Epic literature comes from the oral traditions of ancient civilizations. Epic poems have been created throughout history, up to the present day. Epic poems are included in all three genres of poetry, which include lyric, dramatic, and narrative.
Epic literature belongs to the narrative genre of poetry. A narrative poem will tell a story of societies and heroes. The subject matter includes topics of human interest. Ballads are narrative poems, as well as epics.
Well-known ballads are:
Examples of epic poetry can sometimes seem like dramatic poetry, because they also tell a story, and can be quite dramatic. But their main form is the narrative, whether they are satirical or dramatic.
The works of many other great authors of past and present can also be classified as examples of epics. Consider the following examples, and note that many of these names may be familiar from your high school English classes:
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there” - “The Divine Comedy” by Dante
“I want a hero: an uncommon want,When every year and month sends forth a new one,Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,The age discovers he is not the true one;Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan—We all have seen him, in the pantomime,Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.”- “Don Juan” by Lord Byron
“Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,” - “Paradise Lost” by John Milton
“He who has seen everything, I will make known (?) to the lands.I will teach (?) about him who experienced all things,... alike,Anu granted him the totality of knowledge of all.He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion,but then was brought to peace.He carved on a stone stela all of his toils,and built the wall of Uruk-Haven,the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.”- Epic of Gilgamesh
“Thus, while the mute creation downward bend Their sight, and to their earthly mother tend, Man looks aloft; and with erected eyes Beholds his own hereditary skies. From such rude principles our form began; And earth was metamorphos'd into Man.”- “Metamorphoses” by Ovid
“Listen:You have heard of the Danish Kingsin the old days and how they were great warriors.Shield, the son of Sheaf,took many an enemy's chair,terrified many a warrior,after he was found an orphan.He prospered under the skyuntil people everywherelistened when he spoke.He was a good king!”- Beowulf
The word “epic” comes from the Greek for “word, poem, or story.” The stories deal with significant events of a nation or culture and show the values of a society. Since epic poems are so long, there is not room to include one in its entirety; so the examples of epic poems will be various excerpts.
The Iliad and The Odyssey are two Greek poems written by Homer. The Iliad tells of the last year before the city of Troy was overrun by the Greeks. The Odyssey is about Odysseus and his return home to Ithaca.
Here is an excerpt from The Iliad:
“The first prize he offered was for the chariot races- a woman skilled in all useful arts, and a three-legged cauldron that had ears for handles, and would hold twenty-two measures. This was for the man who came in first. For the second there was a six-year old mare, unbroken, and in foal to a he-ass; the third was to have a goodly cauldron that had never yet been on the fire; it was still bright as when it left the maker, and would hold four measures. The fourth prize was two talents of gold, and the fifth a two-handled urn as yet unsoiled by smoke.”
This next excerpt is from the beginning of The Odyssey:
“Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.”
In a lyric poem, the mood is emotional and song-like. Lyric poems focus on the mood, state of mind and emotions of the author, so the reader may experience also them.
Notice how, in this excerpt from Sonnet Number 18, Shakespeare set the mood:
“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimmed, And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance, or nature's changing course untrimmed.”
Dramatic poetry is a drama that is written in verse that is meant to be spoken. Dramatic poetry includes dramatic monologues and rhyme verse. It usually tells a story or refers to a situation.
A good example of dramatic poetry comes from Christopher Marlowe. This excerpt is from the opening of “Tamburlaine the Great” and is very dramatic and gets the point across:
"From jigging veins of riming mother wits And such conceits as clownage keeps in pay We'll lead you to the stately tent of war, Where you shall hear the Scythian Tamburlaine Threatening the world with high astounding terms And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.”
The author of a lyric epic poem will choose words by their ability to represent moods and feelings or by the way they sound, which can also add to the mood of the poem.