Form and genre
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The Renaissance notion of hierarchies of being was replicated in their literary attitudes. Poetic ‘kinds’ or genres were ranged in ascending order from simple lyrics up to the highest, the ‘heroic poem’ or epic. To write epic was, precisely, to be the most heroic of literary practitioners. For Dryden ‘A Heroic poem, truly such, is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform’ [1697, ii 223]. Not surprisingly, in the Renaissance effort to emulate classical achievements the writing of a Christian epic was high on the agenda: it had to be the literary equal of Homer and Virgil while surpassing them in Christian ‘truth’ [see Greene, 1963]. Before Milton in England no poet had achieved this desirable fusion. Even Spenser’s Faerie Queene, while inspirational for Milton, could be regarded as more romance than epic, and anyway it was unfinished. For many years Milton cast around for both a topic and a form for his major work, but his final determination upon a biblical subject in epic fulfilled at once his own ambitions and — as articulated by Sidney’s Defence of Poetry  — a national dream.
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