An epic (eh-PIC) poem is a long, typically novel-length, poetic work. It is a type of narrative poem, which tells a story, typically in third-person point of view, through the typical conventions of poetry. The conventions include rhyme, meter, or some other aural device, and they are used to make the tale more engaging and memorable. Epics tend to follow a hero who represents a perfect citizen of their culture. These stories are of cultural, historical, and religious importance.
The History of the Epic Poem
Epic poetry has roots in oral tradition, which predates the written word and was the way culture and history were preserved. Although a cuneiform version (character-based inscriptions) of The Epic of Gilgamesh was written between 1300 and 1000 BC, the story may have been told as early as 2150 BC. It was likely court singers who performed and passed down the story, preserving it until it finally appeared in written form.
The Trojan Epics
Homer, author of the epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, was likely a court singer or a bard. Little is known about his personal history; some scholars hold that Homer couldn’t have been just one person. His epics brought to life the stories of the Trojan War, though certainly the adventures of Achilles and Odysseus were told long before 700 BC, the rough date of Homer’s works.
Virgil, a Roman poet, took inspiration from the Homeric epics and penned The Aeneid, an epic poem in dactylic hexameter. It too told the story of the Trojan War and its aftermath. This is perhaps the first well-known epic that was first written, rather than an orally told story that was eventually passed down.
Other Early Epics
Epics are stories that distill entire histories and cultures into something tangible and engaging. They deal with themes and archetypes that everyone recognizes. With cultural pride, people could see themselves in the humanity of these poems’ heroes while aspiring to their divinity.
The Mahābhārata is the longest poem in history. It tells the story of ancient India, the Kurukshetra War, and the fates of two families. The poem started as a tale (or perhaps several) told to entertain audiences. It was recorded in Sanskrit around 400 BC and now stands as an important source of Hindu beliefs and history.
The well-known Beowulf was a long-sung Germanic tale that found its way to the printed page between the 8th and 11th centuries. It follows the life of the heroic Beowulf and his encounters with monsters on his way to becoming a king.
Two of the most notable English epic poems are Paradise Lost by John Milton and Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written in 1663 and 1885 respectively. Paradise Lost concerns the biblical creation and fall of man, while Tennyson’s epic recounts tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The Criteria for an Epic Poem
Because epics predate the written word, not every criterion is met in the older works. But, there are several common aspects worth noting.
The epic poem is told by a third-person omniscient narrator, meaning they can see everything that occurs in the epic’s universe, including the thoughts and actions of all the characters. The story begins in media res—Latin for “in the middle of things”—so the narrator often begins by summing up any rising action that occurred before the poem’s beginning. The hero is also introduced in the beginning, as is the main theme or moral.
Epic poetry can be a helpful tool in understanding the religious and moral beliefs of a people at a point in history. The story’s hero protagonist is the embodiment of a culture’s ideals; the seemingly insurmountable obstacles they face often represent cultural challenges or concerns identified by the author.
Epic poems often take place in the far-distant past. They are sweeping tales with flowery language and long speeches. Readers are taken all around the world of the epic. This often includes visits to the underworld or some other form of afterlife, as death and mortality are common themes. Readers can expect to see the protagonist interact with deities or other religious figures who can alter the course of events. A character will often make a dramatic plea for the deities’ help.
The Hero’s Journey
This type of story—a classic structure of an epic poem—has pervaded literature, art, and popular culture since Gilgamesh (if not before). The story begins by introducing the reader to life as it always has been. From there, the hero is called into action, which is initially refused. The final ordeal is the most difficult and dangerous task the hero faces, though they end up rising to the occasion and setting things right.
Look at the classic animated film The Lion King. It begins by showcasing the “circle of life,” wherein animals are accustomed to the predator and prey dynamic. This is best depicted by the celebration of birth of Simba, a lion cub whose father Mufasa is King of the Pride Lands. Simba is the hero of this tale. His call to action comes when Mufasa is tragically killed in a plot by his brother (and Simba’s uncle) Scar. Because Scar leads Simba to believe the young cub had caused his father’s death, Simba retreats to the desert. There, he encounters a meerkat (Timon) and warthog (Pumbaa) who guide him through his adolescence in the grasslands. In the rising action, Simba is reunited with his childhood friend Nala, who tells him that he must return to save the Pride Lands because Scar has taken over and made things miserable. Simba initially refuses, until an encounter with his father’s ghost convinces him to confront his fears and accept his responsibilities. Simba returns home and battles his uncle to reclaim his rightful place on the throne. With Scar’s defeat, Simba completes his hero’s journey and saves his home.
Some type of rhythm, rhyme, or other poetic device is usually employed in an epic poem. This is likely due to its history in oral tradition, which used poetic techniques to keep the tales easy to remember and recite.
Meter is the rhythmic structure of a poem based on the number and arrangement of stressed syllables in a line of poetry. Old English meter, as in Beowulf, used strong stresses, long pauses, and lots of alliteration. Ancient Latin and Greek poetry used dactylic hexameter. This type of meter is based around a dactyl, a metrical foot comprised of one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and the works of Ovid are composed in this meter.
While this meter might not work as well in English, Longfellow used it in his epic poem “Evangeline.” He was harshly criticized for it, as it sounds sing-songy and unnatural. Consider the first couple lines, where the stressed syllables are bolded for emphasis:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the
Rhyme scheme can be a major component of epic poetry. Italian poet Dante Alighieri invented the terza rima rhyme scheme in his Divine Comedy trilogy. This form is written in tercets—blocks of three lines—with an interweaving rhyme scheme. In the first tercet, the first and third lines rhyme; in the second tercet, the first and third lines rhyme with the first tercet’s second line; the third tercet’s first and third lines rhyme with the second tercet’s second line of the second tercet; and so on. While this works well in Italian, where most words end in vowel sounds, it is not so easily reproduced in English.
After the 16th century, most English epic poetry was written in blank, or unrhymed, verse using iambic pentameter This is considered the meter that comes closest to natural English speech; Shakespeare wrote most of his plays in this style. Each line of iambic pentameter contains five feet that include an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. These lines from John Milton’s Paradise Lost are an example, with the stressed syllables bolded for emphasis:
Receive thy new Possessor: one who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by place or time.
Common Characters in Epic Poems
Most epics have a central epic hero. This character is often of noble or divine birth. They have naturally gifted skill sets, if not outright supernatural powers. Though the heroes are legends in their homelands at the beginning of the story, they remain humble and focused on the monumental task at hand. This hero often has a loved one they’ll be reunited with at their quest’s end. This supporting character embodies purity and fidelity. Another character is a guide or companion who helps the hero through their journey by providing company and perspective.
Of course, not every character aids the hero. Most epic poems have a “shadow,” a character who shares some of the hero’s characteristics but whose shortcomings the hero must avoid to complete their quest. In Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Lancelot is King Arthur’s shadow, as the former’s weakness stands in opposition of Arthur’s purity. Some characters are purely oppositional, such as the “threshold guardian.” In The Odyssey, when Odysseus finally arrives home, he is met with Penelope’s many suitors. To reclaim his rightful station, he must fight them.
Post-19th Century Epic Poems
In the late 19th century, literature was influenced by humanism, an ideology that emphasizes the individual over the prescription of church and state. Epic poets wrote works that centered themselves and rebelled against a culture rather than celebrating it.
In his 1855 opus, Song of Myself, Walt Whitman purposefully breaks many rules of the epic poem by writing in first person and free verse. But, he fits many other epic criteria. The story begins in media res. He’s on a hero’s journey of self-discovery, though the world he travels through and the supernatural beings he encounters are internal. In lieu of a traditional guide, mentor, or deity character, Whitman turns to his own mind for aid. He conjures up images to facilitate understanding for himself and others.
In 1937’s In Parenthesis, David Jones draws from his military experiences to convey the feelings of isolation created by combat. He relates this to the overall human experience, inviting the reader to ask more questions and use wars and other injustices as an opportunity to explore their own virtue.
In 1950, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda published Canto General, a re-appropriation of Western history from a Hispanic perspective. He asserts himself and his culture in a realm previously dominated by white people of Western-European descent.
Notable Epic Poets
Many of the earlier epic poems cannot be attributed to an author, and an epic can be an author’s entire life’s work, but here are some poets known for writing epics.
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
- Hesiod, Works and Days, Theogony
- Homer, The Iliad, The Odyssey
- Kālidāsa, Kumārasambhava, Raghuvaṃśa
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline and others
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained
- Ovid, Metamorphoses
- Percy Bysshe Shelly, Queen Mab and others
- Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
- Virgil, The Aeneid
Examples of Epic Poetry
1. Virgil, The Aeneid
Inspired by the works of Homer, Virgil composed an epic poem also based around the Trojan War. Virgil’s work follows the hero Aeneas, the mythological ancestor of the Roman people, as his Trojan fleet searches for a place where they can settle. At the outset, the reader finds Aeneas speaking to his companion Achates, trying to make sense of the ruins of war:
Pensive he stood, and with a rising tear,
“What lands, Achates, on the earth, but know
Our labours? See our Priam! Even here
Worth wins her due, and there are tears to flow,
And human hearts to feel for human woe.
2. Dante Alighieri, Inferno
The epic Inferno is written in first person, so it reads almost like autobiography. The protagonist Dante encounters the ghost of his hero, Virgil, at the end of the first canto (or verse). Virgil calls Dante to action, inviting him to embark on a journey through Hell and Purgatory to the Kingdom of God:
Therefore I judge it best that you should choose
To follow me, and I will be your guide
Away from here and through an eternal place:
To hear the cries of despair, and to behold
Ancient tormented spirits as they lament
In chorus the second death they must abide.
3. Okot p’Bitek, Song of Lawino
Like Walt Whitman, Ugandan poet p’Bitek didn’t conform to the formality of certain poetic forms. The entire poem is an invocation of sorts: Lawino’s husband, Ocol, has taken a new wife who conformed to Western influence. Lawino begs Ocol—and, metaphorically, the entirety of liberated Africa—to preserve and celebrate his Acholi culture, rather than surrender to the Western ways.
I do not like dusting myself
The thing is good on pink skin
Because it is already pale
But when a black woman has
She looks as if she has dysentery;
4. Giannina Braschi, Empire of Dreams
Born in Puerto Rico, Braschi weaves a complex Valentine to her new home, New York City, where she finally settled after living all over Europe. Empire of Dreams takes readers on a journey, from the narrator’s subconscious to the Empire State Building through alternate realities. Braschi explores issues of gender, race, capitalism, immigration, and mortality—all while clowns and shepherds roam the streets and characters morph into each other. Much of the work is composed in prose poetry, which lends itself to the flowing pace:
Shepherds have invaded New York. They have conquered New York. They have colonized New York. The special of the day in New York’s most expensive restaurant is golden acorn. It’s an egg. It’s an apple. It’s a bird. Fish. Melody. Poetry. And epigram. Now there is only song. Now there is only dance. Now we do whatever we please. Whatever we please. Whatever we damn well please.
Further Resources on Epic Poems
Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies published a thorough exploration of ancient epic poetry, covering the major players from Ancient Greece to India.
Poets.org offers a brief history on the form and provides several examples for readers.
Qwiklit offers a list of the 20 greatest epics in history.