Narrative Poem Definition
A narrative poem (NEHR-uh-tiv POH-um) tells a story. Born from oral tradition, narrative poetry served to entertain, as well as preserve and transmit cultural, historical, and religious content. Unlike lyric poetry, narrative poems focus on plot and characters, rather than emotions. Narrative poetry uses narrative and poetic elements to form an engaging, indelible hybrid. A modern scholar might consider narrative poetry a broad umbrella under which epic poetry resides.
The word narrative comes from the Latin narrare, “to tell or recount.”
The History of the Narrative Poem
Narrative poetry’s roots are in the oral tradition, wherein stories were performed for an audience by someone who had committed them to memory. Poetic elements like rhyme and rhythm made it easier to memorize the stories. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest—if not the first—epic poem may have been told as early as 2150 BC, about a thousand years before it was written. Similarly, Homer likely sang The Iliad and The Odyssey. The Germanic tale of Beowulf, too, has its origins in oral tradition.
Popular in Western Europe, the poetry form spread across the world, likely with the assistance of European colonization. Independently of Western influence, the Vedic texts of Hinduism were transmitted orally before they were ever written. In fact, they remain orally preserved and are even more faithfully told than their written counterparts—the rhythm, melody, and tone conveyed today are said to sound the same as they did before the written word.
Similarly, the North American indigenous people’s history, ecology, medicine, safety, and social interaction was long preserved by oral tradition. Stories could be told by anyone, and alteration of stories, across time and distance, was recognized and encouraged. Stories would be corrected as appropriate, when a lesson turned out not to be quite true or helpful.
Epic poems are the most common type of narrative poem composed, though as a genre, narrative poetry has waned in popularity. In today’s literary world, the styles of narrative poetry have primarily been adopted by songs and rhyming children’s books.
The Criteria for Narrative Poetry
Since narrative poetry grew out of the necessity of oral tradition, it employs several literary and narrative elements.
Literary devices like rhyme, meter, and sound devices are aural aids that carried over into written narrative poetry. Rhyme occurs when two stressed words or syllables share a vowel sound and (when applicable) an ending consonant sound. Meter is the rhythmic structure of a poem based on the number and arrangement of stressed syllables in a line of poetry. Alliteration and assonance are common sound devices in narrative poetry. Alliteration (also conflated with consonance) is when the repetition of consonant sounds occurs; consider the popular tongue twister “Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” When a vowel sound is repeated, such as the long o in “I’m old; nope, I don’t go,” it’s called assonance.
Because narrative poetry focuses on storytelling, it contains a plot, or the series of events that drives a story. Within a narrative poem, as in prose narratives, the characters’ journey follows the classic structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. This allows drama to build and resolve, keeping readers interested in the story that unfolds.
Types of Narrative Poetry
A common type of epic is the Arthurian romance. These are stories in verse that involve the concepts of courtly love and chivalry, especially pertaining to the settings and characters related to the legendary King Arthur. Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson is one such epic poem.
The ballad began as a sung story. Classically, ballads’ meter oscillates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, and they use an ABCB rhyme scheme. American folk songs, such as “John Henry,” could be considered a type of ballad, though they may not make use of ballad meter. They are characterized by rhythm, repetition, and simple language. See how John Henry and Lord, Lord are repeated in every stanza:
When John Henry was a little tiny baby
Sitting on his mama’s knee,
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel
Saying, “Hammer’s going to be the death of me, Lord, Lord,
Hammer’s going to be the death of me.”
John Henry was a man just six feet high,
Nearly two feet and a half across his breast.
He’d hammer with a nine-pound hammer all day
And never get tired and want to rest, Lord, Lord,
And never get tired and want to rest.
Children’s Stories and Nursery Rhymes
Authors like Dr. Seuss popularized rhyming story books for children in the 20th century. His works, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas or The Cat in the Hat, contain all elements of narrative poetry: meter, rhyme, and a plot containing conflict and resolution.
Before Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose and Lewis Carroll were crafting nonsensical poems to delight little ones; “Jabberwocky” and “Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall” tell stories using rhythm and rhyme.
Some narrative poems don’t fit neatly into accepted subcategories. For example, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is too long to be a ballad, and it doesn’t really employ any repetition. It’s not expressly for children, and there’s not a knight in sight. It could almost be considered a mini-epic.
Narrative Poetry in Popular Music
While most pop lyrics would, appropriately enough, be categorized as lyric poetry, some artists carry on the tradition of the ballad by setting stories to music.
1. Kate Bush, “Babooshka”
Although babooshka is an affectionate Russian term for “grandmother,” Kate Bush uses it more for its sound. She turns it into a penname that a bored housewife uses as she writes anonymous love letters to her husband to test his fidelity.
She sent him scented letters
And he received them with a strange delight
Just like his wife
But how she was before the tears
And how she was before the years flew by
And how she was when she was beautiful
She signed the letter
Babooshka, Babooshka, Babooshka-ya-ya!
The childlike relishing of the sound of a word makes the chorus intensely catchy and adds to the fun of the puckish story.
2. Kanye West, “All the Lights”
This is the story of a man and a family falling apart:
Restraining order, can’t see my daughter
Her mother, brother, grandmother hate me in that order
Public visitation, we met at Borders
Told her she take me back, I’ll be more supportive
I made mistakes, I bumped my head
Courts sucked me dry, I spent that bread
The lyrics use alliteration (the or sound in order, Borders, supportive) and rhyme (head, bread) while telling this sad story.
3. The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack”
This is a story of young love that ends in tragedy:
My folks were always putting him down
They said he came from the wrong side of town
-What you mean when you say that he came from the wrong side of town?
They told me he was bad
But I knew he was sad
That’s why I fell for the Leader of the Pack
The use of rhyme and repetition makes this song fall into the narrative poetry tradition.
4. Pearl Jam, “Jeremy”
Lead singer Eddie Vedder read a story about a 16-year-old-boy who shot and killed himself in front of his class and turned it into a somber song:
At home drawing pictures
Of mountain tops
With him on top
Lemon yellow sun
Arms raised in a V
Dead lay in pools of maroon below
Daddy didn’t give attention
Oh, to the fact that mommy didn’t care
The refrain “Jeremy spoke in class today” is repeated twice after every verse, mirroring the oral tradition of using repetition and rhyme to make a story easy to commit to memory.
Notable Narrative Poetry Writers
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
- Homer, The Iliad, The Odyssey
- John Milton, Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained
- Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
- Lord Byron, Don Juan
- Ellen Hopkins, Crank
Examples of Narrative Poetry
1. Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
This Arthurian romance is a tale of honor, treachery, magic, and deceit—all common themes in this epic subgenre. Though few people today can speak or even interpret this dialect of Middle English, the use of alliteration and repetition are visible in this excerpt:
where werre and wrake and wonder
bi syþez hatz wont þerinne
and oft boþe blysse and blunder
ful skete hatz skyfted synne
2. Gwendolyn Brooks, “Sadie and Maud”
Never one to shy away from truth-telling, Brooks paints a sad picture of the lives of two sisters in this short but impactful ballad:
Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
Sadie scraped life
With a fine-tooth comb.
She didn’t leave a tangle in.
Her comb found every strand.
Sadie was one of the livingest chits
In all the land.
Sadie bore two babies
Under her maiden name.
Maud and Ma and Papa
Nearly died of shame.
When Sadie said her last so-long
Her girls struck out from home.
(Sadie had left as heritage
Her fine-tooth comb.)
Maud, who went to college,
Is a thin brown mouse.
She is living all alone
In this old house.
The rhythm and rhyme make it sound like a nursery rhyme, which makes the impact of the dark commentary on women’s place in society that much harsher.
3. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven”
Poe’s classic straightforward narrative tells the tale of a man haunted to madness by his own loneliness, for which the ominous bird in the title is a symbol.
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
“Wretch,” I cried, “thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he hath sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore;
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe and forget this lost Lenore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
The word nevermore ends each stanza in the second half of the poem, and the constant trochaic meter (stressed, unstressed) works to convey the steady rhythm of the downward spiral.
Further Resources on Narrative Poetry
This clip of The Raven, narrated by James Earl Jones on the animated TV show The Simpsons preserves Poe’s verse while adding visuals for accessibility and humor for engagement.
Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction by Derek Pearsall is a fun and accessible read for anyone interested in learning more about this oddly specific subgenre.
Browse the Poetry Foundation’s website to read ballads by Langston Hughes, Charles Dickens, Richard Wilbur, Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway, Anonymous, and other legends.