Ancient societies used narrative poetry to keep a record of their histories and traditions because its formal meter and rhyme scheme made it easy to memorize and recount to others. A narrative poem is a kind of poem that tells a story; it began in the oral tradition, and it is one of the oldest forms of poetry.
Kinds of Narrative Poems
There are three kinds of narrative poems: epics, ballads and straight narratives. Epics are long, and use elevated style and subject to tell stories of important or mythical events, such as the history of the world or the founding of a nation. An example of an epic is Dante’s “Inferno.” Ballads are songs, and they have a simple meter and rhyme scheme. They typically have a series of four-line stanzas and often contain repetitive refrains. Unlike epics, they tend to focus on a single dramatic event, moral or lesson, and provide little information about the story’s setting. An example of a ballad is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Straightforward narratives are poems that tell a story and have a rhyme and meter scheme but are not actually epics or ballads. An example is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.”
Necessary Narrative Qualities
A narrative poem has a narrator and the story is told from the point of view of that narrator. The narrator may be the main character, a secondary character or an observer. A narrative poem also contains many of the narrative elements found in other types of fiction including setting, characterization, plot, conflict, tone, dialogue and symbolism. Because it has a plot, a narrative poem also has rising action, climax and resolution.
Necessary Poetic Qualities
Like other types of poems, a narrative poem uses imagery and figurative language like similes and metaphors. It also has a definite rhyme and meter scheme and sound patterns. For instance, a ballad stanza is usually four lines of iambic trimeter, and it has an A, B, C, D rhyming scheme. Unlike ballads, which tend to be repetitive and short, epics are quite long. Homer’s “The Odyssey,” for instance, is a narrative poem of 12,000 lines. Epics tend to be structured in two rhymed lines of iambic pentameter, also known as an heroic couplet.
Subject of Narrative Poems
A narrative poem is not limited to a particular subject or theme, and it may relay any kind of story including the story of a hero or a heroine, the story of familial love, or the story of an unrequited love. Ballads tend to focus on one particular conflict and on only a couple of characters, while epics tend to span years, depict long journeys and heroic lives, and deal with a number of different conflicts and characters.