What Is a Narrative Poem?
Narrative poetry always tells a story. It contains rhythm, rhyme, stress and repetition but differs from other types of poetry because it includes protagonists, antagonists, detailed settings, plot developments, conflicts and resolutions. Narrative poetry combines poetic language with short-story elements. Many narrative poems began as oral traditions. Some are short; the lengthy ones are often referred to as epic poems.
Plot and Climax
A narrative poem typically has a plot that includes a climax, resolution and conclusion. Poets intensify the tone, discuss a significant metaphor or change the point of view during the climax, says Helen Vendler in her book "Poems, Poets, Poetry." For example, the plot of "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe is about a sad student -- the narrator -- who's lamenting the death of his mistress when a raven taps at his window and repeatedly answers the young man's questions with the word "nevermore." The climax occurs when the narrator reaches a frenzied state of mind and demands to know if he'll see his lover again in heaven.
Heroes and Villains
Narrative poems, especially epic poems, contain clearly defined heroes and villains, according to the English Department at the University of Georgia. Heroes often embark on grand adventures and persevere through hardships until they find the perfect opportunity to defeat their enemy. For example, in the epic poem "Beowulf," Beowulf receives hero status when he saves his homeland by defeating two terrifying monsters -- Grendel and Grendel's mother. Narrative poetry contains respectable antagonists and evil protagonists, so a strong central conflict drives the story.
Themes About Human Nature
Narrative poetry explores important themes, such as self-discovery, courage, death, loss, friendship, mercy, suffering and endurance. Poetic devices, such as repetition, imagery and rhythmic meter, add mystery and suspense to narrative poems and help readers identify with the central messages, according to Anoka Ramsey Community College in Minnesota. Narrative poems often contain action sequences, but the characters' emotional and psychological journeys are critical to understanding the themes. For example, Robert Frost discusses important themes such as death, compassion, homecoming, forgiveness and friendship in his poem "The Death of the Hired Man." The poem is about a dying employee who returns to his original employers -- a couple who own a farm -- even though he previously left them shorthanded during their heaviest work season.
Narrator: First-Hand Witness
The narrator of a narrative poem is almost always a firsthand witness to the events, not the main protagonist, according to English professor Cathy Brush at the State University of New York at Cortland. The third-person point of view allows the poet to describe events and detail the central characters' responses as the scenes unfold in the story. Readers can draw their own conclusions and ponder the deeper meanings without the narrator giving a first-person, fully disclosed explanation.
- Baruch College -- The City University of New York: Chapter 1 -- Epic Poetry
- State University of New York at Cortland; Using a Genre-Based Approach to Teaching Narrative Poetry; Cathy Brush
- Anoka Ramsey Community College: An Introduction to Poetry -- The Forms of Poetry
- Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute; The Illiad -- A Practical Approach; Phyllis Taylor
- Poems, Poets, Poetry; Helen Vendler
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