Writing

Poetry 101: What Is an Epic Poem? Learn About the History and Characteristics of Epics with Examples

Written by the MasterClass staff

Apr 29, 2019 • 3 min read

From Melville and Tolkien, voluminous tales of ancient heroes embarking on lengthy journeys are common in prose literature. But before they were documented in prose, these lengthy narratives fell into the domain of epic poetry.

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What Is an Epic?

An epic poem is a lengthy, narrative work of poetry. These long poems typically detail extraordinary feats and adventures of characters from a distant past. The word “epic” comes from the ancient Greek term “epos,” which means “story, word, poem.”

How Did Epics Originate?

Epic poems trace back to some of the earliest human civilizations—both European and Asian. Take the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered by some scholars to be the oldest surviving example of great literature. The poem is thought to have been written in approximately 2100 BC and traces back to ancient Mesopotamia. It tells of the ancient king Gilgamesh, a descendant from the Gods, who embarks on a journey to discover the secret of immortality.

What Are the Characteristics of an Epic Poem?

The meter of epics varies depending on cultural custom. Ancient Greek epics and Latin epics were typically composed in dactylic hexameter. Old Germanic epics (including those in Old English) typically contained non-rhyming alliterative verse. Later English language epics were written in Spenserian stanzas and blank verse. An archetypal epic poem typically:

  • Is written in a formal style
  • Contains third-person narration and an omniscient narrator
  • Frequently invokes a Muse who provides inspiration and guidance to the poet
  • Takes place in an era beyond the range of any living memory
  • Typically includes a journey across a variety of settings and terrains
  • Features a hero with immense bravery and resolve
  • Includes obstacles and circumstances that are otherworldly and even supernatural—pitting the hero against nearly insurmountable odds
  • Looks with concern to the future of a civilization or culture

Popular Examples of Epic Poems

Epic poetry has become less fashionable with time, although there remains no shortage of poetic verse that tells long, sprawling tales. In many ways, popular music has taken up the mantle of epic poetry, with lyricists like Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and John Prine spinning up tales that might have once been the province of traditional poets.

Here are some examples of some of history’s greatest literary epics.

  • Perhaps the most widely known epic poems are Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, both of which detail the events of the Trojan War and King Odysseus’s journey home from Troy. These were written in Epic Greek (sometimes called Homeric Greek), although the dates of their composition are unknown. Most classicists believe that Homer lived sometime between 850 and 650 BC and that his poems were committed to writing long after his death.
  • The Mahābhārata is an ancient Indian epic composed in Sanskrit. The text as we know it appears to date back to 400 BC, but scholars suspect its subject matter is thousands of years older—perhaps dating back to the eighth or ninth centuries BC. At over 200,000 lines, it is considered the longest poem ever written, and also contains prosed mixed in with poetry.
  • The Aeneid is an epic poem written in Latin by the Roman poet Virgil. Historians place its writing between 29 and 19 BC. The narrative poem, written in dactylic hexameter, tells of Aeneas, descended from Trojans but a forebear to the Romans and Roman civilization. The story and subject matter of the Aeneid is similar to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but it contains precision only available to a poet who wrote down his compositions (as Virgil did). Homer, by contrast, conveyed his tales orally.
  • Beowulf is an Old English poem that was committed to writing between 975 and 1025 AD. No author has ever been attributed to the poem, which pits the Scandinavian hero Beowulf against the monster Grendel.
  • The Nibelungenlied is a long narrative poem written in Middle High German sometime around 1200 AD. It concerns Siegfried, a legendary hero of German mythology who appeared in oral narratives for centuries before the Nibelungenlied, and who materialized time and again in later works like Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
  • The Divine Comedy was an epic poem by Dante Alighieri, composed over twelve years and completed in 1320. The poem imagines Dante traveling through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven, in sections titled Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.
  • Two hundred seventy years after Dante, Edmund Spenser published The Faerie Queene. Like many epic poems, it begins with the “invocation of the muse”—a technique popular in epic poems in which the poet asks a muse for help and inspiration to finish the poem.
  • John Milton’s Paradise Lost, first published in 1667, tells the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, the fallen angel Satan, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is written in blank verse form.

Learn more about poetry from former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins here.