Epic Poetry as Field of Experimentation (1918–1933)
“Now, my thing has always been prose,” begins Thomas Mann’s Song of the Little Child (1919). What follows is his first and only hexameter poem: “Treat me once, Muse, the cheerfully measured gait then.” Alfred Döblin could have introduced Manas (1927), or Gerhart Hauptmann Till Eulenspiegel (1928) in a similar way. In the oeuvre of most writers of the interwar period, however, the epic written in verse is the exception.
As late as the 19th century, there was lively debate about the genre. In addition to a large number of theoretical essays, the publication of (national) epics “reached circulation levels unmatched by the major realistic novels up until the early 20th century,” as the literary scholar Peter Sprengel remarked. This trend declined noticeably in the following period. Döblin’s and Hauptmann’s epics were unprofitable for S. Fischer Verlag. Nevertheless, the literary studies of the Weimar Republic witnessed what was called a “rebirth of the verse epic” (Martin Rockenbach, 1929) and Robert Musil stated on the occasion of Döblin’s Manas: “Our novel has superseded the epic so completely that at the vanguard of our movement the need for a swing back can be felt again, one which is certainly not the same as a reversal.”
The dissertation project traced this ‘swing back,’ by concentrating on the epics of Mann, Döblin, and Hauptmann, which have hitherto been ignored by both scholarship on their respective oeuvres and on the epic itself. Examining this corpus, it becomes clear that these distinctly heterogenous epic poems each found their own approach to referencing epic and prose traditions (Homeric epic, idyll, Indian and religious epics) and modern paradigms as well as to reflecting the experiences of the first world war. In this, the project displays the variety of experimentation within the genre of the epic poetry.
Fig. above: Cover of Gerhart Hauptmann: Till Eulenspiegel, EA Berlin 1928, fool's head after a 15th century sculpture (detail)