Epic had been created in the Later Middle Ages through the likes of Dante and Petrarch but it was in the Renaissance that it began to develop a life and style of its own, a cultural trend and tradition to which numerous able poets could try their hand, rather than an isolated grand-vision to which an outstanding scholar may commit himself.

Classes, Style, and Structure

The vernacular epics of the Renaissance fall into four classes:

  1. Direct Imitation of Classical Epic
  • Represented by The Franciad (La Franciade) by Pierre e Ronsard (1524-85). Aping ronsardthe Aeneid, it told of how Hector’s son Astyanax survived Troy and reached Gaul to found the city of Paris, named for his uncle. It contains four books of an unfinished poem. It was ultimately a failure, Ronsard maintaining his inspiration for it died with Charles IX.
  1. Epics on Contemporary Heroic Adventures
  • The greatest of these is the 1572 publicaion of The Sons of Lusus (Os Lusiados) by Luis de Camoens (1524-80), which tells of the exploratory adventures of Vasco de Gama.
  • A much simpler example in terms of style is The Poem of Araucania (La Araucana) by Alonso de Ercilla y Zuniga, one of the conquistadores of South America. It shows how the resistance of the Chilean Indians was broken down by the Spanish invaders. Its influence can be seen in a scene from Don Quixote. When the curate and the barber are throwing out the trash on his library, they decide to keep La Araucana, saying it was one of the three best heroic poems in Spanish.
  • A third and final example of this type is La Dragontea by Lope de Vega, telling of the last voyage and death of that devilish dragon, Sir France Drake.
  1. Romantic Epics of Medieval Chivalry – These still contained considerable classical influence. It is the blend of knightly adventure, romantic love-stories, and Graeco-Roman enrichments.
  • The best known is The Madness of Roland (Orlando Furioso) published in 1516 by Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). Based in the period of Saracen invasion of France, it is a phantasmagoria in love and adventure of Roland and other champions. It was a continuation and improvement to the work Roland in Love (Orlando Innamorato) by Matteo Maria Boiardo, Count Scandiano (1434-94).
Orlando Ariosot
Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso: Phantasmagoria in love and adventure
  • To rival Ariosto in art and to surpass him in seriousness is The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99). Six books of an intended twelve, each book tells of the adventures of one of Arthur’s knights, who embody a specific moral virtue. As well as Ariosto, elements of Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio’s Theseid are present
  • Torquato Tasso (1544-95) produced The Liberation of Jerusalem, relating to the story of the first crusade. Similar to Ariosto but for one important addition – its introduction of Christian doctrine into the epic. It had a predecessor in The Liberation of Italy from the Goths (La Italia liberate da Gotti) by Giovan Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550), which tells of how the eastern Roman emperor Justinian attacked the Goths who dominated Italy in the sixth century, and defeated them. Tasso more than surpassed Trissino in style and imagination.
  1. Christian Religious Epics – Picking up on themes of Tasso and Trissino, these epics played on myths of Judeo-Christian origin, but were arranged in the classical manner.
  • John Milton (1608-74) produced the best of these types – his Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained published in 1667 and 1671 respectively.

In the above mentioned works, only two can be considered classical in their subject matter -The Franciad of Ronsard and the Theseid of Boccaccio. The former is a failure and the latter still prominently medieval in style. Success was better achieved by adapting classical structure. It did away with wandering incoherence and brought fluidity and flow. Paradise Lost is twelve books to mirror the Aeneid; Spenser’s Faerie Queene was intended to be twelve books also; even Orlando Furioso, rambling as it is, shows more symmetry and order than the Romance of the Rose.

Supernatural Elements

Let us now talk through some of the explicit classical themes used in these epics. We have already mentioned the supernatural spectre or demon in drama, coming from the Aeschylus’ Oresteia and how it was utilised by the likes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth. It holds for epic also. In The Sons of Lusus the spirit of the stormy Cape of Good Hope, Adamastor, Unconquerable appears as a gigantic genie as da Gama makes his way toward India. In the Poem of Araucania the Indian sorcerer Fiton conjures an image of the battle of Lepanto, invoking classical beings such as Cerebus, Orcus and Pluto. The underworld, or hell, is often explicitly mirrored on that of Virgil’s Aeneid 6 – the Faerie Queenewounded Sansjoy’s journey in Spenser’s Faerie Queene Book 1 Canto VI; the Scylla and Gorgons found in Book 4 of Tasso’s The Liberation of Jerusalem.

Another theme that is transferred is the idea of strife being kindled in an enemy camp. The fury Alecto does this job in The Liberation of Jerusalem, as she had done in the Aeneid Book VII. In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso the act is performed by Discordia, the spirit of Strife that started the Trojan War.

A third is the sorceress, in the Odyssey it is Circe, turning her unwary guests to animals within the walls of her palace. In Tasso she appears as Armida; in Spenser, Acrasia (Spenser used Aristotle’s name for incontinence). Tasso also indulges in Ovidian metamorphosis, having the knights in his tale turn to fish, suiting their scaly armour. The metamorphic tradition of the talking tree as bewitched human being, seen in both Dante and Virgil, is seen again in Spenser Book 1 Canto II.

The supernatural in the Christian epic is much likelier to invoke the Bible than the classical deities, though the intervention of angels, as God’s intermediaries, does invoke the minor gods of the classics. Instances include Gabriel asking Godfrey de Bouillon why he is not taking action against te paynims in The Liberation of Jerusalem. In The Liberation of Italy God dispatches the angel Onerio, disguised as the pope, to stir up Justinian against the Goths.

Other supernatural mirrors include Jerusalem 7.99 f. with Iliad 4.68 f. In the former, a devilish phantom persuades one of the pagans to break the truce in the same way as Athene in the latter. In Paradise Lost there is a terrible battle between the angles and devils that has its descriptive origins in Iliad 20-1 as well as the war of the Titans against the Olympians in Hesiod’s Theogony.

Heroic Prophecies and Deeds

Spirits do not appear solely as spectres, but also as guides with a greater vision which they try to dispel to our protagonist. Tasso invokes divine the armour making (as found in the Iliad and the Aeneid) of archangel Michael and shows him the spirits of the dead crusaders of past exploits to help him fulfil his destiny. In The Sons of Lusus a prophetic nymph tells of the future greatness of the East Indies. The grandest of all such prophecies is in Paradise Lost, where on angel reveals the whole temporal past of the universe to Adam, and another the whole future, as far as the Day of Judgement.

The heroic will also mimic their classical forefathers in their deeds – in Orlando Furioso King Norandin rescues his wife from a cattle-keeping ogre by putting on a goatskin and crawling on all fours among the animals, just as Odysseus did in the cave of the Cyclops. Ariosto also is inspired by Ovid – the rescue of Angelica from the sea-monster is inspired by the tale of Perseus and Andromeda as told in the Metamorphoses. La Araucana also mimics Iliad 23 and Aeneid 5 in having the Indians revel in elaborate games in book 10. In all of the above we see a growing reverence to past heroes and an understanding that greatness will mirror the greatness of others. A harmony is created by the similarity of their deeds which are often told in distinct Homeric similes to do homage to the original storyteller of epic

Tasso - Rinaldo and Armida
Armida and Rinaldo by Francesco Hayez: Sorcery and love often fused in the epic

TravelExploration was a strong theme in the Renaissance. It was happening on manuscript in both geographic and cartographic form, and so it is unsurprising that literary figures, inspired by the feats of the great explorers such as Drake or da Gama, would seek to find classical precedent and comparison. In The Sons of Lusus the Portuguese explorers are described by Jupiter as outdoing Ulysses; in The Faerie Queene Paridell recounts the tale of Brute, Aeneas’ descendant who founded Troynovant in Britain to invoke British identity with seaborn shores.

The Portrayal of Women

The portrayal of the damsel in need of rescue is not a particularly classical trope – other

Achilles v Panthesilia
Achilles slays Penthesilea: Tragic woman caught fighting for the wrong side was a classical device

than the example of Perseus and Andromeda mentioned above. A far more interesting classical portrayal of woman is that of the warrior girl – beautiful, virginal, agile – often found fighting on the wrong side of the conflict. The classical world threw out Hippolyta, conquered by Theseus; Penthesilea, slain by Achilles; and Virgil’s own imitation Camilla. For Renaissance writers these fused with real world figures such as Joan of Arc and

Caterina Sforza to create the interesting characters Clorinda in The Liberation of Jerusalem, Bradamante in Orlando Furioso, and most notably Spenser’s Britomart. Tasso’s model of Clorinda also drew close inspiration from the myth of Heliodorus’ Aethiopica – the white daughter of an African queen.

Another fascinating synthesis with classicism is the writer of Renaissance epic’s enthralment to the muses. Dante had invoked them in his Comedy and Tasso completed their Christianisation:

Who dost not with soon-fallen bays

Adorn thy forehead on Mount Helicon,

But high in heaven among the blessed choirs

Hast immortal stars a golden crown


Writing Style

If you echo a phrase from Virgil or Ovid are you lacking in originality? It is an interesting debate – one wish we shall see creeping up again later on in the series. The answer ultimately is that it can be. But done right it is an art. Beautiful words can deepen the meaning and add a new beauty to a passage – the beauty of reminiscence. Let us look at the first words spoken by Satan in Paradise Lost:

If thou beest he – but Oh how fallen! How changed

From him! – Who, in the happy realms of light,

Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine

Myriads, though bright…

This is a deliberate quotation of the words in which Aeneas described the ghost of Hector:

Ah, how he looked! How changed from his old self,

The Hector who brought back Achilles’ armour!

 The evocative art of reminiscent quotation was still used well in the time of Eliot, whose description of a rich and beautiful woman:

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Glowed on the marble…,

is reminiscent of Shakespeare:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Burned on the water…

It was briefly thrown into despair by the romantics insistence on the original, and has in recent times been discredited by a misapplication of scholarship and the decline in classical knowledge. The reader who can recognise these evocations without trouble gains a richer pleasure than the one who cannot. Compared with the classically educated reader of Milton – or for that matter of Shelley or Eliot – the reader who has never interested himself in the classics is like a child reading Dickens ‘for the story’, without understanding the larger significances that are clear to every adult. Still, it can be misused, as in Tasso’s The Liberation of Jerusalem Book 2 with Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid IV.

Yes, we may die, but not die unavenged

It is quite inappropriate to compare Christian heroic sacrifice for the Cross to a pagan princess’ love-torn suicide. Nor too should the references be too obscure. It is the mistake of the poet who is such, not because of the intensity of his though and the variety of meanings he is evoking, but because he wishes to be dignified through obscurity.

When writing specifically Christian epic, it fell to the likes of Milton to create a new style that could balance all of the subtlety mentioned above. One which still drew on the flexibility of the Latin and Greek languages. The Renaissance was closing in his time, his work sits nicely between the likes of Spenser, Ariosto, and Tasso and the more pronounced Baroque writers which would come later. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained were intended to be grand, evocative and sonorous – three different aspects of sublimity. It is worth recalling that Milton was also a musician – hence the elaborate sense of style and harmony which he sought to achieve in his poetry. Milton also comes at the end of the Renaissance epic cycle and could build upon the style of other epic writers such as Orlando Furioso and The Liberation of Jerusalem. As such he could look back on the achievement of Renaissance epic writers as one that just as the Archangel in his Paradise Lost, looked back

Betwixt the world destroyed and world restored