The best epics by women selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
The Iliad, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost – these are some of the titles that immediately spring to mind when we think of epic poetry. But this ignores the contributions made to epic poetry by women writers over the millennia. Here are seven of the best classic epic poems written by women.
Enheduanna, The Descent of Inanna. Although the authorship of this epic poem is difficult to know for sure, if Enheduanna was the author of this poem, as has been suggested, that makes it the oldest work of poetry written by any named poet, male or female. Enheduanna was a Sumerian high priestess who lived in the 23rd century BC – that’s around 1,500 years before Homer. She lived in the city of Ur (in modern-day Iraq), and was a priestess of the Sumerian moon god Nanna. This poem describes the goddess Inanna’s descent into the underworld – Inanna being the daughter of Nanna, and the Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, fertility, and wisdom, among other things. Although it’s a short work (it runs to little over 400 lines), it contains many of the elements we associate with epic poetry, and elements of the story are found in the later myths of the descent of Ishtar and the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. You can read a modern English translation of the poem here.
Faltonia Betitia Proba, Cento vergilianus de laudibus Christi. This poem, whose full title translates as A Virgilian Cento Concerning the Glory of Christ, is often known simply as the Cento. Written in the fourth century AD, the poem uses verses by Virgil in a re-ordered form to create an epic poem about the life of Jesus. (A cento is a work of poetry wholly comprising the work of another author or authors.) The resultant poem is then both a cento and a kind of epic poem, somewhere between Christian devotional poetry and Virgilian epic. Proba converted to Christianity as an adult, and wrote her Cento as a declaration of her faith.
Anna Seward, Telemachus. ‘Still bright Calypso breathes the pregnant sigh, / The tear still trembles in her pensive eye…’ Seward (1742-1809), who also wrote this wonderful poem about a dying cat, began an English translation of the French writer François Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque (1699), a didactic French novel focusing on the son of Odysseus, and the secondary hero of Homer’s great epic The Odyssey. Seward never completed her epic retelling of Fénelon’s novel, but the portion she did write has been published in The Collected Poems of Anna Seward. Fénelon’s novel, and Seward’s epic poetic version of his novel, seeks to fill in some of the narrative gaps in Homer’s poem concerning Telemachus’ adventures. Seward considered it to be her masterpiece.
Mary Tighe, Psyche. This 1805 poem, written using the Spenserian stanza form originated by Edmund Spenser in his Elizabethan epic poem The Faerie Queene, is about a princess named Psyche who is worshipped by her subjects, who believe her to be the goddess Venus. Venus, jealous of the attention Psyche is receiving, sends Cupid to Psyche, with orders to make Psyche fall in love with a monster. However, Cupid ends up falling in love with her…
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh. Barrett Browning’s love affair with epic poetry began at a young age: when she was just twelve years old, she wrote The Battle of Marathon, an epic poem about the battle between the Greeks and Persians in 490 BC. But her crowning achievement in the genre would be her long blank-verse novel Aurora Leigh (1857), about an aspiring female poet. Although it’s often considered a verse novel, Aurora Leigh contains elements of epic poetry. The best edition of Barrett Browning’s poem is Aurora Leigh (Oxford World’s Classics).
H. D., Helen in Egypt. This 1961 poem is on a similar scale to Ezra Pound’s modern(ist) epic, The Cantos – and H. D. had been an associate of Pound’s during his Imagist phase in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. But this epic poem is on an altogether greater scale than the Imagist poem, and takes as its theme the alternative theory that Helen of Troy was not a Greek princess but an Egyptian woman. An important work of late modernism, and one of the great epic poems of the twentieth century.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Annie Allen. This is a volume of poetry by the African-American poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), published in 1949. The book is divided into three sections, with the middle section being titled ‘The Anniad’, pointing up the poem’s link with classical epic poetry and wryly twisting the name of Virgil’s Aeneid. Annie Allen is a poor black girl growing up in America, encountering racism and poverty and becoming older, wiser, and less innocent. The book earned Brooks the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, making her the first African-American writer of either gender to receive the prize.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Statue of Enheduanna by Ramblings of the Claury, via Wikimedia Commons.