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What Is an Epic Poem?

By David Bishop
Updated May 23, 2024
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An epic poem is a long narrative composed in verse rather than the shorter prose poetry form. Epic poetry is one of the oldest literary traditions of human civilization, existing since the ancient Mesopotamian era and continuously produced through modern times. These poems generally contain tales of historic or cultural significance and often follow the adventures of a hero or group of heroes.

Early epic poems may have served to reinforce shared cultural values within a nation and provide a mythic history for a people. Ancient classical epics contain references to gods and magic and often feature a hero beset by mystical forces. Many later poems imitate these earlier works and may use similar literary conventions, depending on the culture. Early poems based on oral traditions are often called primary epics, while the later works are called secondary or literary epics.

The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, Greece, and India produced several important epics that have continued to influence the development and study of literature for thousands of years. Ancient poems first emerged as an oral tradition to be re-told by storytellers throughout a culture. The development of writing in these areas allowed these stories to be written down and preserved for later generations. The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Illiad, The Odyssey, and Mahabharata are early examples. Later Roman and other civilizations continued this literary tradition through the rest of the classical era.

Early medieval epics continued on primarily as an oral tradition. Beowulf, Song of Roland, and Poem of the Cid are well known European epics composed as songs for bards or minstrels. As literacy became more common, the epic poem gradually transitioned to a written form in the later medieval and early modern era. Some of these epics, such as The Divine Comedy, are important cultural artifacts but also helped to define the written language of emerging nations.

Epic poems continued to be an important literary tradition through the modern era, though they gradually lost their power to define a national history and value system. Some modern epics seek to imitate earlier classical forms, while others function within the poetic trends of their time period. Paradise Lost, Don Juan, and The Faerie Queene are significant epics from different points in the modern era. While poetry has lost much of its cultural significance in the 20th and early 21st centuries, writers continue to produce and publish notable epics in a variety of literary genres.

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Discussion Comments
By starrynight — On Oct 31, 2011

@JessicaLynn - The Epic of Gilgamesh is an interesting example. A lot of people think that part of the Bible may have been influenced by the Epic of Gilgamesh, specifically the story of Noah and the flood and Adam and Eve.

Anyway, the only epic poem I've ever read was the Beowulf epic poem. I read it in English class, of course. I was lucky in that my teacher let us read a modern translation. So it was written in modern English that was easy for us to understand.

I suppose it could be argued that you should read these poems in their original language. However, what's the point of reading it if you can't understand it? I'd rather people read it in modern English than not at all!

By JessicaLynn — On Oct 31, 2011

One things that's interesting about the Epic of Gilgamesh is that it isn't just known for being an epic poem. In fact, it's known for being one of the earliest works of literature ever! Which of course makes sense, because, as the article states, epic poetry is a rather old tradition.

Like a lot of other epic poems, the Epic of Gilgamesh has survived right up until the present day. I know it's been translated into a lot of different languages. I've been meaning to take a look at it for quite awhile, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

By blackDagger — On Oct 30, 2011

I have a love/hate relationship with a new way that the word ‘epic’ is being used.

Although I’m no longer in the educational field, I keep up with many of my previous student’s through Facebook and the like. One had a post the other day about a movie she was going to see, and I asked her to let me know what she thought about it because I was thinking of seeing it as well.

When she got back to me, she told me it was ‘epic’ very enthusiastically. Well, first I had to figure out if that was good or bad in the world of the younger generation. Apparently, it’s good; really, really good, actually.

So I was delighted that she used such terminology until I began to wonder if she even realized what the word ‘epic’ actually derived from and so on and so forth.

I want my babies to know why ‘epic’ in the sense that they use it is related to the literary epic poem, but I’m sure they couldn’t care less!

By ddljohn — On Oct 30, 2011

Are dialogues common in epic poetry?

I ran into a collection of classic epic poetry while at the bookstore and since I'm really into theater and writing, I skimmed through several.

There was one called the Aeneid, which I think is a Latin poem about the Romans. This epic poem actually had dialogues in it, much like a play does.

I guess this is okay in epic poetry since this was categorized as one, but it's not very common is it?

By SteamLouis — On Oct 29, 2011

I read Beowulf and the Odyssey in school. I actually enjoy epic poetry a lot but I think I was too young to grasp the meaning of these poems when I first read them. Some of the epic poems are in old English and some have been translated, so some phrases can be a bit foreign to American readers.

Now I think is the best time to read and enjoy epic poetry since I have a much better grasp of the English language. It's nice to sit down at a cafe on a rainy day with a cup of coffee and read this type of poetry and ponder at the thoughts in it. It's probably one of the deepest and most meaningful type of literary work out there. It does require patience and an appreciation of poetry and language though.

By bear78 — On Oct 29, 2011

I had a chance to read and hear parts of the Indian epic Mahabharata. It's actually a very amusing literary work to read. I especially like the parts where the good deities fight Raavan, the main evil deity in Hinduism. It seems like the typical fight between good and evil. But it's interesting to hear about the different tricks and games Raavan plays to destroy the good deities. Of couse, he always fails and good prevails.

The other great part about the Indian epics is that it is still very much alive and present in Hindu culture. I know that throughout India, plays depicting the epic are shown and little children grow up hearing about them. I think this is great. I read some of the English and Greek epics in school, but nothing close to what Indian children get to learn and experience.

By ElizaBennett — On Oct 28, 2011

@SailorJerry - Shakespeare also wrote epic narrative poems. We usually remember him for his sonnets and his plays, of course, but he also wrote Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. It's interesting that they don't get more study; I guess people tend to study the career-defining works.

I slogged through The Faerie Queen and it was one of the most painful experiences of my life because it was printed without modernized spelling. Paradise Lost, on the other hand, was *fantastic.* It's hard to see how such a devout Christian could write a Christian epic in which Satan is clearly the hero. He's such a compelling character!

Somehow, people didn't seem to notice that it was heretical. Milton writes clearly about a Christ who is created in time and subordinate to God the Father.

By SailorJerry — On Oct 27, 2011

We tend to think of the novel as the default mode of telling a long story, but that wasn't always the case! The novel wasn't really even "invented" until at least the eighteenth century. Many or most of the early novels were epistolary novels (collections of letters).

Epic poems never quite caught on in English, it doesn't seem, but Chaucer usually gets the credit for realizing that poems, including epic poems, *could* be written in English at all. He is usually identified with The Canterbury Tales, but he never finished them (and I don't think they're all in verse). His completed epic poem is a version of the story of Troilus and Cressida, which itself is taken from (I think) a brief mention in the Iliad.

Some other famous epic poems in English, or poems that are at least sometimes considered epics, are The Song of Hiawatha (Longfellow) and Song of Myself (Walt Whitman). Longfellow was the rock star poet of his era, but his work hasn't aged well.

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