A narrative poem tells a story. These poems are normally longer than average as they contain all the elements of a traditional story. There are characters, a plot, a conflict of some kind, and a resolution. These things all take place against a specific setting. Depending on the poem, and the poet’s intentions, each of these elements may be more or less defined. One writer might choose to spend more time developing one character than another or the conflict over the setting.
Narrative poems also often have a moral message. After reading through the story of a place or time one might learn something about faith, the nature of a good life, love, or any other topic a poet wants to go into.
Due to the fact that most narrative poems are long, they do not need to conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Some do, as the examples below prove, but many others, especially by contemporary writers do not.
Purpose of Narrative Poems
As mentioned above, narrative poems sometimes focus on a moral message that’s revealed in the conflict and resolution. This message might be very clear, explicit, or unclear, implicit. Depending on the poem it might require additional analysis in order to get to the root of what a poet was attempting to share.
Narrative poems are often written with the intent of evoking a particular emotion in the reader. For example, some are written to inspire, encourage love, dedication to God, or others.
Examples of Narrative Poems
Example #1 Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti
Without a doubt, this is Christina Rossetti’s most popular poem. The poem was published in 1862 and is packed full of intriguing images and symbols, leading to a wide variety of interpretations. Like most narrative poems it is long, reaching twenty-eight stanzas. These are all of different lengths but come together to form a very interesting story.
Unlike some narrative poems, Goblin Market does make use of a constant rhyme scheme. This has the effect of creating a light-hearted mood that contrasts against the darkest moments of the story. The poem follows the story of two sisters, Laura and Lizzie. The former decides to follow the sounds of a goblin market and Lizzie trails along behind. Take a look at these lines from the text:
“No,” said Lizzie, “No, no, no;
Their offers should not charm us,
Their evil gifts would harm us.”
She thrust a dimpled finger
In each ear, shut eyes and ran:
Curious Laura chose to linger
Wondering at each merchant man.
In these lines, Laura seels her fate by looking at the goblin men when she knew very well that she shouldn’t. As one might expect, things don’t go too well. After eating some of the fruit Laura starts wasting away and is only saved after kissing the fruit juice off her sister’s cheeks. In the end, the story turns into a life lesson, relayed by the sisters, to their children.
Example #2 The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ was written between 1797 and 1798 and first appeared in Lyrical Ballads. It is thought that Coleridge was inspired to write ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ after spending time with William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.
The poem is a frame narrative, meaning there’s a story inside a story, that focuses on a mariner who wants to tell his story. Broadly, it is based around one man’s choice to shoot down an albatross and the bad luck that strikes the ship afterward. Take a look at these lines from the narrative:
At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.
It ate the food it ne’er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!
These two stanzas are a brief example of the even structure and rhyme scheme that Coleridge makes use of throughout the poem. He tells line by line, as clearly as a reader might want, the story of the mariner and the albatross.
Example #3 The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes
‘The Highwayman’ is a narrative poem that takes the form of a romantic ballad. It was first published in 1906 and has since become very popular. It tells of the story of the highwayman, a dashing and well-dressed robber, his lover, Bess, and the soldiers who want to capture him. The poem has all the elements of a narrative. There is a setting, clearly defined characters, a very poignant atmosphere, conflict and resolution. Here are a few lines from the poem:
He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.
Here, the Highwayman is kissing Bess’s hair as she lowers it from her window. He promises to return to her by the next night, setting up the tragic drama that has made this poem so popular.