Epic poems are hard to come by, and no wonder. Traditionally they are long, dense, stern, heroic, imbued with sentiment, written in language ranging from dignified to majestic, charged with conflict and all but impervious to anything coarse or comic. Nobody knows how long Homer labored over “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” or how long Virgil pored over “The Aeneid,” which runs to 12 books. Goethe started on Faust in his youth but kept polishing it into his 80s. The “Divine Comedy” proceeds for an even 100 cantos through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise; the Mahabharata of India swarms with 90,000 couplets. And in all but the epics of the spirit world, each is steeped in the milieu of its particular and specific region: “Beowulf” is Old English; the “Nibelungenlied” is German; the “Kalevala” is Finnish; “El Cid,” Spanish; the Arthurian legends, English; “Cuchulainn,” the oldest epic poem of Western Europe, is as Irish as Connemara.
We, a relatively young country, have produced few epic poems, notably “The Song of Hiawatha,” for whose meter Henry Wadsworth Longfellow borrowed the fine four-footed trochaic beat of the “Kalevala,” and Stephen Vincent Benet’s “John Brown’s Body.” The vigorous, mural-minded epic, “A Cycle of the West,” written by the late John G. Neihardt and published by a university press against prevailing winds in the book industry, helps to make up for this deficit.
It was a work that occupied Neihardt for 29 years, during which time he produced 505 pages of rhymed iambic pentameter, a prodigious feat considering that very few of the couplets betray forced or awkward rhyming partners. The narrative flows like the Missouri, Neihardt’s favorite river, through 40 panels of the “Cycle’s” cyclorama of characters, landscapes, seasons, wars and “tales of struggle, triumph and defeat.”
Neihardt is best known for “Black Elk Speaks,” the biography of the Lakota visionary and healer. In the introduction to “A Cycle of the West,” he tells us that his maternal grandparents were “covered wagon people” and that as a boy he lived in a sod house. “If I write of hot winds and grasshoppers, of prairie fires and blizzards, of dawns and noons and sunsets and nights, of brooding heat and thunderstorms in vast lands, I knew them early.”
Much of the work is vivid, haunting, at times heart-rending, with surges of power and beauty especially evocative to naturalists, topographers and readers who find common ground with Henry David Thoreau. Neihardt is at once poet, dramatist, historian, cicerone, moralist and Greek chorus. His canvas teems with characters real and invented, some Bunyanesque, and mingled among them are recognizable figures such as George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, various Great White Fathers and soldiers named Fetterman, Powell, Harrington and Carrington.
“Cycle” contains five narrative segments: “The Song of Three Friends,” “The Song of Hugh Glass,” “The Song of Jed Smith,” “The Song of the Indian Wars” and “The Song of the Messiah.” In each, Neihardt’s pentameter is firmly in charge. Even the brogue of a brawny Irishman, Mike Fink, who represents the work’s only approach to comic relief, speaks the meter:
Nor did I git me hand back from the slap
I give him till he landed on my glim,
And I was countin’ siventeen of him
And ivry dancin’ wan of him was air!
Faith, whin I hit him he was niver there;
And sure it seemed that ivry wind that blew
Was peltin’ knuckles in me face. Hurroo!
This grand mosaic of frontier days: of trappers and furriers and their hard-bitten lives; of a frenzied bear that almost kills one of them; of the telling -- still, rather doggedly, in iambs -- of a poker game; of a terrifying prairie fire and even more terrible battles in serial wars to dispossess Indians; of idealized dignity and noble speeches by chiefs; of the perfidy of bumbling Great White Fathers. And it is all this compounded in terms as lofty as they are emotional. (It is a measure of Neihardt’s ambition and imagining of the “Cycle” that he wrote the dedication of an opening segment in untranslated Greek.)
Though Neihardt’s focus is historic, he is still sensitive to the land and to the seasons, and his language is similarly majestic. “Bull-roaring March had swept across the land,” he writes in one instance. “A gently grieving thing like April rain,” in another. And "... May sickened into June ....” And when he lengthens his stride, the effect is equally stirring,
... The curtain of the storm began to fray:
The poplars’ howling softened to a croon;
The sun set clear, and dusk revealed the moon
A thin-blown bubble in a crystal bowl
Neihardt is severe at times. In a segment titled “The Yellow God,” he writes of the Gold Rush:
And through the cities went the singing lure,
Where drearily the human welter squirms
Like worms that lick the slime of other worms
That all may flourish. ...
Sell the family cow!
Go pawn the homestead! Life was knocking now!
There might not ever be another knock.
Bring forth the hoarding of the hidden sock,
Pour coppers from the dear dead eyes of Joy!
Go seek the god that weighs the soul by troy;
Be saved, and let the devil take the rest!
It would be a joy to report no downside to Neihardt’s enterprise, but even Homer nods. There are outcroppings of archaisms and inversions: “But hark!”; “of evil hap”; “the swoln Missouri’s flank”; “It came to pass” (eight times); “conspirant with the overbending skies”; “the litten smoke”; “there lurked some crouchant thing”; “tempestuously broke the day.” But such infelicitous turns are outnumbered by passages of grace and authority.
In the final chapter, “The Song of the Messiah,” Neihardt abandons narrative course and sublimates his story to a stirring apotheosis steeped in metaphysical religiosity. It deals at length with The Holy One, The Everlasting Word, the Savior, the Holy Tree, The Nations of the Dead, “a shining that was not the sun’s,” “the faith that grasses know,” Wakatanka (The Great Spirit) and ultimately Jesus.
... it was He! That starry calm
Was on His face. In either lifted palm
A white scar gleamed; and there upon His side
The wound Wasichus gave Him when He died
Was like a scarlet flower ....
The ending raises an issue, not about separation of church and statement but about what may be construed as incompatible with what has preceded it. While in keeping with Neihardt’s literary temperament, it becomes from today’s perspective perhaps too metaphysical. Whether such an engagement enhances or damages the work becomes a matter of the reader’s taste. Whatever the resolution -- temporal, historical or religious -- this long-jointed poem is an extraordinary transit of terrain, not tidied by airplane-window perspectives but through vast, rugged, challengingly inhospitable terrain, scarred by struggle, massacre and war: an epic that is by turns vivid, exalted, devastating, bloody and beautiful.