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Epic Poetry

An epic is a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.

Whether male or female, the men, and women in these poems are the best humanity offers. They show extreme courage and outshine their contemporaries in their bravery. A character has to be large, mentally, and spiritually large enough to be the subject of an epic poem.

Epic poems are the product of preliterate societies or those in which reading and writing were uncommon. Writing might’ve been part of society, but not to the extent it is today. Therefore, stories were told orally, passed down from person to person, and embellished and changed as they traveled. Scholars believe that Homeric epics, like the Odyssey, were originally oral in nature. Epic poems are also considered to be the first form of poetry.

Epic Poetry definition and examples


The Characters in Epic Poetry

When considering epic poetry, more than likely, your thoughts immediately go to the two works attributed to Homer, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. The main characters of these works–Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam, Helen– are all heads above other men and women of their time for their bravery, and of course, in Helen’s case, for her beauty.

Aside from their courage and beauty, these characters are more often than not representatives of some set of values. These could belong to an entire region or a small group of people. There is a lot hinging on the plotlines of those in epic poems. Take, for example, Gilgamesh from the oldest recorded epic, the Epic of Gilgamesh. (Written in Mesopotamia in 1800 BC). He is the king of the Uruk and is commonly recognized as an actual historical figure.

But, in the epic, he takes on a larger-than-life presence. He battles with a rival, Enkidu, and eventually embarks on a journey to find the secret of eternal life. The form of the epic plays straight into the major themes of the Epic of Gilgamesh as it is through this poem that the ancient king found eternal life. His story, in what is undoubtedly an exaggerated form, is still told almost 4,000 years after it was written.

The Form of Epic Poetry

Just as the characters in epic poetry have to be grand enough to stand up to the form, so too does the form have to do justice to the character. The verse is normally elaborate and therefore able to exaggerate the already otherworldly qualities of the characters of an epic.

Almost every epic in the Western literary canon makes use of a dactylic hexameter. This pattern is also referred to as heroic hexameter. This metrical pattern can be seen in Virgil’s Aeneid as well as Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Homer’s Iliad, about the siege of Troy, and Odyssey. Each line of these long narrative poems, ideally, if the poet stuck to the pattern 100% of the time, is made up of six feet. These feet would consist of one long and two short beats, or one stressed and two unstressed. But, poets often use spondees rather than dactyls, two stressed syllables followed by one unstressed. Enjambment and caesura are also common features.

Epic poems are also noted for their length. The longest ever written was the Indian Mahabharata. It was 200,000 lines of verse as well as some lengthy prose passages. Shorter but still considerable are the Odyssey with 12,110 lines and Dante’s The Divine Comedy with 14,233 lines. The latter is separated into three distinct sections and describes the poet’s journey through Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise/Heaven). Another example is Lord Byron’sDon Juan.

Supernatural Forces in Epic Poetry

The heroes in epic poetry are often assisted or stymied by known or unknown supernatural forces. This is a literary technique known as dues ex machina. It refers to the intervention of a god or more than a natural force into a narrative. This technique is usually applied in order to push the story towards a certain conclusion or change up what could be a predictable series of events.  The most obvious examples come from the Iliad, in which the two sides, the Greeks, or Achaeans, and the Trojans, are assisted to different agrees by different Gods in the Greek Pantheon.

Take, for example, the relationship that Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, has with the Achaeans. She fights on their side partly because of her love and appreciation for Menelaus, a commander of the Greek army, husband to Helen, and brother to Agamemnon, but also because of her anger at Paris and Helen, who started the war.

The gods appear in this epic poem in the same way humans do. They can fight physically alongside them, but they can also control the elements and influence the outcome of events.

The supernatural can also be seen in The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser and Beowulf.

Examples of Epic Poetry

Paradise Lost by John Milton

One of the most widely read epics today, Paradise Lost, tells the story of Satan’s fall from Heaven, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Satan’s attempts to fight a war against the angels remaining in Heaven. Here is a quote:

Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.

Read more John Milton poems.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

As mentioned above, The Divine Comedy is an epic the details the poet’s journey through the various stages of the afterlife. He’s led on this journey by Virgil, the poet responsible for the epic poem (that continues the story of the Trojans after the conclusion of the Iliad), the Aeneid. Here is a quote:

The man who lies asleep will never waken fame, and his desire and all his life drift past him like a dream, and the traces of his memory fade from time like smoke in air, or ripples on a stream.


The Metamorphoses by Ovid

Ovid’s most famous and lasting work, The Metamorphoses, was written in 8 AD. It is made up of 11,995 lines and spans 15 books. It is usually considered an epic, but there are such a variety of themes and tones tapped into within the poem that it is sometimes classified in other genres. The verse tells around 250 individual stories within its lines. Altogether, they depict the story of the world’s creation to the birth of Julius Caesar. Here is a quote:

As wave is driven by wave
And each, pursued, pursues the wave ahead,
So time flies on and follows, flies, and follows,
Always, for ever and new. What was before
Is left behind; what never was is now;
And every passing moment is renewed.


FAQs

What is an example of an epic poem?

Poems like The Odyssey and The Iliad as both epic poems. Other examples are The Divine Comedy and The Metamorphoses. Milton’s Paradise Lost is one final famous example.

What are the characteristics of an epic poem?

The characters exhibit bravery in extreme circumstances. The writer uses over-the-top language, hyperbole, and other types of figurative language. Supernature elements are usually featured as well.

Why is epic poetry important?

Epic poetry is essential because it is how ancient people told stories and shared literary masterpieces. Its format is unrivaled to this day. These stories expressed a culture’s ideas about what they found valuable and often included elements of their religion.

What can we learn from epic poetry?

We can learn techniques for writing long poems and memorizing them and what ancient cultures valued. These poems capture readers’ imaginations in unusual ways while telling important stories.


Related Literary Terms

  • Extended Metaphor: a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.
  • Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Juxtaposition: a literary technique that places two unlike things next to one another
  • Moral: the meaning or message conveyed through a story.
  • Narrative Poem: contains all the elements of a story and are normally longer than average.


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