The epic poems definition is vast. Essentially, it is a lengthy narrative on a grand scale.

Webster’s New World dictionary describes an epic as a long narrative poem that is dignified in style and includes deeds of heroism. Epic poems like Odyssey or Iliad are formal in character and usually involve long character arcs and forces of nature. In this sort of heroic poetry, protagonists usually meet with disaster, obstacles, action and triumph.

If you are fascinated to know more about heroic poems, then keep reading as this article offers a guide to all the epic poetry features that you need to know.

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Characteristics of Epic Poems

Epic poetry features several characteristics that easily distinguish it from other poetry forms.

The most obvious characteristic of epic poems is their length.

One epic poems definition is that it is more like a novel than a poem.

In fact, many well-known epic poems have been broken down into books. For instance, Homer’s heroic poems have been divided into 24 books and Milton’s Paradise Lost is a series of 12 heroic poetry books.

Another way to narrow down an epic poems definition is to identify the protagonist. This is why epics, which focus on the extreme valour and deeds of a personality, are also known as heroic poems. Traditional or historical heroes are literally the subject of heroic poetry.

Epic poetry features the use of exaggeration. This is usually centred around the achievements and powers of the hero and is certainly part of the epic poems definition.

Supernatural elements are very much part of the epic. Authors take poetic licence to create awe and wonder when it comes to the characters and events that make up heroic poems. Both Paradise Lost and Iliad are full of unrealistic pieces that form part of the epic poems definition.

As you study heroic poems you will notice that themes of morality are frequent epic poetry features. Here the author provides a moral lesson to readers and again, Paradise Lost is a good example where Milton justifies God’s actions through the Adam story.

Different poetry styles certainly have similar language and tonality of expression. The epic poems definition of this is to make use of rather lofty language that is devoid of colloquial or common expressions.

Take note of how the language itself manages to add to the subliminal messages and feel of the piece.

In terms of language, you can also look out for how epic poetry features the prolific use of the simile. Called the epic simile, this technique compares two subjects in a truly far-fetched way. It usually runs over a number of lines to describe the human traits that are common in heroic poems. These can also be called the Homeric simile after Homer who wrote Iliad.

Multiple settings are also one of the epic poetry features where the activities of heroes span continents and even, realms. The epic is also often characterised by an omniscient narrator who knows all.

Think you could write your own poem?
There are two types of Epic poems: Folk and Literary (Source: Pexels)

Types of Epic or Heroic Poetry

There are two key types of epic or heroic poetry: folk and literary.

The Folk Epic

Folk epic is old form epic poetry that was first told as a spoken story. Over time poets and authors attempted to preserve them by documenting them in writing. As a result, the story would change slightly and it is often difficult to pinpoint the exact authorship of folk epics.

Folk epics which are based on a type of mythology, differ from literary epics which are based on the author’s ideas where the story is invented by the poet. The folk epic is usually oral in form, while the literary form is, as it suggests, written!

Literary epic authors are usually well-known writers, while folk epic could be anyone!

William Henry Hudson describes the epic in his Study of Literature as follows

“The epic of growth is fresh, spontaneous, racy, the epic of art is learned, antiquarian, bookish, imitative. Its specifically ‘literary’ qualities-its erudition, its echoes, reminiscences, and borrowings- are indeed, as the Aeneid and Paradise Lost will suffice to prove, among its most interesting characteristics for a cultured reader.”

Now, take look at these lines from Beowulf:

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers
From many a people their mead-benches tore.
Since first he found him friendless and wretched,
The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,
Waxed ’neath the welkin, world-honor gained,
Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to
Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:
An excellent atheling! After was borne him
A son and heir, young in his dwelling,
Whom God-Father sent to solace the people.

The Literary Epic

The literary epic is also known as the art epic. It imitates many characteristics of the folk epic but in written form. Other than this, it is very unlike the folk epic which originated from an oral form. The literary epic is organised, polished, and structured by comparison to the folk epic. They are the result of a poet’s genius and have great literary significance.

William Henry Hudson in his Study of Literature offers an excellent literary epic poems definition.

“The literary epic naturally resembles the primitive epic, on which it is ultimately based, in various fundamental characteristics. Its subject-matter is of the old heroic and mythical kind; it makes free use of supernatural; it follows the same structural plan and reproduces many traditional details of composition; while, greatly it necessarily differs in style, it often adopts the formulas, fixed epithets, and stereo typed phrases and locutions, which are among the marked feature of the early type."

Now consider these words from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

Epic Poems are long narrative stories
Epic poems often spread over several books (Source: Pexels)

Epic Poetry in the Modern Day

Just because Paradise Lost was penned in 1667, don’t be fooled in thinking that epic poetry is a thing of the past. Today, there are many different types of epic poetry present in the big business of TV and film.

Even if you don’t realise it, these shows used narration and long character arcs in very similar ways to epic poetry.

Consider Game of Thrones, which is based on the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, for instance. In this series which spans years of narrative, somehow the audience remains enthralled. In some ways, it is much like Paradise Lost with its villains, heroes, and moral lessons, and everything else that epic poetry features.

As you can see the epic style of writing works well on screen too.

According to Forbes, the  business of epics is huge:

“It's gone viral. Instead of one old blind guy memorizing colossal tales, we're crowdsourcing our favorite myths, characters, themes, and narratives. The big budgets and star-making studios surrounding the adaptations of these tales create the illusion that their success is ultimately a top-down phenomenon, but it's not.”

So even if you are not engrossed in Homer’s Iliad this weekend you may well be settling in to binge-watch Game of Thrones, The Vampire Diaries, or Twilight – all of which are doing the job of keeping the epic style of writing alive!

Next time you are watching a film or TV series, see if you can identify any epic poetry tropes. You are guaranteed to be surprised.

Once you have tried epic poems, you may want to try short poems like funny limericks or elegant haikus. If you’re more of a Shakespeare fan, you will love the sonnet, and if you are musically minded, it will not be surprising if you are more drawn to the ballad poem.

Those who love the performing arts tend to reach for slam poetry which is delivered in front of an audience. And if you like to be completely unrestricted in your written creative expression, then free verse poetry will suit you perfectly.

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Niki

Niki is a content writer from Cape Town, South Africa, who is passionate about words, strategic communication and using words to help create and maintain brand personas. Niki has a PR and marketing background, but her happiest place is when she is bringing a story to life on a page.