Book Review: From Virgil to Milton by C.M. Bowra

From Virgil to Milton by C.M. Bowra

Bowra takes on four the great epics of the European literary tradition: Virgil’s Aeneid, Camões’s Os Lusiadas, Tasso’sGerusalemme liberata, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. His examination of each one individually reveals both the distinctive features of each as well as what unites them all.

As he exposes in his commentary, Western epic is essentially a study in heroism. It is a means by which the sort of man which any culture or period holds as its ideal can be exhibited and celebrated. While each of the heroes in each of these epics hold certain virtues in common — courage, for instance, is an universally valued virtue — there are at other points some fascinating differences.

While both Virgil and Tasso, for example, are especially focused on painting their picture of the ideal man, and this ideal man is in both instances a warrior and a leader, Virgil’s picture is of a man who is stoical and war-weary while Tasso’s exhibits a more vigorous, passionate sort of person. Both Milton and Camões depart somewhat from the study of the individual in favor of another pattern; in Milton’s case this is the movement of the conflict in an epic from the historical and national to the eternal and cosmic and in Camões’s case the focus is on an national rather than a personal type.

While his commentary is always insightful, I particularly appreciate Bowra’s principles and approach. In contrast to the bizarre bulk of literary analysts and critics today who chop and trounce their way through the great works of literature by using them as a launching point for second-rate psychologizing or else eliminating the individual element altogether in favor of attributing the existence of each work to its historical, material circumstances, Bowra allows the author to speak for himself. He takes the author as a whole man, as a complex amalgam of heritage, experience, and, what is often forgotten, creativity and chosen originality, and attempts to discern what it is the author is telling us, including both what he desires to tell us and what the tells about himself and his circumstances without conscious intent.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the classics of literature, especially to those interested in epics.

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