Narrative poems tell a story -- complete with characters, conflict, plot and climax -- using rhythm and, sometimes, rhyme. Dating back to Homer’s “Iliad,” narrative poetry has many forms, including the ballad and the epic poem. Narrative verse can be short or long, the only requirements are that it have a beginning, middle and end to the story often told within metered lines and stanzas.
Allegory is a type of narrative poem with both an explicit and implicit message, similar to fables and parables. It has both a literal meaning and (using metaphor, personification and other literary tools) a secondary meaning, such as a moral or lesson that the reader is expected to learn. In the poem “Allegory of the Cave,” Stephen Dunn presents a short narrative about Plato’s Cave in literal terms of one climbing out of the cave, but in metaphorical terms, this act can be understood to be the person learning about truth and knowledge. Other classic examples of allegorical poetry are “Allegory” by Thomas Hood and “Time, Real and Imaginary: An Allegory” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Ballads tell a story about a specific event, usually in four-line stanzas with a set rhyme pattern. The rhyme pattern of each stanza may have consecutive pairs of lines that rhyme (couplets), alternating line rhyme (cross rhyme) or a rhyme scheme in which only even numbered lines rhyme. Along with a rhyme scheme, these narrative poems rely on repetition of key phrases or stanzas to create a song-like rhythm -- originally, ballads were only meant to be sung. Some ballads, such as Sir Walter Scott’s “Border Ballad,” use a combination of rhyme patterns to create the rhythm. In “Ballad on the American War,” Robert Burns repeated the same word on even lines to create his pattern.
Epic poems tell a long story about a hero, a character of high stature from a society who is often capable of performing superhuman feats. This type of narrative poem generally opens with a description of the major themes and generally upholds the interests of a specific culture, although the scope of the story may be global. The epic poem is based in the oral tradition, originally composed for song or other rhythmic oral presentation. These narrative works are easily identified by repeated poetic conventions such as similes and long speeches. Famous classic epics include Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” Lord Byron’s “Don Juan,” Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" and “The Metamorphoses” of Ovid.
Traditional forms of poetry rely on a strict form of meter, rhyme scheme and stanza length. Free verse doesn’t rely on a consistent pattern, having no meter, no identifiable rhyme scheme and stanzas with varying numbers of lines; however, it can still be an effective presentation for narrative poetry. Although many narrative poems written in free verse lean toward the dramatic or lyric genres, narrative free-verse has some classic and contemporary authors. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is one of the more popular examples of narrative free verse poetry.