On 16 July 2011, I was sitting by the pool of my apartment, watching my daughters swim, and reading The Western Canon by Harold Bloom, when I read the following passages which sparked my desire to compose the Hermead, my epic poem about Philosophers and Scientists as the great cultural heroes worthy of epic treatment.
Giambattista Vico, in his New Science, posited a cycle of three phases – Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic – followed by a chaos out of which a New Theocratic Age would at last emerge.
My historical sequence begins with Dante. … Thus, I have begun the Aristocratic Age with Shakespeare, because he is the central figure of the Western Canon …
Vico did not postulate a Chaotic Age before the ricorso or return of a second Theocratic Age; but our century, while pretending to continue the Democratic Age, cannot be better characterized than as Chaotic.
As an actor-playwright, Shakespeare necessarily depended upon aristocrats for patronage and protection, and his politics – if pragmatically he had any – were appropriate for the pinnacle of the long Aristocratic Age (in the Viconian sense) that I have posited as going from Dante through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and concluding with Goethe. The politics of the young Wordsworth and of William Blake are those of the French Revolution and herald the next age, the Democratic, that touches apotheosis in Whitman and the American canon and reaches its final expression with Tolstoy and Ibsen.
Western, canonical lyric poetry seems to me to have only two such figures: Petrarch, who invented Renaissance poetry, and Wordsworth, who can be said to have invented modern poetry, which has been a continuum for two full centuries now. To employ Vico’s terms … Petrarch created the lyric poetry of the Aristocratic Age, which culminated with Goethe. Wordsworth inaugurated the blessing/curse of poetry in the Democratic/Chaotic Eras, which is that poems are “about” nothing. Their subject is the subject herself or himself, whether manifested as a presence or as an absence.
Petrarch invented what John Freccero termed the poetry of idolatry; Wordsworth started anew on a tabula rasa of poetry, as William Hazlitt observed, and filled that blank slate with the self, or more precisely with the memory of the self. In the second Theocratic Age, which I anxiously follow Vico in prophesying as imminent, I assume that poetry will cast aside aristocratic idolatry and democratic memory alike and return to a more restricted, devotional function, though I wonder if the object of devotion will always be called God.
Wordsworth invented modern or democratic poetry as surely as Petrarch inaugurated Renaissance poetry. There are always shadows, even on the strongest and most original poets; Petrarch was haunted by Dante, even as Wordsworth, in his major phase, could never evade Milton. Here Vico’s prophecy is again illuminating; the Theocratic Age exalts the gods, the Aristocratic Age celebrates heroes, the Democratic Age mourns and values human beings. There was for Vico no Chaotic Age, only a Chaos during which the recourse to a Theocratic Age would commence. In my own view, our century has enshrined chaos in our long postponement (may it last!) of a new Theocratic Era. After gods, heroes, humans, there remain only cyborgs, and I gaze in rapt alarm at muscular Terminators crowding out the human.
Here is where I proclaimed, while sitting by the pool, that the subject of the next great epic could be inventors, philosophers, and scientists, and I went inside and began to compose the Hermead:
Scientists researching nature and man,
sing, Muse Kalliope, about arcane progress
of inventive magicians, wizards, druids,
philosophers, alchemists, and physicists,
bright curious people who study our world
and organize knowledge in holy books
to record wisdom gleaned by supple minds
as they experiment on sacred quest
to discover truth and invent better ways
we perform tasks to rule civilization
that programs actions of each crafting hand.
Hermead Epic of Philosophers
126,000 lines of blank verse
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