Mind your language

Epics are hard and dull – but today’s are ‘great’ and ‘nice’

20 April 2019

9:00 AM

20 April 2019

9:00 AM

Spoiler alert: in Henry Fielding’s play Tom Thumb, the hero is swallowed by a cow ‘of larger than the usual size’. Before this tragic end comes a scene between Princess Huncamunca and Lord Grizzle, who declares: ‘Oh, Huncamunca, Huncamunca, oh! / Thy pouting Breasts, like Kettle-Drums of Brass, / Beat everlasting loud Alarms of Joy.’ At this the Haymarket Theatre roared, for Fielding was parodying a line widely mocked two months earlier, in February 1730, during the ten-day run of the tragedy Sophonisba by James Thomson, where Masinissa (King of Numidia) exclaims: ‘Oh! Sophonisba, Sophonisba, oh!’ It might not sound worth mocking now, but in 1730 theatre-goers, had to bear quite a lot of cod classicism.

Sophonisba was on my mind because Gian Giorgio Trissino, the Renaissance dramatist who first made a tragedy of her life, was particularly proud of his long poem L’Italia Liberata, and I have just stumbled across a splendidly laconic dismissal of it in the Monthly Review, 250 years after its composition, as ‘a tedious epopea, of which Belisarius is the hero’. After all that trouble writing it.

Epopea or epopee is the species of poetry otherwise known as epic. C.S. Lewis assumed (like some optimistic algorithm on Amazon) that anyone who liked Paradise Lost would also like the Thebaid of Statius, the Psychomachia of Prudentius, the epics of Ariosto, Tasso and Boiardo, the Lusiads of Camoens, and Du Bartas translated by Sylvester. I have not often found this to be the case.

Epics are hard and dull, yet epic is today’s chosen adjective of approbation, sharing a semantic field with great and nice. Such words come and go. Groovy is now hard to say without irony, as is super, and cool often signifies little more than assent. I doubt I’ll be able to adopt epic before it drops out of fashion.

Last week I mentioned that the OED had misprinted the word divining in passing as diving. Scarcely had The Spectator hit the news-stands than the OED emailed to say the error had been corrected. I feel a little guilty for my public act of misprint-shaming, but I’m impressed by the agility of online publishing.

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