An epic poem is a lengthy narrative poem
, ordinarily involving a time beyond living memory in which occurred the extraordinary doings of the extraordinary men and women who, in dealings with the gods or other superhuman forces, gave shape to the mortal universe for their descendants, the poet and their audience, to understand themselves as a people or nation.
The English word ''epic'' comes from the Latin
''epicus'', which itself comes from the Ancient Greek
adjective (''epikos''), from (''epos''), "word, story, poem."
In ancient Greek
, 'epic' could refer to all poetry in dactylic hexameter
(''epea''), which included not only Homer but also the wisdom poetry of Hesiod
, the utterances of the Delphic oracle
, and the strange theological verses attributed to Orpheus
. Later tradition, however, has restricted the term 'epic' to ''heroic epic'', as described in this article.
Originating before the invention of writing, primary epics, such as those of Homer
, were composed by bards who used complex rhetorical and metrical schemes by which they could memorize the epic as received in tradition and add to the epic in their performances. Later writers like Virgil, Apollonius of Rhodes
, Dante, Camões, and Milton adopted and adapted Homer
's style and subject matter
, but used devices available only to those who write.
The oldest epic recognized is the ''Epic of Gilgamesh
'' (), which was recorded in ancient Sumer
during the Neo-Sumerian Empire
. The poem details the exploits of Gilgamesh
, the king of Uruk
. Although recognized as a historical figure, Gilgamesh, as represented in the epic, is a largely legendary or mythical figure.
The longest epic written is the ancient Indian ''Mahabharata
'' (c. 3rd century BC—3rd century AD), which consists of 100,000 śloka
s or over 200,000 verse lines (each shloka is a couplet), as well as long prose passages, so that at ~1.8 million words it is roughly twice the length of ''Shahnameh
'', four times the length of the ''Rāmāyaṇa
'', and roughly ten times the length of the ''Iliad
'' and the ''Odyssey
Famous examples of epic poetry include the Sumerian ''Epic of Gilgamesh
'', the ancient Indian ''Mahabharata
'' and ''Rāmāyaṇa
'', the Tamil ''Silappatikaram
'', the Persian ''Shahnameh
'', the Ancient Greek ''Odyssey
'' and ''Iliad
'', the Old English ''Beowulf
's ''Divine Comedy
'', the Finnish ''Kalevala
'', the Estonian ''Kalevipoeg
'', the German ''Nibelungenlied
'', the French ''Song of Roland
'', the Spanish ''Cantar de mio Cid
'', the Portuguese ''Os Lusíadas
'', the Armenian ''Daredevils of Sassoun
'', and John Milton
's ''Paradise Lost
.'' Epic poems of the modern era include Derek Walcott’s
'' and Adam Mickiewicz's ''Pan Tadeusz
'' by William Carlos Williams
published in five volumes from 1946 to 1958, was inspired in part by another modern epic, ''The Cantos
'' by Ezra Pound
The first epics were products of preliterate societies
and oral history
poetic traditions. Oral tradition
was used alongside written scriptures to communicate and facilitate the spread of culture.
In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means. Early twentieth-century study of living oral epic traditions in the Balkans
by Milman Parry
and Albert Lord
demonstrated the paratactic
model used for composing these poems. What they demonstrated was that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorization, as the poet is recalling each episode in turn and using the completed episodes to recreate the entire epic as he performs it. Parry and Lord also contend that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer
was dictation from an oral performance.
and Albert Lord
have argued that the Homeric epics, the earliest works of Western literature, were fundamentally an oral poetic form. These works form the basis of the epic genre in Western literature. Nearly all of Western epic (including Virgil's ''Aeneid
'' and Dante's ''Divine Comedy
'') self-consciously presents itself as a continuation of the tradition begun by these poems.
Composition and conventions
In his work ''Poetics
'', Aristotle defines an epic as one of the forms of poetry, contrasted with lyric poetry
and with drama in the form of tragedy and comedy.
:Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of meter and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavors, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit, whereas the Epic action has no limits of time. This, then, is a second point of difference; though at first the same freedom was admitted in Tragedy as in Epic poetry.
:Of their constituent parts some are common to both, some peculiar to Tragedy: whoever, therefore knows what is good or bad Tragedy, knows also about Epic poetry. All the elements of an Epic poem are found in Tragedy, but the elements of a Tragedy are not all found in the Epic poem. – Aristotle, ''Poetics'' Part V
In ''A Handbook to Literature'' (1999), Harmon and Holman define an epic:
Epic: a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race. (Harmon and Holman)
An attempt to delineate ten main characteristics of an epic:
[Taken from William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 8th ed., Prentice Hall, 1999.]
# Begins in medias res
# The setting is vast, covering many nations, the world or the universe.
# Begins with an invocation to a muse
# Begins with a statement of the theme.
# Includes the use of epithets
# Contains long lists, called an epic catalogue
# Features long and formal speeches.
# Shows divine intervention in human affairs.
# Features heroes that embody the values of the civilization.
# Often features the tragic hero's descent into the underworld
The hero generally participates in a cyclical journey or quest, faces adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds, and exemplifies certain morals that are valued by the society the epic originates from. Many epic heroes are recurring character
s in the legends of their native cultures.
Conventions of Indic Epic
The above passages convey the experience of epic poetry in the West, but somewhat different conventions have historically applied in India.
In the Indic mahākāvya
epic genre, more emphasis was laid on description than on narration. Indeed, the traditional characteristics of a ''mahākāvya'' are listed as:
[Daṇḍin's ''Kāvyādarśa'' (''The Mirror of Poetry'') 1.15–19:|quote= itihāsa-kath'’-ôdbhūtam, itarad vā sad-āśrayam, | , ]
, | ,
, | ;
, | ,
[Belvalkar's translation of Daṇḍin's ''Kāvyādarśa'' 1.15–19 (S. K. Belvalkar. 1924. Kāvyādarśa of . Sanskrit Text and English Translation. Poona: The Oriental Book-supplying Agency)|quote=It springs from a historical incident or is otherwise based on some fact; it turns upon the fruition of the fourfold ends and its hero is clever and noble;
By descriptions of cities, oceans, mountains, seasons and risings of the moon or the sun; through sportings in garden or water, and festivities of drinking and love;
Through sentiments-of-love-in-separation and through marriages, by descriptions of the birth-and-rise of princes, and likewise through state-counsel, embassy, advance, battle, and the hero’s triumph;
Embellished; not too condensed, and pervaded all through with poetic sentiments and emotions; with cantos none too lengthy and having agreeable metres and well-formed joints,
And in each case furnished with an ending in a different metre—such a poem possessing good figures-of-speech wins the people’s heart and endures longer than even a kalpa.]
* It must take its subject matter from the epics (Ramayana or Mahabharata), or from history,
* It must help further the four goals of man (Purusharthas
* It must contain descriptions of cities, seas, mountains, moonrise and sunrise, and "accounts of merrymaking in gardens, of bathing parties, drinking bouts, and love-making. It should tell the sorrow of separated lovers and should describe a wedding and the birth of a son. It should describe a king's council, an embassy, the marching forth of an army, a battle, and the victory of a hero".
[Daniel Ingalls, ''Sanskrit Poetry and Sanskrit Poetics'', Introduction to ]
Classical epic poetry recounts a journey, either physical (as typified by Odysseus in the ''Odyssey
'') or mental (as typified by Achilles in the ''Iliad
'') or both. Epics also tend to highlight cultural norms and to define or call into question cultural values, particularly as they pertain to heroism
The poet may begin by invoking a Muse
or similar divinity. The poet prays to the Muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero.
:Sing goddess the baneful wrath of Achilles son of Peleus - Iliad
:Muse, tell me in verse of the man of many wiles - Odyssey
:From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing - Hesiod
:Beginning with thee, O Phoebus
, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old – Argonautica
:Muse, remember to me the causes – Aeneid
:Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
:Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire – Paradise Lost
An alternative or complementary form of proem, found in Virgil and his imitators, opens with the performative verb
"I sing". Examples:
:I sing arms and the man – Aeneid
:I sing pious arms and their captain – Gerusalemme liberata
:I sing ladies, knights, arms, loves, courtesies, audacious deeds – Orlando Furioso
This Virgilian epic convention is referenced in Walt Whitman
's "I Sing the Body Electric."
Compare the first six lines of the Kalevala
:Mastered by desire impulsive,
:By a mighty inward urging,
:I am ready now for singing,
:Ready to begin the chanting
:Of our nation’s ancient folk-song
:Handed down from by-gone ages.
These conventions are largely restricted to European classical culture and its imitators. The ''Epic of Gilgamesh
'', for example, or the ''Bhagavata Purana
'' do not contain such elements, nor do early medieval Western epics that are not strongly shaped by the classical traditions, such as the Chanson de Roland
or the Poem of the Cid
In medias res
Narrative opens "in the middle of things", with the hero at his lowest point. Usually flashbacks show earlier portions of the story. For example, the Iliad
does not tell the entire story of the Trojan War, starting with the judgment of Paris
, but instead opens abruptly on the rage of Achilles and its immediate causes. So too, Orlando Furioso
is not a complete biography of Roland, but picks up from the plot of Orlando Innamorato
, which in turn presupposes a knowledge of the romance
and oral tradition
s and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a broader, universal context, such as the catalog of ships
. Often, the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members. Examples:
*In ''The Faerie Queene
'', the list of trees I.i.8–9.
*In ''Paradise Lost
'', the list of demons in Book I.
*In the ''Aeneid
'', the list of enemies the Trojans find in Etruria in Book VII. Also, the list of ships in Book X.
*In the ''Iliad
**Catalogue of Ships
, the most famous epic catalogue
**Trojan Battle Order
In the Homeric and post-Homeric tradition, epic style is typically achieved through the use of the following stylistic features:
*Heavy use of repetition or stock phrases: e.g., Homer
's "rosy-fingered dawn" and "wine-dark sea."
Many verse forms have been used in epic poems through the ages, but each language's literature typically gravitates to one form, or at least to a very limited set.
Ancient Sumerian epic poems did not use any kind of poetic meter
did not have consistent lengths;
instead, Sumerian poems derived their rhythm solely through constant repetition
, with subtle variations between lines.
epic poetry, by contrast, usually places strong emphasis on the importance of line consistency and poetic meter.
Ancient Greek epics were composed in dactylic hexameter
. Very early Latin epicists, such Livius Andronicus
and Gnaeus Naevius
, used Saturnian
meter. By the time of Ennius
, however, Latin poets had adopted dactylic hexameter
Dactylic hexameter has been adapted by a few anglophone poets such as Longfellow
", whose first line is as follows:
: This is the | forest pri | meval. The | murmuring | pines and the | hemlocks
Old English, German and Norse poems were written in alliterative verse
, usually without rhyme
. The alliterative form can be seen in the Old English “Finnsburg Fragment
” (alliterated sounds are in bold):
:Ac onwacnigeað nū, wīgend mīne
:"But awake now, my warriors",
:ealra ǣrest eorðbūendra,
:of all first the men
While the above classical and Germanic forms would be considered stichic
, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese long poems favored stanza
ic forms, usually written in terza rima
or especially ottava rima
. Terza rima is a rhyming verse stanza
form that consists of an interlocking
scheme. An example is found in the first lines of the Divine Comedy
, who originated the form:
In ottava rima
, each stanza consists of three alternate rhymes and one double rhyme, following the ABABABCC rhyme scheme
From the 14th century English epic poems were written in heroic couplet
s, and rhyme royal
, though in the 16th century the Spenserian stanza
and blank verse
were also introduced. The French alexandrine
is currently the heroic line in French literature, though in earlier literature – such as the chanson de geste
– the decasyllable
grouped in laisse
s took precedence. In Polish literature, couplets of Polish alexandrine
s (syllabic lines of 7+6 syllables) prevail. In Russian, iambic tetrameter
verse is the most popular. In Serbian poetry, the decasyllable is the only form employed.
(e.g. Estonian, Finnish, Karelian) folk poetry uses a form of trochaic tetrameter
that has been called the Kalevala meter. The Finnish and Estonian national epics, ''Kalevala
'' and ''Kalevipoeg
'', are both written in this meter. The meter is thought to have originated during the Proto-Finnic
In Indic epics such as the Ramayana
, the shloka
form is used.
Genres and related forms
The primary form of epic, espcially as discussed in this article, is the heroic epic, including such works as the Iliad
. Ancient sources also recogized didactic epic
as a category, represented by such works as Hesiod
's Works and Days
and Lucretius's De Rerum Natura
A related type of poetry is the epyllion
(plural: epyllia), a brief narrative poem with a romantic
or mythological theme
. The term, which means "little epic
," came into use in the nineteenth century. It refers primarily to the erudite, shorter hexameter poems of the Hellenistic period
and the similar works composed at Rome from the age of the neoteric
s; to a lesser degree, the term includes some poems of the English Renaissance
, particularly those influenced by Ovid
The most famous example of classical
epyllion is perhaps Catullus 64
Epyllion is to be understood as distinct from mock epic
, another light form.
Romantic epic is a term used to designate works such as Morgante
, Orlando Innamorato
, Orlando Furioso
and Gerusalemme Liberata
, which freely lift characters, themes, plots and narrative devices from the world of prose chivalric romance
* Arabic epic literature
(Greek muse of epic poetry)
* Caribbean epic poetry
* Chanson de geste
* Epic fiction
** List of epic poems
** Epic fantasy
** Epic film
** Epic theatre
* Hebrew and Jewish epic poetry
* Indian epic poetry
* Mock epic
* Narrative poetry
* National epic
* National poet
* Serbian epic poetry
* List of world folk-epics
* Jan de Vries: ''Heroic Song and Heroic Legend'' .
* Cornel Heinsdorff: ''Christus, Nikodemus und die Samaritanerin bei Juvencus. Mit einem Anhang zur lateinischen Evangelienvorlage'', Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte 67, Berlin/New York 2003, .
* Jansen, Jan and J Henk M.J. Maier, eds. 2004. ''Epic Adventures: Heroic Narrative in the Oral Performance Traditions of Four Continents'' (Literatur: Forschung und Wissenschaft, 3.) LIT Verlag.
BBC Radio 4 discussion with John Carey, Karen Edwards and Oliver Taplin (''In Our Time'', 3 Feb. 2003)