In its strict use by literary critics, the term epic or heroic poem is applied to a work that meets at least the following criteria: it is a long narrative poem on a great and serious subject, related in an elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depend the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race. The “traditional epics” (also called “primary epics” or “folk epics”) were shaped by a literary artist from historical and legendary materials, which had developed in the oral traditions of his nation during a period of expansion and warfare. To this group are ascribed the Iliad and Odyssey of the Greek Homer, and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf. Sophisticated craftsmen in deliberate imitation of the traditional form composed the “literary” or “secondary” epics. Of this kind is Virgil’s poem The Aeneid, which later served as the chief model for Milton’s literary epic Paradise Lost; and Paradise Lost in turn became a model for Keats’s fragmentary epic Hyperion, as well as for Blake’s several epics, or “prophetic books” (the Four Zoas, Milton, Jerusalem) which undertook to translate into Blake’s own mythic terms the biblical design and materials which had served as Miltons subject matter.
Aristotle ranked the epic as second only to tragedy, and by Renaissance critics as the highest genre of all. The literary epic is certainly the most ambitious of poetic types, making immense demands on a poet’s knowledge, invention, and skill to sustain the scope, grandeur, and variety of a poem that tends to encompass the world of its day and a large portion of its learning. Despite numerous attempts over nearly three thousand years, we possess no more than a half dozen epic poems of indubitable greatness. Literary epics are highly conventional poems, which commonly share the features, derived ultimately from the traditional epics of homer. Why does the author say that the literary epic is “the most ambitious of poetic types”?