Poetry originated from the passing down of stories through oral tradition, and poetry was used to orally record history and law. Because this poetry followed rhyme scheme and meter, it was easy to either recite or sing to musical accompaniment. Narrative and dramatic poetry grew from these roots, and both of these forms tell stories, but they differ in the ways they communicate plot, character and settings.
Use of the Narrator
Poets write narrative poems from the point of view of a narrator, who might be a main character, an outside observer or someone retelling another person’s story. On the other hand, dramatic poetry does not involve a traditional narrator; it tells a story in the character’s own words. Dramatic poetry includes plays in which actors portray characters, who tell the action of a story. Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee" is an example of a narrative poem in which the speaker is a main character in the story. In contrast, "My Last Duchess" by Robert Browning is a dramatic poem and does not rely on input from a narrator.
The Speaker and the Listener
According to Poetry Foundation, dramatic monologues, a form of dramatic poetry, do not intend to address the reader of the poem; instead, the speaker talks to another character . For example, A.E. Stallings' "The Mother's Loathing of Balloons" is a dramatic poem in which the speaker addresses a balloon. In contrast, narrative poems serve to entertain and tell stories directly to the reader. Homer's "The Iliad" is an epic narrative meant to pass down stories and religious beliefs directly to the reader or listener.
Setting Up the Story
Narrative poems often begin with an exposition to introduce characters and setting, while dramatic poetry does not. John Keats' "Eve of St. Agnes" begins with a stanza dedicated to describing the setting and main character before Keats dives into the story. This characteristic of narrative poetry makes it similar to short stories or novels, which also follow a plot line beginning with an exposition. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's dramatic monologue "Ulysses" begins with the speaker's declaration that it is pointless to stay idly at home, illustrating how dramatic poems tend to start in action, as the speaker has something to say about a situation.
Presence of Conflict and Emotions
Another key difference between these two forms of poetry is that dramatic poetry often lives up to its name; this style tends to allow for emotional commentary from the speaker. Narrative poetry leans on an objective viewpoint, so it is similar to reading a story in third person, while dramatic poetry is strictly first person point of view. Dramatic poems portray or insinuate a situation or conflict, often told with personal opinions, while narrative poetry is more straightforward and tells stories without subjective input.