The World’s Best English Epic Poetry – Italicus’ Punic War (in English Translation)

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The world’s best English epic and narrative poetry includes Henry Tytler’s rhymed verse translation of Italicus‘ The Punica a.k.a. The Punic War.  Written in Latin in the first century AD, Italicus recounts in superb verse the epic struggle of Rome with Carthage in the Second Punic War: which ends in the eventual overthrow and destruction of Carthage.

The stage is set as Hannibal crosses the Alps and ravages up and down the Italian peninsula – wasting up to the very gates of Rome. The senate attempts to calm the people of Rome while the wise tactics of Fabius’ generalship start to tell against Hannibal: who is pressed for time, despite the fame of his early victories. However, Hannibal’s tactical genius makes him unstoppable: that is, until command of Romean legions is granted to the younger Scipio Africanus.

  • Hannibal has cut to pieces successive Roman armies: at Trebia, at Trasimene, and finally at Cannae. Still the Romans are gluttons for punishment: and don’t know when to quit. How many more legions does Hannibal have to crush before the Romans see sense and conclude an advantageous peace with a benevolent Carthage?
  • Scipio is a young patrician general with a vengeance: volunteering to lead a relief army to Hispania after a disasterous Roman defeat in which his own father and uncle were killed by forces commanded by Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal. Scipio is brave, no doubt: but surely the youth has no chance against the experienced generalship of one so closely related to Hannibal himself?

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Roman Legion

 

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Cottle’s Alfred

 

King Alfred vs the Danes

Another great poetry must read includes Cottle‘s Alfred. 

Cottle retells the legend of King Alfred the Great in stirring blank verse. The epic includes many well-known episodes , including Alfred’s: narrow escape from being slaughtered when the Danes stormed the royal stronghold at Chippenham, his taking refuge in the marshland stronghold in Somerset, and his reemerging at Egbert’s Stone to once more take the offensive which will finally culminate in Anglo-Saxon victory at the Battle of Edington.

The first scene is set in Denmark: with Ivar swearing to wreak a bloody vengeance on England for the death of his father, Rgnar, at the hands of Ælla of Northumbria.  The second book shifts back to Alfred in Somersetshire: dispersing his army with orders to rendezvous later that year at Selwood Forest.

  • Ragnar had been previously captured by Ælla and thrown into a snakepit to perish. What is the dread revenge Ivar has sworn to carry out on Ælla? Will Ivar succeed?
  • Guthrum’s army fails finally to prevail against Alfred in the field. By the brutal customs of the Norse religion Guthrum must immolate himself on the field of battle. Or can the genius and temperance of Alfred offer his enemy a second alternative?

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Bulwer-Lytton’s The New Timon

London Street

 

Another great poetry must read includes Bulwer-Lytton‘s The New Timon.

Narrated in excellent verse, Bulwer-Lytton tells the story of the live, loves and struggles of the half-caste orphan Morvale in nineteenth century London.

Morvale is rich – but grown bitter against the racist English elite and coldly cynical towards the world in general. His heart is softened only towards his half-sister – Calantha, whom he maintains in his own house; and the poor – for he himself had known extreme poverty in his youth.

Morvale fosters a poor orphaned street-girl named Lucy – bringing her into his home and introducing her as a female companion for his sister. But all is not as it first appears: Lucy is no ordinary poor orphaned-girl: she quickly proves to be both well educated and intelligent. As time unfolds, – Lucy is revealed to possess a previously unsuspected and altogether surprising connection to her new protectors: unknown by all concerned and certainly unsuspected by herself.

  • Lucy was raised by her mother, Mary. But who is her father? Would Lucy really wish to even know his identity: seeing he abandoned the family before her birth?
  • Why does Calantha faint at every mention of the name of Morvale’s good friend, Lord Arden?
  • How do the sins of Lord Arden’s youth – revealed in confidence to Morvale himself – tie himself, Morvale, Calantha, and even Lucy into an inextricable web of lies, deceit, and blood-debt?

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Bulwer-Lytton’s Glenaveril

 

Swiss Alps

Another great poetry must read includes Bulwer-Lytton‘s Glenaveril.

Lord Ivor Glenaveril is born into tragedy: his father dies in a hunting accidnet the day he is born – the latest death in a long series of mortal calamities afflicting the Lords Gelenaveril over generations: so notes his studious but kindly grandfather, Professor Ludwig Elderath.

For Ivor’s birth, his mother – Eleanor – was staying in the guest-house of a recently widowed friend – Mary Muller. A strong, mutual friendship had sprung up between the two women: and as both were pregnant and near their time: they had intended to remain near at hand to lend mutual support during their respective childbirths. As it happened, the two mothers give birth on the same day: but to Eleanor’s sorrow, Mary dies shortly after delivering a healthy newborn son – who she names Emanuel. Although Eleanor is willing – even eager – to foster and raise Emanuel as her own: Emanuel’s relatives quickly intervene, and Emanuel is given to be raised by his spinster aunt – Martha Muller. Martha insists that her nephew be raised to become a Lutheran pastor and  take the place of his deceased father: so saying, she thanks the Countess Eleanor, and returns to the continent with her swaddling nephew.

But Eleanor does not forget Emanuel: and over the years she contrives opportunities for the her son to remain in contact with Emanuel: inviting Emanuel over to stay on various occasions. A fast friendship springs up between the two young men: which remains steadfast over time, despite differences in temperament, outlook, and upbringing.

And so it comes about that when both men are new-come into their majority: the pair decide to travel abroad together for a time: commencing with a walking tour of the Alps. As a friendship-pact they exchange names: Emanuel everywhere introducing himself – and acting the part of – Lord Glenaveril, while Ivor answers only Reverend Muller. But what will be the consequences of such play-acting?

  • Emanuel is being courted by Cordelia – but Emanuel cares for her not at all. When Ivor sees her he himself becomes quickly enamoured: but how can Ivor satisfy the simultaneous demands of friendship and romance?
  • Emanuel enjoys immensely playing at being a Lord: being tired of the constraints of the pastorate. Ivor similarly enjoys shedding the burdens of lordship: which he finds dull and enervating. Can their voluntary role-swop ever become anything more than a temporary reprieve from crushing responsibilities? Even if it could: would either of the twain welcome the change if it were to become permanent?

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Lytton’s Apple of Life

 

King Solomon

Another great poetry must read includes Lytton‘s The Apple of Life, published under the pseudonym “Owen Meredith“. In this fantastic poem, King Solomon is presented with a most peculiar problem.

King Solomon is at the height of his power and glory: monarch of mighty kingdom situated at the trading crossroads of the Orient – Solomon has everything he desires. Or has he? For when the Angel of Death presents the king with an apple from the Tree of Life in Eden – saying that whosoever eats thereof will live forever – Solomon is presented with a precarious choice.

Solomon – wisest amongst the rulers of his age – quickly realises the potential – and the perils – of such a gift. As Solomon ponders what to do, he poses to himself the following questions:

  • Is living forever in a fallen world a blessing to be envied? Or a curse to be shunned?
  • Will living forever on earth be a blessing of greater wisdom and perspective – or a greater suffering as everyone and everything one knows gradually passes out of existence?

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The World’s Best English Epic Poetry – Swinburne’s Tale of Balen

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The world’s best English epic and narrative poetry includes Swinburne‘s The Tale of Balen. In superlative verse, Swinburne recounts the life and deeds of Sir Balen of Arthur’s court: and how his fate is caught up irrevocably with that of his brother, Sir Balan.

Balen and Balan are both brothers and friends: sworn to service in King Arthur’s court. Sworn to serve and honour Arthur: blood however proves thicker than water – for Sir Balan loyally accompanies his brother into exile when the king’s judgement falls adversely upon Sir Balen over his slaying of a witch in Arthur’s court.

For a time, the twain continue questing together: until one day they separate – never to behold the features of the other until their death-day.

  • Balen is valiant but impetuous. Can his brother Balan succeed in moderating Balen’s temper and mitigating his rash judgements?
  • Balen has sworn never to raise sword or weapon against his brother. But is mere human resolution proof against the wiles of Fate?

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Knight in armour

 

 

Khayyám’s Rubáiyát

Book into another world

Another great poetry must read includes Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát. Translated from the original medieval Persian by Edward Fitzgerald, Khayyám’s beautiful quatrains continue to charm and inspire readers worldwide.

Khayyám’s writings are pervaded by the consciousness of the transient quality of life. Speaking to us via his Rubáiyát, the author ponders the limits of human knowledge and morality: and confronts his readers with the more difficult questions that arise in every generation:

  • what are the ultimate benefits to be derived from human knowledge?
  • what happens to my soul when I die?
  • why did God – the Creator – give me existence?

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