Epic Poems

389px-Homer_Statue_MunichAn epic poem is usually a rather lengthy piece of writing which usually revolves around the topic of some heroic deed or some other event that is of significance to a particular nation or culture. We find the first known example of an epic poem in the form of The Epic of Gilgamesh. In Europe, the epic poem has its beginnings in the story of Homer. This Greek epic poem The Odyssey, written around 800 BC, is one of the stories that are found on the required reading lists for most English literature students. It was written by a poet named Homer who also wrote The Iliad. His works became the standard for all other epic poems that followed, imitating his characters and his plots. In fact, most noted epic poets have read Homer’s works extensively, including Apollonius, Lucan, Hesiod, Ovid, and Statius.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (an excerpt)
by Unknown

This style of poetry is written in the form known as dactylic hexameter. Esssentially, a dactylic hexameter is made up of six lines (or feet), with each one having either a dactyl (a long syllable followed with two short ones) or a spondee (two long syllables alone). The typical epic starts with a calling or invocation to some particular muse, which may include speeches, similes, and descriptions. They tell a story about some significant event of true historical value (such as the founding of Rome or the fall of Troy). Most of its characters are respectful and noble.

Some four hundred years after Homer wrote The Odyssey, a poet named Virgil wrote another exceptional epic poem regarding the Roman Empire. The Aeneid actually gets its title from one of Homer’s characters in The Iliad. The story is about this character who departs from Troy and visit Italy, where he is responsible for the founding of Rome. Through studies of European literature, scholars have determined that every author of note from the Renaissance and European eras had read The Aeneid and was very familiar with its story. For example, one can find Virgil’s influence in the story Paradise Lost by Milton.

Paradise Lost (an excerpt)
by Milton

Although they are rarely read by most students of literature, there are quite a variety of Medieval epic poems available. One of the more noted of these is The Divine Comedy written by Dante. This particular epic poem has had a great influence on both writers and artists alike. It is said that T. S. Eliot carried The Divine Comedy in his coat pocket where ever he went. The great artist, Gustave Dore, is credited with having illustrated Dante’s work with some elaborate art.

The Divine Comedy
by Dante

There are many more great epic poems. In the collections of English literature, one finds the epic Beowulf. Some poems written during the Medieval era were long, but not considered as epic; Piers Plowman is an example of this. Yet, there are some wonderful epic poems that were written by Medieval poets, most noteworthy is Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde from the fifteenth century. Among Renaissance poets, Faerie Queene by Spenser is probably the closest to equaling Paradise Lost by Milton.



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