How to Write an Epic Poem
An epic poem is a long narrative that tells of an epic hero's journey. Many famous works are epic poems, including Homer's "The Odyssey" and Virgil's "The Aeneid." There is no required rhyme or meter for an epic poem, which may make the form more approachable for some writers. However, epic poems do require many stylistic conventions, which dictate the content and the language choices.
Define the Epic Hero
The epic hero is at the heart of the epic poem. The narrative tells of the hero's journey to complete a quest. For example, Odysseus in "The Odyssey" was on a quest to return home after the war, but faced many struggles along the way. While many epic heroes have been kings or other noble figures such as warriors, your epic hero can be anyone you choose. You can be the epic hero in your own poem, or you can choose someone you know or admire from afar, from the president to a celebrity. The hero should embody the ideals of the time and culture in which the poem is set. Brainstorm what these values would be, and use your notes to guide the poem.
Outline the Epic Journey
The epic journey is perhaps the second most important characteristic of the epic poem. The epic hero should be exiled from home -- or simply away from home, such as during war or because he is lost. The poem would then cover the journey and the eventual return home. Along the way, the hero should face many obstacles and his journey should cover a vast setting, such as multiple continents or even a galaxy. The hero should have amazing adventures and show his strength and courage. After brainstorming some ideas, make an outline of the hero's journey and use it to craft an outline of the poem. Remember that epic poems begin "in medias res," which means in the middle of the action. Flashbacks can be used to fill in the beginning of the story.
Adopt an Elevated Style
Even if your epic poem does not rhyme or follow a meter, it should use formal language and have an elevated style. For example, epithets are a popular convention in epic poems. In "The Iliad" by Homer, Achilles is often described as "swift-footed Achilles." Many other epithets are used to describe his speed and agility. Create epithets for your epic hero and use other formal and stylistic language throughout the poem, such as extended metaphors, similes and high rhetoric.
Adhere to Stylistic Conventions
Epic poems have many other stylistic conventions. For example, many open with an invocation to a muse for inspiration or to the gods for protection. You do not have to appeal to either entity. You can make up your own "muse" or god to appeal to, such as invoking Beyonce, if she is your musical muse. Epics also include long and formal speeches by the hero and other characters, long digressions from the main story line, and many catalogs, or lists, of people and things.
- Tyler Junior College: English Language Studies: Epic Conventions
- Poets: Poetic Form: Epic
- Auburn University: Jeremy Downes, Department of English: Basic Definitions: Epic, Epic Formula, Epic Simile
- Young Writers: What Is an Epic Poem?
- Rutgers University: Jack Lynch, Professor in the English Department: Epic
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