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What Is a Narrative Poem?
A narrative poem is a longer form of poetry that tells an entire story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative poems contain all of the elements of a fully developed story, including characters, plot, conflict, and resolution. These poems are typically told by just one narrator or speaker.
Narrative poems are distinguished from narrative prose, such as a short story or a novel, because they are written in verse and retain poetic devices and characteristics like meter and rhyme. Though some narrative poems may be written in blank verse (that is, in iambic pentameter but with no rhyme), most narrative poetry does retain a formal rhyme scheme such as ABCB, with the second and fourth lines rhyming.
What Are the Origins of Narrative Poetry?
Narrative poetry grew out of oral traditions. Before written language, poets used elements like repetition and rhyme to allow for poems to be more easily memorized, recited, and passed on. The ancient Greek poet Homer wrote the epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad as part of spoken tradition: both can be considered narrative poems. Homer’s work was passed down through the generations verbally, until it was later captured by written language.
Even when written language emerged, narrative poetry continued to be the dominant form of verse. It was favored by medieval poets, most notably exemplified by Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of 24 narrative poems.
Narrative poetry reigned in popularity all the way through the Renaissance. Its dominance began to wane only in the eighteenth century, when Romantic poets inspired a shift to lyric poetry.
Still, narrative poetry was far from abandoned. One of the most famous narrative poems was written well after the height of its popularity as a form: Paul Revere’s Ride, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, is an enduring classic of the genre. Narrated by the innkeeper character, it tells the story of Paul Revere riding through Boston warning of the British invasion by sea. Today, narrative poetry is less dominant as a form of poetry than it used to be, but it is still common in song lyrics and in children’s books. Think of The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, which uses rhythm, rhyming, and repetition to tell a complete story from beginning to end.
3 Different Types of Narrative Poems
Narrative poems vary in style, and have changed over the ages as both language and literary trends have evolved. Some were composed with the intention of being sung and danced to, while others are written to record human history.
- Epics. Epic poems were composed by ancient Greek poets like Homer and were intended to be recited rather than read. Epics are written in a grandiose style, and tell stories of historical events or legends of cultural importance. One example of an epic poem passing down history is Homer’s The Iliad, which contains a long passage called the Catalogue of Ships. This chapter lists in great detail, and in poetic verse, the contingents of the Achaean army that sailed to Troy. In a time before written language, this type of detail in a narrative poem worked to pass on historical events to the next generation.
- Ballads. Ballads derive from the French “chanson ballade,” which were poems set to music and intended for dancing. Because of its strong musical background, ballads are associated with a specific meter: Ballads are typically written with alternating lines of iambic tetrameter (dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM) and iambic trimeter (da DUM da DUM da DUM), with every second and fourth line rhyming. They were most popular in Ireland and Britain starting in the Middle Ages, but also gained popularity around Europe and on other continents. Ballads may be relatively short narrative poems, compared to other types of narrative poetry.
- Arthurian romances. Arthurian romances derive from twelfth century France. They are any narrative poetry that tells stories of romance and adventure within the Arthurian court. King Arthur was an English ruler in the fifth and sixth centuries, best known for fighting off the Saxon invasions. According to some scholars, however, Arthur never existed but was instead a fictional character. Historical status aside, King Arthur and his knights are major figures in English and French folklore. Arthurian literature was hugely popular during the Middle Ages, and had a resurgence of popularity in the eighteenth century. Different stories focus on Arthur and his wife Guinevere, on the Knights of the Round Table and the search for the Holy Grail, or on any number of side characters associated with the Arthurian court.
3 Examples of Narrative Poems
There are many different examples of narrative poetry throughout literature.
- The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe. This is one of Poe’s most famous poems. It is a narrative poem that begins with a man hearing a knock on his door at night. Over the course of 18 stanzas, the narrator, who we learn is mourning the loss of his lover Lenore, descends into madness. Poe’s poem has a defined narrative arc. The narrator hears something knocking at his door at night, and realizes it is a raven, who comes in and then refuses to leave. The narrator’s lover has passed away, and the raven, in refusing to leave, represents a heavy grief that the narrator of the poem feels will never leave him. The repetition in the poem—”rapping,” “napping,” “tapping”—along with the iambic meter, contributes to the poem’s high level of musicality. Every stanza ends with the word “more”: whether it be “evermore,” “nothing more,” or “nevermore.” Poe also incorporates the rhyme with the name of the speaker’s lost love, Lenore, further reinforcing the rhyme.
- The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde. This 1897 poem is an example of a narrative ballad. Oscar Wilde wrote the poem after his release from Reading Gaol, where he had been incarcerated for homosexual activity. The ballad tells the story of an execution that Wilde had witnessed in jail a year earlier, when a prisoner was sentenced to hanging for killing his wife. Wilde’s poem works to show how harsh and dehumanizing the prison system is to prisoners, but he does not explore the crimes and laws that landed the men in prison, or take a stance on whether the laws were just. He identifies with all of the men he is imprisoned with.
- The Cremation of Sam McGee, Robert W. Service. This 1907 poem tells the story of Sam McGee, who freezes to death in the Yukon. McGee asks the narrator of the poem, who he meets on his last night alive, to cremate his remains should he die. The narrator agrees, because, “A pal’s last need is a thing to heed.” When McGee dies in the cold, the narrator makes good on his promise and uses an abandoned steamer as a makeshift crematorium. Afterwards, he is shocked to find the ghost of Sam McGee lounging in the warm coals. The poem has a clear story arc with a beginning, middle, and end, making it a classic example of narrative poetry.’
Learn more about reading and writing poetry in US Poet Laureate Billy Collins’s MasterClass.