundance of the world into poetic unity. In the wake of F. A. Wolff’s discussion of the Homeric question, the epic is stylized into an authorless, archaic narrative originating directly from the spirit of the people. The modern view of the epic is thus informed by assumptions that were not yet valid for the ancient, or the medieval epic.

To better understand the development of the modern discourse on the epic, but also to find possible alternatives to its genealogy, this project traced the topoi of epic totality and epic abundance that emerged around 1800, back to the period from 1550 to 1750. The poetics of late humanism and early enlightenment depict the epic as a genre aimed at representing cosmic unity while simultaneously extoling the opulence of worldly phenomena. However, with the rise of rationalism in the philosophy of Leibniz and his successors, and the understanding of the world as a mere realization of one out of a plethora of possibilities, the world view of the epic is disparaged. Furthermore, these philosophical insights initiate a revaluation of the significance and function of literature in general. Based on this new philosophical understanding of literature, it is possible to show that the epic poetics of this period explore the opportunities that lie in adapting the new worldview to the epic’s representation of the world as a cosmic whole.

Program funding through the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) 2018–2019
Head researcher(s): Maria Kuberg


Maria Kuberg