The Races of Poetry: Pursuing Identity in the Epic Poems of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, and Dante

Gray, Erik I.

It is worth inquiring why races form such a frequent poetic trope: what is the significance of this image? In what follows, I begin with a cluster of elegiac examples stretching from William Wordsworth to A. E. Housman. Read in light of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the death instinct, these suggest a fundamental connection between racing and poetic form, both of which exhibit a distinctive tendency towards closure that exists in tension with their natural forward impetus. I then turn to the particular case of epic, arguing that the image of the racer that pervades the epic tradition is almost invariably associated with the loss or blurring of individual identity. It seems fair to say that identity – whether in the sense of personal glory (kleos) sought by Achilles and the other heroes of the Iliad; or in the sense of family identity sought by Odysseus and Telemachus; or in the sense of national identity sought by Aeneas and his Trojans – forms the chief object of most epic endeavor. At the same time most epics tend to challenge or question the notion of identity and the possibility of drawing distinctions between different peoples (or even, in the case of the Metamorphoses, different species). The racing motif is therefore central to the meaning of epic, just as it serves, at a broader level, as one of the representative tropes of all of poetry.


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Essays in Criticism

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Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Oxford University Press
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May 7, 2015