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How to Write the Opening of an Epic Poem


An epic poem is defined as a long, narrative poem that focuses on the exploits of a hero. Although epic poems are often associated with ancient works by Homer or Virgil, 20th century writers such as Hart Crane and Alice Notley have written versions of the epic. When beginning your own epic poem, you can employ a few specific strategies to immediately signal that your poem is following the epic tradition.

Invocation to the Muse

Epic poems often start with an invocation to the muse. The term "muse" refers to a god or goddess that inspires poetry or other works of art. In "The Iliad," the poem opens with a request for the goddess of poetry to sing of the anger of Achilles. You can be creative in deciding exactly what is meant by the term "muse"; you could call on traditional religious figures or on any cultural, spiritual or artistic figures that serve as an inspiration to your own writing. You could even choose a fictitious character as your muse!

Set the Theme and Hero

When writing your epic poem, include not only action through narrative, but also a theme that you are trying to present and the hero who leads the action. To continue with the example of "The Iliad," in its first few lines the poem announces the "anger of Achilles" as a thematic focus. In your own epic, make clear your primary point in the poem and indicate your primary hero or protagonist.

Begin in Media Res

Most epic poems begin "in Media Res," which means "in the middle of things." In "The Iliad," the poem begins after the Trojan War has already started. Beginning in this way allows your reader to feel as though he is thrust into the action and provides immediate excitement for the reader. An accident, a battle or even a breakup can work as an incident around which to center your epic poem.

Similes and Epithets

Epic poets often begin their work with similes and epithets (descriptions taking the place of a person's name) as a way to rename or highlight certain personality traits of characters or aspects of the natural world. Homer famously used the phrases "wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn" to characterize the natural world, and he also gave specific characters epithets, such as "swift-footed Achilles." In your own epic poem, provide your characters with epithets that highlight the characteristics that you want your reader to remember.

About the Author

Ann Trent has been publishing her writing since 2001. Her work has appeared in "Fence," the "Black Warrior Review" and the "Denver Quarterly." Trent received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Ohio State University and has attended the Macdowell Colony. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in counseling.

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