Why does Fielding define Joseph Andrews as a "comic epic-poem in prose"?

Henry Fielding defines Joseph Andrews as a "comic epic-poem in prose" to emphasize that an epic can be written in prose, that this novel has epic qualities, and that humor can have a serious intent. He aims to distinguish his novel from lighter comedies, which he classifies as "burlesque."

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In the preface to his novel Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding sets out to characterize this particular work and locate it in reference to similar works. At the time Fielding was writing, the novel as a genre was in its infancy, and Fielding sought both to help his readers understand his goals and to deflect criticism.

Fielding uses the term "comic epic poem in prose" to explain Joseph Andrews, which he regarded as a serious satire, and similar works. While the traditional or classical epic was written in poetry, Fielding does not regard that as a defining characteristic. He believes that prose can be equally well suited to the purposes of the epic, which is vast in scope, characters, and themes. Fielding references Homer's Odyssey as a kind of gold standard to which his work could be compared. He also claims that Homer wrote a comic work that was later lost.

Fielding advocates for humor as befitting the goals of the epic. Far from being out of place, the comic aspects in a grandly conceived work may be the most effective elements for bringing attention to the foibles of humankind. No matter what a person's status in life, they are likely to engage in activities that merit criticism. He notes that "life everywhere furnishes an accurate observer with the ridiculous." Not every comic form is serious in intent, he clarifies, and his new work should be distinguished from burlesque and romance.

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