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Proem

A proem is an introduction to a literary work. It is a preface to what’s to come after. 

Proems are varied in their forms. For example, the proem that appears at the beginner of The Iliad, by Homer, is the first seven lines of the book. It is in the style of the rest of the literary work, but it evokes a muse, Calliope, to give the poet strength to relate the facts of the epic poem. Another well-known example can be found in Virgil’s Aeneid. 

The word “proem” comes from the Latin “prooemium.” The term is rarely used today, but examples certainly still exist in contemporary literature. The vast majority of “proems” can be found in epic poems, some of which are discussed below. 

Proem pronunciation: proh-ehm

Proem definition and meaning


Proem Definition

A proem is a short introduction to a literary work. It could be as long as a chapter and as short as a few sentences. Proems sometimes take different forms, for example, a single stanza from a poem or a quote from another literary work.

For some novels and novellas, proems are integral to the story. For example, setting the scene for what’s to come or providing background information that allows the reader to better understand the characters they’re about to be introduced to. 

In other situations, the proem might be something the author wanted to include out of interest. For example, a stanza from a poem that helped to inspire the literary work or a piece of text that is relevant in another way. A writer might choose to spend the proem speaking briefly on what readers should expect from the text or what inspired them to write it. 

Examples of Proems 

The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer is a famous example of an epic poem. In it, readers can also find a proem. It is the first few lines of the text that outlines what’s going to happen throughout the story. It also includes an invocation, or invocatio. This is the first line of the text, the one that evokes the muse, Calliope, and includes the speaker’s plea for strength that they adequately tell the story of Troy. Here are the lines of the proem, as translated by Alexander Pope:

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing! That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign [002] The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain; Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore, Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.41 Since great Achilles and Atrides strove, Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove

The speaker discusses Achilles, son of Peleus, who is one of the main characters in this epic. He caused a great deal of pain to the Achaeans and filled the will of Zeus, or Jove.

The Odyssey 

The proem that appears at the beginning of The Odyssey is similar in nature to that which appears in The Iiad. The narrator begins by addressing the “Muse” and asking that he gain inspiration to learn and hear about the “man full of cunning” and what he saw after he engaged in the siege of Troy. This is, of course, a reference to Odysseus, who is the main character of the epic poem.

The speaker discusses how the man, Odysseus, saw much and experienced suffering. He saw men die, and although he tried to save them, he couldn’t. Many, “for their own folly,” got lost. The last line specifically mentions the men eating the “cattle of the Sun Hyperion” and who irritated the god. Here is one translated version of the text, completed by Robert Fagles. The proem reads: 

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns … driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove— the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all, the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return. 

This proem is separated into two parts, like that which can be found in The Iliad. It features the “invocation” and the “protasi.” The invocation is the first line. It is the invocation of the muse, asking to inspire the poet in their work. The next line is the “protasi,” or a description of the events that are going to come in the twenty-four books of the poem. 

Why Are Proems Important? 

Proems, like introductions, prologues, and prefaces, are introduction material that readers encounter when they first start reading a literary work. For some, this sets the tone for the rest of the book/epic poem/novella. Sometimes the proems are inside the storyline, and other times, they are outside, meaning that the author can address themselves, their intentions, and more. They are an important part of the literary works they feature in. 

FAQs 

How do you use Proem in a sentence?

One might say: “I read the proem and finally understood what the poem was going to be about,” or “Did you read the proem at the beginning of The Iliad?” 

What is meant by exordium?

The exordium is the beginning of a literary work, specifically of a discourse. It is formal in nature.


Related Literary Terms 

  • Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it normally much longer.
  • Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
  • Prologue: the opening to a story that comes before the first page or chapter. It is used to establish context or to provide necessary details.
  • Prose: a written and spoken language form that does not make use of a metrical pattern or rhyme scheme
  • Rhyme: refers to the pattern of similar sounding words used in writing.


Other Resources 

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