What Are the Characteristics of an Epic Poem?

Epic poetry is a form of writing with roots stretching back into antiquity. It may be written down or performed as part of an oral tradition. Epic poems are among the earliest literary works, and famous epic poems such as "The Iliad" and "Beowulf" have had a huge impact on world culture.

Epic Poetry

An epic poem is a long narrative poem. It usually concerns itself with one or more heroes and is focused on the great deeds of heroes and gods rather than everyday matters. Epic poems may be subdivided into smaller sections, such as the 24 books of "The Iliad." Epics that arise from an oral tradition are sometimes called primary epics, while poems that draw on these as a conscious literary choice are called secondary or literary epics.

Common Techniques in Epic Poetry

Epic poetry is a diverse field, but there are some common techniques found among epic poems. For example, many epic poems begin "in medias res," in the middle of the action. Many epic poems also make use of repeated descriptive phrases called epithets. For example, Homer frequently calls dawn "rosy-fingered," or refers to Achilles as "swift-footed." These standard descriptions made it easier to memorize oral poetry or even compose it on the fly.

Famous Epics

The earliest known epic poem is the "Epic of Gilgamesh," one of the first written works of literature. Early versions of this poem date to the third millennium BC. The epic poems of Homer date from the 8th century BC and tell the story of the Trojan War and its consequences. Other famous epics include "Beowulf," the story of a heroic warrior's battle with a series of monsters. This anonymous work is one of the earliest works of English literature.

Modern Epics

The epic tradition is alive and well in modern poetry. G. K. Chesterton and Ezra Pound both wrote epic poetry in the early 20th century, consciously drawing on and reacting to early epics. Later 20th-century epic poets include Derek Walcott, whose epic poem "Omeros" draws on the work of earlier epic poets such as Homer, Dante and Virgil to present a history of the island of St Lucia in which the island itself can be seen as the hero.

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